From what I’m told, this is one of the most difficult stages of PhD study: the literary review. The bounds of knowledge, whilst not infinite, are most definitely not discoverable; the more you seek, the more you realise is out there, waiting like a kraken in the murky depths. Not to mention that the rate of new knowledge creation far outstrips that which you’re able to absorb. So the mind-bendingly difficult central problem of a literary review is how to define a finite theoretical framework for your own research. Where will the boundaries lie, and what is deemed important enough to make the cut?
Of course, these boundaries are flexible and permeable. Over time, they will change and that is the nature of research during PhD candidature. When starting out however, it’s a case of finding it difficult to see either the trees or the forest: the scale of the task is so massive, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, but just as likely, you can quickly get caught up in some wild tangent that takes you so far down a rabbit hole, you have no idea how to get back out again, let alone where you first started. Aged primary texts pile up on your desk and you hope that you’ll start absorbing the knowledge through osmosis; reading them becomes to daunting a task to even begin.
If this is all starting to sound like a sad, self-indulgent rant, that’s probably fairly close to the mark. The main difficulty I’m finding at this stage, is that it’s so much about myself; the onerousness of self-direction as a PhD candidate. You can very quickly become your own worst enemy (I’ve got to read/learn/understand everything!) and in the early stages there isn’t the structure of deadlines and assessment that I’d become accustomed to as an undergraduate.
And so I’m now trying to inflict a deadline of sorts upon myself. I want to decide on the areas of research and start moving forward with more focus. What I’m realising is that it’s the practical part of my research which will define these boundaries more concretely. Like scientific research, it’s not what I choose to study philosophically that will lead the project, but the feedback and direction of the participatory observations which should show me where to look. Mine is an iterative process and will move back and forth between the practical and theoretical elements, each (hopefully) informing the other. To concern myself now with my place in an existing theoretical framework is perhaps causing me more stress than it’s worth.
How this will be accepted by the academics (my supervisors, the board I present to early next year, etc) remains to be seen. In a practice-based study, I see it as logical, if not vital, for research to quickly launch into the Real World. And not without precedent, I came across an interesting method of study from the sciences, called Action Research. From the academically frowned upon Wikipedia, this specific type of Action Research is also known as Cooperative Inquiry…
The major idea of cooperative inquiry is to “research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people.” It emphasizes that all active participants are fully involved in research decisions as co-researchers. Cooperative inquiry creates a research cycle among four different types of knowledge: propositional knowing (as in contemporary science), practical knowing (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential knowing (the feedback we get in real time about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational knowing (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). The research process includes these four stages at each cycle with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions, at every cycle.
What interests me about this feedback-loop-style approach is the inclusion of the researcher in the reflective process (fitting neatly with Cybernetics) and the importance of the participant(s) of the study in directing further iterations. The latter point is something that I take from my Honours work last year: the belief that the autistic child is best placed to decide on their own interests/wishes, not the outside, ‘objective’ viewer.
So this is my line in the sand and hopefully the start of a more productive direction for my study. Not a manifesto, but an effort to speak aloud and put some ideas on (virtual) paper, rather than bouncing around manically in my skull. Here’s to small victories.
Update: I realise that I probably got too serious there. Here is an owl in a large ice cream cone. Owls are the new cats; you heard it here first. Probably.
I hope his owl mates showed up and pecked this bloke to a Hitchcockian death.