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February 21, 2019

Update On The Ph.D Work, Part B: Literature Positionality and Theoretical Framework

Literature Positionality

Because of the nature of inductive based qualitative research, different types of literature are positioned in different areas of the thesis. This took me a long time to understand and to understand where to position different types of literature in order to achieve different purposes, but things are getting there!

As has been mentioned, with the literature review chapter at the beginning of the thesis, literature is being used to develop a context within which I can justifiably place my research. This justifiable position comes as a result of critically analysing the way in which the social learning process and the technology of use has been defined, explored, and used before in various learning scenarios. This builds up a picture of the need to explore the specific social learning process within a particular learning scenario that is arguably unexplored or has not been yet fully explained, facilitated by particular technologies. This involves plenty of comparisons between different learning contexts and scenarios, and explorations and comparisons of the definitions, functionality and use of social learning processes and technologies within different learning contexts. That’s the aim of the earlier literature review in a nutshell. The type of literature therefore takes a broad view of the research context e.g., exploring the social learning process of interest within different technological contexts and learning contexts, and exploring the use of the technology of interest and its facilitation of social learning processes within different learning contexts. This gives weight to the justification of the research context of interest, because it indicates how the process and technology have been used and explored in different contexts, and can be used to explain how a different context can further explain aspects of the phenomenon of interest that arguably remains unexplored or / and unexplained.

Other types of literature shall be included in later thesis chapters specifically relating to the discussion of the themes. In a nutshell, the literature involved here shall involve literature that consist of similar themes to what I have found (if I did not do this, I would be falsifying findings, give misleading accounts, and would reduce the validity and verifiability of the themes), but I would use the discussions to show how I have explored the themes in a different way. This would include showing the differences in how I have explored the themes, the differences in context of theme construction, and the way in which my themes build upon what has already been discovered. The literature here is very specific and has a very specific purpose: to validate and verify the themes, and to provide a platform upon which I can build upon what already exists.

Thematic Framework

This is the core of the research and its development is a continuous and ongoing task and shall be right up to Easter and perhaps a bit beyond. However, feedback has suggested that I am nearly there! The themes appear to be fine and the codes themselves still need some work doing to them, but what I am finding is that changes to the codes do not necessarily mean changes to the theme, and indeed changes to the names of codes do not always necessitate changes to its meaning.

Meaning is a key word here and to write about the meaning of meaning (meta-meaning?) would take a thesis in its own right, but essentially because of the inductive nature I am applying meaning to what I interpret and perceive from the data (note that this does not reduce itself to relativist research as I am not adopting a relativist ontology). Themes and codes therefore capture the meaning that I am interpreting from the data, and together they describe and explain the phenomenon of interest: its behaviour, structure, impact, and existence.

In general I am getting happier with the way in which the thematic framework is going. There is still work to be done to it up to Easter and perhaps beyond, but I am pleased with where it’s going so far!

September 05, 2018

Current State Of Play: First Literature Review Chapter

A literature review chapter has been dropped whilst the other two planned literature reviews have been completely redesigned and have been given new purposes. I shall discuss the first literature chapter in this blog and in the second, I shall discuss the second literature review chapter.

The changes to the literature review chapters are as a result of greatly expanding the scope and purpose of the research design chapter. I shall discuss the research design chapter in a later blog post, but here it suffices to say that the research design chapter has changed in order to address the need for qualitative research theses to go into much greater detail of methodologies and methods and to explain the role of the researcher’s biography and background knowledge in constructing the interpretations and analysis of data. The process of explaining my role and the way in which my biography has influenced the research findings is known as ‘researcher reflexivity.’ I am currently planning this to be extensive and comprehensive, and, therefore, the literature reviews had to change.

As some of you longer term readers might know, at the beginning of the year I was going to delve into discussions about the relationship between society, culture and Education. These discussions would have paved the way for discussions about technology and their use in society and culture eventually getting round to their use in Education. Some of these discussions are being shifted to the Introduction section to give the research context a wider perspective and therefore have been dropped from the main literature reviews, whilst some of the other planned discussion points have been dropped completely to save space. The topics that were dropped were deemed to be the least relevant topics.

The first literature review, therefore, has been rewritten completely and leans now towards the idea of comparisons. The chapter offers critical evaluations and comparisons of explorations of the phenomenon of interest across different technological contexts. These comparisons are being used to justify the use and appropriateness of this research’s technological context relative to the phenomenon of interest, and the research’s aims, objectives, and outcome intentions. The use of tables is appropriate here, as each table contains details about the findings of relevant comparative, empirical literature. These findings from each table have been and continue to be compared across each table in order to identify patterns, similarities and differences. From these patterns, similarities and differences, comparisons and associated discussions can be made.

Tables are effective at presenting large amounts of empirical information, and efficient at being able to assist with a variety of comparisons and pattern identification within existing literature. The use of tables within the literature review process affords important and extensive learning opportunities including the development of analytical skills through comparing tables and forming observations of data patterns across the tables, and developing synthesis skills that enable the learner to synthesise large amounts of published findings.

