Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where Should a Dissertation Come From?

As a grad student, I've had the dickens of a time this year trying to figure out what should define my dissertation project: some inner idea that is still crystallizing, the relevant studies of my professors, or some other trend in academia? It's not that I'm having trouble thinking of subject matter; there is, of course, TOO MUCH. "Transportation in LA" generates endless anecdotes and nodes of study; add to that my interests in alternative property, intentional communities, and advocacy/ infrastructure versus activism/ practice, and you've got a flood of things-in-the-world to grapple with and sink into. And I'm not worried about knowing where to draw the lines on my areas of inquiry; I like narratives too much to get stumped by what stories to include.
It's the framing that concerns me. Should I model myself after some other academic I admire, or is there some more esoteric route to follow? There's a very powerful trope about doing what you want, about thinking freely without the constraints of a given mode of analysis, about realizing some internal vision despite the obstacles of institutional professionalization requirements. And that's sort of crap. First of all, no person is an island. We're all mixed up with the worlds around us, regardless of consumerist ideals that proclaim I should "be myself" and "express myself," as if I am not contiguous and within a collective world.
Secondly, while those who are blessed with the cushion of familial wealth may have the freedom to ignore institutional structures, the rest of us must, at the end of the day, do something that brings home the bacon. Sure, academia leaves a lot of room for interpretation and creative application of ideas and whatnot, but maybe I'll always have to do the science jig when the time comes to write grant applications. And by "science jig" I mean pretending that I believe that quantitative models can explain human behavior, despite my commitments to nuance, complexity, and a fundamental belief in the incommensurability of communication even between individuals.
Anyway, grant ranting aside, I'm overwhelmed with the possible theoretical frameworks in which to develop my project. Should I use a semiotic perspective and get down to business with meaning and communication? Should I go to public health? Should I draw on art history and archaeology to develop a hypothesis about the instability of objects' meaning? Or I could do the urban anthropological trick of showing how architects' and planners' attempts to structure space will always fall short in the face of rampant BRICOLAGE (I like that one a lot).
There's just no doubt that we are all, as individuals, highly influenced by our social settings and relationships. The way I see it, I'm like a mass of ants moving through the jungle that can break off at any instant into innumerable individual organisms. It's gonna take me a while longer to decide where the boundaries fall between my own creativity and the standard ways of talking about things-in-the-world in whatever tradition I choose to situate myself within.
In the meantime, I'll be riding my bike.