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Centre for Human Ecology Thesis

Through the Eye of a Potato:

Undertaking A CHE Thesis




An address by Alastair McIntosh delivered in absentia to Centre for Human Ecology students, CHE Thesis Day, 11 February 2005. 

With extra notes on undertaking a thesis with me, added March 2007.



Good morning Friends


I am not with you in person because, as those on the Spiritual Activism module will know, I have been hit by the Curse of St Theresa, and both Vérène and I have got problems with sending email. This prevented me from getting much of my work done over the past couple of days, and rather than spend 4 hours travelling to speak here for 10 minutes today, I hoped you might understand if Vérène steps in for me. In any case, I already have a cohort of students and am not seeking more, unless there are exceptional reasons that necessitate it.


I’d just like to share a few words about what, in my experience, is important in a thesis.


You are here to do a Master’s degree, and your thesis, in the old model of apprenticeship learning, is your “master piece.” It is that with which you can show the world that you are a competent human ecologist. For this reason, choose something that is useful – something that you can do things with – like publishing it for others’ edification, or helping an organisation, or whatever. Your work may well serve personal intellectual or even therapeutic interests, but if it is constrained to that it will be a very narcissistic piece, which is not really why we are all here. So, please, my suggestion would be to set yourselves a fundamental framework of operation by asking yourselves, “Is it going to be of service to either the poor or the broken in nature?” If the answer happens to be “no”, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the track, but I would urge careful discernment – careful sifting of your own motives – as to what track you are on.


As your master piece, try and integrate the fullness of human ecology into the wider framework. Ensure it is relevant to human ecology as the integration of the social and the natural environments. Strive to convey the passion of the heart, guided by the reason of the head, applied with the practicality and sheer hard work of the hand.


But, and it is a huge “but”, in holding everything in a framework that is nothing less than your worldview – your cosmic experience of being alive on this planet – develop a sharp focus. If you don’t, you’ll be all over the place, and get into a horrible flap and be a considerable pain in the flapping parts of the anatomy for your poor supervisor!


Remember, a stone mason doesn’t start with the whole mountain, or with the cathedral she is to build. She chooses a small part from the mountain, and contributes to the pattern of a whole that is greater than she herself.


How do we do this? My suggestion is to think of your thesis in terms of story. Ask yourself, “What is the beginning, middle and end?” Find a small question, a very small question, and ask that but ask it well. As a 1965 Ned Miller hit put it, “Do what you do do well.” For example, don’t focus on saying, “I want to examine nutrition in Scotland.” Run with a small question like, “I want to study who’s buying organic potatoes in Edinburgh,” and then you’ve got something you can research and handle easily. Then you can go round all the shops – I guess maybe only 20 or so – and interview the shopkeepers or the customers, analyse your data, set it in the context of the relevant literature, and end up with a concluding chapter that only then reflects on the relevance of your well-grounded findings for your wider interest in nutrition in Scotland.


Do you see from this small example how easy it is to think in terms of telling a story? Your story would go like this: “I was interested in this big picture, and I spent a couple of weeks thinking and reading around it. I then refined it down to one (or at most, two or three) little questions, and over another couple of weeks, while still doing my literature review, I developed a robust methodology for how I was going to explore those questions. I tested my methodology on a few friends, tweaked it a little, and was satisfied with the result. I then spent a couple of weeks going and doing the interviewing (or whatever), and then allowed four weeks for analysing what I’d done and writing draft chapters. This left me two weeks at the end in which to write up a polished version, and I was able proudly to deliver it to my supervisor along with a large bottle of organic malt whisky … (no…. only kidding!).


There you are. Total job finished in 12 weeks, which is roughly what you need to be looking at if you’re going to manage your lives and work well, and allow a little slack time for possible technical problems, sickness, a broken heart, too much whisky, or whatever.


And notice in all this how you have never deviated from following the silver “faerie path” of your passion. The discipline you have had to apply in following that passion has all been for the greater passionate expression of what you’re called to – your vocation - leaving you with a great story to tell, and a very practical one, and something that is, above all, useful for a cause that you believe in. Neither will your wider interests have been frustrated by choosing such a specific focus. Indeed, my bet is that you’ll end up finding that you can see the whole world through the eye of a potato!


And you can see how such a thesis as our example here could easily be published – for example, in a journal of Scottish agriculture, or permaculture, or a greengrocer’s trade magazine. And, by the way, in practice many of you will find yourselves working with people from the grassroots up. A useful body of social research methodological thinking on how to do this is called “grounded theory”. Check it out, along with other methodologies, in a qualitative social research text.


