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September 06, 2018

Current State Of Play: The Methodology Literature Review

A Ph.D. is a continuous journey of exploration, critique, evaluation and questioning. It is a critical, reflective, evaluative, and analytical engagement with reality, with self-knowledge and understanding, and the knowledge that exists in published literature. If you take the Ph.D. and your research seriously enough, these intellectual investigations can extend beyond the Ph.D.


The key fact to remember is that a Ph.D. does not represent the conclusion of your research, but represents the beginning: it lays the groundwork of your publishing interests, and the disciplinary fields within which you desire to explore and contribute further. It involves the contribution or invention of something new, with potential opportunities to expand upon this contribution and invention through post-doctoral opportunities. Whatever is created during the Ph.D., for example a theory or model, can be situated within different philosophical, theoretical and technological contexts with a variety of different participants. This would lead to evidencing the authenticity, validity, verifiability, transportability, and usefulness of the theory or model. Subsequent explorations beyond the Ph.D. can even lead to amendments and adjustments to your theory or model, and even extensions and specific versions designed for particular contexts and circumstances. This existing journey of research and development is a nuanced experience and you cannot really, fully predict where it shall go with any sense of certainty and accuracy.


With qualitative research in particular, questions and research directions related to the phenomenon of interest can and do change, therefore it can take a long time before you are settled on a particular set of questions and directions. This could be misconceived or misinterpreted as you not knowing what you are doing or that you keep changing your mind flippantly. This is a complete misconception of qualitative research, because when a qualitative researcher changes direction they do so intellectually.


Change to directions and questions come not as a result of hunches or emotions, but as a result of an intellectual engagement with the data, with interpretations of this data, and literature. It takes time to really understand the “layered” existence of data and the many ways in which data could be observed and perceived, and should be observed and perceived in a way that aligns with your broader, general research interests and objectives.


The very essence of engaging with qualitative research is that directions and questions change over time, and if this is intellectually justified, elaborated and explained with each change then you are evidencing and tracking your learning and development. These changes can be justified through these reflections and observations in the thesis. Intellectual justifications, elaborations and explanations are constructed as you deepen your understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the reality that the data represents.


Deepening your understanding of the data arguably occurs if you are given the time to investigate various ways in which data can be analysed and not simply accept the first approach you come across as most suitable just because it has been used most often used in existing empirical literature. The most often used methodology, approach, etc. is not always the most suitable for your own research context. Invest your time in thinking about what is really correct, what isn’t correct, and if any sense of correctness could actually be achieved (without your research project collapsing in on itself and fall into relativism!).


It is through what has been discussed so far that eventually led to the construction of the methodological literature review.


Essentially, this chapter is the narrative of how my research has evolved over the four or five years of thinking about the research issues, experimenting with different analytical methods, experimenting with different philosophical theories, and contemplating and reflecting deeply upon different methodologies. Questions related to these issues are ongoing and will no doubt stretch beyond the Ph.D. (might be important to note unanswered questions in your thesis: that way you can address them at the VIVA examination and also show ambition and commitment to post-doctoral opportunities).


But as it is, this chapter begins to tell the narrative of the development of my approach, the way that my approach differs from others relative to the objectives of research explorations of the phenomenon of interest, and the way that my approach could possibly complement other approaches.


The approach that I am developing did not come to me immediately, nor was the approach based on the first set of ideas and answers that I had when attempting to align research design with research issues and initial research questions. It has taken years of reading existing literature, of comparing and evaluating existing theories and models, of understanding how and where these theories and models have been applied, and of understanding the general context of their application and of critiques that exist regarding their effectiveness and usefulness. Reading and evaluation of these theories are ongoing though more now with the aim of justifying and evidencing the need for the new approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest.


The feature of this chapter is the exploration, comparison, evaluation, and critiquing of the philosophies, methodologies and analytical methods that I have tested against the data, research issues and evolving research questions in order to find the most suitable approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest. Philosophies include realism, constructivism, relativism, interpretivism, and constructionism. Methodologies to be included are mixed methods and qualitative. Analytical methods include a variety of discourse analyses, grounded theory approaches, content analysis, and thematic analysis. From these evaluations and critiques, a picture begins to build that explains the way that my approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest has been constructed. Full elaboration of my approach shall take place in the Research Design chapter.


This is going to be a big chapter, and is a reason why the literature reviews had to be changed to make space!


September 05, 2018

Current State Of Play: Thesis Structure

I have altered the thesis structure several times relative to the research design. I have come to understand over the years that research design is not driven by the thesis: the thesis, its structure, its content and layout is guided by the research design. Quantitative, Mixed Methods and Qualitative research designs all influence the structure and ordering of the thesis in various ways.


I have thought about Mixed Methods and Qualitative theses given that I have been fascinated by both research designs. But now I am focussed on qualitative as the main component of the research, with quantitative analysis involved as deemed necessary, but as a smaller component that complements the qualitative.


It could almost be argued that in some way, quantitative data shall be embedded in a bigger qualitative project in order to provide a broader and more detailed picture of what is happening with the phenomenon of interest within the research context. I am not sure if this could be classed as mixed methods though. I would call it multi-method, because the collected data would serve both quantitative and qualitative and the quantitative analysis would be based on qualitative findings. Multi-method means multiple methods of, for example, data analysis used in the same methodological paradigm, in this case qualitative. It could still be a mixed methods approach but an embedded approach, but I shall have to think about this more. That said though, Mixed Methods is a continuously evolving methodological field with continuous potential for new contributions of creativity, innovation, possibility and lots of debates. Either way, the qualitative provides the framework within which the thesis is being developed, given that the qualitative side of the Ph.D. is considered the largest aspect.