Theory is an important topic of discussion in terms of its position and role not just in the research design but also in the position of theoretical discussions in the thesis. My main concern at the moment is, if I discussed, critiqued, evaluated and compared theories in the literature review I would be giving the impression of having a deductive approach. A deductive approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest means that an existing theory or model would be tested against the collected data, therefore requiring extensive examination of existing theories in the literature review. From my understanding, a qualitative approach typically does not use a deductive method and, therefore, testing theories is not an aim of qualitative research.

Instead, qualitative research aims to construct theories, models, schemes or frameworks from the data; or, arguably more precisely, derives from our verified and validated interpretations of what is happening in the data. This would be using an inductive approach, or a retroductive / abductive approach. The discussions of theories, other models etc. shall take place in later chapters, particularly in the findings chapters where a role of each chapter is to verify and validate themes.

The structure of the literature review is complete in terms of the sections and topics that I want to discuss, although the actual content is still work in progress. Where sections need further development, I have used footnotes to inform and remind myself of the direction of section development, for example in terms of developing ideas, developing arguments, and the way to increase section cohesion, consistency and coherence. A handy tip here, therefore, is to use footnotes to document any thoughts or ideas that you might have to push the development of a section further. If, for example, a particular sentence or paragraph captured a thought that I want to develop further, I would describe such development opportunities in the associated footnote. Using footnotes in this way makes the draft cleaner and more coherent, as well as making everything flow more logically and clearly, and helps to clearly indicate which idea is to be specifically improved or developed in a way that had been described in the footnote.

The content is still work in progress but I am happier with the structure and the way it is now panning out.

That’s the latest updates for the first literature review chapter!

December 14, 2017

Reflection of Applying Initial Stage of Grounded Theory, Part B: Application of Grounded Theory

The three key tasks that I have been engaged with as part of the early stage of grounded theory application (besides continuously developing the relationship between my philosophical beliefs and grounded theory, as explained in the previous blog post) are engaging with the literature, using open or initial coding, and writing memos.

Engagement with Literature

I have adopted a two-fold approach. As can be imagined, there is much debate among all key authors regarding the role of literature and the position of the literature review within the thesis. This shall be discussed more during the upcoming blog series on Grounded Theory, but at the moment it suffices to state that Strauss and Corbin along with Charmaz and Bryant provide the foundations upon which my approaches have been constructed.

The first function of the literature is to provide the grounding, critiques, focus, background and basis of the investigation. I am situating my ideas and approaches within existing literature, which is establishing the social and economic justifications of the need for my research and the philosophical, pedagogical and methodological need for further explorations of the phenomena of interest. As has been discussed in a previous blog post, these discussions, justifications, debates, critiques, analysis etc. of literature are being constructed across three related literature review chapters placed at the beginning of the thesis.
The second function of the literature is to act as a means of validating and verifying the emerging theory. Specifically, the theory’s content (categories, dimensions, properties, and relationships between categories, dimensions and properties) can not only be verified and validated by continuous comparisons with the data, but also comparisons with findings of existing literature relevant to the substantive area.

I am aiming to integrate the literature findings within sections of the discussion chapter related to each category and the constructs of each category, and the relationships that exist between categories and constructs. This way, I can classify literature in relation to each of the theory’s category although bearing in mind that some literature might refer to more than a single category. Either way, I think integrating findings within the discussion chapter within the relevant category section is the common sense way to manage extant literature.

Open or Initial Coding

My approach to open coding appears to have a strong pragmatic base and therefore, appears to be influenced more by Bryant’s pragmatism grounded theory than Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory, Glaser’s apparent positivist grounded theory and Strauss’ symbolic interactionist grounded theory. Again there is much debate about the way in which the researcher should work with the data, and shall be a topic I shall cover in next year’s blog series on grounded theory.

There are, therefore, various approaches that can be used to analyse the data using grounded theory, but I have adopted what I shall term segment by segment analysis. What determines an individual segment is the meaning that it holds, or the meaning that I perceive it to hold. A data segment can be a whole line, a sentence, or half a line or half a sentence. A segment therefore holds some sort of complete meaning, which could be an idea, a stand-alone part of an argument, a justification, a reason, or anything that I can identify as having some meaningful existence. This meaning or meaningful existence must be naturally occurring (if you want, you could call it a natural relationship between researcher and the data), and therefore a criticism I have of line by line and sentence by sentence analysis is the possibility of forcing meaning and therefore identify concepts that do not actually exist. Segment by segment analysis enables you, in my opinion, to openly detect what the data is saying. If you find or perceive meaning within a whole sentence, then give that sentence a label that represents that meaning. If you find half a sentence represents a full meaning, then give that half a sentence a label. I used these labels, therefore, to describe or summarise the meaning that I had perceived to exist within that segment. As I was coding the data, I became consciously aware of similar data segments. These similar data segments share similar characteristics or roles within the context of their existence. Similar data segments were compared with each other, and if considered similar enough they were coded with the same label. What was occurring therefore was a series of data segments that shared the same characteristics, but were presenting themselves differently (e.g., negative and positive reasons).

