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December 31, 2019

Reflections Of The Year 2019

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


November 07, 2019

Ph.D Update Of Work Part D: Future Work

A reason why I have not fully developed the philosophical and methodological arguments yet is simply because there is a lot here to consider. There are probably things that need considering that I have not even thought about yet, and there are probably things that I gave only a passing glance that need further thought (I’ve come across this several times!).


From what I can currently understand and from what I am currently considering, further thought needs to be given to how the multiple uses of methods is compatible with middle range philosophical positions. I also need to further consider how the approach is compatible with hermeneutical qualitative methodologies. I also have to consider further how thematic, basic quantitative and pattern-based approaches complement each other with respect to the philosophical and methodological positions. I also have to think further about these considerations with respect to the research question and research objectives.


This is all ongoing work and will take a number of months to fully realise and elaborate. This shall obviously lead to the continuous need to edit and probably rewrite the research design chapter sections as deemed necessary.


I am also considering carrying out extra analysis of the data. I have found the essentials of the process of social learning and have developed a better understanding of the process itself, but I have also begun to understand and explain in the thesis what factors inhibits the process of social learning. This needs further work because I am realising that I am developing claims and hypotheses that I am not able to answer, and I am thinking that these assumptions can become more reliable and validated if I carried out further data analysis. This will of course impact the content and ordering of the findings chapter and the discussions chapter. In what way this could happen, what extra content or discussions could be made, and the way that existing discussions shall be amended have not been fully considered yet and won’t be till I decided what other data analysis tasks are required, and to think about the way in which they could affect existing findings.


The coding framework, which is a key deliverable of the research, is now complete but I am also in the process of testing the framework within different contexts. The aim of this is to improve validity and reliability of the framework, and to show its possible areas of application, which might have a profound impact on what has already been discussed in the discussions chapter. The desire is to publish these findings in a research paper in the future.


I also have other ideas for research papers particularly method papers that contribute towards the discussions of ‘multi-methods’ approach particularly with respect to the specific learning context. Papers based on the findings are also planned and I have ideas to publish papers based on each type of method and also in combination, but I am not sure at this time the way this is going to come about and I am going to think about this more next year.
Lots going on! The key emphasis now is on the continuous development and redevelopment of thesis chapters from what I consider to be complete draft form to formal thesis form. Another key emphasis is on testing the analytical framework for validity, reliability and applicability. The other key emphasis is on publishing papers, but this is not an immediate concern and can be left to some point next year. In the meantime between now and Christmas the focus shall be placed on editing and rewriting the first literature review chapter.


What a journey and there’s more to come!


Ph.D Update Of Work Part C: Multiple Perspectives Of Data

Previously I had discussed the limitations of thematic analysis, and briefly indicated how these limitations could be addressed using quantitative and patterned based approaches with the aim of generating a better understanding of the process of social learning processes as well as its essentials or essences. Although, I could argue in the thesis that in order to understand the process itself it is important to understand the essentials of the process relative to the research question and research objectives. How can a process itself be understood if we do not know its essentials? This is a question I’m currently thinking about.


Going further into the discussions, what I had found with the combined use of thematic, quantitative, and patterned based approaches is a more effective understanding of the process of learning, but still not a complete picture of the phenomenon as a whole. I am in a better position to explain ‘what’ happens and possibly ‘how’ something happens, but not ‘why’ that particular learning event happens at a particular point because I would need access to resources that have been beyond the reach and purpose of the Ph.D. However, in the thesis I am explaining all of this as part of potential future work that could be carried out. As individual analytical methods, not only did each in part support the findings of each other, but each approach offered a different yet compatible perspective of the data.


I had not anticipated or expected such vastly different perspectives of the data, so this complexity had overwhelmed me for quite a while. It took a lot of working out of the meaning of each approach and the data that each produced in order to understand how each set complemented each other, and what exactly the data was trying to communicate (and, indeed, the way I was interpreting the meaning of each set of data relative to each other). This is still ongoing and, hence, provides a possible reason to edit the findings and discussion chapters.


Let’s take a closer look at some of the philosophical and methodological issues of the combined approach that I have been thinking about.


