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January 25, 2019
A year In Reflection, Part B: Methodological Changes
The relationship between our philosophical beliefs and methodological approach to our research is, as far as I am concerned, a complex relationship. Not only can there be a sense of fluidity between the ontological and epistemological beliefs, but also fluidity between the philosophical beliefs and the methodological approach. As I have spoken about on this blog, what I found during the year was a shift in my conceptualisation of the phenomenon of interest, which led to a change in what I wanted to explore in the data, and, therefore, changes to the directions of my research interest. The changes to the conceptualisations, concepts, and directions of what I wanted to explore and why I think they are important led to me changing methodological approach.
Over time I came to realise that Grounded Theory was no longer working for me for various reasons that I shall explain in the thesis. I came to realise that, out of the various analytical approaches I was then experimenting with (grounded theory, discourse analysis, content analysis, and thematic analysis) thematic analysis revealed itself to be the most appropriate. The type of thematic analysis of most use appears to be a mix of Braun and Clarke’s version along with Guest’s Applied Thematic Analysis approach, with some concepts and ideas loosely based on aspects of Grounded Theory. All this shall of course be explained in the thesis.
Those are the changes made in a nutshell: if you want to know more about these changes feel free to read through my previous blog posts and also read the thesis when it’s written!
Upon reflection, what can be learnt from qualitative research is that it is near enough impossible to know what you are going to be exploring at the very beginning. This is relevant claim to qualitative research that adopts an inductive approach to exploring data, where you are essentially allowing your interpretations and observations of the data to guide your thinking and the directions that you take.
All changes to the research have been recorded with great detail. It is important to record everything. Even the smallest, slightest change to your philosophical beliefs, methodological approaches and the way you perceive and interact with the data can lead to even bigger changes in the future, so it is important to record these small changes and reflect upon their implications, impacts, and meanings to your research. Record them either through your own blog, through theoretical memos that you right as part of your data analysis, or even on a scrap piece of paper that is stored correctly for easy retrieval later.
All these observations and interpretations that you record can be logically ordered, expanded, discussed and reflected upon at a later time as you write your thesis. Remember that a qualitative thesis is a reflexive exercise and you as the researcher become part of the data analysis, so do ensure that you record appropriately, store as logically as you can, and reflect deeply and comprehensively during your thesis write up as part of telling the story of the way in which you approached your research, why, and what changes were made.
Record and detail absolutely everything!
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.
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 08, 2018
Continuation of the Qualitative Thread: Current Thoughts on Axial Coding
In the previous blog post I talked about the role and function of Open Coding, which is to label data segments with meaningful codes that summarise the content, features, characteristics, events and activities within that data segment and from these codes, develop categories and their properties and dimensions. Remember that categories are a collection of similar codes, with data segment characteristics represented as properties and dimensions. Open Coding from what I can understand is essentially descriptive where it attempts to describe the features and characteristics of data through coding and category development, and as argued by some authors, carries realist assumptions based on its use of constant comparative analysis. I did ask questions about where to go next following Open Coding, and now I think I have the answer.
I had my doubts about Axial Coding initially simply because of the challenges and criticisms against Axial Coding from various authors, who shall be engaged with on here at some point and especially in the thesis. But you should never adopt or reject an approach just because others have criticised it: you should instead adopt or reject an approach based on its relevance and suitability for your research project. As long as you justify and reason why (and why not) you have used (or have not used) particular design components and that they are aligned more generally with your philosophical and theoretical (if appropriate) assumptions then you are within your right to use any coding form.
I have now come to the idea that Axial Coding is the most sensible next step level of coding for my research. Open Coding then is that descriptive approach to developing categories; Axial Coding, therefore, is a more abstract means of coding that involves linking or relating categories together in order to better understand a process not through the views and experiences of those experiencing a process, but through exploring the process itself. Axial Coding is beginning to be understood therefore as a means of developing relationships between categories, and of developing relationships between a category and its own properties and dimensions.
During the process of redeveloping my understanding of Open Coding, conceptions of categories were formed: what a category is, what information should best be part of a category, and the guiding questions I have when developing a category further in terms of its properties and dimensions. I have noticed upon further reading that some of the questions I ask of a category, some of the questions align with the purpose of Axial Coding but that’s fine as some authors have stated that the thinking about relationships between categories and between a category and its own properties and dimensions occur during the Open Coding stage. As I recode the data I shall have additional questions though, and are based on the development of the relationships and they include: what forms a relationship? How can I identify a relationship? What is the content of this relationship? What are the features and characteristics of this relationship? What is the influence and impact of the context of the situation upon the relationship? Axial Coding, then, not only establishes relationships but also appears to acknowledge and consider the context of the relationship. For example, a relationship between two categories might differ between different contexts and this is important when exploring learning phenomena.
