Doctoral Studies and the end of Utopia

Paul Dowling

There has been a shift in the discourse of doctoral studies in recent years. We remember supervision, perhaps, as a kind of craft apprenticeship, the supervisor as adept, the student as novice and the thesis as masterpiece, preliminary to a hoped for career in the academy. Alternatively, we recall those students for whom doctoral research stood as a dimension of personal development, a journey through the literature and perhaps through an empirical field, with the thesis as a defining creation, but not intentionally tied in to an academic career. In either case, the thesis was seen as at least potentially as not only an original, but a significant contribution to knowledge and there are plenty of exemplars of success from Émile Durkheim to Kurt Gödel. This was the traditional model. The shiny new model has a tendency to look rather more like professional training, the researcher as technician rather than intellectual and the thesis downplayed; Peter Mortimore referred to the PhD as a ‘driving licence. This is the discourse within which many of us look back at lost Edens and forward to anti-intellectual dystopias. This may not be the practice, the matter at hand.

My experience of doctoral supervision differs from the traditional and new models. For me, research activity is most effectively prosecuted in the context of a community of wide-eyed (and wide-minded) researchers. Fortunately, I have access to just such a community in my own group of research students. In terms of empirical focus, this is a very diverse community. They are concerned with: computer games and history education; philosophical developments in the official discourse of Higher Education; the recontextualising of management discourse and practice between the sites of their production; self-help communities on the internet; dress and identity; pedagogic texts and discourse in mathematics and modern foreign languages; internet fan communities and practice; development economics and, occasionally, fencing; the moralisers of literary studies and new technologies of criticism.

To the bureaucratic hub of this community I bring my longstanding concerns with the limitations of linear forms of argument and of the hegemony of concepts of causality and meaning. I was recently irritated to receive this as a rider to an acceptance of a chapter for inclusion in an internationally edited collection:

There has been some minor concern from some of the editors about the clarity of language of the chapter and whether it is necessary or whether it hides the intended meaning.

I am reminded of my dismay at what often appears to be the prevalence in educational studies of the lack of ability to see past the view of language as prosthesis. I have, of course, been struck by the force of the work of the likes of Jacques Derrida and for a while played with the potential of messianic (or what Rorty calls ironic) utopias. But the irony is all too frequently lost on all too many ears as it is in those of the best critiques of utopianism that I have come across: Forrest Gump, Rachel Whiteread’s Monument—in Trafalgar Square for a while—and the story of a wealthy young man in St Matthew’s Gospel. I have also played Piaget’s game of autoregulation and equilibration. But this also presumes a utopian or edenic state of equilibrium and, what’s more, it is not at all clear that equilibration appropriately describes, for example, poetic engagement.

Now, into this intellectual maelstrom (though preceding many of its current personnel) comes Rod Cunningham who emerged successfully from his viva a couple of weeks ago. I had first encountered Rod when he was a teacher in just about the most hostile school environment that I had ever seen. He later completed a masters degree on a programme on which I was a tutor. Rod was serene in an oxymoronic state of organised chaos. He arrived at my door after having completed his Institution-focused study preliminary to embarking on his EdD thesis in the area of school improvement and school effectiveness.

“Does it matter that I am a realist?” he asked. I assured him that I held no prejudice against any religious disposition, but wondered why on Earth he had come to me. “Well, I’m interested in exploring the potential of a complexity approach to school effectiveness and improvement and everyone else thinks I’m mad. He clearly wasn’t mad and has now produced a really interesting study.

