From the Field to the Laptop: The Art of Writing a PhD Thesis

The fact that one should go for a PhD only when s/he is 100 percent sure is well-publicised. What, however, is often not known is that even after being sure about one’s research topic, writing the dissertation can still be a difficult task! The struggles that a researcher has to go through to write a dissertation is underrated. It can be both academically and personally challenging. The two most significant aspects of doing a PhD include the collection of data and then writing the thesis. My PhD research explores the relationship between the mobile theatre of Assam and the ideas of the public. I argue that Assamese mobile theatre has created an intersection between two kinds of public – the counter-public and the public culture. While mobile theatre is seen as an assertion of Assamese identity in the face of increasing globalization, at the same time, it has adapted itself to the demands of the time by using the latest technologies and content. Thus, the example of mobile theatre shows that a public can exhibit characteristics of being both a counter-public and public culture at the same time. There is an intersection between the two categories of public. Keeping in mind the nature of my topic, the methods that I used were mostly qualitative and include oral history, both participant and non-participant observation, interview, case study and ethnography. These methods complement each other in the sense that oral history, observation, interview and case study help a social scientist in writing a good ethnographic piece. However, doing a PhD is not just about collecting the data. A lot of it is also about writing, writing and more writing. This is especially true for students of the social sciences. It can be very overwhelming to come back from the field and sit down with the field notes. It often happens that the fieldwork goes great, and the researcher collects very rich and insightful data. But the challenge lies in putting the field notes into writing. After all, a researcher is someone who ‘observes, records, analyses, interprets and writes’ (Geertz 1977: 5).  The writing part is equally important as the fieldwork part. So what can be done to ease the process of writing? As someone who has just finished writing her thesis, I have some vital insights to share with others who may be struggling. First of all, it is a good idea to discuss one’s ideas thoroughly with his/her supervisor. It is also not a bad idea to note down every minute of those discussions. Many times, brilliant and interesting ideas can emerge from those meetings. It is also important to...

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Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus
Mar26

Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus

In Italy we have a proverb, ‘anno bisesto, anno funesto’ which can be translated as something like ‘leap year, fatal year’. I wouldn’t define myself as superstitious and I generally don’t pay too much attention to these kind of sayings. However, 2020 so far has been an adverse, if not disastrous, year. The outbreak of COVID-19, also known as novel coronavirus, has been at the centre of attention worldwide and has been affecting the lives of people all over the world in many different ways. This new, unknown, virus originated in the province of Wuhan in China and very rapidly spread around the world. It seems to be highly contagious, it dangerously affects elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, and hospitals are overall struggling with the capacity of infected people who need respiratory assistance. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has declared it a pandemic, and there is an ongoing state of emergency in several countries in Europe and overseas. Italy has been hit very hard by the virus, being the second country in the list of most confirmed cases and deaths after China. I live and study in Scotland, but I am from Sardinia, an island and region of Italy, which is not just my homeland but also the centre of my PhD research. As an ethnographer, I am familiar with the uncertainty that fieldwork brings about and I thought I was quite prepared (I might even say excited) to face the unforeseen and unexpected. Maybe even crash, less excitedly, into some ‘dead ends’. I can certainly state that I wasn’t prepared at all for a global pandemic that would force people to stay at home and practice social distancing and self-isolation. No, this wasn’t included in my contingency plan. My first personal encounter with the novel coronavirus was a few weeks ago, the day before I was meant to fly to Cagliari (my hometown) and finally begin my ‘proper’ fieldwork which, for the sake of frankness, is also an excuse for me to visit my family and friends. I am in my second year of my PhD path and, as in conventional academic manner, I had planned to undertake my data collection and fieldwork throughout the year. Specifically, between March and May. My research focuses on the socio-cultural aspects of folk and religious festivals. In particular, I am analysing the performance of gender and identity in the Festival of Sant’Efisio in Sardinia, a series of rituals and celebrations including a largely attended four-day procession and a folk parade at the start of May. A social distancing festival, how would that even work? I planned my visit...

