All 17 entries tagged Epistemology

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July 21, 2017

Ph.D Update: Submitted Initial Drafts for Feedback; Research Journal Article Editing

The children leave school on this day with an extra hop and a skip gliding along the pavements like an aeroplane celebrating the beginning of their summer holidays! Do not run in the middle of the road, children, as it’s not advisable! College students and many undergraduates are also venturing off on their holidays, leaving us postgrad researchers to work on our projects during the summer. And you know what? I wouldn’t want it any other way!


The Methodology Chapter


The key aim of the current draft writing is to lay the foundations of my ontological and epistemological beliefs, and begin to outline the relationship between those beliefs. Because of the ongoing analysis of literature, and critical and reflective engagement with my ideas, a full elaboration of my beliefs is not possible with the first draft. What I am attempting to achieve therefore is a build-up of the chapter in “layers,” where each layer builds upon descriptions and conceptions of the earlier layer. It might be useful to think about a layered approach to developing the methodological and literature review chapters. With the case of the ontological and epistemological sections, this first draft or “layering” of ideas involves developing the foundations (describing my beliefs and show some initial critical engagement with literature) through descriptive writing. These descriptions can later be built into explanations and reasoning as a mode of providing justifications and well elaborated argumentation for the beliefs that I described. These descriptions could also be used as the basis for deeper, reflective and critical comparative analysis of other perspectives as part of justifying and explaining my beliefs and their impact on the research design. Descriptive writing is therefore the key focus of this round of draft writing. In the next round of drafting the ontological and epistemological sections I shall build on these descriptions and convert discussions into explanations, deeper reasoning, argumentation development, and deeper critical and reflective analysis and engagement with literature. I have just recently started writing the section on describing the research as a qualitative approach, and although not a huge lot has been written yet it will follow the same layered approach.


I think beginning with descriptions, even if you know your arguments and reasoning, and so on, shall help guide your further discussions. Each paragraph or even sentence shall be scrutinised for clarity, concepts, points of views and basis of potential argumentative points so that they can be explored further and expanded upon. This way, as a qualitative researcher, you are getting even more intimate with your own ideas as you think deeply about what is being described in each sentence. This does take some time, but it’s important to be able to carry this out and connect each sentence, each idea, each paragraph, each page and each chapter from the wider macro (chapter) perspective and the microscopic (sentence) perspective. Using this approach, it might be possible to identify more concepts to explore in the literature review, or include in the emerging theory and discuss in the results or discussions chapters.


The descriptive drafts of the ontological and epistemological sections have now been sent for feedback, and whilst they are only descriptive accounts they should be able to show where the ideas are going and where they could possibly influence methodological choices.


Research Journal Article:


The other major writing task of the moment is editing a three-thousand-word journal paper that has been accepted recently by a research journal. I think the editing is coming along well enough. The paper is a critical account of my recent conference experiences, where I critically reflect on these experiences and link these critical reflections with thesis development, professional development, and the general doctoral experience.


The reviewers were welcoming of the paper and said that it’s well written, but have suggested edits. The core edits revolve around further, specific elaborations of the relationship between conference experiences and professional development and to give specific, detailed examples of the way in which aspects of the conference have impacted on my thesis development and my identity as a social scientist. The reviewers also advise on engaging critically with existing literature regarding the topics covered in my critical review including attending conferences, and the relationship between attending conferences and research development, professional development and the general graduate academic experience. This was unexpected, as I had not previously realised that critical reviews can include extant literature.


This is the first time I’ve written a publishable critically reflective account, so it is a learning curve but the experience is beneficial as it’s helping me to think more about what happened at the conference. And, it's helping me to refine my critical and reflective analytical skills on a broader level, which can only be benficial for the thesis! Additionally, it’s helping me to focus and classify my ideas about the conference within a particular approach, and the approach used to guide my critical reflections is the knowledge building perspective. Essentially, I am reflecting upon conferences as a knowledge building activity, which in the case of my thesis can lead to change. Thus it could be recategorized as a critical knowledge building activity where critical approaches, as described in various methodological textbooks, are used to promote a change. I’ll have to work on this a bit more before handing the paper in.


The editing process is therefore ongoing, and during the week I’ve managed to increase the paper to over five thousand words! Thankfully, I managed to reduce it back down to under the word limit of three thousand words. I sometimes have the attitude of getting everything down on paper first and worry about sorting it out at a later stage, and so I did!


Summary:


Draft writing sessions are in full swing, with recent focus placed on the journal article, though now I feel more confident with the paper in its current state, though obviously needs further editing, I can balance the work between the journal paper and the methodology chapter. I am finding the writing and editing of the journal paper a fascinating learning journey, particularly as I realised that I can engage with extant literature when writing critical reviews!


July 07, 2017

Update On The Methodology Chapter

Draft chapters of the thesis are now currently being written! I started a section of the literature review before Easter focussing on analysing and critiquing some of the learning models of interest, to which I shall return at a later point, but for now focus is on drafting the methodology chapter.


It might appear a little unconventional to write the methodology chapter before writing a full literature review, but this makes sense to me given that I am utilising a grounded theory methodology. However, I am thinking about the literature review whilst writing the methodology chapter, as there are concepts and ideas that I have thought about that are suitable for the literature review but had not been previously considered, therefore demonstrating that a thesis is designed and should be written as a logical, interrelated narrative about the research project. Each chapter can be written in whatever order you feel is right for you, but to write each chapter without thinking about its influence on the next chapter or, where necessary, the way it has been influenced by the previous chapter places the thesis in a position where everything feels disjointed and unconnected.


