Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Theory Chapter Reloaded

I know this is becoming a bit of a regular rant… but I was thinking again this afternoon about how common it is for methods courses and textbooks to start with some kind of introductory “theory chapter”, which generally informs students that, before they begin any kind of research design process, they must:

(1) know their epistemological and ontological stance; and

(2) be able to position themselves in relation to a wide range of theoretical debates.

This is so common that I’m beginning to get a bit worried about how counter-intuitive I find it to be. I mean, I love discussions of epistemology and ontology – probably a bit too much ;-P – and I’m quite happy to position myself away in theoretical debates of all sorts. But I think it’s fairly safe to say that I would never start a research design course or text with these issues. I think it’s also safe to say that these are not issues that arose – in this form, at least – early in my own engagement with either research or philosophy. Am I that much of an outlier?

Amusingly enough, my main objection to this approach is itself ontological: there’s something about formulating the issue in this way – as though the researcher is some kind of disembodied consciousness, floating around in The Matrix, saying, “I need Theory – lots of Theory!” – and then out roll the shelves of high-powered concepts from the aether, from which the disembodied consciousness then selects whatever approach makes it feel most secure. What about the relationship of the theory to the object of analysis? What about the relationship of all of this to some underlying question? How do students make sense of and understand their theoretical choices, when this is how theory is presented to them?

Then there’s the pedagogical issue: maybe I overcompensate, but I tend to assume that most students – most peers, for that matter – won’t be as interested in abstract theoretical discussions as I am… Unless forced to start with these issues because the students are confronting them in assigned texts, I tend to sidle my way up to terms like “epistemology” and “ontology”, because I think it takes a bit of intellectual grounding for students to be able to understand why someone would care about what appear, on their face, to be rather abstract concerns. My experience has been that students find the concepts terrifyingly fuzzy – and that their fear isn’t assuaged by the tendency of “theory chapters” in methodology texts to rush past a definition of these concepts, and into long lists of competing ontological and epistemological stances one could conceivably adopt – all lined up in a row, in neat boxes – sometimes with light bulbs flashing beside them – as though people make a common practice of dealing with significant ontological and epistemological questions by trundling their conceptual carts down the theoretical aisles in some vast grocery store of human knowledge…

I know I’ve said this before – recently enough that I shouldn’t still be ranting about this topic – but my impulse is to start with something much more grounded – much more solidly within students’ experiential frame: with what students are curious about, where their passions lie. From here, they can begin to ask questions – and those questions will then, eventually, give them the basis for finding ontological and epistemological questions meaningful – and for translating their interests into something that might fall within the boundaries of academic research.

I realise that textbooks don’t have the flexibility I have in the classroom, to build a discussion around students’ questions and dreams… But still… Wouldn’t it be possible, at least in principle, for a text to talk about curiosity as the origin point for a research process? To sketch some examples (which surely wouldn’t be any more misleading that the text box versions of theoretical positions these texts already supply) of how particular researchers found their way to problems, which then teased and thwarted them into methodological strategies – and then to unpack the concepts of epistemology and ontology from there?

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25 responses to “The Theory Chapter Reloaded

  1. Edward Yates February 28, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Totally agree with the placement of the theory chapters in relation to research textbooks. You hit second or third year students with epistemology and ontology too early and you tend to lose them.

    It also runs against an inductive research process, which starts with a question (or point of curiousity) and then tries different ways to answer the question, then gradually works out what kind of theory (or theories) are generated and related to your process of discovery. Then you would go back to the research site and test some of those theories, feed them back in and see what happens. Then you would most likely re-examine your question in light of what direction your research has gone. And hopefully become enlightened a little bit.

    I think perhaps introductory research texts would be better off sliding epistemology and ontology into the background and leading with constructing questions for research, then methods, then methodologies, then theory. After all research is also about working out what kind of researcher and theorist you are. I’d love to see a chapter for an introductory research text titled ‘What kind of researcher are you?’

    I think that the picture many research texts give is that research is essentially a linear process, which sides with a positivist outlook. My research, indeed, most research I daresay would not be a linear process. While I think there are elements that expose students to the idea that research is a non-linear process in undergraduate, honours or masters programs, I have come to the conclusion that most students will not ‘get’ that social research is actually is a non-linear process until they actually set about doing it an extended piece of research as a PhD student. Most students think of it as the following:

    1. Create question. (Or worse ‘create hypothesis’.) 2. Pick theoretical framework. 3. Pick method. 4. Operationalize question through method and gather data. 5. Analyze data via theoretical framework. 6. Conclusions and discussion.

