You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part I)

‘I know what I want to say, but I just can’t write it down!’ – Look like a familiar trope? Unless you are of the rare breed of (novice) researchers, who just happens to be an erudite word artist, you might find that ‘writing a thesis’ is much more than ‘just writing stuff down’. That is, I would argue, in large parts due to the idea of what a ‘thesis’ is supposed to look like, i.e. (implicit and explicit) conventions on how to format and formalise ‘outcomes’ of successful PhD research. Such premeditated norms, however, function arguably less as orientational guidelines and more like incredibly high bars to jump over, as part of a somersault through the proverbial burning loop of tight deadlines and inexperience. Even with growing experience, such norms influence research dissemination forms a.k.a. ‘outputs’ at later research stages with similarly stress-inducing consequences.

This blog post suggests (and hopefully incites) questioning the established Modus Operandi of ‘disseminating research findings’ or ‘sharing knowledge’. In such a ‘writing against writing norms’ spirit, I refer anecdotally to my PhD thesis that is a Live-Action Role-Play (LARP) to make several points about unconventional research methods and their possible usefulness. But just to take off the edge straight away: Yes, I did get my title with that.

One question to answer equally promptly might be “Why bother?” – Which could inspire a possible response invoking the above contention that it is just very hard to write a PhD thesis. For me, anyway. But such a reply would wrongly cast my work as a mere fun project that was no actual ‘work’ at all. Such an interpretation would be mistaken, however: Even a ‘playful’ or arts-inspired piece of academic writing is still an uphill struggle that requires thought and discipline.  My answer would thus possibly go along the lines of: “Because it makes sense in so many ways.” and then lead into a lengthier monologue. This blog is the (longer) ‘story’ behind the LARP-thesis that allows me to put a ‘Dr.’ in front of my name. And despite my arguably unusual writing approach, it comes in more or less of a list-form to tackle the above, and possibly affiliated questions.

To raise the dramatic effect, I have split the post in two parts. Which also gives those of you an ‘easy way out’, who feel that their playing-along as readers of this is not helping them gain Experience Points (XP) and level up to a place they’d like to get.

Feel free to think of some of your own! Maybe in the likes of: “Could I get away with that, too?”

A Testimony To Legitimise A LARP-Thesis In Seven ‘Points’

The LARP I wrote is called ‘“Following the SWP [South Wales Police] Uniform”: Playing With Bleeding Humans’. Knowing this, you will be able to follow the subsequent accounts more easily, as I am presenting my thesis-LARP as a research-dissemination means that functions as a manifesto and conceptual metaphor.

Wait – WHAT?

In other words: The thesis-LARP ‘does’ what it is talking about and manifests what I have written. It also works with language in a literal and figurative way to affect readers’ experience as part of the play-design. The readers of my thesis are referred to as “Explorers”, because their role involves more active participation in the ethnographic place-making that was my research project than purely reading.

Which brings me to the last disclaimer before unveiling the immanent ‘first point’: This argumentation is based on an empirical, qualitative, iterative and inductive research project. My PhD relies on data from a year of ethnography, on patrol with police and on social media, complemented by literature -/ and secondary data reviews. At its core, I am deriving insights from in-situ interviews, observations, subsequent in-depth narrative interviews and expansive social media analyses. Arguably, the more creative and messy character of these data and the methods underlying their genesis offer themselves more readily for experimental ‘outputs’. However, I am asserting in the following that even research projects that are not critically designed to be responsive to the changing interactive fields of empirical research provide spaces of creativity and ‘wiggle room’ to squeeze in some personality and broaden what a PhD thesis (or article, report etc.) can become.

Without much further ado, therefore: Part I

POINT ONE: Form Expresses Content

The LARP frame works by giving those who engage with the research a role – that of the Explorer. Similarly, ‘the Researcher’ and members of the South Wales Police (SWP) are presented as other ‘characters’ in a shared LARP-verse. They all belong to the larger group of Humans, who are threatened by the ‘Robots’. Robots can infiltrate the Humans’ ways (i.e. change their conduct) and turn them into protocol-abiding machine-like characters instead. It is important that all professional tribes, whilst being distinct from one another (in this Campaign based on their professional behaviours, values, procedures and missions), are ‘equals’ in their Humanness: This, for once, links with an associated message I am sending in my thesis (all bodies can ‘know’ and their experiential knowing is, if different, of equivalence; more on that shortly). It also manifests my thesis’ main message, which emerged inductively from interactions with SWP. They argue “We are all humans”, which I analyse as an appeal to a common in-group that permits mutual empathy and the potential to take on each other’s perspective. This, again, derives from how SWP explain how they ‘play’ professional police. Accordingly, the Campaign-plot and its key take-away – ‘We are all Human’ – reinstate empirically, inductively generated insights that are experienced throughout and as the LARP.

