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December 04, 2016

Key Highlights From The Upgrade Presentation

The upgrade presentation, including the subsequent time spent with the supervisor, took up about four hours. Reflecting back that might appear like a long time, but this was a crucial time where my own concerns were confirmed leading to a change in methodology and explorations of the phenomenon of interest. This blog post highlights the key insights of the upgrade presentation:


Revert Methodology Back To Grounded Theory


Methodological concerns that I had realised and had been playing on my mind since submitting the original upgrade paper, and therefore was too late to do anything about these concerns, were confirmed. As I personally predicted, and hoping for, the grounded theory aspects were well received and my passion for the grounded theory appreciated, but the questionnaire and general mixed methods methodology were dropped as a result of the assessors confirming my own concerns.


Whilst I appreciate that some Ph.D. researchers would view this as a negative outcome; for me, this was a positive outcome. The fact that I realised concerns about the questionnaire aspect before being told by Professors simply builds my confidence in my own ability to identify methodological faults before being told by those far more qualified. Plus, a little while before the presentation began I told myself that as long as I can continue with the grounded theory research that is all that really matters from a methodological perspective. This has been achieved, and therefore I consider this a positive outcome.


Update Upgrade Paper With New Insights


Since the completion of the upgrade paper, I have had new insights and ideas into what exactly I am exploring. Aspects of the upgrade paper are therefore to be rewritten, whilst other aspects (namely the literature review and all references to grounded theory) are to be left as they are. The methodological section is to go through a near complete rewrite in order to completely remove all references to mixed methods and replace with grounded theory. Objectives, research questions, discussions of anticipated findings, and the introduction aspects of the grounded theory trial are to be updated to reflect insights and directions that I have considered since the completion of the upgrade paper.


This is the way the Ph.D. works: you cannot submit a certain paper then stop work till you receive feedback or attend a presentation. The work simply continues at the regular pace. As I explored the data and continued to code data during the trial study, the need to perhaps redefine phenomenon of interest started to emerge during the data coding, and became obvious during the upgrade presentation. Again, this confirmed my own ideas and concerns that I had about my own approaches. Again, a positive outcome.


Use Of Literature And Critique Of Literature


The literature review aspect of the upgrade paper is to be left as it is as the literature review approach impressed the assessors from what I could make out, including the analysis and synthesis of literature and the use of literature to evidence the need for my research. Additionally, the assessors do not appear to have any concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis: my supervisor has even encouraged me to write conference and research papers as soon as I am in the position to do so. This is obviously a key, important outcome of the upgrade paper because if they had concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis then it would be just silly to continue it.


I personally feel that I can write a thesis. I personally feel that I can write conference and research papers; if anything, the upgrade presentation has simply boosted my confidence in my ability to do so. That’s not to say that I think I know everything: there is still much to learn about constructing a thesis but I am learning and refining my skills all the time. Reading theses certainly has helped.


I have started some literature review work, but will have to put most of the work towards it on hold whilst I update the upgrade paper.


In all however, this was a key, positive outcome!



Use Of Grounded Theory


Assessors appeared to have no problems with my use and understanding of grounded theory nor did they appear to have any problems with the way that I explained the use of grounded theory in the upgrade paper. Although, personally, I might make some changes to relevant aspects of the upgrade paper to upgrade my thoughts of grounded theory that have developed since the original submission of the upgrade paper.



Overall:


Personally I think I did alright. Could have been better I suppose but the supervisor said that I performed and came across well with what I was saying. What was interesting was the background of the assessors background: they had a background in language (Professorships) and discourse, and were viewing my research from a discursive, linguistic perspective rather than my own technical, process based approach. Never actually thought about what I am doing from a discourse, linguistic approach and I appreciated their insights, and might be something to consider more significantly whilst developing the theory.


What I am particularly pleased about with my own general approach was having my own concerns about my own methodology confirmed, along with being offered the chance to update the paper with insights and ideas that I have developed since the submission of the upgrade paper.


November 11, 2016

Considering The Literature, Part B: Applying Considerations

Considering The Literature, Part B: Applying Considerations To My Research


In the previous blog post I briefly discussed what I think are the main considerations of the literature. In this blog post I shall apply these considerations to my own research as it currently stands.

The Research Design


Those who have been following my blog and research progress for a fair while will probably have observed the various changes of the research design. Now I have settled on a research design: an adaptation of the sequential exploratory mixed methods methodology using grounded theory and possibly a questionnaire, guided by critical realism. As the research design has changed, so to have the role of the literature, the types of literature, and the way in which literature shall be analysed and synthesised. Now that the design has been settled upon, I can start to really think about all the other considerations.