Although Axial Coding can establish and identify relationships between categories, properties and dimensions, it does not, as far as I can currently understand, produce an actual network of activities and events relating to the sustainability and on-going nature of social learning situations but it can provide the foundational understanding of what is occurring within a discussion through categories, dimensions and properties. However, it might be possible that a grounded theory’s relationship identification process and network diagrams and associated analysis attains a better understanding of certain social learning processes.
This is simple a try it out and find out approach, but from what I have drawn out in a presentation that I am producing for the topic it appears that this is the limitation of grounded theory and hence the introduction of a network analysis method and the interest in quantitatively analysing relationships but this is for another blog post.
In all, Axial Coding makes more sense to my research now if I view it as a means of relating categories, and to relate categories with their properties and dimensions. This makes sense to me because clearly defining relationships between categories and their dimensions and properties shall assist with understanding the complexity and highly nuanced existence of certain learning phenomena and provide a basis upon which I can build complex networks and be able to quantitatively analyse the relationships between these categories.
That’s the picture of Axial Coding for now!
‘till next time!
April 06, 2018
Some Current Thoughts on the Qualitative Strand and Open Coding
There has to be a sense of emergence where codes are derived from data and categories are derived from codes. This idea of emergence makes sense as I have not been able to identify an existing framework that is suitable and relevant for the type of data I am using and the way that I am now exploring the phenomenon of interest, and therefore, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses must emerge from the data.
I read an interesting paper the other day where an author aligned the idea of an emergent approach with the realist ontology: truth emerges from the data after a continuous cycle of coding and recoding, but this brings about a couple of problems. First of all, what is defined as truth and of being true? How can it be measured? How can I know that something is true even after going through continuous cycles of coding and recoding? How can I know that this truth emerges from the data and not simply a reflection of my interpretations of the data? Is it absolute truth that emerges from the data or is it that with each coding and recoding I could come closer to the truth without completely attaining it? How do I know either way? Is there some set criteria for truth? If so, then would this criteria itself represent truth if it’s simply been constructed by another human being? Would it therefore be better to consider the set criteria is bringing one closer to the truth rather than mirroring the location of absolute truth?
One thing I do know is when I think about the qualitative strand, the purpose that it brings to the research, and what I currently would like to achieve with the strand, allowing the data to speak for itself; to enable this “voice” to emerge naturally and to code in accordance to what is believed to be occurring within the data makes sense. And this is where it is interesting because some authors suggest that enabling the data to speak for itself (please note that data do not literally speak!) and to therefore let understanding and meaning emerge from the data, but it is clear that there is an interpretation process happening. We as researchers interpret what we are observing in the data and attach to chunks of data what actions and events we believe are occurring within that data segment. Question here therefore is what is the relationship between truth and meaning? Is meaning objective and already exist within the “voice” of the data? Or, do we define meaning and apply it to what we perceive or interpret to be happening within the data? There are techniques within grounded theory such as theoretical sampling and constant comparisons that provide some answers to these questions but to what extent is truth realised by just grounded theory alone? Can ultimate truth really be attained?
What is the purpose of the qualitative strand within a mixed methods approach? From what I have been rereading, mixed methods can be used to build and test a theory, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses. Their development occurs in the qualitative strand and then tested in the quantitative strand, and therefore adding an extra dimension of richness, integrity, authenticity, verifiability and validity to the research design.
A question I am working on at the moment given that Grounded Theory is part of the qualitative strand is to what extent do I use grounded theory? I have now more or less worked out the initial phase of qualitative data analysis, and this initial phase shall consist of Open Coding also known as Initial Coding. I think this is more or less a definite because it is through Open Coding or Initial Coding that meaningful data segments are labelled with suitable codes that describe what is happening; where a technique known as constant comparison is used to identify similarities, differences and variances, and where (in broad terms) these similarities, differences and variances contribute towards categorical development. I have recoded my data a few times and so far I have lots of codes, and some initial categories developing but shall now have to recode the data since developing new ideas about the research design and about the way I want to explore the phenomenon of interest. And also because I understand the data more now. This leads me to an interesting thought: not only do our theoretical understanding of what is occurring in the data develops over time along with the need for particular research design elements (assuming emergent research design), but also understanding of the data itself emerges from the way that we perceive and interpret what is going on. There is an interesting relationship going on here between our own perceptions and interpretations, the development of these perceptions, and the data itself. What role does the data play in this relationship?
