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February 09, 2020
This blog post has actually been a long time coming. This blog post is a result of questions that I have been asking about the nature of the thesis and whether or not a thesis really has a particular nature. When we speak of a nature, what is it we are talking about? Nature assumes some sort of absolute ‘being’ of something, with that particular ‘something’ comprising of certain characteristics that makes it what it is. But it is right to assume that something is what it is in an immediate sense or is something is what it is as we come to experience that something and reflect on experiencing that something? Is there a sense that something ‘becomes’ as is, or is there some sort of process of becoming? I ask myself these questions all the time not only about my thesis but about who I am and what I am and what is the meaning of myself as a researcher, and conceptions and actions of these and many other questions have been formed and changed throughout the years of engaging with a Ph.D.
I was going to suggest that this blog post is not related to how I view my own sense of being or a process of my own becoming: it revolves around a thesis, or, indeed, a sense of an empty page staring at you on Microsoft Word becoming a thesis. But what if a thesis is an external representation of what has happened within ourselves and within our research?
I guess the most obvious question is………what is a thesis?
A thesis is a document that communicates every part of your research endeavour: your review of the literature, your explanation and justification of a research design, the communication of your findings, and a documentation of your explanations, discussions and critiques of your own findings and design. In a nutshell!
Ok, now let’s ask a different question: what is the nature of a thesis?
Now that’s a question! And that’s a question that is not easy to answer.
I am suggesting that because since part way through January I, guided by my supervisor, have been (and still am) in the process of changing the dynamics of the thesis. I have written a draft of the whole thesis before, but I have been following a more ‘traditional’ chapter path of a literature review followed by the research design followed by the findings and followed by the discussions. Whilst this has been fine, it has been realised that whilst this thesis communicates what has been achieved, there is what I believe to be an important element missing: historicity (this is a separate field in Philosophy that assumes that all thought, ideas, concepts and everything that we are and everything external to us has a history of development. I shall address this more in the future).
If I were to complete the thesis as is, with the essence being to communicate the findings as is, the research design as is, the literature review as it, the discussions as is, etc., I would not be communicating the progressiveness of all of my ideas and observations. I would be presenting almost like a current ‘snapshot’ of ideas of the literature, the state of the research design, etc., without explaining how my ideas and observations changed over time. My ‘voice’ would be subsumed under the traditional aim of objectively reporting something that has ultimately been an iterative, subjective experience that cannot effectively be communicated ‘as is’ in an objective traditional way.
What is the way to address this problem? I’m getting to grips with writing a thesis not within the typical objective, traditional approach, but as a narrative. A narrative that enables me to fully communicate not only the research ‘as is’ but the becoming of this ‘as is.’ Going back to my original point, to construct a thesis using a narrative means to report on the becoming of the research, and not simply what the research has become.
This leads onto another question: in what way can this becoming be structured?
This is a question I am currently tackling.
Every thesis consists of elements of a literature review, details of the research design, reporting of the findings, and discussions, explanations, and critiques of the meanings of the findings, and of the design. However, in a narrative approach this can be communicated across a series of chapters, with each chapter representing an ‘iteration’ of the research. From what I am currently understanding (I am still getting to grips with this), each chapter is interconnected and interdependent through the narrative process. Each chapter represents a different iteration or a change to the research process, with progression from the previous chapter or iteration and the foundations for the subsequent iteration clearly defined and indicated. How exactly this is to be expressed is still being planned out but, from what I have experienced with re-planning the thesis and through writing in a narrative voice, sometimes it’s impossible to determine what can and shall be expressed without engaging with the process of writing.
This is something I have learnt: sometimes you can do all the planning to a thesis that you want, but sometimes you just have to start writing the thesis and a plan can ‘emerge’ from your writings. There is something about engaging with the actual writing process that can help shape and organise your ideas. Sometimes the process of writing can be devalued but writing can give you incredible power and a sense of agency where you can develop your ideas beyond a level that is possible without writing. That, again, is part of my own sense of being as a researcher: I write not just to communicate, but as a powerful enabler of idea development and shaping.
Anyway, I digress……
The reshaping and reconstruction of the thesis from a ‘traditional’ to a more ‘narrative’ form is a challenge, because I have to think differently. I can’t think ‘as is’ but I have to think from the perspective of how this ‘as is’ actually became ‘as is.’ The core principle of this approach is to communicate how the explorations of the literature, the design of the research exploration, how I conceptualised the data, how I conceptualised the phenomenon, and how my methods of data analysis, have all changed over time: the what, the when, and the why, and the impact. Challenging!