The Role and Purpose of the Literature


Whilst this is work in progress, in general the literature shall have the following roles: contextualise the research, to act as data, assist with developing concepts from the qualitative data, to develop further concepts to be explored in the later research phases, and to help verify and validate concepts and aspects of the emerging theory throughout all the research phases.


The exact details of the way in which each role shall be carried out are being worked out, though it is expected that different types of literature shall be used to satisfy each role, and possibly different types of literature shall be used across the different stages. There is expected to be, however, heavy use of literature during the qualitative grounded theory stage as this is where the literature shall carry the roles of acting as data, assist with developing concepts, to develop further concepts to be explored at later stages, and to verify and validate emerging concepts from the grounded theory analysis. In the literature review although again work in progress, it is likely that a role of the literature is to contextualise the research. The exact amount of literature required cannot be determined at this time as this is determined by continuous reading along with analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data. Therefore, there is no actual fixed point where reading shall be completed; it’s not a case of simply writing the literature review then determine the reading as complete: this is an ongoing process throughout all stages of the research, and throughout the construction of each chapter of the thesis.

Types of literature to include

Straightforward: shall likely be using all the types of literature mentioned in the previous blog post.

Approach used to analyse and synthesis literature

This is also work in progress and has not been worked out fully. However, because there shall be various types of literature used in the research, it is likely that a mixed methods approach shall be used to analyse and synthesis the literature. Which exact type shall be decided soon.

In summary: The research design and the types of literature have been decided upon; the role of literature, the exact way in which literature shall be used to satisfy each role across the varying phases, and the approach to be used to analyse and synthesis the literature are all currently work in progress. This and the previous blog posts are just introductions to what I am considering, and as time moves on these considerations and perhaps more shall be explored further and more blog posts shall be written about them.


Considering The Literature, Part A: Set Of Considerations

As I have said in previous blog posts referring to literature reviews, a literature review is a serious piece of work probably in some theses the most important chapter as this directs the readers to what the research is about. It is best to leave the literature review, from my opinion, till after the research design has been fully decided upon because it is, usually, the research design that directs the structure and content of the literature review. Do, however, write extensive notes about each paper that is read even before beginning the first draft of the literature review.

Having selected the research design, the next step is to consider a series of issues regarding the way in which literature plays a part within the research. The main considerations are: the research design itself, the types of literature, the approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature, and the role and purpose of the literature. A number of blog posts referring to each consideration, and a combination of them, shall be written but in the meantime this blog post briefly introduces each of them.

The Research Design

I would say that this is the most important consideration: from my own experience no other issue should be considered until the research design has been decided because the research design, whether that’s quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods based, can determine the structure of the literature review, along with the purpose of the literature.


The Role and Purpose Of The Literature

This is the second most important consideration, in my opinion. The role of the literature I would say is strongly associated with the research design because different types of research design entail specific roles of literature. Writers have come to a general consensus as to the role of literature within quantitative research: it helps to develop and clarify research questions and hypothesis, for example, as well as develop a theoretical framework within which data is collected and analysed. The purpose of the literature within qualitative data is commonly observed as verifying and validating concepts and theories generating from qualitative data and acting as data itself in some cases, whilst mixed methods is not quite so clear but should be able to combine both general roles of literature. With mixed methods research there needs to be the best of both worlds, but the extent to which their roles are realised could be arguably based on the importance of each strand of a mixed methods research. For example, in mixed methods approaches where emphasis is placed on the quantitative strand should literature be used in the same way as pure quantitative approaches? If emphasis is placed more on the qualitative strand, should literature be used as a method of theory verification and validation, and as data? What if both quantitative and qualitative strands are considered as important as each other? What then? Perhaps in this case it is best to use both approaches to literature: the trick is figuring out exactly the way in which literature shall be used within each strand and the way in which literature or discussions of literature can be combined or integrated to form a complete narrative of findings and theory development.

Either way I think it can be suggested that a general role of literature is to contextualise the research. Contextualise as in to situate research within the broader picture or in other words to contextualise research is to ask where exactly does a research project fit within the wider picture of the research landscape of the field and phenomenon of interest.

The types of literature to be included

Once the research design has been decided upon and the role of the literature has roughly been figured out, the next task is to think about the types of literature that shall be used. This relatively straightforward compared to the research design and the role of literature: decide what types of literature to include, and the way in which each type of literature shall play a part in not just contextualising the research but to help build conceptualisations of data. Contextualising research and building conceptualisations of data are fairly independent processes in other words you can do both activities regardless of the type of literature that you have. This is what makes choosing the types of literature fairly straightforward, in my opinion.


