How to write a thesis

In writing about action research I once borrowed Richard Winter’s metaphor of ‘researcher as detective’ [1]. I should say the parallel for me is with the television detective made familiar to us recently in the UK through Swedish detective series such as the Bridge, the Killing and Wallender. It is the obsession of the TV detective which I think researchers can identify with and the sense that those conducting any investigation should be prepared to follow the trail wherever it leads. Detectives also tend to be socially inept (surely a parallel to academics) but at least in solving the crime they do seem to get some insight into themselves, and this gives them hope for something better or at least the basis for an accommodation with their flaws. The metaphor of research as detective work can be extended, for it is through careful collection of, and attention to, the data that one can reach objective conclusions. Of course not all mysteries, even in thrillers, can be solved but if we recognise that we lack the ability or the data to ‘solve the case’, that too is an objective outcome. Even if the process of investigation on TV (as it is in real life) is frequently flawed – detectives miss what is obvious through their subjectivity and individual failings and they encounter deliberate attempts to subvert their work and may even plant evidence themselves – the point is that we can see the flaws and compare them to the exercise of proper judgment. There is no such thing as objective truth but there is a way of resolving problems based on rational judgment rather than hunch, prejudice and falsification. We know the difference when we see it.

I was thinking of this metaphor of research as detective work in relation to a recent book on doing research, or at least an old book that has been reissued, and in translation, by Umberto Eco [2]. I found the book intriguing as although Eco is well known in academic circles for his work on semiotics – often highly theoretical work – he is better known to the wider public as the author of the novel The Name of the Rose [3], which features an attempt to solve a murder mystery (and later mysteries) in fourteenth century Italy. The plot revolves around the attempts of William, a Franciscan friar, to get to the bottom of goings on in a particular monastery and the ways in which he is thrown off course by false trails and red herrings. Given this rather labyrinthian approach to getting at truth what might Eco make of the process of academic research?

What is surprising about Eco’s book is that he offers a fairly conservative view of the research, stressing quite traditional notions of reliability and rigour. He has no truck with the idea of the thesis as a literary work (to summarise a thesis is written in a ‘metalanguage’, if you want to write a poem write a poem, if you want to write a commentary on poetry, write a thesis). The process is described above all as a painstaking one and this picture is intensified as Eco was writing in a pre Internet age so that the researcher is expected to transcribe relevant passages from the literature (rather than cut and paste), manually retype successive versions of the thesis and indeed expend much energy in tracking down documentary data in situ rather than search over the Internet [4]. The book is a reminder of how just far technology has changed the nature of academic study and while never a techno enthusiast myself it left me quite enthusiastic about the consequences of technology for research.

Eco is interested in literature and the painstaking review of literature. Key to the process are index cards with careful notes, including notes on relevance and small transcriptions, with colour coding to link entries in terms of their functions in the final dissertation or report. I think this is very helpful advice as many researchers are simply too cavalier when dealing with what they have read, preferring impressionistic reading to careful analysis. Indeed like others I find it increasingly useful to think about literature as data and use similar techniques of ‘data reduction’ and thematic organisations as I would for interview or other data I am collecting. Engaging with literature is hard mental work and very time consuming as Eco makes clear. In passing here, Eco is very good on photocopying (today he would be talking about downloading) and the way that this can give you the impression that you are ‘possessing’ the text, even if you do not read it. As researchers we always needs to think what is the meaning of this text for our research question. Reading requires discrimination, or picking out what is relevant, for, as Eco says, you might underline certain ideas but if you underline everything this is equivalent to not underlining anything at all. Eco is also severe about relying on secondary sources and wants us to access works in the original which means in their original language where this is possible – at least we should give it a try.

Eco is strict on standards of scholarship. He gives a very good example of how a ‘scientific’ study of radio stations differs from an impressionistic ‘survey’. It is important to be clear about the object of the research, for example asking whether you are looking at Japanese Zen philosophy or, say, the roles of Japanese Zen philosophy in countercultural movements in USA. This seems obvious but is a really important point and I often see education researchers confused as to whether they are, say, studying the impact of technology on learning or interpretations of the impact of technology. These are not the same thing. He is truly lyrical about referencing in a way that few of us are – perhaps in part because today we know how easy it is to locate even an inexact or incomplete reference using a search engine. You get the impression he enjoys the process of research for its own sake. He loves libraries and here [p57] is a nice bit too about librarians (excuse the gendered language):

You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of is library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. The person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.

Of course the reason why people will read Eco’s ‘How to Write a Thesis’ is that he has an authority as an academic which rubs off in the text. When he says keep careful records you know he is talking from experience rather than making a hypothetical suggestion; he is passing on the wisdom of practice. Sometimes this pays rich dividends. For example he talks first hand of tricks of the memory in a way that would not be covered in most research methods books. Telling a sceptical reviewer (a certain Sr Placido) that he could remember the exact location of a quote he had used in his own thesis, Eco recalls [pxxv] that

I find it (the book), open it once again with a certain trepidation, look for the equally feted page, which I find with its beautiful exclamation point in the margin. I show the page to Placido and then I read him the excerpt that has helped me so much. I read it, I read it again and I am astonished. The Abbot Vallet had never formulated the idea that I attributed to him; that is to say he never made the connection that seemed so brilliant to me, a connection between the theory of judgements on the theory of beauty.

Vallet wrote something else. Stimulated in some mysterious way by what he was saying. I made the connection myself and, and as I identified the idea with the text I was underlining, I attributed it Vallet. And for more than twenty years I had been grateful to the old abbot for something he had never given me. I had produced the magic key on my own.

Eco returns to this later, and not surprisingly he tells the story of the Abbott Vallet very well.

In spite of his warnings to the contrary Eco has the occasional rhetorical flourish. For example I was delighted to see how you might criticise a text for being, in presentation rather than viewpoint, petty bourgeois (though sadly a better translation here would probably be ‘twee’). I would have liked more of Eco’s own practice and I would also have liked him to have a more open attitude to experimental ideas about the writing and presentation of work. From a different research tradition I invariably recommend those wanting to start writing a thesis to find a problem or issue that really bothers them, one that they must find the answer to, and concerning something they want to try to change it or show how it could be changed. There is quite a lot too in Eco about the Italian context both in higher education and the political climate of the day. I found this interesting as by coincidence I was living for a while in Italy about the time the original book was published, but otherwise I might have been put off. Some will focus too on Eco’s humanities background, and consider it has nothing to do with empirical social research and miss the interdisciplinary implications. But the overriding message of the book is that research takes time, a lot of time, and persistence and I do not think this always comes over in manuals for doing social research or at least fails to comes across with the same authority. I take it as an argument for slow research which remains relevant even if we live in a ‘fast’ age.

[1] Winter R. (1989) Learning From Experience: Principles and Practice in Action-Research, London: The Falmer Press,.

[2] Eco U. (2015) How to Write a Thesis, MA: MIT Press.

[3] Eco U. (1983) The Name of the Rose, California, USA: Harcourt.

[4] In one example Eco says that to study James Joyce you might have to visit the archive in the University of Buffalo in New York. To my surprise this is still true – you cannot access the James Joyce collection over the internet.

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