At the moment, the main focus is on the methodology chapter as I really want to lay out, structure, argue, justify and really think more about the components of my research design before commencing with a scheduled long period of data analysis and theoretical development. Others might differ in their beliefs, but it is my belief that if I engaged with data analysis and theoretical development without a comprehensive, fully elaborated and detailed documentation of the research design I will be in danger of using grounded theory with either incorrect or unacknowledged assumptions. Remember: there is a general use and purpose of grounded theory as a methodology but at the higher level, grounded theory methodology, and any other methodological approach you choose to adopt, is guided and shaped by your ontological and epistemological beliefs.


Reading through other theses makes the approach to writing about ontological and epistemological beliefs somewhat of a mystery. Some I have read have made no mention of any such beliefs and therefore you are left wondering what the underlying assumptions of their research design are. Other theses have discussed such ontological and epistemological beliefs but have treated them like an afterthought, intended or not, in a sub section of a major chapter section. Many methodological authors have stated that there is a lack of philosophical discussion in many theses and some have emphasised a huge need for more Ph.D. candidates to engage with such discussions, but yet surely treating such discussions as a sub section of a bigger chapter section is a sign that philosophy is not being treated with any serious thought?


A reason that could explain the disengagement with philosophical discussions is that philosophical concepts particularly concepts within the social sciences are abstract concepts. Ontological concepts of the social sciences are not physical in their nature and appearance: you cannot physically “grasp” a mind, or processes and objects of learning, as they exist at an abstract level. Some people have difficulties with philosophising what they cannot grasp or that which is not viewable, but I wonder if this is because their individual minds cannot really grasp such abstract concepts; that their cognitive and psychological behaviours in some way do not allow them to grasp such concepts. Or, that they have been socially or culturally conditioned in some way to think that what you can grasp and feel (sense experiences) is all that you can theorise about, or philosophise.


I don’t necessarily agree with the view that sense experiences represent everything about “the real” of reality; I think it is possible to philosophise about social processes and objects, but further discussion really is beyond the purpose of this blog post. I am, however, developing my own ideas about this and currently detailing this in the draft chapter of the methodological chapter.


With that, debating ontological and epistemological perspectives, discussing and justifying my own ontological and epistemological beliefs, relating and interconnecting ontological and epistemological beliefs, and linking these beliefs with the research context, phenomena of interest, research questions and with other aspects of the research design (not to mention making references to the literature review) is where I am currently at!


In response to calls in the literature, and because I want to, I am devoting a fair amount of space to ontological and epistemological discussions as these are important. Some books have suggested that these discussions can take up anything from just a few paragraphs to several pages, but I think due to the complexity of learning and collaborative social process I can tentatively suggest that I am justified in writing several pages on the subject. My plan for the methodology chapter is to detail the ontological and epistemological beliefs first in separate but connected sections (e.g., the epistemological section references the ontological section as and when necessary), followed by a discussion of the qualitative approach, followed by a discussion of the grounded theory methodology, and then the data collection and analysis methods.


The methodology chapter is planned to be written in that order because it makes absolute sense to me to write about and detail the ontological and epistemological beliefs first, as these shape and guide the way in which the qualitative approach is considered and the way in which grounded theory is used and for what purpose. But reading through other theses, this is not the structure that some of them follow, so I have to make sure that the structure is right. Either way, I have no problem changing the structure as long as I can keep my detailed accounts of my ontological and epistemological beliefs. I will be providing an initial overview section of the research design first, to introduce the reader (the supervisor and thesis assessors) to the research design, its components, and the layout of the methodology chapter: they appreciate that sort of approach!


I will be sending draft sections to the supervisor soon with these questions! But either way I do think it is important that due to the nature of the phenomena of interest and the research context that I do detail my ontological and epistemological beliefs, because they do shape and form the methodology and the way in which the methods are used. Omission of such discussions would lead the reader, I feel, to perceive that there is something missing and wonder why I had not provided any sort of philosophical justification.


Planning on sending in a draft of the chapter as it stands to my supervisor near the end of the month, but till that time I shall keep on reading, writing, and thinking!


May 21, 2017

The Conceptual Confusions and Ontological Fluidity of Social Constructionism

In the previous blog post I discussed the interchangeability problems referring specifically to social constructivism and social constructionism. Convenience and ease of understanding are possible reasons why writers choose to use constructionism and constructivism interchangeably under a single subjectivist umbrella. Whilst it is a pragmatic approach for beginning researchers as they begin to understand the diversity, variability, complexity and intricacy of the field of research philosophy and methodology, it is strongly advisable for Ph.D. candidates (I am currently doing this myself) to approach each theory separately whilst acknowledging their subjectivist, epistemological position. A key separation, among several that I shall be exploring in future blog posts, is their disciplinary origins: constructivism originated in psychology from the likes of Paiget and Vygotsky as key authors, whilst Constructionism developed from sociologists such as Burr, Gergen, Berger and Luckmann among many others. Therefore, constructivism focusses on the cognition both in individual and social contexts, whilst constructionism from my current understanding focusses more on the historical, cultural and social contexts of the participants and social concepts such as language and discourse.