Methodologically, the inclusion of multiple analytical methods does not constitute a mixed methods approach. Briefly, a research project could be considered mixed methods if each method is used with different types of data (e.g., qualitative and quantitative) leading to the production of different sets of data that is to me merged or combined in some way. Within this research, the qualitative thematic, basic quantitative and patterned-based approaches are being used with the same type of data and within the same type of general methodology (hermeneutic qualitative). A key question that I am currently exploring is whether or not this sort of approach can be considered ‘methodological triangulation’ or ‘analytical triangulation,’ or ‘multi-mode’ or ‘multi-methods’ research. Regardless, philosophically the multiple uses of methods is arguably compatible with middle-range realist perspectives as it is to my understanding that subtle realism (considered a middle range philosophy, and is a realist position I draw upon within the research) support multiple different types of analytical approaches within the same project in order to enable understand of the complexity of a phenomenon. I am still fully working out the compatibility between middle range philosophies and multiple uses of analytical methods within the same project, though I am arriving at the point that middle-range philosophical positions supports multiple analytical methods.

What does all this mean? What does or could this mean for qualitative research? My methodological position is hermeneutical and whilst most literature I have come across focuses on how hermeneutics assists with the interpretations of text, I am not convinced that this excludes some form of basic quantitative analysis. I am currently developing explanations and ideas about this, but my current thinking here is that because hermeneutics is compatible with middle-range realism, and because middle range realism advocates reasonableness and rationale development of concepts, the interpretations that are hermeneutically constructed can be supplemented or supported in some way by a form of quantitative analysis. This, of course, depends very much on the context of what is being explored. Because I am exploring a process of learning through accessing the process directly and not through some mediated access through, for example, the perspectives of learners, I can ground the research within a particular form of objective reality that can be supported in some way by the use of the quantitative. Through thematic analysis I can present a series of themes and codes, and make assumptions about a process based on those codes and themes, and then use the quantitative to provide a form of validating the reasonableness of at least some of these assumptions and interpretations, in conjunction with the pattern-based approach. This is again something I am currently figuring out.


The pattern-based approach provided a perspective of the learning process that differed widely from the thematic and quantitative approaches, and provided insights into the patterns and processes of interactions among participants that I had not previously anticipated and considered. This, admittedly, completely overwhelmed me as mentioned and for a while I was stuck and muddled, but I persevered and slowly, progressively, sense and clarity was being made out of the uncertainty. I am not yet in a position where I can fully elaborate on the way that the different approaches complement each other and build on the findings of each other, and what I have already explained might need editing. But I do believe that my philosophical and methodological arguments are becoming clearer as my understanding grows, and I do feel much more clearer on the meaning of the findings and the purpose of each approach compared to a few months ago when I felt completely overwhelmed with the differences in the perspectives that were afforded by the different analytical methods.


I still feel I have a long way to go, yet I also feel I have come really far. It is very wrong to think at any time that you are absolutely correct and absolutely close to where you need to be, because you can never really fully tell the distance that you are at compared to the complete whole. All you can to is track and trace the distance you have travelled, and if you can observe real difference and real progress in your understanding of everything that you do, then you’re on the right track!


Ph.D Update Of Work Part B: A Shift In Data Analysis

Long term blog followers will probably remember my discussions about grounded theory and discourse analysis, and the reasons why I shifted towards thematic analysis following the identification of their unsuitability. Whilst thematic analysis has been very useful for achieving certain purposes of the research, thematic analysis had not provided a complete picture of the phenomena of research interest. In fact, I came to realise that some of the problems encountered with grounded theory were also encountered with thematic analysis.


Thematic analysis was used in this research to develop a coding framework that can be used to code for particular and similar patterns across the data with reference to specific characteristics of social learning processes. From the codes, themes have been developed that characterises the process of social learning. However, a problem that was encountered was that, similar to grounded theory, whilst thematic analysis was able to identify the key concepts and conceptualisations of social learning process, it could not enable a full understanding of the process of learning itself. In other words, thematic analysis can describe and present the key essences of social learning in accordance to the specifics of the research question and research objectives. It cannot, however, explain how learning takes place within the context of a social and cognitive process. In order to achieve this, I had to go deeper into not just the essences that describes and captures essential social learning, given particular conditions and contexts, but also deeper understanding of the process of learning itself. Learning is a process, not a product, regardless of the context of this learning and it is arguable that to understand learning within any context is to understand it as a social and cognitive process.


