/This post described 1) my past few days’ work since Christmas ( not very much) and 2) my change of future plans and reasons and 3) my progress on MPhil thesis literature review chapter.
My last few days work
After Christmas break productivity decreased (from ~ 11 hour per day to ~ 8 then to ~ 5). Hypothesis seems to be validated that a structured environment and external accountability is important.
After coming back to my old office in Hong Kong, my productivity immediately decreased at least 70%. Truly amazing. Possible explanations: 1) jet lag. I woke up at 4am the day before, slept at 4pm, then woke up 10 pm that day. In-between I experienced periods of alternating hallucination (no kidding) and absent-mindedness. I sing along Youtube videos for 2 hours early this morning (3am – 5am). Weird.
Explanation 2) this environment arose certain negative emotions associated with past experience. Whenever I sit at my old desk I found it hard to concentrate, falling back to old patterns. In a new place where I had not worked before I felt much better.
My changed future plans and why
On another note, to the readers of this blog, I very likely will apply for PhD programs in psychology next year. Continuing working on my master’s thesis (will talk about it shortly) makes me realize my past struggle started from misaligned interest with my supervisor, my department, ethnography, and sociology in general.
The question I was interested in was in fact studied more by psychologists, and I am much satisfied with their approach to the question (belief formation, political attitude formation, etc.)
This is the reason I struggled for so long in my study. I first read about social movement when I was at UW-Madison. Then in my first few months in MPhil in 2015, I found some literature in public opinion research close to what I would like to know, although they are not directly on protests. Protest scholars on the other hand are not that interested in opinions per se – they are interested in opinions (grievances) as an independent variable in explaining emergence of protests and participation.
That’s the first time I was confused. I treated the literature review process as finding answers, but I found that the answer did not exist. Mistake 1: For research, this is supposed to be a good thing (research gap), but I did not realize at that time. Because of the habit of an undergraduate, I just thought if I did not find an answer that meant I didn’t work hard! (Two years later, in 2017 I wrote to Pam Oliver, then a social movement mail list she was in, then John Josh asking them for literature – and indeed there is none from the angle I would like to know. )
Back to Nov 2015. With supervisor’s pointer I went to methodological literature (Grounded theory, Methods of Discovery, two books by Howard Becker – find them not that helpful). I dislike my ethnography class from week 1. Complained to supervisors but decided to hang on to it (while secretly hate it). Then during Chinese New Year 2016 I read about necessarity of narratives / contingencies , which lead to some reading in the sociology of science – combined with a previous RA task in tacit knowledge— basically literature justifying why interpretative sociology / narrative methods in historical sociology are useful. I did not like the arguments, becasue I found the concepts vague and the logic shabby. Mistake 2: did not take action immediately due to fear of authority.
Then it’s March 2016 or so. I went to sit in at Xiang Biao’s anthropology class. Read some beautiful anthropology, but they are not relevant to my research. Foucault write about biopolitics, power / knowledge which led to some efforts in vain. Probably around the same time still trying to make sense of ethnography, so researched Alice Goffman’s On the Run and Sida Liu’s doctoral thesis. Not much progress on thesis.
In the mean time, read into cultural sociology (cognitive sociology?) but did not find a fit. Cultural sociology concerns culture / action, but 1) I’m not interested in culture and 2) I’m not interested in action.
In the meantime I read Andreas Glaeser’s book political epistemics recommended by my supervisor. We seemed to agree using this framework. This books reads further lead to phenomenology and social otology. Nobody cites the book back then. In 2017 my supervisor published a paper using this book. Now I think back, I do not really like or believe the theory. I tried to read so many times, and I will use the theory in my thesis for graduateion. But if I’m being uttly honest, I don’t understand why the theory is good and I do not feel comfortable using this theory. I don’t know why.
By this time I’m basically disillusioned and disenchanted with sociology and academia. Around May or Jun I began seriously considering a career change. Mistake 3: In facing a problem, not thinking about solutions but want to run away!
For around 12 months I did not seriously work on my thesis. In Nov and Dec I did a whole round of data coding, but not much writing. Thinking back, this is typical procrastination. In 2017 I started to learn about machine learning and coding. Read briefly into cognitive sociology, ideology… Late April to July, internship. Mistake 4: poor time management skills and no priority.
Reflecting this experience. The root problem is my literature review always felt uncomfortable, so I can not formulate a research question using any of the directions I had searched. I felt uncomfortable because belief formation is a problem in social psychology not sociology, which I realized pretty late.
Thus I will proabably applying for grad schools in psychology next year.
I will write my literature review draft this way
The literature review will have two chapters: why do people have different understandings of the same social movement, and how do they form these understandings.
Why question is tricky. I imagine myself talking to scholars in sociology on protests. Thus I should cite them. But they have not studied the problem directly. The closest I can find is 1) relative deprivation theory and 2) framing and 3) social identity and 4) system justification. The end goal of all these theories is explain participation. But I can use them to say, because some have feelings of relative deprivation while others’ don’t.
Then a natural question is, what leads to perceptions of relative deprivation? Here, sociology stops and is fine with describing the understandings themselves (meaning-making). Psychologists answer this, one theory is frustraction-aggression, the other is cognitive dissonance. These two theories are what I really wanted to know.
I will do the same for framing, social identity and system justification. The part of them that describes psychological process is useful, while the other part on how psychological process leads to participation is not useful. Lesson 1: how to selectively use a theory when it is not a good fit but it’s the only thing I can find. (I might not be doing this right though.)
How do they form these understandings? This part will likely be in political socialization, pursuation, attitude change. Still quite broad. Lesson 2: When reading about a new field for a question, do not be taken away by their arguments. One paper leads to another and this needs to be controled.
I developed a standard workflow that I currently find helpful:
- Read one highly cited document. Any paper contain the key words. Better be a review paper.
- Use the Harvard thesis guide literature review template, trace the theory history. Note key sources.
- Write down 5 ~ 7 key sources biblography information.
- Download these papers. Do not download anything more than these 5 ~ 7. Keep the most important papers! (Dr. Tian had once taught me to find the citation list. Use these with highest citations.)
- Take notes and read these 5 ~ 7 papers using the Harvard thesis guide template.
- Print out the reading notes. Select the top priority papers again.
This is like preventing over-fitting in machine learning. Because both deals with the trade-off between generalziation and spceific problems. The best strategy is thus early stopping – leave some of the specific data points unvisited for better generalization.