Over the course of the past week I had two different coffee encounters with fellow students.
The first was in my regular coffee shop and I was approached by another student who, in broken english, asked what one did with their coffee cup once finished. The second was in the faculty coffee shop where a long term colleague and I had a discussion around the ontology and epistemology of their particular PhD study.
Both conversations relate to ‘what do we do around here?’. As one slowly acquires cultural understanding in a new culture they develop answers for this question. These answers can inform an initial insight into a culture – such as do the people at the coffee shops at the university place their cups in a particular place or are they left on the tables for waiters/waitresses to collect; through to the nuances of truth and knowledge that populate deeply profound philosophical conversations between certain members of the population.
With regard to the new international student learning the crockery placement rules at the various coffee shops on the campus she will find that even that simple task varies between different coffee shops. In a similar way, the deeply philosophical conversation also varies between different populations.
For my colleague engaging in the ontology and epistemological conversation, she was well entrenched not only in the university culture, but in the culture of being a researcher and was trying to understand and articulate the depth of the philosophical issues that underpin her particular study. This is particularly important in that her study represents one of the marginal inquiry approaches in a very traditional faculty, and this invites an even greater demand to make your own variation from hegemony explicit and coherent.
As you will have ascertained from an earlier blog about the role that coffee drinking plays in understanding the ways in which we can make contributions to knowledge, here again I am drawing on the coffee metaphor or practice as an insight into the cutural ambiguities and sub-cultural practices that populate the many different interest groups at a univeristy.
Coming into research practices from the perspective of the paradigm wars, in which there were major challenges to the assumptions underpinning research practice, and in particular the appropriateness of scientific method for undertaking human inquiry, exposure to the paradigm, and the ontology and epistemology conversations, was essential reading. Recently writing an article about practice-led inquiry, my co-author and I noted that as management practitioners, epistemology and ontology do not form part of our day-to-day lexicon, and thus having these sorts of conversations is not straightforward. Never-the-less, it is the philosophical conversations around what counts as knowledge (epistemology) and what counts as truth (ontology) that inform so many of the decisions about making the claims that are made out of research practice. In some ways this acquisition of conversational philosophical english is like acquiring a second language, and despite being entrenched in the motions of doing a PhD, we might also find ourselves using broken english to ask the questions and make the claims we are making with regard to these philosophical areas. But better to have done it in broken english than not to have done it at all!
What relevance does this contemplation have for the research advisor/supervisor?
There is a chance that someone now advising/supervising other’s research may have come through their own research journey without ever having been exposed to the concept of paradigm, nor the debates about what might be an appropriate paradigm for undertaking human inquiry. Given the dominance of the scientific model, the hegemony of research practice, it is possible that one could have completed a PhD and not been exposed to such arguments. Because of my particular journey from the marginal side of research, I remember hearing the word paradigm used along with ocassional reference to Thomas Kuhn. When I saw the book in a bookshop those sublimimal references were sufficient to prompt me to purcahse it and work my way through it. I have to admit that reading the Guba and Lincoln arguments about Naturalistic Inquiry, which applied the notion of paradigm to research practices, proved to be a more beneficial way to enter into these philosophical debates. These thoughts would suggest to me that at least one strategy for an advisor/supervisor is to draw the student’s attention to this literature and, better still, initiate the conversation with them about the paradigm that underpins their research practice. Not an easy ask, and harder if paradigm discussion represents a weakness in your own repertoire.