    In this schema there is not much room for inductive (theory building) research. But it seems as far as many undergraduate students conceptually get in terms of the question ‘What is social research?’

  2. N Pepperell February 28, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Yeah, in the first Research Strategies class last night, the issue of “wicked problems” came up more or less organically, around discussions of “what is a thesis”, “what is a methodology” sorts of things. I’ve been picking a lot on theory chapters, but I have similar gripes with the “to do list” approach to thinking about method.

    By next week, I’m meant to tell people how a research question differs from other sorts of questions… ;-P I generally play the concept of a research questions off against concepts like “topics” or “life projects”, not so much against other kinds of questions. I’m finding it strangely puzzling (in a productive way) to think about how I might go about this…

    I’m also puzzling through how to get students to understand the plausibility or the appeal of the more traditional concept of research – many students are taught critiques (or, at least, a critical verdict) without having gotten a sense of the problems more traditional approaches were trying to solve. When this hasn’t been understood, those same problems can crop back up in less traditional research designs – when what you want, ideally, is to transcend the problems and also gain the ability to address new problems – not just recreate the old problems because your attention has shifted exclusively to trying to solve a new set…

    In terms of getting students with shorter projects to think about research as a non-linear process, I tend to try to get them focussing first on their passion, on their curiosity – questions and methods become tools that let us connect with these things in a particular way, for a particular set of interlocutors…

    My first supervisor wanted me to pose my research question as a hypothesis. Note the modifier… ;-P

  3. Edward Yates February 28, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    I’m interested in how you might play research questions off concepts like ‘topics’ and ‘life projects’ or even things like ‘passions’. Could you elaborate on that a little? (When you have time.)

    Methods are tools, I agree, but they also become, and I’m tentative in saying this, extensions of the researcher. Hence in my view the researcher themselves becomes a pathway to discovering something new. Not probably saying anything new, but it has been my experience that most students (not all) see this thing called ‘research’ as being external to themselves. I also strongly believe that a person must select the way of doing research that they can live with and to this mean, the method and process of research must be compatible with one’s self or being. I can’t imagine for instance feeling comfortable about knowing the world through numbers or turning my participants into numbers. It just doesn’t sit with me. Having said that I still see that type of quantitative research, if it is done without a total positivist bent, being useful.

  4. N Pepperell February 28, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    I may be interested in how I might do this, as well… ;-P In the sense that I’ve been kind of ad hoc-ing this concept for the past year, and am a bit worried that my approach may be trying to compensate for a problem most of my students might not have…

    You’re right that I don’t have huge time, but I’d like to discuss this – it may come out in dribs and drabs over several comments/posts. I may try to take this up a bit in a day or so, when my own voice isn’t ringing in my ears too much from teaching – just wanted to flag that I would like to take the issue up. In the interim, if you wanted to toss out some more of your ideas, I’d be really interested to hear.

  5. Edward Yates February 28, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    No dramas. I thought your would be busy, but hopefully not to the point where your brains are oozing out your ears into pink puddles of goopy goodness… ;)

    If I understand what I think your getting at in terms of approaching a research question in contrast to other things like ‘topic’ for research, or ‘life project’ that may sit alongside a research question, or ‘passions’ which are important, but in themselves do not a research question make. Then I think the approach has great merit and that you should have confidence in this.

    [Bourdieu’s notion of ‘field’ is ringing vague bells in the back of my mind, despite it being 5 years since I looked at anything to do with his work. But I can’t put my finger on it.]

    I hope you are doing as well as I think you should be doing in terms of teaching work. By the way, I really enjoyed my first tutorials back today, depsite me feeling tired.

  6. John McCreery March 1, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Allow me to recommend a classic, Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It. It addresses many of the issues you are describing in an enormously readable and productive way.

