All 16 entries tagged Ontology

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September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part A

I am hoping that I have made clear the importance and value of understanding your own ontological beliefs so far in writing this blog. This is not to suggest that you should know everything about ontology as this would be a pretty impossible task unless you were doing a Ph.D. specifically in dealing with ontological issues. But, I do feel that it is important to engage with ontological issues in the context of your research, in terms of attempting to understand your own ontological beliefs, to situate these beliefs within the wider published field of ontology, and the way in which your ontological beliefs shape your overall research design. For me, this has been a long journey of twists, turns, introspection, doubting, experimenting and challenging my own ideas. And, this is a journey that is still unfolding itself!

The changes that have occurred with my ontological (and epistemological) beliefs over the years lead to the following question: is it that we actively construct and alter our beliefs of reality? Or is it that we simply become more aware of the complexity of reality itself and of our beliefs about this reality? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is the role of a Ph.D. candidate to explore their own beliefs, and to situate them within the wider published frameworks and theories. I originally thought of this as straight forward, but really, it isn’t, despite the way in which some academic textbooks attempt to portray it as straightforward. Situating beliefs and trying to find where they fit within the wider literature can depend on the research problem, the research context, and the overall, general discipline within which a researcher is situated. But even then, research problems and research contexts can be philosophised in several ways, and can therefore be explored using a variety of different approaches sometimes in combination.

When I first began the Ph.D. I was convinced that I was a constructivist. I conceived reality and knowledge of reality as a personally constructed entity with no real objective existence. Therefore, I had the idea at the time that everyone constructed their own truths and it was the job of the constructivist to find out the way that people perceived the truth of certain aspects of reality based on their experience. My preference towards constructivism was driven by my favourable position towards constructivism as a teaching and learning theory. However, as I found out fairly quickly into the Ph.D., constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is completely different to its philosophical orientation.

The idea of constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is that learners are able to construct their own understanding and knowledge about subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher. Learners are active participants in their learning, and through experimentation and collaboration they build their understanding and knowledge. This is in some sense similar to constructivism as a research philosophy: researchers construct their knowledge of what is going on within a research setting through actively participating within the setting, typically through co-constructing and negotiating meaning and knowledge with the research participants. What is usually found is each participant constructs their own truth about reality therefore leading to multiple truths, and constructivism treats truth of all perspectives as the same.

Whilst this might initially be appealing, I did come across stumbling blocks as I shall discuss in Part B!

August 19, 2017

Should Ph.D. candidates be talking meta–ontology and meta–epistemology?

Continuing to engage with writing the first drafts of various sections of my thesis, and this week I began to redevelop and construct an outline of some of the sections of the literature review. A part of the literature review shall refer to theories of epistemology (knowledge) and justification (methods of providing evidence or reasons of any claims about reality). The section is being written to link with other sections relating to collaborative learning and collaborative technologies and therefore attempting to write a reflective, critical narrative of existing, relevant literature. I want this to flow logically and not be disjointed. This is ongoing work.

As part of this task I have been rereading many different theories of knowledge and justification to identify theories that I can critique and relate to various aspects of the research phenomena of interest. What I have unexpectedly discovered during this reading is that not only can I critique and relate theories of knowledge and justification to different phenomena of research interest, but also relate some of the theories to research design. Many textbooks advise Ph.D. candidates to discuss and explain their ontological and epistemological beliefs and their impact on the research design, but they do not appear, from what I can understand, to request students to go further and jump up to the next level of abstraction. What do I mean by this? I’ll provide an example.

I have the belief that in the social world or social reality there are objective objects that exist independently of our consciousness and mental activities: we do not need to be consciously aware of their existence in order for them to actually exist (I’ll be describing this term in more detail in the thesis). But how do I know this? How do I know that there are objects out there that exist in that way? On what grounds have I based these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I have developed these beliefs reliably?

Similar questions can be applied to my epistemological beliefs (which, as explained in the previous blog post, are changing; or, more accurately, I have become aware of their incorrectness). Therefore, in addition to discussing and explaining my epistemological beliefs and their relationship to my ontological beliefs, I should also be asking about the genesis of these beliefs. How do I know that the way that I perceive the acquirement of knowledge is correct? Where do my epistemological beliefs come from? On what grounds do I base these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I’ve developed these beliefs reliability? And in the changes to epistemological beliefs over the years I should ask an extra question: did my epistemological beliefs change, or did I become more consciously aware of their existence? Either way, I need to ask more general questions: on what grounds were these changes made? How exactly did this change occur? Why did the change occur? What impact have these changes had on my research?

