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April 18, 2019

Research Design Chapter Philosophical Section: How Much Is Too Much? Part B

Philosophically, how much is too much? There is no definite answer here. I’ve spent the day editing the Philosophical section of my research design chapter following contact with my supervisor. This feedback is proving to be invaluable, because it has guided my editing and also consideration of the content.


Previously I wrote the philosophical section using a comparative, reflective approach. During my time on the Ph.D., I have engaged with a variety of different ontological and epistemological positions. As a result, this led to writing separate ontological and epistemological sections.


Within each section I have attempted to tell a progressive narrative of my engagement with different positions. I discussed how I previously conceived the existence of the phenomenon (ontology) and how I believed that we come to know this phenomenon (epistemology). This led to discussing and explaining how these conceptions changed over time, how this led to me oscillating between different positions, and finally, I explained how I selected the ideal position (with epistemological beliefs drawing from various positions), and offered a justification of their selection.

Why did I do this? I am fascinated with the Philosophical aspects of the research and of the phenomenon, and I also wanted to address concerns in methodological literature about the lack of philosophical discussions within theses.

Recently, I returned to available, relevant qualitative theses and read through their research design chapters again. Clearly, as mentioned in a previous post, there is great variety in the reporting of the philosophical stance with some conflating ontology with epistemology, which I do not agree with. A combination of supervisor feedback and rereading of the theses indicated that what I have produced could be better as future, publishable philosophical essays separate from the thesis, but still relevant in reporting my experiences of the Ph.D. journey. Additionally, these essays could contribute something useful or original to the general discussion of research Philosophy.

The essence of the research design chapter is to discuss specifically about what was actually carried out in the research, as well as developing the appropriate Philosophical, methodological and practical justifications. I find that a lot of theses tend to focus more on methodology and methods than the underlying philosophical stance that underpins or frames the methodology.

I have difficulties with lip service paid to the Philosophical section. Philosophy carries methodology and, therefore, is the foundation upon which methodologies and methods are placed upon. Philosophy provides the framework to how the methodology defines how phenomenon is to be investigated and understood, through the appropriate selection and definition of methods and procedures.

Lacklustre discussions of Philosophies, in my view, make it difficult to validate, authenticate, verify and contextualise the findings. It makes it difficult to understand where the researcher is coming from, and it makes it difficult to understand how the researcher perceives reality. It is difficult to assume, for example, if a theoretical framework is developed from a constructivist or interpretivist perspective unless this is explicitly stated within the research design section.

How much is too much? It depends. The thesis is the core of the Ph.D. It is the core, central artefact of the Ph.D. endeavour that communicates what you have done, how, why, where and when. The Philosophical aspect of your research design, therefore, has to relate very specifically to the ontological and epistemological positions that relate specifically and strongly to your design and to your conceptions of the phenomenon. How much is too much or too little depends on what you are exploring and perhaps arguably how much you value Philosophy, and are willing to engage with philosophical issues of your research. Regardless, however, nothing should lead to lip service being paid to philosophical issues.

The edited version of the chapter now doesn’t consist of extensive comparative discussions of different positions that have been critically and reflectively engaged with, nor is there any discussion of how I shifted and changed positions. Everything is now strictly and directly relative to what was actually carried out, how, and why, their impact on the research design, their impact on the research phenomenon, and the appropriate justification of ontological and epistemological beliefs and their position within existing theories and literature.

Where has all the comparative discussions gone? Where have all the discussions about how I have changed conceptions over time and how those changed entailed shifting between different positions been placed? Has all that been wasted?

Not at all, because now all of that detail can be taken out of the thesis and be turned into publishable, philosophical essays and that is something that I will be working towards! This reason alone made the process worthwhile. The process of engaging with different ontological and epistemological positions increased my understanding of how philosophy impacts methodology and of how I could have interpreted and explored the phenomena within different positions. This enriches knowledge about Philosophy, and empowers the researcher to contribute potentially to academic discourse and existing, unresolved issues.

That, folks, is the ultimate goal of academia, and the ultimate goal of who you are as a researcher. Write and contribute because you want to, not because you have to. If you’re not in the business to contribute in some way, then really, what’s the point?

‘till next time!


December 31, 2018

A Year In Reflection, Part A: Philosophical Changes

A key change enabled me to understand the data in ways that I had not previously considered. This new philosophical understanding paved the way for changes at the methodological level (my approach to coding and interpreting the data: discussed in the next blog post). These changes are as a result of carefully thinking about the nature, structure, source, and origin of the data. All of this shall be discussed in the thesis.


In a nutshell, several years ago initial thoughts about the social learning phenomenon led me to consider different kinds of texts that could represent the social learning process of interest. Putting the research questions and research issues central enabled me to decide which type of text best represented the possibility for a real understanding (reality, or as close to reality as possible) of the social learning process. Essentially, it came down to deciding between investigating the beliefs and experiences that participants had of the learning process, and the investigation of the learning process itself and bypass beliefs and experiences of the process. Because my research revolves around the search for what is real instead of what is perceived, I decided to investigate the process itself. Thinking back, I know I made the right choice. In order to better understand the process of learning you have to explore the process itself or so I shall argue in my thesis.


The problem I had at the time, even as recent as earlier this year, was this idea of what is “real,” what is “truth,” and the extent to which the particular body of text produced by the participants demonstrated a truthful representation of the process. In a nutshell, my observations during the year, so I came to realise, enabled the transition from a more realist (particularly subtle realist) perspective to a post-structuralist perspective of the data. In a nutshell, this closer, but not necessarily absolute, leaning towards post structuralism came about because I found myself beginning to interpret certain data segments and their relationships or logical connections with other data segments in different ways, and I had not previously expected this. My previous thinking was that I expected myself to perceive or interpret data segments and connections between data segments in a specific (I suppose I could say linear) way. I had previously thought that these patterns of occurrences would be quite common and, therefore, discovering (interpreting?) that “real” essence of a particular process of social learning. What I found, unexpectedly, was something different: I was able to perceive or interpret the same data segment, and the same pattern of segment interactions, in different ways. So, not only did my understanding of the data change in terms of seeking specific characteristics and structures relevant to my research project, but the way that I perceived and interpreted the data changed.


