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May 03, 2020
Progress on the Literature Review
If you asked me even a year ago what the most challenging chapter of a thesis is to write, I would have probably said the Discussions Chapter. Why? Because the discussion chapter is a very complex chapter depending on the nature of your research, and how you approach the writing of your discussions chapter. Because my research adopts an inductive, data driven approach, how I approach the writing of my discussions chapter would be different to those that adopted a deductive, theoretically driven approach. Having changed direction with the approach to writing the thesis, the literature review chapter is the most challenging, at least if not on a par with the discussions chapter.
Every time I have completed a draft of the chapter, or any thesis chapter, I always kept in the back of my mind the changeable nature of any chapter. The literature review is no exception as it is an ever evolving and ever changing document, with changes possible at both the structural (meaning the logic and ordering of the content and the logical ‘blocks’ of ideas) and content (changes to conceptions meaning changes to the literature that needs reviewing) levels.
Although my literature review chapter has experienced changes at both levels, a consistent aspect of the chapter is the decision not to cover all aspects of relevant literature. Because my research is qualitative and inductive in nature that leads to the development of a set of themes and an understanding of certain patterns of behaviour, the literature that should be covered is that which that simply contextualises your research and that which you can use to justify the need of your research. There is much debate in the research methodology literature about this, but in my thesis I am discussing the findings of literature that most closely relate to my own findings in the discussions chapter in order to help validate my themes and observed patterns.
Switch to the Narrative approach
This deserves a series of blog posts in its own right, seriously! No kidding! I can relate this sort of approach philosophically to the likes of existentialism, hermeneutics, etc. I will come back to this though. In the meantime it suffices to say here that a major change to my literature review chapter, and indeed the whole thesis, in recent months is the change in the approach to writing the thesis from traditional to narrative. I am continuously developing my craft at narrative writing and I know very well that I can always improve and continue to find opportunities where I can improve.
First of all, what do I mean by traditional? The traditional format goes something like this: introduction, literature review, research design, findings, discussions and then conclusions. As for the narrative approach, at the moment my narrative thesis organisation is something like this: introduction, first literature review chapter, initial research design iteration, second literature review chapter, second research design iteration, third research design iteration, current research design iteration, findings, discussions, and conclusions.
As can be imagined, the most essential characteristic of narrative writing is that it charts, illuminates or illustrates the iterative changes to conceptions of data (which leads to broadening the literature and understanding of new concepts), as well as changes to research directions for example your research design.
In relation to the literature review, the narrative approach involves you writing the review in a way that charts the changes and broadening of your understanding over time as a result of a back-and-forth iterative process between engaging with your data and engaging with the literature. Major additions or changes to my understanding are represented across two literature review chapters, and more ‘minor’ additions to my knowledge or some sort of change to my conceptions are included in each chapter. This really documents how I learnt, when I learnt, and the broad connections between different ‘sets’ of knowledge.
Essence Of A Narrative Literature Review
Using a narrative approach is challenging and I’ve only used this on a chapter so far, but the idea of narrative writing is to afford a space where broader and specific links between thesis chapters can be identified. These broad and specific links between narratively written chapters should represent the broad timeline of your thinking. It is of course impossible to include absolutely every change, but you can develop a broad outline of the changes that have happened and present it in a coherent logical way but I can discuss this more another time.
The essence of a literature review is changeability. Some people feel bad if they have to rewrite their literature review as they have arrived either with or at the idea that their literature review must be correct or reflect exact relevance to the research in the first sitting. This is not the case! Remember that learning is progressive and changeable, and if it is not then this process is artificial and suppressed. Remember that if you are to rewrite your literature review this does not have to mean a complete rejection of your previous writing. Nothing is ever wasted, because when you rewrite your literature review chapter or any thesis chapter, you are not starting again from scratch but starting from the basis of wisdom and understanding. You are progressing all the time and allowing yourself to question what is really going on and if whether any thesis chapter represents what you really want to say. This is good!
