Research – Class Conflict in Literature: The Role of University Settings in Understanding Social Dynamics

Article by Mairead Maguire (Laidlaw Scholar 2021, History and Political Science)

The title of my research project is ‘Class Conflict in Literature: The Role of University Settings in Understanding Social Dynamics’. Through my analysis of three fictional texts, as well as my studying of existing research on the realities of class and education, I endeavoured to find connections between the experiences of characters and the experiences of real life working class students pursuing third-level education. The major themes I identified were that of power, identity, and the difficulty in defining what “being educated” really means. 

When writing our research proposals, we were asked to outline our intended methodology. I thought about it carefully and expected to follow it closely. It still could not be detailed or accurate enough to be followed precisely. At times it seemed irrelevant and I felt lost. I realise now that one’s research is ever-evolving and cannot, nor should not, be constrained to a five-step plan, particularly when studying literature or social science. 

Having had the opportunity to research independently, I now know just how personal each thesis or journal article is to its writer. We intend to be somewhat objective but, as humans, that is never entirely possible. I know I made hundreds of subconscious decisions throughout my project that shaped it. I will keep this in mind when evaluating sources for any future research. 

It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to do research almost entirely independently at this stage in my academic career. However, I will be honest and say it has been a learning curve for me. The independence sometimes had me feeling directionless, and this was not helped by the subject of my research, which I knew did not have one definite answer. A lot of discipline and self-leadership was needed and I developed these skills as the summer progressed.  

The importance of patience became apparent during my research. At times, things seem stagnant, not for lack of hard work, but because not every part of the journey is efficient and enjoyable. Things just take time. You cannot will a breakthrough, you can only carry on in the knowledge that it will happen.  

Having the support of my supervisor and the structure of regular meetings relieved some of the stress that the uncertainty I experienced. Dr Rosie Lavan is an expert in her field and my experience and knowledge is minute compared to hers. However, at no point did she make me feel stupid for asking questions or expressing confusion about literature, research or writing.  

The most difficult part of the process was knowing when to finish. I chose a mammoth topic that has connections to English literature, sociology, history, politics and other subject areas. I naively thought that focusing on just three fictional texts would limit my research to make it doable in six weeks. However, novels and plays are saturated with themes, issues, characters, and styles, and a lifetime could be spent studying them.  

That being said, it was easy to fill a poster. I had 5,000 words of notes by the end of my research period. I thought condensing them into one poster would be difficult, but it was a fun challenge breaking down my work into a visual aid that someone who knows nothing about the topic could understand easily. 

The most enjoyable part of the process was the analysis of the texts I chose. Having the time and space to sink my teeth into books I found genuinely interesting felt like an academic luxury. While I had my initial research proposal and some idea of the trajectory the project might take, I adored the freedom of being able to let each step inform the next.  

In conclusion, I developed greatly as a student, researcher and person throughout the summer. The research component of the Laidlaw Scholar Programme teaches discipline, perseverance, self-knowledge and academic integrity. How privileged I am to be part of such a programme is not lost on me. These skills are transferable not only to any future research I undertake, but other jobs and projects too. 

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