Tag Archives: change phd

The heart vs head…

15 Aug

I feel a bit broken today. Broken for a country I love that has descended further into turmoil, and broken because the changes I thought I might have to make to my fieldwork plans are probably just the beginning of a retreat away from a project I (and, I think, my supervisors) really believed in. My heart and head are in conflict and it’s coming to crunch time…

My research explores activism in Egypt. Having worked and lived in the country on and off for over two years, I have a deep affection for Egypt and the many people I grew to care about in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and beyond. There was always something special about arriving back in Egypt: my Arabic skills would wake up at passport control, groggy from the months of rest and the late night arrival, and, as the taxi reached a familiar flyover in central Cairo, I would feel, in some ways, that I was coming home.

As part of my fieldwork, I was hoping to return to Egypt and explore political learning with community activists as their struggle for democracy continued. But as the situation escalated since the protests of June 30th, my researcher ‘head’ is being battered with the ethical concerns for the safety of participants being asked to discuss politics and thoughts of ‘the political’, and the university’s risk assessment for me as a researcher in the field. These battles mean the time has come to make some changes to my research project. Not completely, but enough that my heart feels a sense of sadness for the stories that cannot be told in the way they need to be told.

One of my criticisms of the academy has been the lack of research in authoritarian states and in the middle east – but today, it feels like I’m perpetuating that bias. It’s not a decision I take lightly, and I’m determined to remain focused on Egypt and Egyptian activists, but theoretically and methodologically, the plan we were so sure of has to evolve and take into consideration the heart and the head.

When we start a PhD we know there will be inevitable changes along the way: a new theoretical direction emerges from an illuminating reading session, or a new way to use a method previously dismissed seems possible, relevant and necessary. People in my department who know my work is on Egypt have enquired of my plans, many suggesting simply, ‘you can just apply the framework to somewhere different though, yeh?’. For me, changing case studies is not an option I’m ready to consider: my heart is still connected to Egypt, even though my head knows of the practical and ethical concerns of the university, not to mention my partner and family.

But maybe it’s being stubborn and maybe it will come back to haunt me, but I think we have a commitment to doing research that needs to be done, and that contributes understandings that can help to make the world a better place. If I were to back away from Egypt now, I would feel I was letting down all the Egyptians who made me so welcome for so long.

The immediate challenge is to use my head to adapt the research theoretically and methodologically because my heart tells me the ongoing revolution in Egypt is too important to walk away from…