Conceptual differences


As I navigated my way around the literature, initial confusion set in as I attempted to understand the way that different writers conceived of the social world and therefore the way that social constructionism has been used with respect to constructs of the social world, which includes reality, knowledge, truth, meaning and understanding. As I continued to navigate through the literature, I came to observe a group of writers classifying reality as existing independently of the mind, whilst classifying reality’s constituent concepts (knowledge, truth, understanding and meaning) as constructions of the mind; another group was observed to have classified both reality and its constituents as constructions of the mind.


Previous understanding of ontology led me to perceive the difference between the writers’ positioning of reality within their thinking, and led me therefore to perceive each group as advocating an ontological stance. The group of writers who treated reality as a mind-dependent concept were relativists, whilst the group of writers who treated reality as mind-independent concept were considered realists. But here I had the interesting thought that unlike social constructivism, which has a relativist ontology, social constructionism is ontologically neutral.


Ontological Neutrality And Fluidity


Now I had the idea that social constructionism could be situated within a realist or relativist ontology, which to me makes sense because, as I have covered in earlier blog posts (and what I shall be continuing to explore and write about in the future), the selection of a particular ontological position does not necessarily influence the epistemological stance. We as human beings are far too diverse in our thinking and interactions with reality to place ourselves within linear ontological-epistemological relationships as commonly presented in textbooks, but I accept that this might not be a universally accepted claim.


Guided by my new assumption of social constructionism as being ontologically neutral, I came across a journal paper written by John Cromby and David Nightingale called “What’s Wrong With Social Constructionism?” The authors partway through the paper draw on the wider literature to come to the same conclusion: that social constructionism can be situated within either a realist or relativist ontology. Social Constructionism therefore has a subjectivist epistemology but can be placed within a realist or relativist ontology, and this perfectly reflects my beliefs that, as mentioned, we as humans are cognitively and psychologically diverse: we all think of reality and of our coming to know and understand reality differently; therefore, it might not be suitable or accurate to simply assume that a particular ontological position naturally leads to a particular epistemological position. This might be in contrast to the typical linear presentation of the ontological and epistemological relationships in literature: that a realist ontology necessitates an objectivist epistemology whilst a relativist position necessitates a subjectivist epistemology. Again this might be due to authors attempting to simplify associations for ease of understanding and to encourage the early researcher to understand that there are distinct differences between philosophical positions, but this oversimplification could undermine the potential worth and value of perceiving philosophical positions as flexible and fluid instead of strictly regimented.


What does this mean for my research specifically?


This could actually cover another blog post, which is at the time of writing this blog post is currently in the making. But here it suffices to say that my beliefs in the diversity of human thinking, understanding, exploration and contemplation of the world, reality and the entire universe is complex and should not be encapsulated in some pre-defined linear ontological-epistemological relationship. That said, I do have the belief that there is a single reality out there and that there are aspects of the social world that exists independently of our thinking, knowing or perceiving of these aspects. But, I do not have the belief that we can access this social reality easily: our thinking, theories, thoughts and frameworks that we have about reality should always be considered fallible and held with an element of scepticism and be subjected to constant reanalysis and refining. It is therefore right that I consider my research within the context of a realist ontology and a subjectivist epistemology; more specifically at this time as I currently understand the field of research Philosophy, a subtle realist ontology and a constructionist epistemology.


I shall be writing more about this subject as my understanding of subtle realism and constructionism improves, along with the relationship between them, and the methodologies and methods.


May 20, 2017

Overcoming the interchangeable nature of Social Constructivism and Social Constructionism

As Ph.D. candidates, we can become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of literature that is read through to orientate ourselves with our field of interest from the philosophical and methodological levels, and the phenomena of interest from different disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. During the navigation of literature so far, I have encountered numerous cases where several terms have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept or principle, and this has and can cause much confusion among Ph.D. candidates about the exact meaning of a concept.


Social constructivism and social constructionism are two subjectivist epistemological theories that have been used interchangeably within papers and textbooks to refer to the same principle: that we come to understand reality through constructing knowledge, meaning, truth and understanding within a social context. Whilst they share this principle, their application and process of social construction of concepts differ greatly as both theories focus on different aspects of interaction within the social world, and therefore focus on different attributes and concepts of the social world. It is worth noting that there is no single version of either constructivism or constructionism: there are various types of both theories developed ranging from “weaker” versions to “stronger” versions, the variety which, whilst adding to the initial confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed, corresponds to the diversity of human thought and the way in which we interact with reality.

Interchangeability


Since there are varying forms of constructivism and constructionism and given the sheer volume of literature published regarded both, it is not a major surprise to find out that there is a trend to simplify terminology and represent, in arguably a simplistic fashion, different points across the epistemological spectrum using simplistic conventions. The points typically range from positivism / post positivism (objectivism), followed by pragmatism and critical realism (middle range), and then constructionism / constructivism (subjectivism). Sometimes the subjectivism section goes a step further and include interpretivism, which again is different to both constructionism and constructivism in terms of its purpose and the concepts it deals with, but for matters of convenience these writers appear to categorise them as the same. A classic example I have recently come across that explains why some writers prefer to lump conceptually similar theories together is to try to explain (I assume for the benefit of the Ph.D. candidate or other beginning researchers) a clear distinction between objectivism and subjectivism epistemologies. There is some discussion that suggests that Charmaz termed her version of Grounded Theory as Constructivist Grounded Theory to attempt to separate it from the more positivist (Glaser and Strauss version) and pragmatist / symbolic interactionist (Strauss and Corbin) versions of the time. There is some debate therefore in Constructionist circles about whether her conceptualisation of Grounded Theory is Constructionist rather than Constructivist. This is an area of debate that I shall be exploring further and shall write any further thoughts about this in a follow up blog post.