In order to achieve this level of understanding, along with thematic analysis I also used basic quantitative approaches, and patterned-based approaches. From the use of thematic analysis, I developed several assumptions about the process, but could not use thematic analysis to test these assumptions. The use of basic quantitative analysis and pattern-based analysis led to the testing of these assumptions and further explorations of the data in order to better understand social learning as a process and as a pattern between individuals. This has added considerably to the research not just in terms of better understanding the essences of the phenomenon, but also of understanding its process. The addition of multiple methods has, not surprisingly, also led to the need to rethink of some aspects the research design to ensure compatibility and cohesion between the research design components. These considerations are important, because without these careful considerations the research design is going to appear disjointed and illogical, with incompatible parts that could generate incorrect or inappropriate data leading to unreliable and unverifiable interpretations of the data.


What actually happened during this process is the observation and construction of insights of the learning process that I had not previously anticipated, and that which I had no idea I considered possible to perceive. I shall explain this further in the next blog post.


Ph.D Update Of Work Part A: Thesis And Analytical Framework

The Thesis


The thesis chapters are now complete, at least to the point that the foundations, the arguments, the insights, and all points of discussions have been laid out in a logical and progressive way across each chapter. I would not suggest that the thesis is complete as there is a need to edit and rewrite various chapters and chapter sections. The process of editing and rewriting aims to improve explanations of the research design and the recent amendments that have been made to it, as well as to aim to better explain and develop arguments and insights of the data that have been made since amending the research design.


To achieve this current status of the thesis has itself involved numerous rewrites of each chapter, but I am at a point now where I am not expecting a serious rewrite and reconstructions of each chapter. Of course I cannot make this an absolute claim, because what exactly I edit and the extent to which I edit depends on the way I make further sense of the research findings in accordance with the research question and the research objectives. The edits to all the chapters over the past few years, and the edits that are currently continuing, are as a result of my changing understanding and conceptualisations of the data, and of the phenomenon of interest, and of changes to how I explore and investigate the phenomenon of interest. The thesis has been and still is an evolving document that simply cannot be written ‘as is’ in any first setting, because it will go through as many changes as you consider best to reflect your changing understanding and changes of research approach. This continuous change and amendment is, in my experience, an integral part of engaging with qualitative research and writing a qualitative based research. This is because qualitative research is based around the understanding and interpretation of text based data, and our understanding and interpretation of the text changes continuously particularly though arguably this depends on our philosophical positions. Regardless of our Philosophical positions, it is impossible to identify all possible concepts at the initial stages of your research because concepts are interpreted and constructed during your research analysis process. As I have discussed several times throughout this blog, my conceptualisations of the qualitative data have changed numerous times, which impacted research interests and directions, which impacted the characteristics of the data considered most interesting, which impacted how the data were explored.


An interesting area of debate refers to the way that our conceptions of the data are formed, and the way that concepts of the data appear. This, again, depends on the philosophical position of the researcher because a concept can be argued to emerge from the data, be discovered or identified in the data, or be constructed through interpreting the data. Concepts that are constructed through interpretation can arguably be situated in the middle range position of philosophical stances where concepts are a construction through the process of interpretation, but the interpretations are considered reasonable and reliable. This is something that I am currently working on.

Analytical Framework


The analytical framework is complete and whole, and from my current understanding I do not need at this time to engage with any further developmental work. Again same as with the thesis, I cannot claim this as an absolute but I am fairly confident now that the framework is complete. The analytical framework consists of the codes, categorised into different themes, needed to assist with exploring specific social learning processes. Because it is complete, it needs testing, therefore a current task involves testing the coding framework within a different context from which it has been constructed.


