My journey of discovery

DSCN0159I wrote a blog a few months ago about being made redundant and how that had led to me going back to being a full time student. Well, this is a follow up to that blog, it’s about the final stages of that MSc process – the dissertation! I have now successfully managed to negotiate my way through that first 2 terms of lectures and seminars, as well as the 6 assessed essays, achieving marks well beyond what I thought was possible at my age and after so long away from the academic world. Now to the really difficult bit, choosing a subject, researching it and writing it all up as a dissertation.

Embarking on an MSc dissertation is like taking a journey of discovery, not just about your topic but also about your own thinking and that of others. It’s about rediscovering the challenges and opportunities presented by an issue, finding out what others have written about it, how they researched it and what conclusions they draw from that process. The journey of discovery starts with an idea, an often ill-informed notion that is of interest but perhaps little more than that. This idea is then reworked, explored, reframed and revised before a plan can be put together, a plan that takes you on the next stage of the journey where discovery becomes central to the process.

My journey started with an idea about housing and how government policy may or may not constrain the housing aspirations of a local area. In fact the journey started a bit before that with an interest in housing policy, self and custom build, council housing, housing supply and affordable housing. It started with an interest in why we have a housing crisis in the UK and what local authorities and the government are doing to address the problem. It developed into a case study looking at local aspirations for housing, particularly affordable housing and how far these aspirations are helped or hindered by national policy under the Coalition Government or are more constrained by local decision making.

Then of course, being a dissertation for an MSc, I had to think about what type of conceptual and theoretical framework this could sit within and what theory I would use to explore the issues – perhaps I should have started with this? But for me coming back into the academic world after so long away, that was the hardest bit, thinking about theory rather than a practical issue that needs addressing.

So the journey continued around a lot of academic literature about housing policy and practice, how housing policy has been studied before, about different conceptual frameworks for research and so on, until confusion seemed to be the order of the day rather than clarity and I was still none the wiser about how I was going to approach my study.

Now, I don’t know about others when they are writing or researching, but I nearly always get that ‘eureka’ moment, when suddenly you read something that makes sense, that resonates with your approach and thinking, that enables you to move forward. Well I finally got that with the conceptual and theoretical framework, I found a couple of pieces of work that really made sense to me. The good thing about it was at last I could see how it might all knit together and how I could adapt a framework someone else had produced to help me develop my thoughts and research. The worse thing was the realization that the main piece of work I found most helpful had been recommended to me by my supervisor but I had only got round to reading it after spending far too much time stumbling around with lots of other books and articles first, there’s a lesson there somewhere I’m sure!

The next part of the journey took me to making sense of it all and writing something down about methods, approach, theory and literature so I could plan my research interviews and questions against a background of relevant studies and theoretical approaches. It was at this point that I began to realise that actually 15,000 words isn’t very much and my first draft of a literature review and methodology was likely to reach that level if I wasn’t careful. Brevity never was my strong point! At this stage I should have been writing, crafting those early thoughts into the beginnings of some draft chapters. Instead I got caught in that dilemma of planning and preparing for the interview phase whilst also trying to write, of narrowing down what I needed to write about whilst still being unclear what might come out of the research phase. So I drafted notes rather than write chapters – a decision that was right at the time but one I am slightly regretting now!

My approach is likely to be based on one that takes the ‘actor’ as the centre of the research and focuses on their interpretation of reality. It combines ontological realism, that is, the belief that there is a world that exists independently of our perceptions and theories, with epistemological constructivism, that suggests our understanding of this world is our construction based on the meanings attached to that world by key actors. It also includes the notion of bricolage which allows for a more spontaneous approach to research that adapts to a situation as it arises and uses whatever tools are needed – at least that’s my understanding and how I am trying to make senses of this stuff!

The theoretical framework is a little more tricky, there is so much to consider and to take on board, but what it boils down to really is what’s the research for, what am I trying to say or answer? Once you work that out it’s a bit easier to work out what theory works best. I think I’m almost there with that, using Kingdon’s theory of agenda setting alongside theory around central-local dimensions and the congested state to explore why local outcomes occur in the way they do.

Once I’d got this framework sorted I entered the research phase, carrying out interviews for the first time in over 20 years was quite daunting in some respects, but also something I was looking forward to. I have undertaken 10 interviews with key stakeholders and they have been absolutely fascinating, so much to learn and discover as part of this process. I have been taken aback by just how helpful everyone has been and how willing they have been to give up their time to talk to me, and how open and frank they have been about their views – most refreshing.

I am now at the stage of writing up those early notes on literature review and methodology, as well as trying to make sense of all the information I gathered during the interviews – no small task!

What I hope to be able to talk about sensibly by the end of the project is what stops things happening? What is it that stops a local council delivering enough houses for those in need? Is it government policy and constraints or is it local ideology and policy? Is it lack of a plan or lack of resources? Is it lack of local control over delivery or lack of trust in alternative providers? Is it about local leadership or lack of a local champion? So many questions that I can only begin to explore these in a 4 month project and a 15,000 word limit.

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