Why opinions matter

Published by Hazel Booth

This PhD is seriously unsettling my worldview. You’d think it was marvellous that I’ve had some earthquake-level eureka moments about my topic, but the tremors are radiating into my personal life without losing strength. Like a church fete of the mind, everything I thought I knew is up for grabs. Now, pivotal events of my past are being recalibrated and decisions, once clear, are being questioned. Knowledge is power, apparently. Well in my world, knowledge is making me stare vacantly into space when I’m meant to be making tea. I don’t feel powerful, I just feel very confused, and resigned to eating some very unappealing meals.

One eureka moment was epistemology and all that jazz (1), not as a factually emetic exercise to pass a Masters module, but as a true immersion. In common with a large percentage of the population, trying to pick the paradigmatic fluff out of my navel regarding ‘what is the nature of reality’ and ‘what can we know’ are conversations I never thought I’d have with myself.

Like many I found safety and security in the certainty of right and wrong. I came from a nursing background, which is a pretty realist/objectivist environment; a drug works or it doesn’t, a pressure sore mends or oozes. However, as I progressed I realised that I didn’t see the world so clearly and sat towards the relativist/interpretivist side of the fence. The initial self-realisation that there are few things in life which you can point to as definitely right or wrong, unsettles you beyond belief, but it does help you to understand why Twitter is such a war-zone and to feel better when you read the bottom half of the internet.

From this flows an unwelcome insight that it will be necessary to state my own attitudes and opinions about my topic, because I bring them to the research table every time I prepare this recipe of a PhD. Everything I am, everything I’ve done, and everything I think colours how I view my topic. This will require a personalisation of my thesis of the kind I had wanted to resist, and I’m working out how to this without feeling exposed and vulnerable in the process.

But these related eureka moments have had an impact on my research topic too.

I have spent quite a bit of time lately getting to grips with what people think about mental wellbeing. It is an area with nuanced positions on some pretty basic questions.

  • Is there such a thing as mental illness?
  • Is it helpful to use the diagnostic labelling system set out by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and its brethren?
  • Are drugs/talking therapies/alternative therapies useful?
  • How/should ‘mental illness’ be managed?
  • What is the role of the healthcare professionals/the government/the public/others in managing what we refer to as mental illness?
  • What is the role of the individual?
  • What outcome are we hoping to achieve? Why?

Your answer to each of those questions (and many others which flow from them) determines whether you think self-management of mental distress is possible or desirable. It tells you how it should be done, and who should be involved in doing it. It suggests the resources that are needed to make it happen and it tells you who takes the lead in the process. It also tells you what you’re hoping to achieve by making all this effort in the first place.

However, for each of those questions, there are a variety of answers. The multiplicity of positions comes from a lack of single truth, a sticky web of intersecting topics and a deep bog of conflicting logic. For mental health, there is no one ring to rule them all. Frodo could have been spared all that weary wandering. There are more questions than answers. For every argument there is a counter-argument. For each bit of peer-reviewed evidence, a different way to interpret.

If only there were some damn facts to stop all this faffing around. Everybody is looking for the truth and bringing only their interpretation. The more I read, and with a rising sense of panic, I started creating a bonkers table to record all the groups and people and their positions, but it got too long and detailed and I gave up in frustration.

But wait! Why am I surprised? This is interpretivism in action, critical realism at a push. Little in life is certain. All that exists is what we perceive it to be. Life is swathed in beautiful arrays of grey, wonderful in its complexity and fascinating in its vagueness.

In the shower just now (annoyingly I have all my best thoughts away from any way to record them), I realised that what people think about the questions is less relevant than the power they have to effect decisions and action on the basis of their views. Important too is the distance between their view and the views of the people upon whom those decisions and actions have their effect. The distance between the views, and the disparity in power, can be toxic and counter-productive. The challenge, then, is how to bridge the gap.

And that, dear hearts, is the crux of my PhD. Rampant insomniacs could always read the proposal I wrote about what I was planning to do.  The proposal hasn’t changed but I have. It took those eureka moments to transform those lofty academic ambitions into a way I understand more deeply and personally. I can either beat myself up about why it took so long or just be glad it has happened and move on.

Of course bashing out a PhD really isn’t as easy as this post would suggest. The transition from PGT to PGR is fraught with challenge. I will talk about this more in my next post, ‘The discomfort of not knowing’.

About the author

Hazel Booth is an ERSC-funded student currently in her first year of PhD studies with the Faculty of Social Science at Stirling University. She is expertly supervised by Tessa Parkes (FSS), Paul Cairney (Politics) and Nicola Ring (Napier, School of Health and Social Care) and is already very grateful for their expertise and apparently limitless tolerance.

She has been keeping a blog since the early days of the ESRC open competition. In it she offers an open and personal account of her voyage on the choppy seas of PGR study. She has brought her blog to the pages of the Faculty newsletter, writing a series of posts for readers which reflect on the transformative experiences she has already had.

Hazel’s blog can be found at https://the-answer-is.dreamwidth.org/