My doctoral diary (part three)

About the author

Miriam Pelusi is mid-way through a six year doctoral programme at Leeds Beckett University.

An everyday opportunity for an ethnographer. Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash
An everyday opportunity for an ethnographer. Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash
Miriam Pelusi
Miriam Pelusi

A doctoral journey is a big learning curve. In January I took a midpoint moment of reflection when I passed the annual progression meeting for the third year: three years done, three more to do. I am now in the fourth year of my six-year doctoral programme.

For me, the most useful learning resulted from resilience, the ability to carry on. I am also finding my PhD very character-building. I have left certain things that prevented me from feeling confident in my role as a researcher, such as perfectionism or taking criticism personally. This sense of worth develops with academic maturity. These are issues that many PhD students experience as our work receives scrutiny before being declared doctors.

A doctoral thesis is a fine piece of intellectual embroidery which requires clear and logical thinking.

That mental toughness is necessary so that new knowledge can be generated. Much of the intellectual depth of a doctoral thesis comes from the thinker’s profundity of argumentation. The quality of thought determines clarity of expression and the intelligence of writing: I use descriptive/factual writing for the analysis, and argumentative writing to be as persuasive as possible when I am making a claim. Rhetorical knowledge is key for a thesis writer, particularly in public relations.

It is through learning that new synapses are created between brain cells while other synaptic links are strengthened. This synaptic activity is reflected on the line of thinking or reasoning: there needs to be a guiding thread for such intellectual work to be coherent. My file rouge is the ethics of dialogue.

Dialogue should be guided by ethical principles and values. It is very clear to me that there are issues in dialogue, studied in public relations, which need to be observed through the lens of ethics. Through observations of real-life conversations, I have been able to uncover some unethical issues.

Unethical behaviour can involve two-way communication.

Think about gaslighting for example, which is a manipulative form of relational bullying. It is important to recognise the unethical tactics that are used to undermine another person: intrusive questions or circumlocutory/vague replies; thoughtless remarks; a disregard for anyone else’s opinion; twisting an argument or the meaning; instilling doubts to cause uncertainty; minimising someone else’s point or even doubting someone else’s abilities to discredit them; shifting one’s ground; confusing the issue by making suggestions that muddy the waters further; monopolising the conversation; microaggressions; unhealthy perfectionism; not concentrating on the conversation by showing indifference. There are nonverbal signs such as silent treatment, eye rolling or lack of eye contact. The purpose of such tactics, that happen in two-way communication, is to destabilise the other person.

Yet it is difficult to prove. Many unethical issues remain hidden in the two-way communication flow, they are elusive, so they often go unnoticed. Here is the need for observational research. This understanding is essential to me in public relations research because it can provide a new perspective.

Hours of meticulous research have made me very precise in my working methods: I use both descriptive and reflective notes. Every observation session that I carry out is an episode of a larger study. The attention to detail that goes into every observation session is very high.

The current debates around the much-needed vaccine made me think more deeply about the impact of research in our society. Research is, of course, also a matter of human and financial resources.

I have looked at the financial aspect of conducting research. I wanted to conduct a cost-effective study. Anthropological research has opened up new opportunities in this sense. I do not need expensive equipment or large funds to conduct my study. I do not use a research lab, nor do I wear a uniform when I do research. Above all, I am investing in my professional development as a researcher.

I am specialising in autoethnography in the field of public relations. It is a niche area of research in academia, and it is still a novelty in public relations. There is not a unique way of looking at dialogue nor a theory that fits every situation, so it is not possible for me to use a standardised method of inquiry.

Insights from real life can provide a breadth of perspective. I investigate real-life problems so that I can use research to suggest solutions.

Research participants are used as a microscope: through their lenses I can make small aspects of dialogue look larger so that they can be examined and studied.

Another issue which I am studying in relation to public relations is the process of commodification. This is an issue which requires further attention in public relations studies. During lockdown, I have been using the long queuing time at supermarket to watch carefully what happened around me. I continue to observe moments of daily life: when promotional culture meets people. Observation skills bring many unexamined features to the surface. I learn by doing it.

Miriam Pelusi: My doctoral diary (part two), April 2020

Miriam Pelusi: My doctoral diary (part one), February 2019