  7. N Pepperell March 1, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    John – Yes, that’s a fantastic book, isn’t it? We have it on the reading list for the course, and I often recommend it to students. You’re right that I should have another look – sometimes one can get into these re-inventing the wheel cycles, thinking about how to organise lectures and class discussions…

    Ed – Definitely losing grey matter (or, in your visualisation, I suppose it would be pink matter…) – we’ll just have to hope that what’s dribbling out relates to things like Franciscan monasticism and medieval theology rather than, say, what I’m meant to be teaching next week… ;-P

    Unfortunately at the moment I wouldn’t personally use the word “well” in conjunction with very much… ;-P I think I’ve finally been given the opportunity to rise to the level of my own incompetence… ;-P We’ve moved beyond “interesting challenge” and into “utter dismay”… Fortunately (for me, at least) some extraordinarily competent people seem to have decided to help me out this term, so hopefully when their energy and insight is averaged with my torpor and stupor, what will drop out the other side are courses of a tolerable adequacy… ;-P

    On your more substantive question: my basic line is that a research question is a quite artificial beast – it doesn’t have to fall into a positivist mode, but it has in some way to meet certain formal constraints that enable it to be answered – and answered in a way that the answer can be meaningfully evaluated by one’s academic peers. And, of course, there are all the pragmatic constraints: time, money, institutional support, our own skills and interests, etc.

    My sense has been that most students don’t come to research wanting to ask – or answer – a research question. Some come because they want a research degree as a professional credential – they’ll have the easiest time translating their interests into a proper research question, as they are already approaching the research process instrumentally to some degree. Others, though, come because they have some passion that leads them into research – an intellectual interest, political commitment, general curiosity about the world – whatever it is. For those students, the process of developing a research question in the narrow sense is, among other things, a process of learning to instrumentalise their relationship to their work. This can be quite difficult – particularly for longer projects, where you need to be able to discover and rediscover your passion for your project over and over, and too instrumentalised an approach can cause problems…

    So I tend to try to get students to conceptualise any particular research question as a small contribution toward something more overarching. This lets them keep their “bigger picture” passions in view and thus keep the meaningfulness of their research more clearly in view – without, however, feeling like they have to do full justice to those passions in any one piece of research. The idea is to provide the best chance of balancing the “so what?” kinds of fears that crop up in the research process, against the reluctance to let the project move forward – research involves “satisficing”, and wanting to achieve too much in one piece can, in the long run, actually undermine whatever the overarching project might be…

    So that’s sort of what I had in mind when gesturing at “passion” or “life project”. “Topic” is on a different, more mechnical level: most honours students in particular (although this isn’t that rare at higher levels, either) come into the research process with a broad area of interest, sort of thinking in terms of a survey or term paper, rather than in terms of research. Thinking of research in terms of topics both suggests that the researcher hasn’t positioned themselves in an active relationship to their research – and, pragmatically, is difficult to translate into an original question that is subject to active investigation. The “logic” – the “art” – of research design – the specific challenges the research design process is intended to solve – don’t really come into view, as long as students are thinking in terms of topics. So there’s a transition to be made, to constitute yourself as an active contributor to the research process…

    On methods as “tools” – I can understand your reaction to the metaphor, and I would share your hesitation about the positivistic valence of the term. I was actually thinking in a different context, and therefore wasn’t sufficiently attentive to that interpretation of my metaphor when I was writing. I tend to try to encourage students to start with their questions (which, as discussed above, can be quite hard by itself) and then search around for how they might answer that question. Maybe “strategy” would be a better word than “tool” – although I agree that I’m still implying a fairly external relationship between the researcher and their method.

    My guess is that the degree of externalisation depends to some degree on the question and the method: intensive qualitative research involves, in the most literal possible sense, the researcher’s use of themselves as their research medium. Statistical research involves this much less. I don’t have an a priori hostility to more externalisable methods – I think problems arise mainly when the method doesn’t make sense in terms of the question. For your questions, statistical methods would be abhorrent – but they might, for example, be the only way to track certain aggregate trends and, in that context, wouldn’t involve reducing individuals to numbers, for example – but would involve, e.g., capturing the collective consequences of social practice: so the phenomenon being captured could conceivably be intrinsically statistical, for example, rather than a reduction to the statistical or numerical of some other kind of object…

    But I suspect I’m not awake enough to make sense on this… ;-P

  8. Edward Yates March 1, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    That was a very substantive answer that you seem to have been able to make sense about! ;)

    I don’t think that I have an opposition to externalizing research tools (or strategies) per se, nor opposition to quantitative research either for that matter. I hope that was not read into my previous post. But I do oppose positivist thought and the tendency to give greater value to (or perhaps greater significance to) quantitative research.

