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May 01, 2017

My Current Thinking About Grounded Theory

As mentioned in the previous blog post I still have many unanswered questions, and whilst some questions have been answered and thoughts have been developed from reading many research papers and textbooks, which itself is an ongoing task, many of these questions will be answered as I continue to code through the data and experiment with different Grounded Theory procedures. Experimenting with these procedures shall assist with my understanding, decision and selection justification of the most appropriate procedure for the type of data, disciplinary contexts, and the phenomena itself.


My Current Philosophical Position

At the Philosophical level, I am aligning with the idea of Philosophical fluidity: because Glaser’s writings have been interpreted as philosophically neutral (although there are writings that do suggest that it leans methodologically towards positivism, and some suggest critical realism) and Strauss and Corbin’s writings suggest non-formal adherence to procedures, along with their later writings lining out pragmatism and symbolic interactionism as being the underlying theories of their grounded theory, it can be argued that Grounded Theory encourages philosophical fluidity.


Because my philosophical beliefs align with a realist philosophy; specifically, a realist ontology and an interpretivist, critical epistemology (ideas are continuously being developed here) I can safely reject Charmaz and Clarke’s variants of Grounded Theory as they align themselves with constructivism and post-modernism respectively. I can also argue the rejection of Bryant’s Grounded Theory as appropriate as it aligns with a Pragmatist philosophy but this might not be black or white as I am currently engaged with debates about the methodological level of grounded theory.

Methodological Considerations

My current engagement with the methodological aspect of grounded theory refers to the following questions:


Which procedures of grounded theory are most relevant to a realist conceptualisation of Grounded Theory? Therefore, which version of Grounded Theory out of Glaser, Strauss or even Bryant would be most relevant? Would I have to think about a combination of procedures? Or do I have to in some way create a new procedure? A specific focus in answering this question revolves around debates of Axial Coding, and its relevance to the context of research.


Another question is, what difference does coding for a process introduce to Grounded Theory? Grounded Theory has most popularly been used for coding for experiences and beliefs of a phenomena as opposed to coding for structure and sequences of a process in non-interview based documents and transcripts. From my ongoing readings, I have not come across much literature that covers grounded theory use for developing a substantive theory from observations of a process, as opposed to building a theory from experiences and beliefs.


Therefore, following from this, in what way does a realist Philosophy contribute towards understanding a process from non-interview documents as opposed to understanding a process from the beliefs and experiences of participants as reported in interview based transcripts? What are the philosophical differences here in general? I know that constructivism relates to interview based transcripts, but what about realism and interpretivism and their links with non-interview based documents? Can we assume that interpretivism is some internal process of meaning making and application of meaning on constructs and aspects of reality (reality of the argumentation process) we consider real? What can a realist Philosophy say about qualitative data in general, in contrast with or complementary to constructivist perspectives?


Reflection and Pushing Forwards


Comparing my thoughts documented in much earlier blog posts I do appear to be more settled on grounded theory from a Philosophical perspective and continuously building philosophical arguments for grounded theory. The main area of current contention is the methodological level; specifically, knowing the exact grounded theory procedures to use and this can only be understood as I progress through coding of data and experiment with coding procedures complemented by appropriate reading. Further questions revolve around the way in which the type of theory produced from grounded theory (known as a substantive theory) explains the phenomena of research, and in what way this type of theory can develop into formal theory in the future beyond the Ph.D.


There is a lot to think about here, but I feel that I am placed somewhere in the middle of everything: I am coming from that land of philosophical and methodological confusion of wondering what on Earth do I use and why, to coming to be settled on philosophical perspectives and general methodological approaches. What I am starting to do now is push myself along this philosophical and methodological spectrum towards the side where I am developing philosophical justifications and arguments for the research design, and generally understanding, experimenting with and justifying selections of variants of grounded theory approaches.


Therefore, I have come from the land of philosophical and methodological confusion (Genesis if you’re reading this, no plagiarism intended) to a general sense of philosophical and methodological clarity although specific confusion (for lack of a better term) still exists, and now pushing myself towards specific and detailed clarity. I can tell this is happening because I have felt ready to start writing the thesis, and I have already made a formal start to drafting sections.


Onwards!


Grounded Theory: Philosophically, Methodologically, and Disciplinary fluid?

