May this blogpost act as 'closure' on the dissertation that has been the topic of hundreds of bland Facebook status updates for the last ten months.
I intend for this post to be something helpful for those about to embark on a dissertation in sociology, though I am aware that it is likely to turn into a paean to the act of research, so might not be totally constructive.
I handed in my dissertation this morning; it was a mixed-qualitative methods project exploring how boys negotiate and perform masculine subjectivities within the primary school. It was a case study, based in one Year 6 class in an ordinary mixed state school; the class contained 30 children and my study focused on the social world of the 15 boys. Using an interpretative methodology, themes of analysis were grounded in the themes and topics emerging from observing and talking to the boys - the research used narrative description observations, two focus group sessions for each child, and concluded with individual interviews with seven of the boys. I would liked to have been able to conduct interviews with all fifteen, but this was unviable within the scope of the undergraduate dissertation time frame.
That is the background, and for the rest of this post, I'll just say a little about what I enjoyed about it and why I think you should do it, and how you can get the most out of it. I'm not an expert in any sense of the word, and much of my knowledge of research comes solely from preparing for and conducting this paper, but irrespective of what result the dissertation receives, I feel it was a really worthwhile venture, and one I enjoyed doing.
Here are the tips.
1 - INTERESTING TOPIC - Quite obvious really, but it should be emphasised that you should only conduct a dissertation on something that you are interested in. You will find yourself spend the best part of a year working at this one project, so it needs to be something that can keep you engaged. It is good though, to enter with an open mind, since good research does need to steer clear of unidentified biases. Don't enter research attempting to prove something; try and explore an area.
2 - START EARLY - Set yourself a realistic timeframe, and then bring every part of it forward two weeks. Having conducted a great deal of my literature review throughout the summer, once I had identified a general topic area, I was able to get back to Uni for the new academic year with lots of ideas about what I wanted to do, and had a headstart that benefited me throughout the entire rest of the project.
3 - EXPERIMENT - Try all different things out when you are thinking of methods - be creative and innovative. I tried doing a class exercise in which all the children had to write a 'diary' of what happened in the playground, so I could compare and contrast my interpretations (through observation) with theirs. I didn't use any of their work in my eventual write-up, but it helped me out with clearing my thoughts.
4 - WORK TO YOUR STRENGTHS - Account for yourself within your research. Sociology has moved beyond the idea that it needs to follow a scientific method, which is itself flawed. Obviously, this is open to dispute and sociology is not a paradigmatic discipline, but I really believe that for projects which are seeking to study individuals, their social world and the meanings they give to it, qualitative research is the best option, as it allows you to dig deep into interactions. You cannot rule yourself out of qualitative research - as an observer or interviewer, you personality, behaviours, characteristics, confidence and even your style of dress will all influence the flow of the research. You can't help this, and shouldn't wish to. Instead, account for yourself. At every stage, as well as a more formal or structured research diary, keep a personal one, tracking your feelings abut the project. My field notes were littered with phrases like 'started to feel exhausted and fell into a tired lull at about quarter past' and 'this boy is really annoying'. Sociologists are humans too and it's silly to try and dispute that - go with it. Play to your strengths. If you never interact with children, your ability to develop a rapport and trust with them is going to be restricted, limiting the aims of your research. If you would struggle to have a long conversation with a friend without zoning out, what makes you think you will be any different talking to any of your respondents. Again, choosing a topic that engages you helps out.
5 - NOTEPAD - When you have collected all your research you will be faced with the monumental task of sorting through all of the data you have collected. For me, this was days and days of observation notes, recordings of 9 focus groups, each lasting around one hour, and recordings of seven interviews, ranging from 40 minutes to 2 hours in length. Interviews were transcribed in full and focus groups were selectively transcribed. By this point, ideas and analysis will start to form in your head and you will be getting ideas about what to focus on. Record every single idea. If it is crap, you can ignore it. If it is good, you don't want to waste it.
6 - TRANSCRIBING - To begin with, it can be genuinely enjoyable, especially once it becomes almost automatic - I got to a stage at which I could just switch off and type. That said, it gets to be a massive pain in the arse when you end up with about 20 hours to transcribe, each hour taking roughly 4 hours to transcribe. Set aside a lot of time for it, but don't exhaust yourself. I found that having the recording on my iPod helped keep the interviews fresh, as you could listen back to them easily and transcribe away from a grim computer desk.
7 - WRITE-UP - Just write. By the time you come to doing a write-up, you are likely to invested a lot of intellectual and emotional energy into the work, regardless of the topic, and getting pen to paper can be really difficult. Having gone through and transcribed the interviews, I recognised how open some of the boys had been with what we discussed and in some way, that heightened the pressure, as I didn't want their insights to be in vain. I wanted to justify our conversations with a worthwhile piece of research, and perfectionism can be quite crippling. I started my write-up with a really leisurely meandering pace, and came to regret it when I was two weeks from the hand-in date, with only sketchy drafts to show for it. My advice is to write the areas of the dissertation onto post-it notes, re-jig them so the different parts flow well into each other, and get something written down on each section, even if it isn't ever goign to be the style or quality for submission. Once you have the basic frame of the dissertation established, it is far easier to ameliorate and embellish it with detail, extracts and links to theory.
8 - COMMIT TO IT - Final bit of advice in what is arguably my most boring ever blog post; commit to it. The more you invest in the dissertation, the more you are likely to get out of it but also the more likely it is to take it out on you. The dissertation is an unhealthy but normalised obsession and you should run with it. When it comes nearer to the hand-in date, you might find yourself slaving at the same document, day and night, as I did, but this is made tolerable if you have enough energy invested in it to justify the time spent doing it.
Doing the dissertation has taken up a disproportionate amount of my time and energy this entire year but I have no regrets whatsoever. I have learnt more, in terms of theory as well as research practice, from doing a sociology dissertation than I have in all three of my other papers. Isolate a good topic, choose methods that suit your personality, read up on research conduct and be creative with theories - work obsessively at it and by the time you hand it in, no matter what grade you get (though it should be a good one!), it is worthwhile.