Theses with a difference: Taking chances in psychology

Kerry Chamberlain
Helen OE

For some time now I have been banging on about the limitations of the ways that psychologists approach their research uncritically, and lamenting the way that so many psychologists simply take up theoretical ideas and methodological approaches from others, often without providing any substantial argument in support of their choices other than to point at references to published work as a (very weak) attempt at authentication. Doing research this way serves to limit ownership of the research, restrict reflexivity, and constrain creativity around what might be done.

So it’s time to celebrate some of those people I have been fortunate enough to work with – Joanna, Dany, Helen, and Megan – who have been brave enough to go their own way, take chances, position themselves differently, and work creatively in developing and producing their theses.  

Joanna walked into my office looking to do a rather ordinary PhD thesis on an extraordinary topic – the experience of women who have lost a lot of weight (more than 30kg) and kept it off for a long time (5 years or more). I gave her some critical articles on obesity and weight to read, and she changed course dramatically – to undertake a critical, qualitative thesis that became increasingly creative as it moved closer to submission. In developing her methodology, Joanna proposed a simple idea for enriching her data collection, to take along an A3 sheBecky timelineet of graph paper and have the women plot their weight over their life course. This worked extremely well, providing spaces where weight could and could not be recalled, where that could be talked about, where notations about weight, weight loss and daily life could be made on the chart, and the women asked to provide evidence of specific times through photographs or other objects. This timelining method was to develop as a key data collection process, and the power of things shown was also very important in gaining depth of data and understandings. During the course of her project, Joanna began exploring ethnodrama and started playwriting. She was a driving force in producing Collective reflexivity, our research group’s article published in the form of a play. Joanna decided to write and present her thesis findings in playscript form, and the play “Wishing at a Wedding” was the result. We had some concerns about the expectations of examiners and howJo's world they might read the author’s findings (a play can be read and interpreted in many ways), so Joanna added further sections – a book chapter (in a fictional book), giving a more standard academic account of the findings. Further
commentaries on the findings were included: one was given the form of a magazine article (ostensibly written by a journalist who had been pressured to see the play and then used her magazine column to comment on the critical messages about weight it exposed); another was presented as the playwright’s blog (illustrated here) where the meanings of some theatrical devices could be explained. Joanna’s thesis can be read here.

Dany approached me in a health psychology class, wondering if she could write a thesis about herself and her son. Her son had been in a fight at school and suffered a debilitating stroke as a consequence of a blow to his neck. Dany, as his sole parent, took him through the recovery process over several years, and wanted to write about their experiences of this together. I couldn’t see why not, apart from the need to clarify issues around consent and the lack of anonymity that would inevitably occur. I thought it would make an backflipengaging thesis, her son had fully recovered and was totally agreeable, and Dany was very keen (one of the best ingredients for a successful thesis). The ethics committee were not quite so sure, and our ethical approval was granted only after a roundabout process – on their part; we persisted with the project we had defined, and ethics became a topic for the thesis itself. Dany produced what she termed “a dodgy thesis” using a collaborative autoethnography process. In the words of her abstract, “This research tackles how the researcher mother can capture both hers and her son’s story, whilst also reflexively revealing the experiences of chronic illness and disability. Furthermore, can this type of research be undertaken ethically? Where does my story end and his begin? How do I voice my son’s story? Is he the hero, the survivor, the disabled, the victim, the triumphant, or other? How am I positioned as the woman, the mother, and the chronically ill patient? Are we well or are we afflicted, and which spaces do we occupy? If we oscillate between the two how do I describe where we reside? Do we stay in the frightening no-man’s land or do we move between spaces with an acceptance that there are no absolutes or certainties? And if so, is this not dissimilar to the life journey that all people travel?” Here, the information sheet was a letter from a mother to her son, and the thesis tussles with whose story this is in an attempt to tell two intertwined stories, and make sense of them in way that will satisfy academia.

