Does anyone else get the feeling they're just making things up as they go along? One for humanities and arts, I think...

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Hi folks,

I often have the feeling that I'm making it all up, does anyone else get that? I guess the literature people will identify more with this, just because so much of what we do is about interpretation. I'm reading a film in an entirely new way and to me it just seems obvious and straight forward that that's what the film is about, but my sup keeps getting me to spell it all out specifically (very good, I do appreciate his conscientious in-put). I presented a paper which spelled out my reading - I backed it up with some psychology research which I thought was pretty robust - and it went down really well, and my sup liked it, but no-one else has read the film this way before me, and in my discipline you can't really be completely definite about what things are about, so you always feel a bit as if there's an element of you making it up. Even film makers are not completely certain and change their minds when you ask them. HHHHhhhhhmmmmm, anyone else feel this way?


======= Date Modified 28 Feb 2010 13:07:23 =======
Abso-bloody-lutely. I'm an early modernist but am dabbling with medieval literature, having no background in it, so I very much recognize the feeling of being an alien when you try something different. But then....we ARE just making it up in a way, aren't we? So is everybody else. Even if the author/film maker said 'this is what my film is about' that doesn't invalidate the different effect it might have on you when you watch it.


I totally agree with you but if nobody "made things up" then where would the world be. If you're working in arts and humanities, especially historical stuff (I'm medieval) then you have to make things up to a certain extent as there often isn't the specific evidence to back things up. I'm similar to you in that I've come up with my take on things, but it can't be proved. But I'm using theoretical arguments and the evidence that is out there to suggest that these give a strong indication that what I'm saying is likely, and is one way of approaching the area I'm studying.


I was doing this all the way through my PhD, particularly on the methodology front! So much of my research depended on what I could find in terms of source material, and it was often like looking for a needle in a haystack. And then I had to write it all up as though I knew what I was doing at the outset :p


Your history and film PhDs sound absolutely fascinating, I never really got into history at school so have never studied it, but its interesting how you are able to show your own perspectives on things, to an extent.

I'm in the social sciences and feel like this as well sometimes when it comes to criticizing theories, I'm not at a very high level yet but I do wonder where my thoughts are coming from, generally we have to be reflexive as researchers so I guess it comes into that. I often think about how and why theoretical shifts occur though and what influences the key thinkers.


I have, in some uncharitable moments, got that feeling from Literature and History people are just making things up. These uncharitable moments have come around quite often recently as I've been struggling with methodology and my theoretical framework (which involves making myself competent in whole areas of politics I've never covered before) whereas my first year friends in English and History are just getting on with it without having to devote much time to the issues (it seems, and has been partially confirmed.)

I dunno. I understand historical research, but I'm not sure what literature research involves. It would be nice if someone could tell me a bit about it, because I think, at times when my lit friend talks about how lucky I am in the resources devoted to Politics (which ain't much, tbh), close to saying something a bit shitty about literature "research". :$


======= Date Modified 01 Mar 2010 10:50:32 =======
Hi Slizor,

It's certainly understandable that you feel that way. Lots of people have asked me how you can 'research' literature too, and I would say that you can't, according the general understanding of the word 'research'. There aren't a set of facts somewhere out there waiting for you to find them which would explain all of the effects a text might have on a reader. Having said that, some literary critics would disagree with that. For some people literature is just an expression of historical events,or the author's own personality, and so if you can find out new historical facts or facts about the author and their intention, then you will automatically understand literature better.
For other people, such as myself, the relationship between literature and history isn't that straightforward. Partly because you are dealing with written language, and language takes at least two people to form meaning - the person who writes and the person who receives it. And partly because the creative way that language is used creates effects which can disturb our normal understanding of the words that are used.
So whichever approach you decide to take to literature, that's your methodology, and in some cases this can be very clearly defined: for example a marxist or feminist reading of a text. But in most cases, the methodology itself needs to be interrogated constantly throughout your work. For example my methodology - my way of approaching medieval and early modern texts- is also the subject of my work. Alos, this does very much involve familiarizing yourself with other disciplines and methodologies. I use phenomenology in my work which is a branch of philosophy.

I hope this makes some sense...I could babble on about this forever!


