Posts Tagged ‘PhD’

With just a few days to go, I’ve been making some notes on the argument. Here is one of them, about the process of getting from data to theory…

Reflection as an entity and our perception of it are both “occasions of experience”*. All occasions of experience have a temporal and historical duration and so are portions not wholes. The entity of reflection is, therefore, a part; a fragment in a much bigger picture. Because that big picture is a unified whole it cannot be reported in an analysis of a part.

In many examples of social science research it is only occasions of experience that are considered suitable as units of analysis, but this invites conclusions from fragmented description and it creates – as a minimum – a division between observed and the observer. This might be unavoidable, or avoidable only with considerable artistry, but the researcher’s decisions on where the boundaries are and where the description of an entity starts and stops is always an arbitrary one. Reading too much into our analyses is highly risky since that sort of understanding is inevitably limited by and to our capacity to observe. The occasion of experience, in all its subtlety and complexity, is never fully capturable in an epistemic model built to analyse the parts. In themselves, these occasions of experience aren’t ‘things’ but patterns of inseperable relationships.

I think it is essentially my thesis that something of the nature of these patterns of relationships that are about the wider story can, however, be inferred.

(*after C H Waddington)


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Now that there is nothing material that I can do to the thesis – it just has to do its own work for a bit – I have been noticing how my thoughts explore areas of more practical application of some of the concepts, ideas and conclusions it contains.

One of these is the question as to why reflection in Personal Development should be more, not less, important as we get older.

If it is true, as Jung believed, that the purpose of the second half of life is to make sense of the first, well then that could be one explanation. And then it occurred to me that a function of the difference between decisions made lower in an organisation (typically) and those made much higher up is connected to reversibility. If organisations follow the same organismic logic of complex living systems, biologies, ecologies and so forth (that is, systems where there are complex circuits of flows of information), then this would make sense. At the bottom, it may be more than inadvisable to make decisions that result in irreversible changes, it may be impossible (i.e. the structure of the organisation will forbid it). At the top, reversible changes may be possible, but would be redundant and energy inefficient (or would be indistinguishable to lower level, adaptive changes).

In Batesonian terms this lower level decision-making is analogous to somatic change, which is like, for example, the body’s ability to regulate and adapt skin tone in reaction to sunlight, or its breathing in acclimatisation to altitude. These are changes, but the not of a parameter at a higher level. At higher, or senior levels, permanent change is much more difficult and much riskier because it could represent a loss of flexibility at a lower level. Like a lot of these meandering thoughts, I am sure it needs development, but it does feel like a significant idea.

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Handing the PhD in


That’s the instruction I usually have to give to others at the end of their Henley MBA exam, but today it’s something I have to tell myself (at least for a while) as I have just handed in my PhD Thesis to the Registrar at the University of Lancaster. Done. Dusted.

And what an odd feeling it is.

I am proud of the achievement, and thankful that I had time to make the thousands of small edits and still meet my own personal deadline of the end of February. Now I have to focus on being ready to defend my thesis to a panel of examiners in a viva examination in a few months The fact of the viva is both petrifying and  galvanising – something to occupy the mind, certainly. However, not feeling the need to sit in front of a screen for hours and hours a day with notes, papers and books trying to draft and craft a text is, well, weird.

I might even read a book for the fun of it (I brought two with me up to Lancaster – a Penguin paperback of science fiction short stories, and R G Collingwood’s autobiography. The latter title is cheating a bit, of course.)

Oh, but, you know, this feels good!!!

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I’m preparing to head south on my annual migration to the southern hemisphere for the March MBA starter workshop in Johannesburg.

As usual, I’m reflecting (pre-flecting?) on what’s to come, on how I’ll work with colleagues and new members of the MBA, what state of mind I want them to be in at various points, and so on…

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that reflection is not possible except when we are able to distinguish it as such, which means differentiating it from that which is not reflection. The two are interdependent and inextricably linked. This is how we find the outline of one, against the other. Hardly earth shattering? Maybe. Yet a crucial point precisely because we take it for granted.

So how do we know the difference, in general? This is occupying me, so I may return to this over the coming days as I blog the workshop.

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Sitting now in a session being run by Dr Caroline Gatrell here in Lancaster, on “Managing PhD study & other work”.

It’s a very useful exercise every now and then to get back in touch with the process of what you are doing when you return to a longer piece of

The big thing – always be reflecting on “what am I doing?” This changes as you go, but you need to know what claim you are making and where you will contribute to the debate (and what debate that is). Need to remember, also, that the examiners will be looking for ‘evidence of the ability to construct and present a coherent, logical argument’. This is not the thesis, but the context of the thesis.

Other lessons to bear in mind include need to be researching something that has a strong interest for you personally, and keep checking in on these.