Grounded theory initially appeared straightforward but it did not take long to realise its complex nature and intense debates surrounding philosophical, methodological and, most recently discovered, disciplinary issues. I first encountered grounded theory through Charmaz’s Constructivist Grounded Theory and read through her book thinking that it would be most relevant to my philosophical beliefs at the time. As I understood the phenomena of interest and the general context of my research through much reading of existing empirical literature revolving around the phenomena of interest, I began to realise that I’m not a constructivist, but a realist. Constructivism and therefore constructivist grounded theory became increasingly irrelevant because of its leaning towards there being multiple realities (I have a belief in a single reality, but not a single reality that is easily discoverable or understood) and an emphasis of the co-construction of meaning between researcher and participant (context of my research does not facilitate such a relationship). I therefore discovered the works of Glaser and Strauss (1968) and Strauss and Corbin (1990) and to this day it hasn’t been easy to decide which is the most relevant to my research and there is a reason for this, which I shall explain further.


There are several key authors of grounded theory: Glaser and Strauss (1968), Strauss and Corbin (1990), Charmaz (2000), Clarke (2003) and Bryant (2016), with each contextualising grounded theory within different philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches (as in, different coding procedures from what I can currently understand). Charmaz as mentioned contextualised grounded theory within a constructivist philosophy following criticisms of Glaser and Strauss’s approaches as leaning too much towards positivism, whilst Clarke positioned Grounded Theory within the context of post-modernism following criticisms of all previous versions. Bryant makes Grounded Theory relevant to practice-based research by positioning Grounded Theory within a Pragmatist philosophy. All these different versions of Grounded Theory have arguably come about through the professional separation of the pioneers of Grounded Theory: Glaser and Strauss.


Initially, Glaser and Strauss were united in their criticisms of social science research and the dominating positivist, objectivist, theory testing approaches to understanding the social world, and embarked on a mission to change that and eventually developed Grounded Theory, which initially was an inductive approach to develop a theory to explain social phenomena.


After a while however, the disciplinary differences and, therefore, theoretical differences between Glaser and Strauss led to their professional break up with each following their own paths to developing grounded theory, with Glaser’s version becoming known as Classical Grounded Theory, whilst Strauss’ version became known as Straussian Grounded Theory. Discussion of the exact differences between the two is beyond the purpose of this blog post but it suffices to say that Straussian Grounded Theory focusses more on combining theory building and theory testing approaches (inductive-deductive or some form of abductive logic) and consists of an extra coding procedure known as Axial Coding, which has been the subject of much criticism from Glaser and Charmaz, and much debate among other authors.


Glaser himself in various research papers and books has highly criticised Straussian Grounded Theory for being too prescriptive and therefore limiting theoretical creativity; however, Strauss and Corbin have both stated that Grounded Theory researchers should not follow a strict adherence to Grounded Theory procedures, but to view the procedures as a guide and therefore adapt according to their research context. And this, I would argue, is where we find the roots of much diversity and fluidity within grounded theory.


Philosophical and Methodological Fluidity


From the writings of Glaser it appears that he opposes the different versions of grounded theory arguing they have transitioned beyond the point where they can reasonably be called Grounded Theory.


The problem with this opposition however is that it has been argued that Glaser’s Grounded Theory is philosophically neutral and can therefore be aligned with any Philosophical position. It’s almost as if Glaser’s opposition focusses on methodological differences rather than Philosophical differences, but it’s the very argument that Philosophy influences methodology that suggests the existence of both philosophical and methodological fluidity. Glaser’s apparent Philosophical neutrality and Strauss and Corbin’s recommendations not to subscribe to strict adherence of Grounded Theory procedures evidences the existence of this fluidity of movement between differing Philosophical positions therefore enabling different variations to be presented. But there is a near limitless debate about this fluidity from all the key authors of Grounded Theory along with discussions from other methodologists and qualitative researchers, but in general there is movement towards this fluidity within research designs as written by some key contemporary methodological authors, all of which I shall be covering in the thesis to some extent.


Disciplinary fluidity


A paper written by Carter and Little (2007) has recently begun to encourage me to think further about the use of Grounded Theory in my research. They present a series of hypothetical scenarios involving a fictional character named “Anna” and a series of considerations she has had to make when designing a research study, and the eventual selection of grounded theory in her study. Briefly, this is encouraging me now to think more about disciplinary assumptions and disciplinary contexts that shall play host to Grounded Theory, and in what exact way and why certain grounded theory procedures are relevant to the discipline within which the phenomena of interest is situated. Additionally, I have to think more about the genesis of the particular version of grounded theory that I desire to use.


Therefore, currently I plan to use Strauss and Corbin’s variant of Grounded Theory. But I have many questions now particularly surrounding the debate about axial coding. I shall be covering some of these questions and thoughts in the next blog post.


