Saturday, May 5, 2012

Research Questions and Depth

With the inexorable rise in the number of PhD students worldwide, it seems inevitable that the approval of PhD proposals and the reporting of progress becomes somewhat mechanistic. In determining whether a student is making sufficient progress we tend to ask whether the student has identified their research question or hypothesis, whether the literature review is underway etc.
In this posting I want to propose some criteria to help determine whether a given research question is likely to prove a sufficient basis for PhD rseearch.
A good research question should be one whose answer would be recognised as a contributon to knowledge in the subject discipline concerned. For this purpose, the terms of the research question should implicitly or explicitly
  • identify an area of knowledge in the discipline where knowledge is known to be partial
  • pose a question whose answer would fill a gap in that knowledge
  • give a means of evaluating the evidence obtained during the student's investigation
Thus, if readers of the research proposal consider that the answer to the research questions is already known in the discipline, or would not be of interest, then the research question needs to be replaced by one whose investigation will be more fruitful.
Most academic disciplines contain numerous areas where knowledge is known to have gaps, and a good research question should be expressed in terms that are sufficiently tightly defined to specify a suitably narrow area for investigation, preferably where some established methodologies would be recognised as useful. If the research question is no more precise than the title of theresearch, or merely indicates the discipline itself, then it does not meet this criterion.
Examples of bad research questions would trivially include:
  • Can further investigation of X yield useful results?
  • Are existing mechanisms for Y sufficient to achieve Z?
The objections to research questions of this type are twofold: First,  they are insufficiently precise: what sort of further investigation? useful in what way? which existing mechanisms? achieved in what way or to what extent? etc etc Second, the answers are almost always trivial: Yes and No respectively. Research questions of the form Which, what, why or how? would (always?) be more promising than those listed.
At the very least, the subject area outlined in the title of the research should be refined to indicate what aspects of the current state of knowledge are considered promising for the establishment of a contribution to knowedge (to have gaps).
Of course, the research question precedes the full literature review, where a more detailed review of the existing state of knowledge will be undertaken. The research question is intermediate in detail between the title, and the section giving dtails of the proposed investigation (research methodology). It should represent some progress on the title, and should be suitable for inclusion in some form in the abstract.

