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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!


September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part C

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part B

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


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


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


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


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


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


March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

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

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

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


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


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

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

My Stance: Ontological Realism

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


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: Initial Key Questions

When you have defined the limits of your discussions the next step is to define the key questions that shall help you to begin your further explorations and developments of your philosophical justifications. For me, the key questions are: what kind of realism am I talking about? And, what does realism offer to my research methodology?


What kind of realism?

As part of the philosophical justifications it’s important to be clear on the variant of realism that you are adopting for your research, and there are many variants of Realism in existence within the social sciences with the most popular being Critical Realism. When I adopted a mixed methods methodology I did begin to propose critical realism as the underpinning Philosophy, but began to doubt the relevancy of the human-structure relationship and the general idea of causality in the social sciences. I shall talk about this more in the future as my understanding further increases but essentially, critical realism defines a three layered ontology and has the aim of locating unobservable causes of observable phenomena within the social sciences, and it’s the notion of causality that I have trouble accepting as the way in which to understand social phenomena. Hence, I’ve moved away from critical realism but subscribe to a realist philosophy in general.

A current task therefore is investigating different types of realism to find out if any existing versions align with my own thinking about reality, or if I have to develop my own realist philosophy, or build upon previous realist ideas in some way. This will take some time to develop but this is a key question when it comes to communicating and elaborating on your realist philosophy in your thesis.

Do note that I am not suggesting that critical realism is not important in Educational research, but for my specific research I no longer feel that it is appropriate in accordance to my own beliefs, and also the phenomena of exploration.

What does Realism offer to methodology?

Not only is it best to explain the variant of realism that you are adopting or developing, but also the way in which that variant links in with and guides the methodology. What are the precise details of the realist approach and in what way does it align with and support the progress of the methodology? This is an area that is currently under continuous development, reformulation and reconstruction as I learn more about the variants of realism and the way in which realism feeds into my methodology.

A key benefit with the methodology I am using is that case study and grounded theory are philosophical-independent, meaning that they can work with a variety of different philosophical positions and therefore there is no right or wrong answer. The way in which realism needs to be implemented is dependent on the phenomena of interest, the research problem, and the research question. This is exactly where it is important to fully elaborate on your philosophical justifications for the methodology that you are using, and to explain why realism is the most appropriate philosophical approach compared to other approaches. What is it exactly about your approach that makes your approach to realism suitable and relative to the context of exploration?

In summary:

This is all work in progress, but no matter what I have read and what I have looked at, and from the trial study, realism is what makes the most sense to me based on the phenomena of interest and the way in which I am collecting the data. It is argued in some cases that philosophical perspectives can change as a person really delves into the research and collects and analyses the data. Whilst this is true, and I have read earlier about a couple of Ph.D. candidates who transitioned from critical realism to social constructionism, I am cautiously and currently convicted by my beliefs in a realist perspective of reality.


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: context and boundaries

Long term blog readers will no doubt have had their brains melted as I have debated and discussed the use of different philosophical perspectives as a guide for the research methodology, beginning with a constructivist perspective before navigating towards and settling on a realist philosophy. Subsequently, methodology has transitioned from pure grounded theory methodology, to a mixed methods methodology with grounded theory used as a method, before navigating towards and settling on a case study methodology using grounded theory as a method, using a realist philosophy to guide the methodology. Feel free to have a search about my blog to find relevant discussions!

I have been thinking about this for a long time now, and a realist approach is the only overarching philosophical approach that makes sense to the context of my research; therefore, I am beginning to understand and further develop my philosophical justifications and arguments for realism as a philosophical drive for my research design. It is such a complex area however with many variants, directions, debates, discussions and applications; therefore, there needs to be a series of limits set to what can realistically be explored and discussed in the thesis, and on this blog. These limits I find come naturally within the boundaries of my research.

Limits Of Realist Discussions

Different people will have different approaches, but for me so far it’s easier to contextualise discussions of realism within the boundaries of my own research. It is important to lay out a set of limits because it will keep you focussed about what you need to explore, and what you need to discuss in terms of your philosophical justification and the way in which it applies to your research methodology. It’s easy to travel off in different directions as realism like any philosophical perspective is vast, complex and well debated and discussed.

The following are limitations that I have placed on my own investigations and discussions of realism:
· I talk about realism only in the context of social sciences and not the natural sciences
· I talk about realism only in the context of qualitative research
· I talk about realism only in the context of case study methodology
· I talk about realism only in the context of grounded theory method
· I talk about realism specific to the type of case study and grounded theory used

Obviously this blog is not as “formal” or “academic” as the thesis therefore I shall be a little less restrictive about these compared to the thesis so I can talk about, for example, realism in other methodologies and compare to the selected methodology of case study in general. I can also do this in the thesis but it would be more specific, e.g., I assume it would be important for example to compare the use of realism in phenomenology and case study relative to the phenomenon of investigation, as this can contribute to the philosophical justification of the selected philosophical perspective.

A Guide, Not A Strict Structure!

It’s important to some extent to treat these limits as a guide rather than an absolute rigid structure of discussions. Think about it as being set free within the boundaries of your research as defined by the discipline in general, and the overall research design. There is little point, for example, in talking about realism in phenomenological research if your research design is not based on phenomenology; however, that doesn’t stop you from discussing realism applications within that methodology if you can apply it in some way that is relevant to your own methodology. That’s an example of what I am talking about in terms of being set free within the boundaries of your research.

Now that limits have been set, key questions must be asked that shall help develop an overview of what needs to be known, and this is the subject of the next blog post.


January 23, 2017

The Problem With Reality

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


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


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



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


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


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


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

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


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


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


July 2020

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