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December 31, 2019

Reflections Of The Year 2019

Reflection is an intellectual endeavour and process that should occur continuously throughout the journey of a Ph.D. Reflection acts as a means of learning through enabling the charting and tracking of developments in our understanding, the various points or events that have resulted in those developments, to understand and identify patterns of problem resolution, and studying how our prior understanding, meaning and learning have been used in order to progress and enhance ourselves and our research further. In a nod to Philosopher Heidegger we could argue that we are reflective beings. We are continuously learning and developing through engaging with reflective processes, and through constructing meaning of these reflections. Although we are arguably reflective beings and therefore do not generally subscribe to any arbitrary and culturally acceptable reflective time points, it is an idea to use particular times to stand back and attempt to view the wider picture. It is with that in mind that I progress through this time of reflecting, learning, planning, and strategizing.


When I reflect back on what has transpired through the year I can observe moments of great personal success, and moments of feeling completely overwhelmed and very challenged academically. Completing the coding framework towards the summertime was a great personal success and the process of completing the framework drew me closer towards a fascination of qualitative research. Throughout not just this part of the year but the whole year, my philosophical, methodological, and data conceptualisations and understanding continued to develop and redevelop as I encountered various insights and constructed and questioned my own meanings of these insights. This questioning is continuous and ongoing: I am continuously questioning and evaluating my insights and the process of arriving to my own insights, and continuously evaluating new insights relative to my prior insights and understanding in order to arrive at new understanding that more closely represents the phenomenon of interest. Not only this, but I am also continuously developing and defining my own position and role as a qualitative researcher and what it means in general to ‘be’ a qualitative researcher. This is a very complex area and I am realising that I’m going off topic……


Along with completing the analytical framework, I was also completing various thesis chapter drafts and this drafting continued till around late September or early October. Prior to this completion, however, around the summertime I was beginning to find some of my analysis questionable. The analysis was suitable in the achievement of constructing a coding framework, but was not able to provide significant and detailed explanations about the process of the particular social learning phenomenon being investigated. I then realised that the problems experienced earlier with Grounded Theory were being experienced with thematic analysis. This was both a good and an overwhelmingly challenging thing. A good thing because it helped me to critically evaluate thematic analysis and grounded theory further as means of analysing social processes. Although it was right to develop the coding framework, I had to figure out a way in which I could use that framework to identify patterns of social learning. I needed to apply further analytical methods, and this led to (a) the need to overhaul my thesis chapters, (b) reconceptualization of the data, and (c) being completely overwhelmed!


The addition of extra analytical methods alongside thematic analysis was considered for a while. A conversation with my supervisor, however, confirmed the need for these methods so they were adopted. Alongside thematic analysis based methods, therefore, I added basic quantitative methods, and a pattern identification process. I shall not talk much about these methods here now simply because these methods might need redevelopment as I retest the coding framework against the entire collected data, and as I, therefore, use these methods to analyse a greater range of data, think more deeply about how these methods relate to my philosophical position and methodological perspective, to further the discussion and justification of them, and think more about how they interconnect. They have been discussed to a certain extent, but I feel that during the year these discussions and justifications shall be further enhanced and developed.

It suffices to say, however, that reflecting on their application in the research so far, it is clear to observe that when comparing all three different methods (thematic, basic quantitative, and pattern identification), each provided results that supplemented each other but also, unexpectedly, contrast each other, and provide a large volume of insights and observations about the phenomenon that were not previously considered or thought possible. The unexpected nature of these insights and the behaviour of the methods, and the volume of these insights, were completely overwhelming. My previous findings, understandings, and interpretations of the data, and developing conceptions of the phenomenon were challenged. These insights provided new opportunities to explore and explain the phenomenon of interest relative to the research question.


