Battling the Canonists

I know that a lot of people in the group are having technical issues trying to get connected to this blog.  Since I seem to have writing privileges, I figured I'd help to get the ball rolling.  Everyone else can attach comments to this post, if they so choose.

Anyway, I've read through most of the Luker reading for this week, and, while it is certainly interesting and provocative, there are some aspects of what Luker is teaching that I find a bit troubling.

Luker obviously has a unique perspective on how to conduct social science research, combining the "canonical" schools of qualitative and quantitative research.  She also recognizes that her method will meet resistance among those who attach themselves to these canonical schools.  On page 40 she states the following:

"They [the canonists] will simply assume that you are doing what they are doing, only badly.  You must always be prepared to defend your research method at the outset."

Now, I have no doubt an experienced, respected, and tenured professor such as Luker stands a good chance of successfully defending her methods.  But for a neophyte graduate student, I don't think that things are so easy.

I have had some experience (in the Humanities, admittedly) trying to go against the advice of a potential supervisor, and I can tell you that things did not end well.  I don't consider myself to be an especially pushy or aggressive person, but just the suggestion that I wanted to approach a research question in my own way set off a pretty nasty chain of events.  I believe that I had plenty of good reasons why my methods would work, but that didn't help me at all.

Here's the thing: Luker complains about the canonists and their disregard for the power relationships that inform their work.  Well, Luker does not seem fully aware that a lowly graduate student will have a hard time standing up to well-regarded professors in whatever faculty he or she works in.  The playing field is simply not level.  And a grad student whose whole career depends on the approval of a supervisor will be loath to rock the boat.

Anyway, just my $0.02.  I'm curious if anyone else has a similar story to share.

- Matt Wells


Stephanie Lauren said...

That's too bad you had such a negative experience with approaching a research problem from an alternative angle. Thankfully, I've never encountered this problem before.

I'm not well-versed in the upper echelons of academia, but based on your experience and Luker's assertion that students "must always be prepared to defend (their) research method" it appears that thinking outside of the box when it comes to research methods is typically not welcomed with open arms in graduate programs.

Hopefully as we read more of Luker's book we'll learn how to better defend ourselves against rigid, "canonical" professors such as your old supervisor.

Aaron. said...

Yikes, I'm sorry to hear of your experience.

It may be that she didn't emphasize this quite enough - or really display a lot of sympathy for those of us down at the entry-level echelon of academia - but as to the power dynamics at play, I think she does acknowledge the difficulty. Whether or not they're aware of the dynamic at all, the people that benefit from a structure will always be threatened by those that challenge it. Her message seemed to me to be saying: if you're going to rock the boat, it will be hard on you, and you will have to be better prepared and informed than your naysayers.

It is of course completely unfair to expect a student to be better informed and able to out-argue a career academic. But it seems to me that Luker is acknowledging that unfairness while still saying that that's the way it is sometimes.

And that's my devil's advocacy for the morning.

Sara M. Grimes said...

An ironic aspect of Luker's argument is that defending your methods often means citing authoritative sources, giving thick and detailed descriptions, arming yourself with lots of comparison cases - other studies that have deviated successfully, or other examples of interdisciplinary research, etc. So in a sense, you can never quite get away from canon. Thanks for sharing this story Matt - very good point!

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