One last thought … my friend Ralph Metzner of the original Leary-Metzner-Alpert Harvard trio of 60’s fame (which is when the best of human ecology all began, “stardust” and “golden”) has a wonderful saying. It is: “Stories are what tell us of the past: visions tell us about the future.” Enjoy your thesis, and create solidly grounded stories that open people to visionary possibilities. 




Added Note on Undertaking a Thesis with me as Supervisor

Here are some thoughts that might be useful if you are considering taking a thesis with me. 

  1. I have written a “student charter” – this is kept under review and I appreciate comments/suggestions, but please check it out to know the basic score.
  2. Your first point of contact will usually be a preliminary enquiry to ask if I might serve a sounding board as you explore thesis ideas, at this stage probably with other potential supervisors too.
  3. The soundings that can be offered will be minimal. Fairly quickly, I will expect you to firm up whether you want to work with me as supervisor, or somebody else.
  4. If it is me, I will expect your ideas to fall broadly within my field of competence and interest. Where there may be gaps, we need mutually to recognise them and decide if it is wise to proceed.
  5. Next, I expect you to draw up a draft thesis proposal. We will probably meet once, face to face or by phone, to refine this. In all meetings, I will normally expect you to come to (or phone) me as I do not normally work from the Department.
  6. You will then send in a final thesis proposal for acceptance by me and other relevant colleagues.
  7. As you start your work, I expect you to keep loosely in touch, posting me as to where you are at in bullet-point emails. I need to be reassured that you’re doing what we agreed, if you’re changing plans then that’s agreed, and that you’re progressing in a manner that’s likely to allow you to deliver good work on time.
  8. As you do your work, we will meet probably a couple of times for an hour or so to discuss its progress.
  9. Initially I will emphasise your development of a research question(s). Linked to this will be working out a research methodology and literature review, so that you situate your work in any existing bodies of knowledge. (There will be huge gaps in my knowledge, so please do send me things that will help fill these.)
  10. As you progress, I will expect to see you start organising your evidence/data. You may also want to send me your initial thesis chapters and a table of proposed contents.
  11. Thesis structure varies in any way that you can justify, but a “normal” structure would look like this:
    1. Introduction – the research question - what and why? I expect to see this question formed of your passion but crafted with your head and researched with the graft of hand.
    2. Literature Review – what existing bodies of knowledge are relevant here? Where is your question situated in the field?
    3. Methodology – how are you going to go about researching your question, why this method(s), and why have you excluded other potential methods?
    4. Data Presentation – here you organise and present your findings. If quantitative, I expect to see some basic statistics. If qualitative, I expect to see arguments for the validity of qualitative data, and clear presentation and organisation of that data including discussion of why it is so organised. Normally I suggest “grounded theory” (Glasser & Strauss) as the broad rubric for this, but that’s a very broad rubric and the most important thing is that you justify a methodology and form of data presentation that best serves your needs. If your work involves something “concrete”, such as a work of art or something done with a group of people, consider using media like photographs as supporting documentation – but remember the constraint that, at the end of the day, it must all fit into an easily email-able thesis.
    5. Analysis and Discussion – Here you weigh up your research question in the light of the evidence you have gathered from your research. What have you found out? What question(s) remain hanging? And what’s vital here is that you show self-critical awareness. What could you have done better/differently? Where are the holes in your approach and arguments? The more you can reveal these, the better I will consider your thesis to be. It’s all about honesty.
    6. Conclusion – This is where you have space, and not much of it, to play with your findings, and perhaps set them in the context of the much wider but “too big” questions with which you originally approached your study. Most academics have the annoying habit here of concluding, “More research is needed …”!
    7. Bibliography, Notes and Appendices -  Bibliographies must be consistently standardised and web references should include the date of consultation. Notes and appendices, if outside your wordcount, will not necessarily be read, but may include supporting documentation such as specimens of questionnaire forms that you used.
  1. Once your thesis is drafted, I will normally give it a “look over” before final submission. You should therefore aim to get it to me about a month before final submission date, but keep an eye on the itinerary on my web home page to make sure I’m not going to be away a lot.
  2. I will give you general feedback comments, but I cannot pre-judge the examining process by saying, for example, “if you do such and such, you will pass or get distinction”.
  3. I always appreciate feedback on the supervisory process, even though I know that at times it can feel a bit bruising! Do remember that a lot of the time when I give feedback, I try to pack a lot into a small amount of time. As such, I tend to not pussyfoot around with my comments, though some folks may feel that this “getting to the point” is insensitive.
  4. Hopefully you pass, and, equally hopefully, your work will lead to some sort of spin-off such as a publication that might be joint between us. And by the way, I always love it when, sometimes years later, I hear back from a student as to how they are using the work that we developed together.



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18 May 2005