Multiple similar data segments and related codes shall eventually combine to create abstract classes or groupings known as categories, which enable theoretical development. What is important to remember here from my current understanding is that codes derive from our interpretation of what is happening in the data, and categories form from similar codes that can be grouped. Categories are considered abstract exactly because they are not derived from the data. Each category consists of properties and dimensions, and these are discovered through significant and comprehensive comparative analysis of coded data segments that belong to that category. It is the variation among all data segments that contribute towards a category’s properties and dimensions, and it is this variation that shall be playing a major part of theoretical sampling when I develop criteria for the next set of data to collect in the new year. Some category development has taken place, in fact more development that I had expected, but there is much more to be done. The groundwork has been laid for further development through the writing of memos, which shall be described a bit later.

In thinking about the segment by segment approach, it appears that I have adopted the wider analytical approach known as micro analysis. My current understanding tells me that, at least within sociological terms, macro level analysis addresses wider arguably post-modern issues such as social stability, social injustices, social change and power authorities. Micro analysis explores deeply and comprehensively social and collaborative structures such as learning, interaction, group construction and group dynamics. The logical approach of this grounded theory research is abductive reasoning, which has been strongly advocated by Bryant’s Pragmatist views of grounded theory.

Briefly, this form of logic uses a mixture of deduction and induction where concepts and codes are inductively derived from the data, and deductively derived from any hypotheses and further abstract interpretations and predictions tested against further collected data. There is more to abductive reasoning than this rather basic definition, but that’s beyond the purpose of this blog post. I shall write more about abductive reasoning in the blog post series of Grounded Theory, and as I progress through the grounded theory coding stages.

Writing of Memos

Memos have been advocated by all grounded theory authors as a significant part of the grounded theory process and of theoretical development. In general, memos capture your thoughts, hypotheses, ideas, predictions, conceptions, perspectives, reasons, explanations and anything else related to the codes that you use and the categories you are developing, and the eventual wider theory. Memos, therefore, carry many functions, features, aims and objectives throughout a grounded theory process. Memos are therefore versatile and can be written in any grounded theory context, and therefore you are in control of the structure and content of memos, and why you need to write them.

I have been writing two different types of memos that are contributing towards theoretical development: phenomena memos, and code memos.

The phenomena memos relate to the ways in which learning takes place in relation to the specific phenomena of interest. These memos refer to my discussions, thoughts, observations, propositions, predictions, hypotheses and critiques of the events, happenings, consequences, conditions, situations, contexts and causes of the phenomena. Various phenomena memos have been written, with each memo exploring each instance of the phenomena, and where necessary and appropriate comparisons have been made between each memo in order to identify similarities and differences, which can lead to hypotheses development as part of abductive logic. Comparisons of memos can actually lead to more memos that document these comparisons.

The code memos are related to the created codes and categories. Many memos have been written, with each memo relating to each code. Each code memo explains each data segment associated with that particular code, with the explanation involving the segment’s context, function, purpose within the context, and its interpreted or observed meaning.

Each data segment is included within the memo in accordance with its uniqueness. E.g., if the data segment can be observed to be different or similar in some way, or consists of some characteristic or property that warrants explanation and discussion, or in any way adds to any existing explanation. Each relevant data segment is then included and explained, and where necessary compared and contrasted with other data segments within the memo. This is a method also of assisting with categorical development, and categories and categorical development also comes with their own sets of memos. Few categorical and categorical development memos have been written at this time however, but is set to progress forward significantly in the new year.


The first set of data has been coded, and now ready to further the development of categories. However, upon advice from the supervisor and from my schedule I’m taking a break from grounded theory but shall return with recharged batteries and reread every memo and the coded transcript in the new year!

October 27, 2017

Ph.D. Update: Literature Reviews, and the Literature Management Process

During the past couple of weeks following my brief time off, the focus has been the identification, selection, evaluation and organisation of literature, and the development of the appropriate documenting procedures of these phases. All of these phases are part of what I call the literature management process. I’ve also been amending the literature review chapters’ structure and layout.

Literature Review Development

Those who have been reading my blog for a long time might remember me talking about different types of literature reviews e.g., meta-analysis and meta-synthesis, and the possibilities of adopting a style suitable for my research. At the time, I was planning a mixed methods methodological approach, which eventually proved to be unworkable. Altering my methodological approach from mixed methods to grounded theory entailed vast changes to engagement with literature. The role and placement of different types of literature is the subject of much debate among grounded theorists. Whilst discussing these debates is way beyond the aim of this blog post, it suffices to state that there is consensus among grounded theorists as to the placement of the literature within a grounded theory thesis: the literature review chapters, and the results and discussion chapters. Each placement entails (in my view) different types of literature, and different purposes. I shall return to further discussion of placements, types and purposes of literature within a grounded theory thesis at a later time.

The style of literature review, as conventionally defined and conventionally placed near the beginning of any Ph.D., thesis, within a grounded theory project is what I suggest (as far as I currently understand) to be narrative and contextualised. I am attempting to use, as mentioned before, the three literature reviews as a progressive narrative. The aim of the progressive narrative, in a nutshell, is to enable the reader to situate themselves within the educational and philosophical backdrop of the research, develop initial conceptual understanding and definitions of the phenomenon of research interest, and come to understand the need and value of the research.

