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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!


September 06, 2018

Current State of Play: Findings Chapters

Within qualitative theses, more so than the research design chapter, the findings chapters are impossible to plan from the beginning because the chapters are derived from the data, and not from existing theoretical constructs. More appropriately perhaps it is best to say that the chapters are the products of well grounded, verified and validated interpretations of what is happening in the data relative to the research questions, and which eventually leads to the development of codes, categories and themes.


The findings chapters have obviously not been planned or structured yet, although I have written and continue to write extensive theoretical notes about what I observe in the data and the way in which different codes are being formed (in the tune of the where, how, when, where, and why questions). Eventually I shall be writing theoretical notes about the development of categories and themes, although in some sense I have begun writing about them because, due to the integrated nature of qualitative research, development of codes, categories and themes are not isolated phases. They are integrative, interconnected phases: as you code the data and observe similarities and differences between similarly coded data segments, you become aware of a potential category or theme. This awareness, therefore, leads to the production of notes about the potential category or theme. The production of these notes continues through every phase and stage of the data analysis through to writing the formal findings chapters.


I am using the plural expression here because it is expected that there shall be multiple chapters, with each chapter referring to a particular theme. Each chapter shall detail what the theme is, the way it has been constructed, its theoretical constructs, and the validation and verification process. This process involves comparing the construction and concepts of the theme to relative, published findings not only to verify and validate the theme but to also discover any possibilities of contributing to existing discussions relative to the theme e.g., through discussing the way that my theme differs from other similarly identified themes. Perhaps this could also present opportunities to merge themes, or to perhaps help towards building a united understanding between similarly defined themes. The creative opportunities are potentially limitless.


Each theme chapter shall also discuss relations with other themes found in the data, eventually leading to a thematic map of the phenomenon of interest, which could be given a separate chapter. I am guessing that either each theme chapter or the thematic map chapter shall additionally contain explanations about the way in which categories (which are a level down from themes) combined to form a theme, as well as the associated codes and data segments.


There are other chapters of the findings being considered and this includes a chapter referring to any quantitative findings and other chapters referring to other aspects of the phenomenon of interest. I am not able to decide for sure on the findings chapters until I have finished with qualitative data analysis (coding scheme, its validation, and the development of categories and themes). It is this aspect that shall drive any other need for further data analysis. I have plans in place, but not able to confirm till I have gone through the qualitative process.


I do aim, however, to have made further substantial process of data analysis and associated writings of the potential findings chapters by Christmas!


August 03, 2018

Ph.D. Update: Research Design And Approach Now Certain!

The main output of my research shall now be a new coding scheme designed and developed to assist with the analysis of social learning processes, with the potential to move towards contributing thematic, conceptual and possible theoretical understanding of the phenomena of interest. The development process of this coding scheme (the data analysis process) has been inspired by writers of thematic analysis and grounded theory. The coding scheme’s development process (the actual development of the coding scheme) questions some aspects of existing ways in which to develop coding schemes. Sub stages of development are being proposed and shall possibly continue to be proposed as I go through the phases of analysis.


That, folks, is basically the nutshell take away conclusion of the past couple of weeks where I have completed another full round of coding the data and taking a break from coding in order to deeply reflect on my research purpose, objectives, direction, and research design. Phew! There is clarity in the world of organised chaos!


Reflecting on my journey of the Ph.D. so far, I have experimented with and thought about various types of analytical approaches related to exploring the phenomenon of interest, and have thought deeply about the type of data source from a philosophical perspective. E.g., what can I know about the phenomenon from this type of data source? In what way is this data source different to other data sources regarding what can be known? What knowledge can potentially be revealed about the phenomenon from this data source? What can I use to extract this knowledge from this data source? What are the differences between different methods of extracting knowledge both in general and related to the data source? What would different methodologies and methods tell me? What best fits the research questions, research problem, research objectives, and research context in general? In what way can my philosophical beliefs determine what I can know? What are the limits of my knowing? What limits are placed upon my knowing? Do I need to overcome these limits to know more? If so, in what way could this be achieved? And so on and so on.


All these questions have led to various different answers e.g., through comparing different methods and methodologies regarding the questions of what I can know, what can be known, and what can be known and revealed from the data source about the phenomenon of interest. And this I shall be explaining and exploring in great detail in the thesis!