There are various types of literature known broadly as empirical papers: quantitative literature (research carried out using quantitative assumptions and designs), qualitative literature (research carried out using qualitative assumptions and designs), and mixed methods literature (research carried out using both quantitative and qualitative assumptions and approaches). There is a plethora of other types: theoretical papers, where a writer develops and explains a theory or model; philosophical papers, which involves papers exploring ontological and epistemological issues; literature reviews, where sets of literature are analysed and synthesised to illuminate a point referring to a particular concept or set of concepts; and critical papers, where existing theories, models, philosophies, and so on, are evaluated and critiqued either from a theoretical or empirical perspective, or both. Regardless of the type or types chosen, it is important to remain clear why each particular type is important, why each particular type has been selected, the role of this type of literature, what each type of literature states, and in what way, if possible, it combines or integrates with other types of literature.


The approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature

This is a big topic as there are many ways in which literature could be analysed, but the approaches that are selected is determined by the types of literature selected because most if not all literature analysis and synthesis approaches are strongly associated with particular types of literature. Meta Analysis, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising quantitative based literature, whereas Meta Ethnography, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising qualitative literature. Mixed methods approaches are, you guessed it, strongly associated with analysing and synthesising a mixture of literature. Examples of this type include Narrative Summary and Thematic Analysis.

In summary: there is plenty to think about when considering the literature in the context of a research project. It is important to try to remember, perhaps, that it's impossible to decide on anything for sure until the research design has been selected. Really though, there are no right or wrong answers and there is no strict regimented path through this. You might think about a role of literature initially and as you go through your research you might find that this role is no longer relevant, or that you had perceived a particular role incorrectly. That's fine: the important thing is you address the situation, propose a new solution, apply the new solution, and try to record what happens. Make notes of everything: that way you can chart and track your progress. That's a reason this research blog exists!


January 29, 2016

Thoughts On The Research Design

The previous week I had mentioned that the decisions made at a certain level of the research design can influence other decisions at other levels, so now I shall explain more about what I mean by that, with future blog posts delving into this further.

The research design is the description and documentation of the processes, and their interrelations, involved with the collection, analysis and use of data within a particular study. The design of a study is determined by the research problem that has been identified and the research questions that have been developed.

The first level that needs to be engaged with is the Philosophical level, and by this I mean the researcher, including the Ph.D. candidate, needs to establish their perspectives of reality (ontology) and the way that knowledge of this reality should be attained (epistemology). There is a large variety of different Philosophical perspectives from Absolutism to Relativist therefore it can take a while to establish understanding and even then this might actually change. As has been documented throughout previous blog posts, I had considered myself an Interpretivist and a Constructivist therefore holding a Relativist Philosophical position of reality and therefore of research. However as I further critically analysed the methodology that I had selected at the time the more I subconsciously began to align with a Pragmatist perspective of research. Subconsciously because I was developing a methodology that I thought aligned more with a Relativist position; briefly, I was trying to be a Pragmatist within a Qualitative methodology, and for this research that simply was not working. I realised that my research design was following a Pragmatist route when I discovered that a particular model of Mixed Methods methodology suited the problem and the questions. Everything then started to make more sense.

Have I always been a Pragmatist when it comes to research? Perhaps I always have and never really realised it till I had the opportunity to really think about my own views about reality, to select initially what I thought was the appropriate methodology and then to critically analyse this methodology within the context of research. What’s interesting about Pragmatism is that whilst some authors suggest that Pragmatism attempts to locate the middle ground between Absolutism and Relativism, it can be argued that being pragmatic about research can lead to a person being a relativist about research. This is because since Pragmatism allows the researcher to select the methodologies and methods that work best, those methodologies and methods would be selected relative to the research problem and research questions.

So after all that Philosophical thinking, is the rest of the research design easier? In theory yes; in practice, sort of! It is important to remember that a methodology and the subsequent methods cannot be selected without careful thought and consideration of not only the context of the research but also in the context of other methodologies and methods and their appropriateness. Remember as a Ph.D. candidate it is important to be able to learn about a variety of methodologies and methods so that it is possible to justify why certain methodological and method selections have been made, and to explain the inappropriateness of others. This is something that is ongoing with my own work, and I need to decide to what extent do I really engage with methodological debates and discussions and contribute to them.

There is a wide variety of different methodologies, methods, and approaches to using these methods, available to select and integrate into the research design but again what is selected must be the most appropriate to deal with the research problems and handle the research questions. A methodology therefore describes and analyses a variety of characteristics of the design including the general approach used to handle the problems and the questions, along with the methods used, the order in which they are used, and the importance of each method in providing the required data.