On another plane, the LARP also manifests analytical points that I am making throughout the thesis: I problematise too narrow ideas about what it means to be ‘professional’ as police (and subsequently other professions) by using the trope of role-/character-cards dealt to players in the LARP-Campaign. These cards are actual artifacts in the write-up and specify e.g. modes of action, props etc. that distinguish specific characters (see left).

In a LARP, these role-cards can function as one structuring means of the overall play – akin to game-rules [for more on game-rules from a more philosophical perspective, check: Bourdieu, Pierre (1977) Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]. Such are also specified in a LARP’s Social Contract, which also found its way into my thesis. A Social Contract specifies relationships between characters whilst establishing certain in-game rules and logics. The role-cards in a LARP are only orientational devices, however: Whilst they are supposed to guarantee that characters are recognisably specific, role-play relies heavily on improvisation and interaction. Thus, whilst players have to ‘pass’ for their dealt role/character a.k.a. ‘alibi’, they can still flexibly interpret their roles. What characters do, how, in emerging situations is therefore an amalgam of their out-of-character persona and their embodied character’s means and modes of action.

This detour into LARP-research and theory traces how I invoke LARPing for content-points in my thesis narrative: As I criticise too tight regulations e.g. about which emotions SWP are supposed to show in their perceived role as “friendly Welsh community service”, I can also signpost officers’ personality-based improvisations. To flag challenges to ‘appropriate’ role enactments that seemingly threaten officers’ capacity to keep playing (because misconduct charges, for example, can lead to job suspensions), the LARP-frame provides the concept of Social Death. It means that players may be voted out of the game should their alibis violate characteristic (role-card established) codes of conduct that render them distinct e.g. as ‘professional police’.

POINT TWO: Manifesting Methodological Meaning

To locate my PhD within the broader research environment, I frame it as a ‘digital sensory ethnography’. Thus, it methodologically placed in the realm of Sensory Ethnography (SE) and its associated more-than-representational, phenomenological underpinnings with their respective epistemological and ontological implications.

Wait – WHAT?

In a manner of (c)rude reductionism, this is to say that my PhD stands to recreate ‘ethnographic place-making’ Pink (2009) describes: ‘Data’ to be analysed is generated through emplaced, embodied interactions with SWP and others in contingently emerging situations that change those involved. The researcher’s body co-generates data and ‘knows’ as it affects other bodies; its sensory system is affected in turn and makes sense of what is happening through its decoding skills of perception. Senses are body-specific, as is a body’s capacity to be transformed through sensory encounters. Thus, different bodies have different senses and ‘make sense’ of sense-data in their respective ways to generate body-specific knowing. This is where you might think of the proverbial ‘sixth/seventh’ sense that supplements how (many) humans experience their world alongside ‘rational’ cognitive framing and explaining thereof. All these interactive, knowing transformations comprise ‘experience’ of living, organic bodies. Within this framework, something important about ‘knowing’ deserve reiteration: Each body knows and learns through sensory experience in, of, because of the world it is entangled with.

In case you were wondering – as examiners in a viva would – why I have chosen such an analytical and methodological frame and placed my thesis in the intellectual neighbourhood of SE, as an ‘original contribution’ that PhDs need to make to ‘pass’ for their tribe: The methodology’s central concept, ‘Experience’, matches that of my PhD research subject. This derives from a studentship-call by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which I responded to. Thus, I took it upon me to “Understand Emotional Reactions to and Experiences of Night-Time Service Provisions” in cities, online and offline. With ‘experience’ being conceptually taken care of through the epistemological and ontological SE parameters, the methodology also offers a methods-toolkit to generate data in response to ‘experience’-related research questions. With this equipment, I set off into a pilot phase trialling e.g. sensory walks, participant observations, in-situ ad-hoc interviews etc. Such interaction-based fieldwork helped establish trust-relationships with my subsequent research-collaborators. It also constitutes ‘ethnographic place-making’ at my PhD’s data-generation stage, which ultimately inspired me to reproduce the research-experiences: My project’s unfolding in a LARP-like manner, i.e. through interactive improvisations (which Researchers like to call inductive, empirical research), is replicated with the experimental, contingently variable role-playing frame.