As can be observed, subjectivist theories particularly constructionist and constructivist have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept even though there are significant differences between them. The question is therefore, in what way can we overcome a potential barrier to clarity?

Overcoming The Barrier Of Interchangeability


The best way I find to overcome the barrier of progress caused by the confusing interchangeability is to hold a sense of scepticism and level of questioning. I asked myself why constructivism and constructionism were being used interchangeably and was therefore sceptical of their representation in the literature as if they were the same. Essentially, I refused to take at face value the possibility of constructivism and constructionism being the same, and explored each of these further to find out what they meant as a research Philosophy. It was an open, inquiring mind, my own nature you could say, that motivated and inspired me to ask relevant questions.
An additional help was that for quite a while prior to starting a Ph.D. I had a lot of interest in the theory of social constructivism and I originally intended on exploring social constructivism in some way on the Ph.D. (gosh haven’t times changed since then!), therefore the reading that had occurred did assist in my immediate suspicion and scepticism about both terms meaning exactly the same concept. A reason for this immediate suspicion and scepticism was that I had read constructivism, as well as constructionism, within the context of a learning theory, which is quite different from reading both as research philosophies. Even so, constructivism and constructionism both differ significantly as learning theories; therefore, I had the impression from this difference that they would be different as research philosophies.


Translating this into more practical academic tasks, the best way to begin is to either use a search engine or an academic database to explore constructionism and constructivism separately. Google Books is usually an excellent way to find introductory research textbooks that explain what each of these terms are, or your own University library digital databases. Slideshare and other presentation sites are excellent applications to help assist with what these are in bullet point terms and some presentations have some excellent visuals to help assist with your learning of these terms. Once you have mastered the definitions and differences between each of these theories, use Google Scholar and your University library databases to explore specific implementations and applications of these theories as well as the wider debate and discussions for and against various aspects of these theories.


The introductory materials, followed by papers that cover the implementations and applications of these theories, then followed by exploring the wider literature regarding the interpretations, debates and discussions about various aspects of these theories shall give you a firm basis and understanding of the differences between these theories. As well as, what I found, giving you a firm basis to decide whether constructionism or constructivism are relevant for your research (or even aspects of each), or if something completely different is required.


Concluding Thoughts


I still wonder why some writers are motivated to categorise similar yet widely differing theories as the same. I suspect that it is because of convenience and simplicity of understanding to assist beginning researchers on their quest to understanding the vast array of different epistemological theories, debates, discussions and applications. The Ph.D. candidate therefore must be aware that whilst such convenient categorisations are useful for introducing the fact that there is a vast distinction between objectivism and subjectivism, they need to question further and explore each point along the epistemological spectrum in order to fully grasp and understand the variety of theories, and variation within these theories, in order to identify, select, and justify their epistemological stance, which in turn acts as an input to forming a philosophical justification of the research design.


I’m still learning, I’m still exploring, I’m still experimenting, and I still ponder and analyse the significance of my now settled philosophical perspective and the role it plays in my research design!


March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

A key early sub-question that relates to the version of realism to implement is to decide if the version of realism that is being implemented refers to ontology or epistemology. Remember that ontology deals with the existence and state of being and what there is in reality that is real, whilst epistemology deals with whether or not we can come to know something about reality and if this is possible, to what extent can we know something and the way in which we can know something. I have decided upon the philosophical classification of realism but before I get to that point, I’ll provide arguably simplistic conceptualisations of each that suffices for the purposes of this blog post.

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

Philosophical discussions relevant to research and knowing relates specifically to the idea of truth about reality. Is there such a thing as objective truth, and if so in what way can we come to know this truth about reality? What does this truth consist of and in what way can we understand aspects of this truth? Does objective truth exist or is truth simply a subjective construction invented in our own minds? If objective truth exists can we really attain it? Or, is it simply that what we know and theories progressively move towards objective truth? Although there is much debate, differences and variants of realism at both the ontological and epistemological levels it suffices for the purpose of this post to give the following basic and far too overgeneralising conceptions (but it’s a start!):


Ontological realism can be defined in general as arguing for objective truth that exists independently of our minds, as opposed to ontological idealism that suggests that mind and reality are as a single unit. Objective truth exists and therefore all assumptions, theories, beliefs and ideas that we form must be tested against this truth of reality therefore truth of reality is knowable.


Epistemological realism argues that knowledge itself exists independently of our minds; that knowledge is not a construction within our minds as is believed by epistemological idealists, but that knowledge is discoverable and attainable outside of the mind. The knowledge or perceptions that we hold in our minds about reality corresponds with reality itself; there is a correspondence between what we know, and the way that the world is, with this knowing attained through our experiences and interactions within the world.

Both ontological and epistemological realisms are much debated and discussed in philosophical and research methodology textbooks and published papers.

My Stance: Ontological Realism

The category of focus for my research is ontological realism, because I have the belief that there are universal and objective truths independent of whether or not we perceive, experience, or know about this truth and the extent of objectivity. I cautiously reject epistemological realism because I do not have the belief that what we know about the world corresponds with the way that the world is, because our mental states (knowledge, perceptions and so on) and cognitive processes (the act of perceiving, theorising, knowing, thinking and so on) are fallible. Therefore, whilst I do have the belief in objective truth and that aspects of reality do exist independent of our minds, we cannot really fully know this objective truth or objective reality: the best we can achieve is to progress towards objective truth but never actually attain it. And that from a general perspective and relative to my current understanding and knowledge relates well to my case study methodology and grounded theory method.