Anyway, the the following thesis structure is now in place:


Introduction: this is going to be a chapter that shall be formally written last. This chapter shall simply introduce the research problem, research context, research issues, the need and value of the research, the research questions, research aims and objectives, research outcomes, and who the research is intending to benefit.


Literature Review, Setting The Scene: this chapter sets the scene and the key outcome of this chapter is to justify why a particular technological context is being used relative to the problems, questions etc. introduced in the introductory chapter. This involves evaluating and comparing each context relative to the phenomenon of interest. I am also attempting to engage with discussion and debate about terminology, and to provide my own definitions of different terms relative to the technological context, and attempt to address ambiguity and conflation.


Methodology Literature Review: this is a critical and analytical evaluation and comparison of different philosophies, theories, coding schemes, methodologies, and methods used to explore the phenomenon of interest within contexts very similar to the Ph.D. research. Additionally, the chapter shall report on the testing, evaluation, comparisons and critiques of different research methods in order to justify the most suitable approach to the research project. The actual approach used for the research project shall be described, explained, evaluated, critiqued and tested in the research design chapter.


Research Design: provides a full elaboration the research design phases including full details on the philosophies, methodology, methods and approaches that made up the design. The chapter shall also consist of design evaluations and shall comprehensively relate every part of the design to the research context, issues, problems, outcomes and questions. There shall also be a full discussion on the way in which the coding scheme and the themes were developed, tested, verified, clarified and validated.


Following the design there shall be chapters dedicated to discussing the coding scheme in more detail, as well as discussing identified categories and themes, and their interrelationships. Also as and where necessary there shall be chapters associated with thematic maps, and any quantitative analysis that takes place. It’s difficult to plan these chapters out though, because the chapter structure and content emerges from the data and not emerge from pre-existing theories and models. Hence, the structure and content of these later chapters are continuously emerging from the data analysis. There shall also be a chapter or a section of a chapter revolving around the application of theory in practice.


That’s the thesis at this time! Next are blog posts that cover a couple of the initial thesis chapters: the literature reviews.


Current State Of Play: General Observations

Literature Review

Since writing the previous blog post back in early August, I have focussed on restructuring and rewriting the literature review sections, and have adjusted the scope of the literature as well as collected and analysed further literature. Thoughts and arguments within the literature review have been reconstructed and extended.


The literature review now has a beginning, middle and concluding structure, and this is the structure I intend to use for each chapter though written in a way that the introduction connects with the conclusion of the previous chapter, and the conclusion section leads into the introduction of the next chapter. All the sections in the literature review are interconnected: they might refer to different topics, but these topics are related in a way that logically, coherently, consistently and cohesively constructs thoughts, ideas, arguments and perspectives.


Unsurprisingly, as with everything at postgraduate level it is not quite black and white. With all Ph.D. theses, every chapter should also be referencing the first chapter: the introduction, where the research context, issues, problems and questions shall be presented and discussed. Referencing the first chapter gives each chapter situatedness, context, a framework for the chapter discussions, and a guide whilst allowing for open mindedness, flexibility, originality, creativity and innovation. Each chapter, therefore, needs to state the way in which it addresses research problems, context, purposes or questions, or a mixture if necessary.

With qualitative research where themes are to be developed, each chapter is related to each identified theme. The theme chapters are expected to adopt some sort of network structure where every chapter relates to and cross references each other. I shall probably discuss this more at a later time.

Effectively, the literature review has been completed for now! The next round of edits shall take place before Christmas or at some point early next year.

Thesis Structure

The thesis has been structured to an extent. I say to an extent because it is impossible to plan chapters related to findings within a qualitative research project because essentially the structure and content of these chapters are led by observations in the data and the framework and themes that emerge from the data. The structure leans toward the qualitative nature of thesis structure production, as shall be discussed more in a future blog post.

Research Design

Unchanged at the philosophical level (essentially, moderate realism ontology with an interpretivist epistemology), though the methodology has changed from mixed methods, to grounded theory, and to now more general qualitative methodology with the potential for some quantitative data to be embedded within it. The quantitative data would be used to complement and support the qualitative and perhaps be used to further evidence some of the claims made from the qualitative observations and thematic development.

Regardless of the quantitative, it is the qualitative that drives and dictates the research and, therefore, drives and dictates the structure of the thesis.


Data analysis appears to be leaning towards a mixture of concepts and processes from thematic analysis (particularly the aspect on developing themes), grounded theory (such as constant comparisons, maximising variance, open coding features, and theoretical sampling), and retroductive / abductive reasoning. The relationship between these approaches and the way they have been and are going to be used shall be explained in the thesis and discussed on here when appropriate.


August 03, 2018

Ph.D. Update: Research Design And Approach Now Certain!

