I’ve spent the morning packing for my move to Goldsmiths where I’m beginning my PhD study next week and filling in the endless forms and paperwork of academia. Tomorrow I’m heading back to Glasgow to hand in my dissertation and all the library books I vainly attempted to steal away. It made me think that now would be an opportune moment to reflect on the huge distance travelled during my MRes in Sociology and Research Methods.
Prior to beginning the degree I hadn’t really done any proper social science research. My PGCE involved some observation research, and a bigger case study style research project which used participant observation, questionnaires and interviews to gather data. But it was done in a very loose sort of way, where the emphasis was on pedagogy rather than social science research skills. My MLitt in English Literature involved reading lots of Agatha Christie, which was marvellous but doesn’t really set you up to research anything in sociology. What I’m going to cover in this blog is my process of learning research skills and the ways in which blogging became both a benefit and a challenge.
My programme covered qualitative (advanced and basic) and statistical skills in researching problems and handling data. I was introduced to many new perspectives – though mostly this came in terms of the formalized processes for researching in a particular way and the epistemological and ontological foundations of certain methods. The modules I took really allowed me to flesh out burgeoning ideas and ‘going underneath’ the methodologies enabled me to think critically about social science as an intellectual and practical activity. However, there were significant elements of really getting to grips with social science research that formal taught classes didn’t allow for. This is where blogging/micro-blogging helped me. For instance, the set up of the class was such that genuinely probing discussions with class mates weren’t always possible. For this reason I often came out of the lecture feeling that I would have liked to challenge certain aspects more thoroughly. I found that a good remedy for this was to read other researchers’ blogs, especially those which catalogue and reflect on their own processes of research. Equally asking these questions on Twitter (which I’m citing here as a micro-blog) ended up in a more fruitful discussion than was had in class. Not only is the academic community on Twitter incredibly diverse, it is also very active and supportive. My experience was that the questions I couldn’t get answered in class were easily debated on Twitter. More than just this, it was possible to discuss methodologies with people outside my primary discipline of sociology.
In terms of formal blogging, I found my own blog weirdly less useful than blogging for other people. During my MRes I’ve done book reviews for the LSE Review of Books (which I guess is a sort of blog), a conference report for the Gender and Education Association, and been the Accidental Sociologist on The Sociological Imagination. Doing the book reviews was excellent. Not only do you get a free book (and what academic doesn’t love a free book?) but you also become extremely practiced at close readings of others’ critical positions. You begin to be far more attuned to the extent to which an argument is problematic, or solid. Further to this the need to ground book reviews in an overview of the subject area keeps you up to date with developments and current practices. The skills involved in doing book reviews are essentially the same skills you need to succeed at your dissertation/PhD literature review.
Similarly the conference report I did for the GEA was useful in comprehending the range of perspectives and research being undertaken. Reflecting on the conference and on the forms of methodology used to discuss the same events (in this case the UK riots of 2011) helped me later on when deciding how I wanted to pursue my PhD. Having seen certain methodologies being used and taking the time to assess the relationship between the methodology and the epistemology, for the blog post, I was better equipped to link my own research with the best possible way of doing it.
Blogging as the Accidental Sociologist has been vital for my research skills. Because I came to sociology from another discipline I often felt like other people who had done undergraduate sociology were so much better off in terms of research skills than I was. More than anything they were simply used to hearing the language, used to the taken for granted assumptions that are made when everyone thinks they’re talking to like-minded folk. Now whilst I was certainly epistemologically like-minded, I had no preconceptions about research methods and why some may or may not be appropriate in a given situation. The Accidental Sociologist blog enabled me to voice concerns about my own position. Writing it called attention to issues of crossing or merging disciplines and resulted not only in significant offers of help, but also responses that furthered the debate around interdisciplinarity. These conversations played a large role in me being able to understand my own place in sociology, what my research was trying to do, where I might fit in and this all worked to give me confidence in my own critiques and epistemological bases.
On the other hand….despite my enthusiasm for blogging I have found that I lack the time to do a huge amount of it. I simply don’t understand where people who blog every day – or even every week – get the motivation, time and energy from. Additionally, there were often things that I simply wanted to mull over privately. Frequently these ended up on Twitter in some form and were then interestingly discussed. I’ve come to realize recently that micro-blogging via Twitter has been much more sustainable and has had greater rewards for me, than having my own blog. I’m also increasingly worried about putting out personal information, ideas or anything confessional. I think when blogging it’s very important to keep a clear, consistent and professional image. My Twitter is fairly open – I discuss Strictly Come Dancing and my martini fetish as much as I do critical theory or social justice. I think it’s crucial to be neither solely academic (which is very boring indeed) but also not too open. Imagine potential employers or funding panels reading your blog and question whether you think they’d want to know you. I’m also becoming more protective of my research. I’m conflicted regarding how much of my work to put online when it comes to then using this work to get published. I’d like to make my research open and accessible but I’d also like (nay, need) to get published and get a job. There is a happy medium I’m sure.
For the future I suspect that I’m going to be looking more towards guest blogging for other people as a way of bolstering my research skills. What I like about this path is that I can dip into the many aspects of sociology I find engaging and use this interest to begin conversations with other people. Because each blog usually has a remit or some guidelines, you’re compelled to think about your research in a certain way. For me, this ends up in being a reflection on the methodology-epistemology relationship and it’s incredibly productive. I’d certainly recommend any postgraduate student engaged with blogging. There are significant resources out there on other people’s blogs, and contributing to these or writing your own gives space to critically consider and question your own opinions and assumptions.