[Quotation marks in the following indicate verbatim SWP statements.]

To recap: SE speaks to ‘knowing’ as an embodied way of experientially making sense of the world, through sensory engagements. With ’sensory’ being beautifully open and fuzzy.

On this basis, I argue e.g. how SWP ‘know’ when someone will “kick off”, and how officers “brace themselves” in preparation for a job that is essentially “unpredictable” and does not afford them much guidance or thinking time: When challenged to make “split-second decisions”, SWP rely on their “instinct” and read the “atmosphere” of the places they police, rather than exclusively following protocol. As these insights subsequently emerged throughout the Participant Observations, I gained confidence to claim that it ‘makes sense’ to use Sensory Ethnography for methodological and conceptual support of my thesis-construct: The ‘stuff’ SWP talk about and act on is literally what SE is all about.

[You ‘know’ it! Fill in the gap! – OK. That does not work in a blog. It is tacit, embodied knowing, I refer to.]

In the thesis, I highlight that officers’ ‘experience’ stems from learning from mistakes and listening to their ‘Human’ instincts in interactive encounters with other community-members. Such embodied knowing is invaluable to perform well as “good” police, which is valorised by being central in the thesis narrative and part of the experiential frame. The tacit knowing that SWP perform on becomes accessible to Explorers who join the play as active ethnographic place-makers: Tacit knowing exceeds the explicable, and the LARP aims at enabling Explorers to co-experience that which one “cannot put [one’s] finger on”; to anticipate and assume; to guess and ‘get a sense’ of what the LARP-journey and SWP’s experience might mean beyond the (arguably) literal and self-evident meaning of words to describe, narrate, explain. This works for instance by having Explorers ‘experience’ what it feels like to do ‘research’ in exercises to ‘level up’ and get through the thesis-plot. Their role thus implies e.g. Twitter hashtag-searches, or self-reflexive exercises that liken Explorers’ roles to that which Researchers do in empirical, inductive research projects.

Another subtle extra-layer of meaning that comprises part of the thesis’ more-than-representational character is effected through metaphorical language: Metaphors allow language to burst its boundaries. They symbolise that, whenever something materialises and is ‘said’, there is more beneath the surface – which links with and expresses central notions of more-than-representational theory. More broadly put: The arguably unconventional, metaphorical style of my thesis turns it into an aesthetic artifact rather than a purely informative write-up. In alignment with core premises of literature on affect, the LARP is ‘effective’ as long as it is ‘affective’ – without perfectly predefining what transformations those experience who engage with it undergo as their personal knowing. Partaking in the LARP invariably affects different bodies differently as SE stipulates concerning experience: No encounter between bodies leaves those unaltered, because they ‘know’ differently. The ‘knowing’ that Explorer-bodies derive from playing with the SWP uniforms cannot be premeditated: It is tacit, unique and emerging…and that is fine; that is part of the ‘design’; part of a thesis-inherent openness to diversity and inclusiveness of knowing. Explorers are additionally offered ‘hints’ about ‘what the artist wants to tell us with this’ in the guise of words.

Technically, words that form a narrative should give a pretty good idea about what their author wants to say. Stumbling stones for understanding, however, may come in the form of overly complex conceptual ‘academic’ writing, which is what I seek to avoid. However, in my appeal to be as inclusive to different audiences as possible, the LARP features ‘detours’. Those lead deeper into conceptual debates or offer details about methods for Explorers who choose to engage more fully with those aspects of the ethnography.