    The notion of externalization also seems to in moments come close to the notion of objectivity within social research, that due to the method being external it is subsequetly more objective and scientific, which ends up buying into the whole positivist paradigm again…

    Your point that in practice a social researcher would pick the most appropriate type of research to answer their question is spot on. If the most appropriate form of research happens to be statistical regression then they should use that, as it fits. But that in a nutshell is the problem with dividing qualitative and quantitative methods, or making someone who is only interested in statistics do a qualitative component or someone who is only interested in doing oral history do a quantitative component.

    At the end of it all I would just hope that a student might adopt a non-positivist view of such research, at least a slightly critical perspctive, and appreciate the limitations on doing such research, just as much as the limitations that come to light when doing qualitative research, like life histories or ethnography for example, would be realised by other social researchers.

  9. N Pepperell March 1, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    Yeah, no one here really wants to perpetuate the quant/qual divide – and yet… here we are… (Here I am, for that matter… teaching a quant course… although admittedly not a terribly proper quant course…) But in principle, at least locally, everyone wants to redesign the methods courses to focus on problems and techniques – and on the art of relating the two.

    Various structural issues, though, seem to get in the way – aside from just the garden-variety problem of someone needing to find the time and the thought-space to do the work, there are conflicting priorities from the various programs served by the methods courses, and then there’s the need to develop the materials for the course(s), when many off-the-shelf materials rely on the quant-qual divide (with perhaps the obligatory chapter bemoaning its existence).

    As for the substantiveness of my answers: there might be a difference between “bulk” and “incisiveness”… ;-) You know the Voltaire comment apologising for having written such a long letter, as he didn’t have time to write a shorter one? Something similar motivates my online writing… ;-P

  10. orange. March 1, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Beautiful. I didn t know that one.

    “You know the Voltaire comment apologising for having written such a long letter, as he didn’t have time to write a shorter one?”

    My short-time comment on quantitative research is: it is a construction. What often is practised (read: presented) as quantitative research, when closer examined, turns out to being a qualitative one–but without contextualization of findings.
    As this is the very short version of these thoughts, I’m generalizing and mixing up academic theory, research practice and popular politics in Gestalt of reputation, which again is represented in money flowing or not.
    The qual./quant. research thing at least is as complexe as the theory/practice thing.

  11. N Pepperell March 1, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    I’ve actually heard the comment variously attributed to different authors – so I wouldn’t rely on either my specific wording or on the author :-) But I’ve always liked the concept, regardless of the source – and I didn’t want to suggest I’d made it up myself…

    Enormous numbers of decisions – which, you’re right, are generally qualitative in nature – underlie quantitative research in the social sciences. By the same token, though, some things remain largely invisible unless you capture them in aggregate – and some patterns of practice sit in tension with social actors’ own perceptions of the meaning of what they do – so, yes: it becomes quite complex to think about, and this compexity isn’t captured very well, by and large, in intro methods texts (perhaps I’m asking too much of intro texts…).

  12. orange. March 4, 2007 at 8:33 am

    “..and this compexity isn’t captured very well, by and large, in intro methods texts”

    I may be wrong and badly overgeneralizing again, but to me one problem with theory intro texts is that the academy puts the cart before the horse by making students read theory before they call any practical experiences their own.

  13. orange. March 4, 2007 at 8:55 am

    “By the same token, though, some things remain largely invisible unless you capture them in aggregate – and some patterns of practice sit in tension with social actors’ own perceptions of the meaning of what they do..”

    oh. Don’t get me wrong. I am an advocat of triangulation. :-)
    At least my last proposal (for an evaluation of an educational project for teenagers that takes place in a local museum) was based on triangulated data collection: participant observation and standardized questionary.
    I was given the job.

  14. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Yes, this is really my main objection:

    one problem with theory intro texts is that the academy puts the cart before the horse by making students read theory before they call any practical experiences their own.

    Some of my problem is that, already by organising teaching this way, you’ve actually endorsed a very specific epistemological and ontological position – one that says that “theory” is something you learn and then apply to things in the world – in the guise of teaching something else entirely (something that I *also* find problematic) – that students can pick and choose their ontological and epistemological positions at will, as if these things are essentially random.