Monday, March 5, 2012


I was a teenager during the 1960s when in the UK there was a controversy sparked by Bishop J. A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963). This led me to Paul Tillich (1948) and other existentialists, at a time when my sixth form studies were encouraging me to learn something of philosophy.
I was not impressed by the approach to philosophy advanced by Descartes (1637) in the infamous cogito, ergo sum [1]. Assuming a single thinking entity rather than a changing one, seemed to me a post-hoc rationalisation, using, by habit, the mental mechanism which, applied to external phenomena, helps to explain why things happen: “I think, therefore of course I think that I exist”.
An intangible such as the self did not seem a promising starting-point for a method for discovering truth in the sciences: the thinking “I” is not simply reducible to the physical body or mental processes[2].
From mathematics at university, I became used to setting out definitions of concepts to be used in later discussion, and only later discovered how strange this mode of thought seems to many people. Working in the information systems area in the early 1990s, I introduced some definitions in a draft paper that I sent to a colleague who kindly offered comments. I was astonished that a definitional sentence reading “Information is what we know.” was returned to me with the word “is” circled. I expected the rest of that sentence to be of interest – information theory in Shannon’s (1949) style focuses on what we know at any instant. I had not meant to imply that information exists as an object in the real world. I quickly learned to write instead in phenomenological terms such as “The word ‘information’ is used here when some knowledge seems to have been gained in communication”.
Existence, real, material, and universe clearly mean amazingly different things to different people. For Plato’s nineteenth century translators, material things were merely visible, whereas intelligible concepts were real [3]. For Bertrand Russell, things such as numbers were real (see Irvine 2001); for his colleague Alfred North Whitehead, it was processes that constituted fundamental reality (see Rescher 2002); for Kant (1783) ideas were real; and for many religious people, the spiritual is real. Aristotle (325 BC) observed correctly that sensations do not exist independently of our perceiving of them [4] Berkeley (1710) incorrectly applied this doctrine to all material things on the basis that we know of them only through sensation. For Richard Rorty the world is real, but descriptions of it are debatable[5]. Different viewpoints for such basic concepts persist, and few discuss them, because there is allegedly no practical consequence of the difference in ontological perspective.
Carnap (1928), a positivist, put it this way: “Two geographers, a realist and an idealist, who are sent out in order to find out if a mountain that is supposed to be somewhere in Africa is only legendary or if it really exists, will come to the same … result not only about the existence of the mountain, but also about its other characteristics, namely position, shape, height, etc. In all empirical questions there is unanimity. Hence the choice of a philosophical viewpoint has no influence upon the content of natural science; (this does not mean that it could not have some practical influence upon the activity of the scientist).”
However, there was for most of the twentieth century a profound disagreement between the Bohm and Bohr interpretations of quantum mechanics. David Bohm would say that Schrödinger’s cat, supposedly in a sealed box in company with a deadly mechanism, is really either alive or dead, whereas Nils Bohr wants some intermediate mixed state until the box is opened (Cushing 1994); most people now seem to use Bohm’s interpretation [6]. For an earlier generation there had been a persistent incompatibility between the wave and particle theories of light.
Analogously, every writer in the information systems field has, it seems, their concepts of information, business organisation, system, different from everyone else[7]. As with metaphysics, the persistence of so many different philosophical standpoints in business studies seems to suggest that these differences are of no practical consequence for business. It is unfair to scoff, nevertheless, since so many of us aspire to intellectual rigour in our writing but cannot find definitions in the literature that suit our purpose and standpoint. My own definition of business organisation is of a phenomenological sort that I find congenial: I speak of a business organisation when I want to distinguish between the separate legal persona of an enterprise and the actions of individuals on its behalf (cf. Crowe et al 1994). In particular organizations and other systems are not real in my terms [8].
Reality for me is a serious issue, since it is what keeps our feet on the ground: and separates facts from imagination and other lies. Consider the following metaphysical framework:
1. Reality = the universe = material objects that can be seen and touched.
2. We can know of this “external world” only through such personal experience as seeing/touching things, somewhat more indirectly by using instruments such as telescopes, and even more indirectly by our understanding of what others tell us.
3. Concepts, ideas, processes, systems and laws are abstractions or generalisations and therefore are not real = do not exist of themselves.
This world of reality may seem cold and denuded, but it is warmed up by human and other interactions, which we are all very good at from birth. What we see is conditioned by what we think; and what we think, and how we express it in language, is developed through our interactions with others. These interactions enable us to build relationships, concepts, language, ideas, culture, as we learn about the opinions of other people at the same time as we develop our own [9]. We infer such notions as causality and repeatability from our experience: they are still our opinions, not givens and do seem to be culturally dependent. To me the modernists seem to take us back where each individual (unaided, ‘heroic’) confronts the cosmos, pure logic, transcendence or other grandiose notions that one finds in the philosophy of Descartes, Kant, and others.
Shared investigations and discussions are thus essential to intellectual progress, so
that we benefit from the work of others, and climb “on the shoulders of giants” [10]. Yet we have seen in many disciplines, including science, a lack of agreement on fundamental issues or concepts, even, one might say, in the absence of a common language. Now in fact analytical philosophers in the sterile English tradition often argued that a common language was difficult, if not impossible to establish (Wittgenstein, 1953). There used also to be a rather sterile debate about “incommensurability” in relation to historicist theories of knowledge. But here we find not just single disciplines, but, it would seem, all academic investigation, flourishing despite such apparent philosophical problems. It is reminiscent of the old Greek paradoxes, such as Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which he is said to have claimed proved the impossibility of motion.
Paradoxes generally cause intellectuals to think how to avoid such an impasse. Thus Zeno’s paradoxes led to a more careful mathematics of infinite series, as Russell’s led to a more rigorous formalism in mathematics.
In the academic community, it is almost because of the need to explain our evidence in terms that overcome these differences of individual point of view, that we establish a common academic style of presenting our ideas. We behave in a manner reminiscent of the School of Athens, where we are all entitled to filter ideas, to reinterpret them using our own conceptual framework, and to modify all of this as we go along. In this respect, the intellectual discussion and debate of the academic community is no different from the way that children learn language and other cultural matters in interaction with adults and other children. We can thus get beyond our personal opinions to a shared culture: where we may choose either to moderate our view of certain matters to conform to an emerging consensus or to promote our view of some matter in the hope of reaching a more congenial consensus.
Looking back to the School of Athens, it is clearer to us maybe than to its participants that their approach could never lead to objective truth, however much their arguments and methods benefited from the continual dialogue and debate. Although Francis Bacon, in his Instauratio Magna, set out to re-establish the whole of knowledge on a sound footing of rigorous enquiry, he envisaged cyclical processes of gathering and examining evidence and debate. The process he began has achieved such a magnificent temple of knowledge that it is as foolish to imagine that there is any admission test for knowledge to ensure it is demonstrably, necessarily true, as it is to imagine that “the individual” can construct anything from an unaided contemplation of the cosmos.
This social construction of knowledge precludes the attainment of objectivity [11]or universal truth (except in the empty tautologies of formal mathematics) – this is “the world well lost” [12] (Stove, 1991). Everything new and much that is old is provisional and open to debate, not in the sense of being subject to imminent falsification, but in the sense of requiring first to be generally accepted and later to be improved or replaced. If we do not own up to our starting-points, opinions and bias, others will infer them for us. This pragmatic approach leads to objections from all sides (Rorty, 1989); both from those who (maybe justifiably) mistrust any academic establishment (“governmentality” is Michel Foucault’s term), and from those who, following Habermas, wish to prove the falsity of opinions they (maybe justifiably) dislike. The postmodern stands accused of relativisim, where anything goes [13], but no shortcuts in the process ever seem to work: even simple discoveries in the physical sciences routinely take forty years to be accepted [14]. Since everything hinges on discussion and debate the excitement it engenders is so much the greater: The social construction of knowledge also precludes the popular and flattering image of the scientist as genius. For the scientist a good road is one open to all, and the scientific method demands the modesty of asserting that anyone else, with the same starting points, could have reached the same conclusions. This modesty is balanced by the homage that the community pays to the great contributors to knowledge. We strengthen this virtuous circle whenever we exhort students to give proper references and reviews of the literature, and by our anathema of plagiarism.
So when I consider why academics do research, I think of participation in the joy of discovery and debate, the creation of new knowledge, and the timeless academe.

