Writing a Doctoral Thesis Differently for Social Justice

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Focus Research Social GoodResearch for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. We are delving into this broad topic with guest posts, interviews, and links to articles or Management Learninginstructional resources.

This guest post is by Dr. Ruth Weatherall. After reading her article, “Writing the doctoral thesis differently,” I asked Ruth to tell us more. The article is available open access until January 5, 2019.

Writing a doctoral thesis (or dissertation) is a testament to years of anxiety, excitement, confusion, terror, and passion. A thesis is, however, much more than just an output of learning. It is a formative process through which a doctoral student learns what it means to be a researcher. My decision to write my thesis differently inspired me to think deeply about the conventions and procedures of doctoral writing. How is it that doctoral students write? What conventions govern them? And how could doctoral writing be done differently to be more ethically and politically engaged?

Conducting the ethnographic fieldwork for my doctoral thesis broke my heart. My study involved volunteering with a domestic violence organisation, looking at how social change is achieved in and through community organisations. Throughout my research I was committed to the social justice cause of my participants; ending violence against women. When I sat down to write my doctoral thesis, however, I found that the conventional structure and writing style of the thesis was constraining for this task. The mess, emotion, and violence of my ethnographic experience was excluded, and I struggled to create an affective, as well as intellectual, connection with my reader.

So I decided to write the thesis differently. And I encourage other doctoral students to reflect on their writing in relation to their ethical and political commitments as emerging researchers.

JS Why reconsider the conventions of writing a doctoral thesis?

RW Through writing the thesis doctoral students learn what it means to be a researcher in their field. As I began the process of writing my thesis, I felt obligated to follow the conventional structure in the social science (introduction, literature review, methodology, findings, discussion, conclusion and contributions), and found this is what ‘PhD self-help books’ encouraged. I felt a particular formal and masterful style of writing was necessary if I ever was to become a legitimated researcher.

But these conventions were limiting.

That formal and objective style I was adopting was marginalising the mess, emotion, and feeling of my research. The linear structure was relegating certain vital dimensions of my research – like my ethical approach – to narrowly defined places in the research process. My social justice commitments became lost in the sea of literature, and I knew that my participants would struggle to see themselves in the thesis; at least until the later sections.

If I was to embody my social justice commitments and become a socially responsible researcher, I came to realise I would have to reconsider these conventions and write differently.

JS What can writing the doctoral thesis differently offer emerging researchers?

RW In order to respect my social justice commitments to my colleagues and their working lives, I integrated three writing strategies into my thesis:

Writing strategy Social justice commitment
Write in emotional dimensions of research and maintain a personal tone Foster affective connections between the reader, the writer, and victims of violence
Oscillate between theoretical and empirical material throughout the thesis; including theoretical material when it becomes salient Dislocate the privileged place of the researcher and theory in academic work so that multiple forms of knowledge are valued
Adopt a non-linear structure for the thesis that reflects the nature of the research Recreate the textures of our experience so that the complexities of women’s working lives are acknowledged and respected

Through these strategies I found that not only could I give voice to social justice concerns through what I wrote, but I could actively embody socially responsible scholarship through how I was writing the thesis.

JS What are the challenges to writing the doctoral thesis differently?

RW The decision to write my thesis differently wasn’t easy. Doctoral students don’t write in a vacuum. There are intersecting pressures which can preclude writing differently:

  • There is the pressure to lay foundations for a future career by conducting doctoral work with publication in mind
  • My cohort of research students all had very different ideas on what a thesis entails or should include; it was hard to think my decision was the right one when my peers were hesitant
  • Although my supervisors were immensely supportive when I finally gathered courage to share my ideas, I was aware that they were ‘gatekeepers’ to my writing differently

Such concerns made it difficult to write differently, even when the conventional structure and style was limiting. But through opening up the conversation about writing differently, I was able to find others who were supportive of novel and creative initiatives.

How might other doctoral students being to reconsider their doctoral writing?

RW I encourage other doctoral students (and their supervisors and examiners!) to reflect on and question the relevance of conventional strategies for their ethical and political commitments. A few questions to get started include:

  • What sort of researcher do I want to become? Doctoral writing should incorporate our ethical and political commitments. Our writing should embody the type of researcher we wish to be.
  • What ways of writing differently established in the literature could I draw on? There is a rich literature in the social science about writing differently, which can be a starting point for writing the doctoral thesis differently. For example, doctoral students might find the literature about writing through storytelling, fictocriticism, or fiction to echo their ethical and political commitments.
  • Who am I writing for? Our research often has a duty to include those beyond our immediate academic circle. My participants inspired me to write differently. My research was for them, and for other victims of violence. The doctoral thesis can be an act of inclusion of those typically excluded from accessing academic work.

If doctoral students start by asking such questions, we can develop novel ways of integrating ethical and political commitments into doctoral work. Writing the doctoral thesis differently can offer new possibilities for doctoral researchers to contribute to social justice through how they write, and can support emerging researchers to embody socially responsible scholarship.

More about Ruth Weatherall

Ruth Weatherall is an Early Career Researcher at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School, recently having completed her PhD at Victoria University of Wellington about the relationships between identity and change in a feminist domestic violence organisation. Recently she has published in Management Learning in the writing differently special issue on how doctoral students can challenge the conventions of writing a thesis. Her research is broadly concerned with how social justice, particularly related to gender inequality, is achieved in and through community organisations. Central to her work is how people, particularly women, creatively and democratically interact with one another to foster and disseminate ways of organising that are alternative to capitalism, neoliberalism, and hierarchy. She is interested in feminist, queer, and ethical perspectives on a range of social justice issues including domestic and sexual violence, pay inequality, and precarious work.

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