That was probably the most challenging academic experience I have come across so far. Challenging because of my preconceptions of the phenomenon and assumptions of what could be found by each method, built from what I had observed through coding data and building themes of the data. Although it could be argued that preconceptions are a hindrance (this has been argued in literature), I found that they were not blocking my ability to perceive and observe new or unique insights. In other words, I found that I was not attempting to “stuff” the new findings within my own preconceptions. I remained open minded and willing to accept that there might be something new and contradictory, and where contradictions were found they needed to be reasoned or resolved in some way. When I really think about it, those preconceptions were not a hindrance to my learning, but provided a platform upon which further learning occurred whilst being open or sensitised to the possibilities of there being something new. This is a substantial debate within the academic field.


Moving on, it was a significant and very important moment for many reasons for my research and how I understand myself and my research at the philosophical, methodological, personal and practical levels. It is all these considerations that have led to the requirement to overhaul the thesis chapters, and this began in November with the rewriting and reconstruction of the literature review. This is due to be followed up over the coming months with overhauling the research design, findings, and discussion chapters and these shall be discussed on here in time.


Where does all this lead me? The future! I am structuring a longer planning time frame in order to plan the tasks and activities to engage with over the comping months, and as a part of this I shall be writing a series of blog posts that documents the plan for the coming months, whilst accepting that I might come across further analytical ideas that were previously considered irrelevant or unexpected.


Briefly, however, the following tasks are to be engaged with:


The discussions that I have made so far as a result of the new insights and new analytical additions are continuous and ongoing, and any assumptions and interpretations of these findings will need further testing and refining as I rework the analysis. I had conceptualised the phenomenon in a way that entailed the analysis of certain types of data segments, but the new insights is now encouraging me to explore the whole data in order to build a much wider picture in accordance with the research question.


Each thesis chapter shall be given further edits and a complete overhaul where it is considered necessary in order to accommodate and best explain the new insights and the implications of the additional analytical methods. I shall initially establish a new outline for each thesis chapter before proceeding with the writing (and, of course, discuss it on here!).


The analytical framework shall be further tested in different contexts. I am not in a position to suggest any changes that could or could not occur, it all depends on what is interpreted from the data and how the framework matches up with the data (framework had to align with the data, not data aligning with the framework. This is process known as ‘stuffing’ the data to fit the framework, and it arguably does not work).


The other main task is to publish as much as I can in academic journals. I do feel now that I am in a position where I can get my findings and philosophies in publishable form during the year. Of course my ideas need some reworking before being publishable, but it is my aim by the end of next year to have more papers published on as much as I can!


And, of course, to continue to build post-doctoral opportunities. Throughout this whole process, I am beginning to visualise how a post-grad position and application could be shaped and the ideas and directions that I would like to take my research at post-doctoral level. I am early into this process, and I don’t really plan on focussing on this too heavily at the beginning of the year, but I suspect more focus shall be placed on this as summer approaches.

All this and more shall be discussed on this blog during the coming year!

Thank you for reading my reflections. Wishing all of my blog readers new and old a Happy New Year and a productive and positive year ahead!


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!


April 17, 2019

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

When writing the research design chapter, and indeed when engaging with postgraduate research, a key issue is Philosophy. Philosophical issues relating to the phenomenon of interest and the research context have to be acknowledged, identified, documented, critiqued, reflected upon, and strongly associated with the research methodology. Philosophy drives methodology, and the methodology provides the framework that guides the research methods and procedures. It is imperative to ensure that strong links, cohesiveness and cohesion exist between philosophy, methodology, methods and procedures of the research within your writings so that the design can stand up to academic scrutiny, and to ensure that findings are consistent, correct, appropriate, and suitable for the context and the main research objectives.


Those are separate topics for another time, but referring to writing the Philosophical section of the research design of a thesis a key question is, how much is too much? This is an interesting question that I continuously have asked myself when writing the philosophical section of the research design. I am of the firm belief that nothing is ever, and should ever, be wasted. Nothing you write on the Ph.D. is ever wasted as something can be turned into something else, even a publishable form of something else.