This is not the conclusion of the story, however, and I have a lot of issues, questions, and challenges at the philosophical level with regards to the data, and the phenomenon itself. Some papers suggest that post structuralism does not reduce itself to relativism. In other words, from what I can currently understand, a post structuralist perspective does not necessitate the idea of there being multiple realities. I suppose what could be suggested is that post structuralism acknowledges and enables the possibility of multiple interpretations and perspectives of the same data set. But what does this mean ontologically? What ontological claims could be made? Is there really a form of reality that does exist beyond the text, but it ultimately has to be accepted that we can never truly acquire absolute knowledge about this reality? Is it a case that we can only slowly progress towards the truth of reality without completely attaining it? Is post structuralism, at least as is relevant and appropriate for my research, an epistemological perspective? If post structuralism is an epistemological perspective, then I cannot make any absolute claims of knowledge or knowing about the process of social learning; that, therefore, the segments and patterns relevant to the social learning process of interest can be interpreted in different ways. In other words, different sets of understanding and different threads of knowing can be established from the same set of data. I have been able to identify and interpret different sets of understanding from the same data set, but I have to stick with a “single” set of interpretations that best suit the research questions and the general research agenda, whilst, of course, acknowledging the potential for multiple interpretations. This is where post structuralism, from my current understanding, comes into play. Additionally, all this is, of course, accompanied with the relevant concerns and ways in which interpretations, etc, can be validated, verified, made more accurate, credible, etc. as discussed in a recent blog post. This is quite a topic to get your head around!


Either way, these are some of the questions I am asking myself at the philosophical level. As can be understood and appreciated, this is a complex topic and my ideas and arguments are in continuous development. Indeed, I am coming to accept that there are questions that I simply will not be able to answer, but being unable to answer a particular question that I have should not mean that I cannot present the question and begin to formulate some relevant arguments and possibilities. After all, a Ph.D. is not only a completion of a particular research project but it should also represent the beginning of something exciting and the beginning of new discussion and analytical possibilities.


In general, some of the philosophical concerns expressed here (not an exhaustive list) are ongoing concerns and are a part of a wider ongoing debate in academia. As mentioned, I am not expecting or expected to provide any solid, definite answers to these philosophical questions, but I am expecting to be able to contribute appropriately to ongoing discussions and debate about these, and more, issues.


May 22, 2018

Initial Thoughts and Ideas of the Definition and Philosophy of Discourse Analysis

Emergent research designs are shaped by what you observe in your qualitative data. This can include part of the design, perhaps such as the methods that you use to analyse your data or holistic reconfigurations which can include your research questions and even research directions. This is what I am finding with my research design at the moment. I am finding that I am being drawn to characteristics and aspects of the data that are not likely to be captured by grounded theory, but I previously thought they could. I was wondering which methodological direction I could turn or perhaps use in addition to Grounded Theory. I found usefulness in graph theory or network analysis but this still, as far as I can currently understand, is not able to capture the characteristics that I really want to study and explore the most in relation to the phenomenon of interest and characteristics of that phenomenon. After thinking about this further and in conversation with my supervisor I returned to reading about a method I had previously read about but did not think was relevant, till now (plenty of this happening recently!) and that method is Discourse analysis.


Discourse analysis is a complex, fluid, flexible and adaptable set of ideas, competencies, approaches and methods suitable for the analysis of discourse and language use that can be situated with a variety of different theoretical and philosophical theories and ideologies. Because I have only just begun rereading the relevant literature and contextualise the literature within my own philosophical and theoretical frameworks, this blog post briefly sets out some of my initial thoughts of the definitions and philosophies of Discourse Analysis.


Thoughts about definitions


Discourse analysis is, unsurprisingly, the analysis of discourse and language that occurs in a variety of different contexts and situations. Unsurprisingly therefore, many authors of papers and textbooks note the difficulty in creating a universal definition of discourse because different contexts and situations creates different emphasise, types, structures and formations of discourse. Educational discourse, for example, would be different to political discourse, which in turn would be different to scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention there are many internal differences e.g., Educational discourse differs depending on the its purpose and context e.g., teacher-learner discourse is different to, say, student-student discourse. Teacher-learner discourse could be based on power relationships and acknowledgement of authority whilst student-student discourses could emphasise learner empowerment and the impact of democratic classrooms.

I am beginning to align with the perspective of Julianne Cheek where in a paper titled, “At the margins? Discourse Analysis and Qualitative Research” the author argues that to understand discourse analysis is to effectively understand our own theoretical and philosophical positions because discourse analysis can effectively be placed within any theoretical or philosophical orientation. Julianna Cheek situates discourse analysis within Foucauldian Theory, Post Structualism, and Post Modernism; therefore, the author situates their discussions and applications of discourse analysis within those theoretical frameworks.

A while ago I came to the point where I do not consider myself a post structuralist or post modernist in relation to my own views of the phenomenon of interest and I have further acknowledged this through disagreeing with a quote by an author named Parker who in 1992 suggests that all objects of reality and perhaps reality itself is created by our own discourses and language. I find this a little difficult to accept within Educational circles because in a social learning situation where learners disagree, the person who disagrees with another’s claim needs to present an alternative claim and, ideally, some sort of evidence. Where has this evidence come from? If this evidence has come from an external source then it cannot be possibly suggested (from my current understanding) that evidence is constructed by our discourses and language because this evidence has a real, external existence and would exist independent of our own ideas and awareness of it. What might be more correct to suggest, possibly, is that it is not evidence that is constructed by the learners but the discourse and language that is contained within and surrounds the use of this particular piece of evidence in relation to a claim being made within the context of, for example, challenging another claim. Here you have important questions such as what is the relationship between evidence and claim? What is the nature of the evidence? What is the nature of the claim? What is the nature of the relationship? In what way is the other claim being opposed? What are the discourse and language structures being applied? In what way do these differ from person to person and from context to context? It’s a complex field and that’s just a basic example, from what I can currently understand!


