Dealing with confrontations

Steven Brown (Glasgow Caledonian University) reflects on a PhD defined by conflict.

No one told me that doing a PhD might increase my likelihood of getting into fights. But it did. For the longest time, when someone asked me what I do for a living, I was actually afraid to answer honestly.

When I started out doing my PhD some years ago now, I had a fairly strong grasp of what it was I wanted to achieve, and how I wanted to achieve it. At the very least, I had research questions and methodology in mind early on. But as my doctoral studies progressed, I found myself adapting constantly, to the point where it was unclear where best to go with my PhD. This happened because I had chosen to research a very loaded topic – digital music piracy (see my ‘New voices’ article at

Whether it be the pub, an airport or a conference, the moment I utter those three words I am confronted with people assuming that I am ‘anti-piracy’, questioning my integrity without even asking what the focus of my research is. It’s a topic that people are invested in (given it is so widespread), even if they have not taken the time to really think about it before. And that’s sort of the problem – people often rely on their beliefs.

When confronted with disconfirming evidence, people are capable of rationalising what they do not want to confront: as if being wrong about something was so terrible. As Shermer (2011) explains: ‘We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large... Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow’ (p.5). From experience, this certainly appears to be the case with digital music piracy.

I have given talks, for example, where it is clear that the audience all have widely different beliefs about digital piracy or file-sharing. Call it what you will. They can’t all be correct, says the quantitative researcher in me. But technically, if adopting qualitative lines of inquiry, then they can all be correct. And, there is value in doing so. It is very revealing. Subsequently, I have become more of a mixed-methods researcher, responding to the fact that I constantly encounter people who hold widely different beliefs. It is endlessly fascinating.

It is interesting then, when reflecting on my doctoral studies, that much of it was moulded not by my literature review or data collection, but my day-to-day life, going to concerts and pub quizzes in Glasgow. It has been a game-changing experience, not only encouraging me to adopt new perspectives on the world and how we experience it, but also in how I communicate with people about research. I now find myself trying harder to be persuasive, for one thing. Once upon a time I was naive enough to think that presenting people with truths was enough. But it isn’t. Routinely, I find myself having to dress things up in a different way to cater for different audiences and adapt what I am saying in different ways to maximise the impact.

Something that has become common with presentations is when I discuss the ‘prototypical music pirate’: a young male. Of all the many contentious areas of the literature to date, this is the least controversial. It keeps coming up time and time again, and is supported by theory. Yet, I will inevitably find myself responding to a young man who will claim, ‘I don’t do it’, as if I will then fall to pieces and rethink my thesis to take them into account.

And herein lies a major issue – people think they are exceptional, that they are unique and immune to being categorised as part of an ‘average’ something-or-other. I have also discovered that people will claim to know something you tell them as matter of fact, even when they have only just been presented with it for the first time. This is simply as it fits with their view of the world. Often, it does not. And it is tough to convince someone of something if they do not want to hear it.

The funny thing is that I rarely say anything exceptional or controversial. In fact, I am immensely satisfied that the research into the economic side of digital piracy has yielded no convincing results. Or put another way, for every article that claims piracy offsets legal sales, there are others that find the opposite. And then there are those which find no effect of any kind. It all averages out to ‘we don’t know’.

In my world, this is an acceptable response to a question, but most people I encounter are unsatisfied, and so isolate case studies of interest that support pro- or anti-piracy points of view.
I take comfort in Pinker (2014), who explains:

Just because something happened to you, or you read about it in the paper or on the Internet this morning, it doesn’t mean it is a trend… An event is a significant phenomenon only if it happens some appreciable number of times relative to the opportunities for it to occur, and it is a trend only if that proportion has been shown to change over time (p.303).

With this in mind, one of the biggest conclusions from my doctoral studies is how little the general population knows about how science works. And this is not a big surprise – would you spend $39.95 to access a PDF about a research project? Bear in mind also that it might very well be incomprehensible, and that you probably would not know where to find it in the first instance.

I try harder to put myself in other people’s shoes nowadays. When I do so, I am more forgiving of people who criticise me. Why should they listen to me?

I believe that science communication is at the heart of moving past this, and that resources such as The Conversation (where the general public can ask questions of the academic contributors) are an important step forward. Though MOOCs are in their infancy, I also think they represent the potential that the internet holds in fulfilling its true remit as a communication tool.

As an early-career researcher, it might be fanciful of me to engage in all of this, not yet burdened by the responsibilities that face full-time academic staff. But surely in a world of freedom of information requests and the like, it is all but a certainty that academics and the general public will find appropriate opportunities to interact and engage with another? As explained, I am indebted to the many friends and strangers I have spoken to over the years for enriching not only my thesis but my curious mind.

But I keep coming back to a really difficult consequence of doing a PhD in this area is dealing with people treating me like some kind of government agent! When I discuss research findings, I am simply discussing research findings. I am not personally attacking individuals. Nevertheless, people take it very personally. I have never been on a course on how to deal with things like that, but I wish I had. More than the missing data, corrupt files or ethical delays, the fear of confrontation has been the biggest barrier to progressing through my PhD.

Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. London: Allen Lane.
Shermer, M. (2011). The believing brain. New York: Times Books.

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