I can begin to observe what I had not previously observed and I can understand the grounded theory techniques better than before. I have started to draw out the steps and phases of the new research design with the current focus on the qualitative strand. I understand more now about categorical development and have outlined more questions I want to ask about the data as I proceed with recoding the data and continue to develop categories.
Aligned with my philosophical beliefs, I believe that there is a truth out there behind the process of the phenomenon of investigation but whether or not this real truth can occur only from coding and recoding for the context of my research is doubtful. But a mixed methods design perhaps could lead me closer to that ontological truth without actually reaching absolute truth. Aligned with my epistemological beliefs, the logical process (abductive) that underlies my use of grounded theory (develop hypotheses inductively from the data and use deductive methods to test the hypotheses against the data) aligns with my beliefs that knowledge is not certain and absolute. We need to continuously think about the data, think about what is happening in the data, think about how we interpret the data and how we know what we know to be true or perceive to be truth (meta-Philosophy) as long as everything is grounded in the data. All hypotheses, ideas, observations, and thoughts must be grounded in the data. We need to question our own biases and acknowledge them. All this while we maintain our sanity long enough to do so!
A big question that I have next is: when I have all the codes, and have developed all the categories and identified relationships between each category and the relevant properties and dimensions, what then? Grounded theorists talk about bringing everything together to form a theory whilst other grounded theorists discuss the idea of linking categories together to identify relationships in a process known as Axial Coding. I think I am currently leaning towards axial coding or some sort of coding technique that enables me to relate categories, because it is through the relation of categories and really understanding the way that categories interact with each other could I then begin to understand the way that the particular learning phenomenon of interest progresses from start to conclusion. This is challenging and whilst I shall try to work it all out for the sake of the diagrams I am drawing out as plans, the only way I think I am going to know for sure what I shall do is to simply do the coding. But the way I am viewing this at the moment is whilst the categories in themselves explain what is happening with certain parts of the phenomenon, by themselves they do not explain the process. There needs to be that extra step that identifies the process and the relationships therefore between elements of this process in order to better explain the phenomenon.
Once I have developed the ideas of the way I am going to approach the qualitative strand I shall then deal with the quantitative strand, fit everything within a mixed methods scenario if proven to be the most appropriate strategy, as well as a case study methodology if necessary, and then actually test my ideas against the data and remodify accordingly after receiving feedback from the supervisor.
‘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!
Research Design: A Reflection and Possible New Direction
Not only have I been stuffing my face full of Easter goodness (hot crossed buns and Easter eggs) but given that the newly added methods to my research design have been confirmed and accepted as being appropriate as a result of coming to know the phenomenon of interest in a way I had not previously considered, I have been rethinking the structure and process of my research design. This is particularly since this past weekend where I had the revelation that perhaps I should return to and re-evaluate the value, worth, role and purpose of combining qualitative and quantitative data within my project. A current task is therefore to think very diligently, carefully, strategically, and comprehensively about how qualitative and quantitative methods can analyse the data, and how qualitative and quantitative data can be combined or utilised in a way that can comprehensively describe and explain the phenomenon of interest unachievable by a single approach.
An Emergent Research Design?
What has struck me recently is that my research design can be characterised as emergent. The newly added methods and the possible re-evaluation of the methodological approach has emerged from further understanding of the data, further understanding of existing literature, and further understanding of the different types, structures, processes and outcomes of the phenomenon of interest. Further, these sources appear to triangulate to provide some sort of justification for what has emerged e.g., what I have observed in the data and the need to explore these observations further can be backed by existing literature, and both give rise to the need of the additional data analysis methods and perhaps a rethink of the methodology and research questions. This idea of an emergent research design appears to be a characteristic not just of grounded theory but qualitative research design more generally.
Essentially and I shall be writing more about this in the future, the research design emerges as the data analysis progresses with further readings as necessary to support the need for any emergent research design aspect. Where I am now with the research design and the inclusion of network analysis as a method has come from what I have observed in the data. In other words, the need for such a method has emerged from understanding the data, from observing particular patterns and trends, thinking carefully about the way these trends and patterns could be explored more comprehensively, and the potential value and worth their explorations might offer to the research.