But for those who are just starting: don’t panic and depending on the nature of your research don’t expect to be able to get it completed in your first writing session of it. It will more than likely take numerous attempts to get it right, particularly if your conceptions and explorations of the literature changes over time. This cannot be fully predicted initially, nothing can be fully predicted initially, but pay attention to your data and interpretations of this data. Enjoy the process, because this is your chance to engage critically and reflectively with previous literature and, if applicable in the review, to show how your research is different. This is also, as I have found, a basis upon which you can engage with philosophical and methodological discussions either in the review, or in future chapters.
I shall be writing more about this topic, and indeed on the topic of narrative thesis writing, in the future!
‘till next time!
February 09, 2020
Ph.D Thesis Update: What Is The Nature Of A Thesis?
This blog post has actually been a long time coming. This blog post is a result of questions that I have been asking about the nature of the thesis and whether or not a thesis really has a particular nature. When we speak of a nature, what is it we are talking about? Nature assumes some sort of absolute ‘being’ of something, with that particular ‘something’ comprising of certain characteristics that makes it what it is. But it is right to assume that something is what it is in an immediate sense or is something is what it is as we come to experience that something and reflect on experiencing that something? Is there a sense that something ‘becomes’ as is, or is there some sort of process of becoming? I ask myself these questions all the time not only about my thesis but about who I am and what I am and what is the meaning of myself as a researcher, and conceptions and actions of these and many other questions have been formed and changed throughout the years of engaging with a Ph.D.
I was going to suggest that this blog post is not related to how I view my own sense of being or a process of my own becoming: it revolves around a thesis, or, indeed, a sense of an empty page staring at you on Microsoft Word becoming a thesis. But what if a thesis is an external representation of what has happened within ourselves and within our research?
I guess the most obvious question is………what is a thesis?
A thesis is a document that communicates every part of your research endeavour: your review of the literature, your explanation and justification of a research design, the communication of your findings, and a documentation of your explanations, discussions and critiques of your own findings and design. In a nutshell!
Ok, now let’s ask a different question: what is the nature of a thesis?
Now that’s a question! And that’s a question that is not easy to answer.
I am suggesting that because since part way through January I, guided by my supervisor, have been (and still am) in the process of changing the dynamics of the thesis. I have written a draft of the whole thesis before, but I have been following a more ‘traditional’ chapter path of a literature review followed by the research design followed by the findings and followed by the discussions. Whilst this has been fine, it has been realised that whilst this thesis communicates what has been achieved, there is what I believe to be an important element missing: historicity (this is a separate field in Philosophy that assumes that all thought, ideas, concepts and everything that we are and everything external to us has a history of development. I shall address this more in the future).
If I were to complete the thesis as is, with the essence being to communicate the findings as is, the research design as is, the literature review as it, the discussions as is, etc., I would not be communicating the progressiveness of all of my ideas and observations. I would be presenting almost like a current ‘snapshot’ of ideas of the literature, the state of the research design, etc., without explaining how my ideas and observations changed over time. My ‘voice’ would be subsumed under the traditional aim of objectively reporting something that has ultimately been an iterative, subjective experience that cannot effectively be communicated ‘as is’ in an objective traditional way.
What is the way to address this problem? I’m getting to grips with writing a thesis not within the typical objective, traditional approach, but as a narrative. A narrative that enables me to fully communicate not only the research ‘as is’ but the becoming of this ‘as is.’ Going back to my original point, to construct a thesis using a narrative means to report on the becoming of the research, and not simply what the research has become.
This leads onto another question: in what way can this becoming be structured?
This is a question I am currently tackling.
Every thesis consists of elements of a literature review, details of the research design, reporting of the findings, and discussions, explanations, and critiques of the meanings of the findings, and of the design. However, in a narrative approach this can be communicated across a series of chapters, with each chapter representing an ‘iteration’ of the research. From what I am currently understanding (I am still getting to grips with this), each chapter is interconnected and interdependent through the narrative process. Each chapter represents a different iteration or a change to the research process, with progression from the previous chapter or iteration and the foundations for the subsequent iteration clearly defined and indicated. How exactly this is to be expressed is still being planned out but, from what I have experienced with re-planning the thesis and through writing in a narrative voice, sometimes it’s impossible to determine what can and shall be expressed without engaging with the process of writing.
