What kind of presence?

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Much is made at Doctoral writing of ‘finding the gap’ in the literature  within which PhD / EdD research is situated. The broad advice offered – is that to be original Doctoral research has to explore an area of work that has not yet been explored. This bothers me. Not least of all because the first chapter of most books I buy start with the author outlining the gap in the literature they have found and how their book fills it. I am being sold something I have already bought!

Howard Becker offers a slightly different stance towards this. In his book ‘Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article’, he has an informal, folksy style similar to Les Backs @academicdiary and offers an insight into – not the rules of academic writing, but the practice.

What is it that successful (in inverted commas) academic writers do, how and why, drawing on what resources, when and with whom? In other words does the generic advice to ‘find the gap’ adequately capture what it is that writers do?

Chapter eight of Becker’s book – ‘Terrorized by the Literature’ – provides a sideways glance at how he stitched together this seminal text Outsiders (1963). In the process of getting to grips with and developing his theorisation about deviance, Becker wanted to argue that once a certain label has been acquired, it becomes the most important thing about that person. The language he uses is dated and made me wince, but the thrust of what he says makes so much sense. This work was premised not so much on a gap but on a novel use of an idea already in circulation. A causal aside is made centre stage. There is no gap here as such. There is – instead – a set of premade ideas that he uses and reuses in a slightly different context adapting it until it fits his theoretical purposes. He goes on to suggest two metaphors for this approach – a manly woodworking one in which he is building a table – making some parts from scratch drawing from others that are already made; the other is a more feminine needlework metaphor in which he simply stiches ideas (like bits and pieces of fabric) together; this is academic writing as craft – ideas are cut and stitched, tailored to suit the writer’s desired purpose. Like quilt making.

These are also very active processes. Active in as much as they imply the writer has to make a series of decisions and judgments. The writer has to:

(This list is not exhaustive)

absorb the content of what they read,

determine what is known and what needs to be known,

identify important ongoing disciplinary debates,

develop the judgement to discriminate between work of high quality and mediocre efforts,

extract useful information on which to build,

juxtapose multiple theoretical perspectives and explanations,

connect research studies to one another,

synthesise and reappraise others’ work,

connect their own thinking to that of those who have come before,

and learn the stylistic conventions of written work, such as norms of what to say and what to omit (Becker 1986; Boote and Beile 2005; 2006; Delamont and Atkinson 2001; Kamler and Thomson 2006; Maxwell 2006; Richardson 2006).

Walker and Thomson p106

Learning to work with the literature, ‘to canvass and interpret the field and to construct her version of its terrain’, is also a form of ‘identity work’ in which the scholar positions herself and her own work in relation to the field (Kamler and Thomson 2006: 28–9)

This activity – absorb, determine, identify, develop ….  is done by the writer. The writer’s presence is inescapable. The choice is between a declared ‘Here I am’ presence or an undeclared ‘Here is not where I am’ presence.

The Victoria and Albert  have a lovely exhibition of quilting and patchwork as Art. The image is of course one of Tracey Emin’s Quilts. 

Thanks to Charlotte @charlottedean99 for tweeting this you tube

Becker, H. S. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists. How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago,

Boote, D. N. and Beile, P. (2005) Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation, Educational Researcher, 34(6): 3–15.

——(2006) On ‘Literature Reviews of, and for, Educational Research’: A response to the critique by Joseph Maxwell, Educational Researcher, 35(9): 32–35

Delamont, S. and Atkinson, P. (2001) Doctoring uncertainty: Mastering craft knowledge, Social Studies of Science, 31(1): 87–107.

Maxwell, J. A. (2006) Literature reviews of, and for, educational research: A commentary on Boote and Beile’s ‘Scholars Before Researchers’, Educational Researcher, 35(9): 28–31.

Richardson, V. (2006) Stewards of a field, stewards of an enterprise: The doctorate in education. In C. M. Golde and G. E. Walker (Eds). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. Carnegie essays on the doctorate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 251–67.

Walker, M., & Thomson, P. (Eds.). (2010). The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences. Routledge.


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