Seeking the single thread: The conceptual quest

Feng SU, Jon NIXON, Robert Damian ADAMSON

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapters


This chapter focuses on how research works as a process of interpretive enquiry. It argues that research is necessarily a heuristic endeavour, the outcomes of which cannot be prespecified. When we ask open questions, we cannot presume to know the answers. The practice of interpretive enquiry requires patience, a waiting mind, a kind of stillness: dispositions that are difficult to acquire. We outline this line of argument in the opening section. The central section is concerned with a specific case: how do we begin to frame questions regarding the experience of students of Chinese origin in an English university that has its own complicated history of institutional development? We build this chapter around that central story of intellectual discovery and conceptualisation. The final section – attempting to weave the various strands into a single thread – returns to the indeterminacy of enquiry. What, under such epistemological circumstances, constitutes a beginning? The co-authors of this paper are colleagues. Jon and Bob also supervise Feng’s doctoral study and together we collaborate on projects that have an international dimension. For example, we are currently working on a comparative study of institutional repositioning within the higher education sector. Recently, we have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about how to conceptualise the learning experiences of Chinese undergraduates studying within the UK higher education system: the subject of Feng’s doctoral thesis. We tell the story of this extended conversation in the central section of this chapter, but first we need to reflect on how we understand the relation between conceptualisation and interpretive enquiry. We argue that it is precisely this relation – this process of conceptualisation and mediation – that renders enquiry meaningful. Copyright © 2010 the contributors.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge doctoral student's companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences
EditorsPat THOMSON, Melanie WALKER
Place of PublicationNew York
ISBN (Electronic)9781136975141, 9780203852248, 0203852249
ISBN (Print)9780415484114, 0415484111, 9780415484121, 041548412X
Publication statusPublished - 2010


Su, F., Nixon, J., & Adamson, B. (2010). Seeking the single thread: The conceptual quest. In P. Thomson & M. Walker (Eds.), The Routledge doctoral student's companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences (pp. 85-95). New York: Routledge.


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