    That said, I don’t mind students being given a proper and thorough introduction to things like the intellectual history of their field, the dominant theoretical traditions in use, etc., before they do fieldwork – in fact, I’m dismayed that, by and large, this doesn’t happen in Australia. The difference is that, in a long sequence of coursework on such issues, you’ve actually got the time to give the students some proxy background, at least, that helps them understand what motivates particular theoretical traditions. A methodology course – because its main focus is on the nuts and bolts of how to carry out specific kinds of research – can’t do this – and, in my opinion, needs to stick to what it then can do effectively, and bring any theory up in a more contextual way, and later in the piece…

    Of course, outside Australia methods instructors might be able to rely on students having done more intensive theoretical training before hitting the course – I can’t rely on that here, which is why I’m so annoyed. So some of my reaction may be specific to the local university setting…

  15. Edward Yates March 4, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Triangulation can sometimes ensure a degree of rigor that one approach alone will not guarantee. But your data generated from one method must actually be able to be related to the data that you can get elsewhere or by strategically deploying another research method. If the data that you are getting is just totally promethean then it is kind of tricky, just because there will not be other stuff or a way to easily triangulate it (or knowing how you might do so) with other data gathering methods.

    So I guess I would advocate a means of feeding back aggregate data (whatever the method) to your participants or the people that you are interested in knowing more about; either embedded into the research method or as a way of checking what you think people are meaning. (This sounds exactly like what orange is doing already.)

    In terms of introductory texts it is a tricky question about pitching it at the right level so that undergraduates can understand a research method. Or perhaps more how what they are doing fits in relation to a particular research method. I guess thats the thing, you would teach research methods, just so that students do not have to reinvent the wheel every time they might want to do research.

  16. Edward Yates March 4, 2007 at 10:52 am

    The question of theory is a wierd one. A number of people about the place are outright hostile to the notion of theorizing…(it is a strange place where you have people who are tenured without PhDs or even masters and people with stronger academic backgrounds subordinate to them…)

    How much theory is needed in the undergraduate programs? It is a big question. And at the moment I feel what students are given theory-wise is too broad to be particularly useful (this is a peculiar problem localized to our institution), but on the plus side is a broad base to build upon. I really wish our school would run an elective theory course in first semester of second year that focuses on a smaller number of social theorists, before they get to qualitative methods and definitely before they do an honours thesis.

    At the moment I’m not sure that most students, by the time they graduate, even get that there are dominant theoretical traditions in use in their field.

  17. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 11:21 am

    To be honest, I was actually thinking about postgraduate programs. Although it wouldn’t hurt to do more at the undergraduate level either. I know my position on the need for postgraduate coursework for research students is unpopular… ;-P But I actually do think it’s important – I think some theoretical (and, for that matter, methodological) material is extremely difficult to learn, just reading by yourself in a room with some occasional interaction with a supervisor or two… Not saying that we don’t have plenty of talented folks around the joint who have managed to do exactly this – but we also have people who, due to lack of formal training in these areas, are essentially forced to truncate their projects to something they can do without formal training…

    The challenge then becomes, though, how to introduce postgraduate coursework for research students without falling into the hyper-disciplinary focus that accompanies it, say, in the US. I like the porousness of disciplinary boundaries in the Australian system – so my question is whether you could structure more systematic theoretical and methodological training, without this inevitably channeling students into a narrow disciplinary focus…

    I’ll go hide now while you criticise my endorsement of research coursework… ;-P

  18. orange. March 4, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    “..specific epistemological and ontological position – one that says that “theory” is something you learn and then apply to things in the world – in the guise of teaching something else entirely (something that I *also* find problematic) – that students can pick and choose their ontological and epistemological positions at will, as if these things are essentially random.”

    Not sure whether I can follow you here. Perhaps this is because I’ve already entered my academic life advocating the position that theory follows practice and nothing I encountered in between really prooved me wrong, which says nothing though.

  19. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    I was just summarising the positions on theory that are often written or implied in methods textbooks, rather than summarising my own position specifically. I think theory needs to be developed in a relationship with practice – but the way that I understand “practice” is probably a little different from most people – I don’t specifically mean fieldwork or research practice, for example, and I also don’t privilege practice above theory – I think theoretical perspectives are both unavoidable and essential.

    When I teach, though, I’m happy to cover a wide range of understandings of theory and how it might relate to practice. My concern is that methods texts seem to suggest certain understandings very strongly, maybe without intending to.