Aristotle (325 BC) Metaphysics.
Bacon, F. (1620), Instauratio Magna, London.
Berger, P., Luckman, T. (1966): The Social Construction of Reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge, Doubleday, New York.
Berkeley, G (1710) A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge; publ Works, ed. A C Fraser, Oxford (1901)
Burton, R (1624) The Anatomy of Melancholy, 2nd edition, London
Carnap, R. (1928): Der Logische Aufbau der Welt; English version The Logical Structure of the World - Pseudoproblems in Philosophy University of California, Berkeley (1967)
Checkland, P.B., Holwell, S. (1998): Information, Systems and Information Systems: making sense of the field, Wiley, Chichester.
Crowe, M. K., Beeby, R.B., Gammack, J. G. (1994): Constructing Systems and Information: a process view, McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead.
Cushing, J. T. (1994): Quantum Mechanics: historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony, University of Chicago Press
Dennett, D. C. (1991): Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books, London
Descartes, R. (1637), Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verité dans les sciences, Paris
Descartes, R. (1641), Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animae immortalitas demonstrantur, Paris
Gjertsen, D. (1989) Science and Philosophy: Past and Present, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Hume, D. (1739), Treatise on Human Nature, John Noon, London.
Irvine, A. D. (2001); "Bertrand Russell", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
Kant, I. (1783) Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können; English version, Cambridge, 1997
Lonergan, B. (1957) Insight: A study of human understanding, Longmans, London
Merton, Robert K. (1965) On the shoulders of giants, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Plato (360-350 BC) Works
Rescher, N. (2002); "Process Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Robinson, J. A. T. (1963): Honest to God, John Knox Press, Westminster
Rorty, R. (1979): Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press; (1980) Blackwell, Oxford.
Rorty, R. (1982): Consequences of Pragmatism, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.
Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony, Solidartity, Cambridge University Press.
Salisbury, J. (1159), Metalogicon
Shannon, C. E, Weaver, W. (1949): The Mathematical Theory of Communication, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Stove, D. (1991): The Plato Cult and other Philosophical Follies, Blackwell, Oxford.
Tillich, P. (1948), The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books, London
Wittgenstein, L. (1953): Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford.

