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The Marriage Analogy
Personal and Positional Relationships in PhD Supervision

Sara Delamont AcSS

School of Social Sciences
Cardiff University
Glamorgan Building
King Edward VII Avenue
Cardiff CF10 3WT

Presented at the Higher Education Close Up Conference 2, Lancaster University. 16-18 July 2001



Using data on science and social science PhD students and their supervisors, gathered by ethnographic interview and observation, the paper explores the 'marriage analogy'. Many commentators use the analogy of a marriage to describe the privacy, uniqueness, and developmental cycle of the PhD supervision relationship. The differences between science and social science disciplinary cultures, however, mean there are different types of marriage, many varieties of family life. Drawing on the theoretical ideas of Bernstein, especially his contrast between personal and positional families, the everyday lives of doctoral students and their supervisors will be illuminated.


The theoretical stance of the paper is unashamedly Bernsteinian. As the most innovative and challenging theorist in the sociology of education this is entirely appropriate. It seems likely that after a period of neglect (Delamont 2000) his work will be reassessed and re-fashioned in the next few years.

The death of Basil Bernstein in Sept 2000 produced a series of memorial events, and will produce a second round of commemorative and tribute volumes to follow the Festschriften that marked his retirement. (Atkinson et al., 1995; Sadovnik, 1995). In this paper one of his central oppositionary pairs, personal v positional, is used to theorise about the role and status of doctoral students. The data come from two ESRC-funded projects conducted in the 1990s, in which ethnographic interviews were carried out on 286 students, supervisors and department heads, in twenty academic departments in three of the four nations of the UK. The full report of the whole programme can be found in Delamont et al. (2000).

The paper is in four sections. First, Bernstein's concepts are explained. Second, two 'ideal types' of PhD work are contrasted. Third, the Bernsteinian concepts are used to illuminate the roles of doctoral students. Fourth, a research agenda is set out.

The title of the paper evokes one of the analogies frequently used by supervisors to describe the relationship between doctoral students and supervisors: that of marriage. Like marriages and/or families, the supervisory relationship is private, intense, central to a happy life, and hard to study. However just as social science research on marriage has revealed that there are differences in ways that marriages can function, so too there are differences in supervisory patterns. It is to illuminate those differences that the paper uses Bernstein's oppositional binary.

Bernstein's Concepts

Bernstein (1977) contrasted two modes of socialisation: personal and positional. He applied it to families, as contrasting ideal types. Each type provides its members with their sources of identity. The two modes of socialization derive from the classic sociological distinction between ascribed and achieved statuses. In the positional family, social roles are primarily ascribed. Each family member has an identity which is fixed, closed, and explicit. Ascribed roles and statuses, such as age, sex, and position (e.g. oldest daughter, unmarried son), determine identity. The family has strong boundaries separating it from other units, and clear demarcations within it. It has a clear, explicit hierarchy, and the generations are distinct.

The contrasting ideal type is the personal family, where relationships are more open and fluid. Here achieved identities are more important, and may even be more salient for family members than ascribed ones. Boundaries around the family are more fluid, and relationships more open-ended, inside and outside the family. So the decision about software for the computer can be made by a child who is skilled in computing, the car chosen by a woman, a man may cook the meals. Personal qualities are important, not formal roles. Identities are negotiated, not based on one hierarchy. Gender and generation are less important than personal qualities.

In the positional family the lines of social control are clear. Age, sex, and position define the lines of authority which are explicit. In a personal family there is social control, but it is implicit and grounded in negotiation and persuasion. Families of the two different types are located in all social classes, although positional families are commoner in the working class, the upper class, and characterise the old middle class. Personal families are typical of the new middle class, and of the intelligentsia. (Delamont, 1989). Children reared in the two types respond differently to education; women's roles are very different, especially in their role as mothers. Families of the two types want contrasting types of pedagogic regime. One type is not superior to the other: they are designed to reproduce different sectors of the labour market.

Ideal Types of PhD Work

Bourdieu's (1988, 1996) work has reminded us that in all academic disciplines and departments, control is exercised by the established staff over their successors. However the nature of the authority, and the ways in which it is exercised are different in science and engineering on the one hand, and in arts and social science on the other. In the science and engineering disciplines control is clearly hierarchical, and the structure is overt. In humanities and social sciences, the system of control is implicit and even covert. Authority is more negotiable, grounded in personal qualities rather than seniority or formal leadership roles.