These literature reviews have not changed in purpose since I previously wrote about them on this blog, but they have changed in content. The first chapter now exclusively focusses on discussing society, Education and Pedagogy and the relationships between them in order to provide a backdrop or background to the phenomenon of interest. The first chapter also aims to evaluate existing debates, discussions and theories that explain and describe the way in which Education meets the needs of a modern, post-industrial society, and also to evaluate and discuss pedagogical approaches appropriate for modern learning settings. All discussions shall lead to development of arguments for and against different social, educational and pedagogical approaches, theories and perspectives regarding their suitability for facilitating and supporting the learning phenomenon of interest.

The second literature review shall now exclusively focus on discussing and explaining what I believe to be the core set of initial concepts relating to the general phenomenon of interest, and concepts that have initially defined the direction of the grounded theory analysis. Indeed, some of the changes I have already made to the literature reviews in terms of addressing initial concepts have been the result of initial grounded theory coding of the data as part of the earlier Upgrade Process.

The third literature review shall now exclusively focus on evaluating and critiquing the various existing empirical, analytical models relating to measuring and assessing the phenomenon of interest in various learning contexts.

What has come across as obvious is that you can do your best to define the structure and layout of any literature review by thinking about the initial set of concepts you have developed, or have identified through previous experience or previous readings of the phenomenon of interest. However, you can never really tell with any sense of certainty what the layout shall be till you start reading the literature. It is therefore only through reading the literature and writing the literature reviews that you become fully aware of the form, structure, layout and content the literature review shall and can take. But, I do believe that it is not a waste of time to at least initially outline your literature review based on the concepts you already have, because those initial concepts are your starting points. Again this is a matter of debate among grounded theorists, but I am starting to believe in the importance of having some initial concepts to at least to begin your investigation.

As the theory emerges from the data, concepts can be derived from the theory’s categories, properties and relationships between categories and properties that could act as further inputs into the earlier literature review chapters. More likely however, and more appropriately, these concepts shall guide me in my search for empirical literature that shall be used to verify and validate relationships between categories and properties, and therefore leading to a verifiable, workable, and validated theory. This would be in addition to verification and validation through the grounded theory process of theoretical sampling.

Literature Management Process

During the past couple of weeks I’ve also been carefully documenting the identification, selection, evaluation and organisation phases of the literature management process as so far completed at this time. Therefore, it’s nowhere near complete yet and shall not be completed till towards the end of the Ph.D. as this process is continuous due to the nature of grounded theory research. Even what I have completed now is in addition to previous literature management sessions. It’s only just recently that I’ve had an “ah ha” moment about the way I can write and present the literature management process. A part of this “ah ha” moment is the inclusion of ideas I had been developing several years ago about the way in which software could be used to assist with the evaluation and organisation phases, but these ideas are work in progress and I have yet to test these ideas out, but during the rest of the year I should be able to test some of my ideas.

At some point before my Christmas time off (or at least, before I get to the point where I am referencing Noddy Holder or Roy Wood instead of Strauss or Glaser), I shall be writing a blog series on the literature management process, in accordance to what I know and have experienced up to that point.

What’s next?

Lots on! I shall now more than likely be working on a few key tasks between now and Christmas. Rereading Grounded Theory from the perspective of my new philosophical understanding (becoming aware of the complexity of my own philosophical beliefs: have talked about this before and shall talk more about this in the future). This shall be followed by recoding data that had already been coded, and code more data and therefore, continue to develop the emerging theory. During the rereading of Grounded Theory and recording / coding of the data, I aim to write the first full draft of the first literature review chapter.

Lots to do and plenty of blogging material to come!

October 01, 2017

A Personal Insight Into Reworking Research Paper / Essay Ideas Into A Thesis

The Ph.D. journey is full of opportunities and experiences. Opportunities to showcase your research design and research findings in many diverse, creative, expressive and individual ways: setting up seminars, presenting at conferences, writing research papers, entering various video and poster based competitions, among many other opportunities. The thesis is obviously the key piece of work; the key outcome, of your Ph.D. and the journey to this outcome is beyond description! When you take part in other activities you have to balance out those activities with the thesis writing. Every opportunity that I listed is of some benefit, especially getting papers published and presenting at conferences, however you should not feel that you have to try to do absolutely everything: you don’t have the time for that. You have to choose carefully and make sure that what you do is not so distinct from your research that you cannot reuse it in some way in the future.

During the past few weeks I have been working on an essay referring to the Philosophy of Education but due to personal reasons (nothing terrible!) I had to forfeit the essay. One of the personal reasons was that I felt exhausted after completing and sending in the previous research paper that has now been accepted for publication. You know, it’s not just the act of writing and thinking (and thinking about what you are writing) that can tire you out, I can handle that, it’s the emotional side as well. Those feelings of doubt, of wondering if they are going to accept that paper, those slightly nervous feelings that can keep you on your toes. And then comes the feeling of elation and excitement that only academics can understand when they are told that their journal paper is to be published! Not to mention immense feelings of relief and personal satisfaction. All these mixed emotions can tire you out and that’s not including the fact that you are continuing to work on different aspects of the Ph.D. through these experiences (e.g., thesis chapters, and continuing to search for and evaluate different types of literature and determine their position within the thesis). This is the Ph.D: it’s the highest academic publically accessible award you can achieve (others such as Professorship and the Doctor of Letters or Doctor of Science are available to those ‘inside the circle’). It is challenging. It is an emotionally charged experience.

