“I’ve been travelling to this place since the moment I was born.”
Long Way to the Light – Mike Scott
That is exactly how this PhD in this place at this time feels. From my original degree in philosophy and literature through a career exploring what it mean to work participatively with young people, through travel and experiencing different cultures and having many wonderful conversations with inspiring people, through more studies and teaching and thinking way too much and struggling with my own happiness…here I am.
I am now a PhD student at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) in Scotland and I’m currently preparing to begin ethnographic fieldwork with young people in Laos exploring experiences and understandings of subjective wellbeing. This blog aims to be a reflective record of my fieldwork process and experience.
I’ve over-thought this blog too. I’ve been trying to work out if it is a personal blog or a research blog, I’ve been trying to work out how it differs from the journal that I’ve kept before that was just for family and friends. But if I wait until I have answers to those questions I’ll never write anything – so I’m just going to start and see where it takes me. An emergent blog of an emergent research process.
And now I need to take a deep breath and describe what that research project is, or at least what it might be. My PhD will be a collaborative and ethnographic study of young people’s subjective wellbeing in Laos. Subjective well-being (which can also be thought of as happiness; more of which later no doubt) is to do with how people think and feel good in their lives and how they evaluate their own lives.
My research is jointly located in both CRFR and the Social Policy Department of the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Edinburgh. It is grounded in a belief that social policy should be about promoting wellbeing, and that objective indicators of wellbeing (e.g. income, education attendance and attainment, various health indicators etc.) don’t tell the whole story. Understanding people’s experience is vital since two people could have exactly the same life circumstances but feel and think very differently about their lives.
I am not interested in measuring subjective wellbeing (although there is plenty of very interesting research looking at how to do that), what I’m interested in are the meanings behind how people think about and experience their lives. One way of illustrating this is the distinction between the questions “how happy are you?” and “how do you make that assessment?” or “what does happiness mean to you?”. I’m interested in the second questions and also in the idea that the ways people experience happiness is culturally constructed and open to change as cultures change.
In the spirit of just getting this out there, I will say more about why I chose Laos, why I work with young people and my methodology at a later date. I am just beginning my fieldwork visit, which I anticipate will last a little over a year, although I can’t actually begin fieldwork until I finalise some practical arrangements. So the first few entries may be more travelogue than research-logue… but let’s see where it goes.