Dissertation Talk

November 30, 1990


Paul Byers

As you surely discovered in this department there are multiple "kinds of talk." Ray, Hervé, and I talk about "context" for example, in ways that are the same and sometimes in ways that are (technically) different. Even the word "structural" is used more broadly by me and more precisely by Hervé. And the world outside is likely to use either/both words in ways that are almost in another language.

I want to talk here about the way I use certain words in "dissertation advisement talk" that may be confusing because it is sometimes at variance with almost anyone else's use. And my use of these word or word-concepts is sometimes different in advisement classes than the same words would be if I used them in formal papers. I suppose this can be confusing to you. Thus this "handout."

To me, "science" is not a religion. It has no higher "truth." In my view "science" is a formal way to satisfy man's universal curiosity. It's commitment is to "precision" (which is "validated" thru replication) but "precision," to me, is a matter of the best possible precision and recognizing how precise any statement or observation is.

The "scientific" equivalent of truth or reality is, at best, at matter of agreeing with other science professionals that we have looked at the same thing (which is why recorded data is best), in the same way (the "methodology"), and seen the same thing (pattern, relationship, finding), and perhaps related this "finding" to other pieces of the social or physical world.

A "paper" or a dissertation is the MEDIA form for circulating our stuff. An idea or "finding" has little social value unless you can get it to others so they can understand it.

Every dissertation, we say, has an introduction that includes "background," and "the significance of the research, and a statement of--and discussion of--a "problem." It has a "relevant literature" chapter, a "methods" chapter, a "data" chapter, an "analysis" chapter, and a final chapter that I, personally, will not allow you to call "Conclusion" but which could be called "In Conclusion" or "Discussion." That last chapter should include things as "limitations," "future research," "recommendations," etc.

Some people take these words as mandatory chapter titles and make them procrustean beds. As Ray might have said, they then "organize you." This would be analogous to writing a newspaper story under the successive headings "Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How." The newspaper report, the dissertation, or the "story," all cover these points, one way or another. In my view it is necessary only that you cover all these points or matters and that the reader is never confused about which is which--i.e. what kind of talk (in relation to other kinds of talk) he is reading at any moment.

This gets to be particularly important when, at the end of a paragraph, he sees (Smith 1987)--and wonders whether he has read "what Smith said" or "what you think Smith said." But better I start at the beginning.

Margaret Mead once said to me that a science report was (in simple terms) a careful description of what you set out to do, what you did, and what you found. I think the most important word here is "careful." Maybe she said "precise" but that would be ideal. In quantitative research this is managed by a display of numerical measurements and, perhaps, statistical probability. In our research it is managed by a careful description of what you did with the "data" involved and careful separation of your perception from the "data" perceived. This is difficult when, often, your "data" is someone else's unwittingly subjective observation. Confusion is when the reader can't tell from your writing which is which.

A dissertation begins by orienting the reader to what will follow. Metaphorically it is like describing a distant/overall view of something (such as education, human relations, divorce, care for the, etc.)--something he/she can recognize. That is, you put your interests/question in a familiar context for the reader.

Anyway your "background" describes this larger context (or "ballpark") within which you can narrow the reader's focus down to your particular "question." This can take many forms or lengths. For example:

Once upon a time there was an evil witch who lived in a gingerbread house in the forest and who liked to eat little children. Then, one day, two children..
Already this has established (or implied) the "who, what, when, where, and why" and the rest is going to be about "how" (how she does or doesn't eat them).

In most of our "real" research it may be useful, important, or even necessary to let the reader know who YOU are, what special way YOU have of looking at the matter, why you think it important to examine your "topic," etc. It may even be useful, important, or necessary to tell the reader how YOUR way of looking/examining is different from the usual (someone else's research?) way of looking--or how someone else's way tickled your particular curiosity.

It might be nice, too, to give the reader a kind of "preview" of the journey ahead so he/she won't get lost along the way--i.e. how you've sequentially organized your research story.

The "relevant literature" part has several functions: It tells the reader that you're not naive (like Parzifal) but know the maps and pitfalls. That you've done your homework. It places your work in the evolving edifice of science, and if you do it well, it lends credibility to you as a participant in this ongoing exploration called science. And (not to be sneezed at) it helps your document to be recognizable as a "dissertation"--as an appropriately gift-wrapped object identifies it as a Christmas present.

But there are some interesting possible and acceptable ways to display and use "relevant literature." It does not necessarily have to be ponderous chunk of dull reading stuck between your introductory come-on and the interesting stuff. It can be interspersed throughout your research story as it becomes relevant to some point. That way its "relevance" can be clearer. Or you can clarify its "relevance" by saying something like, "Since I am bringing together thinking (or research) from several fields, I will look at the literature from each in turn and show how I have related them to my research." Sometimes one cites research only to say that it is irrelevant.

Then there is another interesting possibility. It may very well be that in your research the literature is part of your data. In Phyllis Curry's dissertation one of her main points was that wife-battering had been unrecognized (in the literature) by the disciplines (family study) expected to study and know about it. In this case a "review of the literature" was itself "data" that demonstrated the point.

In another dissertation (on the family involvement in a child's stuttering) the "relevant literature" was in the form: "I have examined the relevant journals published in the past 30 years and there are NO reports concerned with.."


"Data" is anything that you can show to be relevant to your research. Grey Gundaker's dissertation (an examination of "creativity" and its cognates) included (as data) pages of the NY telephone book, conversations overheard on a train, in hallways, in museums, anthropological research on "sorting," psychological research into "creativity," personal experiences as an art teacher, etc. etc.). Data can be what people don't say, what people lie about, or even what never happens. And, apart from "standard" corpi (that's the plural of "corpus"), one of the most important ways to recognize "data" is to pay attention to things that surprise, startle, disgust, or elate you (or anyone else) unexpectedly. Your reaction is NOT data but it alerts you to something that may be "data."

"Objectivity" is not disassociating yourself from your "data" but (if we need the word at all) recognizing that it was your "subjectivity" that recognized the data. Indeed, where else does curiosity come from? And what is science but our effort to satisfy that curiosity. What distinguishes "science" as "precise" is our commitment to recognizing (as best we can) the relationship between ourselves and our "data." To suppose that we can separate ourselves from our observations is the folly of a foolish "science."

This leads to the illusory construct called "method." Margaret Mead once said (to me) that "methods were invented so that not-very-bright people could participate in science." It often amuses me that many so-called "qualitative" dissertations cite "grounded theory" as their "methodological" foundation. I have often wondered if Glaser and Straus had their tongues in their cheeks since "grounded theory" is, at bottom, essentially a formal description of the way anyone (at least before he/she goes to school) learns anything.

In my own dissertation I described something of "systems theory" as a point of view or way of looking (pretending that "systems theory" is a "theory," which it decidedly is NOT) and finished the chapter with the words "one obvious point emerges without further justification: the ultimate test of any method is that it works."

There is really no need for an explicit discussion of "method." But there is the necessity to show the reader your "stuff" (i.e. data) and show him/her exactly what you did to or with it. Then you can say what YOU see or think about it and the reader can agree, disagree, replicate, etc. That ALL you can do.

Method, then, is no more than finding ways to juxtapose recognizable things in relationships that show us what we hadn't recognized before. And, if we're clever enough, that recognition will inform us about other pieces of the world.

In the end the dissertation-writer's obligation is to write so that the reader can acquire the insights of the researcher without having to do the work the researcher did. And it should be seen as a sort of story that the reader will find interesting--even if it tells him more than he really wants to know.

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