1. The phrase is not actually found in his works. The Discours is in French: “Mais, aussitôt après, je pris garde que, pendant que je voulais ainsi penser que tout était faux, il fallait nécessairement que moi, qui le pensais, fusse quelque chose. Et remarquant que cette vérité: je pense, donc je suis, était si ferme et si assurée, que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des sceptiques n’étaient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvais la recevoir, sans scrupule, pour le premier principe de la philosophie, que je cherchais.” Descartes (1637) IV: 1, cf 3. The later Meditations on Metaphysics (Descartes 1641) are in Latin, and also cover this ground, but do not actually contain the cogito. The Meditations have an interesting subtitle about proving the existence of God and the immortal soul, which calls into question Descartes’ modern reputation as a rationalist, and recalls Socrates’ equally fallacious final arguments (Plato: Phaedo 64-105). For a modern example of the cogito starting-point used in pursuit of similar ends, consider Lonergan (1957), and see a list of similar philosophical crimes in Stove (1991).

2. David Hume (1739) is sceptical (positivist): “He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself, though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” Positivists imposed strict limits to what can be discussed. For a convincing phenomenological account of consciousness, see Dennett (1991).

3. Plato, Republic τούτοις μὲν ὡς εἰκόσιν αὐ̂ χρώμενοι, ζητου̂ντες [511a] δὲ αὐτὰ ἐκει̂να ἰδει̂ν ἃ οὐκ ἂν ἄλλως ἴδοι τις ἢ τῃ̂ διανοία. [My translation: these things they treat in their turn as only images, in order to visualise ideas which are entirely in the mind] Plato is clearly contrasting the sensible and intelligible worlds, but the standard translation of this passage mistranslates ἰδει̂ν as “realities”!

4. οὔτε γὰρ ψυχρὸν οὔτε θερμὸν οὔτε γλυκὺ οὔτε ὅλως αἰσθητὸν οὐθὲν ἔσται μὴ αἰσθανομένων [Neither the cold nor the hot nor the sweet nor in general any sensation will exist unless we are perceiving it] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book ix, 1047a, my translation. The usual translation of αἰσθητὸν as “sensible thing” seems to me quite misleading.

5.Rorty (1989) “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

6. The physicists who taught me seem to have favoured Bohm while mathematics lecturers followed Bohr and Dirac.

7. See Checkland and Holwell (1998) for a survey of this phenomenon. For system, the only important idea for me is emergence, which seems very simple to me. For example a triangle is made up of three lines, but the area of the triangle is an emergent property of the triangle (not possessed by the lines). A car has a maximum speed and a fuel consumption in miles per gallon, but these properties are emergent since none of the parts has properties remotely like these. Such an idea seems familiar to Aristotle, cf. Metaphysics Book XIII (1078a) ὁ δ' ἔθετο ἓν ἀδιαίρετον, εἰ̂τ' ἐθεώρησεν εἴ τι τῳ̂ ἀνθρώπῳ συμβέβηκεν ᾑ̂ ἀδιαίρετος: assumes [man] to be an indivisible thing, and considers attributes of man as indivisible. (My translation.) He does not seem ever to have said that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which seems to be a twentieth century coinage.

8. This was a point of view which my co-authors were at pains to conceal in Crowe et al (1994).

9. This viewpoint is that of constructivism (Berger and Luckman,1966).

10. This famous aphorism is usually attributed to Newton, but it is much older. Robert Burton (1624) gives a somewhat inaccurate quotation in Latin from tom. II, cap. x of a commentary on Luke by Diego de Estella, 1524-1578, published in Salamanca in 1575 (Some reprints of this book, e.g. Antwerp 1622 gave the author’s name as Didacus Stella). The oldest surviving occurrence of the dwarfs and giants image seems to be in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon (1159), III 4, citing Bernard of Clairvaux: “Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos gigantum umeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora uidere, non utique proprii uisus acumine aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subuehimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantium.”

11. All disparagement of objectivity was edited out of (Crowe et al 1994) by my co-authors, who, probably rightly, felt that it would be easier for readers from a scientific background to accept a constructivist viewpoint than a subjective one. I did not see much practical difference, though one or two nice quotations were, sadly, lost in the change.

12. Richard Rorty (1982) includes “The World Well Lost”, The Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972) p. 649-665. The title refers to the central thesis of (Rorty 1979), refuting Carnap’s “correspondence principle” (the mirror of nature).