When you are developing a coding scheme, establishing a time frame can be difficult. You might have identified the stages and sub stages of coding scheme development, but it’s fairly impossible to determine a time frame. This is because developing codes from the actual data, developing categories from the codes, developing themes from the categories (this is a broad, typical process of coding scheme development), and writing the methodology chapter are all performed pretty much concurrently.


As you are thinking about the codes that reflect different events and activities of your data, you are thinking about the ways in which similar coded data could be categorised. In turn, you begin to think more abstractly and more theoretically about the way in which categories can be related and placed defined into themes. Themes are the broadest, most abstract, and most theoretical constructions of the coding process, and they explain the data as a whole related to the phenomenon of interest and the way in which you want to explore the phenomenon of interest.


As you can therefore imagine, coding data with the intentions of developing categories and / or themes is not a linear process. Not to mention, every single stage involves writing lots of theoretical memos, which capture your thoughts, theories, assumptions, hypotheses, questions, queries and ponderings of the data, code, category, or theme (and relations within and between codes, categories, and themes).


As a result of all of what I have discussed, the focus of the thesis on the latter chapters (the methodology chapters and the subsequent chapters dealing with discussions of what has been found) is on the qualitative process of coding, category development, and thematic development. At a rough guess this might come anywhere between thirty thousand to forty thousand words of the thesis though perhaps more. I shall talk about the process of writing a qualitative thesis within the context of developing coding schemes in future blog posts.


The research, therefore, has moved away from generating a new theory (as was proposed originally via the use of Grounded Theory) towards developing a new coding scheme, with the intentions of developing and extending existing themes of understanding, and create where necessary new themes, regarding the phenomenon of interest.


The qualitative research field is additionally awash with limitless debates about the ontological, epistemological and methodological levels of interacting with qualitative methods and qualitative approaches. I am not kidding here: recently I have come across many different perspectives and arguments regarding a single approach to sampling for qualitative research, and have also come across many, many arguments for and against and perspectives on qualitative control criteria particularly around the terms “validity,” “reliability,” and, “generalisability.”


I intend on engaging with debates and discussions as every level and every stage of qualitative research.


And that, folks, is what happened in a nutshell during the past couple of weeks since the previous update!


‘till next time!


July 22, 2018

Ph.D Update: Data Analysis Is The Dominating Task!

Data analysis has dominated the past couple of weeks, although, whilst engaging with data analysis, I have been continuously engaged with other areas of thought and practice:


· The characteristics of the phenomenon of interest
· The nature, complexity, nuances, and functionality of the specific data source, including comparisons with other sources
· The nature and functions of the social learning context in comparison with other contexts
· Evaluation, critiques and reflections of thematic analysis so far, and comparative observations with other methodologies and methods


Essentially this encompasses four levels of thinking: the phenomenon itself, the data source, the more general learning context, and the research design. All thoughts and processes of evaluations, etc. are situated not just within the research context but also within the context of my philosophical beliefs.


Everything is a work in progress. As I progress through the data analysis phase, my thoughts, interpretations, observations, hypotheses and questions shall be continuously refined in order to more effectively reflect the true reality (remember, I am a realist) of what is occurring in the data. Coding is always a work in progress and all that I am thinking about, observing, hypothesising, questioning etc has developed from earlier coding efforts in the Ph.D.


As I shall be explaining more in the thesis, coding is not just a mechanistic act of labelling meanings and activities in the data, but is an active, engaging, dynamic, nuanced, flexible and adaptable method for analysing qualitative data that (I shall argue) plays a part in understanding the truth of what is happening in the data.


Currently, therefore, I am progressing through the “opening” stage of the analysis phase. This “opening” stage is based on the coding and reanalysis of the data corpus. I am continuously revisiting what I have coded before, and continuously reanalysing and recoding, in order to ensure that the codes are as reflective of the nature and function of the data segments as possible. This shall then help to develop themes that, although constructed on a more theoretical plane, are as close to the data as possible.


I am breaking the context of the data corpus down stage by stage. In the first stage that has been ongoing for a few months on and off, I coded all the way through the data corpus without much thought for nuances and context. It was simply a matter of initially understanding the meanings and functions of the data segments though if nuances and contextual influences were immediately obvious then these would be considered.