References:


Bryant, A (2017): "Grounded Theory and Grounded Theorising: Pragmatism in Research Practice," Published by Oxford University Press


Carter, S.M., Little, M "Justifying Knowledge, Justifying Method, Taking Action: Epistemologies, Methodologies, and Methods in Qualitative Research," Qualitative Health Research, 17 (10), pp 1316 - 1328


Charmaz, K (2014): "Constructing Grounded Theory" (2nd Edition). Published by Sage


Clark, A.E (2003): "Situational Analyses: Grounded Theory Mapping After The Postmodern Turn," Symbolic Interaction, 26 (4), pp 553 - 576


Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A, L (1967): "The Discovery of Grounded Theory," Published by Aldine Transactions


Strauss, A.L., Corbin, J. (1990): "Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory" Published by Sage. (Note that updated editions have been published throughout the years)


March 29, 2017

It's All Starting To Click!

Within the early stages of the Ph.D. you shall be forgiven if you arrive at early conclusions regarding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, methods and data. It is easy in the early stages to subscribe to the notion that, for example, qualitative data and qualitative inquiry in general is situated only within a combined Philosophy of relativist ontology / subjectivist epistemology; similarly, it’s easy to subscribe to the notion that qualitative data comes only from interview methods.


Why is this the case?


I arrived at these assumptions prior to and early in the Ph.D, based on what I was reading at the time. Research papers gave the impression that statistical analysis and experimental designs aligned only with objectivist perspectives and that qualitative data and associated analysis aligned only with a subjectivist perspective. However, the more I read the more I questioned my own assumptions about the relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods and found that this relationship is far more dynamic than I had imagined, and that really there is no such thing as a linear relationship between them. This relationship is fluid, and the more I read and thought about my own beliefs I am now finding much fluidity even between ontological and epistemological perspectives, and this is what I shall initially call Design Flexibility.


Design Flexibility


Design flexibility does not adopt a sceptical perspective of the existence of an actual relationship between philosophy, methodology and methods, but is sceptical of any assumptions of a linear relationship where a particular perspective entails the choosing of other specific perspectives. There is no rejection to the idea that ontological perspectives influence epistemological perspectives, which in turn influence methodological perspectives, but there is a rejection of a predetermined linear relationship. More recent methodological textbook authors arguably lean heavily in the direction of philosophical and methodological dynamism therefore acknowledging that reality and our understanding of reality is so complex that there are limitless ways in which reality can be perceived and the way in which we come to know this reality, which influences the way in which we explore this reality.


Applied to my own thinking, my philosophical beliefs line with subtle realism, developed by Hammersley. Typically, a realist ontology is accompanied by an objectivist epistemology suggesting a reality independent of our thinking and knowing, and knowledge of this reality being discoverable and accessible within this reality as knowledge itself exists independently of our minds. But design flexibility suggests that even though the realist ontology and objectivist epistemology is commonly observed particularly in the natural sciences, it doesn’t mean that they are in a strict dependent relationship. Hence, my epistemological beliefs align with subjectivism: I perceive a reality independent of our minds but we do not have access to all knowledge and truths of this reality. We will never come to fully know or grasp objective reality and truth of this reality through our perceptions and theories about what is occurring within this reality: the best that we can do, and the best that I can do with the theory that I am developing, is to represent certain actions and events within reality without claiming that I know for certain that what I theorise is really what is happening.


Another example of design flexibility is at the methodology level. Typically, qualitative inquiries are not associated with realist philosophies as they are mostly aligned with constructivist or interpretivist based perspectives (relative ontology; subjectivist epistemology) but I am attempting to place my qualitative inquiry within the context of realist ontology, subjectivist epistemology with the type of subjectivism leaning towards interpretivism. There is a small but growing body of literature that suggests the usefulness of qualitative inquiries being situated within this philosophical context therefore it is an aim of mine to attempt to contribute towards further discussion and development of this area of qualitative inquiries.


Then there are the methods and various qualitative approaches within which these methods are situated. Qualitative inquiries can not only be situated within a variety of different ontological and epistemological combinations but also adopt a variety of possible different general approaches with the most typical being ethnography, phenomenology, grounded theory and case study, but there are many more approaches and each of these can typically be combined e.g., an ethnographic case study. The qualitative approaches that shall be used are case study and grounded theory.


And to add to this already banging-head-on-keyboard-moment-as-you-work-through-all-this-stuff are the various types of case studies and the various types of grounded theories that have to be selected or further developed if no existing version exactly matches research aims and general context of the research design. For example, because of the adopted philosophical perspectives, I have to not only think of ways in which the particular type of case study and particular type of grounded theory adopted, or further developed, in this research work with each other, but work with each other within the philosophical perspective, which should lead to plenty of opportunities to expand on current discussions and development of research designs.


What has been discussed in this blog post is not the full story either: there is so much more beyond what I have discussed here but for the purpose of this blog (and my sanity) I have kept discussions brief and relative to my continuous thinking and development progress,


There you have it: completely and utterly bewildering and confusing at first, but keep fighting your way through because it is worth it. I think, perhaps, yeah, it is, I’ll let you know in time……..


