In 2014, when I started my PhD at the University of Huddersfield about globalisation and higher education in Vietnam, I found myself thinking, ‘Why do I need to go halfway around the world to do research on my country’s higher education? Why have I never thought that much about this issue when at home? Can BERA’s Ethical Guidelines become a lifejacket for me to export to my country’s context? Can ethics really be guided? Can ethical guidelines be universal? Should I be thinking beyond ethics to considering the integrity of researchers?’ I also had many other questions.
My entire research journey has been surrounded by a series of questions and learning experiences, and a part of this questioning mentality comes from the diversity of social imaginaries that I am embracing. Being an international postgraduate researcher (PGR), my research journey is constructed from something here, something home, and the relationships between and among them.
Social imaginary and social self
‘When moving from home to here, my social imaginary becomes the ongoing integration and effort of connecting two places: maintaining what is home in here, and importing what is here in home.’
I always like to use Charles Taylor’s concept of a social imaginary to express the way in which ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social lives (Taylor 2004) – not in theoretical terms, but in daily collective day-to-day narratives and practices. When moving from home to here, my social imaginary becomes the ongoing integration and effort of connecting two places: maintaining what is home in here, and importing what is here in home. For example, Vietnamese beef noodles eaten in Huddersfield, despite being cooked using the same method by the same person, will be different from the same dish in Hanoi.
Looking back at one’s thesis, of course, is more than a bowl of noodle soup, but there is something in common with my example above. What I try to illustrate here are the multiple social imaginaries that you are embracing by doing PhD in another country. The entire process of seeing, doing and learning helps me come to terms with an ongoing negotiation of the ‘social’ pieces. These social’ pieces not only influence how we ‘imagine’ our social worlds, but are also reflected in our theses, which are written in English using thinkers in the West yet answer our research questions on a problem in our home contexts. These are illustrations of the dominance of theories from the global North, yet we are seeing more and more clearly for ourselves that ‘not all Northern theories are read as universal’ (Lingard 2015: 29).
Although theory itself is defined as being stable, coherent and consistent (Leedy and Ormrod, 2005), each locality has its own intricacy that is unamenable to being measured by the critical or uncritical importation of theories from the West, either by unpacking how the Northern theories take Southern forms, or unpacking how practices from the South fit into the Northern theories. The question is, ‘Then what’? What I mean is that the research stories can go beyond the North-South role-playing, and create newness out of pre-existing conversations. For the international PGRs like myself, crossing the North-South division is the location where we are standing.
The multiple versions of social selves are one argument about the complexities of studying PhD internationally, but another argument I want to make in this short blog post is the necessary critical distance which doing your PhD research away from its home context provides. Possibly, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Joining these concepts of moving, distance, here and home brings me to Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) notion of ‘scapes’. More than three decades ago, he conceptualised the global cultural flow through scapes: for example, ethnoscapes (global flow of people), technoscapes (global flow of technology),financescapes (global flow of money), mediascapes (global flow of media) and ideoscapes (global flow of ideology). In this discussion, international PGRs like me are among the PhDscapes (the global flow of PhD students doing their home-country research in another country). The PhDscapes carry all five of Appadurai’s scapes on their journey and, importantly, the social imaginaries (from home to here and back).
Appadurai A (1996) Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization, volume 1, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Leedy P Dand Ormrod J E (2005) Practical research: Planning and design, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Lingard B (2015) ‘Thinking About Theory in Educational Research: Fieldwork in philosophy’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 47(2): 173–191
Taylor C (2004) Modern social imaginaries, Durham, NC: Duke University Press