In the thesis, Rod takes issue with conventional approaches to school effectiveness/improvement which often seem to propose the possibility of a more or less continuous state of improvement that might be achieved via the deployment of generalisable strategies that may be imposed, top-down, or evolved, bottom-up. These approaches also have a tendency to focus their attention on management and on teaching. Rod’s first point of departure was to place his own focus on learning. One of his approaches was to generate a series of what he referred to as ‘learning episodes.’ These were short, structured descriptions of events. The idea was that they would be published and amended by teachers, used or not and, over time, compete against each other, the more successful ones developing and ‘staying alive,’ the less successful ones stagnating and eventually being pruned away. The starting point for each episode did not have to be constituted as a complete or objective description of an event; it just had to capture something about learning that might be taken up and worked upon. By the time of the submission of the thesis, the protocol for the publishing and development of these episodes had not been fully worked through, but the potential was clearly there.

A second achievement of the thesis that related to complexity was an emphasis on local activity rather than on utopian states—we might recall that this was Forrest Gump’s recipe for success, paying attention only to the matter at hand. Rod looked at different levels within school activity: student-student; student-teacher; teacher-teacher; teacher-manager; manager-lea; and so forth. In Rod’s approach, there was no presumption that practices at each level either would or should be consistent. On the basis of interview data relating to each level, Rod produced two ‘attractor states’ as follows:

1)    Research – Process Attractor


Š      authority is with the author or shared

Š      levels of negotiation are high

Š      collaboration is viewed positively

Š      solutions to problems are generalised and it is expected that new solutions will emerge.

Š      practices are consistently applied

Š      similar patterns emerge across level


2)    Adopt – Content Attractor

Š      Authority is with others

Š      Levels of negotiation are low

Š      Collaboration is viewed positively

Š      Solutions to problems are generalised and are largely taken from elsewhere.

Š      Practices are consistently applied

Š      Similar patterns emerge across levels


These described two of his schools, both of which were also ‘successful’ according to more conventional criteria; a third school—less successful—did not conform to either pattern. The consistency described by the last two points of each attractor refers to patterns of research and focus on process or of adoption and focus on content and not to problem solutions which would be level-specific.

On the inspiration of working with Rod on this project I was encouraged to read Stuart Kaufmann and John Holland on complexity and, via stimulation from other doctoral work, Katherine Hayles’ (1999) juxtaposition of a scholarly survey of the development of cybernetics during the twentieth century and an engagement with science fiction literature. Hayles identified three waves of cybernetics culminating in the interest in artificial life—as opposed to artificial intelligence—and emergence. The latter concept is associated with complexity and refers to the idea that, for example, consciousness, rather than being an animating force, is emergent upon the connected but uncoordinated activity of simple units—neurons, for example—following very simple rules; this is a concept that is elegantly portrayed in Greg Bear’s novel Blood Music which is also one of the works reviewed in Hayles’ book.

Out of all this, I can now describe the patternings that we refer to as social structure and cultural practice as emergent upon the diverse and atomic social actions, and patterns of domination as attractor states that are not in any sense incorporated into a progression. Nor are these structures to be interpreted as causes of action which is describable at a lower level of analysis in terms of autopoiesis—an expression that is predominantly associated with the second wave of cybernetics. Here, acting subjectivities are structurally linked to their objects, but subject and object are informationally closed. For example, structural linkage enables the inscription on the sensor of film of a camera, but does not enable the transfer of meaning. Rather, the latter is given only in the deployment of an organisational language by the viewing subject—perhaps the photographer. I refer to the principles of realisation and the (necessarily tacit) principles of recognition of an organisational language as a technology (which is no longer necessarily associated with a specific hardware. So the human subject is to be understood as a concatenation of technologies, each relating to the others as a prosthesis—a descriptor relating to the first wave of cybernetics.

Now, if social structure and cultural practices are emergent attractor states and not generative features, then programmed or explicitly motivated action rather misses the point: programmes are utopias. The completed thesis is, of course, one such utopia for the doctoral student. My best advice to doctoral students is always to attend to the matter at hand and that there is a sense in which, that done, the thesis will take care of itself. Unhappily, anxiety generally inhibits them from taking up this advice with a resulting delay in the production of the thesis. As was the case with Rod, though, they get there in the end.