My methodology of my Ph.D. is Mixed Methods, with the specific model of the methodology being Convergent and Triangulated, referred also as the Convergent Parallel model, and the selection was determined by identifying methodological problems of existing research and the development of the research questions, along with understanding to the suitable level which methodology would best address the research problem and research questions. Briefly, the Mixed Methods methodology defines the use, ordering, importance and value of the methods in many different ways than other methodologies, such as a case study, and remember that each model of the Mixed Methods methodology differ from each other slightly in these respects.

So, when the methodology has been decided upon it’s time to choose the methods. Whatever methods are suitable for the methodology is endless as there is no right way and depending on their structure a method can be used with multiple methodologies. As an example, the case study methodology can be either quantitative based, or qualitative based. If the case study is to be quantitative then methods that generate figures and numbers would be used, such as closed questions on a questionnaire; qualitative based case study methodology would need methods that generate data that expressed the perspectives and experiences of the individual, such as an Interview technique. With Mixed Methods methodology this is even more complex, because it can’t be either quantitative or qualitative: both strands have to be used and therefore there is wide variety of methods that can be used and several ways in which these strands can be converged or combined appropriately.

Developing the research design is a complex task and goes way beyond what has been described in this blog post. I’ve simply presented a general overview of some of the ideas that I have about research design and some of the key points that need to be considered carefully when designing research. I’m still learning; I’m still learning about my own research design and still adjusting the design in accordance to what I am reading not only from research methodological textbooks but also the way that other researchers have implemented methodologies and methods and designed their research in general, particularly those relevant to the Mixed Methods designs. I have decided fully on the methodology as Mixed Methods, the model of Mixed Methods as Convergent Parallel, and decided on the data collection and most of the analysis methods that shall be used. The key areas of the design are now in place with the finer details of the design continuing to be thought about.

The sheer amount of Philosophical perspectives, methodologies and methods that can be thought about and used is diverse and complex, with much overlapping, but must be something that the new researcher including Ph.D. candidates much engage with. It simply is not the case where a Ph.D. candidate can jump into a research project with any random methodology and methods because this might go against the Philosophical stances that the researcher is claiming. Apparently in several Ph.D. theses a researcher would claim to follow a relativist position when they use methods that subscribe more to the positivist position. So this needs to be carefully thought about. Additionally therefore there is a need to be fully aware of all the methodologies and methods that can be used, select that or those which best fit, and develop argumentation as to why those methodologies and methods are most appropriate. In my opinion, the argumentation that develops to justify and defend methodological and method selections, and the overall design of the research, is just as important as the selection itself.

Till next time: keep thinking!


January 09, 2016

Methodological Breakthrough, Part A: Background To The Problem!


Explaining the Background


Regular readers will have probably come to know that Constructivist Grounded Theory became the selected research methodology (framework of understanding overall research design of exploring phenomenon of interest) and that the following problems were fairly immediately obvious:


  • Considering the integration of quantitative and qualitative data was proving to be problematic within a Constructivist Grounded Theory methodology

  • Compatibility issues therefore between Philosophically different approaches to understanding reality


The initial decision to use Constructivist Grounded Theory as an overall methodology led to Philosophical and Methodological problems. Philosophical problems in that Positivism and Interpretivism differ widely in that Positivism suggests a social reality independent of human perceiving and thinking therefore reality is absolute whilst Interpretivism suggests a social reality dependent on human perceiving and thinking therefore reality is relative. Positivism suggests that reality can be explored through reducing reality to a series of variables and the exploration of relationships between them; Interpretivism along with Constructivism suggests social reality as an interpretation therefore each person constructs their own perspective of reality and is therefore more complex to understand than a simple reduction to a series of variables and their relationships.


In what way could research be designed so that differing Philosophical perspectives increase in compatibility within a single research project? Could the phenomenon of interest be explored and explained using methodologies and methods that adopt either of these Philosophical definitions and then integrated to explain the phenomenon?


Methodological problems came about because Constructivist Grounded Theory as a methodology for this research entailed compatibility issues between quantitative and qualitative data that were not so easily resolved, as it was realised that Constructivist Grounded Theory unlike other flavours of Grounded Theory did not work with quantitative data. Even if I persevered with this, I envisioned having difficulty with figuring out and explaining the way that quantitative data from questionnaires could integrate with qualitative data from Constructivist Grounded Theory techniques as there was no guidance in textbooks available.  This obviously led me to knowing that as a methodology, Constructivist Grounded Theory was no longer applicable


To briefly explain my logic behind that (shall be exploring more about this in the thesis) Constructivist Grounded Theory as a methodology makes most sense in contexts that are exclusively qualitative; where all research methods are based on collecting and analysing qualitative data. With my research, this is simply not the case because the phenomenon of interest needs both quantitative and qualitative data to provide the basis of substantial and detailed theorising therefore I was not willing to alter any methods unless absolutely necessary in order to stay within the Ph.D. time frame. So, to find answers, I had to revisit previous research methodological ideas.


