Part-time studying but full-time thinking

The more I think about it, the more I am happy that undertaking a part-time PhD was the right thing for me. It seems counter intuitive as I often get frustrated at having to juggle a full-time job, work on my thesis and life in general. That being said, when I think about the progress I’ve made over my first year, I don’t feel like I am far behind where I would be full-time. I think the main reason for this is that although I have limited time to devote to reading, researching and academic admin tasks, something carries on beyond this time and that is the difficult part – the thinking. I think that this is nicely explained with a quote from Weber’s Science as a vocation:

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

This seems to be perfectly applicable to the shift from ‘studying time’ to ‘work time’. Often it is in the midst of my day job, or during my drive to work that the things I have been struggling with suddenly make sense. This is also something that needs to be capitalised upon as often these thoughts go and fast as they come. For this, Evernote has been a life saver, acting as a multimedia notepad that is with me 24/7. Sometimes, I write a note by hand and capture it with my phone’s camera, sometimes I do the same with a document and other times I type direct into it. This mental scrapbook, however, is what I believe has been the key to moving forward in my thinking even when I’m not technically working on my PhD project.


Book Review: Starting your PhD: What you need to know – Helen Kara

Helen Kara’s new book ‘Starting your PhD’ is the book I dreamed of a few years ago when I was wondering where to start with the PhD process. The literature surrounding doctoral study often focuses on the ‘how to’ write a proposal, or plan a study. This is then complemented by an array of texts on ethics, analysis and writing but most leave some of the more pressing questions of the aspiring doctoral researcher unanswered. This is the gap this text fills, and exactly in the way I feel starting researcher need. It takes those exact questions and one by one offers answers to them.

It is an ebook and covers just 41 pages therefore it can be quickly downloaded and read. In fact, I devoured it in a matter of hours and yet its lessons are ones which will stay for years. At less than the price of a cup of coffee, it is also the ultimate bargain. In fact, the coffee analogy doesn’t end there as it is written in such an accessible way that it feels like the author is delivering this sage advice over a casual cuppa. Maybe in future additions, this could be built upon even more by offering a variety of voices through real life examples of how other PhD students and supervisors have also dealt with those issues but then this is one of the beauties of it being an ebook, that I’m sure it will evolve into many more editions and provide essential reading for all those about to start the doctoral journey.


Book review: Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research

One of Bourdieu’s most utilised concepts is that of habitus. This volume offers an insight into the multitude of ways in which it has been operationalised by researchers in a diverse range of fields. As Costa and Murphy outline in their introduction, Habitus is best thought of as a ‘theory-method’ and as Bourdieu’s ‘attempt to bridge the divide between theory and practice’ (p.3). The volume demonstrates how this is possible by drawing on research from a diverse range of disciplines such as education, youth studies, criminology, migration and digital technologies. Through this, it certainly meets the goal of the authors of showing how concepts can transcend disciplinary boundaries. It also claims to posit a case for the ‘unexplored potential of such concepts to spark interdisciplinary work and cross-sectoral innovation’ (p.14). This is something, however, that only time will tell although certainly the range of studies offer the potential for seeing the wide uses for the concept. What this volume also offers it a focus on the contestation of the concept of habitus and some insights on how researchers can take it forward and develop it within their own contexts. One example of this would be Garth Stahl’s chapter that proposes a notion of a ‘egalitarian habitus’ (p.27).

Drawing from research utilising a range of methods, it shows how habitus has been operationalised in qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods work. It draws on work using secondary statistical data, biographical research, case studies and interviews, Through this, it demonstrates the complexity and the utility of habitus as a concept showing that its use is not bounded by methodology or disciplinary boundaries.

What this volume also offers is a detailed exploration of how each researcher has come to the concept and utilised it within their research through well written, accessible and engaging accounts of work from a wide disciplinary base. In bringing research together in this way, it makes visible the thinking processes that are often lost within journal articles, realising the goal of making visible the link between theory and practice set out by Costa and Murphy. As such, this volume would be an excellent text for any scholars trying to grapple with how to move from theory to application. This would be especially useful for postgraduate students starting out in social research or grappling with understanding the application behind Bourdieu’s concepts.


