Writing a thesis? You need to know about the levels of theory . . .mkoole, · Categories: E-Research, Educational technology, PhD Studies, Research
There are different levels of theory:
- Philosophical perspective (i.e., ontology, epistemology, teleology, etc.).
- Theoretical perspective (anti-positivist vs. positivist).
- Background theory (of your field such as distance education).
- Focal theory (for example, maybe you are using the community of inquiry to guide your study).
- Data theory (the methods you choose, how you collect your data, and how you analyze your data).
They are all connected.
You will need to understand where you are in terms of your philosophical approach to the world:
- Ontology: What is reality? The nature of the social phenomenon/a you are studying.
- Subjectivist: nominalist, idealist, relativist.
- Objectivist: realist; there is an underlying reality.
- Epistemology: How can we come to know reality? (i.e., objectivism, subjectivism, etc.).
- Subjectivist: There is a world, but it is understood differently by different people (relativist); or, reality is socially constructed (nominalist; social constructionist).
- Objectivist: The underlying reality can be observed.
For example, if I identify myself to be within the subjectivist camp:
I will likely position myself with the anti-positivist theoretical perspective. I might choose:
- Interpretivism (phenomenology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism),
- Social constructionism (i.e., the social construction of reality),
- Critical theory,
- Feminist theory,
- Post-modernism, etc.
Say, I select “interpretivism,” I am likely to draw upon some of the following [note that these will help you form your research questions (RQs)]:
- Phenomenology (RQ: What is the lived, pre-reflective experience of adult learners when they start an online class?)
- Ethnography (RQ: What are the characteristics of older adults who take online classes?)
- Case study (RQ: What learning strategies are used by adults in 1) online learning for a photography class and 2) an art appreciation class?)
- Grounded theory (RQ: What are the attitudes of elderly people who use mobile devices for online shopping?)
- Narrative (RQ: How does an adult learner experience his/her first online class?)
The background theory of, for example, distance education would involve
- A conceptualization of what distance education is. What are the inclusion and exclusion criteria?
- The history of distance education.
- Characteristics of distance education.
- What does ‘teaching’ mean within the context of distance education?
- What does ‘learning’ mean within the context of distance education?
- What are the processes involved in distance education?
I will choose focal theories that agree with anti-positivist philosophy.
- The focal theory is often used as a framework for structuring and guiding your study. While you might discuss various focal theories in a literature review, you should only use one to guide and structure your research.
- Many focal theories can be used across philosophies. For example, I have seen the community of inquiry used in positivist studies in which numeric counts of the number of times a social-presence indicator occurred compared to the number of times a cognitive-presence indicator occurred. Or, most times, people use the community of inquiry for qualitative studies (qualitatively coding transcripts) and reflecting on what presences occurred.
- Equivalency theorem can be used across philosophies, too.
Data theory: the methodology and methods you choose in order to answer your research question need to be “commensurate” (i.e., in agreement) with the above theories/philosophies. So, as an interpretivist studying distance education and using the community of inquiry as my focal theory, I would consider:
- Semi-structured interviews for data collection and/or
- Open-ended questions on a questionnaire and/or
- Focus groups and/or
- Observation (for descriptive purposes)
- But, not likely Likert-scale questionnaires, multiple choice, or observation (tick-box, count-em-up).