Interpreting the first 3 years of my research journey. Part 3.

There were some significant elements of the research that had morphed or vanished by the time the website was launched in January 2010 – with an official launch taking place in Eating Disorders Awareness Week in February 2010.

Certain things were subjected to intense reflection, through the very nature of decision making and researching methodology. As previously mentioned, emotional intelligence as a key word of the question and therefore as an explicit, dedicated point of focus had been removed and the scope to simply ‘explore’ had been opened out. This was in direct response to the time spent thinking, talking and writing about exploratory research and the spirit of hermeneutic investigation.

Another element which simply fell away as I moved through phenomenology to hermeneutic phenomenology to hermeneutics was bracketing. I even wrote a paper about it early on and presented it at a conference, conducting my own trial of bracketing my personal experiences and prejudices. I exposed them, wrote my own story of an eating disorder and then subjected this to Free Text Analysis. I then presented this work as a way of being able to begin to externalise and vocalise some of the things I was bringing with me to me research so that I would, with greater awareness, be able to set them aside when working with your stories.

The attempt failed and proved to be the ‘death knell’ for the idea of bracketing in hermeneutic phenomenology or phenomenological hermeneutics. I could not get behind the idea that all of this painful, life-changing, invasive stuff that had impacted on my relationships, choices and values since I was a teenager could be kept aside to allow me to ne objective, attain neutrality or see things through a filter-less view. I was having real trouble with the idea of ‘essence’ and ‘essential’, too – the notion that something could be distilled to its very ‘essence’ did not sit well with me. Surely this would change at different times and be a ‘different’ essence for different people. It also assumed an idea that I would not let you guys tell me what your experience was but that I would search within your stories for a single, irrefutable ‘truth’ of your eating disorder experience – the very essence of it.

I feel like I want to be clear here – I’m not suggesting that to do this would be wrong, or not of value, nor am I saying that I categorically refuse to end up doing that. It’s more a matter of not having complete faith that I believe in the underlying assumptions, along with admitting that (at the point of beginning my work with the stories you’ve sent) I just don’t know if this is what your experiences need of me or if it can really be achieved. I feel like I’d be causing my own Sokal affair – generating jargon and hyperbole in the name of social constructionism.

So, as said at the beginning, my blog and website got going within the same month (as soon as ethical approval was granted) and this period is marked by it being the part of the research where I was suddenly worried that no one would participate – which of course would be horrendous. I took heart from the fact that hermeneutics was commonly conducted on known texts (i.e.  not just those sent confidentially to a researcher) and the Men Get Eating Disorders Too website already had a number of freely volunteered anonymised stories on it that I could access as a member of the public should I choose to. Phew.

In the event, my call for participants went reasonably well and you guys sent me contributions which I am now working on. It’s here, however, that I turn to the most challenging thing that’s happened during my project so far.

Since the autumn of 2009 I had been preparing my transfer viva paper which needed to take place somewhere between 24 and 36 months in for a part-time student. In May of 2010 ‘disaster’ struck. I’m putting inverted commas around the disaster bit and yet I shouldn’t – I was gutted. Very early into my PhD one of my supervisors had told me about the Office software that someone else she knew was using – OneNote. I decided to have a look at it in terms of my note-taking package to be able to track and store all of the ideas and notes from my reading and thinking about methodology and, later, eating disorders and masculinity.

The more time I spent playing around with its functionality I grew more enamoured of it – this thing was great – I could have multiple notebooks open at once, I reorganise the material, cross reference it, keep things linked and anchored, store and read PDFs alongside my notes, highlight, colour-code, tag and best of all – search for any terminology, ideas or authors across the lot – no more sifting through indices or massive word documents – you put in a search term, it found it and listed all the locations it was at within the notebook without even having to look at a single specific entry or page.

What I hadn’t realised was the way it was set up. I had a back-up but when my PC failed and everything was installed anew, the overwriting copy of OneNote was the new, fresh blank one. Even when I opened it from another drive. The IT service was beside itself, they worked crazy-hard to try to retrieve almost two years worth of notes. They sort of succeeded, loads of the material was retrieved but it was all corrupted and despite numerous attempts, would not open. To say I was despondent was an understatement. Hours of reading, late nights, entire weekends, gone – why hadn’t I printed everything out as I’d gone along? But I had made the mistake of thinking that backing it up to a secure drive was enough – it’s never enough though and it was my own fault as much as a quirk of the OneNote feature.

For over a month work ground to a halt. I simply couldn’t face it – not even getting a strategy together to recoup what I could from printed bits and pieces and word documents I’d used. I just wish it would go away. I had only written the ethics section, opening context and methods part of my methodology and I was relying on my notes as the material was all there. My supervisors did a great job at helping me to reframe the job at hand – to redo my methodology and ethics reading. Ian suggested it was not a matter of redoing all of the reading and the notes but addressing what had been lost using my reference lists and the work on the draft so far to make critical decisions about the items that needed to be recaptured and those that could be let go.

This was my task for the remainder of 2010. I carefully selected the sources I could not do without, chased references from previously written papers, was utterly ruthless in my decision-making about what was worth my time and effort re-reading and got to a place where the bulk of it was done my December 2010. I always thought I had fairly efficient reading and note-taking skills but they were nothing compared to how quickly and effectively I now locate, skim and scan these days. Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose.

What was the upshot of all this? Well, the negative aspect was that I was now technically at the end of my 36 months and had no completed draft to show. I also had begun to receive your contributions but was fearful of starting work on them because I didn’t feel that I had fully ironed out in my mind my whole methodology I was missing – I wanted things to be clearer and more mapped out than they were after the loss of my notes. On the positive side re-reading meant I was being much clearer in my thinking, I felt as sense of ideas crystallising and my philosophical and theoretical assumptions beginning to show themselves more explicitly so that I could work with them. I discovered that certain ideas from 2008 which were really the product of the poor research methods stuff were literally no use and I could simply discard them, without fear that to do so might jeopardise my broader research work. And, of course, you’ll be glad to hear that I had learnt my lesson about technology – NEVER blindly rely on it. I now have back-ups of back-ups, not just as OneNote files but also as PDFs that can simply be printed off or inserted into a new note-taking package and searched.