Philosophical Thoughts


It’s quite an idea to get your head around: to best understand discourse analysis is to best understand your own philosophical ideas, because it is your philosophical frameworks, both ontological and epistemological, that determines the way in which you frame your qualitative data and your framing of the way in which discourse can be and shall be analysed.

As I have discussed on this blog, I align more with a realist ontology than a relativist ontology (I’ve also hinted towards this in the previous section) and therefore I have difficulties in accepting definitions of discourse that suggest that reality itself is constructed by our discourses and language. I am developing my arguments and critiques of this but it suffices to say currently that perhaps in some cases it is not that the object itself is created by our discourses and language, but it is the meaning and interpretations that we apply to an object that is constructed by our language and discourse but that doesn’t mean that our discourse reflects the reality of it and that doesn’t mean that each account is equally true.

Another observation I have made in the literature is that some authors associate discourse analysis with Social Constructionism. I have talked about Social Constructionism briefly previously on this blog, and what I have found with the previous readings of Social Constructionism is that it does not necessarily align itself with a relativist ontology as some authors attempt to make out (remember though that papers and textbooks are usually written to align with an author’s conceptions of reality) but that it is ontologically neutral. I have to reread the literature on Social Constructionism again but from what I can remember and what I can remember writing about it, Social constructionism as an epistemology can work with varieties of realism as well as relativism. Whichever Social Constructionism is situated ontological depends on you and your conceptualisations of reality.

The philosophical concerns of discourse analysis appear to be very open for debate and therefore there does not appear to be any universally acceptable definition or philosophical positioning of Discourse Analysis. This very much depends on the understanding that you have of yourself and your own philosophical positioning.

This is all work in progress but I do feel that there is a place for Discourse Analysis in my research as it aligns now with the way I have been observing and exploring the data and my observations of Grounded Theory being able to capture what I have been observing. Whether or not I keep Grounded Theory and Graph Theory approach, and whether or not this research is going to be multi-method or mixed methods, depends entirely on the way that I can use discourse analysis, and the way in which it can complement other approaches. A blog post shall be written either soon or sometime in the future about my initial thoughts of the methodological thoughts of discourse analysis.

It’s a complex field!

‘till next time!


April 06, 2018

Some Current Thoughts on the Qualitative Strand and Open Coding

There has to be a sense of emergence where codes are derived from data and categories are derived from codes. This idea of emergence makes sense as I have not been able to identify an existing framework that is suitable and relevant for the type of data I am using and the way that I am now exploring the phenomenon of interest, and therefore, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses must emerge from the data.


I read an interesting paper the other day where an author aligned the idea of an emergent approach with the realist ontology: truth emerges from the data after a continuous cycle of coding and recoding, but this brings about a couple of problems. First of all, what is defined as truth and of being true? How can it be measured? How can I know that something is true even after going through continuous cycles of coding and recoding? How can I know that this truth emerges from the data and not simply a reflection of my interpretations of the data? Is it absolute truth that emerges from the data or is it that with each coding and recoding I could come closer to the truth without completely attaining it? How do I know either way? Is there some set criteria for truth? If so, then would this criteria itself represent truth if it’s simply been constructed by another human being? Would it therefore be better to consider the set criteria is bringing one closer to the truth rather than mirroring the location of absolute truth?


One thing I do know is when I think about the qualitative strand, the purpose that it brings to the research, and what I currently would like to achieve with the strand, allowing the data to speak for itself; to enable this “voice” to emerge naturally and to code in accordance to what is believed to be occurring within the data makes sense. And this is where it is interesting because some authors suggest that enabling the data to speak for itself (please note that data do not literally speak!) and to therefore let understanding and meaning emerge from the data, but it is clear that there is an interpretation process happening. We as researchers interpret what we are observing in the data and attach to chunks of data what actions and events we believe are occurring within that data segment. Question here therefore is what is the relationship between truth and meaning? Is meaning objective and already exist within the “voice” of the data? Or, do we define meaning and apply it to what we perceive or interpret to be happening within the data? There are techniques within grounded theory such as theoretical sampling and constant comparisons that provide some answers to these questions but to what extent is truth realised by just grounded theory alone? Can ultimate truth really be attained?


What is the purpose of the qualitative strand within a mixed methods approach? From what I have been rereading, mixed methods can be used to build and test a theory, theoretical constructs, relationships and hypotheses. Their development occurs in the qualitative strand and then tested in the quantitative strand, and therefore adding an extra dimension of richness, integrity, authenticity, verifiability and validity to the research design.


A question I am working on at the moment given that Grounded Theory is part of the qualitative strand is to what extent do I use grounded theory? I have now more or less worked out the initial phase of qualitative data analysis, and this initial phase shall consist of Open Coding also known as Initial Coding. I think this is more or less a definite because it is through Open Coding or Initial Coding that meaningful data segments are labelled with suitable codes that describe what is happening; where a technique known as constant comparison is used to identify similarities, differences and variances, and where (in broad terms) these similarities, differences and variances contribute towards categorical development. I have recoded my data a few times and so far I have lots of codes, and some initial categories developing but shall now have to recode the data since developing new ideas about the research design and about the way I want to explore the phenomenon of interest. And also because I understand the data more now. This leads me to an interesting thought: not only do our theoretical understanding of what is occurring in the data develops over time along with the need for particular research design elements (assuming emergent research design), but also understanding of the data itself emerges from the way that we perceive and interpret what is going on. There is an interesting relationship going on here between our own perceptions and interpretations, the development of these perceptions, and the data itself. What role does the data play in this relationship?

I can begin to observe what I had not previously observed and I can understand the grounded theory techniques better than before. I have started to draw out the steps and phases of the new research design with the current focus on the qualitative strand. I understand more now about categorical development and have outlined more questions I want to ask about the data as I proceed with recoding the data and continue to develop categories.


