What’s your contribution to knowledge? Go on I’m waiting…

What’s your contribution to knowledge? Go on I’m waiting…

‘Use the weapon’ (‘Arrival’, Villeneuve 2016)

What is a PhD? PhDs are defined by their original contribution to knowledge. In order to be awarded a PhD the University of Edinburgh degree regulations state:

‘47. The student must demonstrate by the presentation of a thesis and/or portfolio, and by performance at an oral examination:

  • capability of pursuing original research making a significant contribution to knowledge or understanding in the field of study;
  • adequate knowledge of the field of study and relevant literature;
  • exercise of critical judgement with regard to both the student’s work and that of other scholars in the same general field, relating particular research projects to the general body of knowledge in the field; and
  •  the ability to present the results of the research in a critical and scholarly way.
    The thesis must:
  •  represent a coherent body of work; and
  •  contain a significant amount of material worthy of publication or public presentation.’

http://www.drps.ed.ac.uk/20-21/regulations/PGDRPS2020-21.pdf#page17

So you probably should have something to say there huh?

These are attributes of the candidate and what you do, and of the thesis as a document. Notably the major ones are about what the candidate will do, not what the thesis does. The two requirements specific to the thesis as a document say nothing about originality. They say the thesis must be coherent and publishable or presentable. That tells you that the whole original contribution to knowledge thing is not what you think and won’t be found where you might expect. It’s not only plucking the tastiest bits of your findings and shoving in the examiners’ faces. That is because the entire PhD is already original. It is a unique assembly of literature, theory and typically data as well. The contribution is to knowledge and it is not necessarily to be found in the PhD thesis at all, which is why many PhD students find it tricky to identify.

The contribution is in where you plan to take it and how you relate it to what is already known.  It is in whether your findings mean we have to change our approach to some activity, or rethink some concept everyone is happily using without really thinking about it in the way you will demand they do.

For example, with my great colleagues I am planning a paper on altruistic drug supply. It shows a specific altruistic and ideologically driven form of drug supply that makes its appearance in a community of psychedelic drug users. That’s the paper’s finding. The contribution to knowledge is not that. It is that we’ve previously decided that drug supply is either social supply or commercial distribution. Here is an instance that does not fit either. It means we have to have another look at the social and the commercial in each category. The contribution to knowledge is a demand that scholars rethink their focus and retool their classification. We have to revise the distinction we make between social and commercial supply and question what that means. There are implications for considering distribution as a rational action category. Rationality may turn out to not very easily explain a range of activity that it appears to. Essentially: what is the significance of this research paper to people who do not care about that specific study. Like your mum for instance.

Therefore the originality of the thesis should be creative and outward looking. It means you identify tensions within your work and frictions between your work and the theories of others’. It lies in how you use the tool you have crafted. In the words of the aliens in ‘Arrival’, use the weapon. In their case, language. In your case, your PhD. The question of originality is how you can use it to make sense of some aspect of the social world beyond the specific instances in your findings.

Like most good things in life I owe this blog post to a conversation with my lovely student and colleague.

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