I have written over a thousand words here and I have a lot more to say about this in the future on here, but for now all I can say about this is that I am pleased that I have not thrown any of my previous work away. Near enough every change and alteration to practically every part of the research has been documented. A current challenge is to understand and know what exactly I can communicate and to what extent without overwhelming and confusing the reader and having the reader feeling lost.
It all takes time but I am making progress and I shall be reporting on further progress in the future!
Thanks for reading people!
December 31, 2019
Reflection is an intellectual endeavour and process that should occur continuously throughout the journey of a Ph.D. Reflection acts as a means of learning through enabling the charting and tracking of developments in our understanding, the various points or events that have resulted in those developments, to understand and identify patterns of problem resolution, and studying how our prior understanding, meaning and learning have been used in order to progress and enhance ourselves and our research further. In a nod to Philosopher Heidegger we could argue that we are reflective beings. We are continuously learning and developing through engaging with reflective processes, and through constructing meaning of these reflections. Although we are arguably reflective beings and therefore do not generally subscribe to any arbitrary and culturally acceptable reflective time points, it is an idea to use particular times to stand back and attempt to view the wider picture. It is with that in mind that I progress through this time of reflecting, learning, planning, and strategizing.
When I reflect back on what has transpired through the year I can observe moments of great personal success, and moments of feeling completely overwhelmed and very challenged academically. Completing the coding framework towards the summertime was a great personal success and the process of completing the framework drew me closer towards a fascination of qualitative research. Throughout not just this part of the year but the whole year, my philosophical, methodological, and data conceptualisations and understanding continued to develop and redevelop as I encountered various insights and constructed and questioned my own meanings of these insights. This questioning is continuous and ongoing: I am continuously questioning and evaluating my insights and the process of arriving to my own insights, and continuously evaluating new insights relative to my prior insights and understanding in order to arrive at new understanding that more closely represents the phenomenon of interest. Not only this, but I am also continuously developing and defining my own position and role as a qualitative researcher and what it means in general to ‘be’ a qualitative researcher. This is a very complex area and I am realising that I’m going off topic……
Along with completing the analytical framework, I was also completing various thesis chapter drafts and this drafting continued till around late September or early October. Prior to this completion, however, around the summertime I was beginning to find some of my analysis questionable. The analysis was suitable in the achievement of constructing a coding framework, but was not able to provide significant and detailed explanations about the process of the particular social learning phenomenon being investigated. I then realised that the problems experienced earlier with Grounded Theory were being experienced with thematic analysis. This was both a good and an overwhelmingly challenging thing. A good thing because it helped me to critically evaluate thematic analysis and grounded theory further as means of analysing social processes. Although it was right to develop the coding framework, I had to figure out a way in which I could use that framework to identify patterns of social learning. I needed to apply further analytical methods, and this led to (a) the need to overhaul my thesis chapters, (b) reconceptualization of the data, and (c) being completely overwhelmed!
The addition of extra analytical methods alongside thematic analysis was considered for a while. A conversation with my supervisor, however, confirmed the need for these methods so they were adopted. Alongside thematic analysis based methods, therefore, I added basic quantitative methods, and a pattern identification process. I shall not talk much about these methods here now simply because these methods might need redevelopment as I retest the coding framework against the entire collected data, and as I, therefore, use these methods to analyse a greater range of data, think more deeply about how these methods relate to my philosophical position and methodological perspective, to further the discussion and justification of them, and think more about how they interconnect. They have been discussed to a certain extent, but I feel that during the year these discussions and justifications shall be further enhanced and developed.
It suffices to say, however, that reflecting on their application in the research so far, it is clear to observe that when comparing all three different methods (thematic, basic quantitative, and pattern identification), each provided results that supplemented each other but also, unexpectedly, contrast each other, and provide a large volume of insights and observations about the phenomenon that were not previously considered or thought possible. The unexpected nature of these insights and the behaviour of the methods, and the volume of these insights, were completely overwhelming. My previous findings, understandings, and interpretations of the data, and developing conceptions of the phenomenon were challenged. These insights provided new opportunities to explore and explain the phenomenon of interest relative to the research question.
That was probably the most challenging academic experience I have come across so far. Challenging because of my preconceptions of the phenomenon and assumptions of what could be found by each method, built from what I had observed through coding data and building themes of the data. Although it could be argued that preconceptions are a hindrance (this has been argued in literature), I found that they were not blocking my ability to perceive and observe new or unique insights. In other words, I found that I was not attempting to “stuff” the new findings within my own preconceptions. I remained open minded and willing to accept that there might be something new and contradictory, and where contradictions were found they needed to be reasoned or resolved in some way. When I really think about it, those preconceptions were not a hindrance to my learning, but provided a platform upon which further learning occurred whilst being open or sensitised to the possibilities of there being something new. This is a substantial debate within the academic field.
