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By Susan Carter

I’m writing this as I prepare a two-hour workshop for a group of doctoral students who mostly work in Education. Our thinking work together will be premised upon an article that I have just read (Twining, Heller, Nussbaum, and Tsai, 2017). If you are able to access this, you’ll have a good resource for doctoral students, who often have difficulty with how they are expected to write about their study’s epistemology and ontology.

I’ve sent this article in advance to the students who’ll be coming to my class, since it devotes a few paragraph to the need for ‘internal alignment’ in research writing. If you cannot access the article, it would still be possible to run a workshop in which doctoral students talk about how their research design links to their epistemological position, and how the bits of their thesis tie logically together within that framework.

For the workshop I’m doing, I’ve forewarned the candidates to come ready to explain how they ensure that their research questions or hypotheses, their methods, theory and literature are in alignment. I’m expecting that talking this through in a friendly informal environment will be helpful to producing sentences that make alignment evident.

My hunch is that ordinary common sense will mean research designs do align with questions: you don’t investigate how students learn collaboratively by heading into a wet lab with some chemicals, but rather, you choose interviews, observation, focus groups or questionnaires and maybe a mix of those options. The tricky bit in my experience is not designing a well-aligned doctoral research project, but writing about how things within it align with each other.

Doctoral writers need to explicitly show alignment in the thesis rather than expecting that when they describe question and method, the reader will be comfortable that they are in alignment. Twining et al. (2017) helpfully suggest ways to do that explicit task of showing alignment. First, they have a very helpful table where they contrast different stances between qualitative and quantitative approaches in terms of epistemology and ontology. The table teases out what that means for design, methodology, methods, data and analysis. Copyright means I can’t reproduce this, so I can only say again, try to access the article.

Then, in establishing what counts as quality in qualitative research, Twining et al. (2017) spell out:

Thus the critical issue is to be clear about one’s underpinning theoretical stance, and ensure that there is explicit alignment and consistency between your theoretical stance and your approach, as well as within the approach and thus between the methodology, design, methods, instruments and analysis.

I envision a workshop where first candidates will summarise their theoretical stance, and describe how their methods align with it, doing so explicitly and persuasively. The next exercise will be explaining how instruments and analysis method aligns with that theoretical stance. We’ll use a workshop approach that is always helpful: talk first, field questions and take advice, and then write a short section that can be developed for the thesis.

It feels to me that often as researchers we work from common sense, empathy and intuition. In writing, though, we buffer up what we do with theory and literature. I’m hoping that asking people to talk informally about the logic of their design will produce sentences that act as signals for the literature or theory that might provide defence.

Now that is a tad provocative. My colleagues who come from a background of hard science assure me that the framework of theory and literature should be built first, and then the research design hung upon it. I’d really welcome comments to this post that might let us all learn about how different academics approach the issue of what Twining et al. (2017) call “showing internal alignment”.


Twining, Peter; Heller, Rachelle S.; Nussbaum, Miguel and Tsai, Chin-Chung (2017). Some Guidance on Conducting and Reporting Qualitative Studies. Computers & Education, 106 A1-A9.