Early thesis fatigue

2006-08-26

in Oxford, Writing

Most people in the program seem to be eyeing the thesis with a mixture of apprehension and regret. The difficulties of making an original contribution to an academic discipline are not to be underestimated. On the one hand, you can opt to find a distinct gap in the existing literature and fill it. The first problem with that is that you need to know the existing literature well. Secondly, you risk being pre-empted by someone else. Thirdly, it may not be a terribly interesting task to mechanically fill in a box that has essentially been defined by someone else.

An ambitious lot, most people in the program seem set on answering a big question. The biggest (like mine) are more a nebulous question-territory than a question itself. For this approach, the most demanding task is the generation of a precise question and an interesting argument. Everything beyond that is just argumentation and commentary, requiring effort but little vision.

Vision, indeed, is that essential commodity that everyone is seeking: whether in the pages of academic journals or those of novels, whether in the libraries of Oxford or the internship cubicles that line the corridors of power. May each of them find it, and thus have one more highly worthwhile achievement to file under the heading of ‘the Oxford M.Phil.’

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee August 29, 2006 at 7:09 pm

Never, ever “gap fill”. That is an appalling reason to do any research. The literature in IR is generally so bad that any “gaps” are not worth filling in any case. Whole theories need to be discarded and new ones created. The only reason to do research is that you think you have something intelligent and useful to say about something that no one else is saying. It doesn’t have to be the most earth-shatteringly profound thing for an MPhil but it does have to be a genuine contribution. Gap filling is not a genuine contribution. Leave that to the several hundred American PhD students who pursue just this boring, technocratic avenue every year and advance the discipline not one iota. And don’t worry too much about the confines of an MPhil. Content yourself with a smaller question through which you explore a bigger one and hint towards an answer to that bigger query. That’s genuine ambition. Gap filling is not.

Lee August 29, 2006 at 7:18 pm

By the way, formulating a question is important, but not the be all and end all some people insist on it being (“what’s the puzzle?!” as Dr Dimwit demands to know)… vision is required to know when to change your question as your research shows it to be the wrong one; and to interpret the world once you generate findings.

Sheena August 31, 2006 at 1:42 pm

Milan, Lee,
I’d disagree somewhat on the purpose of “gap-filling.” It probably shouldn’t be the primarily driver of a research question, but it is useful to know whether other people have already answered similar questions (or the same, as a couple of my friends have discovered slightly too late in their research projects!) and to carefully define the bounds of the project so that you don’t make claims you can’t back up. It’s also useful to identify things we know and don’t know across disciplines – gap-filling is often a matter of identifying where interdisciplinary knowledge can be applied in new ways to problems. American programs have a stronger emphasis on cumulative knowledge, and although this can produce people who don’t challenge assumptions enough, I’d differ strongly with your assessment that the work is boring, technocratic, and fails to advance the discipline. One thing I’ve noticed at Oxford is a frequent mischaracterization of what is currently being done in American academia at the doctoral level, which is unfortunate because it reinforces stereotypes and I’m not sure what the origins of a lot of the claims I hear are. How many American PhD dissertations are you basing that “technocratic and boring” judgment on?

Lee September 2, 2006 at 5:49 pm

I don’t think there is a mischaracterisation. If American PhDs are so good, I have to ask why you’re here in Oxford. Ned Lebow came to Oxford in my first year and discussed his equivalent of the research design seminar, which for him was a depressing experience: asked why they had chosen their question, students invariably responded that they were either filling a gap in the literature, and/or doing something that would get them a job. That is no way to choose a thesis topic.

“Cumulative knowledge” as a disciplinary approach only works if it builds on genuine knowledge, as it does in the sciences. It does not do so in IR, simply because so much of the “knowledge” generated previously is wrong. Realism for instance fundamentally misses the point – see Rosenberg’s ‘Empire of Civil Society’ for a truly devastating critical theory critique. But also see just about any careful empirical study, virtually all of which refute the conclusions and assumptions of realism. And yet we are supposed to “fill gaps” in a literature dominated by this totally flawed school of thought and its descedants or competitors? American IR was obssessed for 10 years by the “debate” between neo-realism and neo-liberal institutionalism, which mirrored the so-called “differences” between the Democratic and Republican parties today, i.e., there wasn’t enough room between them to insert a cigarette paper, and what was being argued about was pointless. 10 years of totally wasted energy, because by the end, even the greatest proponents of NLI retreated to a position entirely consistent with neorealism… which even Waltz agrees isn’t a particularly good theory!!

What is the point in filling in gaps in a corpus of “knowledge” like that?

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