Aligned with my philosophical beliefs, I believe that there is a truth out there behind the process of the phenomenon of investigation but whether or not this real truth can occur only from coding and recoding for the context of my research is doubtful. But a mixed methods design perhaps could lead me closer to that ontological truth without actually reaching absolute truth. Aligned with my epistemological beliefs, the logical process (abductive) that underlies my use of grounded theory (develop hypotheses inductively from the data and use deductive methods to test the hypotheses against the data) aligns with my beliefs that knowledge is not certain and absolute. We need to continuously think about the data, think about what is happening in the data, think about how we interpret the data and how we know what we know to be true or perceive to be truth (meta-Philosophy) as long as everything is grounded in the data. All hypotheses, ideas, observations, and thoughts must be grounded in the data. We need to question our own biases and acknowledge them. All this while we maintain our sanity long enough to do so!


A big question that I have next is: when I have all the codes, and have developed all the categories and identified relationships between each category and the relevant properties and dimensions, what then? Grounded theorists talk about bringing everything together to form a theory whilst other grounded theorists discuss the idea of linking categories together to identify relationships in a process known as Axial Coding. I think I am currently leaning towards axial coding or some sort of coding technique that enables me to relate categories, because it is through the relation of categories and really understanding the way that categories interact with each other could I then begin to understand the way that the particular learning phenomenon of interest progresses from start to conclusion. This is challenging and whilst I shall try to work it all out for the sake of the diagrams I am drawing out as plans, the only way I think I am going to know for sure what I shall do is to simply do the coding. But the way I am viewing this at the moment is whilst the categories in themselves explain what is happening with certain parts of the phenomenon, by themselves they do not explain the process. There needs to be that extra step that identifies the process and the relationships therefore between elements of this process in order to better explain the phenomenon.


Once I have developed the ideas of the way I am going to approach the qualitative strand I shall then deal with the quantitative strand, fit everything within a mixed methods scenario if proven to be the most appropriate strategy, as well as a case study methodology if necessary, and then actually test my ideas against the data and remodify accordingly after receiving feedback from the supervisor.


‘till next time!


December 15, 2017

Reflections Of The Year!

It has now come to that time of year where I begin to wind down for Christmas and begin reflecting on what has occurred during the year: the changes to my thesis, philosophical beliefs, methodological directions and understanding of the phenomena of interest, and what I can carry forward into the next year with significant strides and potential. And, what a year it has been! It has been a year of realisations, progress, doubt, and changes.


Reflecting on this time a year ago, I had just been assessed by the Upgrade panel and was in the middle of transitioning between philosophical and methodological directions. Because of the doubts I had of my own research methodology, which occurred after submitting the first upgrade paper but before the upgrade presentation, and the issues raised during the upgrade process, I had to resubmit the upgrade process with my new thoughts and new directions that I had been thinking about (and some which came about through discussion with the panel and my supervisor). I was forming an ontological battle in my mind. Methodologically speaking this was clear: I dropped the mixed methods approach as I had doubts about this approach, which were confirmed by the assessment panel, and kept the Grounded Theory method, but upgraded it from a method to a methodology. Grounded Theory plays a much more important role in my research now than it had previously, only I had not realised the significance of its role till just before the upgrade presentation. But ontologically it was a battle between realism and relativism: was I viewing reality as independent of my own thoughts? Is there a reality independent of my own thoughts? Or is reality simply constructed in my mind? Is reality relative and contextual, and therefore consist of no objective qualities? I eventually came to the realisation in late summertime that I am simply unable to pigeon-hole the beliefs that I have about reality, given the context of the research and of the phenomena of interest. From this realisation of the complexity of my beliefs I am now coming to the belief that my ontology is a mixture of moderate realism, along with aspects of pragmatism, complexity theory and phenomenology. Epistemologically, it appears that my beliefs about knowledge is a mixture of interpretivism and contextualism. The finer details of both sets of beliefs, such as the relationship between aspects of ontological beliefs, between aspects of epistemological beliefs and the wider relationships between ontology and epistemology (eventually working into the methodological justifications) need to be worked out more clearly and comprehensively. However, the fact that I have come to realise this diversity of my beliefs is what I could consider to be a key highlight of the year, and a key stepping point in the research progress. I am continuously questioning my own beliefs, however, and continuously reading more about ontological and epistemological theories.


The upgrade process was a really interesting experience. What was originally meant to have been a three thousand word paper eventually turned into a near seven thousand word mini dissertation! But I did enjoy this, and I felt that it really helped me to set the foundations for the eventual realisation that my philosophical beliefs are more complex than I had ever previously realised, and really helped me to focus on aspects of the phenomena I wanted to explore. But even then, things have changed or altered slightly since submitting the second upgrade paper, but that is the nature of research. It never stands still and you can never really say that what you think currently really is or will be the case in the future. I’m viewing things in the data that I had not realised before, and I’m viewing my own beliefs and questioning my own beliefs in ways that I had not originally thought of. This is a part of what I call ‘Meta Philosophy’ and during the year, especially during the summertime where I found myself becoming more consciously aware of the complexity of my philosophical beliefs, I have found this to be an increasingly important aspect of describing the foundations and roots of my research design. I have talked a fair bit about Meta Philosophy during the summertime on this blog, though I shall have much more to say about this subject in the future especially in the thesis.


As for the thesis, I feel much more focussed and settled in my mind about the directions I want to take. Even at the beginning of the year, I didn’t feel I had a lot of clarity because of the philosophical and methodological transitions that were taking place even up to late summertime. Now, whilst there are finer details to work out and explore, as there shall always be, I do feel much clearer now and have greater levels of clarity in general when it comes to my thesis, my identity as a researcher, my research design and therefore the way that I view and want to explore the phenomena of interest. I feel much clearer with the role and function of literature in my grounded theory project though I appreciate that different people will have slightly different approaches, but I feel more confident with my own approach. I will know for sure during the next year however if this approach I have in mind shall work. I feel confident that the three literature review chapters I have planned will work and will be well written and will achieve all the goals and aims that I have for each chapter. I feel that I have progressed well with drafting aspects of some of the chapters of the thesis during the year: the first literature review chapter (which I am now tentatively calling the Function of Education within a Contemporary Society), the third literature review chapter where I critique various relative learning models and theories, and the methodology chapter particularly the beginning sections where I detail the ontological and epistemological beliefs, and their impact on the selection and use of the methodology and method. Obviously this and all other chapters are work in progress, but I do feel better that after months of doubt, of questioning, of experimenting, of restructuring and rewriting the outline and exploring lots of research papers that I have a workable structure.