What I am doing currently is the next level: I am breaking the data corpus down and really exploring the context and nuances of each data segment, along with developing an understanding of the way in which these segments logically connect with and relate to each other on various levels and various purposes. Additionally, this level involves the rechecking of codes to ensure they reflect the reality of what is being expressed in the segment, and to alter the codes if necessary. This deeper approach to understanding the data is in my view more relative to the research questions.


The study of the nuances and contexts is based on what I have observed during my time of using grounded theory, and which led to moving away from grounded theory as has been documented on this blog and which is being documented in the thesis methodology chapter. It is all ultimately based on what I perceive and interpret within the data, but this is not a subjective, relativist approach. As a part of the theme development I shall be exploring the codes and segments again and test all that I observe. E.g., just because I have coded a segment to represent a particular feature or activity does not mean that I am objectively correct: this correctness, perhaps, comes from repeatable observations of similar data characteristics. This idea is taken from the abductive reasoning method. This shall be discussed further at the time of theme development.


Along with the coding, I have been writing theoretical memos (an aspect of Grounded Theory I have liked, so have included it in my own approach), which serve the purpose of documenting and recording all my thinking, observations, thoughts, hypotheses and questions about each data segment, and also of the meaning, nature, function and representativeness of each code.


This coding level is ongoing and work in progress, but there are already some interesting insights and points of discussion. Nevertheless, my understanding of the relationship between segments, the impact of contextual and situated conditions, and the emergence or development of meaning and activities shall continue to develop and refine as I progress through this analytical phase.


All this shall lead onto the development of themes, which operate and are constructed at the latent level and are constructed through combining, in some way, multiple, different, though similar codes (as discussed in the previous post: I shall be talking more about the development of themes soon). My understanding of themes so far is leading me to think of a theme as a core aspect of a phenomenon of interest that describes and explains the phenomenon’s behaviour and helps to characterise its theoretical existence. Thematic theoretical insights are drawn from the data, and tested against the data.


Speaking of themes, I have made enough observations in the data to tentatively suggest the existence of two themes, and the way in which these themes could relate to each other. At a push I could suggest I have observed four themes, but I am not convinced or at least not as certain about two of the themes as I am with the first two themes I came to observe. These themes, and possibly more, shall be identified, defined, developed, and established following this coding phase. At the moment I have put the thoughts of these themes aside as I do not want to restrict my thinking and open mindedness during the rest of the coding phase. There is a danger that if I did become too fixated in the idea of exploring to prove these themes, I might miss out on something that might be obscure but is equally as important.


That’s over a thousand words and I haven’t scratched the surface!


I intend on writing some more posts during the week related to the four points made at the beginning of the post, but honestly, I’d rather focus on data analysis. But when I get the chance I shall post up more posts!


‘Till next time!


July 07, 2018

Ph.D Update: Thoughts on Themes and Categories

I have managed to code through the entire data corpus, involving the development and assignment of codes to relevant data segments; codes that capture the meaning of the assigned data segments, along with embedded theoretical memos within the data. These memos explain the nature, function, context and meaning of the code and the segment’s content and any other relevant thoughts, hypotheses and theories related to the content. However, as I was thinking about the next stage I stated to doubt myself and asked myself the main questions:


What is the real meaning of a theme?


How is a theme really constructed?


What type of theme should I be constructing?


These questions reflected the doubts that I had at the time of my understanding of what a theme really is, and the depth and breadth of which I should involve myself with theme analysis and development for the purposes of my research. These questions are continuously asked but I appear to have some clarity in my rereadings and exploration of the literature. I knew at the time the process of making themes but there was something that bought doubt into my mind: is there really no step between developing codes and developing themes? I wasn’t convinced, and hence the formation of the questions and the subsequent reading of literature. Doubt in this case has been used as a means, a process, of developing questions and of endeavouring to explore topics further.


From what I can understand of the literature, there is varying terminology to refer to the same type of theme but for the sake of brevity I shall focus on a couple of authors who are becoming key writers for my understanding and application of thematic analysis.