February 26, 2017

Philosophical Domains

Three Domains Of Philosophy


I have now at this point identified three domains of Philosophical considerations that a Ph.D. candidate might want to engage with whilst developing a philosophical understanding of their research. The three domains are:


The Philosophy Of The Self


This domain deals with the ontological and epistemological beliefs of reality, and therefore the way in which we situate ourselves within the context of the perceived reality. These beliefs form our perception of reality and answer questions such as: in what way do we perceive reality itself? In what way can we come to know this reality that we perceive?


At the ontological level there is a spectrum of beliefs that span from realism on one side to relativism on the other side with the different points in between determining the extent to which aspects of reality is either dependent on or independent of the actions of the mind. A realist perceives a reality that is independent of the thoughts and actions of the mind but the points along the spectrum progresses from a view of reality as being fully independent of the mind to a view that suggests there are aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind. On the relativism side, different flavours or points of relativism progresses from aspects of reality that are dependent on the mind to a reality that is fully dependent on the mind or in other words that reality is nothing more than what exists within our minds; our perceptions and beliefs mirrors reality itself.


Epistemological beliefs relate to the way in which we come to know reality and from what I can understand there are more theoretical categories of beliefs at this level than at the ontological level and it would take a long time to go through each theory on a single blog post but suffice to say that epistemological beliefs are, like ontological beliefs, situated along a spectrum with objectivism on one side and subjectivism on the other side. Objectivism states that knowledge of reality already exists therefore knowledge of reality is discovered and not constructed; knowledge of reality is attained through the belief that reality is a single layer, and that knowledge of this single layer reality is accessible through variables and experiments involving these variables and a researcher acting as a conductor and not a constructor of knowledge. Subjectivism is the exact opposite: knowledge of reality does not exist independently of the mind therefore knowledge is constructed and not discovered; knowledge is attained through the idea that there is more than a single layer to reality; and therefore knowledge of reality is obtained through understanding and exploring people situated within that reality via more qualitative methods such as ethnography.


This domain is important to engage with because if we become more engaged with our own philosophical beliefs about reality we can provide a philosophical justification for the research design and indeed for the selection of the phenomenon of interest in some way. This philosophical justification is itself a big subject but it suffices to say that philosophical justifications enable us to better explain and argue the way in which we come to know reality, the way we come to gain knowledge about reality, and the way in which reality is explored in order to gain this knowledge.


My beliefs about reality are based on ontological realism and epistemological subjectivism (relativism), but still working out which exact flavour of each my thoughts align with. But at a general level I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully independent of our minds but at the same time I do not accept that there is a reality that is fully dependent on our minds.



The Philosophy Of Research Design


The philosophical beliefs that we have about reality acts as an input to the research design hence the importance of engaging with our own selves as researchers and our philosophical beliefs.


I have discussed extensively (relatively speaking), and shall continue to do so, about the different philosophies that I have been considering for my research and that I have now selected for the research. Regardless of which philosophies have been selected, it is clear that my philosophical beliefs have guided not only the general selection of a case study grounded theory based research design, but the specific types of case study and grounded theory approaches. It’s important to remember here that there are multiple key writers that have detailed different types of case study and grounded theory approaches situated within different philosophies. Also, away from the key writers there have been other versions of both case study and grounded theory developed, and there will no doubt continue to be different versions developed, led by particular philosophical beliefs.


My own philosophical justification for using case study and grounded theory and the way in which they are being used is being guided by realism and relativism, but without a strict adherence to absolute realism and absolute relativism. These philosophical thoughts are being continuously thought about and explored. It is a substantial area of discussion and debate.



The Philosophy Of The Phenomenon Of Interest


This is a new consideration that I have come across recently and needs more elaboration and exploration before I can begin to define any definite ways in which the phenomenon is being perceived philosophically. But to explain briefly, in general and not specific to my research there appears to be learning processes and sub-learning processes, which can be categorised as either individual learner based, or collaborative or group based. There are many of these processes: it would be fairly easy to develop a Ph.D. proposal based on just a single learning process or sub-process nevermind an actual category, once you were aware of the literature and existing problems!


What I am considering at the moment, and again I can make no commitment to any actual statements of knowing about this area, is the relationship between my own philosophical perspectives of the learning process as I am coding and exploring these processes, and the philosophical perspectives that the research participants might have taken in their demonstration of learning processes. Here we can branch out into many different directions because the philosophical considerations of these processes go right back to Ancient Greece where the likes of Socrates and Aristotle defined certain processes in an absolute and certain way: that learners could engage with their learning in an absolute and certain way. Contemporary philosophers consider more uncertain and relativist approaches to engagement with learning processes and its impact on, for example, the construction of knowledge within learning contexts.


But there are many social and cognitive processes of learning, and whilst there have been much written on these processes there is much that is still to be written and discovered about them. The philosophy of the learning process is something that I have come across recently and still elaborating ideas on and reading about therefore I cannot at this time put forward any detailed arguments of the way in which I am viewing learning processes.



Domain Interconnection


My thoughts on the interconnections between the aforementioned domains, like my thoughts on the philosophy of learning processes, are in their early exploration and development stages. However, early indications show that there is a relationship between these three domains of philosophical considerations, there just needs to be further explorations and readings into what exactly this relationship is, what it entails, what it impacts, and what conditions are required for a relationship and different types of such relationships to exist.