    [Note that I edited your post above slightly, to see whether an unclosed tag or quotation mark might have been causing some of the issues I’m seeing on the site – it didn’t change any context, but I just wanted to explain the edit…]

  20. Edward Yates March 4, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    I am not sure that coursework during PhD candidature in Australian universities would be popular or not.

    But you do know that I think coursework at this stage is not that useful. I hope you also remember that I said if I was forced to do more coursework, which I see as just a distraction, I would not have started a PhD in the first place. As it stands the research methods course run at BLEEP university taught me nothing new and was unfortunately a waste of time. Mixing honors, masters and PhD students together in that research strategies course was not a good idea either. The honors students might get some benefit, but PhD students do not. I think that it is fine to do coursework in a masters or honors. But during PhD, I think no absolutely not.

    But I think that doing coursework for me would just be an additional stress and not allow me to focus on my thesis. I’m not saying that coursework would not be useful for some post-grads, but I’d had enough of essays for courses.

    Plus I do not see how a post-grad course could be made relevant for every PhD student. Unless it is relevant for them writing and researching for their PhD it would be a waste of time.

    The only way that I see would be useful for PhD students would be to run highly specialized elective courses on ONE particular method, say ethnography or life history in my case, and that is all you would do in that course for a semester. Or ONE particular theorist or theoretical perspective, say phenomenology or Marxism or post-structuralism for a semester.

    I do not see the use in me learning quantitative statistical regression analysis if I intend to do life histories, for example.

    The other thing also depends on what your supervision is like. If many PhD students actually got effective supervision then perhaps any supposed need for coursework would then be much less.

  21. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Yes, I know you disagree. I suspect, as well, that you might be significantly underestimating the amount of coursework involved in a US postgraduate degree – it’s not just one course, but a series, and the cumulative effect on someone’s knowledge of the intellectual terrain can be quite profound – although, by the same token, a sufficient range of courses are generally offered that not all students take exactly the same things – people tweak their coursework around their specific interests. At the same time, an argument can be made that, regardless of the kind of research an individual specialises in, we all have to read and evaluate a wide range of research as a matter of routine, so there is a value in having had some serious training against type…

    But, of course, the process does significantly increase the time commitment required for completing a PhD. And, as well, this kind of training (in the US, at least) does tend to be organised strictly in terms of disciplinary socialisation, which tends to channel research in specific ways – I personally think this kind of socialisation exacts a high cost, which is why I’m interested in how one could think through how to provide a thorough intellectual grounding – theoretically and methodologically – without dictating this kind of disciplinary narrowing…

  22. Edward Yates March 4, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I was not commenting on the amount of coursework in a US postgraduate program at all. My suggestion was to make 2 semesters of coursework feasible for an Australian PhD student, without drowning them in it. No doubt a great deal of such structured learning would have a number of profound effects on an individual.

    AND you can and do already do coursework in a masters program or honors program and then do a PhD by research thesis mode in Australia. Which returns me to my point; I do not see any real advantage of stressing out PhD by research students by dumping bucket-loads of coursework on top of their research projects. I just cannot for the life of me see any real advantage of putting more work on a PhD student’s back. And I am not convinced that whatever could be taught from within our university could be as great a value to me as what I have learnt from going outside of our university and working with Cambodian people. I thought that was part of the point of doing social research? Going outside and learning from people outside of university…

    The time commitment would be the other factor, if you had even a year of coursework then I would say that your PhD candidature would have to be extended much further. As it stands I am going to be barely scraping through on the 4 1/2 year mark. If any life catastrophe happens to you during your candidature, then speaking from personal experience, it is very likely that you will end up taking more time to complete. You stack coursework on top of this and stress someone out more and you would see an even further reduced completion rate in my view. And the PhD completion rate as you may already know is abysmally low.

    Look I don’t know about disciplinary narrowing in Australia either. Its very different I suspect to the US. I have ended up working across disciplines of psychology, social work, sociology, anthropology and history here. But I have none of the specialized strengths of one of those disciplines, ending up a sort of jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. I would say having a specific theory unit on Marxism or a specific method unit on life history would not necessarily narrow into a discipline focus in itself.

  23. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Yes, but I was :-) My point is, when I advocate for postgraduate coursework here, it is the US model that I have in mind – and, in that model, you’re not in the position of having to choose a single course for all PhD students, but rather a series of courses, from which PhD students generally have some choice, but which are designed to provide a fairly in-depth intellectual background before someone gets to the point of proposing their thesis.