This is not a novel point about science and engineering. The explicit, personal control often irks those who dislike the way science and engineering are taught. This is clear from Tobias (1990), Downey and Lucena (1997) and Seymour and Howitt (1997). It is central to the mechanics of pedagogic continuity. (See Delamont et al., 1997a, 1997b). The replication of science in the undergraduate years constructs a domain of relative stability. Indeed, the pedagogic practices of undergraduate science are in themselves potent devices for the mobilisation of students' trust in the methods and outcomes of scientific investigation.

The academic and scientific enculturation of scientists through doctoral research training has received little explicit attention in the research literature of the sociology and anthropology of science and technology, the sociology of the professions and the sociology of education. (Delamont 1987, 1989, Delamont et al., 2000) It is dealt with implicitly in more general studies of the social organisation of scientific work and culture of science settings. (e.g. Charlesworth et al., 1989; Traweek, 1993) The relative neglect of science education in universities generally, and the neglect of doctoral research in particular, may reflect the fact that it is largely conducted under conditions of routine laboratory work, with relatively little opportunity for innovation or controversy. On the other hand it is a context in which can be explored issues of enculturation, competence and expertise. Science PhD students are socialised in a research group, with a clearly defined role for them. There is a division of labour in the research group, and equally visible boundaries between one research group and the next. Students are incorporated into the group, and should be loyal to it. Kevles's (1998) account of The Baltimore Case demonstrates the importance of such loyalties.

If the science PhD student is a member of a positional "family" the social scientist experiences socialisation as a scholar in a personal "family". This is best described by drawing comparisons with the scientist's experience.

The social science PhD student is an isolated individual. (Deem and Brehony, 2000). They do not experience other social scientists doing research alongside them: they do not see social science being done. There is no tradition of the research group socialising together regularly. The group does not publish jointly as a team with all the names on the products. Teams do not go to conferences together, have regular colloquia, share the same equipment. However, the social science PhD is freer to negotiate an identity. The expectation is that she is an autonomous scholar who will soon be an intellectual equal. Students choose their own topic, theory, method and fieldsite. The project is individualised: if a student withdraws that research will simply never happen. The supervisor may be controlling the topic and its execution in practice, but if so, the control is exercised by persuasion, negotiation and suggestions. The personal style of the student, issues such as the extent to which they are 'cue-deaf' (Delamont et al., 1997c), and other individual qualities, skills and interactions determine their role and status in the department.

In the next section this distinction is elaborated and exemplified using the data.

The Roles of Doctoral Students

The occupational socialisation of the doctoral student in science occurs in an hierarchical research group, in which the positional logic rules. When postgraduate students meet the unpredictable, real world, of their doctoral research, they find themselves alternatively elated and required to grit their teeth and carry on trying. (Delamont and Atkinson, 2001) They account for their ability to carry on with the work by virtue of their engagement in a supportive social context: the research group with its teamwork and its pedagogic continuity. This pedagogic continuity is a fundamental element in the lives of doctoral students of science which enables them to come to terms with the vagaries of experimental research without abandoning the notion that science is for the most part a very stable and highly convergent activity. Most science is not in fact revolutionary. On the contrary much of science concentrates on addressing problems which arise out of, and are solvable within, the existing framework of research. Despite enthusiasm for refutation and revolution, most science activity leads to a large amount of permanent knowledge, devices and practice. One explanation for this and which lends support to the proposition that science stands apart from the real world, is that science is a 'self vindicating' activity. Hacking has described how this stability arises and is maintained because scientific practice is like a rope with many strands. Even if one of the strands is severed, the others persevere. In other words science encompasses several traditions, including theoretical, experimental and instrumental, and a break in one tradition is not necessarily fatal for the others. The structure of PhD science research functioned to maintain stability through continuity and mutual dependence: two elements highly visible in research at doctoral level. Using Hacking's (1992) analogy of a rope we can see how the interests of group members are mutually intertwined in a linear process through which the work of individuals is shaped and developed. The research group provides both intellectual continuity, and pedagogic continuity because new entrants are taught by the more established members.

