Thursday 6 June 2013

A manifesto for philosophers marking social science PhDs?

I had the privilege to act as the internal examiner for my colleague Karen Wright today. Following a unanimous recommendation in the pre-viva reports, the two externals (Michael Coffey (pictured) and Theo Stickley) and I also agreed a recommendation of a PhD award with minor corrections. (Of course, this is just a recommendation to the degree awarding powers of the University, as we emphasised with due correctness.)

Now it is a feature of PhDs at my university that the director of studies is often present as a silent witness to proceedings and after today’s happy occasion the DoS, my rather excellent colleague Gill Thomson, commented, in the nicest possible and uncritical way, that she thought that I had given her student something of a grilling. This might be, she conceded, in part a feature of her own perception and position: hearing but unable to respond to questions. But I suspect that it is more likely the action at a distance of the philosophical habit of thinking that the nicest way to greet a colleague's birthday festschrift collection is to give them a good kicking and then publish the result. But it prompts me to ask, what should a philosopher do in a social science PhD viva. What should be our manifesto?

It may be easier to approach this from the contingency of PhD work in my School. We like to ground empirical work exploring the experiences of patients or health-workers in a methodological framework which owes something to some dead German philosophers. I 'll assume that this is standard. (My external colleagues today suggested that it wasn’t, in fact, but I will ignore that detail for the moment.) If so, what should we, fairly applied philosophers, do in vivas?

Here’s my suggestion though first I want to reserve the right to do anything appropriate. Like the academic contract which finishes with the comment: ‘and any other reasonable request of the head of department’ no manifesto should be restrictive of what is best in local particular circumstances. Phronesis rules. But the paradigm role might be something like this:

To take the descriptions of the framework within which empirical findings are presented and explore what is meant by the student by them.

Part of this approach is that one should not attempt to ‘combat’ an invocation of Heideggerian phenomenology, for example, by bringing to bare what Wittgenstein might say, had no mention been made of him. (Here is a contrast with my role in a philosophy PhD viva.) So the idea is to take only things which are there in the text and invite a clarification of what they mean to the author in the light of other things written. The manifesto idea is that there is no need to do anything more than that. Further, one can learn something from the resolute reading of Wittgenstein in this sense: the role is not to police the limits of sense by ruling out some things as obviously nonsense or foolish but to offer an immanent critique in a standing invitation to the candidate to explain what might be meant by them by even non standard combinations of words.

In fact, I think that this is pretty much what I do as a philosopher in residence in a school of health. Surely, therefore, there is no ‘grilling’ involved? Just reflecting on what students have written in their own words, reflecting it back to them and inviting them to make sense of what they themselves have said. Pussy cat stuff, really.