I recently used, not for the first time, the Ben Zander talk recorded for TED in 2008, where he brilliantly engages his audience in the idea that classical music is for everyone. For the first time I saw a parallel with my PhD subject of reflection. In his talk, Zander analyses a short piece of music by Chopin to illustrate something much bigger. His phrase “now let’s see what’s really going on here” changes the tone, and moves from our unreflective attitude to music to a much more reflective place. He gives the sense that by unlocking the skill of the composer and the way that they wanted to make us feel in order to create the same thought in your mind that they had in theirs (surely this is a good definition of communication) we are then able to understand how to appreciate other pieces of music in the same way.

My data is like the one Chopin piece. It’s enough to examine one group’s interaction over a fairly short period of time in order then to go and see “what’s going on here”.

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Problems. Managers just love problems.  They grow very attached to them, and to the idea that development is all about becoming a better problem-solver. I would challenge this idea.

There’s no doubt in my mind, from experience observing over the years, that the majority of people who enrol on an MBA programme are highly efficient problem-solving machines. By necessity, though, they have become that and no more. And the demands of more senior levels in management (and, let’s face it, of later adulthood) mean that a highly analytical approach ends up doing more harm than good. In short, at some point the game changes from problem solving to problem setting. Or, as Paolo Freire called it, problem posing. It follows that the education of people as managers should prepare them not for a way to find answers to ever more complex problems, but to master the art of framing the context within which those problems may be said to exist. And to do this they need to change their way of thinking about problems.

The accepted way to do this in Management Education is through a rationalised process of reflective problem solving, often described in terms of learning or knowledge acquisition. There are few models of learning which are mainstream that do not stick like glue to a model of  understanding the world in a step-by-step, empirically testable and verifiable way.  Variables need to be identified and isolated, experiments conducted, and conclusions (embedded with myriad implicit assumptions) drawn. And this tends to be the case whether our research methods involve describing things or counting things.

The ‘problem’, so to speak, is that our world appears problematic only via that lens.  In my view the social world is not as neat as the classic scientific method would demand it be. It’s far messier, far more jagged, and far more beautiful. So perhaps instead of seeking to contain, to solve and secure “the” right answer to all the messiness, we should make the posing of the problem the problematic part. By this I mean taking a critical approach to the formation of our questions. Rather than being systematic, start being systemic.

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Back from the PhD Experience conference in Hull. There were three days of themed sessions with about 100 people in attendance.

It was a pleasant surprise to find so much common ground in the emotional states of people doing their doctoral studies, despite differences in subject matter (though I think most people were researching in the social sciences). The topic of procrastination and of “imposter syndrome” were discussed, but there were plenty of positive messages, too.

Highlights for me:

1. Giving my first conference paper, albeit a short one, was a good experience. It struck me how different this is from the type of work I do at Henley, where there is generally more of a workshop atmosphere, stops and starts and interaction. Here, I was supposed to talk, and they were supposed to listen. I learned that a good (and rehearsed) start is important.

2. Feeling that the central messages of my slot made people think. These were: that we reflect through telling stories, that stories only have meaning when they venture out and bump up against other people’s stories, and that a good model for reflection(or reflective learning in Personal Development) needs somehow to acknowledge the “inward-outward” necessity.

3. Spending time with several fellow travellers, and hearing about their research experiences, helps me in my own.

I also got a lot out of Ann Cunliffe’s session on research perspectives, and thoroughly recommend anyone looking for direction in social research to read some of her stuff.

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There has been a short gap between the last post (Day Twenty-six) and this, the final instalment in this month’s exercise, and that time has been filled with some introspection and some “off-air” discussion.

What to conclude?

1.  I have not had any revelations about any of the events I have drawn on. Nevertheless, doing this writing has helped me see some patterns. These patterns, which belong to that “thing” I call my identity, make up a map of my self. I can also say that while my understanding of my map has not undergone transformation, my understanding of how this mapping works is slightly modified. I see that my recollection (or anticipation) of my “life-story” takes on meaning only in its relationship with other things, other people, in short, with “the world out there”.

2. I found the task of writing as opposed to speaking did help me organise my thoughts, and perhaps led to a more eloquent expression of the various moments, feelings and episodes that made up the Life History. What’s more, writing is thinking, but a way of thinking that I found was quite firm and definite.  However, I was also aware the whole time that because the written word carries on and remains longer than our speech or just our thoughts, I was editing carefully. I was also aware of the possibility (and with over 1,000 hits on the blog this month, there is also some evidence) of an audience. This is important because it (the tension) illustrated for me something key about reflection.

3. Writing every day became, eventually, compelling.

4. Kolb’s learning cycle falls very far short of providing anything helpful in Personal Development. But, too, there is something missing in the otherwise much more helpful Atkins & Murphy model of reflection that I wanted to explore as part of this month’s experiment. What is lacking has something to do with the need to step “in” and “out” at each stage in the model.

5. Not sure whether reflection follows models of reflection, or models of reflection follow reflection.

6. Introspection is necessary, but not sufficient for reflection. Reflection also requires dialogue with the world, where the boundaries are. But for that you have to be brave and reach out to find those boundaries.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.