I just have my fingers crossed that I have what it takes to deliver a sound, comprehensive, well written, original thesis.


What are the root causes of the changes that have taken place as outlined? Along with the upgrade paper I’ve also sourced inspiration and influence from the CES Conference and the process of publishing my second research paper. I have talked much about the CES Conference during the year, but here it suffices to simply say that I am really pleased to have been afforded the opportunity to present some of my findings at the time at the conference, and the feedback I received from the audience and subsequent discussions that took place at other conference presentations were invaluable. They were invaluable because they made me realise the importance of describing and explaining some aspects of the phenomena in ways that I had previously valued but had not realised their importance to include in the thesis. Secondly, the feedback and the general conference experience enabled me to realise who I am becoming as a researcher and therefore assisted in developing my identity, which I strongly emphasised in the subsequent published reflection of the conference.


The CES experience therefore was a major highlight, as was being able to have a second research paper published based on critically reflecting upon my experience as a conference presenter and attendee. The paper included ideas I am working on regarding the impact that our epistemological beliefs have on our identity, identity development and experiences of academic conferences. Secondly, the paper contained other ideas that I have regarding the way in which conferences play a role in our professional development and thesis development. Attempts were made at identifying a relationship between the two ideas. The experience of writing and editing the paper and working with the reviewers was again invaluable to the development of thesis directions, and of who I am as a researcher.


In summary: the key highlights of the year were successfully passing of the upgrade process from MPhil (Master of Philosophy) to DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy), the successful CES conference experience, and the publication of my second paper. Also, I feel much clearer now with my thesis, with my philosophical beliefs, methodological directions and understanding of the phenomena of interest. Whilst much more work needs to be carried out, the foundations that I have laid during the year should lead to much greater and more significant strides throughout the next year. I will, of course, be keeping you all up to date via this blog!


But for now, thank you very much for the kind comments that I’ve had during the year from blog readers. It’s fascinating to know that people I’ve never met before can become so interested in what I am writing. It’s nice to think about this blog and my writings having some sort of influence on others and inspiring others in that way. That is, of course, should be a reason why we become Ph.D. students and want to be involved in the world of academia.


Thanks again for reading, and as this is the final post of the year on this blog I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year, and I look forward to writing much more on here during the next year!
 


December 13, 2017

Reflection of Applying Initial Stage of Grounded Theory, Part A: Philosophical Stance

My experiences of engaging with grounded theory at a practical level from the late summer till just a couple of weeks or so ago illuminate the importance and role of philosophical beliefs. I have confirmed to myself since the summertime that the philosophical stance of a researcher not only gives rise to the need of grounded theory, but also determines philosophy-data-source compatibility. I have come to realise over the past few months that different types of text documents hold differing existence properties, different knowledge characteristics, and different properties that enable access to this knowledge. Although, access to the knowledge held within text based documents are arguably realised more through the methodology and methods that are selected, rather than our philosophical beliefs. Researchers, regardless of access to held knowledge within text documents, need to think about the way in which their philosophical beliefs not only impact their engagement with reality, but also act as a lens through which different text documents are perceived and analysed. The researcher needs to be mindful of the characteristics and values held by the text documents, and the meanings, interpretations and assumptions that are placed upon each document.


As an example, an interview transcript arguably holds a constructivist or relativist existence where the document portrays or represents a single voice (relativist) and knowledge that can be a co-construction between researcher and participant (constructivist) depending on the nature, structure and purposes of the interview. A discussion transcript is more difficult to define, in my opinion, because a discussion transcript represents multiple voices and can change context and knowledge content over time. I am finding, however, that context of learning is having a profound impact on what I perceive and hypothesise what is occurring within the data. This context is not just the environment within which the research is taking place, but also the context of the learning content, which is altering and shaping the course of the learning that takes place, and the knowledge that occurs.


As has been documented on this blog, during the summertime I came to the realisation that my ontological and epistemological beliefs are more complex than I had previously been consciously aware of, hence I was not able to align my beliefs with a single pre-existing ontological or epistemological perspective or theory. What I have arrived at now is the realisation and awareness of my ontological beliefs being a mixture of realism, pragmatism and complexity theory, and my epistemological beliefs leaning towards interpretivism and contextualism. This, I feel, at least in part, lies at the intersection between the philosophical grounding of Glaser, Strauss, Charmaz and Bryant.


What does that mean in the actual practice of using grounded theory? I am still working through my ideas (I have no doubt that this shall also be the case beyond the Ph.D. but that is the nature of research), but currently the impact that my ontological and epistemological beliefs on my use and understanding of grounded theory are briefly described as follows:


Ontological beliefs:


Realism: my belief that there is a reality independent of our minds implies that I perceive certain text documents as being capable of capturing the events and instances of learning processes, and that these events and instances occur regardless of whether or not participants are consciously aware of their existence. I suppose more generally it could be argued that learning can happen whether or not the learner is consciously aware of the fact that they are learning, or are engaged with some sort of learning activity. Since I am not a hard-line realist (I consider myself more of a moderate: subtle realism, influenced by the writings of Michael Hammersley) I do not believe that what I observe in the data fully or accurately mirrors reality itself. What I perceive to happen in the data needs further testing and exploration.


Pragmatism: it is argued that pragmatism is well suited for research that aims to change practice in some way. My issue with pragmatism however is that it does not concern itself with ontological and epistemological issues therefore it is not concerned with truth, but with usefulness. If something can be usefully applied within a practical context and if it offers real value to whoever is applying that something, then it would be considered adequate. There are aspects of Pragmatism that I do agree with regarding its use with grounded theory, such as the idea of fallibilism, with Bryant leading the way for such discussions. Fallibilism suggests that knowledge is always fallible and never represents the truth of reality, therefore, as mentioned earlier, I always accept the possibility of my emerging theory, whilst progressing towards truth, can never fully represent truth. I need to be careful here though, because whilst a theory can arguably never represent truth there cannot be two assessment systems that represent truth equally: one must be able to represent truth over the other.


