#MyPhD Notebooks Research

The Story So Far

I have never blogged regularly about my research, instead choosing to talk about it in broader terms, or to simply share conference slides with little or no accompanying explanation. This has been for a variety of reasons, not least because the moveable feast of my research experiences have meant that the detail of what I focus upon has changed substantially over the last three years, three months and three weeks (that’s right; that’s how long I will have been registered as a research student tomorrow, Thursday 21st January 2016).

Into every PhD some rain must fall
Into every PhD some rain must fall

It has taken me more or less the entirety of that time to establish what I will be focussing upon in my final thesis. At nearly every full-team supervisory meeting that has been held since I first registered, at least one of my supervisors would offer words of caution relating to the size of my research topic. This was always conveyed in a supportive manner, and often coupled with the very sage advice that this – my thesis – need not be my final word on my research topic. For over three years, I have been chipping away, trying to refine the area of my studies. Finally, I do believe, I’m nearly there. Which is a relief given I have less than twenty-one months to complete my data collection, undertake the final analysis, and write the majority of my thesis. (And, believe me: when you’re working full-time as well as studying, that is not a long time at all.)

I would say that the path of my research has not been conventional, but I don’t believe there is a conventional research path. Nevertheless, I did make things rather difficult for myself by choosing to undertake a research degree with comparatively little prior formal experience in my field of study. My undergraduate degree was in a discipline entirely different from what I’m currently researching, and my postgraduate degree was in the field of Highlands and Islands Literature. My dissertation for this MLitt, however, was in the field in folklore, specifically Orcadian folklore; and it was this element of my studies that I was interested in taking further five years ago when I first started thinking about applying to study a PhD.

"In many ways, a PhD is like a maze of mirrors. Discuss."
“In many ways, a PhD is like a maze of mirrors. Discuss.”

Since registering for my degree back in October 2012, my research path has resembled a ball-bearing in a Bagatelle table. I spent a considerable amount of time careering from one thing to the next, trying to absorb as much as possible, but often getting lost on interesting – but ultimately irrelevant to my final thesis – tangents. I am a firm believer that nothing read goes to waste (well, with the possible exception of some particularly dire fiction) but, nevertheless, during the time I spent refining my research topic, I read a not inconsiderable amount which will quite possibly not even be referenced in my bibliography.

So here I am. At the end of this month, I’ll be two thirds of the way through my studies, and it’s taken me more or less this length of time to figure out what I’ll actually be writing about over the next nearly-two years. I am a part-time student, formally 0.6FTE, and my University does not offer any designated time, other than via the formal extension route, for writing up. So I have a lot to do in my remaining one-year FTE. I could indeed apply for an extension nearer the time, and it’s not something I’ll rule out for definite at this stage; but by the time I complete my period of study I’ll be halfway through my fourth decade and will have spent just under a seventh of my life on this degree. You can understand why I’m reluctant to consider spending any longer on it.

That’s not to say I don’t love it. I do, most of the time. Some of the time. No, most of the time. And, now I know what shape my thesis might take, I’m keen to share my research in an accessible way with as many people as might be interested.

Now, bring me that PhD horizon
Now, bring me that PhD horizon

Broadly, I am studying Orcadian folklore. But there are many, many ways to define and approach this. Here, then, are a few key points about my research. This is absolutely not an exhaustive list of what I am interested in, and what I find fascinating; but here are some key points pertinent to my current thesis research (don’t get me started on potential papers and projects – that list gets longer all the time).

  1. Folklore: I take a broad definition of folklore, with William A. Wilson’s description of folklore as being the study of what it means to be human being a favourite of mine.[1] In the early days following the coining of the term ‘folk-lore’ by William John Thoms in 1846, a relatively narrow view was taken as to what the field of folklore, previously known as ‘popular antiquities’ or ‘popular literature’, might be.[2] It seems to me that this early fixation on what is past still echoes to some extent in the contemporary understanding of folklore today. It is interesting to watch the discussions on Twitter using the #FolkloreThursday hashtag with this in mind. A key part of my studies focus on what is commonly (though not always) referred to as Digital Folklore. With this in mind, and to complement a more traditional understanding of folklore, the #DigitalTrendoftheYear and the Digital Folklore Project, run by Utah State University, is worth a look as an example of the wider remit of folklore.
  2. Orkney and Me: I am studying folklore relating to Orkney, yet I do not live there. I did, however, grow up there; and that’s where my interest in Orcadian folklore (and folklore in general) began. My family moved up to Orkney in early 1986, and moved back down to England in late 1995. As a result, all of my primary schooling and some of my secondary schooling was undertaken in Orkney (Stenness Primary School and Stromness Academy, to be precise). We lived in Stromness, Stenness and, finally (after a brief stay in Tankerness), Deerness. My own relationship with Orkney is therefore a strange one, and one I will investigate further throughout the coming months.
  3. Data: the majority of the data I am collecting for analysis and discussion in my thesis comes from social media. I am interested in internet research, and the concept of the internet as a research site. Given I am also focussing on the folklore of a fixed geographical area, untangling aspects of my approach to my research topic has, at times, been a little complicated. My research exists in the geographical world, as well as in a more ethereal world. I still haven’t arrived at a satisfactory explanation of how I’m capturing this distinction in my thesis.

At some point over the next few months, I’ll revisit each of these points in much more detail. But, for now, let this act as an introduction to the rough shape of my current research.


[1] You can access “The Marrow of Human Experience”, essays on folklore by William A. Wilson, edited by Jill Terry Rudy, online here: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=usupress_pubs.

[2] If you can get hold of it, it’s worth reading “A Gleaner’s Vision” by W.F.H. Nicolaisen. It’s available online in a couple of places if you have an institutional login. Topically, Nicolaisen’s paper is the theme of the second Folklore, Ethnology and Ethnomusicology Conference Aberdeen (FEECA16). The call for papers deadline is the 31st of January 2016: http://abdn.ac.uk/elphinstone/documents/FEECA_2016_CFP.pdf.

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