Finally, I want to activate Explorers to use their imagination to fill narrative gaps, or wonder about certain aspects of what my language use seemingly ‘conveys’: The above-mentioned metaphors imply language’s potential to exceed boundaries of the literal and inspire alterity (c.f. Johnson, 2010). As ‘conceptual metaphors’, some ideas in the LARP take on figurative and literal meanings: The ’Humans’ are arguably classified by their biological definition, but they also represent the principles SWP use to describe their human policing as opposed to ‘Robots’. Those, moreover, are ‘actual’ robotic devices like smartphones with which civilians film officers on-duty to catch SWP ‘misconduct’. But Robots also take the guise of robotic principles: Officers must make their every move transparent through datafication and ‘paperwork’, which feeds nto Big Data statistics that supposedly ‘measure’ good policing. Such indices remain completely blind to the human, trust-relationship-based interactions that are (perceived as) key to feeling and making safe by SWP. By contrasting the threats posed to the Human (principles) by the Robots, LARP-inherent metaphors are analytically potent, and they provide Explorers allusions to relate to (c.f. Zizek, 2008).

Metaphors’ potential to inspire alterity and novelty comes to play in the LARP, too: Ideas transmitted through metaphorical language may suggest utopic (or dystopic) ‘fictional’ versions of the conditions described or the concepts proposed. I write about Academia not as an Ivory Tower but the Academic Garden of Insights as a collective gardening project. Therein, Researchers collaborate with other professional tribes to grow insight-crops that can be used openly by those who engage with Research-work. Through those engagements, new off-branches from the insight-garden, with its rich theoretical soil, can blossom. This idea of co-constitutive, mutually dependent relationships between academic work and ‘the world’ is a positive version of Academia that I seek to manifest and bring about through the LARP. It functions as an engaging, inviting, playful way into researching, through which Explorers become agents in the ethnographic place-making that initially ‘produced’ the data.

POINT THREE: More Metaphorical Meaning-Making

As much as PhDs are always encouraged to create something original through their writing, and as much as I would love to claim the invention of the wheel with my thesis: You may have already guessed that I did not come up with the idea of LARP itself. Consequently, I could not just pretend there was no writing about LARP before I started narrating the ‘Campaign’ involving SWP. Through the necessary digging and learning about LARP, my conviction grew that it ‘makes sense’ as a frame to deliver the analytical and ethical thesis-points: LARP features an element – a metaphor! – called ‘Bleed to express the imperfect discreteness and distinctiveness between the in-character persona or player (a.k.a. ‘alibi’), and what one does or who and how one ‘is’ outside of a LARP (-Campaign). ‘Bleeding in’ refers to actions in a LARP that are inspired by and characteristic of one’s outside personalities or other roles; ‘Bleed Out’-phenomena denote effects of being affected by in-game experiences in one’s life outside the LARP-verse (c.f. Bowman, 2015).

Just in case you had not guessed it before: Bleed is not particularly desirable in a LARP. It might cause you to violate the rules of your character and thus lead your co-LARPers to declare your Social Death: You would thereon no longer be allowed to play (as your character), because your performance failed to make you ‘pass’ for your role.

Knowing that, LARP-research investigated reasons for (negative, i.e. more-than-tolerable) Bleed to occur. According to the above-linked LARP-site (which is not the only hub of wisdom on LARP-ing, but the one that I relied on for my PhD), high-stakes, extremely stressful time-pressurised in-LARP-situations are likely to cause emotional Bleed (in and out). Incidentally, these elements are inherent and central to how SWP ‘perform’ their professional rule. Bowman adds that costumes make players identify more with their alibi – which makes LARP-ing more emotionally intense again.

Costumes…like uniforms? You see where I am going:

Ethnographic place-making with SWP unearthed how the job’s confrontational, unpredictable character, lack of sleep, exhaustion suffered from the high-stress environments of policing, nearly constant over-working causes ‘Bleed’. Empirically, this means that their work-life affects officers’ personal relationships, can lead to divorces, mental health problems, addiction etc. Apart from these phenomena, which I read as Bleed-out, Bleed-in emerged elsewhere, too: Discourses of police officers’ using ‘Discretion’ to make personality-based in-role decisions, and differences amongst officers’ ‘policing style’ and preferences relative to their character as a (private) person provide ample examples for that. As a concept, Bleed narrates and helps analyse these phenomena with reference to policing performances and contexts. It furthermore helps make broader conceptual points about the porosity of a uniform as a ‘costume’ that is supposed to keep ‘identities’ separate or make people externally identifiable as one specific character with associated permitted behaviours.

