Making sure that there is sufficient Ph in a PhD

I have spent the past four weeks hosting communities of practice around the questions of ‘what is research?’ and ‘what is research supervision?’. It surprised me when these discussions embraced issues such as paradigm, that some research supervisors in the discussions were reticent to engage in the conversation. Some even suggested that in their own PhDs there was little discussion about issues of truth (ontology) and issue of knowledge (epistemology). I had always believed that discussions of this kind, particularly ‘what counts as knowledge?’ in a particular investigation, are the core of research and in fact make up a good part of the Ph in a PhD.

Coming into research practice, as I did, by way of the then marginalised Action Research Movement, it was necessary for me to foreground my investigation with philosophical debates about what I considered knowledge in the particular area I was investigating. Many definitions of research practice are closely linked with ideas that the investigation will make contributions to knowledge, so the ‘What counts as knowledge?’ question is quite an important one.

As I explored the rationale for my own type of data, I discovered quite a longstanding debate distinguishing scientific knowledge from other forms of knowledge, dating back as far as the Ancient Greek philosophers. In particular, from these early times, philosophers denigrated practical knowledge in favour of intellectual (Plato) and theoretical (Aristotle) knowledge. Eventually in the history of investigations, scientific knowledge came to rule. It is only since the paradigm revolution that alternate forms of knowledge have been considered worthy to be used in rigorous investigations, thus enabling investigation with a range of different ways of knowing. This broadening of the concept of what counts as knowledge continues to develop and in the Australian 2010 Excellence in Research submission guidelines, they acknowledge knowledge arising from creative performance for the first time.

If we define research supervision as advancing knowledge, as I do in the side bar to this blog, then it begs the question ‘what can a research supervisor do to emphasise the philosophical elements of a PhD?

1. Recognise this in their own research and elaborate on their paradigm and the ways in which that paradigm unfolds into their research process, and the ways in which they write about their research. For example, even the simple writing device of writing in the third person is grounded in a philosophical debate about objectivity.

2. Introduce their research students to the language of philosophy by…

a. exposing them to articles that discuss philosophical issues such as paradigm, epistemology and ontology, and by

b. using this language in their discussions with their students

so that their research students become fluent in using philosophical language

3. Help research students to consider what counts as knowledge in the issue/topic/question they are investigating. What knowledge seems to be valued? What are the debates that help you explore these questions? A great reference to get research students started in their thinking about this is Laurence Stenhouse’s (1981) journal article ‘What counts as research?

4. Help the research student to clarify how they came to know things about their topic/issue/question.  This raises issues for them about the provenance of their own knowledge. Trying to determine when knowledge came to us can then grow into considerations of whether the knowledge was from books or heard from people.

I know that I found these deliberations extremely useful as I contemplated where my own constructivist ontology came from and recognised that a Communication Course that I taught in the early years of my lecturing had been based on a text which was influenced by Kelly’s (1955) construct theory.

5. Help them to explore the discourses that inform their particular topic/issue/question. This used to be called a Literature Review, but in contemporary times, knowledge appears in a range of different locations and it helps to think about this as a Discourse Review. Such a position can help to identify when a topic/issue/question is appearing in practitioner discourses, such as conversations around the water cooler and on blogs, but not appearing in the academic journals.

Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies. 29 (2), 13-114

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: USA, Norton.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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