Down the theory rabbit hole- thoughts on Nexus scholarship

Retrieved from PhD Comics

Down the theory rabbit hole-  thoughts on Nexus scholarship

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

There seem to be times in one’s PhD when you just knuckle down and dive deep into the mess of a theoretical landscape of which your project will be a tiny part. January 2014 goes down as my first time. For the better part of the past month I’ve slogged my way through what seemed an endless march of epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, methods, conceptual frameworks and models, theories and applications revolving around three tragically simple questions. All this fancy academic work boils down to:

What the hell is a nexus anyway?  How has the idea (and real world examples) of a nexus been understood previously and how can that be improved? All that complicated analysis and theorising’s nice but what does any of it mean practically?

These are basic, torturous queries. I suppose you could even say that the entirety of this 3+ year slog will be in the exclusive service of answering them. I’ve spent several weeks now working through weekends, determined to follow the most interesting threads through my literature review to their full extent. I learned loads of really interesting and really useful material, identifying the gaps my work will help fill and building up nascent conceptual models to better understand the actual nexus phenomena. I wrote a paper on the philosophical underpinnings of nexus work explicit and implicit to different possible methodological approaches, wrote theoretical literature reviews…a whole lot to inch forward in my fundamental understanding of the complexities that compose each and every example of a nexus.

For all that hard slog I ended up in a much more clearly defined but much more complex theoretical landscape. For the fist time I’ve got a fully developed idea of how everything is connecting together (at least in broad sweeps) and where I fit, the points of contention between the different schools of thought and arenas of debate I’ll inevitably be dragged in to (or leaping with relish, who knows) and most important of all I’ve got a prognosis on the state of water-energy nexus studies. Brilliant work of vital policy research, but with a surprisingly limited conceptual frame only a handful of folks have broken out of. The human and environmental dimensions of the global water-energy nexus are all ontologically irrelevant or treated as exogenous by almost every single nexus study whether academic or practical.  That is problematic not just in terms of a research agenda. The bounds of a concept in its scholarship don’t only shape the resulting analysis, they have material impact. It’s much the same as the essentially contended definition of Peak Water, what you emphasise or leave out will then shape how you and the people who are influenced by your conceptualisation act. Ideas matter. So part of my recovery from all this anti-social research will be to shed light on the social Nexus.

The beauty and torture of PhD research is that it is an endless, iterative process with as only as much direction as you can cobble together. Today, the past month seems like fruitful progress, and at the end of it I’ve found and fashioned a new shape to the global Nexus. It’s one of the perks of the job. To be a funded PhD candidate is a privileged condition. You get paid to learn about something you’re passionate about, and contribute to the world’s understanding of it- maybe even be part of using that new knowledge in the real world. You’ve got your supervisors, all these seasoned academics and your fellow doctoral students to help, but ultimately it all goes back to you and you alone. Starting out you’re told that if you followup the path, you’ll never again have the intellectual freedom of your PhD research (bosses, grant hunting, etc.). So when I want to go all stereotypically antisocial academic and work through night and day, I can end up where I am here today.

Come back to me a few months from now though and we’ll see how much everything still makes sense. Rabbit hole or false start its one hell of a ride,

~Miles On Water



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