How to deal with supervisor's advice contradicting rest of study?


I'm working in social science and using a theoretical framework that my supervisors aren't particularly familiar with or interested in (a long story and perhaps not a wise idea in hindsight, but here I am ...)

My issue is that the advice from one of my supervisors for redrafting my methods chapter contradicts the epistemology of my overall theoretical framework. If I include what she wants, a thorough examiner could well pick me up on it. My supervisor thinks I'm too wedded to sticking closely to my theory, but I don't think she's really engaged with the implications of what I'm doing and most things I read say how it's important to have a consistent link between theory-methodology-analysis.

Has anyone had to deal with something similar? I obviously don't want to just ignore my supervisor, who is in general supportive and very experienced. But in my viva I'll have to defend these choices myself and can't just say "my supervisor told me to put it in"!! I've tried to argue the case with her, but she's not a great listener and this isn't her area of interest - she hates talk of epistemology.

I'm thinking I'll just include what she wants but try to keep it quite minimal and hope the inconsistencies aren't picked up on.

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi Effinineffable,

Are you able to specify what methodology you are using (grounded theory, phenomenology, narrative, ethnographic or case study, or...) and how she wants you to structure the methods chapter? This might help readers with providing strategies.

I've ended up doing an explanatory mixed methods collective case study, with an interpretive-constructivist epistemology underpinning it and, to be honest, I've felt uncomfortable following my supervisors' (both supervisors) advice at times.

They have advised a very traditional 'classic thesis structure' and I've had to rework my methods chapter quite a bit to suit their suggestions, while still trying to make sure I acknowledged where my method fit with my epistemology. It has been a compromise. I did spend some time early on in the methods chapter exploring how my epistemology fit with the structure and where it didn't and justifying how this did not impact on the study. I used the word 'pragmatic' and 'pragmatism' quite a bit as well and threw in a bit of that to justify any straying from the theory.

My supervisors also made regular comments about 'sticking too closely to theory' (or similar ones at least).


Hi Pjlu,

Thanks for your comments. It's very interesting that you've also had advice about not sticking too closely to theory and you also feel compromised. All the guidance I've read emphasises the importance of consistency, but it seems our supervisors want us to be a bit freer than that.

I didn't give details as I felt it might be a big niche for this forum. But methodology wise it's a case study with an ethnographic perspective and using ethnographic tools (more focused / not as extended or in depth as a 'full ethnography' might be). And my theoretical perspective is 'agential realism' which is a relational materialist (drawing on poststructuralist and feminist theory amongst others) - significantly it means that an independent and determinate reality cannot be assumed. And my supervisor has asked me to include something about how it's possible to generalise/extrapolate from case studies on the basis of applying 'general theoretical principles' - but in my approach the issue of generalising wouldn't even come up, as I wouldn't assume that there even was an external reality to apply such principles to ... and if there were there's no reason why the same principles would apply. But I do get really interested in the philosophical side of things, so perhaps judicial use of the word pragmatic (outside of a philosophical sense!!) would help me too.

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi there again E, you are right, your theory and methods sound great and I, for one, could not offer too much in the way of a pathway forward given the specific theory you are using, of which my knowledge is limited.

However, perhaps it is just that your contribution to knowledge, where you are addressing the 'so what' factor, needs to be given more emphasis in the methods chapter, so that readers focus on these strengths (i.e. what you are doing and saying rather than what you are not addressing).

With the generalising from the case study to other situations, perhaps you could give 'a nod' to this, with a qualifier, suggesting that findings from case studies, in the main, may apply to other situations and experiences that share similar characteristics and in your specific case, this could apply given similar circumstances. However, theoretical considerations place greater emphasis on the uniqueness of X...and thus your contribution to knowledge is X...

This may be completely useless advice in your situation, so just ignore it if so, I won't be offended (lol). Cheers and good luck navigating your way through the murky waters of theory :)