13. “No one holds this view… The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between … opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” Rorty (1982), ‘Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism’.

14. Newton published his experiments on the chromatic nature of white light in 1672, but the results were not accepted by the scientific community until 1714 (Gjertsen, 1989, p.191). More recent examples include the periodic table, special relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, neutron stars, and black holes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social Science Research Questions

contributed by Lisa Garnham

I think there really is something of a tension in setting research questions or hypotheses in the social sciences. On the one hand, you need to have a good, clear indication of what it is you are doing (even if you are following grounded theory or doing exploratory research) and how you are practically going to achieve that goal. This is essential, not just so that you feel as though what you are doing has 'purpose' but also so that you can justify your approach and methods to your supervisor, your peers and others. In particular, having a solid research objective that you fully understand and are comfortable with will help you to think laterally about your methods and approach and will allow you to stand your ground if you want to do things a particular way and someone (e.g. your supervisor) disagrees with you. Putting your thoughts on your objectives into writing and forcing yourself to articulate them for others to see, understand and critique is vital. On the other hand, setting things in stone too early can be hazardous. As you move through your literature review and your method, you might see other opportunities opening up or find that your initial objective isn't the aspect of your research you are most interested in. Personally, my approach has been to change my objectives when these sorts of things happen, mostly because I know that, if I don't, I'll be forever distracted by the things I could have been researching or the questions I could have been addressing. At the end of the day, your research questions must encompass aspects of your research that you actually genuinely have an interest in discovering the 'answers' to - this is what will drive you to actually complete your PhD, instead of getting to the end of your literature review and then feeling like you've read a lot of interesting things but feel a little disheartened about what you might actually have to say on the subject.

A large part of how you go about setting these objectives depends on your supervisory team, your background and approach to research, the field of study its self and how clearly delineated your project was when you started. You may have very little scope to make your own mark on your objectives, if they are already heavily prescribed. In my case, the objective was very broad and I have ended up with objectives quite different from those originally envisaged by my supervisor. Whatever your particular situation, my advice is threefold:

1. Make sure you properly understand your research questions AND the conclusions you are likely to be able to come to within the confines of your PhD. If you don't you are almost guaranteed to become either lost or disillusioned with your work. Your PhD is unlikely to have a major impact within your discipline BUT other researchers in your field will be interested in what you have to say - make sure you pitch your objectives right and understand fully how your work might be of interest to others in your field and beyond.

2. Make your objectives 'your own', even if only in a small way. Draw on your degree, postgraduate work or work experience and try to bring something of 'you' to the table, particularly something that your supervisory team might not be overly familiar with. It will give you personal satisfaction to know you have made a tangible theoretical contribution and help foster your interest in the topic and your drive to complete.

3. Don't even try and get your research objectives 'right' first time. Set them up clearly and properly at the beginning and revisit them every three months. Properly pick them apart on these occasions, critique them, force yourself to consider how relevant they are, how much you really care about them and whether you can really address them on your own (warning: don't do this if you're already having a bad day!). Amend them - no need to make wholesale changes, just a few tweaks here and there and then print them out and put them on the wall above your desk. This isn't something that everyone can do, it really does depend on your PhD/supervisory set-up and you may have to consult your supervisor on any changes you make. But if you can, I wholeheartedly recommend constantly revising and amending your objectives, especially as the process keeps them almost permanently at the forefront of your mind when you are doing your research. At least have a critical conversation with your supervisory team about them at your annual report meetings.

To give you an idea of how much objectives can change and a PhD can still be considered to be progressing adequately, I've supplied a scattering of my own examples:

At 12-week review:
"The excess mortality experienced by the Scottish population relative to the rest of the UK and other deindustrialised areas of the UK is known as the ‘Scottish Effect’. This is comprised of the poor health outcomes of the Scottish population that cannot be attributed to poverty or deindustrialisation (unemployment, underemployment, poor urban environment etc) but must have other causes specific to Scotland. This problem is especially prevalent in the West of Scotland/Strathclyde. This study will explore how the policies of the Thatcher government may be connected to these specifically Scottish health problems. An hypothesis has already been put forward by Collins and McCartney (2009), which will be used as a basic map that will be developed as the study progresses. The aim will be to explore these issues to the extent that connections are well supported by field evidence, by way of both qualitative and quantitative data.
The field work element of this study is still in its infancy, but at this stage is likely to involve neighbourhood or small town case studies, e.g. Clydebank, as a test bed for the hypothesis. Analysis will be undertaken on 2-3 such areas in Scotland, with the possibility of comparison areas being chosen from the rest of the UK and Europe. Initially quantitative analysis on existing health, poverty, employment and housing data will be undertaken for each area. Issues raised by this analysis will be explored by way of interviews, focus groups and other ethnographic methods, such as observation."