September 20, 2016

Current Reflections On Mixed Methods Methodology

Right at the beginning of the Ph.D. all researchers are presented with an introduction to various research philosophies and methodologies, and the many ways in which these have been defined and applied. The research introduction is not extensive: it is designed to initiate your thinking about what philosophical perspectives, methodological approaches and methods might be suitable for your research. Usually it also introduces you to some of the general advantages and disadvantages of and some of the more general arguments for and against each approach. Basically, it acts as a platform upon which you jump off into a much wider arena of discussion, debate and application.


At this point, given that the state of the research is in the upgrade process, my experience of mixed methods has revolved around designing and developing mixed methods as a methodology guided by a case study strategy, which itself can be applied to a research design in many ways but this will be discussed in another blog post, underpinned by a critical realist Philosophy. Explaining the way all this fits together is beyond the purpose of this blog post, but specific to mixed methods and thinking about the way that mixed methods can work with my research design has been an extremely interesting adventure and continues to be so.


When I began thinking about mixed methods methodology I found various typologies that explain the way in which different components of a mixed methods methodology fit together, and their general functionality. Creswell is a prolific writer of mixed methods research, and has come up with various typologies of mixed methods designs: sequential, concurrent, embedded, and transformative. When I first began reading through the various types and their applications, I initially chose concurrent parallel variety but then changed to sequential exploratory. Read previous blog posts to read all about why the transition took place.


Initially, I thought these typologies were fixed with no flexibility with their amendments to fit particular contexts. I did struggle with this somewhat as the context calls for some amendments to take place, but had decided to put these amendment ideas aside for the time being. Through the trialling of grounded theory (to be discussed further another time) and through careful reading so far of relevant grounded theory and case study literature, I found that methodologies and methods are continuously shifting and amending based on current discussions of research methodology. Following this, literature was discovered from various authors criticising typologies from Creswell and other mixed methods authors, stating that these typologies are not meant to be used in an absolutely unchangeable way, but should be used as a guide and therefore amendable relative to the context.


Reading this has been somewhat of a relief. Since the research is based on theory development I wanted some process or element of the design to deal with theory refinement following the development and testing phases. I am now amending the sequential exploratory approach developed by Creswell to reflect an iterative, extra phase of theory refinement.


Reading methodologies, methods and even philosophies are continuously shifting concepts adds a new layer of complexity to understanding, designing, developing, testing and applying a research design. Not only are there actual philosophical perspectives and methodological approaches, and methods, but these are shifting positions all the time with researching continuously adding, for example, different philosophical arguments for or against different methodological approaches. Research can combine philosophies, methodologies and methods in various different ways relative to the research problem, the research questions, and the skills and experiences of the researcher. This would lead to not just simply applying a particularly defined approach to exploring reality, but also gives the researcher a chance to remedy criticisms and push the boundaries of methodological knowledge.


When a researcher begins to realise this, a new chapter begins. A new layer of understanding begins as you explore to the most detailed and in-depth level what research philosophies, methodologies and methods are about and to locate opportunities to extend and push current knowledge about these different philosophical and methodological approaches.


I have really only just begun to realise and push for developing new philosophical and methodological arguments and perspectives relative to the research problem and the phenomenon of interest. This is risky, I’m not sure if it will work, but I feel that what I am doing is right. Sometimes you just have to take that academic risk to push forward with what you want to achieve, because knowledge cannot push forward to new arenas if no person is willing to saddle up and ride the horse of knowledge! I’ll be talking about this adventure more in future blog posts.


‘till next time: keep playing with your designs!


Are All Research Designs Pragmatic and Relativist?

Developing a research design is quite an experience, and is a complex mesh of investigating and exploring different philosophies, strategies, methodologies and methods and, in the case of my research design, the way in which they can be combined and / or amended to fit the research context and research questions. I continuously reflect upon my research design and question it, and the process of actually getting to the point where I have a research design therefore sometimes I wonder if the design, regardless of its philosophical positioning, is actually pragmatic and relativist process.


I reflect on this question because research design development is based on our own prejudices, experiences, philosophies and theories, and the identified research problem. The way that we interpret and understand reality can in some way limit the way that we choose to investigate reality, or in some way restrict ourselves with our research design preferences, and the reality of the research problem. But should our own preferences determine the research design or should it be the research questions? This depends, in my opinion, on several factors including our experiences and developed skills, and enthusiasm for other approaches. A solid quantitative experimental researcher, for example, might not be able to learn about qualitative ethnographic or coding approaches within a short space of time required to complete a research project. They might not even be willing to actually do this instead continue to view reality and all research problems through the lens of an experimentalist. Research textbooks do emphasise the idea that research questions do drive the research design, but is this absolute? Are research questions the only factor?