But I had to forfeit the essay, which wasn’t a formal requirement anyway just something else I would have liked to have published. I didn’t feel disappointed either, because I quickly realised that something more substantial was in the offering, only I just had to realise it………

Arise, Phoenix!

Greek Mythology aside, it’s been a couple of weeks since I made that decision and I’ve been going flat out in my attempt at reworking the essay into the thesis in some way, and then I came to a realisation. I could rework the essay to act as a foundation, or a backdrop, to my research problem, research design, and eventually the research findings. I have always known the research problem and the background to the research problem (e.g., the way I identified the problem, the genesis of the problem etc.) but I had no backdrop. You can describe the background to the research such as, what your research is about, what do you propose, what is the research problem etc. but I think a thesis can be further enhanced by using a backdrop that you can place the research on. This backdrop provides a clear relationship not only between research problem and research methodology, but relate both to a much wider, grander research context where you can fully contextualise your research proposal, your research design and, eventually, your research findings.

What this has led to me now proposing and developing are what I would call three separate but related literature reviews within the thesis. This reflects the general backdrop idea, the complexity of the research phenomena, the diverse types of literature that shall be used and continue to collect, and the diverse set of aims and purposes that I have of the literature. The use of the literature, in my opinion, is made more dynamic and complex because of grounded theory. Grounded theory utalises different sets of literature in ways that are much different to other research approaches. I shall be writing about this more in a future blog post.

Three different literature reviews (I call them literature reviews at the moment: I shall be giving them more formal names as the writing proceeds) are now being proposed and developed for the thesis after reading through various theses and realising that this is actually possible. I am obviously not going to go into too much detail of the content of the chapters on here, but it suffices to state that the first literature review chapter is based on providing a background. Here I shall be talking about the relationship between Society and Education and be detailing how contemporary society and Education demands particular understanding, perspectives and views of the way in which the world behaves, and of the characteristics and behaviours of modern classrooms and learners. The second literature review shall be much more specific to the phenomena of interest, identifying gaps in the literature and providing various philosophical and practical justifications for the need of my research and for understanding and exploring the phenomena of interest in a different way.

The third literature review shall then launch a series of critiques and explorations of, and comparisons between, different analytical models related to the phenomena and this shall provide the theoretical and practical foundations upon which I can argue the need for my research. These critical reviews of the literature shall then be followed by the methodology chapter, followed by the findings and discussion chapters, which shall emerge as the theory develops.

In summary:

The key message here is, don’t try to do everything and most importantly don’t throw away any ideas that you might have. I had to forfeit the essay but this turned out to be the best option because I was able to rework ideas of the essay into my thesis, from which three separate but related literature reviews have been generated. This I feel shall now provide a much richer reading experience of the thesis, and a more substantial and comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of interest. This has actually meant more to me than the actual essay, because, when all said and done, and as much as I will be writing more papers in the future, the thesis is the top priority!

Oh, and keeping your sanity is also important……..

November 11, 2016

Considering The Literature, Part B: Applying Considerations

Considering The Literature, Part B: Applying Considerations To My Research

In the previous blog post I briefly discussed what I think are the main considerations of the literature. In this blog post I shall apply these considerations to my own research as it currently stands.

The Research Design

Those who have been following my blog and research progress for a fair while will probably have observed the various changes of the research design. Now I have settled on a research design: an adaptation of the sequential exploratory mixed methods methodology using grounded theory and possibly a questionnaire, guided by critical realism. As the research design has changed, so to have the role of the literature, the types of literature, and the way in which literature shall be analysed and synthesised. Now that the design has been settled upon, I can start to really think about all the other considerations.

The Role and Purpose of the Literature

Whilst this is work in progress, in general the literature shall have the following roles: contextualise the research, to act as data, assist with developing concepts from the qualitative data, to develop further concepts to be explored in the later research phases, and to help verify and validate concepts and aspects of the emerging theory throughout all the research phases.

The exact details of the way in which each role shall be carried out are being worked out, though it is expected that different types of literature shall be used to satisfy each role, and possibly different types of literature shall be used across the different stages. There is expected to be, however, heavy use of literature during the qualitative grounded theory stage as this is where the literature shall carry the roles of acting as data, assist with developing concepts, to develop further concepts to be explored at later stages, and to verify and validate emerging concepts from the grounded theory analysis. In the literature review although again work in progress, it is likely that a role of the literature is to contextualise the research. The exact amount of literature required cannot be determined at this time as this is determined by continuous reading along with analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data. Therefore, there is no actual fixed point where reading shall be completed; it’s not a case of simply writing the literature review then determine the reading as complete: this is an ongoing process throughout all stages of the research, and throughout the construction of each chapter of the thesis.

Types of literature to include

Straightforward: shall likely be using all the types of literature mentioned in the previous blog post.

Approach used to analyse and synthesis literature

This is also work in progress and has not been worked out fully. However, because there shall be various types of literature used in the research, it is likely that a mixed methods approach shall be used to analyse and synthesis the literature. Which exact type shall be decided soon.

