Choose You Own Adventure! The perils of empathy in PhD-Writing

Have you ever read one of those Choose You Own Adventure books? You’re lost in a forest, suffering from amnesia after a plane crash. Suddenly, you come to a fork in the path. Do you (a) turn around and try to retrace your steps, (b) set off down the darkest trail, towards a faint sound that might be someone screaming, (c) climb a tree to see if you can spot the place where the forest ends, or (d) absent-mindedly pluck a handful of shiny red berries growing on a nearby bush? Each answer leads to a different page, and each page leads to a new set of choices and, eventually, a variety of endings.

photo credit:  via photopin (license)

A scary forest. photo credit: via photopin (license)

Coming to the end of the PhD thesis feels a lot like being trapped in one of those adventure stories. There are countless ways to write a thesis: the final manuscript is not so much a carefully crafted piece of writing as a series of choices that you alone have made. Even with your supervisor, your best friend, and your mom breathing encouragement down your neck, the truth is that they mostly just want you to get it done for your own sake. You’re the only one losing sleep over whether or not you made the right decision about the wording in Chapter 5 section 3 sub-section ii paragraph (c).

Still, important choices remain. Most of these seem to lie somewhere at the nexus of academic writing and creative writing. Because thesis-writing, at least if it’s based on qualitative social research, is a kind of story-telling. You might not have much artistic licence, but you do have power over what you tell, how you tell it, and who you choose to use as a mouthpiece. Sound confusing? Imagine that you’ve spent nearly three years collecting data, you’ve listened to hundreds of people talk about their experiences, and you’ve built up a picture in your head of what the real issues are, the ones you should be writing about. Inevitably, these are the ones that are conveyed in hurried whispers, distant silences, late night conversations, tiny hints and humorous throwaway lines – not in the pre-rehearsed interviews in polished offices and scripted speeches in conference halls.

At the same time, you’ve internalised so much of the pain, the frustration, the fear and anxiety of your interlocutors, that you dread the thought of accidentally putting words in their mouths. You worry, endlessly, that something you say might be construed as something they said, putting their work in jeopardy. You went to such lengths trying to break down the wall between researcher and ‘subject’, and now you’re about to write something that will remind everyone of your outsider status, because you have the freedom to say things that they don’t. There’s a huge part of you that wants to abdicate this responsibility, to just keep going along with all the subtleties and the cynical performances that are part and parcel of doing dangerous work in dangerous places. To hell with ‘critical’ international relations theory – when has that ever helped anybody?

Ethics are only so helpful in this instance. The truth is that you can do a lot to disguise the identities of your research participants, and you can write a thesis that’s simply riddled with disclaimers. Criticism can be obscured by writing in a dispassionate manner about the widest range of contradictory viewpoints to be found in your fieldnotes. ‘Multiplicity of voices’, ‘diversity of opinions’, ‘complexity of cross-cutting identities and lived experiences’ – phrases like these will ensure that you portray the truth as fragmentary and elusive (a claim which usually tends to be fairly accurate). The real concern is whether or not you decide to speak your own truth – and whether or not your truth turns out to be more important than maintaining the illusion that you are one of your participants, bound by the same rules and silences.

Here we find ourselves on the dangerous path of working with empathy. It’s not difficult to identify emotionally with your research participants, especially since you’ve been so dependent on them throughout the research process (seriously – if they didn’t do or say things for you to document, what would your research look like?). You’ve built a relationship with them largely on the basis of following their cues, learning to keep your head down and quietly observe what’s going on around you. In the meantime, the emotional baggage has been building up, waiting for its moment to explode. Writing about these emotions – yours and theirs – is one way of illustrating the dilemmas of difference between researcher and participants, trying to form a fragile bridge between theory and practice. Only theory and practice are poor euphemisms for the real difference being negotiated here, which seems to be a question of privilege.

Swati Parashar writes, “emotions do not corrupt research, but involve a process of owning up to being human.”[1] Sometimes, I think that means accepting that we cannot always know in advance what the ‘right’ thing to do is, however much we read and reread our ethical guidelines and worry about being responsible. Our research might not have an impact on very many people, but it still has the power to transform our relationship with our subjects and to influence those who come after us. The PhD thesis sets the tone for our future publications and research inquiries, and sometimes non-academic engagement with the field. It can demonstrate strength and solidarity, or it can show weakness and liability. Perhaps it can do both – depending on who’s watching us.

You’ve reached a point where you face the final choice. Do you retrace your steps, follow the screams, climb a tree, or eat the berries? If you’ve read those stories, you know that surprise is the key element. Retrace your steps and you’ll be eaten by wolves; climb a tree and you’ll probably break your neck; you reach for the berries when you suddenly remember that red means poison and throw them away. The dark path may lead you past the screams and towards the sunlight, or it could mean certain death. There is no way of knowing – you just have to follow your instincts.

[1] Swati Parashar, “Embodied “Otherness” and Negotiations of Difference,” in The Forum: Emotion and the Feminist IR Researcher, edited by Christine Sylvester. International Studies Review 13 (2011): 687-708. doi: 10.1111/ j.1468-2486.2011.01046.x

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