The main output of my research shall now be a new coding scheme designed and developed to assist with the analysis of social learning processes, with the potential to move towards contributing thematic, conceptual and possible theoretical understanding of the phenomena of interest. The development process of this coding scheme (the data analysis process) has been inspired by writers of thematic analysis and grounded theory. The coding scheme’s development process (the actual development of the coding scheme) questions some aspects of existing ways in which to develop coding schemes. Sub stages of development are being proposed and shall possibly continue to be proposed as I go through the phases of analysis.


That, folks, is basically the nutshell take away conclusion of the past couple of weeks where I have completed another full round of coding the data and taking a break from coding in order to deeply reflect on my research purpose, objectives, direction, and research design. Phew! There is clarity in the world of organised chaos!


Reflecting on my journey of the Ph.D. so far, I have experimented with and thought about various types of analytical approaches related to exploring the phenomenon of interest, and have thought deeply about the type of data source from a philosophical perspective. E.g., what can I know about the phenomenon from this type of data source? In what way is this data source different to other data sources regarding what can be known? What knowledge can potentially be revealed about the phenomenon from this data source? What can I use to extract this knowledge from this data source? What are the differences between different methods of extracting knowledge both in general and related to the data source? What would different methodologies and methods tell me? What best fits the research questions, research problem, research objectives, and research context in general? In what way can my philosophical beliefs determine what I can know? What are the limits of my knowing? What limits are placed upon my knowing? Do I need to overcome these limits to know more? If so, in what way could this be achieved? And so on and so on.


All these questions have led to various different answers e.g., through comparing different methods and methodologies regarding the questions of what I can know, what can be known, and what can be known and revealed from the data source about the phenomenon of interest. And this I shall be explaining and exploring in great detail in the thesis!


When you are developing a coding scheme, establishing a time frame can be difficult. You might have identified the stages and sub stages of coding scheme development, but it’s fairly impossible to determine a time frame. This is because developing codes from the actual data, developing categories from the codes, developing themes from the categories (this is a broad, typical process of coding scheme development), and writing the methodology chapter are all performed pretty much concurrently.


As you are thinking about the codes that reflect different events and activities of your data, you are thinking about the ways in which similar coded data could be categorised. In turn, you begin to think more abstractly and more theoretically about the way in which categories can be related and placed defined into themes. Themes are the broadest, most abstract, and most theoretical constructions of the coding process, and they explain the data as a whole related to the phenomenon of interest and the way in which you want to explore the phenomenon of interest.


As you can therefore imagine, coding data with the intentions of developing categories and / or themes is not a linear process. Not to mention, every single stage involves writing lots of theoretical memos, which capture your thoughts, theories, assumptions, hypotheses, questions, queries and ponderings of the data, code, category, or theme (and relations within and between codes, categories, and themes).


As a result of all of what I have discussed, the focus of the thesis on the latter chapters (the methodology chapters and the subsequent chapters dealing with discussions of what has been found) is on the qualitative process of coding, category development, and thematic development. At a rough guess this might come anywhere between thirty thousand to forty thousand words of the thesis though perhaps more. I shall talk about the process of writing a qualitative thesis within the context of developing coding schemes in future blog posts.


The research, therefore, has moved away from generating a new theory (as was proposed originally via the use of Grounded Theory) towards developing a new coding scheme, with the intentions of developing and extending existing themes of understanding, and create where necessary new themes, regarding the phenomenon of interest.


The qualitative research field is additionally awash with limitless debates about the ontological, epistemological and methodological levels of interacting with qualitative methods and qualitative approaches. I am not kidding here: recently I have come across many different perspectives and arguments regarding a single approach to sampling for qualitative research, and have also come across many, many arguments for and against and perspectives on qualitative control criteria particularly around the terms “validity,” “reliability,” and, “generalisability.”


I intend on engaging with debates and discussions as every level and every stage of qualitative research.


And that, folks, is what happened in a nutshell during the past couple of weeks since the previous update!


‘till next time!


July 22, 2018

Ph.D Update: Data Analysis Is The Dominating Task!

Data analysis has dominated the past couple of weeks, although, whilst engaging with data analysis, I have been continuously engaged with other areas of thought and practice:


· The characteristics of the phenomenon of interest
· The nature, complexity, nuances, and functionality of the specific data source, including comparisons with other sources
· The nature and functions of the social learning context in comparison with other contexts
· Evaluation, critiques and reflections of thematic analysis so far, and comparative observations with other methodologies and methods


Essentially this encompasses four levels of thinking: the phenomenon itself, the data source, the more general learning context, and the research design. All thoughts and processes of evaluations, etc. are situated not just within the research context but also within the context of my philosophical beliefs.


Everything is a work in progress. As I progress through the data analysis phase, my thoughts, interpretations, observations, hypotheses and questions shall be continuously refined in order to more effectively reflect the true reality (remember, I am a realist) of what is occurring in the data. Coding is always a work in progress and all that I am thinking about, observing, hypothesising, questioning etc has developed from earlier coding efforts in the Ph.D.


As I shall be explaining more in the thesis, coding is not just a mechanistic act of labelling meanings and activities in the data, but is an active, engaging, dynamic, nuanced, flexible and adaptable method for analysing qualitative data that (I shall argue) plays a part in understanding the truth of what is happening in the data.


Currently, therefore, I am progressing through the “opening” stage of the analysis phase. This “opening” stage is based on the coding and reanalysis of the data corpus. I am continuously revisiting what I have coded before, and continuously reanalysing and recoding, in order to ensure that the codes are as reflective of the nature and function of the data segments as possible. This shall then help to develop themes that, although constructed on a more theoretical plane, are as close to the data as possible.


