You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part II)

Oh, hello, there! You look like I know you from Part I of this post? If not (a) your face is awfully familiar to someone else and (b) you might want to go there. It would make the experience of reading what follows here more…coherent? Enjoyable?

More like the author intended, anyway. For those of you whose reading skills have already been tested in part I, this is – unsurprisingly – the sequel to your adventure, called: Part II

POINT FOUR: The Bigger Picture

The above elaborations on Bleed also tie into a greater narrative within the LARP-Campaign: Part of what Explorers playfully learn, and what the Researcher experientially ‘knows’ from engaging with SWP, is expressed by the thesis’ main statement. As directly quoted from SWP, their oft-repeated contention that “[w]e are all human” unites Explorers, SWP and Researchers in an experiential in-group. The commonality of humanness is narratively, empirically and conceptually linked with the Human roles’ openness (and vulnerability) to experiencing emotional ‘Bleed’ beyond control or foresight. When SWP invoke their belonging to the Humans, they do so in contexts in which their humanness is seemingly denied or cannot be enacted, because of the ways in which civilian ‘members of the community’ that SWP make safe and belong to interact with them. In encounters with non-SWP, officers feel prohibited from “tak[ing] breaks” or “eat[ing] something”, because civilians voice “unrealistic demands” “ask[ing] [SWP] to be everything for them: solicitor, mental health nurse, best friend, first aider, counsellor and police”. Such demands go along with SWP claiming to have to “treat every tiny little problem [civilians have] as if it was the most important thing in the world” without acknowledgment of the officers’ having responded to “five calls in a row without a break”.

Confronted with such expectations in their professional performances, SWP perceive a lack of ‘empathy’ from ‘the community’ with its official safe-makers, i.e. civilians fail to take on the officers’ perspective. That is, despite the fact that the SWP express and repeatedly emphasise their care for the community, and their sense of belonging – as part of a bigger common in-group, in which a diversity of roles persists. The identification with ‘humans’ whom the SWP serve as safe-makers sometimes comes to the fore in descriptions how, despite the purportedly protective layer of the uniform to guard them, SWP are ‘affected’ by what happens (“I’m a mother, too, you know? (…) [That’s why] it gets to me, when kids are involved.”). Other times, SWP suggest that, despite the need to empathise with community-members to understand others’ wishes and needs to be (made feel) safe, empathy can also mean that “[I]t’s difficult to see…when people are upset.”: SWP might ‘feel along’ and empathise at an emotional level, whilst their professional role means that officers “…can’t just stand there and cry with them: You have to be professional.”

What these examples serve to highlight is that, irrespective of one’s discrete (professional) role, Humans (1) can relate to each other’s experience (emotionally) because their shared experiential background allows them to take on each other’s perspective and empathise. Moreover, the world of Humans consists of characters who perform different roles in different Campaigns. Those might come to the fore because of a common human emotionality, alongside the unpredictability of lived situations, when (2) emotions Bleed into performances that would otherwise be performed differently (‘professionally’ etc.). Such Bleed, if unmanaged or unmanageable, can interfere with Humans’ capacity to keep performing.

On an ethical level, I therefore instrumentalise Bleed to highlight that emotional affectedness is part of every encounter amongst and as Humans who are, as SWP put it, “vulnerable in [their] own ways.” From a Researcher’s perspective, such vulnerability could be understood as “openness” or “exposure” to encounters (and subsequent transformations) beyond the control of affected bodies (c.f. Harrison, 2008). This matches how SWP invoke that their humanness comprises a skill-set of e.g. ‘empathy’ and ‘care’ with which they “really listen” and “truly engage” with those they seek to ‘make (feel) safe’: SWP remain ’open’ to be affected by whatever interactions with others confront them and ask of them. In those engagements, SWP try and understand the respective other’s specific situational needs and wishes – but they might get it wrong.

For SWP, being/acting human thus also implies an element – a vulnerability – to “mak[ing] mistakes and learn[ing] from them”. The SWP’s Learning, like SE stipulates, thus relies on embodied encounters with Others as part of what officers call” real work”, i.e. engaging with the people. The officers’ critical openness to respond to the specific needs of others in specific situations would, for a Researcher with analytical goggles on, translate into an ethical responsibility that plays out throughout their professional performance (see also: Butler, 2001). SWP deliberately make themselves ‘vulnerable’ to being affected by other people’s emotional needs and experience, by relating to community-members via empathy and a shared in-group reference (being human).

