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This is the longest chapter of the thesis, and unless you are particularly interested in epistemological justifications for choice of research methods, I’d suggest it may be one of the dullest. I don’t think the bits where I decide I am going down the empiricist, show-me-the-evidence, route, are particularly difficult reading, just not awfully interesting to the casual observer.

So if I were you I’d skip straight to section 3.6 which will give you all the gory detail about the sampling, and data collection methods. Possibly pausing at Figure 3.1 along the way which lays out the timescale and various parts of the project. I am quite proud of this diagram, and it took a disproportionately long time to do.

Or you might want to wait for the next blog post, which has the first batch of exciting results.


Today’s post brings you chapter 2, and chapter 10. Chapter 2 is the Literature Review in which I describe the existing research, explain what the current theories and practice and show how my PhD fills the gaps in the research. I’ve included the Bibliography in this post too, in case you wanted to look up any of the articles that are referenced in the review. The pdf also has the appendices in, which I would skip unless you are really bored and stuck for something to read…

Informing, inviting or ignoring? Understanding how English Christian churches use the internet.

Would you like to read the Introduction? This gives the rationale for the project and the aims and objectives. The file also includes the glossary, TOC, and acknowledgements.

Here’s the abstract.

This thesis investigates how English Christian leaders and churches use the internet for personal and corporate communication, and looks for evidence of challenges to traditional understandings of authority arising from online communication. Early studies in this area suggested that online religion would cause enormous change but more recent studies reflect less polarised opinions. Religious people tend to use the internet to augment rather than replace practice of their faith, holding true for different religions globally. Leaders use the internet for a wide variety of religious information tasks.

The project uses a longitudinal website census, quantitative content analysis and semi-structured interviews. 400 churches in four English denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Anglican and Catholic) were surveyed over a three year period to establish if they published a website. 147 churches from the same four denominations, located in an area equivalent to Chelmsford Diocese, were assessed on 75 categories of information and their hyperlinks analysed.

Interviews with church leaders and interested parties helped foster understanding of why and how sites were created, and explored the leaders’ personal use of the internet. The percentage of churches with a website increased over the survey period for all denominations. Content analysis showed that currency, extent and accessibility of information on websites varied, with some being out of date, others showing no contact details and few having specific information for newcomers to church.

Interview findings revealed perceptions of email overload, varying degrees of governance and control of websites by church leaders, and leaders’ own use of the internet and social media. Interactivity was rare on church websites. Different levels of expertise are mooted as reasons why control and governance varies between leaders. Perceptions of the internet may be influenced by moral panic. The influence of the age of congregations on adoption of social media, and the impact of volunteer webmasters are examined. Recommendations for churches planning to revisit or review their sites are included, limitations are noted and suggestions for further research made.

22 January was my viva. I don’t know what you know about PhD vivas, and I’ve only ever done one of them, so am not a great judge of whether mine was typical. If you read Tinkler & Jackson, or had a judicious Google, you’d learn a few things:

  • Mostly supervisors don’t let you submit if they don’t think you’ll pass
  • Vivas have an internal examiner, from your own university; and an external from elsewhere
  • They last between an hour and a day
  • Part of the process is checking that you actually wrote the thing & did the work described
  • The key thing is that you can ‘defend your thesis’ i.e. justify your research decisions, reflect on the outcomes and possible future work.

And that was about all I knew. I talked through some likely questions with my supervisors and they briefed me on the logistics. I prepared by reading the thesis again; marking up corrections (found a reference I had missed, as well as a few minor typos); and re-reading the key literature. Oh, and planning an evening out the night before with friends who would calm me down and not allow me to become too nervous.

Loughborough was lovely on Tuesday morning in the sunlight and snow and arriving on campus early (this is me we are talking about so of course I was early – been pacing about the hotel since 7:30, trying not to wake Phil up). Had a comedy unplanned icebreaker as I bumped into my external examiner, asking for directions – so I introduced myself there and then.

Sat for a few minutes with a hot chocolate checking phone messages – I was the recipient of many good luck texts and tweets – then ambled over to the Department.

And then we were off. The internal examiner told me the viva would only last an hour – which was either a really good thing or a really bad thing, so that was something of a wobbly moment.

