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All Things Weird and Wonderful – Dispatches from Dissertation Land

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Jon Galton, MA Social Anthropology

Recently I met a girl who was in the middle of a PhD on the melodic ornamentation of seventeenth century English barrel organs. During the very same week I talked to another studying interracial relationships as depicted in contemporary Bollywood films. “Ah, academia…” I thought, resolving never to do a PhD.

SOAS, not surprisingly, is a good place to pursue niche interests. One of my fellow MA Social Anthropologists, for example, plans to undertake a dissertation on the relationship between humans and bees. The subject throws up interesting questions on human and animal rights in a variety of contexts and has so far not received much anthropological attention. What is more, there’s probably a weak joke in there along the lines of “Sweet topic, but watch out for the sting in the tail”. Another anthropologist plans to study the effect of virtual 3D (in video games) on human relationships. This is not unprecedented, as it happens: California-based Tom Boellstorf published “Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human” in 2008.

A quick scan over the wider SOAS community reveals a tantalising range of research interests. Take the morphosyntax of tense-aspect and modality in an indigenous Taiwanese language, for instance. Or how about food markets and gentrification in Hackney’s ‘Urban Village’? The Music Department, meanwhile, is holding its own with a study of the international Jew’s harp community. Elsewhere such diverse topics as lesbian Buddhism and the future of unknown Australian indigenous human remains are being subjected to academic scrutiny.

Naturally, SOAS does not have a monopoly over research esoterica. UCL’s anthropology research students are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge with, amongst others, a definitive study on bark cloth and an ethnography of Mongolian shamans. Indeed, one student has come over from South America to study the second-hand economy in Margate while another is turning his academic gaze onto the “dating” app Grindr.

Lest you should imagine London is having all the fun, a glance at the titles of PhDs recently awarded by the University of Exeter should set your mind at rest. My personal favourite is “The identification of a New Molecular Tool to Investigate the Role of Actin and Microtubule Cytoskeletons in the Endocytosis Pathway of the Pathogenic Fungus Ustilago maydis.” I can only imagine how the “What do you do?” question in pubs plays out. Far snappier, but equally opaque, is “State of Disunity”. I’m holding out for the television serial.

As for my own vow… in the end I’ve decided to give in and apply for a PhD anyway. Working title: “The effect of missing vowels in Raj-era typewriters on the jute economy of south-east Burma in the mid-1920s.” Or something like that.


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