Let’s take a brief journey in time to reflect on where I have been with the research design
The Journey of the Research Design so far
The Ph.D. research began prior to the Upgrade process as a mixed methods project, where mixed methods approach was introduced at the data collection level where the idea was to collect qualitative data from observations of the learning phenomenon and quantitative data from surveys. After a series of doubts started to creep in following the submission of the original Upgrade paper about the data collection methods and the context of the quantitative data collection and analysis aspect, and after discussions with the Upgrade member panel and the supervisor, the approach was dropped. The qualitative aspect was kept and therefore, grounded theory became the sole focus of the research design. Grounded theory became the methodology and its coding package became the methods of data analysis.
For many months after I began to downplay the relevance of mixed methods approach in my research and began to focus exclusively on learning about Grounded Theory and the way that I can utilise Grounded Theory within my research context, which again has been documented extensively throughout the previous year. I also began to realise and became aware of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs both at the ontological and epistemological levels though had not travelled down to the methodological and methods level because of my continued denial of the value of a mixed approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest. I did, however, later in the year and earlier this year seriously began to challenge the theoretical orientation of grounded theory and began to really believe that symbolic interactionism (the most common theoretical framework of grounded theory) was not compatible with the research context and began to search for other possible frameworks. Again this has been documented in earlier blog posts. I also began, through reading through more existing literature and the draft writing of earlier thesis chapters, to challenge my own understanding of the phenomenon of interest: the way I perceived it, the way I approached its exploration, and the way I could define it.
This led then to me challenging the way I had used grounded theory previously to analyse the data and I came across a startling thought: grounded theory could be used to recognise a central theme of the phenomenon of interest and theorise about the phenomenon around this theme, but I began to doubt grounded theory’s ability to theorise or hypothesise about the progress and process of the phenomenon of interest over a period of time. It was not, so I came to eventually realise, the central theme of the learning phenomenon that was the only product of the research that is of interest to me: it’s the way in which the learning phenomenon initiates and is sustained over a period of time. This I think is an area that is not addressed by grounded theory.
Where am I now with the Research Design?
Grounded Theory is still of interest and of importance to the research in terms of, from what I can currently understand, identifying a central theme to the phenomenon of interest, and to theorise about the phenomenon in accordance with this key theme. However, in what way do I explore the progress of the phenomenon of interest and the way in which this learning process can be sustained over time? This is where network analysis comes into play. But here is something else: I have always created diagrams and “networks,” if you will, about what is occurring in the data in order to help me understand what is going on in the data but I had not considered these diagrams as being somewhat of an independent data analysis method in their own right as I always thought of them as part of the grounded theory. But as I drew out more of these diagrams I began to realise that I was making observations and identifying trends that perhaps grounded theory on its own might not be able to explore to a substantial extent. At least, not to the extent that I am now interested in.
More significantly, I’ve very recently began to think about the way in which I could use these diagrams to further explore the phenomenon of interest through network analysis and the inclusion of quantitative analysis to test hypotheses and theoretical constructs that have and shall continue to emerge through grounded theory analysis. And therefore, a reintroduction of an old idea: the mixed methods approach!
And that shall be the topic of the next blog post!
March 29, 2018
Reflections Of Ph.D. Work From January To Now!
Now that Easter (or whatever you choose to celebrate) is around the corner it’s time for some reflections of the year so far and what an interesting time it has been between January and now. It’s been one of those time periods where I had a rough idea of what I wanted to achieve, but as is the nature of research I achieved other things that I had not planned on achieving, and made observations that I had not originally anticipated!
That is a good thing or a bad thing depending on the way you perceive the events and the values of the observations you have made leading to the extent to which your ideas develop! There are two tasks that I have focussed on during the recent time frame and that’s the literature review chapters, and the rethinking of the use of Grounded Theory.
The Literature Review Chapters
The main focus of the year so far has been writing and drafting the first literature review chapter, which focusses on the relationship between society, culture, Higher Education and technology, and two sections of the second literature review chapter that focusses on different concepts related to the phenomenon of research interest. I have completed the first drafting of the first literature review chapter although obviously this needs revision and expansion, and also have made suitable progress with the writing of the two sections of the second literature review chapter.