Working with a Researcher’s conceptual toolkit, I flag up a double-standard perceived from my specific position in the LARP-character-network: SWP ‘use’ the idea of ‘being human’ to do their job well and act as ‘human’ officers, belonging to a human community. As one community, they would arguably expect respectful interactions and eye-level encounters with those who are aligned with them; who are ’like’ them. From the ethnographic place-making alongside SWP, however, it emerges that SWP do not feel that they belong all the time: Their policing might expose them to unsafe experience; disrespectful encounters; lack of empathy and care in the performances of community-members. Instead of engaging with SWP officers as individual humans – with a face; with situationally arising needs and wishes – civilians (arguably) perceived only ‘the uniform’ as a generic signifier of ‘the police’ (see also Howarth, 2001). As a stand-out costume, the uniform would make the SWP not a member of their community of belonging, but instead an Other that was associated with e.g. brutal U.S. or ‘Continental’ police ‘forces’. This perception and associated behaviours would deny SWP the status as “one of them”. As such, civilians would not try and empathise with ‘the Other’ in the uniform, but purely demand receiving the safe-making ‘services’ for which the Other’s role arguably stands (incl. smiles and taking Selfies). In the officers’ words: People do not allow them to be ‘human’, and (more in a Researcher’s way of putting it) they do not align with SWP emotionally to enable SWP to ‘feel safe’ and part of a caring community of belonging (c.f. Ahmed, 2004).

If one was to ‘really listen’, the SWP’s contention that “We are all human” and ‘vulnerable in our own ways’ might also shape one’s perception about the world and one’s place therein in another way: The SWP include ‘the Researcher’ into their in-group of belonging. This manifested in how I was ‘protected’ as someone potentially vulnerable according to police parameters.  My civilian status classified me as ‘one of the community’, without the official safe-maker responsibilities or essential ‘skills’ to ‘deal with it’ and “make people [incl. myself] safe”. Consequently, within the framework of someone who was (temporarily, i.e. whilst on patrol with SWP) not able to take care of her own freedom from harm, SWP made sure to take me home or safeguard my bodily integrity by rendering me easily visible to them (via high-vis vests) to get their help if needed.

Conversely, as part of the human in-group, I am also responsible to guarantee the SWP’s freedom from harm; be there to ‘help’ (if needed or able to) and protect them from possible adverse effects of engaging with me in research. Becoming ethnographic place-makers in the LARP also renders SWP vulnerable to different kinds of imaginable futures, after all. Harm-aversion being one of the key principles of ethical (empirical, primary) research ‘with humans’ meant that my research design took care of data protection, informed consent etc. – all the Researcher-rituals required before an ethnographer launches into a Research-quest. And to ‘help’ SWP, as much as I can, I also debriefed participants after the Research and sought out their opinions on what to do with all the data and ‘Knowing’ we produced. (cliff-hanger – tbc!)

When SWP speak of being human, and using their skills…and sometimes getting it wrong, I saw another parallel between their professional work and mine as a Researcher: In empirical inductive research missions, I also choose to make decisions on ‘instinct’ – or rather: There may be a dearth of guidelines that fit in a given situation that leaves no other option but to (interactively) improvise in emerging contexts. Moreover, parallels between SWP and Researchers also apply to codes of conducts and rituals that need to be performed to pass. The LARP-framework, with Humans as a proto-professional group that unites characters performing different roles, I can make thesis-points about some of those elements that extend beyond ‘telling the SWP story’: Apart from the ‘transparency’-paradigm and the paperwork that unite Researchers’ and SWP’s responsibilities, I use the analogy between characters to raise awareness to emotional Bleed as one element in professional work pursuits that requires community –/ and self-care structures to be (put) in place. Else, we might lose the epic battle of Humans vs. Robots by having professional tribes turn into Robots as they fail to act like Humans and be recognised as such…or opt out of the LARP altogether.

POINT FIVE: Being ‘Transparent’

The above concerns primarily the Bleed-out side of the argument I make about SWP and professional stress that is exacerbated by restrictive ideas about how to be a (good) professional. Bleed-in, however, also finds its place in the thesis-LARP: As Researchers are bound by the transparency-principle, I am using the LARP-frame to make very evident how my other roles ‘Bleed in’ to how I perform as a Researcher. I introduce my ‘out-of-character voice’ (by playing with a different fonds and italics) to point out that writing a LARP-thesis is an improvisation that still falls within the tolerable range of action for Researchers (on a PhD mission?): To ‘pass’ and claim a place amongst the PhD cohort, I have to ‘write a thesis’ (gain Extra credits for doing it in three years, but we wary of losing Life Points), but the ‘How?’ (rather than the ‘why, why, why?’, unfortunately) leaves room for ‘personality’ to shine through.

Thus, my creative writer personality is allowed to inspire my in-alibi moves, and the ultimate ‘trial’ I stand – i.e. whether or not I pass for a Researcher amongst my cohort – is the challenge of getting through the viva. Passing that is something I did accomplish, because I still went through the relevant rituals associated with becoming a PhD according to the internal rules (writing methods and theory chapters, albeit mine take more ‘poetic’ forms; ethics approval for the research design etc.).