During my time on the Ph.D. I have written extensive notes on paper and in digital form about numerous philosophical, both ontological and epistemological, positions. Even back at this time I was questioning how I could apply what I was exploring to the methodology, how each position affected my perspective of the phenomenon, and the way I could best record and express the positions in the thesis. Whether you are writing in pre-draft form on paper or in digital form, don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions early, but don’t restrict your creativity and inquiry. Allow your thoughts to come out, to develop, and to become as complex as they are required to be. You know how complex your ideas should be, and you know how complex you want them to be to fit the context. But again, don’t reject anything. I have been writing the draft form of the research design chapter for quite a while. The Philosophical aspect has experienced a number of rewrites as my pre-draft form ideas matured further and as I engaged with more philosophical ideas and different philosophical authors.


Where to begin with this minefield? I began fairly early in thinking about research design to read the theses of other post graduates. It did not take long to find a stumbling block: there is no universal law or standard that appears to guide how much is too much or too little. The problem, and difficulty, is that theses, although they might focus on the same methodology, differ widely in their philosophical coverage. Some theses make a passing suggestion towards philosophy and include it in a discussion about methodology, whilst other theses provide more detail and include a separate Philosophical section followed by a discussion of methodology. Even the Philosophical section, however, differs with some making short references to ideas about reality and knowledge, whilst others talk about knowledge without referring to any sense of reality even though they reference an ontological position.


What is important to remember is that despite the diverse range of philosophical coverage, there is some sort of expectancy to ensure cohesiveness and consistency in your approach. You cannot, for example, say that you’re adopting constructivist ontology and an objectivist epistemology supporting an experimental methodology. You cannot, in my view, talk about epistemology and pay lip service to ontology if you’re making explicit statements about how you come to understand reality. If you are talking about reality, then you’re talking about ontology. If you’re talking about the nature, structure, limits and origins of your knowledge and of coming to know this reality, then that’s epistemology. If you’re talking about how you are to gain knowledge about reality, that’s methodology. It’s important to remember this.


Is it worth reading though these theses? Yes, it is. Engaging with other theses enables us to become more acquainted with the self or being as a researcher. It makes us question how we should present our philosophical stance, and to wonder why such diversity in Philosophical coverage exists.


Engaging with these theses has in party contributed to increasing the value and importance of acknowledging, recognising, critiquing and engaging with my own philosophical stance, and the way my stance could be communicated. There is no particularly strict guide, and it’s important to explore and experiment in order to find what is best. This takes many redrafts. I’m sure many of the longer term readers of this blog have followed my Philosophical battles as I oscillated between different positions in order to situate or locate my views of reality within the extended literature. One needs to be careful to not pigeon-hole their beliefs or to ‘stuff’ their beliefs within a particular position just to tick a box. Your beliefs need to be engaged with critically and reflectively. They need to be intellectualised, and to be intellectually engaged with, so that they can logically be applied to your research, be integrated cohesively within your research design, and communicated consistently within your writings.


How much is too much or too little? It simply depends on what is right for your research, and how you relate your philosophical position to your research, and how valuable discussing ontological and epistemological issues are in relation to your research, research question, and phenomena of interest.


I shall cover this more in the next blog post where I discuss and explain further my experiences so far!


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.


September 06, 2018

Currrent State Of Play: The Research Design Chapter

This is the chapter that shall describe, explain, evaluate and critique the development of my new approach (coding scheme) of exploring the phenomenon of interest. The chapter shall also describe and explain the development and application phases of the coding scheme and the way in which categorical and thematic development took place. Therefore, the chapter prior to this deals with a variety of research designs that were tested, whilst this research design chapter deals with the research design that was actually used in the Ph.D. project.


This chapter is a continuous, ongoing and progressive document because it is being written at the same time as data is being analysed. With a quantitative research project the typical process is to write the research design chapter first before carrying out data analysis, but with the qualitative analysis I am finding that I am writing the research design chapter and performing data analysis concurrently. It depends on preferences: some people might like to write their methodological chapters before carrying out the research whilst others might write their chapters afterwards. But with me, I’m writing the chapter as I progress through the phases and stages of data analysis. For me, it makes sense to write about each stage and phase as I encounter each of them because, as I would be engaging with that phase or stage at the time, I can fully elaborate and explain the processes I used within that particular phase or stage.