I am breaking the context of the data corpus down stage by stage. In the first stage that has been ongoing for a few months on and off, I coded all the way through the data corpus without much thought for nuances and context. It was simply a matter of initially understanding the meanings and functions of the data segments though if nuances and contextual influences were immediately obvious then these would be considered.


What I am doing currently is the next level: I am breaking the data corpus down and really exploring the context and nuances of each data segment, along with developing an understanding of the way in which these segments logically connect with and relate to each other on various levels and various purposes. Additionally, this level involves the rechecking of codes to ensure they reflect the reality of what is being expressed in the segment, and to alter the codes if necessary. This deeper approach to understanding the data is in my view more relative to the research questions.


The study of the nuances and contexts is based on what I have observed during my time of using grounded theory, and which led to moving away from grounded theory as has been documented on this blog and which is being documented in the thesis methodology chapter. It is all ultimately based on what I perceive and interpret within the data, but this is not a subjective, relativist approach. As a part of the theme development I shall be exploring the codes and segments again and test all that I observe. E.g., just because I have coded a segment to represent a particular feature or activity does not mean that I am objectively correct: this correctness, perhaps, comes from repeatable observations of similar data characteristics. This idea is taken from the abductive reasoning method. This shall be discussed further at the time of theme development.


Along with the coding, I have been writing theoretical memos (an aspect of Grounded Theory I have liked, so have included it in my own approach), which serve the purpose of documenting and recording all my thinking, observations, thoughts, hypotheses and questions about each data segment, and also of the meaning, nature, function and representativeness of each code.


This coding level is ongoing and work in progress, but there are already some interesting insights and points of discussion. Nevertheless, my understanding of the relationship between segments, the impact of contextual and situated conditions, and the emergence or development of meaning and activities shall continue to develop and refine as I progress through this analytical phase.


All this shall lead onto the development of themes, which operate and are constructed at the latent level and are constructed through combining, in some way, multiple, different, though similar codes (as discussed in the previous post: I shall be talking more about the development of themes soon). My understanding of themes so far is leading me to think of a theme as a core aspect of a phenomenon of interest that describes and explains the phenomenon’s behaviour and helps to characterise its theoretical existence. Thematic theoretical insights are drawn from the data, and tested against the data.


Speaking of themes, I have made enough observations in the data to tentatively suggest the existence of two themes, and the way in which these themes could relate to each other. At a push I could suggest I have observed four themes, but I am not convinced or at least not as certain about two of the themes as I am with the first two themes I came to observe. These themes, and possibly more, shall be identified, defined, developed, and established following this coding phase. At the moment I have put the thoughts of these themes aside as I do not want to restrict my thinking and open mindedness during the rest of the coding phase. There is a danger that if I did become too fixated in the idea of exploring to prove these themes, I might miss out on something that might be obscure but is equally as important.


That’s over a thousand words and I haven’t scratched the surface!


I intend on writing some more posts during the week related to the four points made at the beginning of the post, but honestly, I’d rather focus on data analysis. But when I get the chance I shall post up more posts!


‘Till next time!


June 22, 2018

Ph.D Update: Research Methods

Since my previous update, I have been reading more about thematic analysis and discourse analysis, as well as beginning to recode and reanalyse the previously coded data, a process at the time influenced by Grounded Theory.

The reading has illuminated text analysis to be a complex area and therefore, there is no clear or shared consensus of the way in which a specific type of text can be or should be analysed. Different methods and methodological ideas lean towards different type of texts to achieve different purposes and different outcomes; at least, that’s what is perceived from the research methodology textbooks. I think it’s more complex than even that because since I have ideas about methodological fluidity (check earlier blog posts) I think potentially any analytical method can be used for any type of text. The key to all this is to understand your data within the context of the research problem, research questions, research discipline, and your own philosophical beliefs and the extent to which you are consciously aware of the values and importance that your beliefs bring to your research. Within the context of my current thinking about my philosophical beliefs, the research problem and questions, etc. there actually isn’t a single individual approach that convinces me to be the absolute way to analyse data that achieves what I want to know.


This is a challenge because how can I possibly analyse data if I do not know which analytical method is best?


The answer comes from releasing your mind; from allowing your mind to be chained to this idea that a specific analytical method is required to becoming open and sensitive to the data; to allow yourself to become sensitised and to allow the data to speak to you. Obviously I am being guided by the research questions and I have a very general approach to what I am looking for based on the previous readings and analysis of the data via grounded theory, and identifying aspects of the data that grounded theory in my opinion is not able to capture (check previous blog posts). Beyond that I am allowing the text data to “speak” instead of me trying to apply any frameworks to it.


This is challenging, but my thinking is that I shall eventually arrive at either a specific analytical approach beyond the initial stage of thematic analysis, or I shall be able to pragmatically combine different aspects and ideas of different analytical methods in order to enable me to explore the data fully and therefore, enable me to achieve what I want to achieve with the research.


