17:15:37Categories: Anthropological notes

To formulate a thesis question

I’ve got one year and six months pay left of my research grant and with the help of organised writing I hope it won’t be a problem to finish in time. But I realise that the writing must be organised this time, so no more writing 140 pages too much like I did with my previous thesis. For the sake of organising myself, I read Authoring a PhD last Christmas (on a black volcanic beach on La Gomera in the Atlantic ocean, so the book is full of dark grains of sand). (Thanks to Mary Stewart for recommending the book on her research blog here).

Manage your readers expectations is the first advice Patrick Dunleavy (2003: 15-16). When I wrote my Master thesis I was so sure I had something interesting to tell, that I couldn’t give a damn about readers expectations… How naïve one can be. This time I’ll follow Tim Ingold’s advise and write more like the swishy swashy pictorial language of We’re going on a bear hunt, and lead my readers on every step through East Paris and her suburbs. In addition to “orienting devices” like headlines etc and “signposts” (indicating the sequence of topics to be handled) (p. 272, 274), Dunleavy suggests an aphorism from Nietzsche so not to forget about the audience during the writing process:

Never ignore, never refuse to see what might be thought against your thought
(Nietzsche quoted in Dunleavy 2003: 134)

When I presented an unfinished article to various readers a while ago, I reminded myself of this quote – in order to handle the at times contradictory feedback I got.

The second good advice I found in Dunleavy’s book was the five components making up an interesting intellectual problem (une problématique, en problematikk), thus how to phrase a thesis question:

1) a goal or objective which can tell how to judge the outcomes, how to see that an improvement has been achieved

2) an initial state, the starting situation, and the resources available to be used

3) a set of operations that can be used to change the initial state and resources (a toolkit of research methods and new date)

4) constraints: designating certain kinds of operations as inadmissible

5) an outcome

Or put differently: “Problematizing your thesis question” means “setting the answer you hope to give within a framework which will show its intellectual significance” ((from Robert Nozick, Dunleavy 2003: 23)

My (preliminary) aim – component number 1 – is to describe and makes sense of a former colonial metropolis as fundamentally marked by its past and present global connections. Thinking about readers’ expectations, I realise that already in this sentence, my choosing of words points in the direction of a specific perspective. Instead of writing just “Paris”, I say “a former colonial metropolis”, for instance…

Component 2: the starting situation and the resources available in an anthropological study I guess must be a specific empirical ground/arena and certain perspectives by which I look at it, in order to generate data and knowledge. I’ve divided the overall aim into a threefold perspective:

i) a microstudy of the creation of a cosmopolitan space: the slam poetry scene

ii) an analysis of the process of inhabitation (from Ingold) in cosmopolitan East Paris

iii) an analysis of France as inherently postcolonial, seen from the perspective delineated by Eric Wolf in Europe and the people without history

The initial states are thus i) the existing slam poetry scene (very mixed in terms of gender, age and social and ethnic background), ii) East Paris (visibly marked by former and present immigration) and iii) the ongoing debates on what constitute France and the history of France, + Eric Wolf’s and similar perspectives on global connections

Component 3: my research methods and new data:

i) observation, participation and filming on about 100 slam soirées → data on the places, audiences, performances, participants… In addition to some “off stage” participation with some of the participants, poetry texts, myspace sites, interviews… + literature on space/place and phenomenology…

ii) observations, hanging around and living in East Paris which give me some idea of how the process of inhabitation can be an appropriation of space. Examples are how the waves of immigration have made their marks on the environment, all the streetart, posers and writings on the wall, and finally the various places, cafés and bars, where the slam is taking place. + literature on performance, oral poetry and…?

iii) to answer the third question, I will draw on my findings from the two previous fields of investigation, in addition to literature and media coverage on the public debates on history and France.

Component 4: the constraints affecting my work, I’ll discuss soon in another dull post on methodology and scientific criteria.

Component 5: the outcome: hopefully a satisfactory description and sense-making of a Society in the Making: The slam poetry scene and Postcolonial Paris…

The final useful point I’ll mention from Authoring a PhD this time, is to try to work out as soon as possible what one will be able to say something about, in order to make a close fit between the question asked and the answer delivered. The author also recommends to formulate the thesis question so as to showcase your own findings, instead of going on and on about other people’s research (Dunleavy 2003: 24-5). That fits well with my aim to write descriptive and swishy swashy, very far away from the language and content of this blog post…

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