    It varies from program to program, of course – some US PhD programs would be more structured than others… But you generally complete an MA, including both coursework and a research thesis, en route to the PhD, and then there are often other requirements after the completion of the MA, and prior to the thesis proposal (whether some kind of additional qualifying paper, exams, some additional coursework – the exact mix depends on the field and the school).

    I think some of the US requirements are somewhat overkill (they were particularly annoying for me, as I haggled to do PhD seminars instead of my regular coursework as an undergrad, such that having to do even more as a postgrad was tiresome). I think it’s probably viable to streamline coursework and examinations, as (at least in my program) some of these requirements were essentially taking two bites at assessing the same skills… But overall, the approach does give you an extremely strong intellectual grounding, which isn’t currently replicated in the system here – particularly given that it’s possible here to leap straight from an honours thesis into a PhD without an intervening MA degree…

    This doesn’t mean that students hide away in the academy and do no fieldwork, archival work, etc. Anthro students at my university, for example, would generally do a substantial period of pilot fieldwork in their area, before proposing their PhD project. And there was substantially greater opportunity for practice (and vetting) of students in field related skills before they committed to a particular thesis project.

    I’m not clear whether the comparative stress level was higher or lower – among other things, a more structured program provides support of various sorts, and tends to create an intellectual cohort of sorts – so avoiding the sorts of atomised stress that is common here; but there are also more assessment milestones, which generate their own stress…

    But the disciplinary issue is a pivotal one – I emphatically like the interdisciplinary character of the work being undertaken here – I think it leads to interesting projects, a more diverse student and faculty body. I’m just curious whether it might be possible to provide a level of deeper intellectual grounding, as what we have now relies heavily on individuals’ ability, with very little structure or support, to provide themselves with adequate intellectual grounding – and, in our case, in an extremely wide range of fields… It’s great when it comes off – but my guess is that the difficulty of actually pulling it off has something to do with stress and high dropout rates, as people get to a certain point, don’t know where to go next, and lack institutional support to get themselves out of the situation…

  24. Edward Yates March 4, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    From what you are saying a great number of things I would probably agree upon – IF we had the same funding levels and structured support throughout candidature. But the money is not there dude… Here once you are out of funding and have to go part time, or no use to lecturers in the school, then you are dropped like a hot potato.

    I don’t know about what constitutes adequate intellectual grounding. Not me… ;) At the moment first class honors, which is what I got in on, is the minimum. Now I’m not saying that should always be the case, but if I had to pay upfront for a masters or do a PhD without increasing my HECS debt or choose to recieve a scholarship for a masters or chose to recieve a scholarship for a PhD, the choice is not really much of a choice. The other thing that I wonder about is the HUGE difference between masters programs. Personally my honors at Monash Anthropology I feel was more rigorous than many masters by coursework presently are, which are less work than what I did.

    So if you were to implement coursework into the PhD in Australia I reckon there is a whole lot of other things that really need to change before that could be successful.

    One big thing is funding, government funding has dropped, and we don’t have philanthropy like in the US, there also is not the number of scholarships or other grants available…to quote a line out of Chopper ‘Here no cash – no cash here.’ I agree there is a big fat purple elephant to do with lack of institutional support, but people at BLEEP don’t want to deal with it, and there simply are not mechanisms to start to deal with it. The only support is the informal social networks between PhD students, which both of us seem to have developed regardless of other factors. Personally I’m glad I’ll get through before they implement a half-baked coursework throughout PhD candidature idea. And you know it will be half-baked…look me in the eye and tell me it won’t… :P

  25. N Pepperell March 4, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    I absolutely agree on the funding situation – although it’s really no better in the US (many people just run up huge debt…). There are scholarships of various sorts, but most are more corvee labour than scholarship per se (you have to teach or assist with research, in exchange for a relatively low actual income – and the US doesn’t have the income support system Australia has).

    And, yeah, it’ll probably be half-baked – I guess I have the feeling that we are trending toward introducing these coursework elements, like them or not, so it’s worthwhile to figure out what there is to like, and what not to like, about the US system, so that maybe we can end up with something… 3/4 baked… ;-P Maybe just a little gushy in the middle… ;-P

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