Creating Connections – understanding research terminology

If there is one thing that I have learnt in the twelve months of doctoral research I have undertaken, it is that in the Social Sciences, everyone has their own definition – for everything. Almost every word encountered, even ones you thought you understood, such as ‘paradigm’, ‘concept’, ‘model’, and ‘conceptual framework’ has many different interpretations. This does not make research easier. In fact, it makes what can be dense, heavy texts even more opaque, as terms are used in different ways, to mean different things, in different contexts. From one author/researcher to another, and even from one article to another by the same author, the meanings vary.

This not only makes it more difficult to understand exactly what is being said, but it also makes writing more challenging; because each time you use a phrase, you need to define it, explain who’s definition you have chosen, and sometimes even why you have chosen to use this particular interpretation. It can drive you crazy, and make everything seem more complex than it already is.

This blog post is like a primer; it identifies some of the core terms central to a thesis, and explores some of the ways they have been interpreted, and how I have chosen to use them in my own research. It is a blog post, so the tone is informal and of course it only scratches the surface. However by including links to the sources I have used, I hope that it provides an introduction to these key terms, and some greater clarity. It is essential to know what these terms mean for you in your research; this is what I have learnt!

Some definitions…

Paradigm: Paradigm is one of those words that everyone uses, but when challenged, few can explain or define. That’s ok. Historically, its most influential use may be traced to the work of Kuhn, who applied it to describe a model of understanding, or cluster of beliefs that influences what should be studied, how it should be studied, and how results should be interpreted within particular scientific disciplines. Even in this work, however, the term paradigm was ill-defined:  Margaret Masterman, a linguist and philosopher, criticised Kuhn for the “vague and inconsistent use of the concept ‘paradigm,’ noting that it is used in at least 21 different senses“.

This did not stop the term being adopted for use in social sciences, and of course many different interpretations of the term continue today.

In my research, I have chosen to define the term paradigm as a way to describe the researcher’s “basic belief system or worldview that guides the investigator, not only in choices of method but in ontologically and epistemologically fundamental ways” (Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p. 104). This means  that when I state that my research is situated within a particular paradigm, I am describing how my basic belief system, or worldview, guides my research. You can see how this particular interpretation links directly back to Kuhn’s idea that a paradigm is a cluster of beliefs that shape research.

I am situating my research within the interpretivist paradigm. This paradigm sees social reality as a human construction, created by each person. Social reality  is continually produced and reproduced by participants, as they interpret and make meaning of their experiences (Blaikie, 2009). Therefore, there are many social realities, as each person is continually revising and rebuilding their understandings  in response to their experiences. It is my belief that our own reality is different to everyone else; what we understand to be the ‘blue sky’ is our own interpretation, and, as we can never see through anyone else’s eyes, we can never know if this is exactly the same for everyone else.

This shapes the way I understand knowledge and learning; because I take an interpretivist perspective, I am drawn to the social constructivist view of learning, which suggests that we construct our own knowledge, and that learning is the process of knowledge construction that occurs as we interact with other people, within particular contexts. In my understanding, knowledge is not something ‘out there’ to be discovered, and therefore it is not something that can be ‘passed on’ from one to another like water being poured from a jug into a bucket. This is a demonstration of how my paradigm, or world view, will shape my research in learning.

Model:The term model has been used by some as another word for paradigm. In this usage, a model is seen as “an overall framework for how we look at reality….they tell us what reality is like, the basic elements it contains (ontology), and what is the nature and status of knowledge (epistemology)” (Silverman, 2013, p.112). I am not choosing to define model in this way (I have the word paradigm to say that!). In my research, I am choosing to understand a model to be a “framework that attempts to explain what have been identified as key aspects of the phenomenon being studied in terms of a number of other aspects or elements of the situation” (Gibbs, 2007, p.86). However, I am diverting slightly from this definition, as I think that a model (in the case of my research) will be a visualisation of how this framework may be interpreted, rather than perhaps the framework itself. If I see a model as a framework, then there is no difference between a conceptual framework and a conceptual model, and while this may be so in many cases, for clarity, I think that a model might be a good term to use when describing one way that a framework may be depicted. I’ll get back to you on this one!

