PhD Day at InSIS

By Helene Ratner

Sometimes, writing a PhD is similar to being the detective in a mystery novel: the contribution we thought we would make in the preliminary literature review end up being a different one. The confusions and aspirations of fieldwork open up an infinity of contextualization possibilities. There are cues and traces to pick up, voices to listen to and others that there is not time or opportunity to follow whose absence is nevertheless present. Sometimes one is not entirely sure what one is looking for but tries to be open for “it”, whatever “it” may be. Then the meticulous going through written notes and transcribed interviews and making difficult decisions about which parts to include and what stories to tell, which inevitably involves odd compromises and painful “kill your darlings” procedures (a darling cemetery may be an idea).

Instead of always being the lone rider with a private mystery to sort out, the STS-DPhils decided to have a PhD day at InSIS to pretend that we all knew the ending to our unfolding projects. And to share our thoughts and challenges with one other.

The PhD Day contestants: Chris, Chandrika, Lucy, Steve, Helene and (behind the camera) Malte

The exercise was the following: We (five DPhil students) were each to produce a four page “as-if abstract” of what we imagined our final thesis to be: the research question, contextualization, methodological questions addressed, empirical chapters’ conclusions and contributions. The intention was to produce a document sufficiently long for an abstract’s usual generalities to become specific in order to imagine and discuss the consequences of the choices we make. What stories can we tell? What contributions can we make? And which don’t fit? What to do with these?

In addition to the abstract, we each wrote a one-page review with feedback, comments, ideas, questions for each abstract. We met on Saturday the 12th with one hour for each project where the author was in charge of the debates which ranged from clarifying some of the comments over letting people associate freely on each other’s comments to bringing up new challenges that were not mentioned in the abstract or the comments. Steve Woolgar participated in the day as a senior researcher (and the majority’s supervisor), offering his thoughts, ideas and experience to the many mysteries to be solved (or deliberately left unsolved).

Our projects differ empirically, ranging from disaster management in India to patent law in the UK. Also, we are at very different stages, from in the midst of fieldwork to the finishing the concluding chapter. Despite these differences, we found that there were several common challenges and themes we could articulate through debating the specific problems. Some of us, actually, quite enjoyed deferring our own stuck-places to others’ projects in order to see how they would tackle them.

Here are some of the common themes raised:

  • Justification. We found that a common trajectory would be first to state how widespread a specific phenomenon was (which justified the need to study it now) and then to identify “gaps” in the literature addressing this phenomenon (which justified the need to study it through, say, ethnography). In these debates we discussed whether identifying gaps was a way of making straw-men and a “dirty and cheap trick”, which led to the question of what exactly would count as an ”expensive and clean trick”. And how we could make the standard (though well-worn) ways of justifying our studies work for us. We also noted the tension between how we on the one hand often wanted to deflate common understandings of our research objects – while at the same time, we would find that we were the ones taking them the most serious, devoting 3-5 years of studying, writing, reading about them.
  • Ethnographic angst. We also discussed the challenges we experienced when “collecting data”. What to do about the events where we couldn’t be present? Did our “informants’” (biased?) accounts of these meetings have the same status as our own (unbiased?) direct observations? And what kind of hierarchy did we invoke with such a notion of observations being more credible than interviews? We discussed ways in which we could transpose our own challenges to the informants. If we experience certain challenges, chances are that they deal with similar issues. How do they resolve them?
  • A totalizing modest sociology? All being within STS or anthropology, we quickly noticed how certain analytically laden “words” would frame our projects. These included “contingent”, “messy”, “practice”, “mundane”, “complex”, “multiple”, “situated”, etc. While these terms often are used as provocations to “singular”, “transcendent” and “clean” understandings of a phenomenon, they are not innocent. So one question regards how totalizing these terms are? To what extend do we assume to find mess, contingency, complexity, multiplicity etc.? And are we open for other enactments of our research object? And how to we make these terms work for us so it’s not just a matter of identifying “mess” but take that one step further? And in a second sense, how do these terms work for us in terms of enacting boundaries in relation to defining a relevant audience?
  • Coherence. This was the most common problem. We all had stories, partly written analyses that we wanted to tell. But how to relate them to a common “object”? Which role should they play in relation to one another? Should we compare cases? Or could we use our “cases” differently than in terms of comparison? Which order should our chapters come in? How to build in a momentum? How to deal with wanting to say everything at once but not being able to? How to work elegantly with deferral in our writing?
  • Consuming. The day involved not only consumptions of ideas and words but also teacakes, chocolates, and fruits. The conversations enacted by these presences led to one participant’s happy discovery of the possibility of buying poptarts in Tesco. So in that respect the solving of PhD mysteries had a happy end.

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