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March 10, 2018

Update Early March 2018 Part C: Considering the Theoretical Framework of Grounded Theory

What I have found in the data collected so far is what appears to be the presence of both social and cognitive interactions, with both arguably contributing considerably to the function, presence, formation, dynamism and the nuanced existence of the learning phenomenon of interest. But these observations along with the research context surely have important implications on the application and understanding of grounded theory. With that, those of you who have been following my research have noticed my critiques and observations of the incompatibility of the otherwise firmly established relationship between symbolic interactionism and grounded theory with my research.

Do note that these critiques and observations do not suggest anything directly wrong with symbolic interactionism and its relationship with grounded theory, but symbolic interactionism is not suitable as a theoretical framework for my research. This is because symbolic interactionism is a purely sociological theory used by sociologists in their research to investigate participants’ interactions with others through culturally mediated, socially constructed symbols, or objects. Participants interact with the world and constructed objects based on their interpretations and assumed meanings of objects or events of that world. In other words, they do not interact with the world directly, but interact with the world through their symbolic representations. This is effectively what symbolic interactionism is all about in, arguably crudely defined, nutshell. Symbolic interactionism is therefore assigned to grounded theory as the arguably ideal relationship for generating a theory from the data that explains social processes and social behaviour from the perspectives, meanings, understandings and interpretations of the research participants.


For various reasons therefore, and which has been suggested in various research papers, I am attempting to shift grounded theory away from symbolic interactionism, and of pure sociology in general.


But where do I take grounded theory? What are the disciplinary and theoretical foundations for the ideas that I have for grounded theory?


This has been a challenge for quite some time and it continues to be, with the origins of change going back to the pilot study. During the pilot study, I found that I have no direct contact with the research participants, therefore interviews and observations were out of the question. The research does not revolve around the way that research participants construct their world, but that does not necessarily suggest that all social possibilities have been discarded from the research. What I found during the pilot study, therefore, is I am not exploring the learning phenomenon based on the perceptions of that phenomenon, but through actual engagement in its development, production, progress and sustainability.


Following these realisations, they led me to conceptualise the learning phenomenon of interest as cognitive in nature, but pure cognitive theories and perspectives appear to focus on the individual and the way in which one’s cognition influences or frames one’s learning processes. Pure cognitive theories, from my current understanding, do not appear to address the way in which the cultural and social situation of one’s cognition impacts upon the development and sustainability of learning phenomena.


To summarise in a nutshell the differences between social and cognitive theories, the social theories arguably focus on the function, formation, characteristics, effectiveness and behaviour of groups in learning contexts and their interactions; cognitive theories, meanwhile, arguably focus on the characteristics, effectiveness, development, progress and achievements of one’s psyche and cognition. These definitions are arguably presented as a little simplistic, but viewing the theories in this way assists in my ever continuously developing understanding of the characteristics of different groups of theories.


For the past few weeks I have found difficulty in trying to think about the learning phenomenon of interest as a pure social process and a pure cognitive process. A fair percentage of cognitive activities have been observed in the data but I cannot help but to think that their occurrences have only come about due to social interaction processes. Therefore, and thanks to some of the papers I have been reading this past week, I am coming to the idea that the sociocognitive realm might be able to provide me with the most suitable theoretical framework, even if I have to merge or combine ideas from multiple different theoretical perspective as relevant to my wider philosophical beliefs. But understanding of the sociocognitive dimension and relevant theories and potential theoretical frameworks is a continuous and ongoing process.


What I am essentially attempting to achieve is a shift in grounded theory from a sociological perspective to a sociocognitive perspective. It’s a complex subject, but when you think about the process of learning within groups it might not be plausible to just thinking about the social or the cognitive, but to consider both dimensions.
Obviously, I am not going to be able to cover every social and cognitive detail related to all types and forms of the learning phenomenon of interest (this would be impossible: most Ph.D. projects focus on a small section of the social, cognitive, or sociocognitive). A key decision I need to make relatively soon is to decide for sure what processes in relation to the learning phenomenon of interest really interests me, that which I think would be more beneficial to explore (evidenced by the literature review chapters), and that which can be shown to be most relevant to answering my research questions and of the research context.


Again this shows the importance of referring back to your research context and research questions. Additional assistance in my decision making shall come from the data itself, as well as the directions and content of the first literature review chapter, which itself shall likely change in the future but that again is the nature of academic research, and of writing in general.


Thanks for reading. I shall keep you updated!


‘till next time remember: never hold an absolute thought absolutely!


Update Early March 2018 Part B: Differences between Form and Type of Phenomena

Learning phenomena comes in all different forms and types. The key categorical forms relevant to my research are social and cognitive. There are, for example, various types of cognitive forms of learning, including thinking, reasoning, arguing, critiquing, recollecting, perceiving, and believing, among others. Social types of learning phenomena mostly relate to the social form of ‘interaction’ and these include collaboration and negotiation; essentially, social types and forms of learning refer to some sort of construction or engagement with a social learning culture or social world.


A specific example from the cognitive dimension, thinking is a type of cognitive engagement that possesses a rationalistic approach to learning. Cognitive engagement, therefore, is characterised by a continuous, careful consideration of the issue at hand, leading to a well thought out proposition grounded in sense based data (empirical) or appropriately applied reason, beliefs, understanding and meaning (rationalism). Here we have in this definition an obvious relationship between thinking and reasoning; between thinking and belief formation; and between thinking and the construction of our understanding and meaning about the world. What I have just outlined here are simplistic relationships between different forms of cognitive based learning: the characteristics, philosophical and theoretical basis, practicalities and forms of relationships are extremely nuanced. The nuanced existence of both social and cognitive learning therefore suggests the existence of many factors that can make one’s thinking or thought production fallible, but that’s for another time.


The problem I was experiencing was attempting to conflate form and type of a particular phenomenon, and hence I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the middle of the week. It was initially, therefore, a challenge to deepen understanding of the nuances and different forms and types of a the phenomenon of interest, which is a continuous and ongoing process. Once I managed to understand the difference between forms and types of learning phenomenon I did begin to feel much clearer about what forms and types I should be addressing in the literature review chapter. A further assistance has been the collected data, as I have been able to identify different forms and types of the phenomenon of research interest; therefore, it was deemed impossible to reduce discussions of a learning phenomenon to just a single type or, perhaps, a single form. I have to, and willing to, discuss all types and forms relevant to observations in the data, and relevant to the research context.


In summary, there are different forms and types of learning phenomena and it’s difficult to reduce discussions down to particular forms and types unless you have some sort of prior knowledge of what forms and types are going to be most appropriate, such as information from your research questions and research context. Always go back to your questions and your context, as these will provide you with the information you need to guide or frame most of your literature review directions and discussions. Where there is an exception is with qualitative research projects based on grounded theory: sometimes, it’s the theory as it emerges from the data that best helps with the guiding and structuring of your literature reviews. Remember though, as has been mentioned previously and shall be mentioned again in future posts, literature reviews carry a different function in grounded theory projects than other types of research projects.


This, conveniently, now brings us to the third blog post of this series: my thoughts about the theoretical perspective of grounded theory.


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