In this blog Dr Tim Clark, Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood at UWE discusses his research which focuses on exploring doctoral students’ perceptions of the influences on their methodological decision making.
It is not unusual for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to encounter challenges with the selection and coherent application of a methodological approach in their research.
The process involves understanding and engaging with complex philosophical debates which inform research traditions and the selection of research methods. This often entails the first introduction to some new (and potentially intimidating!) terminology such as ontology, epistemology and axiology.
In simple terms, these are concerned with the philosophy and study of reality, knowledge and values respectively. Ultimately, the quest for PGR students is to successfully identify and explore their own assumptions in these areas and then to consider, and clearly explain, how these inform the practical decisions they make about their own research design.
This means addressing questions such as: to what extent do we believe that our experience of reality is limited to interpretation? And what forms of data can best help us to understand complex social phenomena? Different perspectives in these areas have led to the emergence of a range of research paradigms, each with different models, principles and understandings of the purpose of research about the social world.
The table below, which appears in Clark (2021), adapted from Lather (2006) is a useful starting point for PGR students who are interested in exploring the decision making ‘landscape’ for research in education, as is Cohen, Manion & Morrison’s (2018) chapter ‘The Nature of Inquiry’.
Table 1: Paradigmatic Chart
Clark (2021), adapted from Lather (2006)
Through my experience as a Doctorate in Education student I became particularly interested in both the process of my own decision making and in the diverse range of understandings and assumptions which were emerging across the cohort I was part of. At the same time, I was aware that much of the literature which explored this appeared to rest on an assumption that doctoral students’ methodological assumptions and decision making may simply be the product of supervisor and institutional influence.
As I began to consider that this process may be significantly more complex, I commenced my own doctoral research which was focused on exploring doctoral students’ own perceptions of the influences on their methodological decision making.
My study, which is explored in more detail in my recent paper ‘Methodological Becoming: Doctoral students’ perceptions of their methodological journeys’ (Clark, 2021), sought to conceptualise methodological assumptions and understanding as being part of a more complex, socially constructed journey of ‘methodological becoming’. Framed by paradigmatic understandings of methodology, the study used life history inquiry and collective biography to support in-depth conversations with nine doctoral researchers in social science disciplines. The conversations focused on the students’ developing methodological understanding in the context of their personal, professional and academic experiences.
A key finding of the study was that doctoral students’ methodological assumptions could be understood as a socially constructed product of both their life histories and academic experiences. Engaging with academic content relating to paradigmatic understandings of methodology was perceived as playing a vital role in ‘unlocking methodological consciousness’, providing students with the tools they felt they needed to reflect on and understand their assumptions in the context of this previous experience.
Many of the students framed their academic engagement with methodological ideas as then enabling them to better understand themselves as researchers; their philosophies and methodological viewpoints; and, significantly, to reflect on lifelong experiences which may have shaped these. Interestingly, references to these experiences included examples where students cited important experiences in their childhoods and schooling which, through the lens of methodological consciousness, they saw as being relevant to their current assumptions.
It is important to note though, that whatever our own methodological views, it is not necessarily the accuracy or generalisability of any of the doctoral researchers’ memories or stories themselves which offers the most significant learning here. I frequently argue that part of the value of this work is the insight the narratives provide into how students understand, and present their own methodological assumptions – and the potential these have for enhancing reflexivity and methodological coherence. In short, acknowledging and reflecting on the journey may help us to better understand our current position and assumptions. This self-reflection may also be seen as key to preparing for the epistemological diversity (Pallas, 2001) which exists in research communities.
Becoming a Reflexive Researcher
The idea of being reflexive (self-aware) in our research can be complex, indeed how much of our own stories we share through our work may itself depend on the assumptions which underpin our work and the extent to which we see ourselves as part of our own work (Folkes, 2022). However, engaging in reflexive thinking about our research can help us to better understand our own position, and the positions held by others, and to continue to reflect on the consistent application of our ideas. It is often all too easy to separate different aspects of our work in our thinking and inadvertently introduce contradictions between the position we have explained and the individual decisions we take within the process of our research.
From the perspective that identifying connections and engaging in reflexive thinking has value in supporting work at post graduate level, some of the following actions may be productive starting points to consider:
- Look to engage with readings which address paradigmatic understandings and epistemological diversity at an early stage in your studies.
- Attend lectures or webinars which explore different methodologies, both within your programme and through wider networks and groups.
- Engage in dialogue with peers which involve articulating, justifying and listening to different methodological viewpoints.
- Consider keeping a reflexive journal and recording your own journey. How might your current position have been informed by your previous experiences?
If you are currently considering this aspect of your own work or if you are interested in reading more about the journeys of the students who were involved in the study, you can find further information in my recent paper (Clark, 2021) or my full doctoral thesis (Clark, 2017).
Dr Tim Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). His qualifications include a Doctorate in Education, Post Graduate Certificate in Academic and Professional Practice, Early Years Teacher Status and BA (Hons) Early Years Education.
Prior to his appointment at UWE in 2019, Dr Clark spent 20 years working in the early education sector in the UK, including 12 years as Head of Early Education for a charity in Bristol.
Dr Clark’s doctoral research used a narrative methodology to explore doctoral students’ perceptions of their developing methodological understanding/identities.