I guess these can be loosely termed meta-ontology and meta-epistemology. I am talking here about going beyond the level of discussing, explaining and justifying our ontological and epistemological beliefs to discussing how these beliefs were made, why they were made, and the grounds upon which we have formed these beliefs. This is an extra level of discussion and an extra level of abstraction that does not contend with discussing the acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves. Acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves shall be judged by the general criteria of the research project. What I am talking about is the method or approach that we have taken to form, come to know, become aware of, and ground our ontological and epistemological beliefs. I appreciate that some people might not view the worth of such discussions. I’m not entirely sure myself as I’ve only just thought about this since writing the previous blog post, but I think it is something that is worth thinking about further. Also, I am not entirely sure that, if these discussions do go ahead, they should be a part of the methodology chapter of if discussions should be in a separate chapter perhaps based on researcher reflexivity.

These are all tentative, initial ideas, but might be something worth pushing for. I shall have to ask for advice on this from my supervisor but I think perhaps discussing the core question how we know what we know should be considered more important.

Keep asking questions and never think that any idea is ridiculous because at Ph.D. level anything is possible. Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but the strength of argumentation!

July 21, 2017

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

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

The Methodology Chapter

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

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

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

Research Journal Article:

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

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

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

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


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

July 07, 2017

Update On The Methodology Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 21, 2017

The Conceptual Confusions and Ontological Fluidity of Social Constructionism

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

Conceptual differences

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

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

Ontological Neutrality And Fluidity

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

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

What does this mean for my research specifically?

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

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

March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

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

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

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

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

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

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

My Stance: Ontological Realism

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

February 26, 2017

Philosophical Domains

Three Domains Of Philosophy

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

The Philosophy Of The Self

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

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

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

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

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

The Philosophy Of Research Design

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

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

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

The Philosophy Of The Phenomenon Of Interest

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

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

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

Domain Interconnection

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2017

The Problem With Reality

Positivist perspective suggests reality is fully independent of human perceiving, thinking, knowing and knowledge of that reality, with all knowledge of that reality being readily accessible to the researcher through objectivist methods e.g., experimental methods and closed ended surveys. Interpretivism suggests reality is fully constructed within the mind, therefore fully dependent on the mind, and therefore no reality or aspect of reality exists independently of human perception or knowledge of it therefore our understanding and knowledge of reality mirrors reality itself. Realism suggests that there is a reality independent of the human mind but we cannot ever attain a full understanding of it, whilst Pragmatism does not really care either way (basically). At least, this is the way that onotological beliefs are presented in typical academic texts and research papers but in reality (no pun intended) there are nuances within each therefore the spectrum of ontological beliefs is more complex than what most authors tend to express. And, this is where my problem is.

Typically, a researcher at the ontological level is defined as either a realist, where there is a reality independent of the human mind, or a non-realist, where to some extent the researcher perceives reality as being dependent on the human mind. But in the context of my research and as a researcher, I find it difficult to imagine a reality that is completely independent of all human perceiving, understanding, and knowing. There simply cannot be a reality that is completely independent of the human mind when it comes to social sciences because humans are far too complex socially, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and psychology to simply dismiss as empty states within research projects. Researchers also cannot be treated as empty states completely divorced from any influence upon the research process, as they come with a background of experience, perspectives, knowledge and preconceptions. Conversely, there simply cannot be a reality that is fully dependent on the mind of the participant or the researcher; in other words, I find it difficult if not impossible to imagine a reality that is constructed solely by our language, thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of that reality. This is primarily because ordinary observers can be misguided in some way with their thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of reality: just because we observe empirically that a stick bends in water does not mean that a stick really bends when it enters water. The mental states that are involved with developing our thoughts and perceptions might not be functioning properly, and therefore perceive objects that might not actually exist, or have certain thoughts that do not mirror what is really going on in that reality external to the observer, or believer. Or, we might have a sound set of mental states involved with the production of our perceptions and interpretations, but objects might be perceived differently based on our knowledge schemes and definitions of these objects. I’ll give an example:

Is a mountain bike a mountain bike because of a successful mapping between our knowledge schema and the reality of a bike? Or is it a mountain bike because of the way that we perceive its behaviour perhaps based on an internal knowledge schema: that it moves and functions as a mountain bike? Or is it a bit of both? What about if the mountain bike has a wheel missing: can it then be called a mountain bike if we define a bike in its characteristic of being able to move and transport a person from place to place? Can it still be called a bike just because it is similar to our knowledge schema of it? What about a bike that is left to rust for many many years and is no longer functional? Is a bike still a bike even if it can therefore change its formation from time to time?

A key ontological question here is: does a mountain bike really exist in itself, in its own form within reality, or does the mountain bike exist in accordance with the internal knowledge schema and successful mapping of this schema onto reality? It can be tentatively suggested here that a bike or a form of a bike really exists independent of our knowledge of that bike whether a person knows of a bike or not. A mountain bike might not exist in a person’s world, but that is not to suggest that it doesn’t exist at all: it has simply yet to be discovered. Now this is important because if we say that a mountain bike really exists in reality then we simply discover it, and the knowledge schema in our minds about a bike’s formation is simply an interpretation of what it really is. Another, shorter, example: some argue that a tree is a tree because it is a tree: it exist independently of our imagination and our minds therefore it is simply waiting to be discovered and not perceived or constructed. Others argue that a tree is a tree because we define or interpret it as a tree: a tree still needed to be defined in the first place as a tree, therefore its general shape and behaviour is interpreted as a tree.

What I am thinking currently is, in order to perceive an object of reality, that object has to have existed or exist in some form within the external reality. We simply could not have perceived a tree to be a tree or a bike to be a bike if some sort of formation that led to such definitions had not existed in the first place. Therefore in the context of my research work on learning processes within the social sciences, there has to be an independent reality or, more likely, there has to be aspects of learning processes that exist independently of my own understanding and knowledge of those aspects and independent of the understanding and knowledge of the participants. When we think about an interpretivist perspective, surely my interpreting of these aspects or objects of a learning process entail the existence of these objects, but those interpretations are what they are: fallible notions and theories of what is going on, and therefore susceptible to constant revision.

Therefore, interpretation is different to construction; interpretive philosophy, therefore, has to be different in form and function to constructivism philosophy despite them sharing aspects of relativism and subjectivism; but at the moment I find it difficult to adhere completely to an interpretive philosophy because I have the belief that aspects of reality exist independently from our interpretations. All interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but it might be the case where certain interpretations are closer to what is really going on in reality than other interpretations, but in what way can this be known? Can we really find out exactly what is going on in reality? Will it really be the case that our interpretations could match exact reality? This might be difficult to realise, because of the complex backgrounds that researchers bring to data analysis of learning processes and also dependent on what aspect of the learning process they are exploring. But if the learning process or even aspects of the learning process really exists, what aspects are they? And, in what way can I tell if they really exist or if I just perceive them to really exist?

More questions can be asked: what does this all mean for an interpretivist and constructivist methodology? Remember my previous blog post about methodological liberalism: I do not believe that methodology has to be tied to a particular philosophy; therefore in my research the case study methodology and grounded theory method can align with either realism or interpretivism. But what are the implications on case study and grounded theory?

I have starting points, backed up with the firm epistemological belief that our knowledge of reality is simply an interpretation of objects, object behaviours and of their relationships, and each researcher therefore shall attain different knowledge and understanding of these objects and their relationships relative to their experiences and knowledge of the phenomena of investigation. This does not suggest, though, that there are actually multiple realities but does suggest that to some extent there are independent objects and object behaviours that are interpreted by us. As mentioned, all interpretations would not be completely right, but some might be more right than others. I have starting points so I will be building up on these.

Ideas and arguments are continuously developing, but currently in the context of my own research some questions are: what exactly are the aspects that are independent of the mind, and what aspects are dependent? To what extent, therefore, can I claim to be a realist or an interpretivist? And, although I shall be able to ground my own interpretations of the data within the data itself, in what way can I judge which interpretations and hypotheses accurately reflect reality the most? Therefore, what would be the criteria for this grounding? Would my interpretations be different to others, and if so to what extent? And in what way would this affect the validity and reliability of the new theory?