Moving on, it was a significant and very important moment for many reasons for my research and how I understand myself and my research at the philosophical, methodological, personal and practical levels. It is all these considerations that have led to the requirement to overhaul the thesis chapters, and this began in November with the rewriting and reconstruction of the literature review. This is due to be followed up over the coming months with overhauling the research design, findings, and discussion chapters and these shall be discussed on here in time.
Where does all this lead me? The future! I am structuring a longer planning time frame in order to plan the tasks and activities to engage with over the comping months, and as a part of this I shall be writing a series of blog posts that documents the plan for the coming months, whilst accepting that I might come across further analytical ideas that were previously considered irrelevant or unexpected.
Briefly, however, the following tasks are to be engaged with:
The discussions that I have made so far as a result of the new insights and new analytical additions are continuous and ongoing, and any assumptions and interpretations of these findings will need further testing and refining as I rework the analysis. I had conceptualised the phenomenon in a way that entailed the analysis of certain types of data segments, but the new insights is now encouraging me to explore the whole data in order to build a much wider picture in accordance with the research question.
Each thesis chapter shall be given further edits and a complete overhaul where it is considered necessary in order to accommodate and best explain the new insights and the implications of the additional analytical methods. I shall initially establish a new outline for each thesis chapter before proceeding with the writing (and, of course, discuss it on here!).
The analytical framework shall be further tested in different contexts. I am not in a position to suggest any changes that could or could not occur, it all depends on what is interpreted from the data and how the framework matches up with the data (framework had to align with the data, not data aligning with the framework. This is process known as ‘stuffing’ the data to fit the framework, and it arguably does not work).
The other main task is to publish as much as I can in academic journals. I do feel now that I am in a position where I can get my findings and philosophies in publishable form during the year. Of course my ideas need some reworking before being publishable, but it is my aim by the end of next year to have more papers published on as much as I can!
And, of course, to continue to build post-doctoral opportunities. Throughout this whole process, I am beginning to visualise how a post-grad position and application could be shaped and the ideas and directions that I would like to take my research at post-doctoral level. I am early into this process, and I don’t really plan on focussing on this too heavily at the beginning of the year, but I suspect more focus shall be placed on this as summer approaches.
All this and more shall be discussed on this blog during the coming year!
Thank you for reading my reflections. Wishing all of my blog readers new and old a Happy New Year and a productive and positive year ahead!
November 07, 2019
The thesis chapters are now complete, at least to the point that the foundations, the arguments, the insights, and all points of discussions have been laid out in a logical and progressive way across each chapter. I would not suggest that the thesis is complete as there is a need to edit and rewrite various chapters and chapter sections. The process of editing and rewriting aims to improve explanations of the research design and the recent amendments that have been made to it, as well as to aim to better explain and develop arguments and insights of the data that have been made since amending the research design.
To achieve this current status of the thesis has itself involved numerous rewrites of each chapter, but I am at a point now where I am not expecting a serious rewrite and reconstructions of each chapter. Of course I cannot make this an absolute claim, because what exactly I edit and the extent to which I edit depends on the way I make further sense of the research findings in accordance with the research question and the research objectives. The edits to all the chapters over the past few years, and the edits that are currently continuing, are as a result of my changing understanding and conceptualisations of the data, and of the phenomenon of interest, and of changes to how I explore and investigate the phenomenon of interest. The thesis has been and still is an evolving document that simply cannot be written ‘as is’ in any first setting, because it will go through as many changes as you consider best to reflect your changing understanding and changes of research approach. This continuous change and amendment is, in my experience, an integral part of engaging with qualitative research and writing a qualitative based research. This is because qualitative research is based around the understanding and interpretation of text based data, and our understanding and interpretation of the text changes continuously particularly though arguably this depends on our philosophical positions. Regardless of our Philosophical positions, it is impossible to identify all possible concepts at the initial stages of your research because concepts are interpreted and constructed during your research analysis process. As I have discussed several times throughout this blog, my conceptualisations of the qualitative data have changed numerous times, which impacted research interests and directions, which impacted the characteristics of the data considered most interesting, which impacted how the data were explored.
An interesting area of debate refers to the way that our conceptions of the data are formed, and the way that concepts of the data appear. This, again, depends on the philosophical position of the researcher because a concept can be argued to emerge from the data, be discovered or identified in the data, or be constructed through interpreting the data. Concepts that are constructed through interpretation can arguably be situated in the middle range position of philosophical stances where concepts are a construction through the process of interpretation, but the interpretations are considered reasonable and reliable. This is something that I am currently working on.
