THANK YOU ROBERT WUTHNOW On Choosing Dissertation Topics
The dissertation is a roadblock to many graduate students. The attrition rate at any doctoral Ph.D. school is very high. Anywhere from a third to half of those that enroll at a PhD university will not end up graduating and finishing their dissertation. In fact, the figure of 40-50 percent of failing PhD students has been stable over the past three decades. This phenomenon even has a name, ABD or All but Dissertation. A typical doctoral program in the United States involves 30-60 hours of classes, three comprehensive exams, a dissertation, and a dissertation defense. Taking classes and taking tests is a routine that most students know and can manage. Writing a book-length paper in a specialized area that furthers the knowledge of the field of study in a manner that potentially leads to employment within the field is something many graduate students find daunting. There are entire graduate courses dedicated to teaching students how to master this hurdle. Paralleling the challenge of research and writing is figuring out how you are going to make ends meet financially through this period of concentrated library work and solitary writing. It is a big enough challenge that about half of our smartest and most motivated students fail.
One of the big challenges is picking the research topic. In some ways, this choice will come to define one's entire academic career both in terms of method and content. If one's research is primarily quantitative—survey research and the like—it is most likely that the remainder of one's academic career will be shaped by this methodological approach.
It also matters greatly if one is seeking to work within the academy. Jobs here are difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. The status and support of one's doctoral advisor plays a key role in what has become an increasingly fraught political juggernaut.
You also need to be passionately interested in the topic as you will be increasing tasked with the process of becoming a king in a domain with no other subjects. Ideally, no one on earth will know your subject better than you. In a sense your dissertation topic will become your middle name. Very few graduate students can pick a topic that is 1) significant within the field of study, 2) of particular interest to the student and graduate advisor, 3) is doable in a dissertation length research paper, and 4) makes a difference to the wider world.
Under pressure of time and money, most graduate students opt for the quick and dirty rather than the ideal and interesting. The objective here is simply to write something that is halfway presentable, completed so that one can meaningfully move on with one's life. I cannot fully describe the weight or "albatross around one's neck" that the dissertation is for the doctoral student. This phrase alludes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor who shoots a friendly albatross is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as punishment. This is what a dissertation is for an ABD student, a dead large bird carcass hung around one's neck decomposing further each year the completion is delayed. Obviously, a good doctoral advisor can help the student navigate these obstacles. But there are few institutional incentives that really encourage a doctoral advisor to be of great help. Mostly you will be left to your own devices.
I had the luxury of not wanting to proceed with a career within the academy. I also had the luxury of being in a quasi-academic field of American Studies that encourages a generalist approach to research. But this freedom gave me too many options to explore. Ideally, I was looking for a topic that was personally doable, culturally relevant, at an academic inflection point, and ideally had some meaningful kingdom or long-term spiritual significance.
My doctorate took me eleven years. (It is best not to be married, have children, and a mortgage payment.) I was kicked out of the program for non-completion twice. My final appeal came with a strict deadline, I had to have my dissertation completed within six months. The pressure was on and still I only had a general area of interest defined, but no academic onramp through which to explore it.
There was at the time in America three academic sociologists who had some interest in the study of religion—realizing that sociology is the most disdainful discipline to religious belief in the academy. These three included James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia, Christian Smith then at the University of North Carolina and now at the University of Notre Dame, and Robert Wuthnow at Princeton University.
I don't remember now how it happened or what I was wanting to ask him, but I arranged to have lunch with Bob Wuthnow at the Princeton Faculty dining room. I believe I was interested in discussing his two books Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis and Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism, which I had just read. He asked me general questions about my academic areas of interests and the approach I was interested in taking with my dissertation. He then said, you should do your work on Pierre Bourdieu, who fits your interests closely and is a very hot scholar within the field of sociology. At this point, I had never even heard of Bourdieu much less read one word of his notoriously turgid prose. But in God's providence, this one lunch gave direction to my dissertation that has subsequently shaped my entire career. I suspect many graduate students have similar stories about how a conversation, person, or life-experience shaped their topic of academic research.
