Arguing (philosophically) for something different in the dissertation

I have previously written about this topic. Recent events have made it timely to revisit those original thoughts. I have just completed a tour of three universities in the U.K. at which I have been presenting a cabaret on ‘what happens when a researcher wants to publish their research differently?’, and in presenting this inquiry in cabaret I have also modeled the very points I am making.

The role of publication in the research process is an important one. It is through publication of one’s ideas that one’s peers can read the proposed new knowledge and verify that a contribution has been made. There are two important precedents to this aspect of the research process.

The first of these precedents lies in the history of the Medieval monasteries at which prospective students would have to present an argument and defend themselves against all comers. This tradition has been retained in research in the form of double-blind review in which two peers read and review your work without essentially knowing who you are. This process is used in many of the academic publications and forms the basis of dissertation examination.

The second precedent is in the publication of Boyle’s experiment producing the pneumatic pump. Boyle developed a writing style by which readers of the description of this experiment could ‘witness’ that the experiment was genuine and thus affirm his contribution to knowledge. This style of writing became the common style for writing about research and formed the dominant genre for academic writing.
Both precedents contribute to establishing ways of publishing research and also support the dominant genre of academic discourse. That is not to say that there are not alternatives. The paradigm wars emerging from Kuhn’s proposition that paradigms underpinned the ways in which we investigate, led to alternative ways of undertaking investigations and thus alternate ways of publishing. A good case in point is the use of writing in the third person to indicate objectivity. Following the paradigm wars it became appropriate to write in the first person to demonstrate a subjective relationship with the data.

The majority of research students undertaking their candidature seek an unproblematic process. Rarely is the accepted form and structure of a dissertation challenged. Every once in a while, there will be a student who seeks to let their creativity infuse the final look of their dissertation, and while this invites a greater challenge in terms of dissertation writing, it also provides the edge by which the iconic genre can be challenged. This possibility seems to be occurring more frequently as some of the creative research degrees are launched and as the impact of the OECD definition of research, including creative works, starts to filter through the system. In cases where a student wants something different, I recommend that the argument for such variations to the standard be well established and presented as part of the agenda for making this particular contribution to knowledge. I am aware of three different types of argument pertaining to these changes to the norm.

The first form of argument is based on precedent. In reading the literature the student seeks for precedents to their desired approach to investigating their topic. These precedents may exist in other investigations of the same topic or investigations of similar topics in different disciplines. For example, a student investigating their own practice in business and wanting to use practitioner stories, may be able to draw on the research related to another practice, say teaching for example, in which there is a strong usage of practitioner stories. In their own argument they suggest a similar approach even though the disciplines may be different.

The second form of argument I describe as the paradigm approach. It involves exploring the ways in which the topic is articulated and particularly how knowledge is communicated and expressed by the key stakeholders of that topic. Looking at what counts as knowledge in that field is embracing an epistemological argument, and epistemology is part of the inquiry paradigm. A common example is the nature of ‘water-cooler’ conversations and how these often reflect a more accurate portrayal of what is happening in an organisation, than perhaps the formal lines of communication.

The third approach is less common and has particularly as I have worked with experienced practitioners who turn later in their career to investigating various practices, particularly the ones in which they have been engaging. When a practitioner describes the practice and the ways in which they have been developing that practice, they may recognise parallels to formal descriptions of research. I find it is quite common for people who have been engaged in iterative processes of practice investigation, such as a quality improvement cycle, to recognise the similarity to action inquiry. Once having recognised that this is the way they have already been investigating a practice external to a university setting, their argument is to retain this approach and refine it in the light of the available literature about that particular investigative approach.

These variations from the norm are not restricted to methodologies. A strong tradition in research is that the literature review is contained in a single chapter. A variation on this form is to argue the evidence of literature throughout the dissertation rather than in a single chapter. This choice can be presented from the point of view that continued reading of literature enables the practice being investigated to progressively change.

Doing something different often requires extra effort. This effort is rewarded when it comes to the conclusions of the dissertation. Not only has there been a contribution to the knowledge related to the particular topic, but there have been contributions to the knowledge of methodologies pertaining to that topic. The additional labor undertaken to achieve the desired variations in one’s dissertation is also classed as contributions to knowledge. Once a researcher has championed a different way of progressing their research, this provides for others to follow their footsteps and thus establish a set of practices that then become taken for granted steps in subsequent research.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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One Response to Arguing (philosophically) for something different in the dissertation

  1. Got inspiration after reading your article and also I am inspired to get your points in action while writing dissertation.

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