An Example of a successful PhD proposal
a) b) c) Type of Project/ Central Aims and Issues/Methods
My project aims to establish an account of the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities in contemporary popular fiction and television. Profoundly interdisciplinary, it will integrate linguistic philosophy (Mikhail Bakhtin), feminist political theory (Judith Butler), social anthropology (Pierre Bourdieu), and the analysis of a corpus of popular novels and television programmes. Gender identities will emerge as socio-cultural constructions that are plural, always in the process of becoming and always to some degree susceptible to resignification. Moreover, they will appear as products of discursive and bodily performativity.
The foundations for my theory are found in selected works by Bakhtin (Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 1919-1921, and “The Problem of Speech Genres”, 1952-1953), Bourdieu (The Logic of Practice, 1980, and Ce que parler veut dire: L’economie des echanges linguistiques, 1982), and
In six chapters, each aspect’s theoretical exploration will be correlated with an analysis of its function in two television series (Sex and the City and Ally McBeal) and two genres of popular fiction: popular women’s fiction (Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and Four Blondes and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) and so-called ‘lad lit’ (Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and High Fidelity and Mike Gayle’s Mr Commitment and Turning Thirty). These series and novels were chosen because their actions predominantly revolve around the formation, assertion and (to a varying degree) subversion of highly influential contemporary gender identities, specifically that of the ‘lad’ and the single thirty-something woman. As such, they elucidate many of the theoretical issues and complexities governing these processes.
The first chapter of my project concerns identity practices and will establish gender identities as socio-cultural constructions founded on the cultural imposition (over time) of linguistic and bodily practices or dispositions, which are continually reproduced through repetitive inculcation. Specifically, I will seek to incorporate Bourdieu’s concepts of the habitus and ‘le sens pratique’, Bakhtin’s notion of ‘social purview’, and
The second chapter deals with identity differences. It will define identity as stratified on the basis of differences, both collective (social groups or classes) and individual (one individual’s multiple affiliations). It will integrate Bourdieu’s concepts of field and capital, Bakhtin’s notion of speech genres, and
The third chapter examines identity struggles. Here, I will argue that the assertion of gendered identities is never straightforward, but always involves a struggle for recognition and validation with the power to control social and discursive meaning as its highest stake. Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘struggle for the sign’ (between speech genres, between centripetal and centrifugal forces, and between authoritative and internally persuasive discourse) will be fundamental. Bourdieu’s work will be used to theorise the dominant position of the state and its institutions in this struggle (by distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate discourses they deny excluded social groups the discursive authority to assert their identity). Finally,
The fourth chapter concerns identity acts. Focussing on gender identities and agency, this section will examine how individuals and collectives exercise (some degree of) control over their identities. My view of gender identities as tenacious socio-historical constructs implies a limited (but not absent) concept of agency, with individual and collective actions confined by powerful social and discursive constraints. Because of the essential indeterminacy of the linguistic and bodily sign, no complete control over acts and their meaning is possible, not for the dominant and not for the dominated. All three theorists reflect this limitation.
The fifth chapter focusses on identity resignification, examining the different subversive strategies proposed by the theorists and in the novels and television programmes. I will argue that Bourdieu’s concept of subversion is severely limited, particularly in relation to gender (predominantly due to his anthropological viewpoint and materialist focus on the production system). However, his work on performative language does assign some subversive power to the practice of semantic resignification. The resignification of (gendered) language and practices is also the main subversive instrument proposed by Bakhtin (reported speech and parody) and
The sixth and final chapter introduces a new aspect to gender identity theory, not present in the work of the theorists: identity chronotopes. I will argue that the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities inevitably includes an element of time and space (where and when does the act occur?) that requires consideration. A performative act’s spatio-temporal location will influence its form, content and result. In the case of subversive acts, particularly, their timing and place will often determine their success or failure. A modified version of Bakhtin’s theory of the literary chronotope (cf. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel”, 1937) will add a unique spatio-temporal dimension to my integrated theory of gender identities. In relation to my corpus, the concept of the chronotope will provide a way of analysing not only the novels and television programme’s intratextual time/space, but also the spatio-temporal position of their media in social reality. I.e. when/where are they published/broadcast, when/where are they read/watched, when/where are they discussed, how have they expanded spatially into films, Internet sites, etc.? Thus, popular fiction and television will themselves be considered as chronotopes establishing, asserting and subverting gender identities in different manners, with different scopes and different degrees of success.
d. Objects of Research
My primary objects of research (theoretical works, novels and television programmes) are listed in section 3a. Naturally, I will study other pertinent works by Bakhtin, Bourdieu and
e. Chapter Planning and Workplan
There will be six central chapters (as outlined in section 3a), an introduction and a conclusion, where I will present my own integrated theory of gender identities. I have already undertaken a significant amount of research on the theoretical works of Bakhtin, Bourdieu and
In the second year I will complete a provisional draft of the fifth and sixth chapters (the chapter on the chronotope will be the most innovative part of my project and will take most time to develop). I will also finish my analysis of the corpus.
In the third year I will integrate the corpus analysis with the theory, revise the latter on the basis of the findings in the former, and produce complete versions of all six central chapters and the conclusion.
The fourth year is reserved for the introduction, revision and the finalisation of my conclusions.
All my previous degrees were completed on or ahead of schedule and I am confident I will be able to finish my project within four years.
In the course of my project I may decide to spend time at a foreign university to advance my research and gain fresh expert input. Conceivable options are the University of Oxford, where I would benefit from the insights of my M.St. supervisor, Dr. Lois McNay (who has written extensively on Butler and Bourdieu), and/or the University of Sheffield, where the Bakhtin Centre is located and where I spent time as an exchange student in 1998 under Prof. David Shepherd (director of the Centre). I will also actively seek publication of sections of my research as they develop, and identify and attend relevant conferences to present my material. Professor Butler’s projected visit to ASCA will obviously be of great benefit to my project.
f. Connections of the project with the work of the supervisors
Firstly, my project, with its focus on the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities, relates to Prof. Dr. Mieke Bal’s Performing Culture project (within the ASCA programme of Structure and Story). The notions that utterances produce events, that identity is formed through social role-playing, and that the performative speech act is always dialogic (i.e. requires the participation of an interlocutor) will be central to my project. Furthermore, Prof. Mieke Bal’s interest in interdisciplinary research and cultural interpretation, of which my project will be an example, is evident from her influential book The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation.
Secondly, my project can be linked to the Identities project Dr. Inge Boer has developed under the ASCA Transnationalism and Multiculturalism programme. Like her, I will propose an anti-essentialist notion of identity that takes into account the multiplicity of an individual’s affiliations and their changing nature. Moreover, my project, like hers, will deal not only with theoretical accounts of (gender) identities, but also with their function in popular fiction and television.
Thirdly, my project will connect with the work on gender and popular culture undertaken by Dr. Joke Hermes. I expect that her work in Reading Women’s Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use and The Media in Question: Popular Cultures, Public Interests will prove a vital reference for my analysis of gender identities in fiction and television.
g. Qualifications of the Candidate
In June 2000, I graduated with distinction from the interdisciplinary Master of Studies (M.St.) programme in Women’s Studies at the