The problem of finishing
When is a work finished? I was pondering this question at Edinburgh’s National Gallery while viewing an exhibition of Jenny Saville’s extraordinary paintings last month. I heard a couple discussing whether one of her paintings looked finished or not and it got me thinking, when is a work ever really finished and how do we decide when to stop?
Translating this into the land of the #profdockers, when is a chapter, a journal paper or indeed the thesis truly finished? I’m told that a common reason for getting ‘stuck’ is the difficulty for researchers deciding when a piece of work is finished and they are ready to ‘let go’. With my own submissions, I am only ever about 70-80% happy with the product and perhaps this is as good as it gets, but the feeling of unfinishedness is always vaguely disconcerting.
One way to force my hand I’ve found is to sign myself up for conferences where I have to submit and present something; this ensures completion by a due date as well as the chance to discuss work. After the excitement of the IRSPM in April 2018, presenting a first stage literature review (see post on the Imposter Syndrome), I thought – what next?
Interpretation is infinite and knowledge is political
The answer was to delve more deeply into interpretive methods – embracing the incompleteness and uncertainty that are the hallmarks of the approach. Cue my sign-up to a brilliant Summer School on Interpretive Policy Analysis. Held in Amsterdam at the Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, a group of some 20 doctoral students spent five days exploring what an interpretive slant on policy means for how we think and therefore what we do and in consequence, how social change happens.
Interpretation is infinite. Data is not knowledge. Knowledge is political. Helping people to reflect is part of the researcher’s role. The context is also ‘me’. Be careful of definitions. I got many takeaways from what was a truly stimulating and thought-provoking week of lectures and activities including on site practical exercises. I also got the chance to meet two of my author heroes – Maarten Hajer and Hendrick Wagenaar, and to receive personal feedback from an academic, chosen for complementarity of topic or method. Particularly compelling for me was the emphasis throughout in encouraging policy-makers and researchers alike to question their framing of problems and solutions. So my research questions are a product of my ‘frames’, drawn from my socio-cultural background and influences. I am well and truly part of the research – and with the setting being in my own field I am in it up to my neck!
Funnelling the search for methods
My motivations for attending the summer school were mainly to help me develop my research methodology and methods. It certainly did that as well as forcing me to nail my approach in a final assignment. We were rewarded with a certificate – a nice acknowledgement of the hard work. I’m sure I could go on indefinitely – thinking and developing the perfect research method. But I know I must finish the planning, and get into the field. I have already begun exploratory talks and readings but with a greater sense of purpose. It feels incomplete and not quite ready and that challenges me as something of a perfectionist. But I know I have to finish the thinking and start data collection, accepting that the qualitative methods are iterative and will evolve.