Because the chapter is work in progress, the structure of the chapter has not been finalised although I have a rough outline of the chapter in place. These include sections that discusses, evaluates, critiques and explores my philosophical beliefs and my personal background (interests, beliefs, experiences, knowledge prior to the Ph.D., etc.), and their possible impact on the development of the coding scheme and categorical and theme development (a process called ‘Researcher Reflexivity’). The outline also includes sections that discuss the methodology and the data collection and analysis methods.


I feel that I have made fair progress with this chapter. I have written lots and lots of notes about my beliefs, experiences, philosophies, my critiques and use of methodology, methods etc. and continue to do so. It’s becoming a matter soon to simply knit these sections together to form the chapter, and work out what I need to develop next. What I am focussing on currently, however, is comprehensively detailing and explaining how I am analysing the data; the phases and stages of data analysis that shall result in the new coding scheme and the identification and development of themes. The writing of this section, obviously, shall continue for as long as data analysis continues.


Lots of editing and rewriting to do, obviously, but I think on the whole I have wrote a considerable amount but shall need to knit the sections together after the data analysis process. That way, I can observe where I need to go next with the research design chapter. Writing the chapter especially the specific data analysis section at the same time as carrying out the data analysis has, however, helped tremendously with documenting with precision and accuracy exactly what I am doing, where, when, how, and why.


June 29, 2018

Ph.D Update: Venturing Back To Data Analysis

Since the previous blog post I have returned to data analysis: I have reanalysed previously analysed data, managed to organise my data corpus and where I can find more data to analyse if need be, and have begun to identify potential themes and their potential relationships with each other based on the observations made of the data and coding completed so far. These themes, once determined to actually exist through further analysis, shall then become the core themes of the phenomenon of interest and, therefore, become objects of further data analysis in the phase following thematic analysis. Because more coding needs to be completed I cannot say with any solid certainty that these themes will manifest into core themes that become the focus of the rest of the analysis process; however, I have made enough observations to potentially suggest that the identified themes will be the main themes and any other themes are likely to be sub themes. An open mind, however, is still required and as I code through the data and enter the next stage of thematic analysis, I could potentially identify more core themes.


What have I done in order to reach the current point of coding? The very first step before even coding the data is to become familiar with your data. This has been a journey in itself as I battled with different philosophical perspectives and the most efficient and effective lens from which the particular kind of text should be analysed. I am more or less settled with this now and in the thesis it is a case of detailing what my philosophical beliefs are, the way in which these impact the way in which I perceive, engage with, and interpret the data, and the way in which they relate to the research problem and research questions, and fit in with the rest of the research design.

Away from Philosophy however and onto the data level, becoming familiar with the data makes sense as this gives you the widest scope and the widest sense of the nature of the data. It is through familiarising yourself with the data that you can begin to view high level, abstract structures, potential hierarchies and forms of organisation within the data. The participants might not have intended their interactions with you as a researcher directly or with each other to produce such structures, but those structures do exist in an external reality and can be reflected unconsciously within certain parts of the data at certain times. The nature and composition of these structures, hierarchies and organisations however depend on the type of text being analysed: interview transcripts, for example, shall differ completely compared with group learning transcripts. What I am finding and have found however is that data familiarity can continue past this familiarity phase and onto the coding phase. From my own experiences, as I code through the data I found myself exploring the date closely and begin to be able to view these hierarchies, structures etc at a closer level. These realisations and characteristics of the data were not revealed immediately however, it has taken several rereads and several rounds of coding in order to fully understand the nature of the data (or at least begin to understand the nature of the data) and to therefore begin to understand the constructs and structures of the data’s particular nature. This is something I shall be talking about to a more indepth level in the thesis. It’s important to state that I am not necessarily observing both “macro” and “micro” structures as what I am following is a micro level analysis set within a particular context. It really depends on what you can observe in the data and it depends on the type of text you are analysing, and the purpose of your research. Sometimes interactions can be theologically and politically influenced, for example, and this can be reflected in the data. It’s arguably simply a matter of working through the data and carefully and comprehensively thinking about what it is you are observing.