The analytical framework is complete and whole, and from my current understanding I do not need at this time to engage with any further developmental work. Again same as with the thesis, I cannot claim this as an absolute but I am fairly confident now that the framework is complete. The analytical framework consists of the codes, categorised into different themes, needed to assist with exploring specific social learning processes. Because it is complete, it needs testing, therefore a current task involves testing the coding framework within a different context from which it has been constructed.
I am in the early stages of testing the framework and I am not completely sure how I am to report on this in the findings and discussions chapters at this time. What I am thinking about is to test the framework within the context and to publish a paper on this testing, and to perhaps compare what shall be conceptualised with what had been conceptualised in the original research. This is ongoing work so I shall return to this at a later stage.
In addition to the testing of the framework, philosophical assumptions are also being developed, some of which are also being tested, as well as explanations of the different contexts within which the framework could be used. These assumptions and explanations are likely to be reshaped and altered as I go through the framework testing process, and as I engage with further literature.
July 08, 2019
I apologise for not writing a blog post in quite a while! I noticed that the previous update was way back earlier this year. Admittedly, blogging was put aside for a while as I simply wanted to focus on writing the thesis and complete the data analysis with the intentions of returning to the blog when I had more time to spare to blog about what I have completed and where I am going with everything.
Since I wrote the previous update there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed not because I have struggled with knowing what to say, but knowing what to say where. This has not necessarily led to times of anxiety and paranoia, but of uncertainty. What carried me through the times that I have been overwhelmed and felt uncertain is this single thought: I’d rather feel overwhelmed due to having a lot to say, than to feel underwhelmed with nothing to say! It takes time, but persevere and make sure you are continuously writing. It doesn’t matter what form your ideas take on paper, just get them down on paper and sort out the edits and presentations afterwards.
The Literature Review
Much of the literature review has now been completed and it’s a case of editing what I have already written and complete and edit the critical summary section. A section that I have been working on during the past few months involves the critique of various analytical coding frameworks pertaining the exploration and analysis of the phenomenon of interest. This has not been an easy section to write because of the very nature of qualitative research and approaches needed to write qualitative theses. Briefly, the approach that I am adopting to handle and critique the literature more generally is to split the literature review in a couple of parts, each of which serving different purposes. The first literature review chapter contextualises the phenomenon of interest. By this, the first literature review refers to conceptualisation and definition: I am explaining and critiquing how the phenomenon of interest has been conceptualised in the literature, how the phenomenon has been identified and explored across different contexts, and to critique these approaches to exploring the phenomena in order to situate the need for my research within these critiques.
With the analytical models, in this first part of the overall review of the literature, I have to explain the models in a way that demonstrates how the phenomenon of interest has been analysed, and critique the general approach of the models. The second part of the review is integrated in with the discussions of the findings, and I shall explain this in the next blog post.
Research Design Chapter
This is more or less complete in various drafted forms, it’s just a matter of trying to put the whole chapter together. I have written the introduction section, explanations and descriptions of the research design itself, explanations of the research questions and objectives, my position as a researcher, my philosophical position, and the explanation and justification of the selection of the methodology and methods. Other sections I am working on include discussions about the sources of the data, the setting of the research, and detailing the process of coding and thematic development. Additionally, I am attempting to write justifications in terms of how the methodologies and methods have been used before so that I can attempt to verify the historical effectiveness of various aspects of the research design. Phew!
This has been another chapter that has received many edits and redesigns, but I am now happy with the chapter with the way it is and the way it is progressing. Still a fair bit to write, but everything is basically written in pre-draft form it’s just a matter of editing and putting the sections together so it shouldn’t be too bad. What has been the most challenging section, to be honest, has been the Philosophical section and then working out the way this relates to the methodology. It can take a long time to work out your philosophies, and even then they can change so try not to be too much of an absolutist no matter what your position you believe best matches your own. Be dynamic and be flexible.
In Part B, I shall discuss briefly where I am with the latter part of the thesis.
April 18, 2019
Philosophically, how much is too much? There is no definite answer here. I’ve spent the day editing the Philosophical section of my research design chapter following contact with my supervisor. This feedback is proving to be invaluable, because it has guided my editing and also consideration of the content.
Previously I wrote the philosophical section using a comparative, reflective approach. During my time on the Ph.D., I have engaged with a variety of different ontological and epistemological positions. As a result, this led to writing separate ontological and epistemological sections.
Within each section I have attempted to tell a progressive narrative of my engagement with different positions. I discussed how I previously conceived the existence of the phenomenon (ontology) and how I believed that we come to know this phenomenon (epistemology). This led to discussing and explaining how these conceptions changed over time, how this led to me oscillating between different positions, and finally, I explained how I selected the ideal position (with epistemological beliefs drawing from various positions), and offered a justification of their selection.
