welcome to my thesis, part four

this is the fourth post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.

you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.

after that, the second part can be found here and the third part here.

i'll be continuing this series next monday sometime soon, and hopefully it'll only take me one or two more posts to finish everything up.


discussing ritual, letting go of social deviance 

it’s been a bit since i’ve had the time and been in the correct frame of mind to discuss my thesis, so before we move on, i’d like to review two of the paragraphs from the first “welcome to my thesis” post:


when i first approached rb [my thesis adviser] with my general proposal, my idea was to write about drinking holidays, taboos, and social deviance. and while the drinking holidays certainly remained the central focus of my work, you can see simply from my title that social deviance and taboos did not. i still discussed elements of social deviance and taboo, but they certainly were not my linchpin.

i struggled for a good bit this past summer to be okay with that, and i don’t know if i can fully explain why. i got trapped by a working title, an idea that my paper was a square peg when it was really circular. and [most importantly] i got caught in the trap that, because i had written about ritual in anthropology before (in fact, i’d taken whole classes on it), i had to avoid it and write something entirely different. 


these paragraphs bring us to the heart of this installment: the problems i faced realizing the true direction of my work and how difficult it was for me to let go of my original ideas for this paper.

when i began work on my thesis – compiling initial sources, writing my annotated bibliography, even taking notes during fieldwork – i focused my work within a very rigid idea of what i was looking at... and for: namely, i was going into my research with the intent to observe, discuss, and better understand social deviance and taboo behaviors within the celebration of these holidays. and while yes, social deviance and taboo behaviors are certainly a part of present-day drinking holiday celebrations, my focus on these aspects quickly became limiting and confining. my research materials, my notes, even my source materials were all skewed in a direction that was very different from where my paper actually wanted to go. struggling between these two polarities was paralyzing. what i was thinking and seeing didn’t match with what i was saying, and that very disparate nature was evident in every bad draft i wrote.

the truth is, i thought my paper was about the role of social deviant and taboo actions and behaviors in relation to drinking holidays, but what i was actually dealing with was the greater aspects of ritual within these secular holidays and, given the nationalistic nature of these celebrations, the resulting processes of assimilation and acculturation. 

in retrospect, i had actually seen this research/writing conflict before. in one of my undergrad anthropology classes we read steven caton’s yeman chronicles, which recounts caton’s experiences as an ethnographer in the middle east in the late 1970s. while caton began his research focusing on the oral poetry of the yemani tribes, his work grew out and away from his initial expectations and academic intents. the conflicting notion of what caton thought he was researching and what he was actually researching was difficult for him to reconcile, as well. 

so, even though i had read about this sort of trapped thinking, i was not in any way prepared to deal with it in my own work. a big part of that difficultly certainly came from a skewed trees-before-forest perspective: i was living my thesis every day. it was my primary concern and i spent most of my time thinking about it, forming outlines, searching for sources, and desperately, desperately trying to get the words on the page to work. because i was so intimately involved with it all, i was overwhelmed. i couldn’t see where or what the problems actually were. i had no big picture perspective. 

my second problem with shifting my thinking and my paper’s focus had more to do with where my paper was actually going than how i needed to get there. i had done a lot of work in the past focusing on ritual. as i mentioned ealier, i had done a lot of research and taken focused classes on it. going back to that theme felt like i was taking a step backwards, relying on past work rather than trying something new. 

that was a really, really naïve way to think about it all, and it took me a long time to break free from those negative limiting thoughts. what saved me, and my paper, actually also came from my undergraduate studies: a philosophy of learning i had forgotten.

in the the beginning of the collection of teachings choiceless awareness, jiddu krishnamurti states two ideas that relate directly with the dilemma i was struggling with:

“knowledge implies a sense of accumulation, does it not? knowledge can be acquired and, because of its nature, knowledge is always partial, it is never complete; therefore, all action springing from knowledge is also partial, incomplete” (1992:7).

and then:

“a mind that is learning never says ‘i know,’ because knowledge is always partial, whereas learning is complete all the time. learning does not mean starting with a certain amount of knowledge and adding to it further knowledge...learning is never cumulative; it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end” (ibid 1992:10-11).

remembering krishnamurti's words gave me a chance to regain my perspective, to allow myself to rethink my work and not view my change in subject matter as a personal failure. 

i balked when it came to writing about ritual because i felt i already knew, and because of that, i couldn’t write and my paper didn’t work. when i let that sense go and admitted to myself there was so much more out there, that it was okay to continue the process of learning i had begun so long ago, that’s when i was able to see what i was actually doing.


caton, steven (2005). yeman chronicles. new york: hill and wang (a division of farrar, straus, and giroux).

krishnamurti, jiddu (1992). choiceless awareness. ojai: the krishnamurti foundation of america.