Returning to previous ideas


So, I had a problem to solve. Constructivist Grounded Theory was no longer making much sense as an overall methodology and given the phenomenon of interest I was not willing to drastically redesign any of the methods that are in development. Therefore I had to find a more appropriate methodology that assumed compatibility between differing Philosophical perspectives, and therefore allowed for the differing data types to be more effectively explored, compared or integrated within a single research project, leading to more effective and sound theorising of the phenomenon of interest.


Thinking back to earlier in the Ph.D. before initially deciding on Constructivist Grounded Theory as the most appropriate research methodology, I had thought for a while about Mixed Methods methodologies as well as Triangulation methods. Triangulation I had in the back of my mind to work with along the way, but Mixed Methods at the time unfortunately was considered unsuitable as the types I had learned about I considered inappropriate due to incompatibility between sequence orderings and timings of methods along with mixing approaches, and the vision I had of the research.


After a short stint into rereading mixed methods methodologies I thankfully came across a methodology that appears to be extremely appropriate for my research and for whatever reason I had not noticed it the first time I read a set of Mixed Methods literature.


That methodology is Triangulated Mixed Methods methodology!


September 02, 2015

Current thoughts on the structure and layout of the literature review


As has been mentioned in a previous post, a literature review is not an annotated bibliography nor is it some set of unconnected narratives, neither is it a part of the thesis that can be written in a single setting: it is an evolving, ever developing chapter of a thesis that needs to be kept up to date, which shall evidence a couple of key characteristics: that you have gone to great lengths to prove the need of your work, and that as a researcher you have been able to keep up to date. Remember to take notes of the ways that you have been keeping up to date with the latest research papers and reflect on these methods. As with all thesis chapters it is likely to stretch to several thousand words, probably over ten, perhaps twenty, thousand words depending on your research topic and discipline. Given that my thesis is based on a Social Science discipline, I’m expecting the literature review to be between fifteen and twenty thousand words; however, it’s important to remember that quality should always come before quantity. It’s alright to aim for ten thousand, twenty thousand, or whatever words you want but they must be meaningful.


Either way, the literature review commands an order of reasoned and elaborated discussion that enables logical orderings of discussion and development of argumentation, so that reasoning can be easily tracked with efficiency and convenience throughout the literature review. Although this shall take time to achieve, what will assist from the beginning is thinking about the structure of the literature review because setting a structure will assist in documenting the general areas that the literature review, and ultimately the entire thesis, shall cover. Every researcher will structure their literature review differently, so what is going to be detailed next is based on my own ideas and preferences.


I like to discuss theory first; practice second. What is practice without theory? Indeed, what is theory without practice? In my opinion (and not every person shall agree with this: that’s fine) practice without theory or a certain Philosophy is a directionless venture without any real aims or objectives and no desire to progress or move society (or anything else) forward. A theory less practice simply becomes nothing more than a mechanistic, automatic process void of dynamism and unpredictability that makes theory led practices that bit more exciting. Theory without practice (or experimentation) however becomes stagnant and unmovable, and theoretical work must be able to be moveable either through experimenting with a theory to prove or disprove various aspects, or to generate a new theory. Theory feeds into practice, and practice provides feedback to particular theories; theory and practice are separate fields, but are interconnected.


I am currently structuring the literature review to reflect my mode of thinking about the relationship between theory and practice. I am structuring it so that I discuss the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the research areas first, which involves detailing and critiquing each relevant philosophical perspective and theory and interconnecting them, then following this moving into the area of empirical literature: the “practice” aspect of research literature, if you want to view it that way. When I move into the empirical literature I shall then connect the empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions: this is the “feeding back” that I talked about earlier. Constructing the literature review at this point does not prove or disprove the actual correctness of existing theories: I would be merely identifying philosophical and theoretical areas that have been appropriately covered and therefore begin to evidence the need to explore areas that have not been appropriately covered or areas that have not been considered at all with the existing theories and discussions. Of course, the reverse could also be true: you could use philosophical and theoretical discussions to identify problems with empirical findings. Or, sometimes you would not have to refer to any empirical literature in this manner in order to find out problems with existing philosophical and theoretical discussions.


It really is limitless and it really depends on your project and the way you structure your literature review. You need to do what works for you and what words for the research within the context that you choose to set it. Just make sure that you provide sound reasoning and sound argumentation on why you have structured the literature review the way that you have done, and make sure that everything reads logically.