I am in the early stages of testing the framework and I am not completely sure how I am to report on this in the findings and discussions chapters at this time. What I am thinking about is to test the framework within the context and to publish a paper on this testing, and to perhaps compare what shall be conceptualised with what had been conceptualised in the original research. This is ongoing work so I shall return to this at a later stage.


In addition to the testing of the framework, philosophical assumptions are also being developed, some of which are also being tested, as well as explanations of the different contexts within which the framework could be used. These assumptions and explanations are likely to be reshaped and altered as I go through the framework testing process, and as I engage with further literature.


February 21, 2019

Update On The Ph.D Work, Part B: Literature Positionality and Theoretical Framework

Literature Positionality


Because of the nature of inductive based qualitative research, different types of literature are positioned in different areas of the thesis. This took me a long time to understand and to understand where to position different types of literature in order to achieve different purposes, but things are getting there!


As has been mentioned, with the literature review chapter at the beginning of the thesis, literature is being used to develop a context within which I can justifiably place my research. This justifiable position comes as a result of critically analysing the way in which the social learning process and the technology of use has been defined, explored, and used before in various learning scenarios. This builds up a picture of the need to explore the specific social learning process within a particular learning scenario that is arguably unexplored or has not been yet fully explained, facilitated by particular technologies. This involves plenty of comparisons between different learning contexts and scenarios, and explorations and comparisons of the definitions, functionality and use of social learning processes and technologies within different learning contexts. That’s the aim of the earlier literature review in a nutshell. The type of literature therefore takes a broad view of the research context e.g., exploring the social learning process of interest within different technological contexts and learning contexts, and exploring the use of the technology of interest and its facilitation of social learning processes within different learning contexts. This gives weight to the justification of the research context of interest, because it indicates how the process and technology have been used and explored in different contexts, and can be used to explain how a different context can further explain aspects of the phenomenon of interest that arguably remains unexplored or / and unexplained.


Other types of literature shall be included in later thesis chapters specifically relating to the discussion of the themes. In a nutshell, the literature involved here shall involve literature that consist of similar themes to what I have found (if I did not do this, I would be falsifying findings, give misleading accounts, and would reduce the validity and verifiability of the themes), but I would use the discussions to show how I have explored the themes in a different way. This would include showing the differences in how I have explored the themes, the differences in context of theme construction, and the way in which my themes build upon what has already been discovered. The literature here is very specific and has a very specific purpose: to validate and verify the themes, and to provide a platform upon which I can build upon what already exists.


Thematic Framework


This is the core of the research and its development is a continuous and ongoing task and shall be right up to Easter and perhaps a bit beyond. However, feedback has suggested that I am nearly there! The themes appear to be fine and the codes themselves still need some work doing to them, but what I am finding is that changes to the codes do not necessarily mean changes to the theme, and indeed changes to the names of codes do not always necessitate changes to its meaning.


Meaning is a key word here and to write about the meaning of meaning (meta-meaning?) would take a thesis in its own right, but essentially because of the inductive nature I am applying meaning to what I interpret and perceive from the data (note that this does not reduce itself to relativist research as I am not adopting a relativist ontology). Themes and codes therefore capture the meaning that I am interpreting from the data, and together they describe and explain the phenomenon of interest: its behaviour, structure, impact, and existence.


In general I am getting happier with the way in which the thematic framework is going. There is still work to be done to it up to Easter and perhaps beyond, but I am pleased with where it’s going so far!


Update On The Ph.D Work, Part A: Literature Review

During the past few months I have come to grips with what should be included in the literature review, taking into account its nature as part of an inductive, thematic analysis approach that differs from that which can be found in quantitative based theses. With quantitative based literature reviews, the goal is, quite generally, to critically explore existing empirical literature to find a very specific theoretical or practical gap in the collective understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Typically, this gap is then addressed through building a testable theoretical framework that essentially frames the findings and associated discussions. In other words, the theoretical framework predefines data characteristics and findings that are of most interest and use to the research and in answering the research questions that derive from the framework. There is a very strict order here: the literature is explored first, and from the literature review comes the theoretical framework, from the theoretical framework comes the research questions, and as data is found relevant to the research questions their discussion context is framed by the theoretical framework. Every part of the research, as far as I can understand, is framed around the selected theories that guides data analysis.