I have read through a variety of different analytical approaches, and what I am finding is there are aspects of these approaches that I think are relevant and aspects that are not. It is from these readings that I am leaning towards the possibility of adopting some sort of pragmatic, functional approach to analysing the data. This would involve the combination of different elements and aspects of different approaches, as long as what I do is relevant to the research purpose and questions, and aligns with my philosophical beliefs. What I will have to do in the thesis is to very carefully, reflectively, critically and analytically describe, critique, evaluate and explain what I am doing, how I am doing things, why I am doing things the way I am doing them, and also evaluate, critique, contrast and compare my approach with other approaches relevant to the analysis of the phenomenon of interest.


I could probably write eighty thousand words for the methodology chapter, nevermind the entire thesis………


This is effectively where I am with the data analysis! I have recoded the data that I have previously coded now under the thinking of thematic analysis instead of grounded theory, and I view no problem so far with the transition of thinking. The current task is simply to recode the data, meaning that I have dropped some of the previous codes and created new codes in order to better represent what is going on in the data. This has come from an increased understanding and awareness of the subject content and the way in which the content can be expressed. And also, I’m going beyond the data: I am beginning to visualise, theorise and conceptualise relationships and patterns within the data, which shall contribute towards theme development as the next part of the thematic analysis as well as the phase beyond thematic analysis. But before I get to that point I shall have to analyse more data than previously as I have changed the scope of data collection and data sampling procedures but I can discuss that another time and more specifically in the thesis.


As I code through the data, develop the themes and then begin to go deeper into the data and explore the contexts and expressions of these themes I shall be able to understand which analytical method is best used for the particular type of text (again, in the context of the research problem, research questions, and my own philosophical beliefs), or which aspects of relevant analytical approaches are best combined in a more pragmatic sense.


This is challenging but fascinating area of research and exploration!


‘till next time!


June 10, 2018

Previous Week's Update Part B: New Research Design

I have now settled on a new research design. The philosophical and epistemological perspectives remain the same (ontological realist; epistemologically, presently, a mix of interpretivism and constructionism but this needs further elaboration) and the methodological approach is the same (qualitative, possibly moving onto mixed methods methodology though should the need arise). But I have changed methods from a qualitative grounded theory set of methods to a qualitative multi- modal approach that incorporates both thematic analysis and discourse analysis. As a side note, multi-modal is different to a mixed methods: multi-modal is the utalisation of different analytical methods set within the same methodological approach, which in this case of my research the methodological approach is qualitative. A mixed methods methodology would include both qualitative and quantitative analytical methods. The reason for this change, as has been mentioned in previous blog posts, is because the data characteristics that I became interested are, what I argue to be, difficult if not impossible for grounded theory to capture and integrate into a theory of the phenomenon of interest.


During the previous week I have been reading more papers about thematic analysis and discourse analysis that consists mostly of the philosophical and methodological approaches to these methods. This has helped me to understand the way in which they align with my philosophical position, which is important in various ways. Firstly, from the philosophical level, it goes without saying that the use, value, understanding and application of research methods are situated within our understanding of the world, whether we are conscious or unconscious of our philosophical perspectives, and whether or not we make this explicit or implicit. More fundamental than the methods level however is the data level: our philosophical perspectives of the world highly influences the way we value and perceive different types and sources of data upon which we apply the research methods. Secondly, from a methodological perspective, the multi-modal approach has to consist of analytical methods that are used in a way that are compatible with and complements each other; where, for example, findings from each method either support each other, or extend or build upon each other in some way.


I shall be using thematic analysis and discourse analysis together in a way that findings are built upon each other. I am working this out though, and continuing to fine tune their utalisation and compatibility the more I read the literature and understand their application within the context of my philosophical beliefs, the methodological orientation, the wider purpose and objectives of research, and the type and source of data. There is a substantial need, therefore, to ensure that thematic analysis and discourse analysis are combined in a way that not only advocates a sense of unity and extended construction of findings, but also in a way that is methodologically rigorous, valid, authentic and sound. This is a huge topic that I shall engage with to a significant and detailed level in the methodology chapter (talking thousands of words and page after page after page after page after page…….you get the idea!) of the thesis with discussions posted on this blog. However in the meantime it suffices to say that I shall be carrying out a thematic analysis first, then a discourse analysis. It might be an idea, actually, and as recommended by some authors, to verify the products and results of a thematic analysis with existing published literature before engaging with discourse analysis. Either way, what is intended with thematic analysis is the generation of different themes of the phenomenon of interest through coding the data. Following this (and possible verification with published relevant literature), discourse analysis shall be utalised to analyse the discourse within and around these identified themes, leading possibly to a deeper and more substantial understanding of the way in which different social objects are used in certain learning contexts and also the way in which objects can relate to each other.


A reason why this topic is complex and vast is in part because there are various types of thematic analysis and various types of discourse analysis, aligning with differing philosophical and theoretical perspectives (a bit like Grounded Theory and near enough any other method) and therefore differing in process of analysis with each version. This is why methodological compatibility is important; that the variation of thematic analysis and discourse analysis are methodological compatible and are methodologically sound and valid, in part determined by whether or not they can capture and analyse the data characteristics of most interest regarding the phenomenon of interest.