Where I feel a little uneasy with the second chapter is the fact that it is related to the concepts of the phenomenon of interest. Given that my project is based on a grounded theory methodology, I am not entirely sure of the extent to which I should be giving attention to the concepts in the literature review and the extent to which I should give them attention in the findings and discussion sections, for example comparing and contrasting my data with published data in relation to those concepts. What I am thinking is it might be best to discuss the philosophical and theoretical concerns in the literature review chapters and then analyse the concepts empirically: published data in conjunction with my own data, and compare and contrast in order to validate findings or in some way find new ways in which those concepts could be interpreted, observed, measured, occur, and thought about.
Actually writing the chapters has taken and is taking longer than I had anticipated because I did not anticipate the fact that structure of a chapter can actually emerge from the act of writing. In a sense this is not a bad thing: it is a waste of time trying to stuff content in a pre-planned structure when the emerging content, the continuous development of ideas, the emerging debates you are engaging with and the development of your arguments are no longer compatible with the pre-planned structure. Remember that your ideas and arguments and the way you shape and engage with debates relative to your research questions and objectives are continuously developing and therefore, so is your thesis structure.
But overall though I am pleased with what I have been able to achieve in terms of my thesis chapter writing, and I do believe there is value in utilising the edit as you write approach as there is no point in fighting against ideas as they emerge from ideas that you are constructing, and which causes you to rewrite or rethink perhaps the way you present or interrelate previous ideas, or to change and individual ideas as you form new ideas and test their interrelation and compatibility. This is interesting, because not only does your structure emerge as you write, but more ideas and ideas for idea development, redevelopment, restructuring, and interrelation analysis also emerge.
Use of Grounded Theory
I was aiming to progress with theoretical development, but as has been discussed during the year so far on this blog I came across a few challenges referring to the nature of grounded theory e.g, its philosophical framework; the application of grounded theory in my research, and the way in which I was perceiving and exploring the phenomenon of interest. Essentially, I have come to the conclusion that the general approach I took to coding all the data was incorrect (I should not have been coding all the data, only what’s relevant to my specific research interest); that the phenomenon of interest, therefore, was being perceived slightly incorrectly, and that I came to the realisation that a particular theoretical framework best fits grounded theory within the research context, which better guides the use of grounded theory and therefore the way that I perceive and explore the phenomenon.
In a nutshell: the emerging codes, categories and theoretical framework were incorrectly constructed because I was coding every piece of code even those that were irrelevant, but I had not realised their irrelevancy till recently, and it took me a while to figure that out. To resolve this I now have to reread the data and reanalyse through adopting not just a segment by segment analysis, but a closer inspection of the data that clearly activates and signifies the presence of the learning phenomenon of interest. To assist with this process, I am now going to adopt a network analysis method where I can clearly and more appropriately identify trends and network trends of learning phenomenon occurrences and behaviour and I shall be working on developing this method sometime after Easter.
This brings me to the problem I had of perceiving the phenomenon of interest: it took me a long while to realise that I was incorrectly perceiving the behaviour or potential behaviour of the phenomenon of interest relative to the objectives of my research and the research questions I am exploring, as I think I have discussed in a recent blog post. Essentially I perceived the phenomenon of interest as a social entity only, and not cognitive or at least a combination of social and cognitive: sociocognitive. I have now rectified this problem through understanding the phenomenon of interest as both a social and cognitive occurrence, which shall further help with my understanding of the way in which grounded theory and network analysis should be applied in my research.
And therefore, I came to the conclusion that grounded theory was being used incorrectly because I was coding everything. In a sense it is not the case I was misunderstanding grounded theory methods, but I was misapplying them. Through the use of network analysis and through the leaning towards the sociocognitive area of understanding, the problems of misapplying grounded theory should reduce.
That’s that in a nutshell! I’ve sent my supervisor the drafts of my first literature review chapter, two sections of the second literature review chapter and currently engaged with an email discussion about our ideas and conceptions of the phenomenon of interest and I am finding this to be a very fruitful and productive discussion, and which has contributed more to building my arguments, confirming my ideas, and enabling me to question and present alternative ideas to what is being presented. This is what academia is all about, and this is a reason why I adore the discipline of academia that much!
I’m now on an Easter holiday! Thank you to all my blog readers for your continued reading and fingers crossed that you are benefiting in some way from reading my ramblings. Thank you again, and have a peaceful and happy Easter holiday or whatever celebration you choose to take part in!