This is something I have learnt: sometimes you can do all the planning to a thesis that you want, but sometimes you just have to start writing the thesis and a plan can ‘emerge’ from your writings. There is something about engaging with the actual writing process that can help shape and organise your ideas. Sometimes the process of writing can be devalued but writing can give you incredible power and a sense of agency where you can develop your ideas beyond a level that is possible without writing. That, again, is part of my own sense of being as a researcher: I write not just to communicate, but as a powerful enabler of idea development and shaping.
Anyway, I digress……
The reshaping and reconstruction of the thesis from a ‘traditional’ to a more ‘narrative’ form is a challenge, because I have to think differently. I can’t think ‘as is’ but I have to think from the perspective of how this ‘as is’ actually became ‘as is.’ The core principle of this approach is to communicate how the explorations of the literature, the design of the research exploration, how I conceptualised the data, how I conceptualised the phenomenon, and how my methods of data analysis, have all changed over time: the what, the when, and the why, and the impact. Challenging!
I have written over a thousand words here and I have a lot more to say about this in the future on here, but for now all I can say about this is that I am pleased that I have not thrown any of my previous work away. Near enough every change and alteration to practically every part of the research has been documented. A current challenge is to understand and know what exactly I can communicate and to what extent without overwhelming and confusing the reader and having the reader feeling lost.
It all takes time but I am making progress and I shall be reporting on further progress in the future!
Thanks for reading people!
July 08, 2019
Ph.D. Update On The Thesis Work So Far, Part A
I apologise for not writing a blog post in quite a while! I noticed that the previous update was way back earlier this year. Admittedly, blogging was put aside for a while as I simply wanted to focus on writing the thesis and complete the data analysis with the intentions of returning to the blog when I had more time to spare to blog about what I have completed and where I am going with everything.
Since I wrote the previous update there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed not because I have struggled with knowing what to say, but knowing what to say where. This has not necessarily led to times of anxiety and paranoia, but of uncertainty. What carried me through the times that I have been overwhelmed and felt uncertain is this single thought: I’d rather feel overwhelmed due to having a lot to say, than to feel underwhelmed with nothing to say! It takes time, but persevere and make sure you are continuously writing. It doesn’t matter what form your ideas take on paper, just get them down on paper and sort out the edits and presentations afterwards.
The Literature Review
Much of the literature review has now been completed and it’s a case of editing what I have already written and complete and edit the critical summary section. A section that I have been working on during the past few months involves the critique of various analytical coding frameworks pertaining the exploration and analysis of the phenomenon of interest. This has not been an easy section to write because of the very nature of qualitative research and approaches needed to write qualitative theses. Briefly, the approach that I am adopting to handle and critique the literature more generally is to split the literature review in a couple of parts, each of which serving different purposes. The first literature review chapter contextualises the phenomenon of interest. By this, the first literature review refers to conceptualisation and definition: I am explaining and critiquing how the phenomenon of interest has been conceptualised in the literature, how the phenomenon has been identified and explored across different contexts, and to critique these approaches to exploring the phenomena in order to situate the need for my research within these critiques.
With the analytical models, in this first part of the overall review of the literature, I have to explain the models in a way that demonstrates how the phenomenon of interest has been analysed, and critique the general approach of the models. The second part of the review is integrated in with the discussions of the findings, and I shall explain this in the next blog post.
Research Design Chapter
This is more or less complete in various drafted forms, it’s just a matter of trying to put the whole chapter together. I have written the introduction section, explanations and descriptions of the research design itself, explanations of the research questions and objectives, my position as a researcher, my philosophical position, and the explanation and justification of the selection of the methodology and methods. Other sections I am working on include discussions about the sources of the data, the setting of the research, and detailing the process of coding and thematic development. Additionally, I am attempting to write justifications in terms of how the methodologies and methods have been used before so that I can attempt to verify the historical effectiveness of various aspects of the research design. Phew!
This has been another chapter that has received many edits and redesigns, but I am now happy with the chapter with the way it is and the way it is progressing. Still a fair bit to write, but everything is basically written in pre-draft form it’s just a matter of editing and putting the sections together so it shouldn’t be too bad. What has been the most challenging section, to be honest, has been the Philosophical section and then working out the way this relates to the methodology. It can take a long time to work out your philosophies, and even then they can change so try not to be too much of an absolutist no matter what your position you believe best matches your own. Be dynamic and be flexible.