Are my philosophical beliefs of reality providing an impact not just on the development of the research design, but also the way in which I perceive or view the learning processes?


Are my philosophical beliefs influencing the way in which I perceive participant approaches and perspectives of their learning processes?


Could a mismatch exist between the way that I perceive demonstrated learning processes, and the way in which participants perceive them?


Is there ultimately an ideal way in which learning processes should be perceived philosophically?


These are just few of the questions that I have with regards to this incredibly complex and challenging area of thinking and development, but it is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs and engage with plenty of reading in order to develop and fully elaborate on a philosophical justification or serious of justifications as to why you are doing what you are doing. It is worthwhile engaging with your own beliefs as you can fit your research and yourself within the domains of philosophical considerations. A challenging area, but a worthwhile investment!


March 14, 2016

Mixed Methods: Post Positivism Is No Longer Considered Appropriate


Description of and arguments against Post Positivism


Post positivism is now no longer among the set of philosophies considered appropriate for my Mixed Methods research due to my stance against philosophies that advocate pure quantitative or qualitative approaches to exploring social reality within educational contexts.


Simply put, post positivism is an extension of positivism; that it still adheres to the main concepts and principles of Positivism but modifies them at the ontological and epistemological levels but mirrors positivism at the methodological level. This modification of the concepts of positivism enables post postivism to accommodate a level of uncertainly, subjectivity, complexity and human experiences therefore recognising that absolute and certain truth about reality is not achievable. Giddings and Grant (2007) called Post Postivism a “lite” version of positivism, stating that the “post” prefix indicates a development or extension of positivism, and offer various examples of the way in which Post Positivism extends the concepts of positivism.


Positivism perceives reality as objective and independent of the mind but post positivism (along with other middle ground Philosophies) suggest that reality is embedded in its own social and cultural contexts and therefore researcher objectivity is impossible to attain. Another key area of divergence is theory verification: positivism emphasises hypothesis testing and theory experimentation in order to prove or disprove them whereas PostPositivists emphasises supporting evidence as a probability rather than being used as an absolute proof. These are just a couple of examples of where positivism and post positivism diverge at the ontological and epistemological levels. However, where they both converge and therefore enables the view of post positivism as being an extension of positivism is that it shares the same methodological assumptions.


Onwuegbuzie et al (2009) (along with many other researchers) confirms this methodological mirroring. Extent of fallibility and defeasibility of absolute knowledge accommodated by post positivism makes inferential statistics usable and applicable through inferential statistics, which utalises probabilistic approaches such as P Vales and Confidence Levels to understand reality. Post positivism also utalises qualitative data, hence post positivists can use Mixed Methods, but they use quantitative approaches to analyse qualitative data. As an example, content analysis is utilised to quantify thematic occurrences through frequency rates, and qualitative data is used in a way that enables the development of more effective quantitative approaches.


In all, post positivism is not a suitable Philosophical perspective for my Mixed Methods research because I am taking the stance that post positivism is not suited to exploring social phenomena and social reality, because everything to do with the social is too chaotic and dynamic to be represented and explained statistically. Post positivism also does not allow for much room in terms of theory building, and theory building or theorising is an aim of my Mixed Methods research as I attempt to theorise the social structures and aspects of reality that influences the phenomenon of interest. I like much of post positivism at the ontological and epistemological levels, but its mirroring of positivism at the methodological level makes it inappropriate for my Mixed Methods research. More discussions shall be found in later blog posts and more especially in my thesis.


So then: the Big Three!


With post positivism no longer being considered appropriate, this now leaves three middle ground philosophies that might be appropriate for my Mixed Methods research: complexity theory, pragmatism and critical realism. From what I have read of these so far, I have issues with pragmatism in that it appears to detach itself from philosophical and methodological concerns and places itself upon the research question. That is, the research question is the most important consideration within pragmatism and therefore all that must be done and used to answer that research question must be carried out. This has left pragmatism open to arguments that suggests it basically allows a free for all design approach with a “what works” attitude that has been questioned by a lot of writers, and I am inclined to agree with the concerns. More on this in future blog posts.

Critical realism and complexity theory appear to be the most attractive middle ground philosophies at the moment as I as yet cannot find any fault with them when it comes to exploring social reality, social phenomena, and assumptions made at the philosophical and methodological levels. Essentially, from what I can currently understand, critical realism does not concern itself with reality as a single, accessible, measurable layer (positivism / post positivism) nor does it concern itself exclusively with human experiences (interpretivism / constructivism) but it concerns itself with the underlying structures and mechanisms that produces what is found at the measurable layer and with human experiences. Now if I have interpreted this correctly, and I appreciate that what I have defined is probably a little lacking in substance but remember I am still learning and exploring this, then this makes critical realism highly applicable for substantial exploration of the social reality. Structures and mechanisms of social reality and their influence on what occurs within this social reality are highly complex and interrelated therefore complexity theory could also play a part in this structural mess.


I do perceive social reality and explorations of social reality to be highly complex and extremely uncertain, and the key to understanding the phenomenon of interest is to consider those underlying structures and mechanisms instead of constantly exploring just what is observable.


Fun stuff isn’t it? It was all a bit scary when I first started exploring Mixed Methods at this level but the more I explore the Philosophy of Mixed Methods the more interesting I find it! Lots to read and think about!