I don’t really remember in detail the questions I was asked but I vaguely think we talked about…

  • Explaining a graph (at which point I had a total memory block about which is the x axis on a plot)
  • Justifying choice of mean as measure in one of the content analysis parts
  • Talking through the RQs
  • How might I use this work in future – discussion on early adopters/ lay volunteers/ ways of creating sites
  • Whether my discussion undersold the results
  • If I thought my content analysis was robust, reliable and valid
  • What were the interesting parts of the interviews that I couldn’t record (lots! some really great conversations)

I could see the list of questions being ticked off as we progressed. The further down the list we went the more I was thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be the tricky question – the next one will be the one I really struggle to answer…’ but it never arrived.

After an hour we were done, but it felt like about five minutes – the time whizzed by. Supervisors & I were sent out of the room for a few minutes. Then the judgment. Pass, with minor corrections. Phew! This is what I had hoped for, and what most had expected – it is a very common outcome. There is often a bit of re-writing involved, typos to correct, references to amend and the University allows six months for them to be made.

However, the mandated corrections were minor indeed – more than I’d found myself and anticipated following the viva. (All took me less than an hour to make). The external examiner said very nice things about the project and the thesis – that it was a good read, and very well presented and proof-read. So I was (still am, a week later) elated – pleased to have passed, and overjoyed to have ‘passed well.’

So that’s it. Corrections done, and informally passed by the internal examiner. Now I am just waiting for official notification from the University and instructions on submitting the final version.

It’s written. It’s somewhere in limbo between the Lboro print room, my supervisors, and the research student office. Paperwork is completed. Cogs in the process have started to turn. But as far as I’m concerned, as far as current workload is concerned – it’s submitted. Done. Finished.* Written up. Completed. 

The fat lady’s not quite singing, but I’d say she’s definitely checking her diary and making sure she’s got the music she needs. 

*”The PhD is never finished, it is simply abandoned at its least damaging point.” Apparently this is a famous quote. But in a moment of academic rebellion, I’m not going to reference it. If you want to know where it came from, let me Google that for you... 

Not quite out of the woods, but I have definitely seen a signpost and a footpath out. Or, if you prefer, I am very sure that the light I see at the end of the tunnel is daylight and not an oncoming train.

On Monday I went to Loughborough for a supervision meeting – first one I’ve had face-to-face for ages. And, as it transpires, probably the last one. Ever. Having never written a thesis before, I had no idea how far off from finished my draft was. I did not know whether I needed to take small steps, or breach a yawning chasm. Turns out it was small steps. So, yesterday and today I’ve made the last set of suggestions, and been brave enough to write abstract, acknowledgement and the title page. I had a few proofreaders on standby, for ‘oh, sometime in November,’ who have been kind enough to jump into action, and I’ve their amendments/ suggestions still to make. But, you know. Other than that, it’s done. I think. I expect there’ll be tweaks to make, and I dread the internal review outcome. But it is an entirely odd feeling to think that the writing, which has occupied my thinking for the last year, and the project that took up free time and thinking space for the previous four years, is very, very, nearly done.

Lots of people have asked me recently ‘How’s the PhD going?’ so I thought it was probably about time I wrote up its current status, and on a good day, when I am feeling positive about it.

I am more or less on track to submit by the end of the year, barring disaster. The difficulty is in judging how long it will take me to get from where I am now, to a document that is as good as it will get and submittable. I have 75,000 words, albeit in Morecombe & Wise format (all the right words, not necessarily in the right order). I’m not – at least I don’t think I am – precious about any particular sentence or paragraph, so chopping and changing and deleting isn’t going to cause me great angst, and I’m pretty good at ruthless criticism of my own style, grammar and sentence construction. I’ve got most of every chapter written, although I’m not quite sure about my introduction. I just don’t have a sense of how hard it will be to get from ‘nearly everything’ to ‘good enough,’ and at what point the perfectionism will kick in. My analogy to explain this is like wanting to fell several trees: a chainsaw would be good, but all I have is a blunt pen-knife and all I can do is chip away at the trunk and hope I’m attacking the right tree…

The things I know I have left to do include finishing the introduction, slicing my Findings into several readable chapters instead of its current death-by-sub-sub-sub-heading format, finishing the bits I have flagged up with Notes to Self, converting the references from placeholders to actual references, compiling the ever-growing appendices, adding in all the cross-references, re-reading it again to make sure the arguments and structure flow properly.