Costa, C. and Murphy, M. (eds.) (2015). Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan


Whose hashtag is it anyway? The perils of not promoting tweeting at #ESA2015 or is that #ESA15?

Since 2012 and my first British Sociological Association conference, I have seen the increasing value of twitter as a mechanism of making social connections, engaging in wider discussion of plenaries and getting advice of sessions that may be of interest. Unfortunately, not all conference organisers seem to have discovered this benefit.

On travelling to the 12th European Sociological Association Conference in Prague, I expected to see what most national conferences seem to do; a promoted hash tag to tweet about the conference. It was evident early on that this wasn’t happening (although some photocopied signs appeared later in the conference). This conference had 3500 delegates so it would be safe to assume that at least a proportion of these would have a twitter presence.

It can be seen from analysis of posts involving the hashtag that the lack of a promoted hash tag had an impact on who was tweeting and the volume of these tweets. Wasim Ahmed (@was3120) ran an a analysis by nodeXL which found that in the whole conference there were 1637 tweets using the hash tag from 579 users. If we compare this to the analysis run by the BSA digital sociology group on the 2013 BSA conference, there were 1497 tweets from 328 users during a conference with far fewer delegates (790).

This is potentially problematic as twitter is in many ways expected as a back channel at a conference. Even the controversy surrounding the Ecological Society of America’s request for tweeters to ask permission before tweeting still acknowledged the presence of twitter as a core element of the conference.

It might therefore be helpful for future organising committees to understand how having an official hashtag might have helped this specific conference

  •  the sheer volume of papers

I am positive that I am not the only delegate who found the sheer number of papers a challenge to choose from. With 37 research networks and 7 research streams in addition to a number of other plenaries and ‘mid-day specials’, it was easy to miss interesting papers or sessions, in fact I noted that many people stuck to one network for the duration. By having an active hashtag, it can allow delegates to find that hidden gem they missed, for instance it was a tweet from Drew Dalton (@DrewDalton1980) that alerted me to a fascinating session on methods that I would have missed otherwise.

  •  Ways of negotiating clashes in interesting papers

With this sheer volume of papers, clashes are inevitable. What a twitter back channel also allows is a ‘feel’ for missed papers or sessions to be garnered through others comments. This enables engagement with the content or enough detail to decide if you wish to contact the researcher directly for a copy of the paper.

  • Interacting with speakers 

This is one aspect that is almost essential in a programme this size. For example my own paper was in a 90 minute session with 4 other papers. This allowed for 12 minutes delivery and 2 or at most 3 questions. By creating an alternative form of engagement with the speaker, it allows much more productivity in terms of gathering feedback on a paper.

  • The social aspect of a conference

In a conference of this scale (3500 delegates) twitter has so much potential for forming networks and finding people with similar interests it is a lifesaver for those people who, like me, did not know many people before the conference.

  • Feedback

The use of twitter as a back channel that was monitored locally may have picked up the issues with audio during Bauman’s plenary which may have been addressed quickly, thus reducing the frustration reported on twitter from not being able to hear the talk. In the defence of the organising committee, gaining feedback was attempted on a Facebook post, however it would have been more effective to monitor a hash tag and to directly respond on there as it could have offered more instant feedback, especially on Wi-Fi, water and queuing issues.

Hopefully lessons will be learned for ESA 2017 and by others reading this blog who are organising their own conferences.


What’s this blog got to do with it?

I was going to entitle this blog “A blog on why I  haven’t blogged” and if you look at the date of the last post, that is exactly what it is. Strangely, it doesn’t seem that long since I did blog and this is what this post is actually about.

As I have discussed, previously on my blog, writing blog posts is almost a cathartic process for me. The actual value being in the production and writing down of my ideas in order to work through them and understand them. I was last blogging at a very specific time; namely that of the transition from masters to doctoral study where I needed a focus to work through my reading. This in many ways has been removed by the process of writing and preparing a number of assignments for the postgraduate certificate in research methods that accompanies the PhD process at Staffordshire and through my musings written to create a basis for supervision discussions.

