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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 10, 2017

Ph.D Update: Philosophical Thoughts, Critical Review, and The Literature Review

Since the previous blog post, I’ve been working on various edits of an accepted critical review, along with writing an essay about Education (shall discuss this more another time), the literature review, and have been rethinking ideas about reality.


Conceptions of Reality


You might remember previous blog posts where I have conceptualised my epistemological beliefs as Social Constructionist and the subsequent posts where I have discussed my doubts about my own conceptualisations (yes, folks, you are allowed to question your own conceptions!). I am absolutely convinced that because of my increased awareness of the ontological existence of the phenomenon of interest that my epistemological beliefs go beyond constructionism


Constructionism, according to my current understanding of it based on the readings I have so far completed, originated in sociology and focusses on the importance of language and culture. It suggests that language is the driving force behind knowledge construction and attainment and cannot be separated from its culture. In other words, access to knowledge of reality is provided by language alone, and our understanding of reality and therefore knowledge attainment and construction is culture-specific.


Despite initial acceptance of this I began to struggle with knowledge derived from language and culture. The grounded theory methodology can allow language to be considered in its representation of nuanced occurrences of what might or actually exists, represented as concepts in the data and relationships between these concepts, there is no way I can gain understanding of cultural influences on the behaviours of the participants. I as a researcher am not embedding myself within any particular culture, and I do not have any direct access to the participants’ beliefs and perspectives. Therefore, as mentioned, I have no way in determining the way in which culture impacts the behaviours and thoughts of the research participants. But this, I realised, doesn’t really matter because investigating culture and its impact on participant behaviours isn’t relevant to the research problem that I have identified.


Another reason I began to struggle with a pure constructionist epistemology is that I have become more aware of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs and because of this, I am now taking inspiration from various epistemological perspectives including constructionism. Just very recently, I have come to understand that consciousness and awareness are important features of my thinking about reality and thinking about the existence of the phenomenon of interest.


What really is reality? What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Social objects come into existence because of interactions, but does that mean that if a particular social object does not occur at a particular point that they don’t actually exist? What if they do exist within a particular social interaction but are not perceived to exist? 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?


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?


This is where phenomenology comes into play, and I’m only just recently beginning to appreciate its potential value. I originally rejected it as anything relevant to my research because I was perceiving the value of phenomenology through the lens of a research methodology, and not a philosophy. Phenomenology as a philosophy is different to its conceptions as a research methodology, and understanding this is a continuous task, and there shall be a blog post about this soon.


The Critical Review


The critical review of my conference experiences back in May has appeared is complete and sent in for final confirmation and publication! It has most certainly been a learning curve given that this is the first time I’ve ever written a critical review for publication, but at the same time it has been a fulfilling, satisfying learning experience. Writing the critical review has really helped me to shape my understanding of how experiencing the conference, engaging with the audience and their feedback and engaging with various presentations at the conference contributed towards further development of my thesis structure, content and layout. This will lead to a stronger, more comprehensive thesis with a tightly integrated structure, with the concepts taken from the conference leading to a theory that is closer to the truth and reality of the phenomenon of interest than previously conceived.
Specific to the thesis, the background, literature review, results and discussion sections have been enhanced with new concepts to explore and where possible, develop hypotheses to test and possibly include in the theory as part of the validation and verification process. Speaking of the literature review……..


The Literature Review


The original plan of the literature review many months ago was to divide it into independent, loosely coupled sections titled Knowledge, Argumentation, Interaction and Technology. I have no idea what possessed me to think of these sections as independent and loosely coupled, because it doesn’t make any sense to do so. I think at the time I was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer amount of existing literature that has been published and the relationship between literature and the grounded theory approach. I think at the time I wanted to gather a sense of understanding the sheer volume of existing literature in each of the categories (and by this time I had already been reading about some of these topics for many years) within the context of my research problem (context is important! I cannot emphasise this enough because context plays a part of the lens from which you shall view the literature). Several months on I am now changing my approach to the literature review to thankfully something a bit more logical.


I’ve come to realise I cannot talk about one category independent of other categories. I can to a certain point, however, but I cannot view each category as fully independent. I can, for example, discuss relevant types of technology in terms of its features and affordances, but beyond this I cannot talk about technology independent of the research context and the research questions, and I cannot talk about technology independent of the way in which it, for example, facilitates interaction. Similarly, I can discuss argumentation to a certain extent but I cannot talk about argumentation fully independent from the way in which knowledge is handled through argumentation. A strong example of how my thinking about the dependency / independency relationship between these categories of literature is with argumentation. I attempted to write draft critiques of and relate definitions of argumentation. However, after reading a paper from Andriesson et al (2003) I became aware of the difficulties that I would have if I continued along the path of attempting to define and critique definitions of argumentation independent of discussions of other literature categories, even if only to understand the diverse literature that exists within each category.


The basic fact is, when I talk about argumentation, interaction, knowledge, technology and other possible concepts, all discussions must be situated within the context of Education. This is a Ph.D. in Education and obviously, the thesis is the product of the discipline within which it has been written, therefore it would not make sense to talk about these concepts outside of the context of the discipline and particularly outside of the context of the research problem. It doesn’t really matter if conceptions and perspectives are bought in from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology etc. the key guiding focus of the literature review is the disciplinary context and the research problem.


In Summary


There have been various changes during the past few weeks with the key changes being the literature review and its structure and content. The other key changes have been my continuous increasing awareness of my own beliefs of reality and the way in which we can obtain knowledge of this reality, but this shall be discussed more in another blog post. And to emphasise, managing the literature is a huge part of the Ph.D. especially for grounded theory based projects. But for the purposes of the literature review, all discussions of all concepts have to be situated within the context of the discipline, in my case Education. And, I am now finding it impossible to discuss concepts fully independent of each other and really, this is what the literature review entails. It’s not just some bullet pointed facts-of-the-matter chapter, it’s a serious business of critiquing, analysing, evaluating and synthesising literature in order to provide the intellectual and evidence filled basis for the need of your research.


References


Andriessen, J., Baker, M.J. & Dan Suthers, D. (2003). Argumentation, computer support, and the educational context of confronting cognitions. In J. Andriessen, M.J. Baker & D. Suthers (Eds.) Arguing to Learn: Confronting Cognitions in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments, p.1-25. Dordrecht, The Netherlands : Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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