Concept: Thankfully, a concept is a little easier to define, although there are still a number of different definitions floating around.
According to Bryman (2016, p.6), concepts are “the way that we make sense of the social world. They are labels we give to aspects of the social world that seem to have common features that strike us as significant.” A slightly different interpretation is given by Silverman (2013, p.112), who suggests that concepts are “clearly specified ideas deriving from a particular model”. The difference between a ‘label’ and an ‘idea’ may seem semantic – but believe me, these slight differences can make massive differences. In this case, Bryman is suggesting that the concept is the name given to a group of organised ideas and observations, whereas Silverman is defining a concept as the idea; although this idea might be a broad one, which umbrellas lots of smaller parts. Do you see how complicated it gets?

I am choosing to use the definition of concept put forward by Cohen et al (2007), who suggest that concepts are generalisations; they describe a relationship between a word or symbol and an idea or conception. For example, ‘anger’ is a concept, because when we use this word, we are able to connect this verbalisation to the hot, tense feeling we may experience when something doesn’t go to plan. This simpler interpretation of the word broadens its usage, and it aligns well with my interpretivist worldview – as we each experience and construct our worldview individually, we need a meaning-making tool that enable us to describe and share our existence with others. Concepts, in this definition, are such a tool. Although broader, it does not reduce the power of the word; Cohen et al go on to say that some concepts “are shared and used by all groups of people within the same culture – child, love, justice, for example; others, however, have a restricted currency and are used only by certain groups, specialists, or members of professions – idioglossia, retroactive inhibition, anticipatory socialization”(2007, p.14).

Conceptual Framework: It seems that everyone has a different way of explaining what a conceptual framework is. Merriam (2015)  admits that many writers conflate a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework, and this demonstrates the vagueness of the term. Lesham and Trafford (2007) have written an excellent article for doctoral students and their supervisors, reviewing a great deal of the literature around conceptual frameworks, in an attempt to explore why students have so many questions about what a conceptual framework is, and how to develop one for their thesis. The article highlights just how many ways researchers use the term conceptual framework. In their article, they include the following:

Rudestam and Newton (1992, p.6):”A conceptual framework, which is simply a less developed form of a theory, consists of statements that link abstract concepts to empirical data”.

Maxwell (1996, p.25): “Conceptual frameworks are the system of concepts, assumptions, expectations, beliefs and theories that supports and informs your research”.

Punch (2000 p.54): A conceptual framework represents “the conceptual status of the things being studied and their relationship to each other”

These are just a selection of the different ways writers/researchers have attempted to capture this slippery term. From the different definitions, and from Lesham and Trafford’s article, I have drawn the following conclusions, which I will apply in my own research.

A conceptual framework is a scaffold. It is larger than the sum of its parts, as it explains the conceptualisation of the entire research project. This scaffold directs and provides coherence for the research. It creates connections between the theoretical perspectives, the research strategy and design and the phenomenon being researched. As the research progresses, the conceptual framework develops and flexes, as good scaffolding should. It provides a link to the conceptual conclusions being drawn from the findings, and a context within which new theory may grow.

In my own research, my conceptual framework consists of a combination of concepts (in this case, labelled collectively as connected learning) which create one way of exploring the social construction of learning through networks. This conceptual framework draws on my theoretical framework, is shaped by my interpretivist paradigm and provides direction for my choices in the research design (which is a qualitative, collective case study). It is larger than connected learning, but uses the concepts of connected learning to formulate its shape.The shape directs how I will investigate the phenomenon of teachers’ experience of professional learning through personal learning networks.

Click to view enlarged version.