As for the coding process I am a certain way through the coding phase. I have identified the data corpus and about halfway through the coding phase. The approach to coding I have adopted is what I call a segment by segment analysis. Some argue for a line by line analysis or a sentence by sentence analysis but I am going to be arguing the ineffectiveness of these analytical approaches within the context of my research. Sometimes, a single line or a single sentence is not enough to capture the event or action that you are observing in the data: sometimes you can observe events and actions within half a sentence or half a line, sometimes they can be observed at a greater level than a sentence or a line. Segment by segment analysis based on the interpretation or observation of meaningful events or actions is a more flexible and pragmatic approach for my research: it enables me to break up each block of data into meaningful segments that can be below or above sentence level. I define a segment as meaningful because that segment contains an event or action that is expressed, described, or in some way engaged with that holds a particular meaning for my research purposes. A single sentence, therefore, could contain multiple meaningful events and activities that would be missed by sentence by sentence and line by line analytical approaches.


I have assigned each of these meaningful segments a code, which represents or encapsulates the general meaning or description of the event or activity that is contained within that segment. Again what this event or activity or action is depends on what you perceive, of what’s important to you and your research, of what relates to your research question and research problem, and what the nature of the transcript is. Previously when I used Grounded Theory I generated many codes and as I went through the previously coded transcript I altered some of the codes, dropped a few, and added new codes in. This time of coding more than ever I feel that I have been able to capture the pure essence of each segment that before I did not capture; I can perceive and observe events and activities in the data and view relationships between segments that I had not been able to previously recognise or identify. This has helped during the coding of further transcripts and even then, I have been observing new occurrences, happenings, events and actions within the data that I had not previously observed in the previous transcripts. Unsurprisingly, I have generated many codes.


The more you read through your data and become familiar with it, the more you learn about your data and therefore, with each reading session, new properties, events, dimensions and even higher level relationships and structures reveal themselves. There is much debate however as to whether or not these observations really do exist in the data, or if it is just what we perceive or observe in the data. This is a complex yet fascinating area of debate and shall be something I shall engage with in the thesis.


As I have been coding I have been writing short theoretical memos. The memos that are written at this stage serve the purpose of documenting continuous and evolving process of thinking and theorising about the codes and the data. The memos describe and explain the motivations, intentions, meanings, production, and context of the meaningful segments as well as the meaning of the code itself, and any other thoughts, hunches, ideas, observations and potential hypotheses, questions and predictions relevant to the research. These memos are very important as they ultimately form a substantial part of the chapters related to research findings and discussions, and, they assist you (along with any journals that you might have) with documenting your analytical and theoretical journey.


Your thinking, theorising, comprehension and understanding develops and progresses as you code through the data, and as you identify similar characteristics and the differences between them as well as, therefore, the similarities and differences between similarly coded data segments and, which can form the starting point of identifying and developing your themes, but that’s another aspect of the analysis to cover in another blog post!


June 22, 2018

Ph.D Update: Research Methods

Since my previous update, I have been reading more about thematic analysis and discourse analysis, as well as beginning to recode and reanalyse the previously coded data, a process at the time influenced by Grounded Theory.

The reading has illuminated text analysis to be a complex area and therefore, there is no clear or shared consensus of the way in which a specific type of text can be or should be analysed. Different methods and methodological ideas lean towards different type of texts to achieve different purposes and different outcomes; at least, that’s what is perceived from the research methodology textbooks. I think it’s more complex than even that because since I have ideas about methodological fluidity (check earlier blog posts) I think potentially any analytical method can be used for any type of text. The key to all this is to understand your data within the context of the research problem, research questions, research discipline, and your own philosophical beliefs and the extent to which you are consciously aware of the values and importance that your beliefs bring to your research. Within the context of my current thinking about my philosophical beliefs, the research problem and questions, etc. there actually isn’t a single individual approach that convinces me to be the absolute way to analyse data that achieves what I want to know.


