Pattern recognition

I’m at that funny starting stage of my PhD where I’m trying to write a well defined research question, but in order to know what it is that I need to define, I need to read as widely as possible. I’m following all sorts of tangents at the moment: new media theory, interaction design, phenomenology, anthropology, media convergence, digital memory, performing arts practice, creative practice – to name a few, and I do mean a few. 1

I am starting to see patterns popping up, particularly as I begin to circle around a bit of a theme: something to do with prototyping process, and how video can be used as a rapid prototyping tool in the performing arts.

But I still feel like I’m flailing a bit, so as a break from reading and note-taking I invented a pattern recognition exercise. 2 From the top of my head (no looking back out my notes), I wrote down terms that I though were important, had come up regularly, or needed definition. As far as I can see, these are all terms that I’ll need to use in my research proposal.

Next, I put the words in a random order (so as not to make any direct associations), and for each word,  wrote a sentence or two about what it meant in terms of the literature, any contentious issues around the term, how I thought it related to my research, and how I thought it related to the overall project.

What this helped me do was identify any terms that need more definition, terms that were present in my writing but not in the literature, terms that were related to or defined by other terms in my list.

It also helped me in finding my ‘location’: I could identify as soon as I started writing which terms I considered the most important. The exercise was also an extremely useful idea generation tool – as I was writing each term, I would frequently find myself going back and forth, adding and removing from my other descriptions as ideas coalesced and interacted with each other.

Research at this early stage is particularly hard for me, because I constantly have to fight the urge to follow up everything in depth. Everything that I read sends me off on a new tangent, and everything that I read, see, hear, or experience seems relevant in some way – but it’s important that I define how it is relevant.

  1. I guess you want some names? (Academics love names): Liu, McLuhan, Dourish, Boehner, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Geertz, Lanier, Jenkins, van Dijck, Brockmeier, Kozel, Birringer, Vaughan… 
  2. At least, I think I might have invented it. I haven’t seen or read about this technique before in any case.