Complexity Theory: learning processes, as previously described, have a complex existence. They have a complex existence because characteristics and events related a learning process could either be perceived to occur, or actually occurs, at any given point. Question: can a learning event that is actually occurring at any given point, or could probably occur, be perceived to be occurring? Another question: just because an event is perceived to be occurring, does it mean that it is actually occurring? Here we have a battle between perceptual occurrence and actual occurrence, along with the possibility or probability of occurrence. I’m dealing with phenomena here so the way that I perceive and interact with phenomena might not be in complete alignment with the intentions and beliefs of the learning participants. With this, I can also observe elements of Phenomenology in my ideas here, but these ideas are as yet incomplete and are continuing to be worked on and developed further. Another interesting aspect to the existence and occurrence of events is that context can influence what can be perceived to or can actually exist (e.g., technological environments might alter significantly what can be perceived or actualised compared to face to face learning environments).


As for my epistemological beliefs:

Interpretivism: There is an element of interpretation because coding data segments is based on my perceptions of what is occurring or happening within the data: the events, patterns, happenings, relationships, objects, instances etc. The knowledge that I gain from the transcripts that I analyse using grounded theory is really an interpretation: I interpret data segments to mean something and I label each data segment with a relevant code to represent the meaning I place upon that data segment. Here, however, is where my realist ontological beliefs come into play: because I view reality as being independent of my beliefs and that truth is a progressive journey, I have the belief that my knowledge and interpretations do not mirror reality itself. Therefore, my interpretations, hypotheses etc that are products of the data analysis are tested against further data, several times before being confirmed as part of the emerging theory.

Contextualism: what I am coming to realise is that subtle changes to the context within which the learning process occurs can mould and shape the direction and formation of that learning process and therefore, what I can perceive happening within the data. I think my ideas of contextualism is probably a little different to what other philosophers and authors define as contextualism, but I’m still working on these thoughts.

That’s Part A completed! The next blog post shall briefly cover the application of Grounded Theory, where I discuss the way in which I applied the initial coding stage: open coding, and the writing of memos.


October 05, 2017

Reflections Of The Past Academic Year Part B

Complexity of my Philosophical beliefs


I again have written extensively about philosophical beliefs, both ontologically and epistemologically related, particularly during the past year as I explored my ideas further and explored, and continue to explore, published philosophical literature. I found that my beliefs do not fit exactly within any particular and specific ontological framework or theory and therefore, have become consciously aware of the complexity of my ontological beliefs. For several months I have experimented with different ontological theories and frameworks and have found that I am drawing on authors and ideas related to mild forms of realism (namely Michael Hammersley’s “Subtle Realism”), Philosophical Phenomenology, and Complexity Theory. This realisation has come about through observations in the data collected so far, observations that have led me to form the belief that events and instances of concepts are perhaps not quite so straightforward in their existence and appearances that perhaps some analytical models would perhaps lead a person to believe that represents reality.


I also found this to be the case with my epistemological beliefs. I spent many months trying to fit my beliefs within a particular framework with the final attempt being with constructionism. With constructionism, I was convinced that I found a framework or theory that aligns with my own epistemological beliefs (the way that we can come to know reality). After reading further into constructionism, I came to realise that I was only agreeing with parts of the theory, and not all parts.


I am finding that I am beginning to draw on authors and concepts related to contextualism, relativism, constructivism and interpretivism.

Becoming aware of the complexity of my own beliefs has been a milestone, because this has altered my conceptions of the learning phenomenon as possessing a more complex existence than I had previously imagined. Additionally, coming to recognise the complexity of your own philosophical beliefs, and having a sound and comprehensive understanding of how you have come to recognise the nature of your own beliefs (meta-ontology and meta-epistemology, or meta-philosophy) begins to form the basis of your own identity. That is a positive step towards you becoming self-aware as a researcher, which enables you to begin to situate your identity within the complex world of academia.

It’s really important that you don’t fight against your self-awareness regardless of the extent to which your beliefs are complex. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you try to pigeon-hole your beliefs within a framework that really isn’t compatible, you start to develop a false identity based on your anxiety and unwillingness to explore further. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you don’t explore further, you would be lying to yourself, lying to your supervisor, lying to the thesis assessment panel, and lying to the academic community. Be real.

Multiple Literature Reviews


The fourth key milestone is the development of multiple literature reviews. I will talk more at length about this in the future, but at the moment it suffices to say that I have become aware of the possibilities of structuring and outlining the thesis in different ways. Through reading through more literature on constructing literature reviews, I have become more aware of my own aims and objectives with the literature review. And the complexity of these aims, the amount of different aims as well as the different types of literature that shall be used within the thesis has led me to believe that multiple literature reviews are required.


Each literature review deals with a set of particular aims and different types of literature, and each subsequent literature review builds on the ideas and concepts presented in the previous chapter. The first literature review chapter deals with the backdrop as discussed in a previous blog post. The second literature review chapter deals with specific debates and discussions regarding specific concepts related to the phenomenon of interest and relevant to the research. The third literature review chapter critically evaluates existing analytical models pertaining to identifying and assessing the learning phenomenon. Then following all these literature reviews shall be a summary section that provides a summary of my arguments regarding the need for the research.


I do feel better with developing three literature reviews as in my opinion, trying to write a single literature review chapter that serves to achieve multiple goals and objectives and utalises a variety of different types of literature would make the literature review appear disjointing. Patterns of thought and the development of argumentation would not be easy to follow through.


Developing three literature review style chapters entails a logical, progressive narrative of conceptual and argument development and progress where each chapter logically develops and progresses the concepts presented in the previous chapter(s). Idea and concept development shall be easier to follow therefore, and reading shall be more flowing and easier and comprehendible.


Summary:


I feel that it’s been a successful academic year with key milestones reached and achieved.

After the brief time off I can plan to move forwards and progress with developing the theory, and produce the best thesis that I can possibly write!


September 13, 2017

Phenomenology: what is it, and what are its possibilities for my Research?