I began my graduate work after seminary in 1981. I received my doctorate in 1992 on the topic "The Evangelical Forfeit: Modernity and the Hysteresis of Habitus." Professor George Ritzer from the University of Maryland sociology department was my doctoral advisor and James Davison Hunter was my outside reader. It is a study about the cultural dynamics of social change as it bears on a particular religious community, namely American evangelicals. It was among the first times that Bourdieu had been applied to a religious community. It was less an interrogation of Bourdieu than a case study and argument for his relevance in cultural analysis. Years later I was heartened that Calvin University professor James K.A. Smith relied heavily on Bourdieu in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. His use of Bourdieu had nothing to do with my research, but it was validating in a way that only academics can fully appreciate.
I'm not really a true academic as my orientation is more activist than academic, but as a translator I dabble in the wider conversation about modernity, postmodernity, and its social consequences. I don't have the luxury of spending another ten years studying a particular academic problem or scholar's work. But if I did, there are some areas that are very interesting to me. If I were to go back to my confused graduate student self, these are some topics that I might suggest for further exploration in the field of interdisciplinary cultural analysis. As a nonacademic not oriented to the academy, these may be only personal intellectual curiosities and not necessarily good suggestions for dissertations. But from the breadth and long experience of life, these are topics that I wish the coming generation of scholars would meaningfully explore.
But first some further academic orienting [To which my wife Kathryn groaned when I read this to her: "Get to the suggestions."] I have in the last decade been heavily influenced by Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, Iain McGilchrist, and James K.A. Smith. This means that I am strongly in favor of a Post-Cartesian philosophical orientation that builds on the phenomenological foundation I received earlier in my career from Peter Berger and Alfred Schutz. For those outside the academic community, it is worth noting that Dallas Willard was also a phenomenologist as he was a specialist on Edmund Husserl.
As an academic orientation, I favor the methodological perspective advocated by James K.A. Smith in his recent book, The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology. The intellectual foil in most of my books in the past decade—The New Copernicans and Network Power—has been the Enlightenment (i.e., certainty, individualism, rationalism, and so on) and by extension a critique of the evangelical church's overt accommodation to its assumptions. I welcome Jamie Smith's leadership in pointing to a new way forward, even though this book of his, in all candor, is just above my head academically. Within this emerging new framework suggested by Smith, an incarnational phenomenology, here are some potential dissertation areas worthy of further exploration.
Philip Rieff and the Legitimacy of Sacred Sociology
Philip Rieff was for many years a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is most famous for his early book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. But of even greater significance are his three books published posthumously by the University of Virginia Press under the direction of James Davison Hunter. The most important of these three books is Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks. Rieff as a secular Jew argues that social order is ultimately dependent on the existence of or minimally the belief in a sacred order. This has always been the case, he argues, until now. What our society is attempting to do, which is to realize the prophetic vision of Nietzsche's "madman parable," which he argues is historically unprecedented. Rieff writes, "No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order." He calls this a "deathwork culture." This idea is applied vigorously and somewhat controversially in Carl Trueman's The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Of particular interest to me is Rieff's theory of culture. This is explored in Antonius A.W. Zondervan's Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff's Theory of Culture. Is there a way to methodologically validate the claim that the stability of social existence is dependent on a sacred order? This is a big claim that flies in the face of the entire bulwark of the field of sociology, while being assumed as axiomatic by the Bible. One shouldn't expect to get an appointment within a secular sociology department with a dissertation on this topic. In addition, Rieff is also controversial in that he not only connects his deathwork analysis with Auschwitz but also with Serrano and Mapplethorpe. He is unequivocally anti-gay. In today's university environment, scholars focusing on Rieff are apt to be targets of the cancel culture. Nonetheless, he is one of the most interesting and enigmatic scholars in the past several decades. His thesis on culture deserves more attention, particularly by Christian scholars.
Iain McGilchrist and the Enlightenment Bias
There has been in the last two decades significant developments within the field of neuroscience that both challenge the Enlightenment thesis and reinforce a traditional Christian view of reality. Ironically, much of this scholarship is being done by scholars who are not explicitly believers, even while their scholarship enhances the plausibility of traditional Christian belief. Scholars who fit in this category include New York University's social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, University of Toronto's Jordan Peterson, and independent British neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist.
Of the three, McGilchrist is the most encyclopedic and exciting scholar. His book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World has had a significant influence in scholars as diverse as James K.A. Smith and N.T. Wright. His thesis is that the Western world, largely since the Enlightenment has biased the left-hemisphere of the brain at the exclusion of the right and has thereby developed a distorted, truncated, and finally dehumanizing view of reality. I would not be surprised if McGilchrist is not soon selected as a Templeton Prize winner. The knock on him has been that he is a "one trick pony" or that his scholarship has been limited to this one book. This is being answered this fall by the release of his follow-up magnum opus, the two-volume The Matter of Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World.