The chapter in my thesis on my conceptual framework begins with an examination and critical analysis of the concepts collectively known as connected learning, then moves to an investigation of the underpinning theoretical framework (which I will elaborate on below, but is informed by the theory of social constructivism, and notions of networked learning and connectivism). I then explore how principles of connected learning have been integrated into a pedagogical framework known as the Connected Learning Framework, developed by Ito et al. The chapter is closed with an exploration of how the conceptual framework of connected learning, underpinned by the theoretical framework, and extended by the Connected Learning Framework, may be applied to the personal learning network, which is the particular type of learning network which the research participants will be sharing their experience of. Therefore, the conceptual framework chapter ‘anchors’ the thesis. Situated between the literature review and the research design chapters, it links what is already known to the theories that are being used within the field, explicates the phenomenon under investigation and underpins why the research strategies, elaborated upon in the research design chapter, have been chosen.

Theory: As with many of these terms, there are multiple ways to use and understand the word theory. Some use it to describe the background literature in a particular topic. Some use it to describe something in the abstract – ‘in theory, it may appear to work, but in practice…’. From an academic approach, to my understanding, a theory is a way of explaining a phenomenon. This explanation may use several concepts, and may draw relationships between these concepts, but it is not as complex as a conceptual framework.   I quite like Silverman’s definition, which describes a theory quite simply as “a set of concepts used to define and/or explain a phenomenon” (2013, p.112).

The difficulty in using this definition, however, is, as written above, I don’t actually agree with Silverman’s definition of a concept, and therefore I wonder if using his definition of theory, which embeds concepts, is somehow ‘wrong’. In light of this, I quite like the way that Punch describes theory: “the attempt to explain whatever is being studied, with the explanation being couched in more abstract terms than the terms used to describe it” (2014, p.16). I like the emphasis on explanation, as well as the reference to the use of abstract terms, which links to the everyday use of theory quite nicely.

Theoretical Framework: As I mentioned with the conceptual framework, some writers view these as one and the same. However I have chosen to differentiate them, for my own understanding, and also because different interpretations do exist. It makes sense to me that a conceptual framework is a framework that explains the relationships within and between concepts, whereas a theoretical framework is a framework that explains the relationship within and between theories. In this understanding, I have differentiated between concepts (which may combine to form theories, but are not theories in and of themselves) and theories (which may consist of concepts, but which exist to explain concepts and relationships between concepts).

A theoretical framework may consist of one or more theories. In my research, it consists of three theories: social constructivism as the foundation, with concepts drawn from networked learning and connectivism providing deeper explanations. As the conceptual framework provides the direction for the exploration of how teachers experience professional learning through their personal learning networks, the theoretical framework provides one explanation for how individuals learn through online networks. This explanation provides insight which I can draw upon when conducting my research, and it feeds into, or informs, the conceptual framework.

What do you think?

If you are still with me by this stage of the blog post, congratulations, and more importantly, thank you! I would love to hear from fellow researchers and students: have I presented a fair representation of these terms? Do you agree? Disagree? How do you interpret these important terms? I realise that this post presents a surface level treatment. However I think constant reflection these words, which are essentially moving feasts, is a fantastic exercise.

4 thoughts on “Creating Connections – understanding research terminology”

  1. Thank you Kay for an interesting post! It’s a great way to mold your chapter on methodology. I can tell you that in educational sciences we face the same problems with using words without always clearly defining them. Learning, teaching, education, paradigm etc. Big words. I agree with your definitions and that’s how I understood paradigm in my phd. From what I could tell your own theory of science is sound, and in the end you need to decide in what way you want to use the different concepts. When I started writing my phd I thought there was more strict guidelines if you will, but now I see that it is an evolving process that has to be defined and redefined by authors writing in different times, places and paradigms.

    1. Thank you so much Lotta, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and expertise. And so glad that you think that I am on the right track! ?

  2. Thank you. I spent days agonising over which term to use (model or framework) for the paper on connectivism. I’m still not sure if I got it right and will re-read your blog and see if we agree!

    On a side note – APA formatting rules are driving me mad! Punctuation on lists, block quotes…ahhh!

    1. I’d love to chat with you about how we interpret these terms, it would be interesting to see how we align! I’m glad that I am not the only one who finds the lack of clarity challenging! And as for APA….don’t get me started!! ??

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