September 01, 2015

My current literature review journey


The literature review is an extensive early thesis chapter to write: it’s not simply a list of books and research papers that you have read and it’s most certainly not an annotated bibliography but an extensive, detailed analysis and synthesis of existing literature. The objectives of the literature review are: contextualise your research, provide appropriate theoretical and logical grounding for the research, analyse literature, synthesis and connect literature findings, identify and present gaps in the literature, and give the opportunity to present a developed argumentation for the need of the research: its research questions, the general themes to explore, the methods, and overall methodology along with the assumptions that you are making. The chapter structure and contents will obviously differ from research to research and it has to be up to you in agreement with your supervisor to confirm a structure that is most relevant.


Having already started the Literature Review, it has been found that the process for collecting, analysing, evaluating and storing literature to be used in the thesis is more advanced that what is expected for a typical Master’s Thesis. For a start, at Master’s Degree level you are not expected to document to a significant detail your search methods or the way that you have evaluated literature for relevance to research, but at Ph.D. level you are expected to document this process to a fairly detailed level. Knowing and documenting the whole process of literature search, identification, selection and evaluation is also important for the Upgrade assessment where you need to prove the worth of your research through a several thousand words report and presentation so those of you who are just starting your Ph.D. might be worth keeping that in mind when you begin your literature searching.

The best advice that I can give at this time is start writing notes about what you read very early in the process (if you have not started your Ph.D. but are in the process of applying you should have already started your reading anyway, so keep written notes) and this includes what search terms you use, what sources you have used to gather your literature, your mechanism of evaluating literature for relevance, and your storage procedures. All this takes time to document properly, so make sure you have an effective systematic process in place early so that you’re not spending lots of time later trying to find out and remember everything! Detailing all your search methods, evaluation criteria, and so on, shall inform your Ph.D. supervisor and the assessment committee of where you obtained your literature, and that your ideas and research have not been built on an ad hoc, informal basis. Again this is important for the Upgrade process.


The journey towards a competed literature review is therefore different for each Ph.D. candidate and therefore it depends on the context of the research and the research methodology, as from what I have been reading so far each research methodology influences the design of the literature review so it is quite important to be able to as best as possible decide on your research methodology early so that the literature review can be appropriate for the methodology.


Not only that but there are also various types of literature reviews that can be written, from the less structured narrative synthesis up to the advanced and structured critical interpretive synthesis and all points in between. I’ve been considering critical interpretive synthesis for quite some time but because I’ve decided upon a particular research methodology I don’t believe that a critical interpretive synthesis shall work properly but is something that I shall be needing to investigate further in the next few weeks. However, regardless of the type of literature review I shall be writing I do like the rigorous structure of literature searching and evaluating that is used by critical interpretive synthesis so I have adopted that for my own research.


So, what advice can I give so far during this relatively early journey in the literature review construction process? It must not be considered as a slap dash list of unconnected narration of existing literature: this is a serious piece of writing that shall take months to construct (actually, it should be an ongoing and ever developing document throughout your time on your Ph.D. as a role of a researcher is to keep constantly up to date therefore it should be your role as a Ph.D. candidate to ensure that your literature review is as up to date as possible upon thesis submission) and is the chapter that proves the need and worth of your research. Remember, there is no other person who knows your ideas and research better than yourself, but you need to communicate these ideas and the need for these ideas effectively, and the literature review provides you with this opportunity to do so. If you get the literature review wrong then it’s not going to tally up with the rest of the thesis and it won’t be easy to refer back to it and explain the way that it acts as an input to the rest of the thesis. Get to know the types of literature reviews that you can write early and try to align the type of literature review with the research methodology. Get this right and start thinking about this from the very beginning if not before you actually start your Ph.D.


This is an ongoing process with my own journey and is something that will be seriously considered during the next few weeks, months (er, years) now that the first year introductory research modules have now been completed.


Happy reading and writing!


Current thoughts about Educational Research


Having just completed the first year of the Ph.D. I have had a fair amount of time to think about what Educational Research is really all about and what Educational research actually means. You can read through a dozen (and more!) textbooks on the subject and you’ll be greeted with an assortment of definitions and goals of Educational Research. Read through the vast empirical literature and you’ll find a vast quantity of different areas of teaching and learning explored using a variety of different methods and methodologies, all led by the intentions, aspirations, desires, and even agendas of the researchers.


To define Educational Research after the first year of the Ph.D. is not quite easy and any attempts on my part will obviously be driven by my own interests and research passions, but in any case currently I view Educational Research as a set of Psychological, Sociological, Anthropological, and Philosophical methods and theories that are used to explore the relationship between Learners, their Psyche, and the applications and approaches that they use for their learning with the aim of better understanding learning processes within a variety of learning environments. At primary and secondary school, and probably also at College level, this can be expanded to include the teacher or tutor and their teaching or tutoring processes.