Earth science, physical geography and biochemistry PhD students continue to expect, and indeed do, produce results from their experiments and from their fieldwork. Furthermore on the basis of these results they expect to, and a large percentage do, successfully complete PhD's. This raises the following question. How, when scientific work is apparently so capricious in nature and unpredictable in outcome, can doctoral candidates predict the successful outcome of their labours? One answer is that research groups provide intellectual and practical environments in which manageable projects are constructed.

The construction of a PhD project involves the identification of realistic goals. Furthermore these goals are intended to be realisable within the allotted period of time for study. The doctoral candidates whom we interviewed were not responsible for identifying their initial research topics nor the outline structure of their intended study. This task had been accomplished by the supervisor who assumed full responsibility for the identification of projects and attracting necessary funding. Thus the assignment of thesis topics to students is part of their experience of pedagogic continuity. Many of the students' accounts of their work in the laboratory sciences are couched in terms of problems and projects being determined for them. They construct research problems that arise from the research programmes of the laboratory, the research group or the group leader. They are not necessarily derived initially from a personal commitment or personal relationship with the topic of their research. For example, Antonia Viera at Forthamstead said of the topic given to her, 'It was a definite topic. The research project was fairly set out when I arrived and it had an outline to it and how it was theoretically supposed to go'. Her project had not proceeded according to plan, however, partly Antonia suggested because, 'I'd come from America and had very little lab experience'. A Baynesholme student, Karl Gunderson, told us, 'Professor Gantry tells me what experiments to do, and other people in the lab show me how to do them.' Karl went on to say that when he was offered his PhD topic, 'It wasn't an area I was interested in before but I'm very interested in it now'.

The students expect the supervisor to choose a manageable project, and to alert them if it is going seriously wrong and needs to be changed. For example Alma Strottle, at Ribblethorpe, said:

It's a very new technology, very new technology, its been done by one other lab. I'm taking it and using it for something quite big really, and they've been using it on a very small scale. So whether I can get the technology to work is another matter. I'm aware that it is going to be difficult. Dr Dewry is aware that it's going to be difficult, and he's got a kind of thing up his sleeve if, in a year's time, I'm still not getting anywhere. So at the end of the day I kind of know I'm going to get a PhD even if it's not exactly what it should be on.

Similarly Elissa Tyrone at Baynesholme believed: 'If things go really wrong, keep going wrong, then your supervisor should make you change what you're doing.'

These women are biochemists, but the physical geographers and earth sciences students spoke the same way:

But at the time I applied for Ottercombe there were actual research objectives written by the two supervisors. So it was all more or less set was a very interesting project actually, the more I got into it the more I found out how really interesting it is and the potential it has within its own subject is quite large. (Leo Gilligan, Earth Sciences, Ottercombe).

It's been drummed into you that its interesting so you believe its interesting. I need pushing in some direction because I'm not the best judge, at this stage, which direction I should go in...they'll tell me if its practical or not. (Ben Safford, Geography, Tolleshurst)

You've got to be a very exceptional person to come up with your own project. Normally the idea is the supervisor's which he knows is feasible - he knows it has the potential to be a PhD. I feel that X supervises very well because he always knows if it's on the rails. (Jim Vorhees of Tolleshurst)

Research students thus expressed their commitment to a particular research topic as something that was derived from external sources, rather than in terms of a personal choice or commitment. One can characterise their academic identities, loyalties and commitments in terms of ascribed positions, in contrast to the more personalised identities of research students in the social sciences. The research students undoubtedly found personal commitment and identity out of the work that had been allocated to them, but the initial source of such identification was externally derived.

Doctoral students in the social sciences have experienced a different enculturation at undergraduate level, and come to doctoral level with a contrasting position. Independent thought, and criticism of the dominant scholars in the field has been rewarded throughout the first degree. The PhD student in social science has to take personal responsibility for his or her own work. This implies a more intellectually equal relationship with the supervisor, which causes uncertainties and isolations. There is a fine line between independence, isolation and disorientation for the student. The following two supervisors are extreme examples of the style:

I don't feel that one should be poking one's nose into a student's fieldwork. It's very much an independent business


My own personal feeling is that the student has got to be independent enough to make their own decisions.

When a project does not work, the supervisor: role is to advise, not change the project:

She spent a couple of years doing fieldwork, and eventually sent back one fieldwork report on the geology of the place...... She kept writing to say she was floundering and I kept writing to her to suggest angles of approach and she didn't seem to take them on.