Helen arrived at her Masters thesis with a very clear idea for her research and an extensive background in theatre as a member of the community theatre company, Te Rākau Hua o te Wao Tapu Trust. Helen is a playwright and theatre performer as well as a writer of graphic novels. So she came very well equipped to tackle a creative Masters thesis, and it took no persuasive power to convince Veronica and I that this would be great fun to be part of as supervisors. As a daughter of a returned Vietnam veteran, she wanted to tell the stories of older Māori Vietnam veterans; as a playwright, she wanted to do this through a theatrical performance; as a researcher, she wanted to develop a thesis that would do all that and more. As Helen notes: “Both soldiers and actors are members of sub-cultures whose performances may attract both admiration and scorn from other sectors of society. They work inSoldiers on patrol tension towards bursts of conflict, in territories belonging to everyone and no one. And they endure long periods of boredom and inactivity, embodied by the maxim “hurry up and wait”. The obvious difference of course is that a theatre actor has a much better chance of leaving the stage unscathed.“. So Helen set about interviewing Māori veterans and developing a play to be preformed, ethnotheatre in blackbox theatre. The Landeaters eventually came into being – not easily, as Helen struggled with the tensions between telling her story, the veterans’ stories, making a difference, producing an effect. How to structure a plot for an 80-90 minute narrative based drama (no interval): 1) Choose a format like Aristotle’s 3 unities or Freytag’s Pyramid; 2) Start writing; 3) Keep writing until you hit the following snags, either a) issues with suspension of disbelief: moths who turn into soldiers, talking monkeys, possessed household appliances; or b) a deus ex machina, such as a grumpy god; 4) Break with tradition and keep going, or take a break and start all over again” (Exegesis, p. 26). The Landeaters was performed in Wellington, where the audience on the opening night consisted of the participants and their families, their friends, and the supervisors and examiners. The participants were the most daunting audience for Helen, but they spoke their appreciation loudly at the close of the performance. Then it was all down to writing the accompanying “Exit Jesus” and crafting the academicy side of the ethnotheatrical piece. Ka pai, a great success on several fronts.

And then along comes Megan. She wants to do her Masters thesis on analysing the blog writings of one woman, Julia, who is going through treatment for cancer. Sounds fine, and we have worked through the ethics of doing that, not always a straightforward issue even though the text is (technically) in the public domain. Not only that, but Megan decides to superheroblog herself (, about the research process. Which of course she can do, having blogged a lot previously and especially because she already has a degree in English literature (and she is an artist). More scary is the fact that our supervision meetings and discussions around the research are included as part of the process, and accordingly become visible from time to time on her blog; she even has a category for posts called “The Supervisors” (there are two of us, Veronica and I). We need to watch what we say in these meetings, but of course, we quickly forget this and talk away anyway. We discuss how Megan should analyse and present her research, and decide that writing it reflexively, entwining her blog entries and Julia’s blog entries together, and mixing in (collaging) art, theory and research, would make a very cool thesis. As Megan wrote “Right, reflexive creative collagey academically appropriate thesis of mine. I think I’m ready to run with you now” (Nobody panic). How will this come out? We have no idea at this stage, but we do have confidence and trust. The hassle, as always, will be to find examiners who get this.

There are, of course, examples of creative theses in other disciplines and other places, beyond psychology. A couple that stand out for me are Patrick Stewart’s architecture thesis (written without punctuation) and Sylvia Yuan’s sociology thesis (written about herself). There may well be other creative theses out there in psychology that I am not aware of. I hope we soon see many more on the scene.

5 thoughts on “Theses with a difference: Taking chances in psychology

  1. the édu flâneuse March 30, 2016 / 12:55 pm

    How fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing these approaches.

    My own thesis, just recently completed – – was in education. It used the novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ as a symbolic and structural frame, and as an ethical device to protect participants. I also included illustrations and aspects of story. It’s great to see others being creative.

    I can recommend the book ‘Creative Research Methods’ by Helen Kara as a way into thinking systematically about creativity in research.


    • ISCHP Admin March 31, 2016 / 1:37 pm

      That sounds great Deb, thanks for sharing!

  2. nickhopwood April 4, 2016 / 1:20 am

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    What a lovely piece of writing, and a lovely set of stories! A treat for all #PhD-ers out there!

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