Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Free Floating Discourse

Off the wall question: I keep encountering a particular formulation in the work of quite good students who are trying to outline their methodology for research projects. It’s not unusual for someone to say something like: “My method is discourse analysis”.

Now, I react to this statement, sort of the way I would react to someone saying: “My method is statistics”. It gives me a rough ballpark sense of what sort of thing the student wants to do, but is nowhere near specific enough (to me) to indicate what the student actually plans to do (and the formulation itself also strikes me as awkward, as if it doesn’t quite express the habitus for how the term would be used in academic writing).

My question is: I see this so often, that students must somewhere be being taught that this is okay – that “discourse analysis” is a specific enough term that further clarification or specification of their method is not required. I’m curious whether I’m running into a strange displinary issue – whether this term actually does have a quite narrow and specific meaning, such that it would be intuitively clear to anyone who doesn’t scuttle around across disciplinary boundaries as often as I do? I always end up writing things like: “But what kind of discourse analysis? What do you plan to do?” – and the sheer repetition is starting to feel crotchety and pedantic, as if I’m asking students to explain the obvious. Am I?

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7 responses to “Free Floating Discourse

  1. Alexei March 3, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I encountered a similar problem when I was teaching a business ethics course, NP — and it drove me a little batty too.

    For one of the assignments, I had my students do ‘case-studies’ of various business practices, which we had looked at in class or were in the news, and analyze them according to one of the ethical theories we had gone over in class in order to determine whether the given practice could be defended on ethical grounds. Leaving aside the business students who had internalized the ‘greed is good’ speech from Wallstreet (I think) and who had also discovered Objectivism, about 95% of the students would write something to this effect: “using consequentialism/contractarianism/deontology, I will show that [e.g.] Enron’s accounting techniques are unethical.”

    Now, of course, ‘consequentialism’ and the rest, like discourse analysis, admit of many varieties. The problem was that I had not, apparently, made this clear. And my students had taken the bare-bones sketch (or caricature) I had offered as an umbrella concept — so as to differentiate the three theories — as the theory itself. Now I’m pretty sure that I had told them that the overview I was giving was not identical to “consequentialism,” but for some reason, which must have been due to my mode of presentation, this point hadn’t come across.

    Anyway, two things became apparent to me: one must be really careful to insist on the difference between a theoretical tendency, or general outlook, and the specific methods used by practitioners who fall within the general scope of that tendency. Otherwise students are prone to either ‘mix and match’ elements from different theories falling under a given tendency, without attending to whether these elements are consistent with one another. Or they seem to skim the surface of a given tendency, without engaging in any ‘real analysis’. (this latter problem may be specific to practical/applied philosophy, since analysis tends to be the equivalent of interpretation. And students — at least at the 1st year level — seem to think that quoting something or producing an empirical fact constitutes interpretation and argumentation.)

    Second, simplification of a general theoretical tendency (with the hope of “recomplexifying” once the students have got the hang of the general method), doesn’t ever seem to work. Or at least it hasn’t worked for me. Whereas, students who get the hang of the overview seem to back off of the nuanced elements, and forget about them (it’s almost like they think something like, “I’ve got the basics, which will get me through the test, and if i need more i can always reread X”), students who don’t grasp the general tendency, throw their arms up and panic when I try to reintroduce the details.

    Does this sound familiar? For awhile I thought I was doing a terrible job with this class, but I’m inclined to think — if only to console myself — that any survey-like course on ‘methodology’ (or, say in philosophy, general treads in philosophy, like Rationalism) must run into similar problems. The temptation seems to be always to find similarities in order to consolidate one’s understanding of a topic. But this seems to lead to some strange argumentative behaviours (like, “my methodology is Discourse Analysis/Consequentialism), which never reintroduce the substantive differences. Might this account for your observation — i.e. finding students conceiving of method as a mass term?

  2. N Pepperell March 3, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Many thanks for this – I have run into that exact sort of problem – where I’ve sort of generated a particular response from students, unintentionally, by the way I broke the material down in the course. There was one year where I really leaned on one group of students about the importance of making an argument in their writing (rather than just declaring a stance, which is what I had gotten in their first batch of papers) – over and over again, I said things like, “Don’t tell me what you think, convince me to change my mind.”. Only when I got the next batch of papers, did I realise that I had really needed to qualify these instructions with a statement like “All is not fair in love and academic writing” – I got some pretty underhanded “arguments” in that bunch – quotations taken out of context, evidence omitted to make the “argument” more convincing ;-P I chalked that one up to “iatrogenic” teaching error… ;-P

    This situation is a little bit different, in that I’m actually not the person teaching the students from whom I see this sort of thing – I’m providing “outside” feedback on their research. So one reason I’m so paranoid about my negative reaction, is that I have no direct access to – no good way of figuring out – how the students are deriving the notion that “discourse analysis” is a sufficient way to characterise a method. So it’s making me very paranoid that maybe there’s a particular disciplinary perspective for which this sort of phrasing would be sufficient, and I’m just being crotchety :-)