Here supervisors explicitly place ownership of the research on the student, and see their role as essentially advisory, not managerial or, indeed, supervising. They are behaving like the members of a personal family: where achieved statuses are paramount, and social control is implicit and negotiated. The PhD student 'owns' his or her project, as an individual. Not only are any publications the student's own responsibility and property: the thesis may be the 'lifework'. In anthropology this is very common: Cowan is an expert on Sohos, Kenna on NISOS, Herzfeld on Glendi for life. However it is also the case in other disciplines, so that the doctoral thesis on transport in Balham gives a basis for reputation and expertise a decade later. Failing students in social science were those who did not thrive in the 'personal' research style. Our most disillusioned respondent recognised that:

'I realised just how much submerged knowledge there is'

'And nobody would tell me because, I got the impression, they all presumed I must know. If I'd come this far I must know.....I really couldn't get any response from anyone, even direct questions were met with a load of theoretical waffle'

'A lot of mistakes I've made are the result of me not asking questions and people not putting me right. They presume I must know'

'Nobody bothered to tell me and nobody has told me'

This candidate was an extreme case, in that he was articulate about the clash between the regime he expected and the reality he found.

The contrast between life in a positional culture (the science research group) and a personal one (the social science non-group) is starkly revealed in the ways writing up the thesis is discussed (or not discussed) by supervisors and students. For the scientists, as long as there are results to describe there is 'nothing to it' except following rules and getting it done. And because of the research group there has been more sharing of writing all along: colloquia debate texts, group members share 'writing up' and publishing. The style and format of writing, whether for a conference poster, an article or a thesis, are also much more clearly defined and more public. For the social scientist, writing is more personal, and more negotiable. Because 'the best work, the best texts, come out of very solid fieldwork' (Dr Fustian); the students have to be 'prepared to live with' the data they have collected when they write them up. Both the data collection and the writing up are 'tests' of the individual student's personal qualities. Being 'able to write' is an achieved status that the social scientist must work towards to gain the status of the full grown scholar.

Bernstein argued that personal and positional families were found in different sectors of society, drawing on different experiences of the labour market and serving to reproduce different sectors of it. Thus the old middle class reproduces itself through positional families, while the new middle class reproduces itself through the personal family. So too the various academic tribes reproduce themselves through positional and personal management systems for PhD students.

A Research Agenda

It is over ten years since the ESRC funded the programme of research on 'The Social Science PhD' (Burgess, 1994) and the Spencer Foundation funded its five nations study (Clark, 1993). In Britain the policy context has changed considerably, especially since the Harris Report (1996). There is a need for new research on a range of higher degree issues.

1. Humanities/Arts Disciplines

Although there is the survey done by Sandra Harris for UKCGE (2000), there is no social science research on MPhil/PhD research students and their supervisors in those disciplines. History was included in the five nation Spencer funded study (Clark, 1993; Becher, Henkel and Kogan, 1994), but there is no research on English, Ancient or Modern languages, or other arts and humanities disciplines. The establishment of the AHRB may or may not have changed the everyday lives of students and supervisors in these disciplines. As I write the BA and the AHRB are conducting enquiries into the area of graduate education: the lack of research base must be hampering both enquiries.

2. 'Vocational' Disciplines

There are few studies of the place of doctoral studies in disciplines such as social work, nursing, librarianship, agriculture, forestry, dentistry, medicine, architecture.......Why do people in such fields do graduate work? We do not know.

3. Professional Doctorates

There is now a range of 'professional' doctorates including the DClinPsych and the EdD. We have not yet done the research on these degrees that they deserve:

4. The Examination Process

Tinkler and Jackson (2000) are convinced that the examination process needs thorough investigation. There are severe ethical problems around studying real examination processes, but Tinkler and Jackson are correct to raise the need for investigations here.

5. Ethnographic Research

I argued at HECUI that while the UK had led the world in the number and quality of its ethnographies of schools and schooling (Delamont and Atkinson, 1995), there was a dearth of ethnographies of higher education settings. The few that exist are not well known. The UK needs studies such as Moffat (1990) and Holland and Eisenstadt (1990).

This document was added to the Education-line database on 04 June 2001