The minute I wrote that title, I realised that in a strict sense it is a little back to front. We all know that our choice of research methodology should follow the definition of our aims, objectives and research question – form should follow function! At least that is what the text books say.
But I’ll readily confess that I became a research student because I wanted the opportunity to learn more about and experience action research – others do that too for example some embark on a PhD because they want to home their quantitative data analysis skills. So the ‘search’ for a research question and defining aims and objectives is also informed by the sort of knowledge, skills and experience I want to develop through my PhD and ultimately the sort of researcher I want to be.
I’ve reached that stage in my PhD programme where I have to start ‘formalising’ my research proposal. I need to iterate a few drafts over the next few weeks with a view to submitting it for formal assessment towards the end of July. In the same time period, I do my first proper draft of an ethics application. That isn’t the ‘end point’, it can be refined or even changed after that – but it is a goal to be reached and a goal to make the most of.
But there lies a problem. As I read – both the ‘content’ literature and the methodological literature – I can easily talk to myself about what I want to do and why, but when I get faced with the structure (template) for a research proposal, it just won’t come out, I can’t construct all those ideas into a coherent sounding explanation. So I wondered whether writing it in my own words first of all would help – hence this blog. Some researchers refer to this sort of thing as first person memos – so given it has a name, it must be an appropriate way of moving forward! I have no idea as I start whether it is going to be one long blog or the first of a series focussing on different parts of a research proposal but here we go anyway….
Given the name of this blog and my use of the Leonardo Da Vinci quote in the side panel, it just came as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t really posted before on the inter-relationship of theory, research and practice (the main exception being one on Knowledge into action). Or maybe it is because the whole blog is implicitly about that very topic, that I’ve never thought to address it explicitly.
This is one of those blogs I have to get out of my head….that means it isn’t going to be full of references that back up my thoughts, I just need to round them up so that I can be more structured in taking them forward.
It’s prompted by the idea of the ‘ideal’ type – a normative standard against which we compare things. Often ‘ideal’ types get understood as prescriptions…and also sometimes we start thinking that things actually do happen according to those ‘ideal’ types (which is dangerous!).
So as I’ve been looking into policy making, I’ve started to realise that we have a number of ‘ideals’ as to what it ought to be like. I’m going to brain-dump them here…
This is one of those blogs that I am starting with no way of knowing where it will go. It follows on from my recent post on practising systematic reviews systemically. It was prompted by re-reading an old post on the ‘design turn’ (which my blog stats tell me someone looked at today – if it was you, thanks 🙂 ). So, I’ve re-opened Ison (2010) to the two-page long section on ‘Systemic Inquiry and the ‘Design turn’ (pages 260-262).
I’ve just realised that my post from early february on Discovering a landscape of research practice can provide effective insights into my current struggles and tensions about systematic reviews (discussed in my last post). I’ve yet again gotten bogged down into the need to construct typologies or categories – this time of systematic reviews. But my ‘aha’ moment – Instead I can choose to think of a landscape of literature review practices – with communities of reviewing practitioners identifying with each other, with certain questions/tasks to do and with certain ways of answering those questions/doing those task drawing on existing literature as ‘data’.
So whether you are concerned with ‘does x work for y condition for z population?’ or ‘what is known about the phenomenom a?’ or ‘what are the problems/gaps with the existing literature around q?’, you can belong somewhere in this landscape and identify with different sets of practitioners at different times. New practices emerge from critiques or problems with existing ones, new communities form around those new practices, boundary spanners move between them taking ideas from one place to another where they mutate. The ‘old’ practices pick up practices from the ‘new’ ones or respond to the critiques made of them. Technology such as research databases revolutionalise the opportunities. It shifts, it changes, it diversifies – it isn’t fixed
Why didn’t I spot the read across before! Doh!
My current PhD module is on the research ‘technology’ of systematic reviewing. This type of research study is a manifestation of the evidence-based practice movement driven by the desire to make sure that research informs practice and/or policy. Systematic reviewing arose in the world of medicine as a way of drawing together the findings of different ‘Randomised control trials’ in order to come up with a better answer to whether the intervention x leads to an outcome y. The method of systematic review was/is hailed as better than traditional literature reviews which were criticised for cherry-picking the studies that fit with what an author wants to say. My own view is that the traditional literature review actually has a different purpose – to scope out existing research in an area to highlight the ‘niche’ for a proposed piece of research and as Boell and Cecez-Kecmanovic (2014) eloquently argue can be undertaken just as rigorously.
Anyway, as I’ve gone through the module, I’ve begun to understand that the term systematic review now goes well beyond the original ‘what works’ review of the Cochrane collaboration. There are a multitude of different approaches to identifying and synthesising both quantitative and qualitative information held in research literature underpinned by a variety of study designs – like other forms of research they arise from different epistemological perspectives and therefore approach the task in different ways in order to answer different types of questions. There are now articles of systematic review methods leading to different typologies and a multitude of terms (see for example, Dixon-Woods et al, 2005; Gough et al, 2012; and, Grant and Booth, 2009) and more that focus on different ‘stages’ of the review process especially synthesis (see Barnett-Page and Thomas, 2009).
As I near the end of the module, I’ve started to wonder about the degree to which systematic reviewing can be undertaken systemically. The systems practitioner in me is rearing its head! As Ray Ison once said to me – “research is a practice too” – words which I directly hold responsible for me doing a PhD in the first place [depending on the day I am having that may be blame or gratitude!]
My current PhD module is ‘Philosophy of research’. On the one hand, I love it – finally a chance to get to grips with all that language associated with philosophy – epistemology, ontology, axiology and so on. But I’ve also found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the endless list of ‘research paradigms’ and talk of stances and positions and the assumed direct (but really blurred) relationship with ‘methods’. It’s not that I don’t understand it or ‘get it’, I’ve just found myself wondering what it is we are doing when we are distinguishing, labelling, categorising, and ultimately reifying research paradigms – and what is our purpose in doing so.
A couple of lines in one of my research text books (Robson, 2012) has led me into an interesting – I was going to say tangent, but that would mean I should go back – it’s a new interesting way of framing my understanding of the world of research
Robson (2012, page 27) states “In terms of research paradigms, a way forward is to be less concerned with ‘paradigms as philosophical stance’ and to adopt a notion of ‘paradigms as shared beliefs among groups of researchers’ (Morgan, 2007)”
okay the doctorate has started! I’ve had the introductory ‘summer academy’ and now have the follow on assignment. I understand that this is in part to help us try out and hone in on the ‘academic style of writing’ but also to put some of the things we covered at the academy into practice – literature reviews, research questions, quantitative research, qualitative research, systematic literature reviews were all covered in relatively short one hour lectures. This research proposal is for hypothetical research – not the ‘real’ one we will end up doing, so the point is to learn how to write research proposals.
But although we were set the task of ‘write a research proposal’ and I understand how all these things are parts of it – I came away with a few burning questions – what is a research proposal for? what is its purpose? what does a successful one look like?
It’s not long since I wrote My role as a researcher as part of my ongoing inquiry into the nature and value of research. I think – using Vickers terms – that my appreciative setting is now firmly set to spot additional potential developments to this inquiry. Either that or its like lots of buses coming along at once.
So I was really interested to see an online first announcement for an article by Khan et al (2013) – the first three lines of the abstract saying…
“What is the purpose of knowledge? Is it an end product only, or a means for action for change? Who is expected to take action – the researcher, research subjects, both, or some unknown others who may come across the knowledge produced? The larger question then is: is it health research, or research for health, equity and development?” (no page numbers)
The article gave me some new food for thought…