And, no, I’m not going to talk about perceptions of fairies and pixies!

March 18, 2016

Mixed Methods: Critical Realism Considered Most Suitable!

Critical realism deals with ontology! Yes!

Critical realism has been developed by the British Philosopher Ray Bhaskar as a result of combining separate philosophies: transcendental realism, which is a philosophy of science, and critical naturalism, which is a philosophy of the social sciences. It is not the aim of this blog post to explain either of them. Critical realism does not assume reality to be a single, observable, measurable, determinable layer whose actions and events are independent of the mind nor a single layer that is understandable through exploring experiences and perspectives. Critical realism assumes reality to have multiple layers containing structures and mechanisms that influence the observable and what can be experienced. It is the exploration of these structures and mechanism that provide the basis for exploration of reality using critical realism.

Unlike pragmatism, which is considered to be the most adopted philosophical perspective of mixed methods, critical realism contains ontological assumptions which are spread across three domains: the empirical, the actual, and the real. The empirical domain refers to aspects of reality that exists and can be observed or experienced directly or indirectly, the actual refers to aspects of reality that exists but might not be observed or experienced in some way, and the real refers to the structures and mechanisms that causes or influences what is observed or experienced. These structures and mechanisms are beyond the realm of human observation and experiences; they cannot be detected, known, or perceived, but can be, as defined by McVoy and Richards (2006), inferred through a research design consisting of both deductive (empirical investigation) and inductive (theory construction) processes. Where critical realism differs from all the other middle ground philosophies therefore, and what acts as the central reasoning for adoption in this mixed methods research, is that it places a focus on further understanding and explanations of these structures and mechanisms.

Relating Critical Realism To Research Context

Critical realism is a complicated middle ground philosophy probably the most complex of them all along with complexity theory, but it is a middle ground philosophy that makes the most sense for my research and for the aims of the research. The context of the Ph.D. research is not to explore research phenomena using only quantitative or qualitative methodologies; the problem area identified and developed does not assume that answers can be found in a single methodology or a single philosophical perspective such as absolutism or relativism. The problem area assumes that answers can be found through an integrated approach that involves both quantitative and qualitative approaches. So, with that, and with critical realism addressing the ontological level, it can be assumed that critical realism goes beyond the research question and places the research problem as central to the research project. It assumes, it can be proposed, that it is the identified problem area that can lead to the development of philosophical assumptions about reality, which then lead onto the development of research questions, which then lead onto the selection of the methodology and research approaches. A question here however is whether or not the philosophical perspective leads onto the development of the research question sequentially, or if the research questions and philosophical perspectives are identified and developed concurrently. That is something to be thought about and perhaps discussed another time.

Summary Of Thoughts Regarding Critical Realism

What has been discussed, briefly, is what makes critical realism distinctive and more suitable for my research than other middle ground philosophies. Post positivism focusses too much on the quantitative at the methodological level whilst pragmatism focusses too much on changes that are made at the practical level. Critical realism suggests that both quantitative and qualitative approaches are important to use in a single research project in order to fully explore and understand the structures and mechanisms of what can be observed and experienced.

There is much more to learn and understand about critical realism: its concepts, its use, its history, and the way in which critical realism can be fully integrated into a mixed methods research and the specific context of my research. Reading shall be continuous, but at the moment I am just pleased that I have been able to identify the most appropriate middle ground philosophy and start to fit the whole design around the principles of critical realism.

Fun stuff! The Upgrade Paper shall be used to introduce critical realism and the way in which its concepts have been applied throughout the research design whilst a full elaboration of critical realism including its application and possible solutions to problems of critical realism shall be provided in the thesis.


McEvoy, P., Richards, D (2009): A critical realist rationale for using a combination of quantitative and qualitative method, Journal Of Research In Nursing, 11 (1), 66 – 78

March 14, 2016

Mixed Methods: Post Positivism Is No Longer Considered Appropriate

Description of and arguments against Post Positivism

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

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

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

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

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

So then: the Big Three!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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