References


Giddings, L.S., Grant, B.M (2007): A Trojan Horse For Positism? A Critique Of Mixed Methods Research, Advances in Nurse Science, 30 (1), 52 – 60


Onwuegbuzie, A.J., Johnson, R.B., Collins, K.M.T. (2009): Call For Mixed Analysis: A Philosophical Framework For Combining Qualitative And Quantitative Approaches, International Journal Of Multiple Research Approaches, 3, 114 – 139


March 09, 2016

What Is Reality? A Middle Ground Philosophical View

In an attempt to understand the way in which a middle ground Philosophy views reality, think about a cake. A two dimensional cake is observable: you can view the top layer and you can deconstruct this top layer into components, or in an academic sense its variables, which would be the cream, the topping, the chocolate sprinkles, decorations, and anything else that belongs to the top level. Further understanding of this top layer would come about through identifying and exploring relationships between these variables. The three dimensional cake contains a series of layers with no variables and therefore no exploration of relationships between these variables. There are layers and within these layers are different structures, mechanisms, processes and configurations that provide a deeper understanding of the structure and complexity of that cake.

Research that explores only the top layer of reality (think about the top layer of the cake) perceives reality as two dimensional, independent of the activities of the mind, therefore nothing is constructed therefore everything about that reality is true. In order to understand this reality it is a case of deconstructing this reality into a series of variables and to identify and explore relationships between these variables. The Philosophies that guide this type of research are of the Absolutist, Objectivist variety. Research that explores the multiple layers of reality (think of the multiple layers on a cake) perceives reality as three dimensional and is dependent on the activities of the mind therefore nothing in reality is actually an objective truth but is a construction of the mind. Reality is therefore constructed based on our own experiences and perceptions of our own experiences therefore in order to better understand this reality the structures, mechanisms, and so on, need to be explored. The Philosophies that guide this type of exploration of reality are based on the Relativist, Subjectivist varieties.

In the middle of the continuum between Absolutism and Relativism perspectives are the Middle Ground perspectives, which recognises the importance of both the top layer of the cake and the multiple layers of the cake to gain a complete understanding of that particular cake. In other words, the middle ground Philosophies perceive reality as having a top layer that can be deconstructed to a set of variables and relationships between variables, but also perceive the behaviours of these variables and relationships to be influenced by the structures, mechanisms, processes and configurations of the underlying layers. Therefore when adopting a middle ground Philosophy you are effectively exploring what occurs on the top level (variables, relationships) and the way in which the top level is affected by the underlying layers (structures, mechanisms, etc), and therefore recognise the complexity of the phenomenon you are exploring.

I admit that these definitions and explanations might not be that sophisticated but in the meantime whilst my knowledge and understanding of these Philosophies continue to grow and mature, these definitions work. I have collected a huge amount of literature that shall enable me to take my understanding to the next level, which shall hopefully enable me to decide which of the main Philosophies or combination of these Philosophies shall work best with the context of my Mixed Methods research.


March 01, 2016

The Philosophy of Mixed Methods: Getting Clearer!


Things have progressed since the previous post!


Recently I have been exploring six different Philosophical perspectives that after an initial round of reading thought were most appropriate for my Mixed Methods research. Most of these advocate a middle ground approach to understanding reality that aligns with Mixed Methods methodology, and these have been Complexity Theory, Post Structuralism, Post Modernism, Post Positivism, Pragmatism and Critical Realism.


After the previous round of reading, I have concluded that there are four Philosophical perspectives that strongly advocate a middle ground approach, or in other words advocate a multiple reality perspective, that aligns strongly with a Mixed Methods methodology and they are Complexity Theory, Post Postivitism, Pragmatism and Critical Realism. Each of these shall be explored and discussed on here in time but it suffices to say here that they have the common characteristic of rejecting the Absolutism and Relativism paradigms, the opposite sides of the paradigm continuum. They reject the idea that reality can be understood either through Absolutism or Relativism, and therefore place emphasis on the view of reality as a mixture of observable, measurable, deterministic and controllable elements, and also elements that are dynamic, chaotic, unobservable, and cannot be reduced to variables. This leans suitably towards a Mixed Methods methodology, but the extent to which each paradigm advocates Mixed Methods differ, and the writers and practitioners within each paradigm differ further the extent to which they advocate Mixed Methods methodology. The most common paradigm used is Pragmatism but just because a paradigm is more dominant it doesn’t mean that it is most suitable for my own research.


The other two paradigms Post Structuralism and Post Modernism are not suitable as a guide of Mixed Methods inquiry but are suitable in building a platform upon which Mixed Methods can be criticised. Both paradigms reject the modernist perspectives of reality (e.g., postivism, absolutism, and so on) and strongly advocate a multiple reality perspective therefore lean fairly strongly towards relativism and constructivism paradigms. From the readings that I have carried out so far, both perspectives appear to criticise Mixed Methods on Philosophical grounds: that Mixed Methods orientate towards Positivism, that there is a series lack of Mixed Methods researchers engaging at a Philosophical level, and therefore that there are various ontological and epistemological issues that remain unresolved within a Mixed Methods context. So whilst they do not reject Mixed Methods outright as an interesting and useful methodology, Post Structuralists and Post Modernists criticise Mixed Methods methodology at the Philosophical level and therefore have been critical of the Pragmatist approach.


So there we are! Four paradigms that have shown promise as a guide of Mixed Methods inquiry, and a couple of paradigms that are not useful as a guide of Mixed Methods inquiry but useful in understanding the criticisms and critiques of Mixed Methods methodology. It’s alright in any thesis to write loads about the wonderfulness of a methodology but the criticisms need equal attention and solutions need to be developed, explained, applied, and evaluated, all of which I aim to achieve in my thesis.