This is a challenge because how can I possibly analyse data if I do not know which analytical method is best?


The answer comes from releasing your mind; from allowing your mind to be chained to this idea that a specific analytical method is required to becoming open and sensitive to the data; to allow yourself to become sensitised and to allow the data to speak to you. Obviously I am being guided by the research questions and I have a very general approach to what I am looking for based on the previous readings and analysis of the data via grounded theory, and identifying aspects of the data that grounded theory in my opinion is not able to capture (check previous blog posts). Beyond that I am allowing the text data to “speak” instead of me trying to apply any frameworks to it.


This is challenging, but my thinking is that I shall eventually arrive at either a specific analytical approach beyond the initial stage of thematic analysis, or I shall be able to pragmatically combine different aspects and ideas of different analytical methods in order to enable me to explore the data fully and therefore, enable me to achieve what I want to achieve with the research.


I have read through a variety of different analytical approaches, and what I am finding is there are aspects of these approaches that I think are relevant and aspects that are not. It is from these readings that I am leaning towards the possibility of adopting some sort of pragmatic, functional approach to analysing the data. This would involve the combination of different elements and aspects of different approaches, as long as what I do is relevant to the research purpose and questions, and aligns with my philosophical beliefs. What I will have to do in the thesis is to very carefully, reflectively, critically and analytically describe, critique, evaluate and explain what I am doing, how I am doing things, why I am doing things the way I am doing them, and also evaluate, critique, contrast and compare my approach with other approaches relevant to the analysis of the phenomenon of interest.


I could probably write eighty thousand words for the methodology chapter, nevermind the entire thesis………


This is effectively where I am with the data analysis! I have recoded the data that I have previously coded now under the thinking of thematic analysis instead of grounded theory, and I view no problem so far with the transition of thinking. The current task is simply to recode the data, meaning that I have dropped some of the previous codes and created new codes in order to better represent what is going on in the data. This has come from an increased understanding and awareness of the subject content and the way in which the content can be expressed. And also, I’m going beyond the data: I am beginning to visualise, theorise and conceptualise relationships and patterns within the data, which shall contribute towards theme development as the next part of the thematic analysis as well as the phase beyond thematic analysis. But before I get to that point I shall have to analyse more data than previously as I have changed the scope of data collection and data sampling procedures but I can discuss that another time and more specifically in the thesis.


As I code through the data, develop the themes and then begin to go deeper into the data and explore the contexts and expressions of these themes I shall be able to understand which analytical method is best used for the particular type of text (again, in the context of the research problem, research questions, and my own philosophical beliefs), or which aspects of relevant analytical approaches are best combined in a more pragmatic sense.


This is challenging but fascinating area of research and exploration!


‘till next time!


June 10, 2018

Previous Week's Update Part B: New Research Design

I have now settled on a new research design. The philosophical and epistemological perspectives remain the same (ontological realist; epistemologically, presently, a mix of interpretivism and constructionism but this needs further elaboration) and the methodological approach is the same (qualitative, possibly moving onto mixed methods methodology though should the need arise). But I have changed methods from a qualitative grounded theory set of methods to a qualitative multi- modal approach that incorporates both thematic analysis and discourse analysis. As a side note, multi-modal is different to a mixed methods: multi-modal is the utalisation of different analytical methods set within the same methodological approach, which in this case of my research the methodological approach is qualitative. A mixed methods methodology would include both qualitative and quantitative analytical methods. The reason for this change, as has been mentioned in previous blog posts, is because the data characteristics that I became interested are, what I argue to be, difficult if not impossible for grounded theory to capture and integrate into a theory of the phenomenon of interest.