Where do research problems come from? Are they constructed by the individuals or are research problems already out there independent of human thought waiting to be discovered? What makes us identify research problems in a different way to other researchers? I identified the basis of my research project many years ago through observation, and it has taken many years of reading and an MSc course to really refine the research to where it is now and even then refinement is still an ongoing process. Perhaps research problems exist independent of a researcher’s perceiving, understanding and knowing them but each researcher perceives and chooses to explore the problem in different ways based on prejudices, experiences and so on. Perhaps they are not actually independent and depends on our interpretations and engagement with the natural or social reality?


Our perspectives of reality do not have to be fixed and certain: my own philosophical views have changed from a relativist perspective to a critical realist perspective, and this has entailed a change to my methodological approach to investigating reality and the research problem. The research questions have changed numerous times as I have read and explored the phenomenon of interest further. Understanding reality is more than just statistically analysing two or more variables in order to correlate them and create a cause-effect relationship and then to go on testing this relationship. Understanding reality is also more than just a researcher enveloping or immersing themselves with participant observation and experiences. Reality is more than just being a single, certain, absolute reality easily accessible and understandable through using hypo-deductive scientific methods and it is more than just being based on our subjective knowledge and experiences of reality


Does this make the process pragmatic and relativist? Pragmatic as in, I am selecting “whatever works” to address the research questions and the research problem therefore I perceive from reflection upon my own perspectives of reality that a critical realist case study using a mixed methods approach is the most appropriate design for this research. Relativist as in, I have developed the research design relative to the research problem, relative to my own philosophical views, and relative to the methodological concerns that I have identified in existing published literature.


This is something that is worth continuing to think about!


July 10, 2016

Rambling load of updates!

Research Design


The components of the research design were decided a few weeks ago and the components are now unlikely to change. The research design is based on a critical realist approach to a convergent paralleled variety of mixed methods, which includes the use of a questionnaire and grounded theory methods based on the Strauss and Corbin version. I did go through a phase of feeling overwhelmed a few weeks ago as I had decided to change the grounded theory method component, which spurred a huge quantity of questions and thoughts about compatibility and research design validity all at once. I think reflecting back I had become so convinced that Charmaz’s Constructivist Grounded Theory would work, till the philosophical stance changed from relativism to critical realism, that the need to change the grounded theory method was impactful on my confidence of the research design and my overall ability to understand it all. But with patience, time, careful thinking and further reading my confidence in the validity and feasibility of the research design is growing.


This is not to say however that I know everything about the research design components and I do not actually know that the research design will take off. However, at the moment I am meticulously and comprehensively studying each of the research design components and threading them together to make a complete, compatible research design that is relevant to the research context and phenomena of interest. This is being achieved through constructing arguments for the need of the research design within the specific context and relevance for the phenomena of interest, and also through building critiques of existing research designs and relevant design components within Educational research, particularly relevant to the phenomena of interest. This is a current, ongoing task with argumentation and critiques continuously being constructed and amended in various ways through reading relevant literature and thinking about this literature.


Upgrade Paper


Coming along nicely though I shall be dealing with a few questions at the next meeting with the supervisor, including questions regarding the methodological section: is it best to focus on describing the process of the research design? E.g., describe critical realism in a way that is relevant to explaining the process of mixed methods then explain the process of mixed methods and so on. Or is it best to focus on argumentation of the research design? Or a mixture of both?


First draft should be completed soon. The sections have been figured out, so now it’s a case of completing the sections and then begin the process of editing. This is an ongoing process.


Trial study


Decided to let an aspect of the trial period run on for a while longer than previously planned, just to find out what would happen further with the trial and I am pleased that I made this choice because I now have more than enough data to build a practical understanding of the qualitative analytical research methods relating to grounded theory. Additionally, I wonder if there is merit in using the data from trial period in the actual research study, given that grounded theory has an “all is data” perspective. It would be interesting if I could use this data, because that would give me a start on theorising from the codes and categories generated from the data, as described by grounded theory.

Questionnaire is yet to be trialled, but this will happen in the future. This shouldn’t take too long, as all that is required is to trial the design, think about possible statistical analysis methods, then trial the analysis methods, and then think about the way in which quantitative and qualitative data can be analysed to complement or converge with each other. Oh, not too much to do then!


Summary


So that’s about it, but enough to get on with! In summary, the immediate tasks are: continue to thread the research design together through argumentation, critique of existing research, and experimenting with the design theoretically and practically; continue with the upgrade paper, and continue with the trial study through trialling the grounded theory methods, and the questionnaire.


Change, uncertainty, and doubt: opportunities or challenges?

