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January 17, 2016

Engagement at the Philosophical level

The Ph.D. is not just about generating new knowledge about a phenomenon: it is also about being engaged at the Methodological and Philosophical levels. Being engaged at the Methodological level means really thinking about the methodologies and methods that have been used to explore and develop new knowledge about the phenomenon of investigation. The uniqueness of a Ph.D. therefore lies not just in thinking about it in terms of developing new knowledge but about the way in which this new knowledge is developed and understood. Being engaged at the Philosophical level means to think about your own perspectives of reality, the way that knowledge of this reality is collected, and understanding a variety of different Philosophical perspectives of reality and their relevance towards the research project along with understanding the way in which your perspectives of reality influences research design. This post shall deal with being involved at the Philosophical level.

Previous Thinking

Previously I thought of myself as a constructivist, an interpretivist, a relativist and a contextualist. I began to reject the notion of an objective reality and therefore had the idea that we create or construct our own reality, that therefore reality is a little different for each of us and that the way we come to understand and attain knowledge within this reality is different for all and our perceptions of the usefulness of related processes also differ.

This view was initially reflected in my own research design through favouring a qualitative methodology and using qualitative based methods to explore the phenomenon of interest. As time progressed however and a more significant understanding of the research problem and research methodologies was attained, I began to grow an appreciation for quantitative methodologies and methods. Philosophical and Methodological battles therefore began to occur as I attempted to understand the way that quantitative data could be included in a qualitative methodology. These battles were a reflection of the fact that what was occurring was going against the way that I perceived the relationship between reality and research exploration with Social Science disciplines: that you cannot define behaviour and generalise behaviour of phenomena through using statistical analysis and relationship between variables. But the more I thought about this (and the more that I continue to think about this) the more that exploring particular aspects of the phenomenon using quantitative analysis made more sense. Using a methodology where quantitative and qualitative approaches complement rather than compete with each other made more sense when an aim is to attain a substantial understanding of the phenomenon.

Current Thinking

There appears to be a group of researchers who subscribe exclusively to quantitative methodologies and methods and therefore perceive reality as absolute; that reality exists independent of our thoughts and behaviour of the mind and therefore can be understood through deconstructing or reducing reality down to a series of variables and exploring relationships between them. There is another group of researchers at the other side of the Philosophical and Methodological Spectrum who are exclusively qualitative; that they perceive reality as being relative and contextual, and that therefore each person develops their own reality within the context they are within. Then there are those in the middle who believe that reality can be understood through the complementation of both perspectives. Remember however that within Mixed Methods there can be no “mixing” or combining of these perspectives, only that they are used to deal with separate but related research questions and problem areas.

So where do I stand with all of this at the moment? I still consider myself as a constructivist: I perceive reality as being subjective, that each of us develop our own realities and that this construction of reality and reality itself is relative only to the context that we are within. But, I do and am beginning to value the quantitative relative to my own research problem and research question therefore I would place my own perspectives and research itself now towards the middle.

General Thoughts

Note that I am not suggesting that all Ph.D. candidates should immediately start considering the middle as the answer to everything. Which side you place your research is influenced by your own stances and understanding of its Philosophy and Methodology, and a sound grasp, understanding, and critical analysis of the relevant, current literature. The research questions, the research problems, the research purposes, the methodology that you select, and methods that you adopt should be led not by your own agendas and Philosophical perspectives, but by the needs identified in the literature.

What are you really investigating? What do you want to investigate? What are the constructs of your research? What are your Philosophical views? What way do you perceive reality? What methodology are you adopting? What methods are you going to use?

All these questions, and more, should be led by that understanding of the literature, and your own biases and assumptions need to be placed aside as much as possible. But this is not always achieved, as even the most objective person has even the smallest amount of bias and favourability towards particular research methodologies and methods. Researcher bias therefore is a big topic of debate within academia and the way in which researcher bias influences the results and therefore questions are asked as to what influences researcher bias to occur in the first place.

It is challenging when you really start questioning your own perspectives because some can go into a complete denial about the complementary aspects of differing methodologies and methods, but this is a challenge that all Ph.D. candidates should tackle. Again, don’t feel that you should subscribe to a particular methodology or method just because it appears fashionable, but go with what is right for your own research questions and problem areas. Once you feel authentic, you begin to produce authentic work, and therefore raise the respect and authenticity levels of research work as a whole.

‘till next time: question yourself and your views of reality, and do what is right for the context you are in!

May 28, 2015

My First Research Conference Presentation!

I have had the absolute pleasure and delight recently in being given the opportunity to attend and present at the third Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference at Warwick University. I was rather concerned about this and a little nervous, because it had been the first time in a couple of years since I had presented my own ideas but regardless of the time span, any event that involves a person presenting an aspect of their own work that they have been thinking about for a while always brings on a set of nerves.

I found the research conference very encouraging and inspiring because of the positive feedback that I had regarding the research methodology that I’m planning and designing, and also what took me by surprise is that people who have been on their Ph.D. projects for longer than I have been on mine said that they found the poster presentation and my own discussions of my methodology to be uplifting and inspiring. This I found particularly encouraging and surprising given that I’m in my first year and given that formal planning and designing of the methodology are in their very early stages. Not sure if I’m going to upload the poster to an online avenue, but I might create some sort of online version of aspects of the poster at a later time.  I have also found the discussions following other Ph.D. presentations and the debates that I was involved with were also quite encouraging and inspiring and made me think about my own research particularly the further directions I could go with my literature review.

This was a very important day for many reasons: to receive feedback on my work so far, to find out if I could inspire others, to find further inspiration, and to show willingness to be involved with academic discussion and debates at conferences. It delivered far beyond my own expectations and assumptions and, most importantly for my own research that, despite the very early stages of the methodological planning and designing, that I’m on the right track with the methodology.

Encouraging, inspiring, networking, humbleness, being willing to get involved with various aspects of a conference are all important characteristics of a conference and of being involved. It would have been very easy to have refused to have taken part in anything if the nerves were too consuming, but despite the nerves I fell back into the role of presenter and, if you like, teacher, without even thinking about it. Sometimes you need to attend these conferences to remind yourself of exactly who you are and where you are going, so not only are conferences important to engage on an academic, social setting, but also on a personal level.

I do encourage all Ph.D. researchers to engage, attend, and present at conferences whenever they can. I remember attending a conference a few years ago and the result of that conference was a near total dismantle of my research proposal to the core of my research, and a rebuilding of ideas and directions to what it is now. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have attended that conference several years ago and to the Professor who said to me that in time, I would understand the importance of being able to dismantle your own research, or aspects of that research, and rebuild it from a particular position. It is very important therefore to never attend conferences with a set agenda or a set mindset that you are correct and that your ideas are unchangeable: they are changeable, I experienced that a few years ago! Attend conferences with an open mind and a mindset to listen and accept new ideas and perspectives, and decide if whether or not what has been presented is suitable, in some way, to the research that you are developing.

Be open minded about everything: being closed minded is never recommended or beneficial for anything except the pretence that what you believe to be true is true in reality and that every person should follow what you believe is true. Having such closed mindedness is a reason why certain political agendas and political parties can become more favourable or more dominant than they really should be, but that’s an aside and this is not a political blog (well, not too much of a political blog). Nevertheless, closed mindedness is not, and should not, be an academic agenda or goal. Open mindedness is the best approach, not just when attending conferences but within academia in general!

Oh and a couple of other things that might be useful: presenting at conferences might also help you with your Upgrade paper, and shall help towards whatever Professional Development courses or schemes that you are a part with at your own University!

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