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Trento, Rotterdam and Oxford : PhD workshops

7 September 2010

Commentary from Day 1 at Trento by JoSo BeAch : reproduced and remixed under the creative commons license. For the original, see here

JoSo BeAch : For some PhD students this was already the second conference day, as the pre-conference PhD workshops took place on Wednesday. Today started off with a short introduction by Attila Bruni and the welcome address by Bruno Dallago (Dean of the Faculty of Sociology in Trento) and Fred Steward (EASST President) at 10.00 followed by a first plenary session with Silvia Gherardi (University of Trento) and Lucy Suchman (University of Lancaster) on: Practice and its overflows: reflections on order and mess.

I liked the title of this year’s PhD workshop: Weeds, Offcuts, Issues and Troubles. I attended a PhD workshop in 2008, and though barely in the first few months of starting the course, got quite a lot out of it. The below is reproduced from what I wrote here

Rotterdam 2008

In preparing for the session, Bijker had asked students to write to him with their main problems, and tailored some of his responses to address those. The theory/data conundrum was one of these, and he set out three possible ways of approaching the issue. Firstly, you could outline the theory and concepts you are going to use, before going on to consider the data. This is the most common approach. Secondly, you could reverse this suggestion, and present your cases first. If you do this, you can the discuss them theoretically. He argued that this makes sense, because those reading your dissertation/book are going to be interested in the topic, and the cases. So, ‘why maket hem go trough the tedious review of theoretical concepts?’ If you do it later, you can use the concepts to reflect on what you have presented and elaborate ont hem.

However this is not an innocent switch. In the reversed scenario, you must stop yourself using jargon when telling your tale, since in the first scenario the reader will have gone to the trouble of redign through your theoretical arguments, worked to understand the concepts, so will want to see you use them! Also in the second model, you can engage with the authors you are using because you have already shown the reader the cases.

His final suggestion was attempting to write in a real mix. You do away with the problems of asking the reader to read lots of stuff they don’t yet see the point of, and present story, concept, story, concept, introducing theory along the way. Bijker argued that this was ideal for readers, but a challenge for writers, especially those embarking on their first piece of extended writing.

In the following section on the role of Theory, Bijker made it clear that we have to make choices. There is no getting around it. These choices relate to the kind of thesis you wat to write, they are not innocent either, and you have to live with them.

Do you want to tell a story about a particular empirical domain, or are you more interested in engaging a theoretical debate? How many theories should you draw upon- pick and mix or one theoretical framework? Who is your audience?

This led on to a brief discussion on how one goes about explaining one’s project in naïve terms. This explanation has to come near the beginning, but it is not always obvious if you should do it first, or after framing your problems. He suggests you start in plain terms, then point out the difference between that explanation and the one you come to at the end of your thesis as part of your analysis.

It would be interesting to see what the session this year had to say. Now I am at the other end of my PhD, and starting my ‘writing up year’, means of Weeding my work, dealing with Offshoots and Trouble sound like they’d be quite relevant! It would also be useful to think about in relation to Suchman and Gherardi on Order and Mess. As I start to write, I am reminded of a good colleague of Suchman’s, John Law, whose paper on Making a Mess with Method opened with the following image :

From John Law, Making a Mess with Method

prompting the question, how can we tackle mess, and what kind of messes do we produce when we start talking or writing about mess? As I start to pull together a PhD thesis, my desktop and mental desktop looks a lot like Law’s picture. Mess and Order seem opposed, writing as practice seems to need honing. But the presentation following the workshop poses the question in me:

How might we weave together writing as practice, Mess and Order, Weeding and Offshoots?

Well, this happens to be the same connection as the organisers made, as they note in the workshop pdf here (under Resources, right hand side)

It is always interesting to take a look at what is being left behind and to analyse the traces of one’s works. And absence is as important to STS as its theories and methodologies are. In fact, we might say that absence is quintessential for our actual works: offcuts are crucial for STS future- making, for they define what is left unconsidered, what would be forgotten and sent to the oblivion, what you cannot take into account.

Sometimes we feel the need to cut the weeds from our works: too much information to handle, too many things to work on for a PhD, things that do not work as we would like, streams that flow to a different path than ours. But these things need to be discussed! Let’s discuss offcuts… let’s discuss what is weeded out!

Out of which they ask the PhD student two  important questions.

(a) if some weeds could give rise to a new forest, a promising new start: When can weeds become interesting?; and (b) if you feel or need that to cut the weeds and what this implies: When can weeds become dangerous?

The pdf also links to a CRESC conference held a few weeks ago in Oxford, called Overflows: Flows, Doings, Edges III and the associated blog which contains reports, pictures and discussion from the previous two events in 2008 and 2007. It goes a bit beyond the scope of my discussion here, but offers food for thought for those intrigued by thinking relationally, in terms of overflows, edges and weeds 🙂

So what have you cut out, and why?


John Law, ‘Making a Mess with Method, published by the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK, at

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