In summary: The research design and the types of literature have been decided upon; the role of literature, the exact way in which literature shall be used to satisfy each role across the varying phases, and the approach to be used to analyse and synthesis the literature are all currently work in progress. This and the previous blog posts are just introductions to what I am considering, and as time moves on these considerations and perhaps more shall be explored further and more blog posts shall be written about them.

Considering The Literature, Part A: Set Of Considerations

As I have said in previous blog posts referring to literature reviews, a literature review is a serious piece of work probably in some theses the most important chapter as this directs the readers to what the research is about. It is best to leave the literature review, from my opinion, till after the research design has been fully decided upon because it is, usually, the research design that directs the structure and content of the literature review. Do, however, write extensive notes about each paper that is read even before beginning the first draft of the literature review.

Having selected the research design, the next step is to consider a series of issues regarding the way in which literature plays a part within the research. The main considerations are: the research design itself, the types of literature, the approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature, and the role and purpose of the literature. A number of blog posts referring to each consideration, and a combination of them, shall be written but in the meantime this blog post briefly introduces each of them.

The Research Design

I would say that this is the most important consideration: from my own experience no other issue should be considered until the research design has been decided because the research design, whether that’s quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods based, can determine the structure of the literature review, along with the purpose of the literature.

The Role and Purpose Of The Literature

This is the second most important consideration, in my opinion. The role of the literature I would say is strongly associated with the research design because different types of research design entail specific roles of literature. Writers have come to a general consensus as to the role of literature within quantitative research: it helps to develop and clarify research questions and hypothesis, for example, as well as develop a theoretical framework within which data is collected and analysed. The purpose of the literature within qualitative data is commonly observed as verifying and validating concepts and theories generating from qualitative data and acting as data itself in some cases, whilst mixed methods is not quite so clear but should be able to combine both general roles of literature. With mixed methods research there needs to be the best of both worlds, but the extent to which their roles are realised could be arguably based on the importance of each strand of a mixed methods research. For example, in mixed methods approaches where emphasis is placed on the quantitative strand should literature be used in the same way as pure quantitative approaches? If emphasis is placed more on the qualitative strand, should literature be used as a method of theory verification and validation, and as data? What if both quantitative and qualitative strands are considered as important as each other? What then? Perhaps in this case it is best to use both approaches to literature: the trick is figuring out exactly the way in which literature shall be used within each strand and the way in which literature or discussions of literature can be combined or integrated to form a complete narrative of findings and theory development.

Either way I think it can be suggested that a general role of literature is to contextualise the research. Contextualise as in to situate research within the broader picture or in other words to contextualise research is to ask where exactly does a research project fit within the wider picture of the research landscape of the field and phenomenon of interest.

The types of literature to be included

Once the research design has been decided upon and the role of the literature has roughly been figured out, the next task is to think about the types of literature that shall be used. This relatively straightforward compared to the research design and the role of literature: decide what types of literature to include, and the way in which each type of literature shall play a part in not just contextualising the research but to help build conceptualisations of data. Contextualising research and building conceptualisations of data are fairly independent processes in other words you can do both activities regardless of the type of literature that you have. This is what makes choosing the types of literature fairly straightforward, in my opinion.

There are various types of literature known broadly as empirical papers: quantitative literature (research carried out using quantitative assumptions and designs), qualitative literature (research carried out using qualitative assumptions and designs), and mixed methods literature (research carried out using both quantitative and qualitative assumptions and approaches). There is a plethora of other types: theoretical papers, where a writer develops and explains a theory or model; philosophical papers, which involves papers exploring ontological and epistemological issues; literature reviews, where sets of literature are analysed and synthesised to illuminate a point referring to a particular concept or set of concepts; and critical papers, where existing theories, models, philosophies, and so on, are evaluated and critiqued either from a theoretical or empirical perspective, or both. Regardless of the type or types chosen, it is important to remain clear why each particular type is important, why each particular type has been selected, the role of this type of literature, what each type of literature states, and in what way, if possible, it combines or integrates with other types of literature.

The approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature

This is a big topic as there are many ways in which literature could be analysed, but the approaches that are selected is determined by the types of literature selected because most if not all literature analysis and synthesis approaches are strongly associated with particular types of literature. Meta Analysis, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising quantitative based literature, whereas Meta Ethnography, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising qualitative literature. Mixed methods approaches are, you guessed it, strongly associated with analysing and synthesising a mixture of literature. Examples of this type include Narrative Summary and Thematic Analysis.

In summary: there is plenty to think about when considering the literature in the context of a research project. It is important to try to remember, perhaps, that it's impossible to decide on anything for sure until the research design has been selected. Really though, there are no right or wrong answers and there is no strict regimented path through this. You might think about a role of literature initially and as you go through your research you might find that this role is no longer relevant, or that you had perceived a particular role incorrectly. That's fine: the important thing is you address the situation, propose a new solution, apply the new solution, and try to record what happens. Make notes of everything: that way you can chart and track your progress. That's a reason this research blog exists!

May 24, 2016

Reflection on the Literature Review so far

The development of the literature review of the thesis is not likely to officially begin till after the upgrade process although this has not stopped me from continuously thinking about the concept of a literature review, its aims and purpose, its structure and layout, and the approach of synthesising and analysing the literature that is to be included. Despite all the other work that needs to be completed in the early stages of the Ph.D., there is argument to suggest that there are important considerations in the early stages of the Ph.D. that can and will influence the literature review at a later time. The following represents my own advice based on the experiences so far on the Ph.D.