In Part B, I shall discuss briefly where I am with the latter part of the thesis.
February 21, 2019
Update On The Ph.D Work, Part B: Literature Positionality and Theoretical Framework
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.
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!
Update On The Ph.D Work, Part A: Literature Review
During the past few months I have come to grips with what should be included in the literature review, taking into account its nature as part of an inductive, thematic analysis approach that differs from that which can be found in quantitative based theses. With quantitative based literature reviews, the goal is, quite generally, to critically explore existing empirical literature to find a very specific theoretical or practical gap in the collective understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Typically, this gap is then addressed through building a testable theoretical framework that essentially frames the findings and associated discussions. In other words, the theoretical framework predefines data characteristics and findings that are of most interest and use to the research and in answering the research questions that derive from the framework. There is a very strict order here: the literature is explored first, and from the literature review comes the theoretical framework, from the theoretical framework comes the research questions, and as data is found relevant to the research questions their discussion context is framed by the theoretical framework. Every part of the research, as far as I can understand, is framed around the selected theories that guides data analysis.
Inductive based qualitative literature reviews are different in that there is no predefined theoretical framework that is developed, and, therefore, there is no need to test theories or have any discussions and findings framed around existing theories. The core aim of inductive based qualitative literature reviews, from my own understanding of them, is to establish the general overall context of the research and to justify why the research is being carried out. Arguably then where quantitative based literature reviews are used to develop a deductively testable theoretical framework, qualitative based literature reviews are used to establish a justifiable context for inductive analysis (though do note that the theoretical framework still needs justifying!).
With all that then, I am using the literature review to explore the broader questions. For example, with the specific technology I am using to facilitate social learning processes I am asking questions about how that piece of technology has been used more generally in Education. In what way has the technology of interest been used for so far within the context of social learning processes? What are the differences of use of these processes between different technologies and what makes a particular technology of interest more appropriate? What definitions have been provided regarding the particular social learning process? How have these social learning processes been realised in various learning scenarios through technological facilitation?
Questions like these assists with building a picture of what has been achieved before and be able to set the research within a justifiable context. For example, through asking how social learning processes have been realised and explored in various learning scenarios, you begin to understand how social learning processes have been approached, defined, and understood. From this understanding, you can begin to critically question this understanding and of what exists, and this in turn leads to locating your research within the existing literature with justifiable supports.
The literature review is still ongoing although much of it has now been completed. There is still a couple of concepts left to explain, but this can occur at a later time. The core of the literature review has now been completed!
December 30, 2018
Ph.D Update: Up To Christmas 2018 Part B, The Literature Review
The other key task up to Christmas was the redrafting of the literature review. Whilst this redrafting is continuous, the literature review is really beginning to take shape where I believe that the structure and content of the chapter are aligning with the overall chapter goals and ambitions. I have increased discussions and expanded upon existing discussion directions in relation to social learning, relevant areas of technology enhanced learning, and concerns that are specific regarding the phenomenon of research interest. I am greatly expanding discussions to include not just formal learning pedagogies related to the phenomenon of interest, but also informal learning and informal learning approaches. I also continued, and continue, to check through to ensure that arguments and discussions flow logically, systematically, and are in an ordered fashion from general to more specific.
I think in all literature reviews it is important to discuss from the general to the more specific. This way, you can set the context layer by layer. Through this, you can help navigate your reader through the vast maze of concepts, characterisations, definitions, findings and perspectives in relation to your research project. Additionally, and further to the navigation of existing concepts, etc. you can introduce the reader to your critiques, leanings, characterisations and conceptualisations with reference to each layer, and integrate these across each layer to form a cohesive and coherent literature review.
