The reoccurring issue of THE question

I felt pretty good about meeting with my supervisor after quite a few months. What frustrated me the most in my pre-fieldwork days was not having any ‘evidence’ to interrogate claims about the nature of the world. Now I have oodles of stories, impressions and facts to think with and I am slowly getting my head around some pretty useful theoretical work. It is pretty crippling feeling like you want to be open to almost anything, and I do not feel like I have to do that anymore (at least in relation to this project).

On the other hand, while I know enough ‘things’ to engage in discussion, I have lost the humility to really be open to other interpretations. Eeek! I have an ego. I went to the meeting armed with enough information in order to support a claim that I had made in an email a few months ago, a claim earlier rejected by my supervisor. In an ideal world I would have spoken less and listened more.

I am stuck in between a few research worlds and, when combined with my ego, it is not going so well. I have been working with a rather loose research question, but I have not really engaged whole heartedly with the ‘grounded theory’ approach my supervisor is such a fan of. When people I know through fieldwork do not quite get what I am doing, I can pretend it is because I am part of a university. When other students at university do not get what I am doing, I can pretend it is because my project is grounded in the messiness of the day to day contingencies of the social side of a suburb. I use my in between state as an excuse for just doing what I want to do, rather than seriously considering what I should be doing

You see my supervisor is not the only person I have met with lately and today the issue of, ‘But what is your research question?’ reared its head. I had forgotten it was an issue until I spoke to somebody who knows the literature I am trying to engage with well enough to leave me nothing to hide behind. I have gotten into quite a groove when it comes to explaining what I am doing to people I meet through fieldwork. I also have some tentative findings, so more substantive conversations about my project tend to be rather full and I can start to see different chapter outlines taking shape. However, those issues from last year of endless unsatisfactory drafts of research objectives and rationals sort of just got swept under the carpet after my confirmation. I came up with a question and all those other elements of a formal proposal which were okay (or signalled a bit of a truce with my supervisor), but were never going to be strong enough to go the distance when it came to my fieldwork.

In some ways I wish I could have done my milestones out of order. I was lucky to get off rather lightly at confirmation. I am sure I would not have gotten much out of having to write a better document for that initial review as I was so riddled with doubt, but I could sure do with a couple of months of writing and a strict confirmation processes (complete with a hard-nosed committee) now before I launch into the last few months of fieldwork. I am sure nearly all of those meetings with my supervisor in my first year were a waste of both of our time.

I was underprepared to take on a PhD in the first place. I feel like only now am I starting to get a grip on how I can begin to think about the nature of the social world and my own orientation towards the social relationships between other people.

Now I need to either put into words what my research question is, or give up on fulfilling engagements with others and just feed my sense of self-importance by locking myself away to read comments on online news stories and write whatever I want. I am still hoping to go down the first path.

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