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“At home, however, I only feel in the van.”* A Story about the Possibilities that a Change of Perspective Entails

„Home is where you feel secure and connected to something. That can be people, but also the landscape or mentality of a country.”*

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Choosing Sides: Doing Interviews in a Divided Field

“You are not going to agree with this, but I voted leave.” A participant in my research told me this early on in an interview. I had not shared with her my personal opinion on the EU, but from my accent (which does not sound Scottish) she discerned I was from continental Europe and decided that I probably did not agree with Brexit. During interviews I am not trying to find out how the interviewee voted in the EU referendum, but it is a difficult topic to avoid when discussing Europe. Navigating a divided field In the past six years, the Scottish people have taken part in two divisive referendums. In 2014 they were asked whether Scotland should become an independent state (55% chose to remain part of the UK) and in 2016 they were asked whether the UK should remain a member of the EU (in Scotland, 62% chose to remain part of the EU). Both referendums left a significant mark on the current political landscape in Scotland. My research focusses on the personal dimension of this: how do Scottish people, in particular supporters of Scottish independence, identify with Europe and what does the concept of Europe mean to them. To do this, it is important for me to get beyond the results of the referendums in my fieldwork, but this is not always straightforward. The problem with discussing politics in Scotland today is that opinions are immediately pigeonholed into the answers of the referendums: participants in my research often identify themselves (and others) first as yes/no or remain/leave. It is of course uncommon that reality is as binary as that: it is a messy and personal calculation of values, beliefs, influences and experiences. Participants are hardly ever completely yes or remain without a conditional but. To get a result which is valuable for my research, I aim to break through the referendum replies as early as possible in the interviews and uncover what is hidden below. Placing myself in the field At the same time as providing us with an opportunity to research beyond the suggested binaries of the referendums, ethnographic fieldwork forces the researcher to reflect on his/her own connection to the communities being researched. In my case, that reflection starts by asking and being asked where I fit on the yes/no, leave/remain spectrum. I have experimented with sharing my own opinions on these matters and keeping them to myself during fieldwork. Sharing my stance can have different effects: if it is in agreement with the participant, the interview feels more at ease, resulting in a form of ‘safe space’ which can be highly beneficial for...

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Wanted: A Mother of Cultural Studies

As a cultural anthropologist with a historical perspective, I really wonder: where are all the women in the history of our critical, self-reflective discipline?

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Lost in Malmö. Or: The Ever-changing Imaginations of a City
Jan30

Lost in Malmö. Or: The Ever-changing Imaginations of a City

There are different things you notice about a city. They depend on your starting point or your destination, on the purpose of you being there, and of course on yourself – your experiences and prehistory with and of the city itself and other places, your anticipations and imaginations.[1] Sometimes, we just like to dream of other places and try to imagine what it would be like to live or at least go there. The first time I ever went to Malmö was in 2015. I was visiting Sweden as a tourist and I was just amazed by how quiet this city was, how less traffic there seemed to be compared to what I’m used to. Malmö gave me the impression of a cosy, little city. Over the time, this perspective, the feeling of walking through the city, changed. Imagining cities Fantasy and imagination are important parts of every modern society and they have an even more significant effect in the present social life, because of the process of deterritorialization of persons and ideas. Mass media, for example, made it easier for people not only to look at different possible lifestyles, but also to imagine living somewhere else. Fantasy and imagination are social practice, they are an inspirational force for the social lives of people.[2] We make up our own imaginations of different places, and of course those imaginations are not static, they change overtime and through experiences. With each visit to Malmö, I started recognizing the size of the city: not as big as a metropolis like the nearby Copenhagen, but also not a small town. It felt like a middle-sized city. When I started to explore the whole city – by train, bus, and foot – I suddenly felt lost and not cosy at all. I did not feel the same way about Malmö as I did before. View over Malmö I always travel to Malmö via airplane to Copenhagen for certain reasons, one of them being the Öresund bridge; driving over the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmö is always a nice experience. During my last flight to Copenhagen, the wind and weather of that day forced the plane to fly over the coast of Malmö. The sky above the east sea was clear, so I was able to see what was going on at the ground. It took me a while to realize that the city I was looking at was Malmö – one can always identify the Turning Torso. As I was watching the city from above, it reminded me of Orvar Löfgren’s description of different perceptions of landscapes depending on the mode of transportation: from...

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