In revisiting these, I can see how my previous blogging has influenced these and the way I have worked through my thoughts. I can also see some useful lessons that will hopefully improve future blogging endeavours. In all honesty, however, there is an element of angst in not having blogged for a while. This is why I felt I needed to write something but I have been torn when I was thinking about what to write about.

This, potentially is a dilemma for many doctoral students. Do I post about my own project before I publish elements of it? Do I reduce my postings to ones of methodology and process? Or do I blog on tangential issues? I don’t actually know the answer at this point in time but it is likely to be the subject of another blog post in the near future. I have a number of conference papers coming up over the next few months and maybe attending these conferences will spark some ideas for more blog posts, who knows.

Pat Thomson has written a blog about how she generates ideas for posts but for me at this moment in time, I’m not sure if this would draw away from the focus on my actual project. That being said, the notion of thinking in public through blogging and twitter is something I am exploring ‘on the side’ of my doctoral project so this might be a useful focus for the blog.

Of course, one other area which seems to receive lots of traffic on the blog is my book reviews and in terms of overlap with my doctoral work, these are quite safe territory, but then I wonder if I should be trying to target these at journals instead on my blog?

Answers in the comments or on twitter please! @jonrainford


Book Review: English and Bolton – Bourdieu for Educators

In this text, Fenwick W. English and Cheryl L. Bolton aim to fill a much-needed gap in the literature; a text that makes Bourdieu’s work accessible to practitioners. Whilst there are a number of introductory texts, the examples often do not resonate with practitioners who may not come from a social science background. It is clear that two authors with a background of practice have developed this text and understand exactly the issues that make Bourdieu’s work a challenge for practitioners to understand. Using real world examples within educational practice from across sectors, age ranges and geographical settings, the text takes Bourdieu’s concepts and embeds them in situations that will hold resonance for practitioners.

Whilst the work of Pierre Bourdieu is a go to source of theoretical concepts for many educational researchers, his work is not always fully engaged with effectively by these researchers, especially those without a background in sociology or social theory. This often means that some of his more complex ideas are not fully engaged with. This volume aims to bring Bourdieu’s ideas to a wider audience and it does this well by contextualizing his ideas in relation to issues that practitioners can closely relate to. It also demystifies some of Bourdieu’s more complex ideas by explaining them in clear English with real world examples from both sides of the Atlantic. As a practitioner, this also added an interesting dimension to the text as not only did it clearly elucidate some of Bourdieu’s concepts but it also gave an insight into educational settings that were not familiar.

The book first introduces the concepts and vocabulary central to Bourdieu’s work before examining their use in study of institutions, curriculum and leadership. The final chapter then examines the impact and relevance of his work on today’s education system. Whilst the book should not be treated as a sole resource on Bourdieu, it offers a useful entry point into his work for those who may initially be overwhelmed by some of the language and vocabulary that Bourdieu uses so that they can better understand the utility of his work as a theoretical framework within Education. As such I would highly recommend it as a text for practitioners entering the world of social research in order to both introduce and signpost the works within Bourdieu’s oeuvre that are most useful to the issues that concern them.

English, F.L. and Bolton, C.L. (2015). Bourdieu for Educators. London: Sage

widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening participation seminar 2

Unlike the previous seminar that was focused more on research and its value in widening participation, the second in the series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars had a distinct focus on the nature of outreach work and how to evaluate its success. What was distinct from the three papers and the plenary discussions is the heterogeneous nature of what work is done and how institutions judge its success. In the opening, Annette Hayton posed the issue of how reporting, evaluation and research can often form discreet entities that can be divorced from practice. There were many issues raised over the day but I will pull out some of the key issues and my reflection on these.

