As promised, a post on something a little less personal and a little more ‘academic’. The topic for this week’s post is theoretical frameworks, and why it’s a very good idea to have one fairly clearly in place before you start collecting and analysing your data.
Right. When I started my PhD in 2010, I spent the whole of that year reading about academic literacies and writing centres, thinking that I wanted to do my PhD on a topic related to the role writing centres play in developing students’ academic literacies in the disciplines. I just couldn’t get into it, though. I had a whole lot of substantive theory, but nothing that looked or felt like a framework for a study that would guide my data gathering or my analysis. After a long and helpful meeting with my supervisor at the end of that year, I found my way to Basil Bernstein’s work and from there to Pierre Bourdieu’s and to Legitimation Code Theory. I had, much to my joy, found my framework. I had the beginnings of a ‘gaze’ to use Bernstein’s term, or a set of specific lenses with which to scratch at my ‘conceptual itch’ to use Lis Lange’s term (well, it was her I first heard it from) – the thing that I really needed to find out or the question I really wanted an answer to. I could now rethink my topic, and begin to form this gaze so that I would know what data I needed to collect and what I should do with it to get at the answers and scratch the itch.
So, I spent a lot of time in 2011 and 2012 writing and rewriting what I suppose some might call a literature review, but which my supervisor and I called a conceptual or theoretical framework. I had to lay very firm foundations for this study because the theory I was reading and the concepts I used were so new to me, and I really was starting from scratch in many ways in this field. I often felt frustrated at how much time I was spending on this one chapter out of six that had to be written, and I felt lost a great deal of the time in the mess of reading and thinking and connecting of dots. It was a hard couple of years, but in that time I got my proposal through and wrote a pretty good draft of chapter two. I found myself, at the end of 2012, very nervous about leaving Theoryland, as I thought of it, up on its pretty, fluffy clouds. I felt safe there, because I had pretty much worked out what Bernstein called the ‘internal language of description’ for my study. In other words, I could tell you how the different parts of the theory and concepts I chose to use cohered, and why they fitted together like that and what sense to make of them in the context of my study. But that was all I could do at this point. So I had to move on.
I was encouraged (read shoved) off my clouds and into the mires and muck of field work and data gathering. And this is where things started to get really exciting for me (and then boring later and then exciting again). I observed lecturers teaching and read their course documents, as well as conducted in-depth interviews. In the first week of lectures, I found I could see and hear the theory – that internal language – being spoken in the teaching and coming to life in front of me. It was so exciting and also so affirming. This was the right data to be gathering and my study was moving in the right direction, given my focus and my questions. I do not think that this would have happened quite so clearly had I tried to shortcut the first stage of laying those foundations and working out, as carefully and fully as I could, that internal language of description. I needed to have my gaze in place, as nebulous and fuzzy as it felt, before I gathered by data and started to think about what to do with it in analysis.
I won’t be glib and say that the data gathering was easy – it was often really tedious and the semester felt so long; recording detailed fieldnotes in 8 lectures per week of an hour long each for the better part of 14 weeks was tough going for me. But at no point did I really doubt that I was gathering the right data for my study, and even when things got very fuzzy and I couldn’t hear the theory so clearly or see my way, I could count on the fact that my gaze was there and that it would deepen and develop as I really started to get into my data more systematically. It was very reassuring on the whole, and while it didn’t make the field work stage a breeze, it did take some of the anxiety and doubt away, and kept me moving towards the next step.
I would, based on my experience, argue that even if you feel frustrated and feel like you are taking way too long working out your own internal language of description, it is worth doing as well as you can. The firmer the foundation going forward, the less the likelihood (I think) of having to rush back and get different or more data because you don’t have enough or the right kinds of data. It reduces the stress and anxiety that inevitably come with gathering data and starting to think about analysing it, because having your gaze in place can assure you that you are moving in the right kind of direction. However, a word of caution: it can be really lovely and safe and warm up in Theoryland, but staying there will never get your PhD finished. You will need to find the bridge down to the Data Swamps so that you can move between the two as you scratch your own itch and answer the questions that drive you onwards.