February 22, 2016

The Paradigms and Philosophies of Mixed Methods research: a whistle stop tour!

Those who have been following my blog during the past few months shall have noticed that Mixed Methods has been selected as the most appropriate methodology, that the Convergent Parallel design has been selected as the most appropriate variety of Mixed Methods, and that the methods of data collection have been decided upon along with most of the data analysis methods. What hasn’t been thought about till recently is the Philosophy of Mixed Methods.


Mixed Methods methodology developed as a result of the paradigmatic wars between quantitative and qualitative approaches: authors back in the 1960s and 1970s were adamant that both entail differing Philosophical and Paradigmatic assumptions and therefore frame the research in ways that were not compatible with each other. However, reconciliation between differing paradigms began and accelerated during the 1980s where writers opposed this methodological dualism.


Paradigmatic and philosophical assumptions and perspectives are extensive and the debates of suitability have been ongoing since reconciliation attempts began, so they are complex fields (seriously I am not kidden here: I’ve been thinking about this for years and I still don’t know everything and never will) where there isn’t a right or wrong answer. All that can be achieved is a researcher understanding their own views of reality and work towards developing arguments as to why their research contains particular paradigmatic and philosophical assumptions and perspectives. Do bear with me as I continue to learn and develop paradigmatic and philosophical assumptions about my research relative to a Mixed Methods methodology and also relative to the selected methods. This has to be a careful, thoughtful process: I cannot just select things at random. These assumptions are important to consider because they provide the basis or framework for a mixed methods project, or any research project.


There are certain paradigms (frameworks of research) that I can safely discard and suggest that they are not relevant to my research. This includes the feminism paradigm, which focuses research around women’s rights and whilst I have a lot of respect for women and their rights, feminism is not a part of my research so shall no longer be considered. The other paradigm is the Transformative-Emancipatory developed by Mertens (2003), which focuses on the intersection between Mixed Methods methodology and social justice although there is an observation that this has overlapped somewhat with the feminism paradigm. When you think about what feminism really means (not the extremists who perceive feminism as a male hating agenda) and its relationship with social justice, this makes sense. However whilst I have an increasing interest in social justice and this might be considered in future research projects it is not a part of my research currently therefore shall not be considered any further.


Moving toward discussions of paradigms that are more relevant, there is a selection of paradigms in relation to Mixed Methods that are most relevant for my Ph.D. The first is the PostPositivism paradigm, developed out of criticism of Positivism and therefore views reality as probabilistically true where Positivism (the paradigm of Science) views reality as really true and fully independent of the mind. Whilst PostPositivism works with quantitative methods and methodologies it also works with qualitative approaches and many who identify themselves as PostPositivists do utilise Mixed Methods. Another paradigm that is well acquainted with Mixed Methods is Pragmatism. Key differences between this and PostPositivism can be found at the Epistemological level in that PostPositivism understands reality as a single reality that is probabilistically true and independent of the mind whilst Pragmatists view reality as containing elements that are accessible and independent of the mind as well as elements that are constructed and therefore dependent on the mind. From an epistemological perspective, Pragmatism already leans more towards Mixed Methods than PostPositivism. However, Pragmatism is not without its problems therefore the third paradigm that is being considered is Critical Realism where apparently it can reconcile Absolutism and Relativism perspectives at the ontological level, whereas Pragmatism reconciles at the epistemological level from what I can currently understand but this does not appear to be reported much in the literature from what I have read so far. According to Creswell and Clark (2011) Critical Realism adopts and supports characteristics from both quantitative and qualitative approaches, although the use of Critical Realism is not as common as Pragmatism. But it has to be remembered that just because Pragmatism might be used more than PostPositivism and Critical Realism it doesn’t mean that it’s any more relevant to my research and the context of my research.


Additionally there are Mixed Methods projects that use multiple world views or paradigms, referenced as a dialectical paradigm, instead of a single paradigm, and have been based on the way that a researcher views social reality. Further, there are approaches that involving using multiple paradigms not in relation to the way that the researcher views reality, but of the type of Mixed Methods being used. For more information on this, read Greene (2007) and Creswell and Clark (2011)


As a side note, this whole linking between Philosophy and Methodology has been experienced in my research so far. Previously I had chosen to adopt a Constructivist Grounded Theory as the methodology and this entailed Relativist ontology and a Constructivist epistemology. Switching the methodology to a Mixed Methods approach entails a Philosophical view that in some way combines or reconciles Absolutism and Relativism ontologies and therefore Positivism (or PostPositivism in Social Sciences) and Constructivism epistemologies. It would not have been acceptable to have continued with a Relativist paradigm given that my research contains methods that include the collection and analysis of quantitative data, which aligns with a different paradigm. This would have been identified and critiqued in the Upgrade Paper and especially in the thesis and the Vivo examination.


So, gosh that was a long post! In brief, the paradigms that are of most relevance to this research are: PostPositivism, Pragmatism and Critical Realism. These shall be discussed more as I explore them in relation to Mixed Methods and in the context of my own research!

References:

Creswell, J.W., Plano Clark, V.L (2011): Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research (2nd Ed). SAGE: America

Greene, J.C (2007): Mixed Methods in Social Inquiry. Jossey-Boss: San Francisco

Mertens, D.M (2009): Transformative Research And Evaluations, Guilford Press: New York


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