Additionally, the concept of Bleed in LARP-research inspired practical considerations about where the SWP’s Bleed comes from, and how to mitigate its negative effects on SWP as well as counter Bleeding in the first place. In reference to the LARP-literature, my thesis offers one possible frame for SWP officers’ out-of-character affectedness. These are negative Bleed effects that make alibis act ‘out of character’ or trigger misbehaviour because players are too stressed, i.e. in heightened states of emotionality. When SWP perform in their uniform, they – as LARP-research suggests – identify more with their role: SWP ‘become’ and stand for who they play, which makes deep emotional involvement in the play more likely. Thus, for better or worse, players might feel responsible for what their characters do and how their alibi is judged and perceived by others.

In a manner of cross-breeding Theory-outgrowths from the LARP’s Academic Garden of Insights, I link these notions with writing on emotional management. Said theory hinges on the notion that emotional displays (or even how people actually experience emotions) are structured by perceived/ existing social norms on emotional behaviour. Thus, emotionality is equally a kind of ‘performance’ liable to judgment and dismissal. How people practice emotions expresses in-group belonging (or not) to ‘code’ reactions to what one experiences in the proper and characteristic way. By proper emotion conduct, one might even do more than be accepted as part of the group: ‘Managing others’ emotions’ can equally ensue – and matches what SWP try to do when they police as the ‘friendly Welsh Community service’, who belongs to the community it serves. Think of a kind of mimicry in which the supposed authority figure, the official safe-maker, smiles to reassure you that all is OK and you, too, can smile and feel safe.

Through smiling faces and Selfies, SWP make people ‘feel safe’, but they also foster an image of what an SWP ‘has to’ look like, in-character. In stressful, high stakes, time-pressurised situations (incl. paperwork, fewer officers on shift, violence…), SWP therefore have to (emotionally) labour harder to ‘pass’ for that role, which stresses them even more…and exacerbates the threat of negative emotion-Bleed. Consequently, the working conditions and too-narrow role perceptions that are supposed to guarantee ‘good’ and rule-abiding policing behaviour might contribute to SWP’s performing uncharacteristically (this mostly refers to externally perceived misconduct in how SWP express emotions – they are supposed to be the ‘friendly, smiling, happy Welsh community service, who work all the time etc.).

Via LARP-research’s proposed ‘coping’ strategies, like rituals to step out of one’s costume and stop playing or in-built emotional debriefs throughout the game (see ‘de-role/debrief’ in the above-linked web article), I was given ideas on how to provide an ‘outlook’ for what my thesis and its analyses could mean. Thus, I imply that the emic statement “you never really stop being police” could indicate one problem of distinction between professional duties and personal investment on-duty which might require intervention. Similarly, I make broader points about the need to be open about and address emotional affectedness during the job, even ‘as professionals’, to allow SWP to perform in alliance with the values and codes of conduct their characters stand for. This includes avoiding more striking deviations from acting as a ‘good officer’ a.k.a. misconduct. These suggestions aim to prevent not being recognisable as one’s role and subsequent dismissal from the game altogether, i.e. my appeals ideally propose how to avoid suffering Social Death.

You, dear blog-reader (and however else you might identify), are hopefully not yet (socially) dead. If you wish to broaden your horizon and reach the goal of the final finale to this posting, do use your powers and advance to ‘part two’ of this post! Farewell!

Author: Claire Förster

It's always hard to put a life in a nut-shell - whilst this is fairly obvious in the literary sense, I find it holds true for the figurative meaning of the saying, too. Since you can always ask me for further elaborations on the many supremely interesting (...) aspects of myself, I shall focus on Academia: Having graduated with a BA in Social/Cultural Anthropology and Political Sciences from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany (2015), I did my masters in Aberdeen, Scotland. Its title? MSc. Sex, Gender and Violence: Critical Approaches. Now, having finished my PhD at the Human Geography department of Swansea University, Wales, I have moved to a place I never knew before in germany to engage in the leisure of job-hunting. If I am not studying...well, when I was not studying, I used to be a cretive writer a.k.a. poetry slammer in Berlin. Also, I volunteered with Amnesty International and in several self-organised women's projects, both in Germany and the UK. In Swansea, I also volunteered with asylum-seekers and rough sleepers, just to keep me sociabe (sort of) whilst PhD-ing for my life. Apart from that? Food. Baking and eating are probably the most common activities you will see me perform; sometimes while and sometimes for studying...

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