Inductive based qualitative literature reviews are different in that there is no predefined theoretical framework that is developed, and, therefore, there is no need to test theories or have any discussions and findings framed around existing theories. The core aim of inductive based qualitative literature reviews, from my own understanding of them, is to establish the general overall context of the research and to justify why the research is being carried out. Arguably then where quantitative based literature reviews are used to develop a deductively testable theoretical framework, qualitative based literature reviews are used to establish a justifiable context for inductive analysis (though do note that the theoretical framework still needs justifying!).


With all that then, I am using the literature review to explore the broader questions. For example, with the specific technology I am using to facilitate social learning processes I am asking questions about how that piece of technology has been used more generally in Education. In what way has the technology of interest been used for so far within the context of social learning processes? What are the differences of use of these processes between different technologies and what makes a particular technology of interest more appropriate? What definitions have been provided regarding the particular social learning process? How have these social learning processes been realised in various learning scenarios through technological facilitation?


Questions like these assists with building a picture of what has been achieved before and be able to set the research within a justifiable context. For example, through asking how social learning processes have been realised and explored in various learning scenarios, you begin to understand how social learning processes have been approached, defined, and understood. From this understanding, you can begin to critically question this understanding and of what exists, and this in turn leads to locating your research within the existing literature with justifiable supports.


The literature review is still ongoing although much of it has now been completed. There is still a couple of concepts left to explain, but this can occur at a later time. The core of the literature review has now been completed!


A Year In Reflection, Part C: Thesis Progress

I apologise for the lateness of the continuation of the reflective posts, where I reflect over the past year’s progress. With this final blog post in the series of reflective posts, I shall focus on the thesis.

I find myself in an interesting position when it comes to the order in which the thesis chapters are being written. Typically, the chapters of a thesis are written in order: introduction, literature review, research design, findings and discussion of findings (I accept this is a very simplistic overview!). I appear to find myself switching between chapters at different times, that writing sections in later chapters help to further develop previous chapters, and that I appear to be writing the findings and discussion of findings chapter (albeit in very rough form) at the same time as engaging with data analysis.

Most influentially, the engagement with the data analysis process has shaped the development and direction of the literature review, the use of the literature, as well as the direction of the research design and the construction of the research design chapter. This is probably to do with the nature of the research: I am adopting an inductive approach to qualitative analysis, and I am coming to realise that inductive research shapes our understanding of not just the data but also the wider literature landscape. Additionally, the changes to philosophical and methodological stances, as has been reported in the two previous blogs, have occurred through engagement with the data. Furthering this, it is the process of critical engagement with the data e.g., the act of asking questions about the data, about what I was perceiving and interpreting from the data, that led to alterations of my philosophical and methodological stances. Ultimately this has led to the reworking of the research design chapter’s philosophical sections.

Reflecting further, I did attempt to write the research design chapter prior to data analysis, as is typically the case, but I found this difficult. I found this difficult because I had to predict what methods I was going to use, but because I was experimenting with different ideas I could not rationalise the decision making at that time. Therefore, I found it better to write the research design chapter (particularly writing about the application of the data analysis methods) at the same time as actually performing data analysis. I have found this to be very beneficial because not only have I detailed the different steps that I took (and as I continue to take) to analyse the data, I also detailed reasons why and justified every phase, every step, and every method of data analysis, and continue to do so. I do believe that I made the right choice in writing about the data analysis at the same time as actually engaging with data analysis.

Every stage and every phase have been carefully documented, related, and justified, with every data analysis method used also being justified. In addition to all of this, I have been writing continuous theoretical memos to document the analysis insights, observations, etc. that shall go towards the findings chapter and the chapters related to each identified theme.

Essentially, engaging with the data has not only added to my literature review chapter, but also added to the research design chapter and, as mentioned, impacted upon the directions of the research design including my ontological position as previously discussed. What I am saying is, yes you can begin with an ontological or / and epistemological stance with various research methods, and as much as you might get on well with those methods it does not mean that they are the correct approaches. I was using Grounded Theory for a while and I was getting on well with it till I started to perceive the data differently. These changes entailed a shift in ontological understanding of the data, which led to changes in the methods used.

