Reflections

Developing a Thesis:

I have never been good at forming a coherent research question. I have always been driven to obtain knowledge through science, however operating with a direct focus has escaped me.

I understood the concept in elementary school. How does X effect Y. Pretty simple. When I got to college it seems the simplicity was lost on me. I have written some terrible papers. I have found myself confused halfway through a paper, wandering down 20 different avenues and taking 100 different stances on each issue. I am great at thinking about things, I am not so great at narrowing down my thoughts into something that is worth researching.

I always tell my friends in more “hard sciences” that I think in the abstract. I think in ideas and ideas can get very messy. When one thinks in the abstract it’s easy to think of anything and everything as a possible object of research. This leads to pretentious thoughts on concepts that are not universally understood and difficult to measure. Their difficulty to measure comes from my frequent inability to think in concrete terms, leaving variables easily undefined and often completely missing from the process.

This year I took an important step and got over myself a bit. There is a time for abstract thinking, however it isn’t always when asking a research question. Research questions must measure what is known to a large extent. They must work with existing concrete objects. Bodies of research can lead to the better understanding of abstract ideas, however until this is done it is hard to convince anyone that completely abstract ideas are worth studying based on gut feelings

When my advisor Gina asked me to take a stab at grounded theory everything changed. I can remember sitting down to browse Reddit with her words in mind. She told me to think of power inequalities, and also to think more concretely about what can be measured. These seem like basic steps for sociological thinking; however, I had spent so much time indulging myself in the possibilities of theory that this task took a different set of skills I needed to dust off the shelf.

Reddit had been like a familiar friend to me at the time. It still is in many ways. Reddit has been in my life for 9 years. As I sat down to view Reddit from a researcher’s point of view my friend had vanished. The effect was instantaneous, and jarring. I felt as if I was looking in an unfamiliar mirror of sorts. I had become so used to registering Reddit as entertainment I had forgotten how real it was, and how fake it could be.

Just as someone listens to a complete piece of music and takes for granted the instruments involved, I was taking every actor on Reddit for granted. Suddenly I could hear the individual instruments of the site. It was alarming. For a moment there was no finished product I was consuming. I saw that people, real people, and probably a combination of bots, had been there. I saw moderators making decisions, users voting, and felt that lurkers like me were there as well soaking in the shadows of moments experienced hours ago. There was no calming melody for a few moments, no narrative in my head of what I was viewing. I could only hear the beating drums of the platform that implore me to keep scrolling, keep reading, and to never, ever, leave.

This experience gave me a different perspective on the platform I had been planning on studying. Units of measurement became clearer to me. I was beginning to see the concrete forces at play that needed to be studied. After sitting down with my advisors’ words in mind I had questioned many things I took for granted. “Who does have power?” was my first thought after mere seconds as a detached observer. It quickly became clear how important this exercise was, despite how jarring and uncomfortable it made me.

I began to lay out what I could measure and today I have a working thesis concept in mind. I am scraping data I need to be scraping and asking questions that feel right. Forming a question was very difficult however through my most organized attempt at literature and persistent observation I have found something I am passionate about.