Writing in Circles

“I feel like I’m trying to put a square peg into a round hole!” was how I recently described writing my dissertation to a colleague. To commemorate my anniversary of two years in the field (one for language studies and one for research), I decided to write this post about moving into the analysis and writing stage while continuing to live in my field. These two years have passed as a blur but suddenly time seems to have slowed down as I move into another phase of my PhD while still calling my fieldsite home. In this post I want to explain the beginning of my writing process to hopefully start a conversation about ways to proceed onto the next steps of creating a dissertation or thesis once the data has been collected and the unique challenges that exist when trying to do all this from the field.

To begin, I had attempted to sketch out a few different versions of chapters after dividing up my data (mostly fieldnotes but some recording and interview transcripts) into categories based on their topics. I created word documents compiled of all my notes in chronological order then coded them by highlighting and grouping together common themes. In my research I looked at different ways mother tongues are used in an urban Indian city. So each of these ways presented themselves almost as separate fields in my study. I thought, “Great! Each field is a chapter.” I smugly patted myself on the back and went about writing a conference paper about one of the categories. This took about two weeks and then I assumed I’d move on and write each chapter as a conference paper to neatly sketch out arguments and if I worked as quickly as I had for that first paper. At this rate, I thought, I’d be done with a draft of my entire dissertation before the summer was over!

And yet, while delivering that conference paper, I found myself hating what I had written and feeling embarrassed about the arguments I was trying to make which sounded whiny and condescending. I got kind and valuable feedback from audience members but it struck me that the feedback sounded like I was being told that I’d gone about looking at the topic the wrong way or had ignored large parts of the issue I was trying to explore. Along with the misgivings I already had, the feedback signaled that I needed to re-work a majority of that paper and I began to wonder if I even had enough data to talk about what I was trying to say. Was I just picking and choosing data that I saw fit to prove an idea I had before even doing fieldwork? Was I ignoring other things my data was trying to say?

The categories that I had assumed would be chapters were not so clear anymore because I began to see cross-sections among them and different arguments emerging when I combined data from different categories. In a moment of exceptional pessimism I found myself completely negating the argument I made in my initial research proposal. I created a new outline of chapters and then new outlines for those chapters. I started to build and build on my outlines and categories but then suddenly I was stuck again. To get unstuck, I felt it best to start over and repeat this all over again. All the while, I also felt the need to try and dislocate myself from my field while I was still living in it. I felt that I needed some distance so I stopped reaching out to interlocutors and stopped trying to talk about my research topic with everyone I came across. I found myself missing my home institution’s library and searching for texts online cursing that it would be much easier to access everything I needed that would unlock my writers block back at my university. Though since I was still living in my field with no intentions to go back to my university soon, I felt extremely guilty for not continuing to reach out to interlocutors making it seem as if I’d dropped off the face of the earth. “I thought you had left!” or “Oh you’re still here?” were common phrases I heard from people when I occasionally resurfaced. Yet even in trying to distance myself from my field while living in my field, I still couldn’t seem to move forward with my writing. Was it my data? Was my access to resources too limited? 

This was about when I realized I needed a new approach to analyzing my data and I needed a new perspective on this whole thing that I’m deeply invested in. One way to continue working was to circle back to tasks I had completed at the beginning, like reading new theory and re-reading old, familiar texts too. Now that I knew what a lot of my data show I needed to find theory that could help me understand new ways of interpreting it. Rather than, as I said, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or trying to find pieces of data and fit them into explaining theories I already had in my back pocket, I needed to let the data guide the theoretical interventions. What this looks like in practice is a lot of tacking back and forth between work I did previous to coming to the field, like reading and note taking for comprehensive exam preparation, dissertation research grant proposal writing, etc., and piecing together data I now have that has a lot more to say about a topic I’ve now spent over a year looking at on the ground. I realized I was trying to fit what I was seeing into theoretical interventions I had read previously or had proposed to make prior to my fieldwork. But I was ignoring new themes and topics coming out of my data that I hadn’t anticipated. Reciprocity suddenly became a theme I saw over and over, but it was something I ignored for a long time because it wasn’t a theme I had studied in relation to my topic prior to my fieldwork. So I looked at these new themes and went searching for bodies of theory that addressed them— a somewhat opposite approach of how we come into the field.

When speaking with my colleague, I joked that I felt like I was moving backwards. Wasn’t I supposed to already have done all my reading? Now I have to go back and keep finding new things to read? But she assured me, “We all run in circles,” by which she meant that the process of research and writing is circular and our processes repeat themselves but always building upon what we already know and what data we have gathered. What is often considered good ethnography challenges pre-formed ideas about the field and the anticipated data to be collected. So it was okay to be circling back to what I was doing exactly at this time last year before beginning my data collection because it showed that my pre-formed notions were being challenged and expanded.

I hope writing about this experience shows that writing up the dissertation is not a linear process. The data we collect will and should reveal new insights to us rather than solely confirm what we proposed before beginning of our fieldwork. I am still learning to embrace and contextualize my data in the bodies of theory and the constantly changing world around me rather than feeling that I’ve committed an oversight with unanticipated outcomes.