Ph.D Thesis Update: What Is The Nature Of A Thesis?
This blog post has actually been a long time coming. This blog post is a result of questions that I have been asking about the nature of the thesis and whether or not a thesis really has a particular nature. When we speak of a nature, what is it we are talking about? Nature assumes some sort of absolute ‘being’ of something, with that particular ‘something’ comprising of certain characteristics that makes it what it is. But it is right to assume that something is what it is in an immediate sense or is something is what it is as we come to experience that something and reflect on experiencing that something? Is there a sense that something ‘becomes’ as is, or is there some sort of process of becoming? I ask myself these questions all the time not only about my thesis but about who I am and what I am and what is the meaning of myself as a researcher, and conceptions and actions of these and many other questions have been formed and changed throughout the years of engaging with a Ph.D.
I was going to suggest that this blog post is not related to how I view my own sense of being or a process of my own becoming: it revolves around a thesis, or, indeed, a sense of an empty page staring at you on Microsoft Word becoming a thesis. But what if a thesis is an external representation of what has happened within ourselves and within our research?
I guess the most obvious question is………what is a thesis?
A thesis is a document that communicates every part of your research endeavour: your review of the literature, your explanation and justification of a research design, the communication of your findings, and a documentation of your explanations, discussions and critiques of your own findings and design. In a nutshell!
Ok, now let’s ask a different question: what is the nature of a thesis?
Now that’s a question! And that’s a question that is not easy to answer.
I am suggesting that because since part way through January I, guided by my supervisor, have been (and still am) in the process of changing the dynamics of the thesis. I have written a draft of the whole thesis before, but I have been following a more ‘traditional’ chapter path of a literature review followed by the research design followed by the findings and followed by the discussions. Whilst this has been fine, it has been realised that whilst this thesis communicates what has been achieved, there is what I believe to be an important element missing: historicity (this is a separate field in Philosophy that assumes that all thought, ideas, concepts and everything that we are and everything external to us has a history of development. I shall address this more in the future).
If I were to complete the thesis as is, with the essence being to communicate the findings as is, the research design as is, the literature review as it, the discussions as is, etc., I would not be communicating the progressiveness of all of my ideas and observations. I would be presenting almost like a current ‘snapshot’ of ideas of the literature, the state of the research design, etc., without explaining how my ideas and observations changed over time. My ‘voice’ would be subsumed under the traditional aim of objectively reporting something that has ultimately been an iterative, subjective experience that cannot effectively be communicated ‘as is’ in an objective traditional way.
What is the way to address this problem? I’m getting to grips with writing a thesis not within the typical objective, traditional approach, but as a narrative. A narrative that enables me to fully communicate not only the research ‘as is’ but the becoming of this ‘as is.’ Going back to my original point, to construct a thesis using a narrative means to report on the becoming of the research, and not simply what the research has become.
This leads onto another question: in what way can this becoming be structured?
This is a question I am currently tackling.
Every thesis consists of elements of a literature review, details of the research design, reporting of the findings, and discussions, explanations, and critiques of the meanings of the findings, and of the design. However, in a narrative approach this can be communicated across a series of chapters, with each chapter representing an ‘iteration’ of the research. From what I am currently understanding (I am still getting to grips with this), each chapter is interconnected and interdependent through the narrative process. Each chapter represents a different iteration or a change to the research process, with progression from the previous chapter or iteration and the foundations for the subsequent iteration clearly defined and indicated. How exactly this is to be expressed is still being planned out but, from what I have experienced with re-planning the thesis and through writing in a narrative voice, sometimes it’s impossible to determine what can and shall be expressed without engaging with the process of writing.
This is something I have learnt: sometimes you can do all the planning to a thesis that you want, but sometimes you just have to start writing the thesis and a plan can ‘emerge’ from your writings. There is something about engaging with the actual writing process that can help shape and organise your ideas. Sometimes the process of writing can be devalued but writing can give you incredible power and a sense of agency where you can develop your ideas beyond a level that is possible without writing. That, again, is part of my own sense of being as a researcher: I write not just to communicate, but as a powerful enabler of idea development and shaping.
Anyway, I digress……
The reshaping and reconstruction of the thesis from a ‘traditional’ to a more ‘narrative’ form is a challenge, because I have to think differently. I can’t think ‘as is’ but I have to think from the perspective of how this ‘as is’ actually became ‘as is.’ The core principle of this approach is to communicate how the explorations of the literature, the design of the research exploration, how I conceptualised the data, how I conceptualised the phenomenon, and how my methods of data analysis, have all changed over time: the what, the when, and the why, and the impact. Challenging!
I have written over a thousand words here and I have a lot more to say about this in the future on here, but for now all I can say about this is that I am pleased that I have not thrown any of my previous work away. Near enough every change and alteration to practically every part of the research has been documented. A current challenge is to understand and know what exactly I can communicate and to what extent without overwhelming and confusing the reader and having the reader feeling lost.
It all takes time but I am making progress and I shall be reporting on further progress in the future!
Thanks for reading people!