The aim of the research itself is to create a new coding framework and to develop thematic understanding of the content and behaviour of the phenomena of interest. The literature review offers a context for the research; it offers a platform upon which I can explain what the current and relevant coding frames are, to offer critiques of these coding frames, and to explain why there is a need for a new coding framework to assist with the investigation and understanding of the phenomenon of interest. The literature review goes beyond the critiques and discussions of the coding frameworks, as the literature review shall explain, investigate, discuss and critique existing publications regarding the wider social learning and technological learning and communicative contexts within which the phenomenon of interest is being investigated. Further to all of this, I still have to explain why there is a need to further develop thematic understanding of relevant areas of the phenomenon. I still have to explain the aspects and characteristics of the phenomenon I am exploring, the context of this phenomenon, and why the aspects of the phenomena and its context of choice are valuable and important to explore.
I additionally have to explain the value and usefulness of the coding framework against other coding frameworks, and explain how and why it is different from other frameworks and to explain the way in which the coding framework can work with other frameworks. These discussions shall be left till later in the thesis.
At the moment, the word count of the literature review stands at over 10,000 words, though it is expected to have up to around 15.000 words by the time the final version is complete. Always remember though that quality is more important than quantity. With that, I aim to try to keep the first literature review chapter as short as I can whilst including all the meaningful arguments and discussions ordered in a logical fashion from the general to the specific.
In summary, the literature review work is ongoing but I am more confident in the direction that I am now taking the literature review, and the general plans that are in place to produce an engaging, cohesive and coherent chapter. At least, fingers crossed!
September 06, 2018
Current State Of Play: The Methodology Literature Review
A Ph.D. is a continuous journey of exploration, critique, evaluation and questioning. It is a critical, reflective, evaluative, and analytical engagement with reality, with self-knowledge and understanding, and the knowledge that exists in published literature. If you take the Ph.D. and your research seriously enough, these intellectual investigations can extend beyond the Ph.D.
The key fact to remember is that a Ph.D. does not represent the conclusion of your research, but represents the beginning: it lays the groundwork of your publishing interests, and the disciplinary fields within which you desire to explore and contribute further. It involves the contribution or invention of something new, with potential opportunities to expand upon this contribution and invention through post-doctoral opportunities. Whatever is created during the Ph.D., for example a theory or model, can be situated within different philosophical, theoretical and technological contexts with a variety of different participants. This would lead to evidencing the authenticity, validity, verifiability, transportability, and usefulness of the theory or model. Subsequent explorations beyond the Ph.D. can even lead to amendments and adjustments to your theory or model, and even extensions and specific versions designed for particular contexts and circumstances. This existing journey of research and development is a nuanced experience and you cannot really, fully predict where it shall go with any sense of certainty and accuracy.
With qualitative research in particular, questions and research directions related to the phenomenon of interest can and do change, therefore it can take a long time before you are settled on a particular set of questions and directions. This could be misconceived or misinterpreted as you not knowing what you are doing or that you keep changing your mind flippantly. This is a complete misconception of qualitative research, because when a qualitative researcher changes direction they do so intellectually.
Change to directions and questions come not as a result of hunches or emotions, but as a result of an intellectual engagement with the data, with interpretations of this data, and literature. It takes time to really understand the “layered” existence of data and the many ways in which data could be observed and perceived, and should be observed and perceived in a way that aligns with your broader, general research interests and objectives.
The very essence of engaging with qualitative research is that directions and questions change over time, and if this is intellectually justified, elaborated and explained with each change then you are evidencing and tracking your learning and development. These changes can be justified through these reflections and observations in the thesis. Intellectual justifications, elaborations and explanations are constructed as you deepen your understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the reality that the data represents.
Deepening your understanding of the data arguably occurs if you are given the time to investigate various ways in which data can be analysed and not simply accept the first approach you come across as most suitable just because it has been used most often used in existing empirical literature. The most often used methodology, approach, etc. is not always the most suitable for your own research context. Invest your time in thinking about what is really correct, what isn’t correct, and if any sense of correctness could actually be achieved (without your research project collapsing in on itself and fall into relativism!).
It is through what has been discussed so far that eventually led to the construction of the methodological literature review.
Essentially, this chapter is the narrative of how my research has evolved over the four or five years of thinking about the research issues, experimenting with different analytical methods, experimenting with different philosophical theories, and contemplating and reflecting deeply upon different methodologies. Questions related to these issues are ongoing and will no doubt stretch beyond the Ph.D. (might be important to note unanswered questions in your thesis: that way you can address them at the VIVA examination and also show ambition and commitment to post-doctoral opportunities).
