Making methodological choices
Was going through all kinds of drafts for my PhD and thought that I should blog this piece. This is from a version of PhD outline (research questions, approach, etc.) dated 14 April 2006. It's not going to end up in the dissertation in the current form, so I thought of publishing it - as an easy to find reminder from where I'm coming and as an example of how blogging got me into "write at least something if you can't write a proper academic text" in communication with my advisers :)
Slightly edited for the web and to make it readable out of context.
In this section I'd like to describe the factors that shape my choices regarding research questions, methodology and methods. Some of them are based on the existing research, but many come from my personal blogging experiences, personal preferences and existential beliefs about research (I expect that in the dissertation some of these will be more directly connected with the literature overview, while others will find some space in the discussion of the research paradigm, methodology and methods). However, I feel that it's important to articulate them before I go into the specifics.
Practical value. For me it's important to make sure that my research has an impact on practice. Developing a better understanding of knowledge worker blogging practices could contribute to it in several ways:
- facilitating reflection of bloggers in figuring out other/better uses of weblogs and improving their own knowledge habits
- supporting any corporate stakeholders (for example, those responsible for KM initiatives) in decision-making around uses of weblogs by better understanding personal perspectives of people who blog
- supporting technology designers by describing patterns of (often unforeseen) uses of weblog technologies
To put this in a perspective: I see the results of my PhD as an important contribution on a way to productive uses of weblogs in knowledge-intensive settings. To do so there is a need to cross the chasm between early adopters and pragmatic majority (Moore, 1991), which is mainly done by articulating down-to-earth personal reasons to use weblogs and making sure weblog technology, as well as social and organisational practices around it are mature enough to fit in without too much hassle (in this respect I also draw on the literature on diffusion on innovation in educational domain, e.g. Rogers, 1995; Dormant, 1997).
It may look that I'm less concerned with the scientific/theory contribution of my PhD. It's partly true, but partly comes from my belief that describing new phenomenon from an angle not well covered in the literature in a scientifically sound way makes a good PhD contribution.
I know that there is a lot of work and learning still ahead of me to make it a sound scientific contribution, but I have to admit that it's an opportunity to impact practice that keep me working on it (for more extended discussion see On the role of theory, researcher accountability and translation).
Actor-perspective and crossing (multidisciplinary) boundaries. I believe that for both, knowledge work and weblogs, actor-perspective is important (and often neglected) view on the phenomenon. For me this research is about intersection of different contexts and activities of a person (knowledge worker who blogs). This often means crossing boundaries – between private and public, between passion and work-paid-for, between multiple personal knowledge management activities (e.g. organising ideas and managing relations with others), between multiple audiences who read a weblog...
It creates extra complexity and often unmanageable (especially given the multiple disciplines that say something relevant), but it's also where I believe the most contributions will lay. This belief comes from several perspectives:
- the value of weblogs is probably about crossing boundaries and many specifics of weblog uses are not explained by one specific context/domain;
- thinking about possible improvements of weblog uses I'd like to aim at synergies rather than focusing on suboptimal optimisation;
- I read too much literature indicating that innovation happens on the edges :)
Given that I perceive my main challenge in this respect is to keep multidisciplinary perspective, while doing sound research within a manageable time frame.
Exploratory and reflective research. In my PhD I choose to do exploratory and reflective research. Partly due to my personal preferences to do so, but mainly due to the nature of the phenomenon I'm studying: complex, emerging and often invisible.
It's a complex domain – blogging practices are shaped by a number of interacting factors, for example specifics of weblog tools used, personal preferences and working routines, social and organisational contexts. Weblog technologies and practices around them are still changing. In this case cause and effect relations are difficult to identify and predict; often they become obvious only in retrospect (retrospective coherence of Kurtz & Snowden (2003)). Methodologically I'm still working on finding a good way to explore emerging patterns and to identify forces that shape them.
There are also many invisible aspects of the domain: implicit knowledge worker needs, not accounted for knowledge processes, invisible blogging activities, hidden subculture-specific values, uses of weblogs discovered only by those who blog... In case of this research reflexivity (of the participants) is a way to tap into invisible (see Simons & Ruijters (2001) for an example in a context of implicit learning), but also as an additional quality check though reflexivity of the researcher.
Participatory research. In my case participatory research means two things: relying on my personal experiences as a blogger and frequent interaction with others, involving them as co-researchers.
Personal involvement is explained in a number of ways. First, treating my personal blogging practices as an additional data source provides me with a valuable input on invisible aspects of blogging, serves as a faster way of learning about blogging at work than any published research and give a starting point to many questions once I observe different "blogging behaviours" of other bloggers. Second, it gives me an identity between other bloggers and facilitates any engagement required for the research. Finally, it influences the way I collect, organise, analyse the data and present the results. It wasn't intended so, but at the certain moment reflecting on the way I do research I realised how much my personal experience and involvement influences and enriches my findings (see Researching blogs and blogging research: synergies of colliding worlds and Not documenting, doing: blogging as research for more details).
Involving others can't be avoided if you blog as a researcher: blogging is participation and co-constructing the practice (see Mortensen (2003) for similar discussion of her research through active participation in an online game). This involvement could be avoided by choosing to study a group of bloggers distant from myself. In fact, in two cases the distances between myself and bloggers I study are different: in one of them I made an effort to influence less, while in the other I embraced the participatory nature of it, learning about practices through participation.
Research paradigm. The choices above, while still implicit, were/are the main explanation behind my "stubbornness" in making specific choices on research questions, methods and ways to ensure and evaluate the quality of my research: I has been resisting suggestions that wouldn't fit my implicitly chosen* research paradigm. It's only now I start to articulate and position it - somewhere in between constructivist and participatory qualitative research according to Guba & Lincoln (2005)), but I'm still in the process.
*I suspect that I "evolved" into it rather han made a choice. The traces of many points above appear in my weblog as early as October 2002, as evident from links in Stellingen I wrote in December 2004 by selecting quotes from others that explain my research attitudes.
Dormant, D. (1997). Planning change: past, present, future. In R.Kaufman, S. Thiagarajan, & P. MacGillis (Eds.), The guidebook for performance improvement: Working with individuals and organizations. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Guba, E. G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences. In N.K.Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 191-216). SAGE Publications.
Kurtz, C. & Snowden, D. (2003). The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex-complicated world. IBM Systems Journal, 42, 462-483.
Moore, G. (1991). Crossing the chasm. HarperBusiness.
Mortensen, T. (2003). Reflexivity and participation in Online Games. In: Pleasures of the player: Flow and control in online games (pp. 69-93). Doctoral Dissertation, Volda College and University of Bergen.
Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations. (4 ed.) New York: The Free Press.
Simons, P. R. J. & Ruijters, M. C. P. (2001). Work-related learning: elaborate, extend, and externalise. In W.J.Nijhof & L. F. M. Nieuwenhuis (Eds.), The dynamics of VET and HRD systems (pp. 101-114). Enschede: Twente University press.