    The difficulty with this sort of thing, is that everyone has their particular pet peeves with marking. Two of mine are overclaiming, and lacking a clear, explicit logic that connects the sections of the piece together. I can handle any subject matter, no method is intrinsically too weird ;-P – but I want the piece to tell me very explicitly what it’s doing, why it’s doing that rather than something else, and how what it’s doing supports the conclusions it’s drawing – and so I break out in hives when I see things like “my method is statistics”… ;-P I regard the intensity of my reaction as a sort of personal failing :-) But at least when students do it with statistics, I know that this doesn’t meet an expected professional standard for describing their method. With “discourse analysis”, I’ve become a bit worried that maybe it does mean something sufficiently specific, at least within some disciplinary specialisation, because I seem to see it rather a lot… I still lean strongly to thinking it’s equivalent to what you’re describing above – the “I use consequentialism” approach – but I thought maybe I’d take a straw poll, just in case… ;-)

  3. Russ March 3, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned this to you before, but the standard strategy for myself (and most others I suspect) when faced with a the prospect of naming a method/epistemology/ontology/etc. is to find a suitable table of such concepts, pick the one that sounds most like what I planned to do, and insert said name into the sentence of the form:

    “the [method/epistemology/ontology/etc.] I plan to use is [preconceived opinion/guesswork/subjective facts/an impressive sounding number/...]“

    It may or may not be considered progress, that by the time it came to writing my honours thesis I carefully avoided any use of such terms just in case someone read it and realised I had no idea what they meant. :-)

  4. N Pepperell March 3, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    lol – yeah, see, this is why I prefer that people not “name” their methodologies at all (and why, when I was invited to do the “theory lecture” for the students preparing their proposals last year, the lecture that was supposed to tell them how to “choose” a theoretical perspective, I told them not to worry about what their “theory” should be called, but instead to focus on figuring out the presuppositions of their own questions ;-P – since I’ve been invited to give this lecture again this year, I gather it must not have gone down too badly ;-P).

    I don’t want people to name it – I want them to describe it… :-) It’s what all the best honours theses do :-) (By the time you do the PhD, you probably do need to name it – by then, though, you probably also know how… ;-) )

  5. Andrew March 4, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    With respect to ‘discourse analysis’ specifically: I don’t think your reaction is unfounded. From my own experience in doctoral seminars and the like I find that the term gets bandied about as if it were a self-evident ‘methodology’ when it in fact comprehends a variety of methods, each with their respective advantages, aims, and limitations.

    I’m not clear on the kinds of students you advise (undergraduates, post-graduates, etc.) but one of my complaints is that I find students are sometimes pressed to define themselves in terms of their methodological orientations and to offer up displays of prowess in this dimension before knowing exactly what it is they want to accomplish. Within any number of disciplines, theoretical consensus may have evaporated, substantive interests are diverse, so it’s understandable that we might instead fall back on methods as a basis for communication. But without knowing how these ought to complement and inform theoretical and substantive commitments, students sometimes feel prematurely compelled into demonstrating methodological sophistication by stating something like “I’m going to do discourse analysis” before having an adequate understanding exactly how discourse analysis can facilitate a particular research goal.

  6. Nate March 4, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I don’t think you’re being crotchety or pedantic.

    My impression that this is a vague term which indicates the range of influences the student has been shaped by and feels affiliation with.

    I think the resort to this sort of term is often linked to a level of insecurity (“I’ve got a fleshed out project, really I do!”) or to lack of intellectual clarity (“I’m going to like … read Foucault and some books that read Foucault and like … figure out some things.”) At least, those are the circumstances when I make/have made similar utterances (not “discourse analysis” but related terms).

  7. N Pepperell March 5, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Hey folks – yes – I agree: there is, I think, a pressure to define your work in some way (whether this pressure is self-inflicted out of fear that something like this is required, or whether course materials and such imply that it is), which combines really awkwardly with an incomplete orientation to how researchers talk about methodology (or theoretical perspective, or similar). My own supervisor, to be honest, asked me this morning, when I was trying to describe some really exciting work being done by another student here, “But whose theory is he applying?” – there was no good answer to this question, which didn’t at all mean there was anything wrong with the work: some sorts of work do actually generate their own theory. Also, what would someone say about a project like mine? I can’t very well say I “apply” Marx, no matter how often I might talk about the guy… ;-P

    Now, this sort of thing doesn’t worry me personally – but it must be deeply anxiety-producing to someone first trying their hand at serious research, because it implies strongly that these are the sorts of questions someone ought to be able to answer, and at a very early stage, as well. This is a particularly problematic demand in Australia, as most universities don’t provide coursework for research students: imagine jumping straight from your BA into designing and then carrying out your PhD research – no MA, no postgraduate courses, no community of other PhD students who have shared common pre-thesis coursework and general hazing ;-P. So there are some structural issues that exacerbate what is a fairly common anxiety in any event…

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