But as it is, this chapter begins to tell the narrative of the development of my approach, the way that my approach differs from others relative to the objectives of research explorations of the phenomenon of interest, and the way that my approach could possibly complement other approaches.
The approach that I am developing did not come to me immediately, nor was the approach based on the first set of ideas and answers that I had when attempting to align research design with research issues and initial research questions. It has taken years of reading existing literature, of comparing and evaluating existing theories and models, of understanding how and where these theories and models have been applied, and of understanding the general context of their application and of critiques that exist regarding their effectiveness and usefulness. Reading and evaluation of these theories are ongoing though more now with the aim of justifying and evidencing the need for the new approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest.
The feature of this chapter is the exploration, comparison, evaluation, and critiquing of the philosophies, methodologies and analytical methods that I have tested against the data, research issues and evolving research questions in order to find the most suitable approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest. Philosophies include realism, constructivism, relativism, interpretivism, and constructionism. Methodologies to be included are mixed methods and qualitative. Analytical methods include a variety of discourse analyses, grounded theory approaches, content analysis, and thematic analysis. From these evaluations and critiques, a picture begins to build that explains the way that my approach to exploring the phenomenon of interest has been constructed. Full elaboration of my approach shall take place in the Research Design chapter.
This is going to be a big chapter, and is a reason why the literature reviews had to be changed to make space!
September 05, 2018
Current State Of Play: 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!
Current State Of Play: General Observations
Since writing the previous blog post back in early August, I have focussed on restructuring and rewriting the literature review sections, and have adjusted the scope of the literature as well as collected and analysed further literature. Thoughts and arguments within the literature review have been reconstructed and extended.
The literature review now has a beginning, middle and concluding structure, and this is the structure I intend to use for each chapter though written in a way that the introduction connects with the conclusion of the previous chapter, and the conclusion section leads into the introduction of the next chapter. All the sections in the literature review are interconnected: they might refer to different topics, but these topics are related in a way that logically, coherently, consistently and cohesively constructs thoughts, ideas, arguments and perspectives.
Unsurprisingly, as with everything at postgraduate level it is not quite black and white. With all Ph.D. theses, every chapter should also be referencing the first chapter: the introduction, where the research context, issues, problems and questions shall be presented and discussed. Referencing the first chapter gives each chapter situatedness, context, a framework for the chapter discussions, and a guide whilst allowing for open mindedness, flexibility, originality, creativity and innovation. Each chapter, therefore, needs to state the way in which it addresses research problems, context, purposes or questions, or a mixture if necessary.
With qualitative research where themes are to be developed, each chapter is related to each identified theme. The theme chapters are expected to adopt some sort of network structure where every chapter relates to and cross references each other. I shall probably discuss this more at a later time.
Effectively, the literature review has been completed for now! The next round of edits shall take place before Christmas or at some point early next year.
The thesis has been structured to an extent. I say to an extent because it is impossible to plan chapters related to findings within a qualitative research project because essentially the structure and content of these chapters are led by observations in the data and the framework and themes that emerge from the data. The structure leans toward the qualitative nature of thesis structure production, as shall be discussed more in a future blog post.
Unchanged at the philosophical level (essentially, moderate realism ontology with an interpretivist epistemology), though the methodology has changed from mixed methods, to grounded theory, and to now more general qualitative methodology with the potential for some quantitative data to be embedded within it. The quantitative data would be used to complement and support the qualitative and perhaps be used to further evidence some of the claims made from the qualitative observations and thematic development.
Regardless of the quantitative, it is the qualitative that drives and dictates the research and, therefore, drives and dictates the structure of the thesis.
Data analysis appears to be leaning towards a mixture of concepts and processes from thematic analysis (particularly the aspect on developing themes), grounded theory (such as constant comparisons, maximising variance, open coding features, and theoretical sampling), and retroductive / abductive reasoning. The relationship between these approaches and the way they have been and are going to be used shall be explained in the thesis and discussed on here when appropriate.
