I recently ran a dissertation writing workshop for the Society for Cultural Anthropology–and, if you missed it, you can play along at home. The workshop was basically group therapy, and I took turns asking participants the following questions. You can answer each of the questions and compare answers with friends (and maybe with members of your dissertation committee!).
Why are you writing a dissertation?
Who are you writing a dissertation for?
What do you want the dissertation to be?
What would be a successful outcome for the dissertation writing process?
What circumstances would lead you to walk away from your dissertation writing permanently?
What are the three key theories that animate your dissertation?
Who are the three key scholars that you are in conversation with?
Who are the constituencies (subfields, disciplines, etc.) that you are seeking to address in your dissertation?
How will you know that you’ve successfully addressed these theories, scholars, and constituencies?
What chapters does your dissertation have to include? What are the topics, key bits of evidence, and key theories involved in each chapter?
If you have time to write your dream dissertation, how would it differ from the necessary dissertation? That is, what additional chapters would it include?
What elements does a successful chapter include?
What is the right balance of evidence and argumentation?
What makes a bad chapter?
Having a clear sense of the answers to these questions–or even a muddled sense that you can refine over time–and writing them out for reference can be very helpful in providing a resource to check in with and ensure that you’re staying true to the mission.
Here’s an exercise: What nagging experience do you keep returning to in your thinking about your fieldwork? It can be an interaction, an event you attended, an interview, something else. Write up that experience. Try and provide as much detail as possible–and don’t worry about how it fits into your dissertation as a whole. Don’t do any analytic work–just the empirical description of the experience itself. Aim for ~5 pages of content.
Now, swap your write-up with a friend and answer the following questions about their write-up. Compare notes.
What are the key elements that resonate for you in this piece of writing?
What anthropological concerns do these elements relate to?
If you had to make an argument about these elements and their relationship to the evidence at hand, how would you structure that argument?
Given what you’ve read, what else would you like to read–what would help this make more sense, move across scales, or address specific scholarly concerns?
“Productive scholars have an ax to grind.” That was a lesson imparted on me by one of my undergraduate mentors, Brian Murphy. We were walking across campus during my senior year, and I had been talking about the possibility of pursuing some kind of graduate degree, at the time in Literature. Brian was narrating how, despite enjoying the scholarly work he had done throughout his career, he never felt particularly driven to participate in the arguments motivating many scholars in the discipline. (Little did I know that the postmodernism debate was in full rage mode at the time.) Frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with the advice at the time, but I tucked in away.
While I was working on the Master’s degree that followed (in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool), I had things I was interested in, but the work was driven more by curiosity and expediency than having a real argument to make. Over time, the thesis I wrote there developed more of an argument and ended up being publishable as a couple of articles about superhero utopias and the role of law and capital in superhero comics. But to this day, I’m not sure I have much of an ax to grind when it comes to superheroes.
It was while working on revising that content that I received a second piece of advice, this time from Hai Ren, a faculty member I worked with at Bowling Green. Hai suggested that to write a dissertation, one needed “three theorists.” Hai’s point, as I understood it, was that you need some parameters on the ideas that you’re working with, and that having three theorists — who, he suggested, one reads in their entirety (queue up the qualifying exam reading list) — gave a writer the ability to play off differences and consensus between sets of theory. If I wasn’t sure what ax I had to grind, Hai gave me a way to craft one.
I’ve made the same recommendations to students over the years, but I add that the theories that one adopts should really be ontologically compatible. So monists and dualists don’t go together, nor do communists and free marketeers, nor biological determinists and social constructionists, etc. I had started thinking about this after reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, where she draws together Freud, Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Hegel (and others, I’m sure, but memory fails me). Butler’s “toolbox” approach struck me as eliding the profound differences between a thinker like Freud, who really believes in some form of biological determinism, and Foucault, who really does not. You can put them together, but you can’t really build a sound theory out of them because the ontologies don’t fit together. That is, unless you find ways to treat some thinkers as existing within an ontological paradigm developed by others who you take more seriously (e.g. Freud’s use of biology is a form of Foucaultian discourse and not really materially reductive. But I’m skeptical.).
If you go look at the introduction to The Slumbering Masses, I’m pretty explicit about using three sets of theory and having an ax to grind: I’m trying to work through the overlap between Bruno Latour, Bernard Steigler, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and I’m trying to bring them to bear on how we conceptualize the interaction between medicine and capitalism in the U.S. That means, in part, that I’m rejecting medicalization as a way to think about human nature and its interactions with capitalist forms of medicine (which you can read about here).
That doesn’t mean that I’m only working through the theories that come out of those four, white, relatively elite, able-bodied, heterosexual French men. I’m intensely aware of who these men were (and are), and use their monism to engage with other thinkers (especially Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens, two Australian Spinozist philosophers) and the subfield interests I have (especially science and technology studies and feminist medical anthropology). Those engagements helped me suss out things from the theories I was using and guided me through my interactions with those rather large fields of literature. It also gave me a way to talk about things like my “contributions” to the field and the “significance” of my research (scare quotes to denote my general skepticism of that kind of grant-speak criteria). In saturated areas of study, being clear about your theoretical commitments can also make clear what you’re doing differently than other people working on the same topic or area of study.
I try and get students to think about what they believe. Stop thinking through the ecumenical polytheism of graduate study, and consider what kind of world you want to make with your scholarship. What is the ontology that you’re committed to? And who are the right thinkers to join to that project? It shouldn’t just be people that you enjoy reading, but people (and sets of theories) that you fundamentally share a common sensibility with. In committing to a set of thinkers, what differences can you map out between them and how might they guide your interactions with key concepts in your field? That can provide a ton of grist for the mill, both in terms of the initial dissertation, but also in articles and other spin-off projects.
I have other axes to grind — especially around racism in science and medicine — and those too are informed by my theoretical commitments. Having a pretty solidly determined ontological commitment gives me a framework to engage with whatever springs up. And, over time, I’ve changed the people most central to the projects I work on now. But having a set of theoretical commitments helps to guide what and how I read as well as the kinds of questions I ask about the phenomena that I’m drawn to work on.
Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.
1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.
Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.
2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.
A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.
When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.
3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.
Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).
The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).
4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…
Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.
Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.
5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.
And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.