McGilchrist's work is paradigm shifting in the order of Nicholas Copernicus' deathbed publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. For many years McGilchrist worked at Johns Hopkins University. At present he is not formally associated with a particular university. He is a semi-retired lecturer and writer living on an island off the coast of Scotland. McGilchrist is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and has three times been elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University. He is a massively important intellect who approaches his scholarship about culture and society with an activist zeal uncommon for the typical scholar who approaches his work with a kind of distanced objectivism. He really believes that what he is writing about bears directly on the survival of Western civlization.
As important as this work is, he has not received a lot of academic book-length critique or follow-up analysis by other scholars. Surely with the publication of this second work this will happen. But this gap in assessment and analysis makes his work a perfect subject for further graduate level research.
A part of the difficulty of this task is that he writes long, dense books that cover a wide array of topics and subjects. His Master and his Emissary is a book that many know they should read, like Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, but the task is just too daunting particularly for the lay reader. I am eager to read his new two volume work in the coming months. Here he promises to address questions about metaphysics and the sacred.
K-Dramas, Hallyu, and the Hegemony of Soft Power
A topic that fits perfectly within the scope and interest of American Studies is the recent advent of South Korea's investment in global soft power, known as "hallyu" or the Korean Wave. The South Korean government invests one percent of their GDP in exporting their cultural artifacts, particularly television dramas and pop music, K-dramas and K-pop respectively. In a time when China is on the global ascendency promoting its "Middle Kingdom" strategy economically and militarily, that Korea, which shares a similar Confucian cultural background with China, is consciously advancing its culture through the mass media becomes a topic of enormous importance. The recent global commercial success of the Netflix's program "Squid Games" is an undeniable exemplar of this phenomena. While "Squid Games" is not a typical K-drama, this conscious use of global entertainment as soft power within the backdrop of the wider geopolitical and global economic competition between the West and China makes this an important onramp for a very important and timely cultural conversation. Add to this mix the work of Antonio Gramsci's notion of "cultural hegemony" and one has a ready-made American Studies dissertation. As the son of medical missionaries in Korea, I recognize that I have a personal connection with this topic. However, the dynamics of modernity's impact on traditional Confucianism, a repeated theme in K-dramas, is a window into the impacts of modernity on the modern self that we may be unaware of because of how emersed we are in the latent assumptions of modernity. The study of K-dramas provides the scholar some cognitive and cultural distancing needed for meaningful socio-analysis.
Han Byung-Chul's Critique of Modernity
Finally, this brings us to the work and writings of South Korean-born, Swiss-German philosopher and cultural theorist Han Byung-Chul. He did his dissertation on Martin Heidegger making him loosely fit within the phenomenological school of thought. He has written twenty books, which have only recently been translated into English. Like Rieff he is heavily influenced by Freud and so is interested in how living within advanced modernity is shaping our mental life and health. Korean newspapers and scholarly journals described his book The Burnout Society as the most important book of the year. The Los Angeles Review of Books described him as "a good candidate as any for philosopher of the moment." Here is scholarship that blends an Asian and Western, psychoanalytic and phenomenological perspective into a relevant critique of advanced modernity. And yet, he is not yet widely known. Such makes him a perfect subject for fresh cultural graduate research.
I will not have time to explore in-depth these topics, except perhaps to write cursory popular articles or blogs about them. But these topics get my academic juices flowing again. This is perhaps not the best time to enter the academy as a profession—unless this is one's explicit calling. But the challenges of our time in dealing with the cultural consequences of advanced modernity in an increasingly post-Christian cultural West make these topics of enormous importance. Like McGilchrist, we'd do well to put our academic studies on a "wartime footing," because the future of Western civilization is at stake in many of these research topics. For this reason, I can think of few times when strategic and kingdom-oriented scholarship are more important. We are living in an intellectual inflection point, in an Augustinian moment. That the stakes are this high makes the opportunity for serious scholarship all that more exciting.
A simple lunch with Bob Wuthnow at Princeton made a lot of difference in my academic orientation. If I had another life to live, these are potentially some of the topics I might explore.