August 10, 2018
Ph.D Update: Thoughts About The Literature Review And Thesis
My gosh, that was a manic week! Focussed on the rewriting and restructuring of the literature review and the thesis more generally. Through the chaos and deep thinking of the new role of the literature review, and dealing with the, at times, feelings of being overwhelmed (trust me, I’d rather be overwhelmed with ideas than be underwhelmed with no ideas), clarity has just started to come through.
I feel more confident and happier now with the new and continuously developing structure of the literature review and the thesis more generally. I feel that now I am beginning to structure the thesis that reflects the nature of a thematic research design, and my Ph.D. experience so far in general. I have discussed the thematic research design in some detail in previous blog posts.
If I were to offer a single word that characterises the new structure of the thesis, it would be: “comparisons.”
I have learnt that to attempt to write as a high calibre thesis as possible, it is not just about critiques, reflections, situating your own research, presenting and evaluating research design and presenting and discussing findings and their applications (in a nutshell) but it’s also about comparisons. By this, I mean, using my experiences of thinking about different philosophies, of using different methodologies and methods as a basis of writing reflective, reflexive and critical comparisons that build towards philosophical and methodological arguments for the research design.
Use the comparisons as a basis upon which critical and reflective thought can be developed, along with where you can clearly evidence, present, demonstrate and show progress in your understanding and deepening knowledge and skills as a researcher.
This is something that has struck me a while ago, particularly when I understood the value of comparing different methods and methodologies. The value lies in using the thesis as a means of charting, highlighting and documenting the development of how my understanding has developed over the years.
A thesis in this sense might, among its many roles, play the role of a historical document. It could be considered a document that guides the reader through how you have come to your philosophical, methodological, and methods selections, and the justifications and arguments that you present, through examining and analysing the comparisons that have taken place.
These comparisons could be at the philosophical level, methodological level, methods level, data source level, and also comparing different types of findings the same phenomena within different types of literature.
It is no wonder I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed……..
But that’s the way a Ph.D. is and that’s the way I like to progress!
What of the thesis now? I have now divided the thesis into two main parts. The first part deals with the introduction chapter and the literature review chapter and combined I am allocating around 30,000 words. My literature review, when all the notes I have dotted around are combined, comes to about 20,000 words but this is in the process of being completely rewritten and restructured with a new purpose and new functions for my research project. This is work in progress and I will probably talk a little more about this soon. It suffices to say that in order to make way for a lot of new ideas and inclusions I am dropping a fair number of planned discussions that I consider are no longer relevant or needed for understanding my research.
During the past week, and shall be continued for a while, I have been going through the literature review chapters and notes dotted around to decide what I am going to keep, to decided what is to be kept and amended, and to restructure in order to add in new, relevant discussion points.
Sometimes when writing the literature review it is just a case of trying out different presentation approaches e.g., tables, in order to save space. Tables are really useful because they can help to cut down on repeatable information and can help present information more concisely but with the same meaning; or even enhanced, depending on the way the table is constructed.
The other 50,000 words of the thesis represent the real meat and beast of the thesis. I have expanded this section by about 15,000 words in order to accommodate new chapter ideas. Working out the structure, and obviously the content, is work in progress. Currently though, the idea is to write: a methodology based literature review (this would involve the comparison and critique of different coding schemes and approaches the phenomenon of interest ); the comparisons between different approaches to analysing the same type of data at the philosophical, methodological and methods level; the Ph.D. research design itself, and then chapters and sections referring to different themes, the coding scheme itself, and its application in learning contexts. Not to mention the inclusion of more critiques of literature within certain parts in order to verify and validate the developing themes and to discuss the way that existing published themes can be developed further.
This big section of the thesis came about from many reasons, some of which occurred as I began to write about my methodology. These reason include: the need to be reflexive, the need to fully and elaborately document the way in which the new coding scheme is being developed, the way in which phenomenon data can be explored, and also the need to include methods of verifying and validating themes. There are many other reasons but these are the core reasons. I shall talk about each of them in time!
Everything is a work in progress. Sometimes you might feel completely overwhelmed but as I said earlier it is better to be overwhelmed with continuingly new, developing ideas than be underwhelmed with no ideas at all. Keep writing, keep experimenting, keep thinking, and keep going!
‘till next time!