At ethics application (8 months):
"This project aims to explore the ways in which the environment and society can affect our health, with a specific focus on what may have caused differences in health to emerge between places where the measurement of risk factors provides little clarity. Particular emphasis will be placed on the influence of the neoliberal agenda on place and place-making activities since the 1980s for the population of the West of Scotland. Attention will be focussed on how those features of neoliberalism explicit in the landscape can become embodied in people, thereby affecting their health.
This leads us to three key research questions:
What are the effects of neoliberalism on different places?
What are the consequences of place and place-making on health in the West of Scotland?
How does place-making and its effect on health vary between people and neighbourhoods?
Quantitative data will enable analysis of the ways in which neoliberalism has affected spaces, economic circumstances and attitudes towards certain spaces and so will ground this project in an ‘abstract’ reality (Leung et al. 2004). The exploration of the effects of place on health is centred on both social constructionist and advocacy world views: there is simultaneously an acknowledgement that people construct their own ‘reality’ (to a certain extent) but that specialist knowledges are sometimes vital to enable people to use their knowledge constructively and communally. Therefore, a qualitative approach will be a fusion of phenomenological and grounded theory, incorporating the importance of the lived experience and meaning in the construction and elaboration of the theory framework."

At 12-month review:
"Main Research Objective:
To explore the extent to which the concept of place, and geographical theory more widely, be usefully mobilised in developing an understanding of the ways in which neoliberalism can affect health.
Research Question A:
What have been and are the effects of neoliberalism and its implementation on particular neighbourhoods in Clydebank? How do neighbourhoods with different histories, demographics and infrastructures compare to one another?
Research Question B:
How do the residents of particular neighbourhoods in Clydebank perceive the effects of their neighbourhood on their health and the health of other members of their community? How do neighbourhoods with different histories, demographics and infrastructures compare to one another?
Research Question C:
Drawing on A and B together, to what extent can neoliberalism be considered a contributing factor in the emergence of the Scottish Effect?"

At Transfer (20 months):
"Main Research Objective:
To explore the extent to which the concept of place (as a lens) could be usefully mobilised in developing an understanding of the ways in which politics affects health.
Research Question A:
How does Clydebank refract and express neoliberalism and how has this developed since the 1970s?
Research Question B:
How have the socio-political forces expressed in Clydebank affected the habitus and, therefore, the health of those living and working there since the 1970s?
Research Question C:
Drawing on A and B together, to what extent could neoliberalism or a political attack be considered a contributing factor in the emergence of the Scottish Effect?"

At 24-month Review:
"Objective A
To develop and evaluate an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that can be used to explore the relationships between socio-political change, place and health, in the context of the Scottish Effect. The following research questions, which relate directly to the prototype framework already drawn from the literature review will guide this objective:
Research Question A1
How might a place ‘refract’ and express neoliberalism and how might this have developed since the 1970s?
Research Question A2
How might the socio-political forces expressed in a place have affected the habitus and, therefore, the health of those living and working there since the 1970s?
Objective B
To generate new insights into the potential causes of the Scottish Effect and, thus, make tentative policy recommendations, in respect of both health policy and general social and economic policy."

There are lots of things changing and going on here, but there are two key changes. The first is that we started out thinking I would do a comparative study. By the 12 month report (although I think I was still clinging to this idea that I would do something comparative) I'm doing a single in depth case study. Secondly, the role of geographical theory gets stronger and stronger as we go through and the research questions become more and more specific to the ideas and theories I came across and decided were important during my literature review. I did a Geography degree and my supervisor teaches Politics - it took us about a year to get a point where I knew enough about the topic to understand how my previous experience might fit in with the PhD topic - and I'm still trying to fully figure that out. This is what I mean about not being afraid to change your objectives as you get deeper into your research! As you review other's ideas, carry out your field work and start to realise your 'findings' new questions will emerge. If you are flexible enough (and not overly ambitious) you will be able to grab these opportunities and work them into your objectives, giving a fuller and more relevant contribution to knowledge.