During the previous week I have been reading more papers about thematic analysis and discourse analysis that consists mostly of the philosophical and methodological approaches to these methods. This has helped me to understand the way in which they align with my philosophical position, which is important in various ways. Firstly, from the philosophical level, it goes without saying that the use, value, understanding and application of research methods are situated within our understanding of the world, whether we are conscious or unconscious of our philosophical perspectives, and whether or not we make this explicit or implicit. More fundamental than the methods level however is the data level: our philosophical perspectives of the world highly influences the way we value and perceive different types and sources of data upon which we apply the research methods. Secondly, from a methodological perspective, the multi-modal approach has to consist of analytical methods that are used in a way that are compatible with and complements each other; where, for example, findings from each method either support each other, or extend or build upon each other in some way.


I shall be using thematic analysis and discourse analysis together in a way that findings are built upon each other. I am working this out though, and continuing to fine tune their utalisation and compatibility the more I read the literature and understand their application within the context of my philosophical beliefs, the methodological orientation, the wider purpose and objectives of research, and the type and source of data. There is a substantial need, therefore, to ensure that thematic analysis and discourse analysis are combined in a way that not only advocates a sense of unity and extended construction of findings, but also in a way that is methodologically rigorous, valid, authentic and sound. This is a huge topic that I shall engage with to a significant and detailed level in the methodology chapter (talking thousands of words and page after page after page after page after page…….you get the idea!) of the thesis with discussions posted on this blog. However in the meantime it suffices to say that I shall be carrying out a thematic analysis first, then a discourse analysis. It might be an idea, actually, and as recommended by some authors, to verify the products and results of a thematic analysis with existing published literature before engaging with discourse analysis. Either way, what is intended with thematic analysis is the generation of different themes of the phenomenon of interest through coding the data. Following this (and possible verification with published relevant literature), discourse analysis shall be utalised to analyse the discourse within and around these identified themes, leading possibly to a deeper and more substantial understanding of the way in which different social objects are used in certain learning contexts and also the way in which objects can relate to each other.


A reason why this topic is complex and vast is in part because there are various types of thematic analysis and various types of discourse analysis, aligning with differing philosophical and theoretical perspectives (a bit like Grounded Theory and near enough any other method) and therefore differing in process of analysis with each version. This is why methodological compatibility is important; that the variation of thematic analysis and discourse analysis are methodological compatible and are methodologically sound and valid, in part determined by whether or not they can capture and analyse the data characteristics of most interest regarding the phenomenon of interest.


Before I even get to this stage however, the very first task that I shall be engaging with during the coming week, along with the continuing to elaborate on my philosophical and theoretical thoughts and approaches to the research design, is to check the work that I have done so far. Because various authors have suggest that thematic analysis is similar in approach to the open coding aspect of grounded theory (both approaches use an initial coding phase), I have to check that the codes that I have used whilst using grounded theory are compatible or are in whatever way suitable for thematic analysis. From what I can currently understand, the only real difference between thematic analysis and grounded theory is that thematic analysis’ intention is not to develop a full theory but can contribute towards theorisation as a beginning phase of a multi-modal qualitative project. Also, I have to check that the codes I have created can be formed into themes, which are, from what I can currently understand, conceptually different to Grounded Theory categories. At the moment I cannot imagine there being any substantial differences in the coding engines of thematic coding and the initial stage of open coding, or initial coding as other grounded theory writers call it, but obviously this needs further checking.


I am just scratching the surface here with this blog post! It’s going to be a very busy summer with data analysis and the rewriting and further construction of the methodological chapter(s). It’s going to be challenging but exciting, and it helps that I am feeling more confident and happier with my approach compared to grounded theory.


It’s a challenging task alone to work out your research design and the methods to use especially in qualitative, emergent based research. But the best thing you can do is continue to be guided by your data. My research design is data driven: I have come away from grounded theory and onto a combined approach of thematic analysis and discourse analysis exactly because of what I have been observing in the data and coming to know that grounded theory is not able to capture what I really want to explore in the data.


Keep going!