The more I explore Educational Research the more expansive the field is realised and that it’s a continuously growing field of research and practice; however, I must keep focus of my own research interests and therefore explore Educational Research within the context of my own areas of interests. Even then, I’m only just scratching the surface here as not only are there many methods and approaches to Educational Research, but near enough limitless debates and discussions about using these methods and approaches to explore constructs of a particular research area, and more contributions to these discussions and debates can occur as well as ways in which methods and approaches can be used for different purposes.


In what way should Educational Research be performed? There shall never be a general agreement or consensus as to the most ideal way that Educational Research should be carried out because near enough every researcher carries a set of assumptions regarding the way that knowledge of reality can be or should be obtained, which impacts on their preferred research orientation therefore it really depends on their Ontological and Epistemological assumptions of reality. For me personally, I do not view Educational Research as a Scientific endeavour; I view it as a Social Scientific endeavour, because I believe that to investigate all aspects of Education using a Scientific method would be too restrictive and would give too narrow a focus when analysing data and dealing with the research subjects in general. Quantitative data and methods dominate Scientific research, but I do not believe that it should dominate Educational Research because teaching and learning and the ways to make this more effective cannot be expressed in just quantitative data alone: there is a need for qualitative approaches and data as well. Some people perceive Science and the Scientific Methods as the be all in answering everything and whilst I respect that, I don’t agree with the view that it can answer everything and this is something that I will be expressing more in my thesis.


Like I said, I’m only just scratching the surface here and so far along my Ph.D. journey. I have chosen my methods, general approach, and methodology and shall be developing arguments that support their selection and use within my research. Will my methodology and methods change? Not likely: I’m settled on these now; I always have been, but needed to read more to understand the constructs that needs to be explored and these I am also beginning to settle upon.


With that, and because there are so many definitions and approaches to Educational Research, the best advice I can give any person doing a Ph.D. in Education is to really explore the methodological literature and select the method or methods that best answer the questions that you have formed from the problems that you have identified.


There is no right or wrong answer: just know what you are going to do, what methods you are going to use, and develop arguments that support your selection.


Happy research!


May 28, 2015

Ontology, Epistemology, Methodology, Whatonology? Part C: why should Ph.D. researchers care?

On the way back to my beautiful home county of Cornwall after presenting at Warwick’s CES Third Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference, I continued to read literature on Mixed Methods methodology, which is the type of research methodology that I’m currently planning and designing for my Ph.D. project. Mixed Methods methodology, of which there are various types and various debates for and against, is simply a methodology that combines multiple methods of research to gain a more complete understanding of the phenomena being investigated. Literature on Mixed Methods is quite extensive and the debates and discussions, including from Ontological and Epistemological perspectives, are immense and it shall be difficult for any Ph.D. researcher to be able to identify a general consensus from literature as to the correct approach and correct perspective to take with mixed methods methodology. The best that I personally can do as part of the development of the mixed methods methodology is to develop a full understanding of the different discussions and debates surrounding the methodology and use these discussions and debates as a basis to form my own arguments for using mixed methods methodology, a certain kind of such a methodology, within the context of my research, and why it’s most appropriate for the phenomena being investigated. That in itself shall probably take up eighty thousand words of the thesis nevermind anything else!


My supervisor commented that he doesn’t agree with literature being categorised or polarised within qualitative and quantitative paradigms of research, and also recently among the plethora of literature read on the way back from Warwick, I came across discussions that were divided as to the need and emphasis of articulating ontological and epistemological perspectives within research. This I found very interesting, because in a lot of research methodological textbooks there is a clear emphasis on the need for such discussions and considerations to take place, particularly within a Ph.D. thesis. It just goes to show that not everything is black or white.


So given all that, should the Ph.D. researcher be involved with and concerned with ontological and epistemological perspectives of reality and the way in which these have influenced the design and application of their methodology? I’m going to say yes, whilst acknowledging that this is not a black or white argument.


It is not a black or white argument because there really is no right or wrong answer. Just because a Ph.D. researcher has adopted a Positivist Ontology it doesn’t make that researcher anymore correct, or incorrect, than a Ph.D. researcher who adopts an Interpretivist Ontology. Similarly, a Ph.D. researcher who adopts a single methodology, either qualitative or quantitative, is no more right or wrong in their approach than a person who adopts a mixed methods methodology.