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And finally, my “Overall Life Theme”. 

If I’m right, then the big idea McAdams was making by this summary point, and other writers with variations on the same idea, is that we all have a story that we live by, a sense of our coherent selves (however constructed). More than just recounting, our narratives are an organising principle for our concept of self and of others, (synonymous, in fact, with human experience). They are our filter for what we take from past experience, what we expect, anticipate or hope for the future and how we conduct our relations with the world and with ourselves in the here and now.

Looking back not just across these posts, but just generally looking back, the “central theme, theme, message, or idea” I have for my life and, therefore, the clue to my identity boils down (distils?) into one thing:

Seeking to create an ebb and flow between myself and the world

Hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. On the other hand, who cares? It’s how I feel. I do feel a tension between the inside world and the outside world, and I do feel an intermittent creativity in my relationship with the myriad ways that we communicate with each other.

Well, at any rate, I will now give myself a few days to let that sink in. I will post one or two final reflections, or even meta=reflections before the month and this experiment is closed.


A couple of further thoughts in transit…

1. I find, for me at least, that although I know I lived my whole life fully conscious of all its present moments (that is, with one exception – in Israel – of a few hours amnesia following a fall and head injury on a country hike), there are a select number of key moments, or even episodes, which remain crystal clear when called to mind, or which some strong trigger invokes with the same immediate crystal clarity. On the other hand, some things are inaccessible to my memory, even when others tell me about them from their perspective. I find myself trying very hard to remember the thing they are describing, and failing, though the temptation to make it up from the other fragments which must have surrounded it. But those moments, memories, are gone.

2. The concept of narrative as I have referred to it several times by me over the past four weeks (i.e. our stories emerge in the present, but only in relation to the past and future) might seem to bear some direct relation to the narrative structure of “a beginning, a middle and an ending”. I’m not sure this is the case, though.

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Still on the subject of personal ideology, and following from yesterday’s post, I wanted to say something about what I believe, and how I got there. I think the connection to reflection is more apparent than any connection to the PhD, unless I start to see my chosen subject as just another facet of a much more core idea of looking for completeness in life.

I suppose we all have our own stories to tell when it comes to faith, belief, religion and so on. I was taken to Catholic church when I was young, attended a Catholic Primary School, and had a strong but inculcated belief in a very traditional version of God until about age 11.  I recollect walking home from that school one afternoon and, having earlier realised that one could make up one’s own mind about these things and, that being the case, I could see no reason for believing that there was a God.  End of. Hardly a road to Damascus, but just as decisive, for me at least (not sure how God took it).

I don’t recall how that idea of being in charge of one’s own decisions in these matters came about, but I suspect that a teacher in the Primary School may have mentioned the fact that as you get older you become responsible for your making your own mind up about stuff. They probably were thinking in terms of the temptations of post-Primary education. A strange doctrine for them to produce, considering how up until that point there had been no hint of this in the way that religion and belief had been presented. I mean none. I think this is what Christopher Hitchens, who is a delight to watch in full flow against the lies told to children in the name of religion, had in mind).

Since then I have never wavered, and never felt the need to. I have enjoyed the beauty of churches, cathedrals, mosques, holy places, and I know that you must understand that in the past many things we see one way now had meanings in their original context that made sense – then. What’s more, I have always understood that some people who are religious have great wisdom and compassion. But equally I have found compassion, wisdom and wit in others for whom the world is here and now.  As I have got older, I have become more and curious about the way that societies have constructed their beliefs around metaphor over the millenia but feel no compunction to restrict my time in the world by adopting a belief that our universe requires a maker.

You don’t have to go far in our society to find values. They’re all over the place. People have them, organisations have them. McDonald’s, for example, has seven, some more edible than others, I’d say, but all speaking more to the “how” of what that organisation does rather than the “why”, and surely values are the why.

As for me, I find my values are hard to express. I prefer to think that values are really messy things, they’re pre-linguistic, ancient, and evolved and communicated over a long period of time across countless populations and social acts. It is evident that we like to seek patterns in things, and then extrapolate explanation from those patterns, and also that we have a give for categorisation. More than a gift, a need. We end up, through language, with labels, but sometimes we like confuse our labels with the thing they are labelling. If I were pushed, I would include “balance”, “care”, “love”, “empathy” and “hope” as values, but with the caveat that they are just labels, not the thing itself. Nevertheless, these are the sorts of things that give me pause for thought, reasons to be cheerful, and an inner happiness when they are attainable. In other words, I think they are important. But the problem comes when you want to project these fuzzy concepts onto things, events or, worse, people. Values should be expressed and measured indirectly; as metaphor, as poetry, as art, as humour, as “something understood.” But then we’d have to know how to read the labels differently.

Felt good writing this. Tomorrow I get to tackle politics. Not sure I’ll have too much to say on that, though.

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