Before I even get to this stage however, the very first task that I shall be engaging with during the coming week, along with the continuing to elaborate on my philosophical and theoretical thoughts and approaches to the research design, is to check the work that I have done so far. Because various authors have suggest that thematic analysis is similar in approach to the open coding aspect of grounded theory (both approaches use an initial coding phase), I have to check that the codes that I have used whilst using grounded theory are compatible or are in whatever way suitable for thematic analysis. From what I can currently understand, the only real difference between thematic analysis and grounded theory is that thematic analysis’ intention is not to develop a full theory but can contribute towards theorisation as a beginning phase of a multi-modal qualitative project. Also, I have to check that the codes I have created can be formed into themes, which are, from what I can currently understand, conceptually different to Grounded Theory categories. At the moment I cannot imagine there being any substantial differences in the coding engines of thematic coding and the initial stage of open coding, or initial coding as other grounded theory writers call it, but obviously this needs further checking.


I am just scratching the surface here with this blog post! It’s going to be a very busy summer with data analysis and the rewriting and further construction of the methodological chapter(s). It’s going to be challenging but exciting, and it helps that I am feeling more confident and happier with my approach compared to grounded theory.


It’s a challenging task alone to work out your research design and the methods to use especially in qualitative, emergent based research. But the best thing you can do is continue to be guided by your data. My research design is data driven: I have come away from grounded theory and onto a combined approach of thematic analysis and discourse analysis exactly because of what I have been observing in the data and coming to know that grounded theory is not able to capture what I really want to explore in the data.


Keep going!


May 13, 2018

Changes To The Literature Reviews and Research Design: A Need To Enter Time Of Reflection!

I was going to write a few blog posts this weekend to provide updates as to where I am, but then realised that I need to spend some time reflecting upon the recent changes that have happened since Easter to the research and to reflect upon the more immediate ideas that have come about during the past week.

Essentially, I am now making substantial changes to the function and content of the literature reviews. I feel that as I have thought and read further into the phenomenon of interest and the learning contexts within which it has been and can be situated, my previous ideas of the literature review have become disjointed. Whilst in the first chapter I have been able to discuss the link between society, culture, Education and specific technological contexts of social learning (ongoing task), I am starting to realise that some of these discussions could be better addressed in the second chapter. The first chapter is about that aforementioned relationship; therefore, what I can do is strengthen and extend existing discussions and debates about this relationship, whilst taking a lot of the specific technological learning context discussions and merge them with the technological discussions that have taken place in the second chapter, which revolves around concepts related specifically to the phenomenon of interest and the specific technological learning context of interest.

The problem with chapter two is that I think I am being too specific and perhaps should widen the discussions and therefore merge with sections of chapter one. I am not entirely fully sure in what way I shall be achieving this, and although I have some vision or plan this obviously needs to be further articulated. During the week I shall be planning out how I can merge sections of the two chapters together so I can properly form and define that distinctive nature, role and purpose of each chapter whilst making them relative to the research aims and objectives, and logically flow between each other. At the moment with my current approach I am not convinced I can fully elaborate and clearly relate the two chapters. As mentioned, I have a rough vision in my head but it’s going to take a while to work out the way in which this can be achieved. This is especially since I have come to realise that quite a large amount of literature and the different categories of literature that explores the phenomenon of interest in different ways that I thought were irrelevant are now actually relevant! The different sorts and kinds of literature that I have come to know as relevant now alters the layout and content of each chapter. I am also considering scrapping the third chapter that I have previously discussed on my blog, but I shall talk about this more in future blog posts.

As for the research design and the way I shall be exploring the phenomenon of interest, I feel this is going through a transition and as blog readers shall know, this started back at Easter but really, it’s been ongoing for a while. As I think about my data and the patterns I have been observing, and as I think about the purpose and function of my research and what I desire to achieve, my thinking about the research design is also changing. Grounded theory is still on the cards but I’m not sure the extent I can now use grounded theory to achieve what I want to achieve now compared to what I thought I wanted to achieve several months ago. Graph theory and sequence analysis are becoming more and more fascinating as they align with what I want to achieve, and other research methods I once thought were irrelevant have now become relevant to consider and critique either in conjunction with or even replace Grounded Theory completely.

Thinking about the research design more, I wonder if in the methodology chapter I should go all out and define the research design as emergent and therefore talk about how I have viewed and explored the data, and the way that my observations have led and is leading to a variety of different methods being considered and eventually adopted / adapted for context suitability. What I once thought was going to be understood through pure grounded theory approach many months ago is not turning out to be so; that what I am observing and investigating is more complex than I considered, but I have been cognitively and academically flexible enough to accept the possibility of this complexity and have been open enough to consider all possibilities. Now am I really at a point where I no longer believe that using just grounded theory is going to help me achieve what I really want to achieve and to best theorise about, provide a practical solution of, or both, the problem.

During the week I shall be reflecting on all of this, planning and visualising the way that I can merge certain sections of the literature reviews, and to begin to explore other methodological options. I shall also be coming out of the literature review phase soon and return to data analysis and the writing of the methodology chapters.

I shall be writing and reflecting on my blog during the week on all of this and possibly more, so blog readers might be interested in keeping a watch out for blog posts during the coming week!


May 06, 2018

Latest General Ph.D Research Updates

Progress With The Literature Review


Since writing the previous blog post before Easter, most of the attention has been given to the second literature review chapter. This chapter has the purpose of documenting the exploration and critical analysis of the definitions, theoretical perspectives, philosophical and methodological considerations, and practical, empirical applications and findings of the specific social learning phenomenon of interest within various learning contexts. This is ongoing and continuous work.