One advantage of doing a PhD part-time is that there is always a gap between writing sessions. This has two advantages. First, I’m a bit more distant from the text than if I spent weeks on end writing, re-reading and editing, so my ability to spot errors and act like I have ‘fresh eyes’ is heightened. Second, as a corollary to that, if I have a ‘bright idea,’ leave a note for myself about it – chances are I don’t think it’s necessary after all when I come back to it! So I probably save myself unnecessary re-writing for forgetting why I wanted to change things…

I’m going to be presenting some of the ideas and conclusions at the Christian New Media conference in October. Whilst I’ve enjoyed the process of researching and writing the thesis for its intellectual challenge, I think it would be a shame not to share some of the content in a way that would assist people to think about their websites and online use differently. So I am hoping to find some practical hints and topics to share.

On a bad day, of course, I feel like embarking on the project was the most ridiculous idea I have ever had. I feel unable to sentence together string properly, that no-one will be interested, that what I have found out is obvious, that the methodology was flawed, I’ve wasted five years of life and it’ll never be good enough to submit let alone for me to stand up to the rigours of a viva next year. And asking me ‘how is the PhD going?’ will result in tears or tantrums. However, I am led to believe that these bad days are entirely normal, and it will soon pass…

I’m a few months away from submitting, so all research is done, interviews transcribed and I’m starting to look for places to share the findings with people – and hopefully finding ways of making practical use of the story I can tell.
The project set out to find out how English Christian churches use email, websites and social media to connect with their congregations and communities. Churches are still learning how these tools might help. Results show that only 55% of Church of England churches had a website – a proportion that had risen from 40% in 2009. It’s a little better for other denominations, with the Baptist church leading the way. If churches do have websites, their content can be patchy, and often out of date. You might be able to find out the service times, and maybe have a map, but a wider sense of a vibrant community is harder to portray. Pages designed for newcomers are still full of church-talk.
 Interviews with clergy across main denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and C of E) suggest that relying on volunteers to have time to update sites and keep the design modern can be tricky; everyone is pushed for time. Also, a great website needs planning and evaluation, and to be considered as a key part of the church’s outreach. Evidence suggests that this may not be happening in many churches where either the size of the congregation, or the perception that older congregations aren’t interested, limits the effort put in.

Too tired to think of a witty title. Another Bank Holiday spent doing various bits and pieces. Yesterday I started rearranging the way I had the paper copies of articles filed; physically moving them into piles and creating index cards (not by hand). I need to be able to see what I have and to be able to look at things and put things together that go together, I am too old to do that by some kind of online mechanism. I shall atone for the use of paper in later life.

I’ve been working on the literature review and discussion more or less simultaneously. Write a bit of the literature review – either amending existing text so it reads less like it was written by a ten year old, or add a new paper; then write the corresponding bit of the discussion where I link my findings to the rest of the world’s research. This seems to work, but of course there are some bits that I am needing new resources for (there’s a whole section in my discussion about older people and internet things, for example). I added about 2,00o words overall today – slow going, but I think I am getting there. I’ve more articles that I haven’t used than I thought, too; and some that looked like they were relevant 18 months ago aren’t.

As usual I gave myself a massive list of things to do, and managed about two of them. And I spent part of the beginning of the day having a minor wibble about whether I will ever be able to bring the various bits I have written together into a coherent thesis. Before October.

I took a couple of days off last week to tackle the organisation of my interview findings. Crikey, that was a tough job!

I’ve got things more or less organised, and I’ve a scheme in my head of how the findings relate to the content analysis of the websites. I’ve got a huge amount of work to do on it, though, and I’ll admit that this hasn’t been the easiest of weekends. The solitariness has been tough. The fear of forgetting it all has been tricky. I keep coming across ideas that I have had that I have absolutely no recollection of whatsover. I did start to seriously doubt my sanity in undertaking this project; I’ve wondered about it before but this time I looked at what I need to do, looked at the time I have to do it in, and for want of a better word, wibbled.

Next time off is at Christmas and at that point I will be going back to my literature review and revising it with the newer work that has come out. I’ve not read my own review for several months, so that is going to be interesting.

All this is building up to my 4th year review, and the research symposium I will be part of, on 19 January.