Think about it early, and never stop thinking about it

Think about the literature review right at the beginning of the Ph.D even when you are developing your proposal as part of your Ph.D. application. Form draft initial thoughts about what you want to achieve with the literature review and think about what authors you might want to include. I began thinking about the literature review at the beginning through for example deciding upon some of the authors and concepts that I want to include in the review. This however is a continuous and ongoing process because the literature review itself is a continuous, ongoing, dynamic document. There is no room for absolutism in my opinion when constructing a literature review.

Concepts change, your own understanding changes, your research shall change, the context shall change, the methods and methodology might change, and therefore your selection of literature shall change, and this especially the selection of literature shall change constantly as your understanding matures. Embrace it, feel challenged, push yourself and never give up!

Think about it early, think about it before starting the Ph.D., never stop thinking about it, and when you have written the literature review treat it as a first draft and keep thinking about it.

Make sure you record every idea, thought, inspiration, anything that comes to your mind about the literature that you read, or what you experience or observe no matter if it’s small or insignificant. Remember: my own research began as a small near insignificant observation on a teaching course that no other person picked up even though it was right in front of them!

Do not subscribe to a particular method too soon

This is quite important from my experience. To briefly explain, there are various methods used to analyse and synthesis existing literature: meta synthesis, meta-analysis, meta ethnography, narrative synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, and mixed methods synthesis, to name a few.

Around the middle to latter part of the first year I decided to develop a critical interpretive synthesis approach, but the problem at this time was I had not fully realised the research design. At this time (and as has been thoroughly discussed on this blog) I was planning on adopting a Grounded Theory research design and was going to integrate critical interpretive synthesis data with grounded theory data. However, when I realised the faults of the research design I changed from grounded theory to a mixed methods design and subsequently realised that the critical interpretive synthesis approach was no longer suitable because it generates a theory from the literature and not the research data. I need to rethink the approach that I am going to be using to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Decide what types of literature that is to be included

This is a key factor in deciding the approach that is chosen to analyse and synthesis literature. My literature review shall be complex containing both quantitative and qualitative literature, with each type consisting of different methods, tasks, contexts and Philosophical perspectives. I have selected this extensive set of literature because it suits the mixed methods research design: because data in my research shall be generated from both quantitative and qualitative approaches, it makes sense to analyse both quantitative and qualitative literature.

The analysis of the literature shall be within the context of different concepts that define the general phenomenon of investigation. Defining concepts and developing conceptual understanding shall assist with allocating and categorising literature and therefore make the process of literature management a little easier. My research so far consists of four or five concepts, but conceptual understanding of these concepts are continuously developing, which influences the way in which literature is categorised and also the need to select and evaluate further literature. I shall explain this in a later blog post.

Decide on your research design

This, in addition to deciding the types of literature to be included in the literature analysis and synthesis, is a key factor in deciding which method to use to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Particular research designs shall make particular approaches to analysing and synthesising the literature unusable. A pure quantitative research design might work well with a critical interpretive analysis approach because the purpose of the critical interpretive analysis is to generate a theory from the literature, which can then be tested using a quantitative research design. A critical interpretive analysis therefore would not be suitable for a grounded theory based research design because a theory should be generated from the literature and not from the research data.

It’s an ongoing document

A literature review is continuously developing right up to the point of the point of formally submitting the thesis. It would be completely pointless to write a literature review in the first year of the Ph.D. and then submit it as it is with the thesis submission (around a couple to several years later) and not include any further, latest research. This would be identified in the viva as a serious flaw as the post graduate researcher would have failed to keep with up to date developments in their field and would reduce the authenticity and uniqueness of the research.


The key point of this blog post is to emphasise the importance of thinking about the literature review as early as you can. Considerations include: type of literature to include, the approach to synthesising and analysing the literature, and the overall research methodology. Remember that the overall research design and the type of literature selected will influence the approach to literature synthesis and analysis.

It is a lot of work and should not be taken lightly!

November 29, 2015

Grounded Theory Literature Review: Progress!

Progress has been made in this aspect of the Grounded Theory study. The traditional aim of the literature review is to provide a full analysis, synthesis and critical evaluation of existing literature (both theoretical and empirical) in order to develop an argumentation or a series of arguments pertaining to the need and requirement of the proposed research. Further, the literature review shows where there are knowledge gaps, places the proposed research therefore in a suitable theoretical and practical context, and demonstrates the uniqueness and originality of the research. A typical product of a literature review is a theoretical model or framework of investigation that is usually imposed upon the research itself or in other words the research is led by this theoretical framework that is developed from the literature (or other existing theories and models, or a mixture of everything).

Grounded Theory is different from many other qualitative research methods and therefore the literature review and the literature are dealt with in substantially different ways than these other methods. Grounded Theory is an inductive research methodology therefore the theory, theorisation, theoretical framework (or whatever: literature appears to use the terms interchangeably) occurs from the actual analysis of the data and not deductively constructed from the literature therefore there are no pre existing frameworks or frameworks developed from the literature imposed upon the data analysis. In other words, within the context of Grounded Theory the analysis of the data is not framed or set within a particular framework or theoretical perspective; the analysis is not led by existing theories, but is led by careful interpretation of the researcher.