Why did I do this? I am fascinated with the Philosophical aspects of the research and of the phenomenon, and I also wanted to address concerns in methodological literature about the lack of philosophical discussions within theses.
Recently, I returned to available, relevant qualitative theses and read through their research design chapters again. Clearly, as mentioned in a previous post, there is great variety in the reporting of the philosophical stance with some conflating ontology with epistemology, which I do not agree with. A combination of supervisor feedback and rereading of the theses indicated that what I have produced could be better as future, publishable philosophical essays separate from the thesis, but still relevant in reporting my experiences of the Ph.D. journey. Additionally, these essays could contribute something useful or original to the general discussion of research Philosophy.
The essence of the research design chapter is to discuss specifically about what was actually carried out in the research, as well as developing the appropriate Philosophical, methodological and practical justifications. I find that a lot of theses tend to focus more on methodology and methods than the underlying philosophical stance that underpins or frames the methodology.
I have difficulties with lip service paid to the Philosophical section. Philosophy carries methodology and, therefore, is the foundation upon which methodologies and methods are placed upon. Philosophy provides the framework to how the methodology defines how phenomenon is to be investigated and understood, through the appropriate selection and definition of methods and procedures.
Lacklustre discussions of Philosophies, in my view, make it difficult to validate, authenticate, verify and contextualise the findings. It makes it difficult to understand where the researcher is coming from, and it makes it difficult to understand how the researcher perceives reality. It is difficult to assume, for example, if a theoretical framework is developed from a constructivist or interpretivist perspective unless this is explicitly stated within the research design section.
How much is too much? It depends. The thesis is the core of the Ph.D. It is the core, central artefact of the Ph.D. endeavour that communicates what you have done, how, why, where and when. The Philosophical aspect of your research design, therefore, has to relate very specifically to the ontological and epistemological positions that relate specifically and strongly to your design and to your conceptions of the phenomenon. How much is too much or too little depends on what you are exploring and perhaps arguably how much you value Philosophy, and are willing to engage with philosophical issues of your research. Regardless, however, nothing should lead to lip service being paid to philosophical issues.
The edited version of the chapter now doesn’t consist of extensive comparative discussions of different positions that have been critically and reflectively engaged with, nor is there any discussion of how I shifted and changed positions. Everything is now strictly and directly relative to what was actually carried out, how, and why, their impact on the research design, their impact on the research phenomenon, and the appropriate justification of ontological and epistemological beliefs and their position within existing theories and literature.
Where has all the comparative discussions gone? Where have all the discussions about how I have changed conceptions over time and how those changed entailed shifting between different positions been placed? Has all that been wasted?
Not at all, because now all of that detail can be taken out of the thesis and be turned into publishable, philosophical essays and that is something that I will be working towards! This reason alone made the process worthwhile. The process of engaging with different ontological and epistemological positions increased my understanding of how philosophy impacts methodology and of how I could have interpreted and explored the phenomena within different positions. This enriches knowledge about Philosophy, and empowers the researcher to contribute potentially to academic discourse and existing, unresolved issues.
That, folks, is the ultimate goal of academia, and the ultimate goal of who you are as a researcher. Write and contribute because you want to, not because you have to. If you’re not in the business to contribute in some way, then really, what’s the point?
‘till next time!
April 17, 2019
When writing the research design chapter, and indeed when engaging with postgraduate research, a key issue is Philosophy. Philosophical issues relating to the phenomenon of interest and the research context have to be acknowledged, identified, documented, critiqued, reflected upon, and strongly associated with the research methodology. Philosophy drives methodology, and the methodology provides the framework that guides the research methods and procedures. It is imperative to ensure that strong links, cohesiveness and cohesion exist between philosophy, methodology, methods and procedures of the research within your writings so that the design can stand up to academic scrutiny, and to ensure that findings are consistent, correct, appropriate, and suitable for the context and the main research objectives.
Those are separate topics for another time, but referring to writing the Philosophical section of the research design of a thesis a key question is, how much is too much? This is an interesting question that I continuously have asked myself when writing the philosophical section of the research design. I am of the firm belief that nothing is ever, and should ever, be wasted. Nothing you write on the Ph.D. is ever wasted as something can be turned into something else, even a publishable form of something else.