Currently I am working on two sections of the literature review chapter. The first section refers specifically to the social learning phenomenon: the many definitions from various disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.), its structure and its different kinds. Such discussions are then followed by discussions and critiques of its pedagogical uses and the way it has been applied and used within different learning contexts. This part of the section is currently being developed. The other section of the chapter discusses the many practical applications and methodological approaches of the phenomenon of interest within specific technologically enhanced learning contexts.


Both of these sections along with the third planned literature review chapter contain, and shall contain further developments of, extensive and intensive analytical critiques, discussions and engagements with the social learning phenomenon from both a general learning perspective outside of technological contexts, and from within technological learning contexts, with the critiques situated within various associated practical, pedagogical, methodological, theoretical and philosophical approaches.


A couple of things I have noticed with the second literature review chapter, which shall probably also be the case for the third, is that the structure is emerging as I write as opposed to following a strict pre-planned structure I previously constructed. This I am absolutely fine with because it is showing that I can identify and engage with constructs, ideas, empirical findings and theoretical discussions that I had not previously identified or thought of as relevant when I wrote the original plan. If I attempted to fit everything within the pre-planned structure I would severely limit myself as a reflective and critical reader, and would limit my ability to observe new ideas and connections between ideas. Writing a literature review should not render your ability to observe new ideas and new connections limited; writing a literature review really entails having an open mind because every time you read a new piece of literature or even reread a previous paper you are not only likely to make new observations, but are more than likely to make observations you had not previously made. Even recently, and something I am continuing to do, I have been returning to more literature that I thought was irrelevant. This is being driven by my continuous refinement of my conceptual understanding of the phenomenon of interest, and of the continuous refining of my contextual understanding of the phenomenon’s many applications and theoretical perspectives.


Secondly, I am starting to appreciate and value the use of tables within literature reviews to present a large volume of information that would arguably make my critiques and arguments of empirical literature and findings appear disjointed and difficult to read if presented as large reams of text and references. The tables consist of what could be classed as meta-information about the papers e.g., the author, the target discipline and population, pedagogical goals, research goals, etc. I am still constructing and completing the tables at this time, but I can visualise these tables as being useful reference points when I rewrite and further develop my critiques and arguments


Importantly and perhaps crucially, through creating these tables I am able to make further observations that I had not made before, and probably would not have made easily if I had not created these tables. Essentially, I can use these tables to store meta and contextual information of empirical literature without such information ‘getting in the way’ (so to speak) of the flow, logic, order and structure of my arguments and critiques. This should lead to a more complete analysis of the empirical findings, although the tables and information within shall be referenced in some way, and a way that does not disturb the logic and flow of argumentation that could otherwise have happened without the tables.


This is ongoing work and I am planning to spend most of the month continuing to refine, reread and rewrite the literature review sections (and perhaps move onto chapter three) before moving onto focussing more time on data analysis.


Research Design


The new research design that I have been discussing recently has been approved, so as soon as I am happy with the literature review chapters (ha! Like that’ll happen!) I shall be moving onto reanalysing the data and analysing more data.


To recap, I have extended my grounded theory approach to include graph theory / network analysis. This shall involve converting or translating grounded theory findings into suitable graph form and then perform relevant numerical and possibly statistical analysis upon the graph where necessary. Although I have completed a series of diagrams that illustrate the way the design might work in theory, I won’t really know for sure till I go through each data analysis stage.


However, I do feel that this extended grounded theory approach is something that I feel is required and something that I feel addresses concerns that I have had over the past few months, based on what I have observed in the data in terms of the patterns that have been emerging. I feel that I can no longer simply limit myself to grounded theory to explain everything and provide a complete picture, because as mentioned previous blog posts I feel that grounded theory explains “what” is going on in the data, but from my current understanding does not properly or fully elaborate sequential or patterned observations. I might be wrong, but from all that I know, understand and have observed so far I feel that this is the correct approach, which I have been told is workable and justifiable.


There are other options that I am thinking about particularly case study methodology and mixed methods approach. In fact, I have just read a research paper prior to writing this post that explored a particular phenomenon of interest within a very similar technological learning context that adopted a case study approach, so that might be worth following up further. I am not sure if this is a mixed methods approach: it definitely contains a qualitative strand through grounded theory, but I am not sure if the inclusion of the graph theory / network analysis makes the project mixed methods or simply muilti-method. Mixed Methods is a very precise approach to research with its own methodological and theoretical approach to exploring, combining and explaining data in order to explore complex questions.


When I read through literature on mixed methods I can find that there are approaches and reasoning that are related to my project, but then I can also find some doubts that it is mixed methods. If anything, it might definitely not be mixed methods at the level of data collection methods (everything is coming from a single type of data) but is more likely to be mixed methods at the data analysis level.


I am not entirely sure at this time about the inclusion of case study and mixed methods but these are ideas I have been flirting about with for a couple of years or so. I am keeping a very open mind about the design: I have to be, since the research design is emergent in nature, as this design as emerged through making certain observations in the data. Therefore, when I come to analysing further data it might be identified that a case study approach is appropriate. It is challenging, yet fascinating!


Thanks for reading. Have a lovely bank holiday weekend UK readers!


‘till next time!


April 04, 2018

Mixed Methods Research Design: Should This Now Be Considered Suitable?