Have some ideas to begin with but be prepared to be flexible and changeable in terms of your ontological and even epistemological positionality. What’s interesting is that my epistemological positioning hasn’t changed much: it’s the ontological position that has changed. This might sound a bit odd given that ontological concerns impact the epistemological level. Some writers argue that epistemological concerns logically entail ontological positioning. Whilst this is true, what I am arguing for is that there does not have to be a strict adherence to this relationship. A realist ontology should not always necessitate an objectivist epistemology, for example.

In summary, try not to trap yourself in the idea that you simply must write a thesis in a particular order and in a particular way. It’s best to be adaptable and dynamic and allow yourself to be guided by your thinking, your observations and your analyses rather than what could be perceived to be a set institutionalised approach to your writing. Of course you have to get the chapters completed in good time to be reread, proofread, etc, but not in such a restrictive way. If you find, like me, that your research is naturally guiding you towards writing more about the research design at least initially than the literature review then so be it. Be guided by what you do and what you observe. Seek advice and clarification yes, but be true to who you are and what you believe is right for your thesis.

Remember: you are the author of your thesis. No one else can write your thesis in the way and order that you believe shall bring out the best in yourself, and your thesis!


January 25, 2019

A year In Reflection, Part B: Methodological Changes

The relationship between our philosophical beliefs and methodological approach to our research is, as far as I am concerned, a complex relationship. Not only can there be a sense of fluidity between the ontological and epistemological beliefs, but also fluidity between the philosophical beliefs and the methodological approach. As I have spoken about on this blog, what I found during the year was a shift in my conceptualisation of the phenomenon of interest, which led to a change in what I wanted to explore in the data, and, therefore, changes to the directions of my research interest. The changes to the conceptualisations, concepts, and directions of what I wanted to explore and why I think they are important led to me changing methodological approach.


Over time I came to realise that Grounded Theory was no longer working for me for various reasons that I shall explain in the thesis. I came to realise that, out of the various analytical approaches I was then experimenting with (grounded theory, discourse analysis, content analysis, and thematic analysis) thematic analysis revealed itself to be the most appropriate. The type of thematic analysis of most use appears to be a mix of Braun and Clarke’s version along with Guest’s Applied Thematic Analysis approach, with some concepts and ideas loosely based on aspects of Grounded Theory. All this shall of course be explained in the thesis.


Those are the changes made in a nutshell: if you want to know more about these changes feel free to read through my previous blog posts and also read the thesis when it’s written!


Upon reflection, what can be learnt from qualitative research is that it is near enough impossible to know what you are going to be exploring at the very beginning. This is relevant claim to qualitative research that adopts an inductive approach to exploring data, where you are essentially allowing your interpretations and observations of the data to guide your thinking and the directions that you take.


All changes to the research have been recorded with great detail. It is important to record everything. Even the smallest, slightest change to your philosophical beliefs, methodological approaches and the way you perceive and interact with the data can lead to even bigger changes in the future, so it is important to record these small changes and reflect upon their implications, impacts, and meanings to your research. Record them either through your own blog, through theoretical memos that you right as part of your data analysis, or even on a scrap piece of paper that is stored correctly for easy retrieval later.


All these observations and interpretations that you record can be logically ordered, expanded, discussed and reflected upon at a later time as you write your thesis. Remember that a qualitative thesis is a reflexive exercise and you as the researcher become part of the data analysis, so do ensure that you record appropriately, store as logically as you can, and reflect deeply and comprehensively during your thesis write up as part of telling the story of the way in which you approached your research, why, and what changes were made.


Record and detail absolutely everything!


December 31, 2018

A Year In Reflection, Part A: Philosophical Changes

A key change enabled me to understand the data in ways that I had not previously considered. This new philosophical understanding paved the way for changes at the methodological level (my approach to coding and interpreting the data: discussed in the next blog post). These changes are as a result of carefully thinking about the nature, structure, source, and origin of the data. All of this shall be discussed in the thesis.