During my time on the Ph.D. I have written extensive notes on paper and in digital form about numerous philosophical, both ontological and epistemological, positions. Even back at this time I was questioning how I could apply what I was exploring to the methodology, how each position affected my perspective of the phenomenon, and the way I could best record and express the positions in the thesis. Whether you are writing in pre-draft form on paper or in digital form, don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions early, but don’t restrict your creativity and inquiry. Allow your thoughts to come out, to develop, and to become as complex as they are required to be. You know how complex your ideas should be, and you know how complex you want them to be to fit the context. But again, don’t reject anything. I have been writing the draft form of the research design chapter for quite a while. The Philosophical aspect has experienced a number of rewrites as my pre-draft form ideas matured further and as I engaged with more philosophical ideas and different philosophical authors.
Where to begin with this minefield? I began fairly early in thinking about research design to read the theses of other post graduates. It did not take long to find a stumbling block: there is no universal law or standard that appears to guide how much is too much or too little. The problem, and difficulty, is that theses, although they might focus on the same methodology, differ widely in their philosophical coverage. Some theses make a passing suggestion towards philosophy and include it in a discussion about methodology, whilst other theses provide more detail and include a separate Philosophical section followed by a discussion of methodology. Even the Philosophical section, however, differs with some making short references to ideas about reality and knowledge, whilst others talk about knowledge without referring to any sense of reality even though they reference an ontological position.
What is important to remember is that despite the diverse range of philosophical coverage, there is some sort of expectancy to ensure cohesiveness and consistency in your approach. You cannot, for example, say that you’re adopting constructivist ontology and an objectivist epistemology supporting an experimental methodology. You cannot, in my view, talk about epistemology and pay lip service to ontology if you’re making explicit statements about how you come to understand reality. If you are talking about reality, then you’re talking about ontology. If you’re talking about the nature, structure, limits and origins of your knowledge and of coming to know this reality, then that’s epistemology. If you’re talking about how you are to gain knowledge about reality, that’s methodology. It’s important to remember this.
Is it worth reading though these theses? Yes, it is. Engaging with other theses enables us to become more acquainted with the self or being as a researcher. It makes us question how we should present our philosophical stance, and to wonder why such diversity in Philosophical coverage exists.
Engaging with these theses has in party contributed to increasing the value and importance of acknowledging, recognising, critiquing and engaging with my own philosophical stance, and the way my stance could be communicated. There is no particularly strict guide, and it’s important to explore and experiment in order to find what is best. This takes many redrafts. I’m sure many of the longer term readers of this blog have followed my Philosophical battles as I oscillated between different positions in order to situate or locate my views of reality within the extended literature. One needs to be careful to not pigeon-hole their beliefs or to ‘stuff’ their beliefs within a particular position just to tick a box. Your beliefs need to be engaged with critically and reflectively. They need to be intellectualised, and to be intellectually engaged with, so that they can logically be applied to your research, be integrated cohesively within your research design, and communicated consistently within your writings.
How much is too much or too little? It simply depends on what is right for your research, and how you relate your philosophical position to your research, and how valuable discussing ontological and epistemological issues are in relation to your research, research question, and phenomena of interest.
I shall cover this more in the next blog post where I discuss and explain further my experiences so far!
February 21, 2019
During the past few months I have come to grips with what should be included in the literature review, taking into account its nature as part of an inductive, thematic analysis approach that differs from that which can be found in quantitative based theses. With quantitative based literature reviews, the goal is, quite generally, to critically explore existing empirical literature to find a very specific theoretical or practical gap in the collective understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Typically, this gap is then addressed through building a testable theoretical framework that essentially frames the findings and associated discussions. In other words, the theoretical framework predefines data characteristics and findings that are of most interest and use to the research and in answering the research questions that derive from the framework. There is a very strict order here: the literature is explored first, and from the literature review comes the theoretical framework, from the theoretical framework comes the research questions, and as data is found relevant to the research questions their discussion context is framed by the theoretical framework. Every part of the research, as far as I can understand, is framed around the selected theories that guides data analysis.
Inductive based qualitative literature reviews are different in that there is no predefined theoretical framework that is developed, and, therefore, there is no need to test theories or have any discussions and findings framed around existing theories. The core aim of inductive based qualitative literature reviews, from my own understanding of them, is to establish the general overall context of the research and to justify why the research is being carried out. Arguably then where quantitative based literature reviews are used to develop a deductively testable theoretical framework, qualitative based literature reviews are used to establish a justifiable context for inductive analysis (though do note that the theoretical framework still needs justifying!).
With all that then, I am using the literature review to explore the broader questions. For example, with the specific technology I am using to facilitate social learning processes I am asking questions about how that piece of technology has been used more generally in Education. In what way has the technology of interest been used for so far within the context of social learning processes? What are the differences of use of these processes between different technologies and what makes a particular technology of interest more appropriate? What definitions have been provided regarding the particular social learning process? How have these social learning processes been realised in various learning scenarios through technological facilitation?
