Where to Start When You Don’t Know Where to Start: Building a Philosophical Framing for Your PhD Research

This month we published Research Paradigm Considerations for Emerging Scholars edited by Anja Pabel, Josephine Pryce and Allison Anderson. In this post Allison explains where to start with your PhD journey.

When you start a PhD, there is usually a lot of emphasis on ‘defining your topic’, ‘stating your question’, ‘outlining your research aims and objectives’, or ‘finding your hypothesis’, which is usually quite fun, as it is nearly always in an area you know a lot about already. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to read everything related to the topic, and there is often some discussion about your theoretical framework and your methodology. All of these aspects support the confirmation of candidature process that you go through in the first six months of your PhD, which is generally quite an affirming and exciting process as you stride with confidence into your ‘publication plan’ and ‘milestone schedule’. Everyone tells you it’s going to be hard, and you listen, but really don’t see how that will happen with such a robust plan ahead.

When I started my PhD, I thought my methodology was simply a description of whether I used surveys or interviews to gather data, how I decided on sample sizes and what computer program I would use to analyse it all. I didn’t fully understand that I would need to connect these choices back to my personal viewpoint, how I view the world and the specific perspective of my research.

My supervisor started introducing the terms ‘paradigm’, ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ as things I should be thinking about in my philosophical framing. I honestly didn’t know what a philosophical framing was, let alone what mine was, or what that of my research was. And worse, I hadn’t really allowed for this in my plan and I was feeling a little out of control. So I started reading. And to be frank, that really did not help. The definitions of these terms as described in formal sources were actually less helpful to my novice mind than those in Wikipedia. I was beginning to realise the importance of doing this, and I was frustrated at my lack of grounding and understanding, as well as at the lack of clear guidance available. I wondered whether I was really cut out to write a PhD at all.

I talked to my friends who were also doing PhDs. And I realised that I was not alone – nearly everyone I spoke to was having similar experiences with a lack of clarity or knowledge from their supervisors, a lack of grounding in philosophical thinking, and not knowing where to start. It became evident that we all needed to start somewhere, so we gathered together a core group of around ten PhD students from a diverse range of disciplines across the university and called ourselves the ROPE Group – talking about Research, Ontology, Philosophy and Epistemology. We found Jo (Pryce, co-editor of our new book), a delightful member of the academic staff who was very interested in paradigms and generous enough to attend our fortnightly meetings. I made sure to book the tea room in one of the faculties in the hope of engaging with other academics, and brought biscuits each week to keep the energy going. Jo introduced us to Guba & Lincoln’s (1994, 2005) table of paradigms, ontologies and epistemologies, which was a watershed moment for all of us and guided us on our exploration of the paradigms.

The ROPE group kept me sane throughout the highs and lows of my PhD journey, providing support, kindness, guidance, calories and the deep, reassuring knowledge that I was not alone. We all went on to complete our PhDs and as we did, we realised that PhD students everywhere face these challenges, not just within our group. Jo suggested that we write a book that might help others in the same situation, with each chapter covering a different paradigm used, how we applied it in practice and a reflection on our experience of using it. Anja (a fellow ROPE member) took the lead and reached out to our broader networks to invite submissions, and now the book is being released.

If you don’t know where to start when things get murky with paradigms and philosophical framings in your PhD journey, start with a group of fellow PhDs, a packet of biscuits, a tea room, Guba & Lincoln’s (1994, 2005) table of paradigms, ontologies and epistemologies, and very importantly, a knowledgeable and engaged academic who is prepared to spend time guiding your conversation. If these things are not available to you, consider buying our book. Or maybe just buy it anyway. It will help!

Allison Anderson

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Qualitative Methods in Tourism Research edited by Wendy Hillman and Kylie Radel.

What Do Staff Think and Feel when Creating Service Encounters in Tourism, Events and Hospitality?

We recently published Service Encounters in Tourism, Events and Hospitality by Miriam Firth. In this post the author tells us what to expect from the book.

Satisfying customers and management is not enough. What do the staff think and feel when creating service encounters in tourism, events and hospitality?

The industries of tourism, events and hospitality require service encounters to offer customers intangible products. The service encounters form customer opinion on the business and are often referred to when evaluating service quality and customer satisfaction. But what are the staff perspectives on completing these? Where is the TripAdvisor for staff who want to complain about customers who do not behave appropriately? How does the front/back of house culture affect the service? What culture shocks does an Asian staff member have when serving a European customer in a UK business? These are some of the questions students can consider when using this book. Staff voices are presented in storied incidents from graduates working as staff in businesses associated with these industries to enable understanding and reflection on staff positions when creating service encounters.

In the book I present an examination of existing key terms often taught in programmes management in further and higher education: service quality, soft skills, intercultural communication/sensitivity, emotional/aesthetic/sexualised labour, co-production/-creation, humour use, and legal frameworks are all discussed and aligned to graduate/staff storied incidents for students to consider the staff perspective. When using these stories in my own classes students naturally open up further discussion of their own stories, or opinions on the stories. I have found that these stories enable easier access to theory by considering how and where these manifest in ‘real life’ situations and support critical examination in a more approachable frame. Rather than showcasing a case study of industry, this book offers insights from the staff creating the industry.