The write-up in a creative way feels more ‘transparent’; more ‘honest’ to and about myself, as I do not perceive myself to be a very conceptual Researcher. According to LARP-logic, moreover, a character ‘is’ what a character ‘does’ (which neatly echoes some key premises of more-than-representational theory, too) – and I want to be perceived as a playful, experimental and accessible ‘type’ of the Researcher tribe. By being very upfront about this, and linking the writing style to the content of my thesis, I am also able to make a larger ‘point’ or poke into a possible future scenario: I suggest, in my thesis and herewith, that ‘we are all human’ and should thus be supported by those ‘like us’, in our shared in-group. In addition to that, as group members, we need to define who we are by ‘standing out’ (c.f. Howarth, 2001) – by making original contributions to the body of academic research, yes. But perhaps also by redefining the boundaries of that which is ‘OK’ for a PhD thesis; by re-sculpting that which we hand over as a token to our Elders when seeking acceptance amongst the ranks of Researchers.

POINT SIX: A Little More About The  BLEED

On the above point, one might argue that the creative writing role did not ‘Bleed’ into my Researcher-activity, but that I chose to ‘let it out’ or ‘bring it in’. I want to say that this is true, but partially moderate the claim: Returning to the previous ideas about ‘Bleed’, LARP-research teaches that emotionally challenging, high stress ‘play’ environments make it likely that an in-game persona ‘glitches’ and performs in ways that betray outside personality traits (which, as you recall, threatens their acceptance as properly performing representatives of their tribes). This happens as characters resort to ‘who they are’ (i.e. ‘what they do’) when they are not paying attention to their ‘typical’ alibi’s ways. Relatedly, (managed) Bleed-in can manifest a reaffirmation of who one ‘is’ outside the play; outside the professional codes of conduct and responsibilities one has to perform. Another protective way of keeping the outside persona protected is, as Bowman (2015) argues, to reinforce one’s alibi if one seeks to disaffiliate what one’s character does or has to do:

 “I am not a roll, I am just playing a roll, that is why I am acting like a roll.”

SWP do this when stating that they ‘have to’ do paperwork or engage in other parts of their professional job-performance that they do not ‘personally’ identify with, as they fall outside of what SWP frame as ‘real work’. (Essentially everything but ‘engaging with the community’). This protects their sense of self outside the play-environment, i.e. theoretically allows LARPers not to feel impacted as a person by what they did (had to do) in a Campaign. The implication of one’s outside identification in-game, conversely, can also highlight and reassure a player that they can still deviate from what they have to do, and thus (re-)generate e.g. a sense of being ‘human’ despite all of the strict and stringent provisions of what it means to perform professionally (e.g. without showing one’s real emotions, or without disclosing too much personality in one’s professional conduct).

This detour serves to make the point that, maybe, I ‘had to’ show that I am also a creative writer, because it felt like being ‘only’ a ‘professional Researcher’ was too oppressive; too delimitating for me to feel as though I was recognised as an individual Human, who had a discrete place amongst fellow Humans in this shared LARP-verse. And maybe tight role-guidelines stressed me so much, that the Beed-in was almost inevitable, lest I should have stopped playing my part as a PhD candidate altogether. Which, in all due transparency, crossed my mind several times throughout the quest.

Following from that, I would violate ethical rules of mutual care and harm aversion, if I didn’t leave Explorers enough room to deal with their own affectedness and the negative Bleed effects by managing how (much of) their out-of-alibi persona influences their play-along. A narrow conception of someone who is part of the ‘audience’ of research-‘outputs’ as ‘readers’ technically means that the only viable option to ‘pass’ is reading. This suggest a full dependency on that which an author writes, and leaves little room for actual exploration; the ‘experience’ of engaging with learning-opportunities. Thus, I suggest – depending on individual Explorers’ strengths, preferences and situationally changing needs – to use e.g. the word-processing software through which they ‘read’ my thesis exploratively: Tapping the ‘read aloud’-function for ‘Robot’-parts of the thesis alters the sensory affectedness and mode of engagement for Explorers. They are further activated in that I encourage detours into the online realm to literally follow Researcher-steps into Twitter or to listen to songs as an interruption to reading-dominated explorations. This hopefully adds to a sense of inclusion into the research, i.e. manifests ethnographic place-making for Explorers at the research ‘dissemination’-stage and makes my PhD project an element in people’s lived ‘experience’ from which they learn tacitly and ‘level up’. The latter happens, importantly, as ‘equals’ in knowing: Explorers are just as capable of (embodied) Learning as SWP and Researchers, and must also provide for their Bleed to be managed. Thus, the Explorer’s Companion – which is an element of the thesis-appendix and a gamified plot device that Explorers are handed at the Campaign’s beginning – comprises a section to go through a ‘de-role’ and several units on emotional de-briefing, too.