Questions like these assists with building a picture of what has been achieved before and be able to set the research within a justifiable context. For example, through asking how social learning processes have been realised and explored in various learning scenarios, you begin to understand how social learning processes have been approached, defined, and understood. From this understanding, you can begin to critically question this understanding and of what exists, and this in turn leads to locating your research within the existing literature with justifiable supports.
The literature review is still ongoing although much of it has now been completed. There is still a couple of concepts left to explain, but this can occur at a later time. The core of the literature review has now been completed!
January 25, 2019
The relationship between our philosophical beliefs and methodological approach to our research is, as far as I am concerned, a complex relationship. Not only can there be a sense of fluidity between the ontological and epistemological beliefs, but also fluidity between the philosophical beliefs and the methodological approach. As I have spoken about on this blog, what I found during the year was a shift in my conceptualisation of the phenomenon of interest, which led to a change in what I wanted to explore in the data, and, therefore, changes to the directions of my research interest. The changes to the conceptualisations, concepts, and directions of what I wanted to explore and why I think they are important led to me changing methodological approach.
Over time I came to realise that Grounded Theory was no longer working for me for various reasons that I shall explain in the thesis. I came to realise that, out of the various analytical approaches I was then experimenting with (grounded theory, discourse analysis, content analysis, and thematic analysis) thematic analysis revealed itself to be the most appropriate. The type of thematic analysis of most use appears to be a mix of Braun and Clarke’s version along with Guest’s Applied Thematic Analysis approach, with some concepts and ideas loosely based on aspects of Grounded Theory. All this shall of course be explained in the thesis.
Those are the changes made in a nutshell: if you want to know more about these changes feel free to read through my previous blog posts and also read the thesis when it’s written!
Upon reflection, what can be learnt from qualitative research is that it is near enough impossible to know what you are going to be exploring at the very beginning. This is relevant claim to qualitative research that adopts an inductive approach to exploring data, where you are essentially allowing your interpretations and observations of the data to guide your thinking and the directions that you take.
All changes to the research have been recorded with great detail. It is important to record everything. Even the smallest, slightest change to your philosophical beliefs, methodological approaches and the way you perceive and interact with the data can lead to even bigger changes in the future, so it is important to record these small changes and reflect upon their implications, impacts, and meanings to your research. Record them either through your own blog, through theoretical memos that you right as part of your data analysis, or even on a scrap piece of paper that is stored correctly for easy retrieval later.
All these observations and interpretations that you record can be logically ordered, expanded, discussed and reflected upon at a later time as you write your thesis. Remember that a qualitative thesis is a reflexive exercise and you as the researcher become part of the data analysis, so do ensure that you record appropriately, store as logically as you can, and reflect deeply and comprehensively during your thesis write up as part of telling the story of the way in which you approached your research, why, and what changes were made.
Record and detail absolutely everything!
November 19, 2018
Writing is a continuous, ongoing task in qualitative research but the question is, what do you write? Obviously, many qualitative methodological textbooks and my own experiences suggest that it is very important to document what you observe and begin to interpret very early in the qualitative process. Typically, quantitative research is fairly set in nature and the writing of the research findings usually take place following the analysis phase. With qualitative research, you begin to write about your findings and interpretations at the very beginning of the analytical process. Your writings, interpretations and coding schemes, etc. all change and evolve over time, and it is always wise to write about these changes as they occur.
Reflect on these changes and alternatives, explain the way in which these changes have impacted your research, compare the changed approach to the previous approach, and evaluate these changes. All these reflections shall form a part of your analysis and overall production of the research design chapter and later thesis chapters.
Typically in qualitative research, data analysis and writing of the interpretations and findings occur simultaneously. What I am finding that is in addition to the norm is that I am writing about the research design as I go through each data analysis stage and phase. I have found that my analytical lens and general analytical approach have changed as I have progressed through the data analysis and as I have reread the data several times. With this, I am not just writing and contributing towards the findings and discussion related chapters simultaneous to data analysis, but also various aspects of the research design chapter.
Trust me, this can be quite mind boggling. But for me, it’s an approach that works as I have always viewed little sense in writing the research design chapter before the data analysis began. I did attempt this before, but as I progressed through the data analysis I found that what I found was challenging what I thought, and continues to do so. It made sense for me from that point to write about the design as I progressed through the data analysis.
It was more than a couple of years or so ago that I started the qualitative journey after moving away from mixed methods approaches to investigating the phenomenon of interest. I suppose back then I was aware of the need for writing about the data itself and what I was to observe, but I had no idea that at the time I would effectively be writing about the research design AND the data observations and thematic development simultaneously but this is the way that my research appears to have been worked out.