Change, uncertainty and doubt are three concepts that define the dynamics and intricacy of post graduate research. Change occurs as time progresses and can manifest itself in many different ways such as a change to research question, a change to the philosophical perspective, a change to methodology, and a change to research methods. The extent to which a design changes over time depends on the open mindedness, awareness, knowledge and skills that a researcher possesses, which entails realisation of any faults of their research design in relation to the context of the research.

I have experienced change to my research design from the research question all the way to the research methods, as I have been documenting on this blog for quite a while.

But does change entail uncertainty? Should change entail uncertainty? In what way should change be observed? In what way can we observe and deal with uncertainty? In what way should we manage change and uncertainty so that they can lead to opportunities and not difficulties? In what way can we manage doubt?

These are complex questions that provoke different answers. Different researchers will have different ideas about the certainty, or uncertainty, of their design based on their open mindedness, awareness, knowledge, and skills. Uncertainty could come about through a change in the initial selection of design components, which could cause the researcher to think immediately about the validity and relevance of the design to the context. In this context, change causes uncertainty particularly to the validity and relevance of research design. Alternatively, uncertainty could have caused that change to take place: comprehensive reading and thinking could lead the researcher to feel uncertain to the extent that changing a component eases this uncertainty. In this context, uncertainty causes change. When I mention uncertainty I’m talking about reasonable uncertainty and not emotional uncertainty; that uncertainty is born from reason and logically thinking about the design and relevant literature, and not some emotional connection with a particular component.

There is a third scenario: this uncertainty, whether occurring before or after a change in design components, might be found to be built on contestable foundations therefore further thinking and reading could actually render this uncertainty as invalid therefore no changes to research components would be required. In these cases, uncertainty and doubt might not come from this awareness and open mindedness but from other domains or dimensions of the self: confidence levels, self esteem, and so on.

In my opinion based on my own experiences, change can lead to uncertainty but that does not mean that it shall occur every time, and it should be embraced more as an opportunity to improve the design rather than opening the door to being defeated and consigning the design to the bin. During the past year or so I have continuously changed certain aspects of my design. A couple of main examples I have talked about on here is a change from pure qualitative methodology to a mixed methods methodology, and a change from constructivist grounded theory method proposed by Charmaz to a version of the grounded theory method developed by Strauss and Corbin. Additionally, the identification of critical realism as being the most appropriate philosophical guide of exploring the context and phenomena of interest.

These changes have introduced a mixture of uncertainty and certainty, and this still continues. I feel more certain that the research design is the correct way of exploring the phenomena of interest within the defined context as a result of all the literature that I am continuing to explore and question, as well as the critiques and arguments that are developing. But there is a continued sense of uncertainty because of the apparent uniqueness of the design within the context of the research, and therefore is in a sense unproven, and additionally few relevant theoretical and conceptual papers actually exist regarding the design specific to the context. This shall make the research itself a challenge in the sense that whilst certainty in the validity and feasibility of the design shall improve in the future, certainty in its verifiability and applicability cannot be reasonably determined until the research has been completed, although the trial study shall certainly help in this aspect. Even following the trail period I shall never reach absolute certainty about the research design: this is impossible without actually applying the design, reflecting upon the design, and critiquing it.

Change, uncertainty and doubt can bring about feelings of being overwhelmed (although that itself can cause uncertainty) and probably an element of self doubt. Whilst this is understandable (been there, done that, and shall no doubt go through such feelings again particularly of being overwhelmed), change and uncertainty need to be embraced as providing excellent opportunities for development. Embracing them as such opportunities shall lead to creative thinking and of developing unique solutions to existing problems, and therefore provide interesting opportunities to further the platform of debate and discussion about such solutions and problems. In my opinion, uncertainty about research design should be celebrated and embraced, because uncertainty can lead to a researcher’s most prosperous, creative, and inspiring design choices and insights into the phenomena.

‘till next time: keep calm!


May 24, 2016

Reflection on the Literature Review so far

The development of the literature review of the thesis is not likely to officially begin till after the upgrade process although this has not stopped me from continuously thinking about the concept of a literature review, its aims and purpose, its structure and layout, and the approach of synthesising and analysing the literature that is to be included. Despite all the other work that needs to be completed in the early stages of the Ph.D., there is argument to suggest that there are important considerations in the early stages of the Ph.D. that can and will influence the literature review at a later time. The following represents my own advice based on the experiences so far on the Ph.D.



Think about it early, and never stop thinking about it


Think about the literature review right at the beginning of the Ph.D even when you are developing your proposal as part of your Ph.D. application. Form draft initial thoughts about what you want to achieve with the literature review and think about what authors you might want to include. I began thinking about the literature review at the beginning through for example deciding upon some of the authors and concepts that I want to include in the review. This however is a continuous and ongoing process because the literature review itself is a continuous, ongoing, dynamic document. There is no room for absolutism in my opinion when constructing a literature review.