May 23, 2018

Updated Thoughts on Discourse Analysis: Brief Comparisons With Conversational Analysis

Thoughts About Definitions


There has been a plethora of definitions of discourse and many approaches to discourse analysis defined, and understanding them is going to take some time. Judith Baxter in her paper “Discourse-Analytic Approaches to Text and Talk” published in the book “Research Methods in Linguistics” brings some much-needed clarity in this early stage of deepening my understanding of discourse and language. As I had expected, different theoretical orientations, philosophical perspectives, and the disciplines that provide some of the contextual and situational characterisations have caused the emergence of differing definitions and perspectives of discourse and its analysis.


Baxter suggests three general definitions of discourse. Firstly, that discourse can be viewed as language above the sentence: any piece of text that consists of more than just a single sentence can be considered a discourse. Secondly, and is a definition that appeals most to me personally, is the, as Baxter puts it, “functional and sociolinguistic” definition that views language as language-in-use with a focus on the context and situational aspects of discourse. The third definition revolves around the existence of discourses and not just a single discourse, which when placed within a post modernist, post structuralist perspective refers to the emergence of social realities from these discourses, with a focus on power structures and authorities. The first two definitions from what I can currently understand aligns more with a realist ontology perspective of discourse, with Baxter later suggesting that Conversational Analysis is situated within a more realist perspective compared to discourse analysis.


I have some reservations about a post structuralist, post modernist view of discourse that leads to the construction of a social reality. That’s more than likely because I identify myself as an ontological realist or at least some flavour of realism where I believe that external objects exist and through discourse and language can be referred to by learners. I have difficulties in accepting that certain objects are simply constructed by learners, which is advocated by Parker who in 1992 suggested that objects and reality itself are constructed through discourse and language. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, evidence is an externally existing object that is not constructed by the learners at that time (although one could argue that ultimately evidence is a human constructionbut it’s not exactly black or white and quite frankly that’s another matter) but is externally referenced through discourse and language. What we have therefore is a mix of what is real (evidence exists; it is real independent of a participant knowing about it) and what is a construction (the relationship between evidence and another relatable object that needs evidencing, and the discourse surrounding the evidence, which might differ between different types, between different people, and different contexts).

Philosophical Thoughts


It appears to me from the literature that I have read so far, different authors have different philosophical ideas about what discourse analysis is. There appears to be some sort of consensus that discourse analysis is commonly used within a post structuralist, post modernist, Foucauldian theoretical perspective (even though Michael Foucault actually rejected post structuralism and post modernism labels) as well as hermeneutic and interpretive perspectives. Conversation analysis is positioned typically within a more empiricist, realist perspective. Both deal with discourse and language in different ways and there is a huge amount of debate and discussion regarding both. For example, some authors have aligned discourse analysis with a social constructionist epistemology and therefore assume a relativist ontology; however, other social constructionist authors have argued that a social constructionist epistemology does not necessitate a relativist ontology. From what I have read about social constructionism previously and from the notes I have taken, I remember thinking about social constructionism as an epistemological concern and not an ontological concern.


Conversational analysis, meanwhile, according to Baxter works better within the empiricism and realism orientations. From what I can understand with my initial readings, the core attack against Conversational Analysis refers to its philosophical assumptions: some authors suggest that language and discourse cannot be analysed objectively or reveal truth about reality, because those authors believe that the truth of social reality is embedded within the discourse and thus revealing a relativist social reality. This is again something I have difficulties accepting when exploring the phenomenon of research interest because, as already mentioned, as already mentioned through the previous discussion of evidence.


Brief Summary


I appear to be developing a philosophical understanding of Conversational Analysis and Discourse Analysis and therefore from the Philosophical level it could be argued that I am learning towards Conversational Analysis. However, as I think about the methodological application of both I am finding that things are not quite so black and white. And this is where I have a challenge now because it is coming clear that Grounded Theory is not able to capture the characteristics of the data that I am becoming more fascinated with and desire to explore more (and there is a need in literature to explore these characteristics). The question is, which methodology or method do I now use? Which is the most suitable and in what way shall I know which is the best to use? Will graph theory now be affected? Could I still go for a multi-method or mixed method approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest?


Those questions I shall begin to answer in the next post that shall be written soon!


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!


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