March 18, 2018
A Possible Extra Method for the Grounded Theory Project
Soon after the submission of the original upgrade paper in November / December of 2016, I came up with the idea of analysing the data using network analysis as well as grounded theory. Because of the early stage of idea development regarding the use of network analysis, I had not included it in the original upgrade paper. During the early part of winter the previous year, I began to reanalyse the data using grounded theory and was able to think more about the possibility of including network analysis within a grounded theory methodology. Very recently I have been thinking about the theoretical framework of grounded theory in my attempts to possibly move it away from symbolic interactionism (the social) and try to think about ways in which grounded theory can analyse learning processes from a more social psychological perspective. I think I have now found a possible solution (shall talk about this more when I have confirmed with my supervisor of its potential and suitability) and has lead onto the idea now of using network analysis. Reading through the data collected so far indicates to me that there is a strong possibility of the value of using a network analysis, but I am currently developing these ideas and in a discussion with my supervisor about the possible directions of network analysis with grounded theory, and also of the theoretical framework.
Both Grounded Theory and Network Analysis would serve different but relational purposes in order to achieve a better understanding of the process and development of the learning phenomenon of interest.
With Grounded Theory, codes and categories emerge from the data and the categories are developed through identifying and interrelating their dimensions and properties. From what I can currently understand, the key aim of Grounded Theory is to enable the development of a substantive theory with a core essence (category) of a phenomenon defined, and then interrelating all other categories with this core category. Effectively, grounded theory identifies the essences of a phenomenon of interest and through a coding, analytical process that identifies a core category and its interrelation with other categories. A network analysis leading to a network could possibly accompany this theoretical development through providing a more objective stance to using grounded theory, by first identifying the activities and events of each category, translating these events and activities into nods, and represent their relationship in the diagram by using lines.
This network would explain the way that a phenomenon develops or manifests itself over a period of time, which is something I think might be lacking within Grounded Theory analysis. Grounded Theory, from what I can currently understand, explores the existence of and relationships between essences, and do not necessarily describe or explain the way in which these essences enable the progression of a phenomenon’s progress or development. I accept that learning these approaches are continuous and therefore I accept that I might not be fully correct with my current and developing understanding.
This research therefore could lead to three possible scenarios.
First Scenario: the exploration of pure essences of the phenomenon
This would be pure grounded theory: open, axial and selective methods of coding to establish a substantive theory of the phenomenon of research interest. This would be related to the identification and exploration of essences, and the identification of the core essence of the phenomenon of interest.
Second Scenario: identification and explanation of the development of phenomenon via its essences
This would involve using grounded theory to the extent that all activities and events, at least as many as can be observed to exist, of the learning phenomenon are identified, and then are translated or transformed into possible nodes of a network, with their relationships represented by lines on the network. A complete network would be able to describe the progress and manifestation of a phenomenon, and explain the way in which it progresses and is directed.
Third Scenario: Identification of the pure essence, and the development and progress of a phenomenon via its essences
Currently this might be the most likely scenario of my research, and is the combination of both previous scenarios. The aim of the research then would be to identify the essences of the phenomenon of interest and the core essence of the phenomenon as explained in the substantive theory, and describe and explain the progress and development of the phenomenon of interest via its essences, illustrated via a network.
I am continuing to work out the details and to experiment in each scenario. I shall unlikely know the path that I shall definitely be taking till the summertime and after a lot of discussions with the supervisor. But I feel that there might be worth in all three scenarios, and indeed it could be argued that the third scenario could lead to potentially more papers being published as a result of the Ph.D.!
I shall keep you updated with my progress!
March 10, 2018
Update Early March 2018 Part C: Considering the Theoretical Framework of Grounded Theory
What I have found in the data collected so far is what appears to be the presence of both social and cognitive interactions, with both arguably contributing considerably to the function, presence, formation, dynamism and the nuanced existence of the learning phenomenon of interest. But these observations along with the research context surely have important implications on the application and understanding of grounded theory. With that, those of you who have been following my research have noticed my critiques and observations of the incompatibility of the otherwise firmly established relationship between symbolic interactionism and grounded theory with my research.