Therefore, the role of the literature review changes from providing a basis for the development of a theoretical framework (typically) to purely providing the means to state the case of the research. The role of the literature also changes: not only are certain sets of literature used to contribute towards understanding the need of the research and what existing research states, but also certain sets are used within the constant comparison method itself as further data. Literature itself can therefore be used as data and can be analysed along with all other data types within a Grounded Theory context.

Learning about this is continuous however I fully understand now that anything can be used as data. Specifically with the literature, the key is not to discard it completely as suggested by some authors but to use it in a way that carefully contributes toward an effective process of theory or theorisation generation. As can be imagined, the literature around this specific topic is an absolute minefield, but it is Charmaz and her book on Constructivist Grounded Theory that was key to understanding the way that literature should be used, and confirmed my previous thoughts about the role of literature within Grounded Theory.  Charmaz argues that it is not that existing literature and frameworks should be ignored, but that they should be used in a certain way that increases reliability and validity of the Grounded Theory development.

A breakthrough occurred during the past week in terms of not just understanding the role of the literature review within a Grounded Theory study, but the content of the literature review and the purpose of the literature within that review and within the data analysis itself. Of course, all these ideas will need to be confirmed by the Supervisor and I have been sending him fairly extensive emails. In summary I have been able to outline a structure of the literature review and be able to describe the purpose of each section, and starting to understand the way in which the literature can play its part in increasing the validity and reliability of the findings of the Grounded Theory research. This breakthrough was based on developing a clearer understanding of what “theoretical sensitising” actually means: with Grounded Theory research, the literature can be used to increase theoretical sensitivity or in other words increase the researcher’s sensitivity towards particular general constructs or concepts and not actual specific activities or processes as determined by a pre existing framework or theory. Essentially, this means that a researcher becomes aware of particular concepts and constructs that might occur in the data but not actually impose a particular framework upon the analysis. Being theoretically sensitive towards concepts and constructs differs from actually imposing a particular framework or theory upon data analysis, but I shall leave this for another blog post at some point in the future. Additionally using Grounded Theory shall have an impact on the way that the thesis shall be structured compared to the structure if any other type of method or methodology was used but again shall discuss this more in future blog posts.

Goodness, that’s a lot of thinking going on!

‘Till next time folks, remember: it’s the beginning of Advent and if you’re going to start telling seasonal jokes make sure you pull a cracker of a joke!

September 02, 2015

Managing notes for the literature review: general advice and some of my experiences so far

As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, the literature review is a serious piece of work that needs careful planning, arranging, thinking, considering and probably piles upon piles of written notes that have been stored in various places that you probably shall not remember when coming to writing your literature review! As with anything else, what you write will depend on your discipline and your research topic, but regardless it is important to have an effective management system where you can access your notes easily and efficiently, and arrange these notes in a way that does not interrupt your flow of thinking and writing when it comes to writing your literature review. Obviously, whatever extensive amount of notes you have you are not likely to have an extensive set of notes to complete the literature review because there shall always be something else to consider as you are writing. I find that when I am writing I have new ideas come to me that are worth exploring further: this is fine, it does not interrupt the flow of writing as I note down the ideas and explore at a later time when I come out of that mode of thinking and writing.

Regardless of the research topic and the discipline it’s likely that separate sets of literature shall be explored: with mine, philosophical, theoretical and empirical sets of literature are being explored, and each command a separate set of extensive notes. As I have indicated in an earlier blog post, I am following a Theory-Practice approach to the review therefore I shall be writing about philosophical and theoretical literature first, followed by empirical. This way, I can more easily be able to associate and compare empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions and evidence the need of my research and reason the findings of problems in that way. Again, it depends on what you prefer to do: you might prefer to explore empirical findings first and then match findings with philosophical and theoretical literature, and that can be just as effective. Also, you wouldn’t have to necessarily construct your notes following a set pattern of philosophical and theoretical discussions to empirical findings: you can mix it all up as much as you want it just depends on what works for you! Just make sure that you keep a separate set of extensive notes for each set of literature and make sure you manage these notes effectively. Keep things simple, and keep things logical because when it comes to writing the literature review you want to make sure that you can access your notes easily and quickly and in that logical order so that you don’t have to go searching around and forgetting where you are.

As for my own management system, my extensive notes are kept in a display book that contains about twenty plastic wallets, with each wallet relating to a particular “theme” of a particular set of literature, beginning with philosophical themes moving to empirical themes. As an example, a philosophical “theme” could be the ideas of a Philosopher, or the ideas of several Philosophers that relate to a particular phenomenon. Another example could be that empirical findings could relate to the effectiveness of a teaching method upon a particular set of learners, or the way that a particular set of learners perceive a particular teaching method. Both of these are different empirical themes that can have their own separate places inside whatever management organisation you choose to have.

Simplicity of access and logical orderings are keys to developing a simple yet effective management system of these extensive notes. Remember, you don’t need a chaotic, complicated management system as there shall be enough chaos and disorders as you produce your first set of notes!

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