Additionally, the entirety of the LARP as a ‘playful’ engagement mode targets pre-emptive Bleed-management: Since I have generated empirical experiential data on the traumatising side of doing research in an environment that is unpredictable, rife with a lack of sleep, aggression and violence, I sought to ‘protect from harm’ those who were not equipped with the SWP’s experience to ‘deal with’ lived realities of that kind. I, certainly, had not been prepared enough and thus let my creative persona Bleed-in to generate an arts-inspired, alluding LARP-thesis to enable Explorers their co-experience from a ‘safer’ point of relation. Similarly, Explorers’ capacity to choose their engagement depth by modifying their ‘journey’ through the LARP-verse and the Campaign’s levels materialises their agency to individualise their experience and Knowing-outcomes. Thus, Explorers can gather extra Experience, i.e. ‘XP’, by in-depth dives into theory, or they can jump ahead and leave out some of the methods if they feel like that would not contribute to their character-formation. These modifications nevertheless imply that all Explorers get ‘one story’ out of the many possible stories to be told about what it means to be a ‘human SWP’ officer. All these narratives hinge critically on the SWP uniform as a ‘shared element’ in all characters’ experience – something which all can allude to from their variously embodied standpoints, and against the background of their multiple role-cards. The (Human) characters’ relationship and capacity to relate is the key ‘boundary condition’ for all to be able to play together, whilst a fundamental principle underlying the notion of play (as I propose and promote it) is…


Although there might be something like an agreed-upon idea that PhDs have to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ – which is echoing a sentiment SWP employ to get through their least favoured job duties – I do not think that self-doubt, imposter syndromes, pathological unhappiness with one’s performance and the feeling of inferiority when compared with all those established big names in Academia (etc.) need to be the Status Quo of ‘performing (well)’ as a PhD candidate. Or, for that matter, as a Researcher at different XP-levels and in different quests for recognition. Instead, I believe that – despite the challenges, and the necessary steps to be taken – there can be an element of fun that colours the Research-experience; something that makes players appreciate the play as and for itself, whist also reaffirming their rightful claim to being one of the players: A player who is ‘accepted’ and valued for a specific input to what is a necessarily interactive, co-dependent and forever-changing game-environment full of others who are, in their ways, ‘vulnerable’ and Human (unless, of course, they are Robots). And who might, despite what their role-card says, also just want to have fun…

CONCLUSION: Because (Maybe) there Has To Be One

This is not to suggest a free-for-all of going wild and making Research a utopic place of happiness as everyone pleases. I do not suggest to do away with all structuring rules and guidelines. After all, Researchers as a cohort need to be distinct from others (c.f. Bourdieu, 1984) – in ways that do not boil down to merely their costume (What do you mean, you didn’t put your Researcher-hat on??).

However, the above seeks to suggest that there can be more improvisation; more personality and individual face-showing in how we Humans perform our professional roles. Thus, to put it into a catchy slogan –

“If you can justify it: Try it!”

If you feel you want to explore how to do a PhD differently: Why not get feedback; why not ‘expose yourself’ (This is going to be misquoted so much…) and make yourself vulnerable to encounters that you cannot predict; have others react to your improvised performance without necessarily following protocol and guidelines but actually make them ‘really listen’ and adjust to what it might mean to ‘be’ a Researcher?

When it comes to getting feedback, try also to get inspired – and inspire in turn. It is a mutual play of iterative responses to each other, and usually there can be modification to established action-norms. However, whilst the ‘fun’ part is important, I would also like to ‘voice’ a word of caution: How you communicate should also be (pre-emptively) ‘responsive’ to whom you seek to engage with. My thesis is a LARP, because I want to playfully include a previously unrestricted variety of Explorers to ‘play along’ and partake in the ethnographic place-making that lies at the heart of the ‘data’ and analysis of my PhD. Thus, I reach out to engage with academics and non-academics who might want to try out a more experiential, experimental pathway into research – including the themes around which my thesis revolves, but also the background insights into what it means to do research. For other audiences, like political stakeholders, a policy-advisory paper might still be a better choice of accomplishing the mission of ‘telling a story’ that finds resonance. (But who on Earth reads blogs, anyway? 😉)

You might pursue other goals with your PhD or research project, and thus wish to reach other interaction partners. Relative to who you want to play and be perceived as, as well as who your ‘allies’ are, your performance requires flexible adaptivity to reach your goal. In a supportive environment of ‘equals’, who are ‘in this together’, however, such a challenge should be yours to accomplish without losing a Life.


Don’t forget to de-brief and de-role, either. Every greater performer needs a break, sometimes – irrespective of what (professional) roles they (think they) have to perform 24/7.


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About 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...