This past weekend has encouraged me to re-evaluate and re-explore the value of using both quantitative and qualitative data within my research project. This is an ongoing task that demands careful and reflective thought, and currently constructing diagrams that illustrate aspects of the design and the way in which these different aspects relate to each other, and the way in which the research shall now progress. Once I have completed these diagrams I shall be sending them to my supervisor for further feedback and confirmation of the design’s suitability. There are, not surprisingly, many thoughts, questions and ideas that I have about the emerging research design. As mentioned, going through all these thoughts, questions and ideas is an ongoing process but there are some key questions and ideas that I am focussing on at the moment with regards to the characteristics and aspects of the research design.


Firstly, and probably most importantly, should I reemploy a mixed methods approach? Is a mixed methods approach actually possible given the data collection context? Instead of collecting qualitative and quantitative data separately as is typically found in most mixed methods research, I have collected qualitative data and from this data set, both qualitative and quantitative data analysis shall be applied. I have a vision about what qualitative and quantitative data I want, but I am working through how this is going to be precisely and exactly realised particularly the quantitative aspect. I realise therefore I am not using mixed methods at the data collection level, but there appears to be a mixed approach at the data analysis methods level. This has implications at the methodology level: should mixed methods be confirmed as the appropriate approach to the research, then grounded theory becomes the qualitative method and not a methodology, whilst network analysis or some form of it becomes the quantitative method.


But here’s something to think about, and forms my second current thought and question: what comes between grounded theory and network analysis? What acts as the bridge that enables qualitative data to cross over into the quantitative realm? I think the answer lies in visualisation. In my understanding, a network is a visual representation or diagram of what is happening. A phenomenon can be understood through its aspects, features, events or activities and these can be represented as a network of nodes and connections. What I am attempting to do here is convert the concepts, categories and their relationships, products of grounded theory analysis, into a network. I am slowly working through how these grounded theory concepts can be converted into aspects of a network and this is going to take some time, but currently I am thinking that concepts and categories can be represented by nodes, and the relationships between categories can be represented by connections between nodes. What I am also interested in is exploring the relationships between these nodes because it is at these points where interesting observations and values can be obtained, but I’ve yet to figure out the way this can be fully considered. I’m thinking at the moment these relationships shall be related to the hypotheses that shall be developed as well as the properties and dimensions of categories and might also might be involved with quantitative analysis. The quantitative analysis shall be used to analyse these relationships to determine the strength between different types of nodes within different contexts, but the exact relationships and hypotheses that are to be explored are undetermined at this time and shall be until the qualitative data analysis section has been completed. This in a sense brings me to a third concern I am working on.


If my research is to adopt a mixed methods methodology again, what type of mixed methods should it be? My previous approach to mixed methods was a sequential exploratory type where qualitative data were to be collected and analysed first followed by the collection and analysis of quantitative data. This was therefore sequential in nature but I am not sure at this time whether my mixed methods approach now would be sequential or transformative: sequential because qualitative analysis will come after qualitative analysis, or transformative because it might be that some aspects of the qualitative data might be transformed into quantitative data. Is this even possible? It is in some context but I’m not sure if my qualitative data will be able to transform into quantitative and I am probably unable to know this till the qualitative analysis phase is complete and I begin to really look at the findings. At a push at the moment I'd say sequential exploratory: might be best to design both types just in case!


There are many other concerns that I now have that I shall be exploring further as my thinking and experimenting of the potential mixed methods approach progresses: in what way should I now present my research questions? The research questions shall have to change to better represent a potential mixed methods approach as the questions cannot be purely qualitative: a question must be qualitative and another must be quantitative but derived from an overarching question that brings both together.


Also, what are the implications on the use of literature and the roles of the literature reviews? At the moment I cannot imagine there being too many changes because of the important role that grounded theory shall continue to play in terms of identifying the nodes and connections of a network, which shall subsequently have some form or forms of quantitative analysis placed onto it (is this really network analysis, or something else?) although I shall have to double check the role of literature within mixed methods research.


What about the product of or the outcomes of the research? What is the nature of theoretical development within mixed methods research? A key role of mixed methods as described in some of the methodological literature is to both build and test a theory and / or a set of hypotheses. The qualitative aspect builds theoretical constructs and hypotheses and the quantitative strand tests these theoretical constructs and hypotheses.


What shall be or should be the extent to which grounded theory is used? Should I use grounded theory to the extent that a general theme of the learning phenomenon can be established and use that as the basis of the network construction and exploration? Or, should I use grounded theory to the extent that categories, relationships and hypotheses can emerge from the data, but use an existing overarching theoretical framework to guide their use in the network construction, and use quantitative analysis to test the identified relationships and hypotheses that come from the qualitative stage? I am not sure at this time.


What about the case study methodology? Should I return to thinking about the value of a case study methodology with mixed methods approach encased within? There is some debate about whether or not a mixed methods approach really is a methodology and not just a strategy of the way in which methods are to be sequenced or arranged. I shall have to revisit this debate area.


I have so many questions at this time, so many more than answers but I have a plan to work through all these different questions and issues that I have discussed here and more besides. I shall probably be writing on here on a regular basis now if only to document this challenging yet exciting journey and therefore to help me reflect upon my ideas and their development.


Thanks for reading! If you’re on your Easter holidays still, continue to have fun!


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