Feel free to email me with any questions/comments you might have!

Lisa Garnham
PhD Researcher

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How to examine a PhD thesis

In the UK and most European countries a PhD in a subject is the way to gain entry to serious academic discussions of that discipline. The structure of the PhD examination is designed to achieve this. The two criteria are:

(a) does the thesis make a contribution to knowledge?

(b) is the candidate a reliable member of the academic discipline?

As you can see, both the thesis and the person are being examined. Both aspects are crucial.

The understanding of what is a contribution to knowledge, across almost all disciplines, is that the candidate has conducted a systematic investigation into a question of interest to the academic discipline and has established a new (surprising) result. The words "systematic" and "established" imply that the thesis contains a rational defence of the result, which a sceptical member of the academic discipline will find convincing.

For the second criterion, about the person, examiners will start with the literature review that the thesis contains. The examiners will want to see that it includes references to all previous material that is directly relevant to establishing the new contribution, including papers that prompted the research and provided the framework or starting points, and papers that have reported results that appear relevant to the investigation. The way that these papers are reviewed is important: the PhD examiners will carefully consider the fairness and accuracy of the candidate's judgements on these previous contributions to the subject. Are any important contributions missing from the review? Are the candidate's judgements of the work of others well-founded?

In both cases, in the viva voce examination the examiners will probe any areas of doubt.

For the quality of the investigation and the reliability of the conclusions the examiners will want to check the research methodology and the coherence of the argument. A thesis is well-argued if all statements made in the thesis either are previously established knowledge or have been established by the candidate's investigation. There should not be repetition or non-sequiturs. The methodology and the breadth of the investigation will be satisfactory if they support the claims that are made for the generality of the conclusions. That is, even if the evidence that has been gathered has been correctly evaluated, what confidence can there be that further evidence would not yield different results?

For the adequacy of the candidate's knowledge and judgement, the examiners will carefully consider the list of references supplied and the way they are dealt with in the literature review. All bona fide members of the academic discipline will immediately notice any important omissions, especially of recent work relevant to the thesis. For the purposes of the thesis while it is important to acknowledge the first source of an idea, it is even more important to cite more recent work. And irrelevant material should not be included, as this would indicate that the candidate does not really understand the academic discipline.

So, in a typical case a PhD examiner will start with the research overview (typically in Chapter 1), will check whether a contribution to knowledge is claimed at all (first and last chapters) and if so, whether it really is a worthwhile contribution to knowledge. If the research turns out not to be in an area of interest to the examiner, or there is no contribution to knowledge, the process may well stop at this stage.

Next the examiner will consider the list of references, and then work in detail through the thesis, making careful notes. These notes will generally be of the following kinds:

(1) typographical or grammatical errors, or other inappropriate use of language

(2) factual errors about the academic discipline or its history, gaps in the reasoning or unsubstantiated assertions

(3) missing or irrelevant references or inappropriate comments on literature

(4) poor methodology or evaluation, or over-enthusiastic generalisation

Finally the examiner will check that the abstract is an accurate summary of the thesis, and return to the two criteria mentioned at the start of this article.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What size is a PhD?

Research, and contributions to knowledge, do not come in standard sizes. The unit of currency varies by discipline, and some research projects take a lifetime, while some discoveries are made quite suddenly.
PhDs, however, have a constraint: they are designed to finish within 3-4 years of full time work by a new researcher. It is not just a matter of a contribution to knowledge (albeit small) but whether the contribution to knowledge is enough to merit a PhD.
So in addition to the qualitative judgements about orginality, rigour, novelty there are some important quantitative issues:
Is the scope to wide or too narrow? Do we need to triangulate with some more fieldwork? Do we need a further caser study? etc etc.
These quantitive judgements by the supervisors and examiners are justified by appealing to the qualitative issue about whether the conclusions has been "established" on the basis of the evidence used, or require further work.
Each discipline has its traditions about whether negative results represent contributions to knowledge, what sample sizes are required, whether the conclusions based on one study can really apply to other scenarios etc.
And of course, all research requires further work.
But while PhD students may be entitled as a last resort to submit in defiance of advice from supervisors, it is not to be recommended. Although this is yet another area where there are no clear rules, there tends to be a strong consensus among academic examiners from any particular discipline. And they are likely to ask about the progress of the research: what were the initial objectiives, what advice was received, what were the opportunities and setbacks? Why, in the end, was this particular result set deemed worthy of submission?
And of course, has any external body, conference, journal been impressed?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Agents and Bee Foraging

