PhD Symposium – Part 1

By Jo Smith

On 18th January 2017 PhD students from the Sociology Department organised a departmental symposium titled ‘PhD Fieldwork: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Loving my Research.’ Attended by Masters students, PhD students and academic staff, this day provided an opportunity to explore some of the different methodological and ethical issues facing us as researchers. We were delighted to host a wide range of speakers.

Opening the symposium were PhD students from the Sociology Department. Amy Kirby talked about her experiences of coming to terms with the ‘them and us’ divide during her ethnographic research into the criminal courts, whilst Emily Setty highlighted some of the challenges and rewards of conducting research with young people. Annie Bunce provided an insight into her attempts to try and balance the demands of different groups in her prison-based research. Melissa Pepper reflected on her decision to adopt a mixed-methods approach to her research into policing, and Jo Smith explained what she saw as the advantages of using online research methods in her study of online misogyny. Finally, Nadia Harizadeh-Yazdi spoke about her experiences of researching a sensitive subject in her work of childhood cancer.

Together these papers showcased the diversity of work being conducted by the post-graduate students in the department, in terms of the subjects being explored and the methods being used to collect data. They also highlighted the extensive thought and reflection being given by the PhD students to the methodological and ethical aspects of their work.

As well as providing helpful questions and comments throughout the day, members of the academic staff presented papers on their research experiences. Professor Jon Garland provided a fascinating – and at times unnerving – account of his research into the English Defence League. Lightening the mood, Dr Tom Roberts spoke about his use of ‘walking methods’ and how these might provide insight beyond those obtained when only using interviews. Dr Corinna Elsenbroich managed to convince many of the technophobes in the room that agent-based modelling is for everyone, introducing a number of us to a method that we had never really considered before.

We were also delighted to welcome guest speaker Dr Bina Bhardwa, from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research based at Birkbeck, University of London, to talk about her ethnographic fieldwork in dance settings. She provided us with a down-to-earth account of dealing with ethical and methodological issues in the field – quite literally, given that some of her research took place at music festivals. Of particular interest were her accounts of how she managed issues of obtaining consent from intoxicated nightclub participants, her discussion on walking the line between ‘researcher’ and ‘friend’, and her descriptions of some of the unusual situations in which she found herself conducting her research.

To finish off the day attendees took part in a workshop in which involved discussion of some various research worries and how these could be addressed.

It was apparent throughout the symposium that seemingly disparate research projects have faced similar challenges when it comes to designing and implementing fieldwork – reassuring for those of us who sometimes feel we are the only ones struggling. If there was one take home message from the day, it is that it is ok to worry about our work, but that we should not let these worries stop us loving our research.

The symposium organising committee would like to thank everyone who contributed to the day, including all of the speakers and attendees, and Louise Jones for her help in organising refreshments. We are particularly grateful to Dr Paul Hodkinson for encouraging us to arrange this symposium and for his help in organising it.