Concepts change, your own understanding changes, your research shall change, the context shall change, the methods and methodology might change, and therefore your selection of literature shall change, and this especially the selection of literature shall change constantly as your understanding matures. Embrace it, feel challenged, push yourself and never give up!


Think about it early, think about it before starting the Ph.D., never stop thinking about it, and when you have written the literature review treat it as a first draft and keep thinking about it.


Make sure you record every idea, thought, inspiration, anything that comes to your mind about the literature that you read, or what you experience or observe no matter if it’s small or insignificant. Remember: my own research began as a small near insignificant observation on a teaching course that no other person picked up even though it was right in front of them!



Do not subscribe to a particular method too soon


This is quite important from my experience. To briefly explain, there are various methods used to analyse and synthesis existing literature: meta synthesis, meta-analysis, meta ethnography, narrative synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, and mixed methods synthesis, to name a few.


Around the middle to latter part of the first year I decided to develop a critical interpretive synthesis approach, but the problem at this time was I had not fully realised the research design. At this time (and as has been thoroughly discussed on this blog) I was planning on adopting a Grounded Theory research design and was going to integrate critical interpretive synthesis data with grounded theory data. However, when I realised the faults of the research design I changed from grounded theory to a mixed methods design and subsequently realised that the critical interpretive synthesis approach was no longer suitable because it generates a theory from the literature and not the research data. I need to rethink the approach that I am going to be using to analyse and synthesis the literature.



Decide what types of literature that is to be included


This is a key factor in deciding the approach that is chosen to analyse and synthesis literature. My literature review shall be complex containing both quantitative and qualitative literature, with each type consisting of different methods, tasks, contexts and Philosophical perspectives. I have selected this extensive set of literature because it suits the mixed methods research design: because data in my research shall be generated from both quantitative and qualitative approaches, it makes sense to analyse both quantitative and qualitative literature.


The analysis of the literature shall be within the context of different concepts that define the general phenomenon of investigation. Defining concepts and developing conceptual understanding shall assist with allocating and categorising literature and therefore make the process of literature management a little easier. My research so far consists of four or five concepts, but conceptual understanding of these concepts are continuously developing, which influences the way in which literature is categorised and also the need to select and evaluate further literature. I shall explain this in a later blog post.



Decide on your research design


This, in addition to deciding the types of literature to be included in the literature analysis and synthesis, is a key factor in deciding which method to use to analyse and synthesis the literature.


Particular research designs shall make particular approaches to analysing and synthesising the literature unusable. A pure quantitative research design might work well with a critical interpretive analysis approach because the purpose of the critical interpretive analysis is to generate a theory from the literature, which can then be tested using a quantitative research design. A critical interpretive analysis therefore would not be suitable for a grounded theory based research design because a theory should be generated from the literature and not from the research data.



It’s an ongoing document


A literature review is continuously developing right up to the point of the point of formally submitting the thesis. It would be completely pointless to write a literature review in the first year of the Ph.D. and then submit it as it is with the thesis submission (around a couple to several years later) and not include any further, latest research. This would be identified in the viva as a serious flaw as the post graduate researcher would have failed to keep with up to date developments in their field and would reduce the authenticity and uniqueness of the research.



Summary


The key point of this blog post is to emphasise the importance of thinking about the literature review as early as you can. Considerations include: type of literature to include, the approach to synthesising and analysing the literature, and the overall research methodology. Remember that the overall research design and the type of literature selected will influence the approach to literature synthesis and analysis.


It is a lot of work and should not be taken lightly!


January 05, 2016

Setting Aims And Objectives

It’s traditional for people to set themselves New Year Resolutions in the rather limited hoping that they’ll be able to stick to it but usually break it within a short time of making them! I don’t go for that sort of thing but instead I go for setting aims and objectives of the year, which contributes towards achieving the overall vision that I have for where I want to be with what I do.

Having just started getting back to my work I have been thinking about the aims of the year and the objectives that shall contribute towards achieving those aims, and the tasks that need to be carried out in order for those objectives to contribute to those aims, and the resources that are needed to assist with the completion of each task. Setting aims and objectives is important because aims and objectives provide directions and enable you to attain a realistic and measurable positioning in your research and put in place some sort of focus for the year, or whatever time frame you choose to define. It is an activity that I recommend every Ph.D. candidate involve themselves with so that they can give themselves not only a focus but a means of ordering the objectives, activities and tasks that they need to carry out during that particular time frame, and therefore to reduce confusion and misdirection.