I do sometimes feel a bit like this - working with an ancient poet's 'intentions' and 'aims' can sometimes feel really tricky (but then I would struggle even more reconciling myself to doing it with a recent or living author). However, providing you can justify your methodology I think any approach is reasonable. The question really lies with whether you are trying to discern authorial aims and believe in the writer's authority or whether you believe that the process of readerly interpretation as a basis for research. In some senses, if you do then anything goes! I'm dealing with an ancient readership mind you, so that rather complicates things... Oh dear!

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======= Date Modified 01 Mar 2010 15:32:57 =======
I guess we are all making it up, and that's what historians have always done: pieced togethert evidence and suggested possibilities based on what they find. I suppose that's what I'm doing. I thionk my research is really important thoug, it's about national identity and how we see ourselves, as a nation, and how we see what we have lost, or what we think we have lost. Sometimes I feel like a psychologist, diagnosing culture the ways a person might be assessed - like what's wrong? What could be made better? How could this or that film alter the way we see ourselves? ANd the way other people see us? How did production conditions alter thise factors? I guess many disciplines are about seeing things in different ways and drawing alternative conclusions: making stuff up, in fact. Maybe this feeling is part of the PhD process, a confidence barier that needs to be passed through.

Thanks folks, have a sprout (it's fast becoming the token of choice in our community!). (sprout)


All the time! Glad to know I'm not alone...


YES! All the time!

I'm writing about animation, both historical and contemporary. Biggest fear is that I sound like an idiot, but I know that it's my views and happy for folk to argue it!


Thanks Keep_Calm for explaining, although it seems to me you guys use a theoretical framework instead of a methodology.

Anyhow I have another question :-): what do you guys do about referencing? How does it work, do you like quote lines or, say, reference particular parts of movies (e.g. the scene at 1:03:24-1:05:34)?


Referencing in history is really precise: you have to list the archive, the reference/catalogue number, the document name, any date, and any specific page or other identifying bit. And since a thesis needs lots of references to primary sources (as well as other references to secondary sources i.e. books/articles etc.) we end up with a ridiculous number of footnotes - or at least I did!

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======= Date Modified 02 Mar 2010 22:02:53 =======
======= Date Modified 02 Mar 2010 22:00:58 =======
Hi Slizor, for me (movies) it's mostly a matter of fine readings, in my experience, but there are other approaches, which means that we write detailed, precise, accounts and analyses of what is going on in the frame, and how different aspects of the composition and sound work to build the film. I have ssen one of my films 25 times, and one particular sequence much more than that, I lost count ages ago. I heard an anthropologist who works with film once say that this approach was not necessary, that sequences can be sussed out and accurately written/spoken about with a sngle viewing, he had the attitude that he'd come from a 'real' discipline so new more than the people who've been looking at film for thirty/forty years... I gave him a very withering look and he shrunk back - my experience in the industry tells me that films are deliberately composed, and even if the film maker did not intend a particular effect, the fact that their film is seen that way matters, to film makers and audiences: there would be no Tarrantino without film academics and detailed frame by frame analysis. During my undergraduate degree we used to analyse sequences frame by frame on a steinbeck machine, then write a 3000 word essay on a coule of minutes of film, and I have found this an invaluable skill for the PhD, I never have problems in that area.

We do use method, there are many ways to study films: audience reception could be priveledged, a method which calls for the kind of research people in the social sciences do, so could production conditions (this means finances) - so a bit of economics, and these all demand a specifically designed method. I think, in literature studies, this kind of approach is called cultural studies, and we use that term too- we say 'a cultural studies approach', but don't treat it as a separate dscipline, it's still film/screen studies.

I spent about 6 months looking through film archives and feature films before I had a real idea of what was out there and what my argument could be (theoretical framework) and which approach (method) I would need to use (textual analysis, or readings, as we say, with some focus on production conditions - which will lay some groundwork for further reserach into funding structures - together with some interviews with film makers about the relationship between content and funding structures).

I work in a similar way to art historians.


I think the same may be true of qualitative research more generally. You are called upon to provide thick and rick description to support your claims. However, if you analyze things at such a micro level, the number of potential interpretations multiply.

Of course, you can choose to avoid this by focusing in on one aspect or cutting the data collection off when you have obtained enough 'evidence' to support your claims, but then you are not honestly providing the type of rich and detailed description--and by extension data collection--that is suggested.

I have come to see this as a very fundamental paradox in qualitative research, although I have yet to find a way to overcome it.

Your thoughts?