Within the discussion presented I question the validity of consistent focus on ‘management’ and ‘customer,’ or how management can support staff to do more, or how staff can listen and work with customers to offer more. I also expand current models on service encounters to include colleagues, management and suppliers and question the large cultural positions taken in contexts of transnational flows of people (including the staff themselves).

As a former worker and manager from these industries I often think of my own stories and incidents when serving customers. The people are what make these industries a fantastic and enjoyable location to pursue a career within, but these experiences are mostly created by the staff, not the customers nor management. This book praises the work completed by staff delivering service encounters and outlines the armoury of skills and knowledge utilised when delivering an intangible product. It also shows ways in which individuals and small cultures form the experiences and how the staff not only create, but educate management and customers within these contexts.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Tourism and Humour by Philip L. Pearce and Anja Pabel.

An Interview with Philip L. Pearce and Anja Pabel, authors of “Tourism and Humour”

Earlier this month we published Tourism and Humour by Philip L. Pearce and Anja Pabel. We asked them a few questions to find out more about the background to the book.

What inspired you to study tourism and humour?

Anja: My primary PhD supervisor, Prof Philip Pearce aka “Prof”, pointed me into the direction of tourism and humour. During a pre-PhD meeting, I remember quite clearly that we talked about three potential PhD topics: social media use in tourism, poverty alleviation and tourism and humour in tourism. When I heard about the humour topic, my alarm bells went ringing: “Ding ding ding, this is so going to be my topic!” The rest is already history.

Tourism and HumourPhilip: Erik Cohen and I discussed humour at the 2007 Academy of Tourism conference and at a number of subsequent meetings in Thailand. I then systematically explored some well-known situations in an early Annals of Tourism Research paper. I do recognise nationality differences, but the way humour enlivens many human interactions has always been of interest to me and its role in tourism interactions was not formally appreciated. The choice of the topic is consistent with identifying key facets of tourist behaviour which have defined some of our earlier work at James Cook University

What insights have you gained from writing the book?

Anja: The research for the PhD and the book made me realise just what a multifaceted phenomenon humour actually is. It is something so nebulous because it is a personal and subjective experience. The research shows that tour guides who are successful in using humour during tourism experiences contribute to the tourists’ comfort, connection and concentration levels. Overall it can be said that humour may not apply to all tourism settings but this research has shown that is it likely to contribute to making many tourists’ experiences more enjoyable.

Philip: The breadth and depth of scholarship relating to humour has now given me the ability to identify common humour styles and patterns in tourism humour. For example, I recently visited the United Kingdom and witnessed many of the identical techniques identified in tourist–guide humour in our chapters. Guides who gently mock their audience and interpreters who build their stories with humour and turn the humour against themselves can be richly entertaining for many in the audience. But it is not just about guides. Humorous promotion and humorous post travel storytelling are very important links in the humour-tourism nexus.

How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

Anja: Prof was my PhD supervisor and having some of my PhD findings published in a book was a great opportunity. I enjoyed working on this book with Prof and the Channel View Publications team.

Philip: From my interest and from Anja’s PhD there seemed to be much to say in a book. Importantly, co-writing with a consistently happy, fun seeking but high quality graduate student with supportive Channel View staff was always going to be a great choice of working colleagues and friends.

What’s the favourite place that you’ve travelled to in the course of your research?

Anja: To collect data for the PhD and ultimately the book, I travelled to some of my favourite places in Far North Queensland such as the Atherton Tablelands and Cape Tribulation. It was very insightful to see tour guides using humour to engage with tourists during different tourism activities and to observe what effect it had on the tourists’ experience.

Philip: My first studies of humour in Hawaii and New Zealand captured my appreciation of how good humour use adds to beautiful environments and fun activities. These great places were made better for tourists by very entertaining, humorous, culture presenters and fun loving, adventure tourism staff.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing books?

Anja: I enjoy travelling, walking my dog, paddle boarding and reading.

Philip: Meeting new people overseas, travelling, looking after my three dogs and enjoying watching and, if possible, participating in sport.

What is the most humorous experience you’ve had as a tourist?

Anja: I remember a funny situation in Penang, Malaysia where my mother and I went for dinner at the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying. This particular restaurant was very quiet that evening. In fact only one other table had diners. The food was fantastic but the funny part was the huge amount of attention we received from the restaurant employees. Four different waiters, the maître d’ and then the actual chef who cooked our meals came to our table to enquire how everything was. First my mother and I were a bit uncomfortable by all this attention, but then we just started laughing whenever someone new approached our table. In the end we were in stitches but I guess you had to be there to see the funny side of all this. My mum and I still laugh when we remember this dining experience.

Philip: One or two are in the book. Please enjoy them.

What is your next research project?

Anja: Prof and I are still working on some humour related projects but apart from that anything is possible.

Philip: Helping to make tourists behave more patiently and intelligently, understanding non-returning visitors, the world learning to interact with Asian tourists.

For more information on the book please see our website.