Setting an aim means that you set yourself a fairly abstract, none specific goal to achieve during that particular time frame. For example, an aim that I have set for my research this year is “Pass the Upgrade Process.” Fairly abstract and doesn’t contain any ideas of any resources or activities that are required: it is simply an aim to achieve; it gives a direction. Setting an objective, or a series of objectives, entails a more specific description of what task needs to be completed in order to achieve a particular aim. I write aims using fairly abstract language; I write objectives using specific and clear adjective and noun relationships. For example, an objective to achieve the aim “Pass the Upgrade Process” is “Write the Upgrade Paper by September,” which tells me that there is a report that needs to be written by a certain time: it gives an adjective – noun relationship within the context of time.

These objectives can be listed as long term, medium term and short term although simply using these titles is quite ambiguous so it is always best to give some sort of a time structure to these objectives. For example, a shorter term objective to the objective “Complete the Upgrade Paper by September” is “define research practicalities” giving much more of a specific task to achieve in the shorter term and I have placed it in the time frame of between now and Easter.

From then on, you can begin to list the tasks that are going to be carried out to achieve each objective and the resources that are going to be required to complete each task, if you want to go that far. It might be an idea to detail as much as you can, when you can, and use this as evidence for project management.

So, setting aims, objectives, tasks and resources is an extremely useful skill and process to carry out whilst going through your Ph.D. as this can offer you a direction, a focus, and helps you to not steer off course and become confused because it is really easy to steer off course whilst doing your Ph.D. research. This is because there are so many, limitless, avenues of research and debate but obviously to cover all of this in a thesis even of eighty thousand words would not be sufficient.

I would love to delve into the debates and perspectives of Grounded Theory and what many authors have said about it and debate with what they have said, but I simply do not have the room to cover absolutely everything and there would be a danger that I would be so focussed on arguing and debating Grounded Theory perspectives that I would lose track completely of where I should be actually going at a particular time. Setting these aims, objectives, tasks and resources set the grounding for suitable and appropriate direction, but that doesn’t mean that the Ph.D. becomes extremely structured or rigid. You must be able to follow a path but be flexible enough to join that path to different paths if you discover something relevant.

So to summarise, setting aims and objectives enables your progress to become:

  • Feasible

  • Workable

  • Realistic

  • Maintainable

  • Flexible where appropriate

  • Sustainable

  • Well defined

  • Clear

  • More clarified

  • Assessable


October 23, 2015

Weekly Ramblings: making progress with reading the literature; proof of uniqueness!


“Literature, Literature, Literature, Literature!” No, that’s not a new Tony Blair mantra; that’s the mantra of the early aspects of the Ph.D., quite possibly the most important mantra! With that, I have been swift to follow up on the positive feedback that my supervisor provided regarding the set of literature that I explored and critiqued and offered a unique perspective of as part of the second assignment of the Advanced Research Methods course. Within that, I explored a set of literature referring to learner perceptions of a particular construct, critiqued the literature regarding the lack of conceptual definitions and what has yet to be explored, and therefore began showing the need for the questionnaire that is being developed. Again as I have said in previous blog posts, this was risky territory and it could have gone either way but with a sigh of relief the feedback was positive.


During the week therefore I have explored more literature in an attempt to determine the extent to which questionnaires have been used to explore learner perceptions of particular learning constructs. I have been amazed to find out that there is a lack of such research available according to the set of literature that has been explored so far although obviously I have not exhausted the literature within this area, and therefore the reading of the literature shall be continuous, but so far the findings suggest a serious lack of such research.


The existing findings of literature evidences the methodological need of the questionnaire that I am developing. The reading is beginning to shape the foundations of different parts of chapters of the Thesis including, and particularly, the literature review along with the methodology chapter, and, importantly for the shorter term goals, beginning to shape the foundations of the conference paper to be presented at next year’s Warwick Postgraduate Conference and then turned into a research paper. Obviously, this will be based on the findings of future, continuous reading, advice from the supervisor, and the way the conference paper shall be received at the conference.


It has not been easy though to get this far. No vision of research is developed immediately; this direction that I am going with the questionnaire is a result of months (months!) of continuous reading and understanding of what is being read, and a careful analysis of my own ideas and the relationship between those ideas and the context of existing literature. This is an ongoing process. This reading will be continuous and will no doubt lead to redeveloping the questionnaire to match what has been read since submitting it as part of the second assignment of the Advanced Research Methods course, as well as what shall be read in the future.


However, I am starting to develop that clear vision and direction of where the questionnaire is leading. Essentially, the first public tasting of this questionnaire will be the research conference, followed possibly by a further pilot study followed by presenting the questionnaire (and other aspects of the research and research design) at the upgrade presentation sometime possibly during the third year.


Plenty to be getting on with then!


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