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.

The (third) STS Talk-Walk: Silencing – what is it to silence?

by Malte Ziewitz

Our final STS Talk-Walk this year led us into the frosty greens of Port Meadow. The topic turned out to be strangely appropriate for a walk in the empty Oxfordshire countryside: silence.

Thames Path

Thames Path, only seconds before the talk-walkers arrive.

Silence figured in many different ways in our discussions. Silence as a concern for those who have no voice or lack the capacity to articulate themselves. Silence as a resource for understanding the relationship between ourselves and others. Silence as an obligation to not say everything that could be said. Silence as something that can be done as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Silence as something we can remain silent about.

Questions were raised about how to deal with ‘silent’ interview partners. How to make sense of and enact such silence in our transcripts and research reports? Some of us were wondering how management tools promote a certain view of the world and ‘silence’ others. If every account privileges some, but suppresses other realities, what is the point of thinking about silence at all? Others struggled with a ‘wall of silence’ they hit in their fieldwork and discussed how this could be made productive (as opposed to being filed under ‘access denied’ in the methods section). Again others got stuck on the example of Wikileaks, which triggered some lively discussion about ‘silence’, ‘absence’ and ‘secrecy’. And, finally, what do we do with things that cannot be told? When do we need to stay silent?

A number of papers were referenced during the talk-walk. Here are three of them:

  • Lynch, M. (1999), ‘Silence in Context: Ethnomethodology and Social Theory’, Human Studies, 22 (2/4), 211-33.
  • Star, S. L. and Bowker, G. C. (2007), ‘Enacting silence: Residual categories as a challenge for ethics, information systems, and communication’, Ethics and Information Technology, 9 (4), 273-80.
  • Rappert, B. (2011), ‘Revealing and concealing secrets in research: the potential of the absent’, Qualitative Research, 10, 571-87.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 21 January 2011. Click here to learn more.

The (second) STS Talk-Walk: Storying – what is it to tell a story?

by Malte Ziewitz

What is it to tell a story? And how does this relate to the different kinds of research we are doing? Once again, a group of brave scholars set out for a two-and-a-half-hour STS Talk-Walk in the English countryside to discuss these and other challenging questions. In addition to the InSIS contingent, a number of people from other departments and universities joined us this time. Andreas, Lauren and Fadhila had made it over from the Oxford Internet Institute, and Andy had come all the way from Durham.

Dramatis personae

Dramatis personæ: STS scholars in the countryside

As usual, the talk-walk triggered interesting thoughts. One example were the ways in which storying turned out to be a useful trope for thinking about all kinds of research accounts. Story-telling, it was argued, is not just relevant for ethnography and what are sometimes called ‘qualitative’ approaches, but also more formal methods like surveys, econometrics or social network analysis. Each of these cases requires a set of characters, a plot and a narrative point of view to be written up. Another focus were the different layers of storying. As ethnographers, for example, we tend to pick stories from our fieldnotes, weave them into a larger story for the argument and at the same time try to craft a story about ourselves as smart and capable authors. We further talked about techniques of storying, including sequencing, interruption and suspense. We got increasingly puzzled when wondering what actually distinguishes a good novel from a good ethnography. And we talked about our difficulties in imagining and coordinating different audiences. What does it mean to be ‘honest’ in storying? How to end a story and achieve some form of closure? And whose stories are they anyway?

Interestingly, the stories told after the talk-walk had less to do with the intricacies of story-telling than with the thick crust of mud on our shoes. We had just passed Wolvercote when we were confronted with an ‘obligatory passage point’: a big and muddy puddle opened up in front of us and blocked our way. As you can see, some of us mastered this challenge with unexpected elegance.

Passage point

Chris mastering an obligatory passage point

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 December 2010, 2-4.30pm. More info here.

The (first) STS Talk-Walk: what is it to compare?

by Malte Ziewitz

Sunny intervals, 13ºC and a light breeze: perfect conditions for the Oxford STS group to leave our usual comfort zone at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and discuss challenging questions in a slightly different context. Last Friday afternoon, a small group of us embarked on our inaugural STS Talk-Walk. As an experiment, we are trying out this new discussion format and will meet up once a month for a walk during which we explore a question that cuts across our work.

The idea traveled to Oxford from the University of Amsterdam, where Annemarie Mol and Anna M. Mann have hosted a Walking Seminar for a while. As they write, “talking-while-walking can enhance thinking in ways not attainable behind a desk or in a seminar sitting down.”

Our first STS Talk-Walk took us on a 10 km trail along the Thames, across Port Meadow and back along the Oxford canal. The theme was adopted from the Amsterdam group, who had successfully used it in the past: ‘Comparing — what is it to compare?’.

  • What do we compare with what as a part of our research? How should that help us in answering our questions, telling our stories, etc.? Does it?
  • What is fun/difficult/striking/surprising etc. in the work of ‘comparing’?
  • What difference might it make to use other terms, e.g. contrasting? Or what other terms would be relevant to/in our work?
  • What are some authors/texts in which comparison figures in an interesting way? In what ways can we learn from them?
  • What is it to compare and what do similarity and difference have to do with this?

Talking-while-walking did not just afford a steady intake of fresh air, but also a variety of ‘passing observations’. For example, a shed along the way crammed with rubbish to the rafters provoked comparisons with participants’ offices, which were claimed to be “much tidier” — an observation which led us deep into issues of scale, enactment and how the objects of comparison come about. A well-groomed swamp evoked associations with Marylin Strathern’s work and alternative approaches to ‘comparing’, such as relating, juxtaposing and translating. And an encounter with a herd of cattle ended up in lively discussions about the similarities and differences between our visiting PhD student Helene and a cow.

Helene and a cow on Port Meadow

What is it to compare a PhD student and a cow?

All in all, our first STS Talk-Walk turned out to be more challenging than expected. Staying focused on a topic for two hours, listening, appreciating, questioning, arguing and adapting to changing conversation partners was very different from the relaxing stroll that some of us expected — but also (comparatively speaking) more rewarding.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 19 November 2010, 2-5pm. Please e-mail malte.ziewitz at to sign up.