Phenomenology has been defined as both a philosophical perspective and as a basis for various research programs and methodologies. My current understanding and interest of Phenomenology leads me to focussing on it as a philosophical movement as founded and discussed by the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl. Whilst I am sure that a phenomenological ontology can lead to a phenomenological research design it is not my intention to carry out a phenomenological study. Therefore, discussions of phenomenology as a research methodology are not relevant for this blog. At least, not at this time. My understanding of Phenomenology is continuous, therefore this blog post represents a snapshot of what phenomenology is.

What is Phenomenology?


There are many definitions of Phenomenology, but I shall focus this discussion on the definitions of it by its founder Edmund Husserl, who originally discussed phenomenology within the context of realism. It is the study of phenomena, the ways in which we experience phenomena, and what the structures of these experiences are, all from a first-person perspective. It can be suggested that phenomenology also includes the study of the relationship between phenomena, experience, and experiential structures in relation to that phenomena being experienced. Experiential structures is considered a main focus of Phenomenology, and various structures have been defined including intentionality, consciousness (of objects), perception, self-awareness, and consciousness of the self and others.


Phenomenology offers descriptive accounts of experiences with little or no concern with causes or explanations of these experiences. This is because, according some writer suggestions, causes and explanations are concepts situated exclusively within the natural sciences and not contexts appropriate to phenomenology, notably social sciences and qualitative contexts. However, this is a subject of much debate, with writers and researchers arguing for and against the adoption of causal and explanatory accounts within social sciences. On a personal note, I have the belief that causes and explanations can be play a role in understanding social reality and social phenomena from a qualitative perspective, particularly theoretical development projects that uses grounded theory as the methodology. Although my research does not use grounded theory to discover and explain causes, grounded theory is used to develop a theory that provides non-causal explanations and understandings of specific learning phenomena


Phenomenology suggests that experience always involves some sort of object of reality. We cannot experience something without having an object of experience, therefore we cannot have an experience ‘about’ something or an experience ‘with’ something. It has to be an experience ‘of’ something. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘of’ defines a point of orientation, and hence when we experience something there has to be an object of that experience that exists and that we can experience. Before experiencing an object however, we must be consciously aware of that object’s existence and therefore, I find it difficult to agree with the notion of separating and isolating fully an object’s existence and the experience that it provides. How can something be experienced if you have not considered the existence of that something? This, I am coming to know, is not an easy question to answer in the social world because in the social world, what comes to existence is a result of interactions between people. More specifically, certain types of interactions bring about the existence of certain social objects.


Going deeper there is a question (of many): if interactions bring about the existence of certain objects, is it the process of interaction itself that brings social objects into existence or is it that the participants of that interaction are consciously aware of its existence? This leads to another question: can we be consciously aware of the existence or, perhaps better to suggest, the possibility of existence of social objects before engaging with interactions? We could, based on our reflections of previous interactions, but here we are thinking abstractly or theoretically and therefore, we cannot call abstracts an experience. This is because we would be thinking ‘about’ something, not thinking ‘of’ or experiencing ‘of’ something, or be conscious ‘of’ something. We would simply be thinking or being conscious about the possibilities and not experiencing the actualities, as far as I can currently understand. To be conscious we must be conscious of something, and therefore when we say that we are consciously aware we are effectively stating that we are consciously aware of a particular object.


This is just a snapshot of my current and ever developing thinking of the idea of consciousness and its relationship with awareness, experience, objects and existence. It’s a huge subject!


The Possibility of Phenomenology in my Research


A typical phenomenological project involves exploring the way in which participants experience the phenomena, with relevant data of such experiences collected most commonly using interviews. This is not what I am thinking about though. What I am thinking about is using phenomenology as a mode of introspection, self-analysis and self-reflection, which is a part of being conscious of who we are as Ph.D. researchers and therefore is a fundamental part of the Ph.D. experience. The Ph.D. and each example of a Ph.D. experience such as writing a journal paper, writing the thesis, attending a conference, attending specific presentations, setting up a seminar, etc., could all be explored phenomenologically.


When I read through some of the transcripts that I have collected, I observe things. I observe happenings, events, actions and possibilities that the participants appear not to have been able to perceive or realise. I can view beyond what the transcripts are telling me. I can hypothesise and theorise about what is happening, and what might happen in the future within similar situations in other transcripts. Using Grounded Theory, I can test and evaluate these hypotheses and develop them as part of the theory if necessary. But why? Why am I able to perceive social objects resulting from certain interactions but the participants were not able to perceive them? Do social objects that I perceive or become consciously aware of exists in reality at the time of perceiving or being aware of their existence, or possible existence? If not, then how can I perceive what exists and is there a need to hypothesise their existence and test against similar conditions and situations using grounded theory? How does this compare to what is perceived by the participants? How can I claim to know that what I perceive is real? What is the nature of my own awareness as a researcher?

More questions: What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound? What if I am able to be aware of the existence or occurrence of a social object but the research participants did not become aware of such? Would that mean there is an issue with my own awareness or their awareness? These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?


So many questions! Essentially, I am interested in investigating and exploring my own consciousness and awareness, and the ways in which these affect the experiences that I have and what I can perceive that others do not, and perhaps try to reason out why. This is, obviously, an ongoing process!


September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part C

The problem I had with critical realism was, to maximise the potential of critical realism, I had to use multiple data collection sources and ideally access to the beliefs and thoughts of the participants. The more I thought about the implications of the context of my research (e.g., I had no access to participant beliefs and perspectives, and they were not required to complete the core aim of the research), the more I realised that this was too risky an option to take. I doubted that I would be able to complete the Ph.D. or make a quality Ph.D. with critical realism, given the new awareness of the research context. Other reasons why critical realism would no longer work include its stratification of reality (reality split in multiple layers termed the real, the empirical, and the actual: read tutorials on critical realism if you are interested in knowing these further) and its emphasis on locating causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms are multiple, unobservable objects that are theorised to have produced an observation or an event. Whilst applying critical realism to my own beliefs and context it was decided that there was no way I could identify causal mechanisms in the way that critical realism prescribes them. And, besides, the research is based on increasing understanding of the process of a particular learning encounter as well as explaining the way in which this process evolves over time and hence, evaluate its quality. I simply cannot find a way in which causal mechanisms can play a part in this and, also, the data collection methods used simply do not provide the appropriate data to identify causal mechanisms. I had to change tactics.


