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Research is messy

Last week I participated in a mixed methods workshop with John Creswell. The workshop was quite valuable; we worked through designing a proposal for a real research project. I forget the name of the student whose project we outlined, but he was proposing to study biodiversity sustainability programs in Vietnam and Cambodia. We worked through various stages of his proposal including writing a problem statement, asking research questions, titling the project, etc. But, we didn’t do those things in that order. In fact, we started with the title and ended with the problem statement 4 hours later. That exercise served as a reminder that no matter how straightforward work seems when it’s written for publication, or even in a methods textbook, the actual moment-to-moment work is unlikely to be so linear.

I’ve tried to keep in mind that work is not linear, but I often get tripped up trying to follow outlines or to make my research fit into a step-by-step program that gets me to graduation next year. That’s not how the world works though. I’ve been hunting for the right methods approach to studying the ECC story, and I’ve finally figured out that my study is probably best structured as a case study. And so, I’ve been re-reading Robert K. Yin’s case study books from Sage Publications.

Yin is careful and persistent when discussing the role of theory in designing case studies, and that’s the point where I’m currently stuck. My instincts (pretty well-honed by this point) tell me that communities of practice, social capital, actor-network theory, activity theory, and organizational learning have something to contribute to the theoretical framework I should use to address the ECC case. What I haven’t been able to do to this point is to make them all fit together in a way that would provide a set of patterns against which I will be able to check my case study data.

My dissertation proposal has morphed into two different documents – the proposal itself and a case study protocol document. I’m even still working in both Word and LaTeX. I just received helpful feedback on the proposal document (that one’s in LaTeX) from one of my committee members. He recognized that my current struggle is about clarifying the questions I want my project to answer. He says, “You need a statement of what you’d like to accomplish…” Yeah, he’s right.

Part of the problem relates to the negotiated nature of this dissertation project, I think. It took me a year, but I’ve finally given in. I will do a study that relates to the grant that feeds me because it involves collaboration, and collaboration is definitely interesting and significant to me. Now my task is to find a set of questions that are clear, answerable, and related to the CI-TEAM grant in some way.

I blogged this because I thought it was important for me to write a stream-of-consciousness piece in case another struggling A.B.D. happens to be searching the internet for others in her boat. Sister, I’m in it. Dissertation-writing is messy. It’s takes a great deal of humility, negotiation, compromise, and patience. It’s not linear. It requires one to go back and forth between literature, data collection, and analysis repeatedly and in different orders. I’m pretty sure I’ll have written about 10x as much content as actually ends up in the final version of my dissertation, and all of that writing is necessary and important work. Plenty of people and dissertation books talk about how dissertation writing is hard, but very few admit that it’s also incredibly messy. Just when I start to feel like I’ve made some progress, I get thrown a curveball by some theory or data, and I’m in a whole new spot. Frustrating, yes, but I think that’s just the way it is.

So, what do you think ?

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