I began to study sociology when I was 19 and went right on until I had a PhD and no further degrees to go for in my field. This pattern is not uncommon in the UK. Still, I now sometimes wonder whether a break from academia between degrees might have been a good choice. I decided to move on from my BA into an MA and PhD because I was offered and ESRC scholarship and because I was sure that I wanted to go for an academic career. The scholarship allowed me to study in a relatively carefree manner. However, it also required me to choose the topic for my doctoral research very early on, after just three years of study and based on what I now think was a very superficial understanding of life and work in academia.
So I decided to do a PhD on cultural constructions of couple relationships among young middle-class people in Mexico City. My choice of topic was inspired by personal interest and familiarity; I had lived in Mexico for some time already and I am fluent in Spanish. In addition, an undergraduate class on gender relations in Latin America had convinced me that I had found an important gap in extant research. These reasons still seem valid to me. My fieldwork in Mexico went well, I completed my PhD in the usual four years, and there is still very little research on issues of intimate life among middle-class people in Latin America, despite the international burgeoning of gender and sexualities studies.
A first warning sign was perhaps the fact that, during my fieldwork and at conferences, I hardly ever met other sociologists. I met demographers, anthropologists, geographers, historians and people in literary and film studies working on topics similar to mine, but hardly any sociologists. There were a few at Mexican universities, but, to my knowledge, none in the UK at that time. Towards the end of my doctorate, I gradually began to understand that research in or on Mexico and Latin America is simply not a major concern of British sociology. This, I believe, had a very significant impact on my chances of finding an academic position after my PhD, rendering my work irrelevant to many potential employers. It is for this reason that I now think that a more informed choice of research topic at a more mature age would have made things much easier for me in the long run. (Of course, I might also have been given better advice by the department that supported my application for postgraduate study, but this is beside the point.) In this sense, a clear alignment of one’s early-career research agenda with the priorities of institutional sociology seems to be essential for survival.
Failing to achieve this alignment, I have nevertheless managed to publish and build my career. In this context, choices about the breadth, depth and coherence of my research have been very important. After my PhD, I could have opted for drastic change and moved into new subject matters and areas of sociology. I decided against this, as it might have made my research agenda seem incoherent and my commitment to particular research interests superficial. In fact, I am fascinated by the topics I study, and I do not wish to abandon them for the sake of uncertain practical expediency. Four years on, I thus still do work in Mexico, and I am currently writing a monograph on themes that I began to explore in my PhD. I also still believe that a commitment to a coherent research agenda that inspires me to think creatively is the best way to go.
However, I have also decided to broaden my field of work. Towards the end of my PhD, I began to develop a strong interest in issues of gender, sexuality and social change in contemporary China. For some time, I considered various topics in this field, and I began to learn Chinese and develop relevant academic ties. Recently, together with a colleague at a Beijing university, I have begun a new big research project on transnational dating and marriage between young middle-class Chinese and Westerners. There is a significant and growing sociological interest in China, both internationally and in the UK. Therefore, beyond the fact that my new study has merit in purely academic and intellectual terms, it is also likely to attract greater attention than my other work.
Beyond its alignment with current trends in sociological research, my new field of enquiry also makes sense with regard to three other criteria which, I have come to think, are important for an early-career research agenda. First, there is demonstrable coherence between my research in Mexico and in China, in terms of a common interest in transformations of intimate life in the context of large-scale social change and globalisation. I can further articulate this coherence in reference to overarching theoretical interests that motivate much of my writing. Second, looking at these transformations in two very different societies allows me to understand them in much greater depth. It has enabled me, for instance, to develop a better understanding of the intersection of global and local processes of development and change. There is therefore, third, an argument to be made in favour of at least some limited eclecticism in the choice of one’s research topics. I do believe that a broader understanding of the social processes I am interested in has made it possible for me to better explain and justify the significance of my work.
Of course, a move into a new field also may mean big complications. In my case, it has made it necessary for me to become acquainted with academic literatures of which I used to be only fleetingly aware. I have had to learn a new language, familiarise myself with an unfamiliar society, and adapt my ways of doing fieldwork. While none of these are insurmountable obstacles, they do raise some interesting questions about transnational research, and I would like to consider them further in future posts.