A story of a thesis in search of a narrative

This may be a little dull for anyone not interested in the process of actually writing a doctoral thesis – feel free to look away.

Meeting with my supervisor this week its clear that I need to step it up a gear and start worrying about the right things. While I have been quietly obsessing about my data collection he pointed out that this was actually in hand as long as I get on with it and the bigger problem was the complete lack of narrative drive in my thesis so far. If you are going to inflict 80,000 words of your own on the world then they really ought to be easy to read and I love reading too much myself to want to create something that doesn’t read well – I need to start thinking less like an engineer and more like a writer.

Part of this is a result of the way in which I’ve approached the writing in 3000 word chunks –as a result the result is very modular. This has been a necessity given the way my time is structured but what it makes when you put it together is a set of well ordered vignettes rather than a development of the larger themes which carries you through the text. What I need now is an approach that allows me to create a stronger narrative arc that brings these vignettes together.

Ed suggested finding a metaphor that would help me structure the work – he prefers architectural ones but after some wrangling it was clear this is not how my head works and we then had a brief exploration of fairy tales which ended when he suggested I was pinnocchio – though it has prompted me to pick up Angela Carter’s short stories again which is a real treat. The metaphor that works best for me though is that of a journey so this is what I’m going to explore.

Part of this adjustment is about really embracing the way in which I have been approached the PHD overall as an action researcher and narrating the cycle of observe, reflect, act, evaluate and modify that I have been following. Its also about highlighting more clearly where I have been innovating as a result of this cycle and where it is pushing my knowledge in new directions.

Within the work I need to develop three core themes – people, place and networks – against a context which is the network society and the pressure that social change brings to bear on pre-existing structures and relationships. The question – or the quest if we are taking a slightly more heroic take on the journey metaphor – is the exploration of the effect of this social change on the relationships between citizens and government within the ambit of local government and the communities which it works for.

My journey started with both a fascination and a frustration – I have been fascinated by the effects of online communities since I did my masters and I have been increasingly frustrated as I have watched local government struggle to find a way to react to the new communities and conversations that are happening online. I need to help my audience understand the terrain I want to navigate and give them a route through this terrain that explore my core themes. I want them to share that sense of fascination with how people use the social web to enhance their own communities and I want them to at least care about the frustration I feel when I see councils try to “consult” this same group of people who are having a completely different conversation about the same topic. And I need to do this in a way that makes it clear that is a carefully considered position and not the technology-evangelism that it is so easy to fall into.

So – I’m going to using the blog slightly differently over the next few months I hope. I want to capture some of the stories that bring this journey to life and I also want to capture some of the points in the action research cycle which have influenced the direction of the trials and my data collection process. I’m also going to try and get more disciplined about my writing style and create a more even narrative voice.

50,000 words written is one thing – now I need them to be ones that someone else will enjoy reading.

  1. Mick Phythian

    May 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Catherine,
    A little while since we’ve communicated. I’ve since submitted and been examined on my PhD and then had to submit changes to satisfy the examiners…

    Much of which was the result of employing action research (snap), social media (snap) in technological/ICT realm.

    I’m now writing/drafting papers on the use and the ethics (snap) around using weblogs for research – not so much as diaries but as tools…

    Keep up the good work (mine ended up > 100,000 words all told!


    • curiouscatherine

      May 30, 2011 at 9:30 am

      Hi Mick and a HUGE congratulations for completing – am still hoping to hand in this year but we shall see…am limited by 80,000 word maximum at least!

      Very interested in work around weblogs for research – its been invaluable for me – and I have started embedding them as action research diaries in projects for clients as well. Its about an assumption of openness as well as the benefit of reflection I think.

      Anyway – head down and amending references in Mendeley for the rest of the day!

      Best wishes



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