The first paper given by Colin McCaig explored his work on content and discourse analysis of Access Agreements from 2006 and 2012 across 10 pre-1992 and 10 post-1992 universities. His paper addressed many key issues but the most striking was how much of the focus at primary level was coming from pre-1992 institutions. I would suggest that this is in some ways problematic as the overwhelming discourse from the pre-1992 institutions was that they wanted to work with ‘the brightest’, ‘the best’ and ‘high attainers’. Does this mean that in some cases these primary children may be developing a sense that if they do not make it to a pre-1992 university that they are in some way deficient or have failed? *

Also interesting in Colin’s paper was the shifts in language in Access Agreements between 2006 and 2012. Changes were more prevalent in post-1992 institutions that moved from talking about institutional focused issues to those centered on individuals. In pre-1992 institutions there was less change but, the main change in focus was around the role of widening participation as a civic virtue. This marked change in post-1992’s and more static approach in pre-1992’s may offer some insights into the thinking of institutional leadership teams onto why they should do widening participation work.

The second paper was a whistle stop tour by Carole Leathwood through a DfE funded study into school and college strategies to raise aspirations. I was very pleased to hear Carole’s reflection on the problematic nature of the steering groups insistence on using the term raising aspirations. As I have written about before, the issues is not one of low aspirations but mismatched or poorly channeled aspiration, which Carole helpfully termed an ‘Expectation Gap’. What worries me however is even despite a growing acknowledgement that the discourse of raising aspirations is problematic that there seems to be a reluctance to abandon it.

The study was relatively extensive and looked at 400 schools and 100 colleges with a telephone survey and 9 schools and 2 colleges as case studies. What was interesting was that 98% of colleges and 97% of schools said they did some ‘aspiration raising work’ and that there was a unanimous message that all options should be discussed, not just Higher Education. This resonates very much with feedback from teachers about events we have run with them valuing the fact we discuss all options open to young people and is often a criticism of other widening participation events they have participated in. This is something that is worth all practioners in the field taking some time to reflect on.

The study cited many elements that make a difference and I think it is useful to summarise them here:

  • Whole school and college culture that engages in this work
  • Well organized and structured programme
  • Advice on subject choice
  • Student finance advice
  • Dedicated specialist staff in schools
  • Vising speakers / Alumni
  • Personalised one to one support
  • Mentoring
  • University visits and Summer Schools

Overwhelmingly, it is these visits that were cited by both students and teachers as having the most profound impact although they also noted the issues of cost in being able to attend these visits. There was clearly a London effect where these schools were doing more and the transport issue could be a key factor in this. I would also suggest that getting student ambassadors into London schools is a far easier prospect than into a rural school with limited transport links or at a distance from a university campus. Carole’s paper raised many more issues and I would highly recommend any practitioners to spend some time to read the full report.

The final paper was a case study of the University of Bath’s attempts to create a framework for evaluating widening participation work. They identified clear issues with previous lack of correlation of aims and objectives which made it hard to find a focus for evaluation. For each level of intervention, they identified five dimensions: know, choose, become, practice and understand. They then ensured that there were objectives for each. This then created a much more systematic way of approaching evaluation. What was interesting to reflect upon was how much of the evaluation practioners may often do in a tacit or ad-hoc way as part of their own reflective practice through debriefs but that may not be systematically recorded. What was also useful to reflect upon was the diverse approach to evaluation in terms of measuring understanding through quizzes, surveys, peer evaluation of work and focus groups. One of the challenges when we talk about evaluation can be the narrow conception of evaluation as a paper form and this is something to be reflected upon – the multifaceted dimensions of evaluation and how to capture this effectively in a systematic way.

This second seminar offered much to reflect upon both in terms of what we do but how we measure what is done in widening participation. There can be a tendency to reduce evaluation to a must do task that is reducible to easily reportable numerical data in terms of participation, target groups and engagement but this can miss the transformative power of widening participation which is in many ways the real value of this type of work. It isn’t simply how many students an institution can work with but how many lives this type of work can transform.

(*this is a different interpretation to the original post due to misinterpreting the data)

Full presentations now available here