Qualitative research is nuanced and there really is no set path towards the way you are to write your qualitative thesis! Plus do remember that it is an ongoing process: you cannot write about an observation once and then leave it. It’s a long running, complex, detailed, deep process of understanding and comprehending what it is you are observing.
'till next time, keep applying that pen to paper! Or hands to keyboard! Or both!
August 10, 2018
My gosh, that was a manic week! Focussed on the rewriting and restructuring of the literature review and the thesis more generally. Through the chaos and deep thinking of the new role of the literature review, and dealing with the, at times, feelings of being overwhelmed (trust me, I’d rather be overwhelmed with ideas than be underwhelmed with no ideas), clarity has just started to come through.
I feel more confident and happier now with the new and continuously developing structure of the literature review and the thesis more generally. I feel that now I am beginning to structure the thesis that reflects the nature of a thematic research design, and my Ph.D. experience so far in general. I have discussed the thematic research design in some detail in previous blog posts.
If I were to offer a single word that characterises the new structure of the thesis, it would be: “comparisons.”
I have learnt that to attempt to write as a high calibre thesis as possible, it is not just about critiques, reflections, situating your own research, presenting and evaluating research design and presenting and discussing findings and their applications (in a nutshell) but it’s also about comparisons. By this, I mean, using my experiences of thinking about different philosophies, of using different methodologies and methods as a basis of writing reflective, reflexive and critical comparisons that build towards philosophical and methodological arguments for the research design.
Use the comparisons as a basis upon which critical and reflective thought can be developed, along with where you can clearly evidence, present, demonstrate and show progress in your understanding and deepening knowledge and skills as a researcher.
This is something that has struck me a while ago, particularly when I understood the value of comparing different methods and methodologies. The value lies in using the thesis as a means of charting, highlighting and documenting the development of how my understanding has developed over the years.
A thesis in this sense might, among its many roles, play the role of a historical document. It could be considered a document that guides the reader through how you have come to your philosophical, methodological, and methods selections, and the justifications and arguments that you present, through examining and analysing the comparisons that have taken place.
These comparisons could be at the philosophical level, methodological level, methods level, data source level, and also comparing different types of findings the same phenomena within different types of literature.
It is no wonder I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed……..
But that’s the way a Ph.D. is and that’s the way I like to progress!
What of the thesis now? I have now divided the thesis into two main parts. The first part deals with the introduction chapter and the literature review chapter and combined I am allocating around 30,000 words. My literature review, when all the notes I have dotted around are combined, comes to about 20,000 words but this is in the process of being completely rewritten and restructured with a new purpose and new functions for my research project. This is work in progress and I will probably talk a little more about this soon. It suffices to say that in order to make way for a lot of new ideas and inclusions I am dropping a fair number of planned discussions that I consider are no longer relevant or needed for understanding my research.
During the past week, and shall be continued for a while, I have been going through the literature review chapters and notes dotted around to decide what I am going to keep, to decided what is to be kept and amended, and to restructure in order to add in new, relevant discussion points.
Sometimes when writing the literature review it is just a case of trying out different presentation approaches e.g., tables, in order to save space. Tables are really useful because they can help to cut down on repeatable information and can help present information more concisely but with the same meaning; or even enhanced, depending on the way the table is constructed.
The other 50,000 words of the thesis represent the real meat and beast of the thesis. I have expanded this section by about 15,000 words in order to accommodate new chapter ideas. Working out the structure, and obviously the content, is work in progress. Currently though, the idea is to write: a methodology based literature review (this would involve the comparison and critique of different coding schemes and approaches the phenomenon of interest ); the comparisons between different approaches to analysing the same type of data at the philosophical, methodological and methods level; the Ph.D. research design itself, and then chapters and sections referring to different themes, the coding scheme itself, and its application in learning contexts. Not to mention the inclusion of more critiques of literature within certain parts in order to verify and validate the developing themes and to discuss the way that existing published themes can be developed further.
This big section of the thesis came about from many reasons, some of which occurred as I began to write about my methodology. These reason include: the need to be reflexive, the need to fully and elaborately document the way in which the new coding scheme is being developed, the way in which phenomenon data can be explored, and also the need to include methods of verifying and validating themes. There are many other reasons but these are the core reasons. I shall talk about each of them in time!
Everything is a work in progress. Sometimes you might feel completely overwhelmed but as I said earlier it is better to be overwhelmed with continuingly new, developing ideas than be underwhelmed with no ideas at all. Keep writing, keep experimenting, keep thinking, and keep going!
‘till next time!