Do note that these critiques and observations do not suggest anything directly wrong with symbolic interactionism and its relationship with grounded theory, but symbolic interactionism is not suitable as a theoretical framework for my research. This is because symbolic interactionism is a purely sociological theory used by sociologists in their research to investigate participants’ interactions with others through culturally mediated, socially constructed symbols, or objects. Participants interact with the world and constructed objects based on their interpretations and assumed meanings of objects or events of that world. In other words, they do not interact with the world directly, but interact with the world through their symbolic representations. This is effectively what symbolic interactionism is all about in, arguably crudely defined, nutshell. Symbolic interactionism is therefore assigned to grounded theory as the arguably ideal relationship for generating a theory from the data that explains social processes and social behaviour from the perspectives, meanings, understandings and interpretations of the research participants.
For various reasons therefore, and which has been suggested in various research papers, I am attempting to shift grounded theory away from symbolic interactionism, and of pure sociology in general.
But where do I take grounded theory? What are the disciplinary and theoretical foundations for the ideas that I have for grounded theory?
This has been a challenge for quite some time and it continues to be, with the origins of change going back to the pilot study. During the pilot study, I found that I have no direct contact with the research participants, therefore interviews and observations were out of the question. The research does not revolve around the way that research participants construct their world, but that does not necessarily suggest that all social possibilities have been discarded from the research. What I found during the pilot study, therefore, is I am not exploring the learning phenomenon based on the perceptions of that phenomenon, but through actual engagement in its development, production, progress and sustainability.
Following these realisations, they led me to conceptualise the learning phenomenon of interest as cognitive in nature, but pure cognitive theories and perspectives appear to focus on the individual and the way in which one’s cognition influences or frames one’s learning processes. Pure cognitive theories, from my current understanding, do not appear to address the way in which the cultural and social situation of one’s cognition impacts upon the development and sustainability of learning phenomena.
To summarise in a nutshell the differences between social and cognitive theories, the social theories arguably focus on the function, formation, characteristics, effectiveness and behaviour of groups in learning contexts and their interactions; cognitive theories, meanwhile, arguably focus on the characteristics, effectiveness, development, progress and achievements of one’s psyche and cognition. These definitions are arguably presented as a little simplistic, but viewing the theories in this way assists in my ever continuously developing understanding of the characteristics of different groups of theories.
For the past few weeks I have found difficulty in trying to think about the learning phenomenon of interest as a pure social process and a pure cognitive process. A fair percentage of cognitive activities have been observed in the data but I cannot help but to think that their occurrences have only come about due to social interaction processes. Therefore, and thanks to some of the papers I have been reading this past week, I am coming to the idea that the sociocognitive realm might be able to provide me with the most suitable theoretical framework, even if I have to merge or combine ideas from multiple different theoretical perspective as relevant to my wider philosophical beliefs. But understanding of the sociocognitive dimension and relevant theories and potential theoretical frameworks is a continuous and ongoing process.
What I am essentially attempting to achieve is a shift in grounded theory from a sociological perspective to a sociocognitive perspective. It’s a complex subject, but when you think about the process of learning within groups it might not be plausible to just thinking about the social or the cognitive, but to consider both dimensions.
Obviously, I am not going to be able to cover every social and cognitive detail related to all types and forms of the learning phenomenon of interest (this would be impossible: most Ph.D. projects focus on a small section of the social, cognitive, or sociocognitive). A key decision I need to make relatively soon is to decide for sure what processes in relation to the learning phenomenon of interest really interests me, that which I think would be more beneficial to explore (evidenced by the literature review chapters), and that which can be shown to be most relevant to answering my research questions and of the research context.
Again this shows the importance of referring back to your research context and research questions. Additional assistance in my decision making shall come from the data itself, as well as the directions and content of the first literature review chapter, which itself shall likely change in the future but that again is the nature of academic research, and of writing in general.
Thanks for reading. I shall keep you updated!
‘till next time remember: never hold an absolute thought absolutely!
January 07, 2018
Some Thoughts and Reflections on the ideas of Time and Planning
After a period of festivities (including eating far too much) it’s time to get back to the Ph.D. beginning with a short period of initial planning of what I would like to achieve this coming year. During the planning and strategy development, I have been rethinking questions about what time is, and the importance and value of time when it comes to planning. What is time? In what way can time hinder or assist? It’s important to remember from the beginning not to view your planning and strategizing as something that has to be set in stone and followed in an absolute, unchanging way. Give yourself room to be flexible and manoeuvrable and try not to set it into your head that you must complete a particular task by a particular time, but obviously do your best to achieve as much as you can within any given time frame. Time is a man made creation. Time itself has little control over us, but we can use time as a psychological guide or frame of referencing that assists with our task identification, task ordering, and task structuring, with the order based on the way in which we perceive the need to complete the tasks. The act of structuring and ordering the tasks therefore is time independent, although time itself can be a useful framework if approached in a flexible way.