Braun and Clarke (2006) define the themes as semantic or latent. Semantic refers to theme development based on just the surface level meaning of the data; essentially, the researcher is not interested in anything beyond what is said literally within the text. There is therefore, from what I can understand, no attempt at understanding context, nuances, variety, diversity and deeper meaning at the semantic level. Semantic level is essentially considered to be a descriptive level of meaning.


At the latent level of theme development, however, there are attempts at going beyond the semantic level and into the realm of interpretation, assumptions, concepts, conceptualisations, meaning making, hypothesis making and theorisation. From what I can understand, Braun and Clarke (2006) describe theme analysis and development as a progress from the descriptive level to the level of interpretation and theorisation. What is identified at the semantic level is taken beyond the obvious and observable to what can be known and understood through theories and interpretations. The latent level, however, is not grounded on hairy fairly assumptions as the latent level assumptions and theorisation processes are grounded in the semantic level. Therefore, what I find or observe at the semantic level I can theorise, hypothesise, assume, and make meaning of their existence, functionality, purpose and context.


This actually makes sense, because how can I possibly stop at just a simple observation? How can I simply consider the existence and meaning of something at only the semantic level and not at the latent level? It doesn’t make any sense to me just to observe and know something at the semantic level: I am immediately drawn to theories, well grounded assumptions, hypotheses, and meaning behind existence and function. Is that because I have an academic mind? Can I perceive beyond the observable? Can I understand meaning and function beyond what is right in front of me and clearly observable? Surely I can if I am drawn to this level of understanding?


Moving forwards, I have this understanding now of semantic and latent themes so surely it is common sense that thematic analysis consists of both themes? That my research would involve the construction of both? According to the approach to thematic analysis by Braun and Clarke (2006), I would be correct.


But wait, there’s more!


Category or Theme? Should we consider both?


After spending a long time pouring over methodological papers about thematic analysis and the idea of theme development, I had more questions than answers. I came across literature that was not only encouraging me to doubt and question what to do in the next stage (I shall discuss this more in a future blog post), but also encouraged me to question my own understanding of what a theme is, and also what a category is. Is it not true that categories are an integral part of grounded theory and therefore I should not worry about them? If only our attempts at understanding the world, of social reality and all the components of social reality were that easy!


Methodological authors differ in their description and discussion of the theme development level and of the definition of categories and themes. After a long while of reading however, I am beginning to lean towards discussions around the likes of Vaismoradi et al (2016), who suggested that the thematic analyst considers both the category and theme, where the category represents the semantic content whilst the theme overarch the category and represents therefore latent data.


What is interesting here therefore is that a theme could consist of multiple categories although some authors name categories as sub-themes. Categories or sub-themes themselves are constructed through the grouping of codes; categories therefore describe and functionalise a group of codes and describe their general meaning. From what I understand of the literature and particularly Braun and Clarke (2006) is that categories (or sub-themes) are constructed first before they are them grouped into themes. But it’s not as clear cut as that, because I’ve just recently read another paper and the author suggests that there is no need for theme development and automatically considered their codes to be themes………..


It is a minefield, but the way my mind works I like the idea of progressing from codes to categories to themes (and, therefore, from semantic or manifest data, different authors label them differently, to latent data; from observation to interpretation and theorisation).


What did I learn from that process? That the whole idea of building themes is to move from semantic or manifest level to the level of interpretation and theorising and this makes a lot more sense to me now and comes to me really as quite obvious. Also reflecting back on the process I have used so far this is something that I have always done, I just wasn’t familiar with the terminology! Also, categories themselves are complex and used in different contexts. Previously I thought categories were terms and features exclusive to grounded theory, but categories are general terms but it appears to me that categories are used differently depending on the research method used. Within grounded theory, they are used to build towards a theory whilst in thematic analysis they are used as part of building understanding and not a theory.

I was right to doubt, because I was able to realise and recognise where I have to build my own understanding. This is an ongoing process, but the more I use thematic analysis and read the relevant literature the more I can understand the way in which it relates to the coding process I am carrying out, and the way in which themes can be used for the next stage of the research.


‘Till next time!

References:


Braun, V., Clarke, V (2006): Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3 (2), 77 - 101


Vaismoradi, M., Jones, J., Turunen, Shelgrove, S (2016): Theme Development in Qualitative Content Analysis and Thematic Analysis, Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 6 (5), 100 - 110


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