After reading many papers I came across Michael Hammersley’s ‘Subtle Realism.’ This aligns perfectly with my ontological beliefs: that there is a reality and objects of reality that exists independently of our conceptions of them, but that we shall never fully attain the truth of reality. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards truth through critically evaluating our conceptions and reformulating our conceptions of reality. Subtle Realism I have found works well in terms of framing my understanding of the nature and structure of social reality, and the way in which social reality behaves in certain learning contexts.


But the more I read about social ontology and social reality, which refers to social interactions and their nature, the more I became aware of something else that I was doing incorrectly. Perhaps not actually incorrectly, but in a particular way that could be enhanced (how can I assume that I was incorrect at the time if I cannot assume with absolute certainty that I am correct now, etc.)


Objects of the social world differs to that of the natural world. In the natural world objects such as trees, mountains, rivers and weather systems exist outside of our conceptions of them. We do not need to conceive, perceive or become aware of these objects in order for them to exist in reality: they exist regardless of whether or not we have any knowledge of them. In the social world, this is different, and after a while of trying to develop arguments about the existence of social objects I have come to the following couple of key questions: does our consciousness play an important part in the existence of social objects? If we are not consciously aware of the existence of a social object at a particular time during an interaction, does that social object have any existence?


I didn’t think about the role of consciousness before because I was too focussed on the social objects themselves detached from our consciousness. But as I have thought about some of the data that I have collected I was beginning to perceive the existence of social objects that the participants had not perceived. I also noticed differing perceptions among participants: some could perceive certain events whilst others did not, and it is interesting to think about why this might be the case and to test any hypothesis that might be developed. I have many questions, some of which were presented as part of a post yesterday, and ideas forming about the role of consciousness and is therefore a current and ongoing task.


What I do know or am coming to know (and I appreciate that I might not be completely correct at this time, or at any other time) is that subtle realism does not appear to address the role of consciousness with regards to the existence of social objects. But I think with some workarounds it can be used to represent or contribute towards understanding the role of consciousness. I am unsure at this time if subtle realism can be worked around to accommodate consciousness, but upon a search of literature I have found possibilities but have yet to read through these papers to gain a full understanding of what might be possible.


What is known, however, is that I am finding myself returning to a perspective I once dismissed as being irrelevant but now coming to know that it might actually be relevant for my philosophical conceptions, and that is Phenomenology. It might be relevant because phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of our consciousness including perceptions and awareness.


Reexploring Phenomenology and its possible relevance to my research is another continuous and ongoing task, and shall be the subject of a blog post coming at a later time!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part B

As a research philosophy, Constructivism emphasises an active relationship between researcher and participant. This is to mean that the researcher co-constructs, negotiates and validates meaning and knowledge with the participants. Truth, meaning, knowledge, understanding and our knowing about the phenomenon of interest is not discovered or interpreted, but is constructed or developed. Therefore, constructivism suggests that there are multiple truths and that no single truth is more valid than the other truths. For various reasons, I was beginning to experience problems with this conception of understanding the phenomenon of interest. Firstly, because I have no actual involvement with any of the participants, therefore, there is no co-construction occurring between myself and the participants. Secondly, because the intention is to contribute to classroom practice it is impossible to conceive of multiple truths. Products that are developed for practice-based disciplines cannot function on the idea of multiple truths, because you cannot have, for example, two models that evaluate the same aspects of critical thinking. One model has to be viewed as being more true to the reality of critical thinking, based on some criteria set, than the other. You can have, however, two models that evaluates different aspects of critical thinking, but not same aspects.


Once I realised this, I realised that I was conflating truth, meaning, understanding and knowledge in terms of the way in which we come to understand each of these terms in our research contexts. They had to be treated separately and differently to the way I was conceiving them. But in what way? Where could I possibly begin? What on Earth does it mean to have single truth and in what way can I come to understand what this truth is? I came to understand that my philosophical beliefs of the time were not compatible with the research context. I could not possibly continue with a constructivist philosophy given my new awareness of the research context and given the nature of a practice-based discipline. And then, I came to know the philosophical concept of ontology, and I realised my mistake: I was conflating ontology and epistemology. I was treating knowledge that we have of reality as mirroring reality itself. I came to know ontology as a separate study unit in itself, so I embarked on separating epistemology and ontology, and studied them further. I shall discuss the journey of epistemology another time.


Now that I separated ontology and epistemology I could focus on understanding my own beliefs of the nature and structure of reality itself. Remember that ontological beliefs refer to our beliefs about the nature and structure of reality, and epistemological beliefs refer to our beliefs about attaining knowledge about this reality. As I read papers and book chapters of ontological books, I came to understand that I didn’t perceive reality as internal within our minds, but that there is a reality external to our minds. In other words, that there is a reality independent of our knowledge and conceptions of it. This was actually a revelation, and not something that I expected. However, now was the time to find out where my developing beliefs could be situated within the existing ontological frameworks and beliefs.


As I reflect on this point in my journey, I remember that I still had that behaviour of trying to pigeon hole my beliefs or fit my beliefs into a pre-existing set of ideals and frameworks. Why was this? I think it was initially more to do with convenience because I was trying to understand the existing frameworks that are available to possibly evaluate and critique them whilst attempting to apply them to my own set of beliefs. With the awareness and understanding I have now, I find it neigh-on impossible to situate my beliefs within any single existing framework. But at the time I just wanted a better understanding.


After reading widely around the topic of philosophy I came across the notion of realism, and this supports the idea that there is a reality out there independent of our conceptions of it. But what version? There are many versions available and it took me a while to align myself with the correct ontology, or what I thought was the correct and relevant ontology. I did settle on critical realism for a fair while due to my research methodological approach of mixed methods. But I came across problems in the mixed methods approach and, therefore, critical realism.


I had to question and really contemplate my ideas about reality, as discussed in Part C!


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