Friday, May 27, 2005

Planning for my thesis proposal, part I

I believe every student who passes the ALM proseminar Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences: History and Government comes away with a submittable thesis proposal.

But, as professors Joe and Doug Bond noted at the end of my proseminar in early 2004, only 50% of those who attempt the thesis actually use their proseminar proposal. Others change the focus of their studies and have to write a new one from scratch.

Since I was accepted into the ALM program, I assumed that I would be in the latter group. Although I thought my title, Defining a Territorial Sea: China’s South China Sea Policy in the 1950s and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea, was interesting and worth studying, I thought something was missing. What special insight was I bringing to the study of China's territorial claims in the Spratly and Paracel islands? This topic has been heavily researched and dissected in the past 10 years. What could I contributed to the debate?

Last summer, as I began actively planning out my ALM strategy, I began to consider my own professional area of expertise, journalism and mass media. I wondered if I should change the topic to some area of Chinese policy which might be reflected and potentially measured in the Chinese mass media. At the time, I was taking the elective Archaeology of the Silk Road with Professor Irene Good. The subject of my final paper was Historical Nationalism: How Interpretation of China’s Past
is Used to Build Unity in the Present
. It basically looked at how documentary and physical evidence from the past is used to build nationalistic sentiment today. One example: I pointed out how the Great Wall of China, despite its original purpose to keep barbarians out, is now cited in China as proof of long-standing unity among the Chinese people -- people from many parts of the country, including those who are now considered "national minorities", helped direct its construction.

After the class ended, I thought I could expand my methodology and perform a computer-assisted content analysis of China's official mass media, measuring instances of what I called in my archaeology paper "historical nationalism":

I believe that historical nationalism exists in two distinct forms in China. One form constantly reminds citizenry of China’s exploitation at the hands of various Western countries and Japan, which invaded and partitioned China in the 19th and 20th centuries. China was not only able to repel foreign imperialists, but was, thanks to the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party, able to restore the dignity of the Chinese people. This oft-repeated story of victimization and triumph over adversity has helped define the Chinese nation-state to its people.

Another form of historical nationalism in China deals with the remains of past eras, such as documents, buildings, artifacts, and human remains. Key relics of the past are presented in a way that boosts a sense of common identity among China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and creates support for the Chinese nation.

Last fall I didn't take any class, as my wife had our second child in early September. But I did keep up my pre-study for the ALM, reading many books on nationalism and Chinese media. I also boned up on computer-assisted content analysis, which was a focus of the proseminar taught by the Bond brothers. Although all research includes analysis of content, in the past 30 or 40 years the term "content analysis" has taken on an additional meaning: the systematic review of source content that reveals patterns of meaning, intent, or effect. The key word in this phrase is "systematic"; the idea is to consistently apply a set of rules to the analysis to reveal accurate data and minimize researcher bias.

More later ... my son is waking up from a nap!

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