In a nutshell, several years ago initial thoughts about the social learning phenomenon led me to consider different kinds of texts that could represent the social learning process of interest. Putting the research questions and research issues central enabled me to decide which type of text best represented the possibility for a real understanding (reality, or as close to reality as possible) of the social learning process. Essentially, it came down to deciding between investigating the beliefs and experiences that participants had of the learning process, and the investigation of the learning process itself and bypass beliefs and experiences of the process. Because my research revolves around the search for what is real instead of what is perceived, I decided to investigate the process itself. Thinking back, I know I made the right choice. In order to better understand the process of learning you have to explore the process itself or so I shall argue in my thesis.


The problem I had at the time, even as recent as earlier this year, was this idea of what is “real,” what is “truth,” and the extent to which the particular body of text produced by the participants demonstrated a truthful representation of the process. In a nutshell, my observations during the year, so I came to realise, enabled the transition from a more realist (particularly subtle realist) perspective to a post-structuralist perspective of the data. In a nutshell, this closer, but not necessarily absolute, leaning towards post structuralism came about because I found myself beginning to interpret certain data segments and their relationships or logical connections with other data segments in different ways, and I had not previously expected this. My previous thinking was that I expected myself to perceive or interpret data segments and connections between data segments in a specific (I suppose I could say linear) way. I had previously thought that these patterns of occurrences would be quite common and, therefore, discovering (interpreting?) that “real” essence of a particular process of social learning. What I found, unexpectedly, was something different: I was able to perceive or interpret the same data segment, and the same pattern of segment interactions, in different ways. So, not only did my understanding of the data change in terms of seeking specific characteristics and structures relevant to my research project, but the way that I perceived and interpreted the data changed.


This is not the conclusion of the story, however, and I have a lot of issues, questions, and challenges at the philosophical level with regards to the data, and the phenomenon itself. Some papers suggest that post structuralism does not reduce itself to relativism. In other words, from what I can currently understand, a post structuralist perspective does not necessitate the idea of there being multiple realities. I suppose what could be suggested is that post structuralism acknowledges and enables the possibility of multiple interpretations and perspectives of the same data set. But what does this mean ontologically? What ontological claims could be made? Is there really a form of reality that does exist beyond the text, but it ultimately has to be accepted that we can never truly acquire absolute knowledge about this reality? Is it a case that we can only slowly progress towards the truth of reality without completely attaining it? Is post structuralism, at least as is relevant and appropriate for my research, an epistemological perspective? If post structuralism is an epistemological perspective, then I cannot make any absolute claims of knowledge or knowing about the process of social learning; that, therefore, the segments and patterns relevant to the social learning process of interest can be interpreted in different ways. In other words, different sets of understanding and different threads of knowing can be established from the same set of data. I have been able to identify and interpret different sets of understanding from the same data set, but I have to stick with a “single” set of interpretations that best suit the research questions and the general research agenda, whilst, of course, acknowledging the potential for multiple interpretations. This is where post structuralism, from my current understanding, comes into play. Additionally, all this is, of course, accompanied with the relevant concerns and ways in which interpretations, etc, can be validated, verified, made more accurate, credible, etc. as discussed in a recent blog post. This is quite a topic to get your head around!


Either way, these are some of the questions I am asking myself at the philosophical level. As can be understood and appreciated, this is a complex topic and my ideas and arguments are in continuous development. Indeed, I am coming to accept that there are questions that I simply will not be able to answer, but being unable to answer a particular question that I have should not mean that I cannot present the question and begin to formulate some relevant arguments and possibilities. After all, a Ph.D. is not only a completion of a particular research project but it should also represent the beginning of something exciting and the beginning of new discussion and analytical possibilities.


In general, some of the philosophical concerns expressed here (not an exhaustive list) are ongoing concerns and are a part of a wider ongoing debate in academia. As mentioned, I am not expecting or expected to provide any solid, definite answers to these philosophical questions, but I am expecting to be able to contribute appropriately to ongoing discussions and debate about these, and more, issues.


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