What a waste of time… or was it?

As a part-time PhD student who works full-time whilst juggling family life, time is always my enemy. There are never enough hours in the day, either to get enough work done, spend enough time with the family, or even just to get enough hours sleep at night. This will be a familiar scenario to many part-time PhD students and possibly even some who are working full time on their studies.

Such pressure  makes it crucial to make good decisions on how to spend time. So deciding to spend two hours at a research seminar which eats into my study allowance is not something I do lightly, but a recent seminar caught my eye. It was on discourse analysis (DA). “Perfect”, I thought, “I’ll go along to that”.

Although I am using interpretive phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) in my PhD study, DA is not a million miles away, as both concern analysis of discourse. I thought it would be useful to go along to the seminar and hear from a researcher very experienced in using this approach, in order to deepen my understanding on where the two approaches converge, and where they are significantly different. At first I was a little frustrated as the presentation covered mainly the academic debate about who was worthy of being a discourse analyst and who wasn’t. I have little time for what I consider, “academic snobbery” – this is not directed at the speaker but at the debate.

However, I did gain something unexpected from this session. The session made me think about my research in a way I had not really anticipated. There was a discussion surrounding objectivity and subjectivity which then moved to realism and constructivism. As the epistemological stance in my own study is informed by social constructivism the discussion caught my attention and has kept me thinking since. It has reminded me of one of my favourite children’s stories, The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams).

What is real? is a question the Velveteen Rabbit asked of the Skin Horse, who tried to explain that being real wasn’t about things or objects, but about meaning, which is created by experiences. The Velveteen Rabbit becomes “real” when his owner makes a fuss and he feels loved, he experiences the feeling of love giving his life meaning and thus becoming real. So what seems real, is in essence a construction of socially mediated experiences. This has helped me to consider the relationship between realism and constructivism and the philosophical debate surrounding each of these epistemological viewpoints, not quite what I was expecting from the session on DA but a pretty good outcome nontheless.

There is often little time for philosophical debate in our busy lives but sometimes it is worth making the time and something unexpected might happen.


3 thoughts on “What a waste of time… or was it?

  1. Thank you for this Karen – an excellent topic to blog about. I completely agree that we don’t often have time for such philosophical debates – yet they are important (in fact they are crucial), especially within the context of a PhD. After all, we need to defend exactly what approach we have taken and we need to explain why. This includes having a clear understanding of other approaches and knowing why they were not appropriate to use. My philosophical approach is weak social constructionism and while there are similarities with social constructivism and realism/critical realism there are also specific and important differences. It is important that we explore these differences and understand them so that we can stand by and fully defend what we chose to use and why we chose to reject others (it took me hours, days and weeks to go through this process!).

  2. Karen thank you for the Velveteen Rabbit story, funnily i had the same feeling starting your blog… can i take time out to read this , but i am glad i did. I am intrigued though as you leave me with not knowing how you feel about the relationship between realism and social constructivism. Like Emma says it is so important. Recently i chose to write about three different theories in a written assignment for my taught doctorate. It was only at the end that i had the ‘eureka’ moment and discovered that all three theoretical frame works were liked by the psychology of human problem solving behavior. It will be good to discuss and debate with you and Emma on the topic.

  3. Hi Emma and Karen

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you liked the post. It is indeed a murky area which gets most of us PhD students in a bit of a fankle. I guess the point I was trying to make in this post though was, although I didn’t get what I thought I would have from the seminar, it made me think about my own study over the course of the following week. I had gone along to the seminar thinking I would learn more about discourse analysis and it did’t really deliver on this, so initially it felt like a waste of time but I had explored my epistemological stance some time ago and it made me revisit this so it ended up being quite valuable.

    The stance I have taken in my research is that of social constructivism. The reason for this is that I am researching the lived experience of people newly diagnosed with MS and how this impacts on their sense of self. So the research has a strong biographical focus to it. My feeling is that being given a diagnosis sends individuals sense of who they are into a state of relative flux, and I say relative as it is happens to a greater and lesser extent. So the “who am I” is a construction based on a number of external factors including physical, social and psychological.

    So far this stance appears to be “fitting” well with my research but I am sure a realist may adopt a slightly different focus on how the sense of self is altered in this circumstance. What is important I think is to analyse very carefully the focus of your research, your position within the study, and the epistemological influences you bring. The process of reflexivity throughout the study should also help.


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