What’s most important is that whichever methodological, epistemological, and so on, perspectives are selected that they are able to contribute effectively towards answering the research questions and be compatible with the phenomena being investigated. What is also very important, I argue, is that a Ph.D. researcher is able to effectively and convincingly argue that their Epistemological, Ontological, and Methodological approaches are suitable; essentially, each Ph.D. researcher must be able to select a particular positioning, and develop and present convincing arguments as to why their perspectives are the most appropriate for the context of their research and phenomena being investigated. Why is this? Because, despite what some literature says, there is a connection between Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology; that there is connection between these considerations, the context being explored, and the phenomena being investigated. When you, as an example, explore the differences between the Sciences and Social Sciences, it is plainly obvious that both context differ, and both contexts carry different Ontological and Epistemological assumptions and perspectives, and therefore influencing methodological concerns and considerations.


My own arguments that argue for the positions that I’m currently positioning myself in are in the developmental stage and they will be in development for quite some time as I explore all these debates and discussions among the other work as part of the Ph.D. that I am currently involved with. I find it all an exciting challenge, and it’s something that is extremely intellectually stimulating and satisfying; therefore the reasons of an intellectual challenge and intellectual stimulation should further encourage Ph.D. researchers to become fully engaged and involved with their own Philosophical and Epistemological perspectives and developing arguments for these perspectives through engaging with debate and discussions both within literature and through online discussions and conferences with other researchers.


Go explore: be stimulated, be inspired, be challenged, and have fun doing so!


May 17, 2015

Ontology, Epistemology, Methodology, Whatonology? Part B: the terms

Brief introduction to Ontology


Reality is an important consideration for all researchers including Ph.D researchers, and considerations include the way that reality is perceived, in what way they interact with reality, and what way they act and behave within reality. Is there such a thing as an objective reality, where concepts, behaviours, actions and interactions of reality are common across different populations? Or reality could more likely be subjective, where reality is defined as unique for each individual person; where concepts, behaviours, actions and interactions of reality cannot be generalised across different people and populations. Questions that cover the existence, purpose, interactions with and behaviours within reality are a part of Ontology: the study of reality, of the relationship between researcher and reality, and the relationship between researcher and that being researched or, if you want, the relationship between the observer and that which is being observed. Ph.D. researchers usually have an ontological perspective of reality, they just are not usually aware of their position or do not really understand it until they are in a position where they think about it.

There are two main types of ontology: realism and idealism. Researchers who view the world through a realist perspective view reality as fixed and unchanging, and can therefore explore reality using methods that reduce reality into measurable elements such as variables. Researchers who view the world through an idealism perspective view reality as complex and intricate, containing answers that are not easy to search and locate. Realism considers research findings as generalizable whereas idealism view research findings as more contextual and specific.


Brief introduction to Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, of its components, of its sources, and of its origins, and is important for researchers because epistemology is also the study of the way in which knowledge of reality is investigated and understood. The main types of epistemological views of reality are positivism, or postpositivism in Social Sciences, and interpretivism. Interpretivist researchers interpret the actions and events of reality in a way that is usually subjective and unique relative to their personal framework of experiences and perceptions of that event or action. Therefore, interpretivist researchers construct knowledge of reality inside their minds as a result of their subjectivity, and is usually different for each interpretivist researcher. The essential difference with positivitism and related perspectives is that knowledge does not need to be constructed and is therefore readily available to access and be discovered by the researcher. Using a positivist approach, a researcher’s framework of experiences and perspectives of an event does not need to be considered, because knowledge of that event exists regardless of any experience or perspectives.


Brief introduction to Methodology

Ontology and epistemology together explains the way in which a researcher perceives reality, with the former being relative to the relationship between the researcher and reality, and the latter relative to the relationship between a researcher and the way in which they perceive knowledge of reality. Methodology explains the way that knowledge of reality is explored and investigated in order to assist with answering research questions. It is at the methodological level where methods of investigating knowledge is defined, and as can be guessed the selection of methods is influenced by the selected epistemological and ontological perspectives.

There are a couple of general types of methodologies: quantitative and qualitative, each of which contains a large variety of different research methods that explore reality and knowledge of reality in particular ways. Quantitative methodologies involve exploring reality commonly through using experimental and quasi-experimental research designs; qualitative methodologies involve exploring reality and knowledge of reality through very open methods that contain no experimentation or manipulation of reality: case study, phenomenology, interviews, focus groups and observation are examples of qualitative methodologies.


General thoughts

As was said in Part A of this series, although each of these methods are part of a wider umbrella of definitions, all of these methods within each umbrella explore reality and questions of reality slightly differently. As an example, although interviews and focus groups are similar in that they are qualitative investigations of reality, they are different in that they used for different purposes: interviews in terms of obtaining specific views and insights from specific people; focus groups in exploring a particular phenomenon identified among a group of specific individuals.

A key central point to selecting the correct method, therefore, is not only understanding your own ontological and epistemological perspectives of reality, but also fully understanding the research questions that you want to answer in your research project. This shall be covered more in a separate blog posts, at a later time. 


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