The Dissertation Dilemma, Calum Kennedy

My greatest pet peeve is hypocrisy, I simply cannot stand a hypocrite. My greatest pet peeve in academia comes in two parts however. The first hatred burns for those who use numbers, charts, and general statistical methods, and then claim to have shown some great truth when in fact all they have shown is that they can move lines around on a page. A sure fire way to make an enemy of me for life however is much more insidious than playing with bar charts, it is in the construction of a straw man.

When a researcher or author creates a character for them to attack it creates the same bond in the reader. We always like to join the writer in scathingly discarding the feeble arguments that such a person attempts to put forward. We ache to meet someone who holds the same ideas so that we can do battle with and crush them. But the moment you close the book the straw blows away and it becomes apparent, sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly, that such a person only existed on those pages. The deception, to be placed on that battleground, to be armed and ready for the clash of ideas, only to have the field be revealed to be covered in cow faeces, is too much for me to stand.

I am currently one of the thousands of students across the country starting on my Masters dissertation, and I’m loving it. The whole idea of a dissertation appeals to me. Picking a subject that really interests you and spending a large portion of your year looking into that one topic under the supervision of someone who presumably knows a fair bit about the academic landscape you are delving into. The point of a dissertation is to increase the student’s knowledge in the general area of study whilst at the same time developing skills relevant to research. The final requirement for most masters dissertations is slightly worrying to me however, it asks that your work adds something to the field. That’s right, someone who has been learning about the entire discipline for a few months is being asked to contribute to that discipline.

This would not be so problematic if students took the idea literally and just attempted to add something small to the field, something relatively inconsequential, like counting a new group of people and adding it to a table. However, most students go a little too big, and most supervisors encourage this through expectation setting. The consequence of this is that, inevitably, many students manoeuvre themselves into creating a straw man of some sort. They create a dialogue through which they can successfully add their two cents to the store of human knowledge.

Alternatively the student is forced into a largely unsatisfactory conclusion due to the realisation and required deconstruction of the straw man inherent in the premise of the paper. The likely outcome of this is for the student to commit the necessary crime of constructing a new hypothesis after the facts.

None of this promotes good research skills, such an activity only succeeds in breeding a new generation of academics comfortable in the construction of straw men. What we need out of dissertations is twofold, we need experience delving deeply into one specific topic, with the literature reviews and the argument comparisons and analysis that involves. On top of this we sometimes (depending on the subject) need experience researching in the field. Neither of these requires that we provide something new to the area in question. Undertaking the methodology enacted by someone else to check their results provides the student with the required experience, and because in the social sciences you are dealing with people or social organisations, there will be enough difference to make it interesting.

In my own dissertation I am trying to find something new, to fill a gap that I have found, or at least I believe I found it. What is more than likely is that I have built this gap up to be more than it is so that any conclusion to my dissertation will carry some weight and thus gain me favour with the marking gods.

If only my straw man is real enough

I don’t know

maybe I’m just a hypocrite.

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