How low can/do/should you go?

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The title of this post relates neither to limbo nor the sense of emotional trauma, although being a postgrad student, you’d think it’d have something to do with the latter…

One of the first things I recognised when starting my Ph.D was the breadth of content and topics that are available to study, even in a field as “specific” as linguistics. To exemplify this, much to the dismay of old-school academics, I invite you to look here at the Wikipedia article for linguistics and have a quick glance at the array of topic areas in the right-hand column. There’s plenty to choose from, and this list isn’t even exhaustive. Multiply that by the number of subject areas out there and, well… you can start see how the breadth of human knowledge is terrifyingly huge.

When you start reading in one area, for instance, sociolinguistics, it can be very easy to slip into another domain depending on where your focus lies, such as translation studies, historical linguistics or psycholinguistics. Cross-disciplinary studies aren’t a bad thing, but you may have to pull yourself back a little from time to time to stop you from branching off too much!

But what about the other way? We can move side-to-side in our reading, but we can also move from a surface level down to a much deeper level, and once you’re down that rabbit hole, it can be extremely tricky to pull yourself back out.

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Let’s start with an analogy. Imagine you’re standing in a shop that has a range of watches on display, and you’re after a simple, inexpensive watch. Some are analogue, some are digital. A few have leather straps, others have metal clasps, and there are a few that you have no idea how the strap even comes apart (come on, we’ve all been there). There are multiple colours and each has its own unique design. This is your array of possible watches (the side-to-side direction of movement as described above), and each of these can be looked at in greater detail (the surface to deep level).

You pick up two analogue watches that look similar and observe the faces closer. The one in your left hand has relatively thick hour, minute, and second hands ticking by, whereas the one in your right hand has thinner hour and minute hands, but these move in a much smoother motion. Curious as to why this is, you flip the watches over and take a look inside at their mechanisms (while undoubtedly getting concerned looks from the staff members). You look at the cogs, the screws, the wheels, and try to figure out what makes them different, but sadly you’re no watch aficionado.

Fortunately, the now perplexed-at-your-actions staff come over and are able to impart more knowledge, but they disagree on some key points. The first staff member believes that the configuration of the cogs cause the ticking motion, whereas the second staff member is certain that the configuration is not the reason, but it’s the size of the teeth and how they interlock. You hear different theories of what the answer may be, considering even more aspects such as the time of product, the materials used, the accuracy of the machining equipment…

…and then you realise that you’ve been standing there for 20 minutes and you’re not really any closer to what you were after in the first place: a simple, inexpensive watch.

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Of course, there are caveats to this analogy: the watch buyer didn’t have to be that curious, and if the context dictated, maybe they would have had to make a decision in 30 seconds. But when we now put this into a research context, you should begin to see how perspective can start to disappear as you burrow deeper into your work.

To take a current example, my research is looking at the concept of register and formality in language. There is a breadth of work that has been done on these concepts over time (e.g. Joos, Quirk, Arndt & Janney) but the area I have chosen to work with, as explained in previous posts, is “Systemic Functional Linguistics,” or SFL for short.

SFL splits language up into a variety of levels, concepts and groups of fancy words, and the area of register is found within the domain of context and semantics. Taking context alone, this can be split into (at least) 3 individual areas, and each of these areas can be subdivided into even more areas. These areas are not agreed upon by a variety of academics in the area, so there are whole research papers devoted to pointing out the flaws and, in some cases, undermining the work of others. These papers are counteracted, and then these are counteracted even further, creating an almost endless loop of opposing views…

In short, earlier this week I found myself trying to justify the reasoning between two arguing academics of a point that, when compared to “the greater scheme of things,” bears almost no importance on the overall outcome of what I intend to do. My curiosity led me to this discussion, and my desire to find out what was right* kept me there… but it took me a lot longer than I’d care to admit to pull myself back out and find the midpoint – a summary of the account, detailed enough to understand key points, neither too vague, nor not too overblown and bogged down with unfalsifiable theory upon (meta)theory.

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The point of this post isn’t to dissuade anyone from getting really stuck into theory: if that’s what interests you, or what the situation calls for, then go for it! The point is to think a little bit like Spiderman above – every now and then, step back from your work and think about where you are and where you’re going. Think about how relevant and useful such understanding will be at this point, and then if needs be, drag yourself out of the rabbit hole and refocus, before you become so wound up that you lose your aim!

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* “Right” is a very tricky term in the wonderful world of academia. Unless you’re staunchly of the opinion that a universal, unchanging truth exists that we are yet to discover, then trying to find what is “right” is an almost impossible task!

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