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.