Several times during the previous year I found that a certain task took longer than I had originally planned, but the task led me to ideas and directions I never considered before. This resulted in the strengthening of my ideas, of my directions, and substantial understanding. I completed some tasks way outside of their original time frame, but I find this as perfectly acceptable because of the way in which the task contributed towards the further development of my ideas and research directions. If you do not complete a task outside of whatever time frame you categorised it, don't panic! If you complete a few tasks then that is fine, but don't beat yourself up if you do not complete every task. Simply replan, and always, always, try to monitor your progress so that you can adjust accordingly.
When you are writing your plans, you cannot at all predict this sort of event or occurrence, and if you are absolute and regimented in your approach then these potentially useful events might not occur at all. Why? Because you would be so focussed on completing a particular task within a particular time that you would not be able to view the task beyond what you have conditioned yourself to observe. Do not allow yourself to be trapped like this. The best you can do is allow these events and occurrences to happen, deal with them accordingly, and readjust your plans as necessary. Do not fight these potentially enlightening, creative, inspiring, developmental yet challenging moments. Let them happen; let them develop you and let them develop your ideas. Dynamism and flexibility are keys here.
The possible time and task independence does not negate the importance of good, appropriate planning at least so you have some sort of guide to direct you to the next important task in the ordering or structure of your plans. Do not rush, and do not be so regimented and strict with the planning process that you enable the process itself to suppress your creativity and originality.
A Brief Look At My Planning As An Example:
My two, long term, main goals of this year are:
· Continue to draft the thesis
· Continue to develop the theoretical framework
I am telling myself here that focus of the year needs to be placed on drafting the thesis, and to continue development of the theoretical framework. Would I be able to complete, for example, the construction of the theoretical framework? It is possible, but I am not going to commit myself to that because I do not want to view the definition of time as more important than the creative, innovative process that come with developing a theoretical framework. If I were to commit myself to completing the theoretical framework, I would be in danger of missing out on moments of creativity and innovation. I really cannot predict if I will complete the theoretical framework this year, but at the same time I am not saying this is impossible.
In my planning, I have broken the rather abstractly stated main goals down into a series of medium term goals and tasks, and short term goals and tasks. I have used a time frame (blocks of time: now and Easter; Easter to summer holidays; summer holidays to Christmas holidays) to categorise and order the goals and tasks, but I am not using time in a regimented and dogmatic way: I am using time as a rough guide to assist with ordering the completion of the identified tasks.
What is most important to me is not to use time in a regimented way; a way that forces me to complete a task at a particular time, but to use time as a rough guide with more focus and emphasis on the importance and value of ordering and structuring task completion, irrespective of time. But, that does not mean I would not be able to complete a task within a specific time period; however, I do not want to restrict whatever creativity the methodology affords me, and whatever unexpected insights within the data that come about that inspire me to return to literature exploration, or to collect more data to further develop conceptual or practical insights. I do not want to get into a position where I am so focussed on completing a task within a particular time frame, that the quality, insights, observations and careful thinking reduces. Be flexible! This is important for Grounded Theory projects. Don’t let your use of time restrict your creativity and your ability to innovate. Plan and think very carefully and use time as a resource, and not the be all of everything.
Do not use time in a way that enables time to restrict your creativity, your ability to view new insights, to develop existing insights, and to observe and critique new events and ideas that you develop and identify. Breaking down your abstract long term goals into more observable, measurable medium and shorter term goals, and understanding the importance, value and order of the tasks you want to carry out is more important than the time you give yourself to complete them. Obviously, do the best that you can and strive to achieve, but don’t ever rush yourself and don’t ever restrict and suppress your creativity in the name of completing within a time you set yourself. I think this is more relevant to grounded theory projects, simply because with grounded theory you simply cannot predict what you are going to find within the data. I might be able to develop some sort of anticipation of what to find as I reread and code more data, but ultimately those anticipations could also act as restrictions.
Be open minded, be flexible, be dynamic, and don’t restrict yourself. Remember that time is a man made construct that should not be used to control and suppress you, but to be used as a guide.
‘till next time! And that was a timely pun!