Some recent work at UWS was inspired by the real or imagined activities of a colony of foraging bees. Things got awkward when the model that was being used for experiments turned out to be different from the way bees actually forage. The supervisors said “all models are wrong, but some are useful” and of course wanted to explore the proposed approach, but the student largely lost interest. To my surprise, some readers felt that the study of unnatural systems was intrinsically repugnant, and that the story illustrated the need for science and religion to work hand in hand.
Suppose that a multi-agent system, with the task of looking for a particular sort of cluster in a large data set, observes a potential sub-cluster. We can imagine an automated step of spawning a new agent trained to look for further evidence of such a cluster. However, it is a bit fanciful to think of this new agent as a specially trained infant bee, as bees may learn the habits of the nest, but do not seem to receive the sort of individual instruction found in species with nuclear families. Other work at UWS examined the development of language in interacting groups of automata, and the introduction of a new word in that experiment is not unlike the introduction of a new agent in this one, since the introduction of the word implies a new subset of individuals that use it.
Leaving aside the biological inspiration, could a commercial system be imagined with similar properties? We could imagine such a system working in the data centre of a large supermarket or bank. If new agents can be spawned in this way, there would undoubtedly be issues of monitoring or control. A novel data cluster might result in a massive generation of new agents which might appear as unexpected additional activity in the system. In a commercial data centre it is possible that such an event would lead to suspicions of an intrusion or system fault.
If the autonomous agents are required to do a lot of status reporting to explain what they are up to, the additional monitoring traffic might create so many external messages as to call into question the wisdom of using agents. On the other hand, if the reporting traffic was cleverly aggregated within the swarm, a coherent report could be made to a monitor that a particular observation led to the deployment of 123,000 agents to investigate the possible existence of a new cluster, and this activity had now ended. Some computing systems build this sort of observable surface over chaotic, Brownian, internal motion; just as the apparently random behaviour of autonomous bees creates a regular-shaped nest. For example, network management systems aggregate event reports that have a shared cause, and (doubtless) Microsoft’s performance reporting systems do something similar.
In this way, the investigation of circumstances for and rules for the creation of a new agent leads to a new and interesting control problem, where the new problem is that of explaining the new situation that has arisen, in terms that make sense to those who have not been tracking all the details…

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Scholarship 2.0

During August Reinventing Academic Publishing Online appeared on Scholarship 2.0. It is a polemic against what its authors see as an exclusive establishment consisting of the "top academic journals" that only the richest universities can afford, and a self-serving institutional system that distorts the academic process in order to make the job of funding bodies and appointing committees easier.
Now there are many misguided people who think that there are such things as "top academic journals" where the best computing research is to be found, and regrettably some of these people do appear to hold positions of power and influence. But the fault is theirs alone.
I believe strongly in the value of computing research conferences: but the large ones have pursued profit at the expense of discrimination. It is easy to find dreadful papers presented at even the best conferences, with half-baked ideas and without results or any pretence at evaluation. But it is precisely the Web and Web 2.0 that allows us to find quality independently of the vehicle used for publication.
I have been following with some interest the response in UK academia to the recent Research Assessment Exercise. The Computing panel noted that excellent articles were to be found in journals with low impact factors, and conversely. They were astonished at the huge number (1247) of refereed journals that submitted articles had appeared in, and were amazed that relatively few university departments had submitted conference publications. They restated their policy that conference papers could be just as good as those found in the "top-rated journals".
Interested readers can follow this debate in the Conference of Heads and Professors of Computing and the consultation about the Research Excellence Framework.
Not only is their analysis of the last RAE excellent: so are the proposals for the next RAE, which will recognise that originality, rigour and impact are not usually found in a single publication. So let's just get on with the research, and leave the task of re-inventing academic publication to those who have time for it.
(Update 9 Nov: and in the meantime, join, which looks like a good Web 2.0 scholarship repository!)