Making the familiar seem strange: does a PhD need to do more than this?

What’s the point of doing a PhD?

Unsurprisingly, if not belatedly, this question is now troubling me.

A fair amount is said about what doctoral research is for, especially about what makes it unique, why it differs from a Master’s degree, for example, and how different thesis formats can afford or constrain the sort of knowledge that PhDers have to ‘produce’ (I so hate using this verb, but I haven’t settled on a suitable alternative, yet).

Here are two examples of what examiners look for in a Social Science PhD:

  • Writing for Research: Patrick Dunleavy is looking for an existing idea that has been moved from a familiar context to an unfamiliar one. He uses the metaphor of the Gherkin in London’s cityscape to illustrate how architectural knowledge evolves.
  • Patter: a similar idea emerges from Pat Thomson when she advocates “making known things seem strange and unfamiliar”. She looks at the nightmare scenario of finding somebody who has done exactly the same research as you! Luckily, it is just that, a nightmare, so you do wake up from it.

However, the way it is for me right now – in the process stage, not the final stage – is not so much about trying to make the familiar seem strange, but about taking a familiar object and doing things to it and with it in order to find out what else this object could do, to find its potentials.

For example, a classic guitar:

244px-Guitar_1can be deconstructed and granulated

Pollock-style mess

until its contours re-configure, re-combine and re-emerge

Georges Braque

to stretch the research focus so that the familiar object can be put to new uses and re-imagined to potentially create new sounds, new voices, new definitions of what counts as a ‘guitar’, as ‘music’. This novelty then assumes ‘a value’ (a warrant?), thus becoming more than simply ‘unfamiliar’:

The Yuri Moodswinger

Is the PhD process a worthwhile activity? Or is it mere indulgence?

I think it is worthwhile because the process of deconstruction increases our chances of discovering new uses and new purposes for what we find ‘familiar’. A tried and tested familiar object can then be put to new uses, ensuring that creativity strengthens and stretches our potential understandings and widens our pools of discovery.

But I worry about the entrepreneurial trends in higher education (as I have lamented here and here) and the effect that they will have on this process of explorative deconstruction and re-configuration: it is a process that is coupled with risk because who knows what the final outcome will be. It could be a process that leads to a cul-de-sac.

These reflections remind me of an article by George Monbiot who argued that Darwin would never have been funded under the current marketisation of Higher Education because he would not be able to measure and predict the ‘impact’ of his explorations.

Although I like the vision that Dunleavy and Thomson have of making the ‘familiar unfamiliar’ (above), I worry about how long their advice will still hold if the ‘unfamiliar’ becomes too unsettling to attract funding.

2 thoughts on “Making the familiar seem strange: does a PhD need to do more than this?”

  1. Thanks for this, Julia. I wonder if it is worth making a distinction between the ‘defamliarizing’ that a doctoral writer needs to do in order to motivate the reader and the ‘potential’ that the writer needs to find in their exploration of the problem. That is, the reader needs to see something in a new light in order to be interested in the potential that the writer already sees. I love the idea of a thesis intro as ‘making strange’, but I think it is important to see that as a starting rather than an ending point.

    1. Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time respond – like you, I think that the process of defamiliarisation is the ‘starting point’; it is not THE ‘point’ of doing a PhD. But, having read your comment, perhaps this process of defamiliarisation has at least two purposes: one, it helps the researcher to actually think through what they are researching and why it matters (so it becomes a kind of method); two, it can then be used as a rhetorical ruse, to engage the reader and gradually bring them to see the writer’s perspective (after the researcher has done their thinking and is clear in their own head about why they needed to defamiliarise their topic in the first place). It’s in this second sense that the reader is then in a better position to see the potential that writer has come to see. Maybe … ?

      It’s hard to talk generically without going into the specifics, but I suppose that I was reflecting on what I am trying to do with my topic, and why I am needing to foreground its more unusual manifestations.

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