Context convergence: Coming up with novel insights during final stages of the PhD process

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As she reflects on her successful PhD defence, Dr. Anouk Mols generously offered her experiences of and insights into the final stage of her PhD trajectory. She discusses some of the biggest challenges and opportunities that come with the synthesis of several years’ worth of research findings. And how the synthesis led to her big “aha moment” and the introduction of the term context convergence.

Let me take you back to early August 2021. On a rainy day (summer in the Netherlands), I was at a hair salon working on my dissertation draft while waiting for my hair to dry. My hairdresser asked me what I was working on, and I told her that my PhD research was finally coming to an end. As often the case, talking about my research about everyday experiences of privacy and surveillance invited my hairdresser to share her experiences. She told me how one of her customers streamed an online funeral while getting a haircut. This rather extreme example indicates how people can be present in physical and digital contexts simultaneously. My PhD research covers various contexts (neighbourhoods, workplaces, living rooms, and family homes), and it was not until the final stage of the trajectory that overarching themes became visible. More specifically, I compiled and edited the articles in my dissertation and suddenly realised that the collapsing of physical and digital contexts is important in all my studies. Hence, the example provided by my hairdresser ended up in the introductory chapter of my dissertation, and context collapse became a key concept in the conclusion.

Fast forward to December 8th, 2021. During my PhD defence, a question was posed about the impact of anytime, anyplace connectivity. My response focused on how constant connections and collapsed contexts affect well-being, experiences of presence, privacy expectations, and the managing of boundaries between social contexts. I emphasised how the existing concept of context collapse (as described by Alice Marwick and danah boyd, Jessica Vitak, and Jesper Pagh) is helpful but falls short in understanding the multidimensional nature of the communication practices of the respondents in my research. Later, the same opponent asked me if I could think of a better way to describe these processes of collapsing contexts. My response was spontaneous as I blurted out: “context convergence”.

A few days after my defence, I went back to this impulsively coined concept and defined it as follows: Context convergence entails the collapsing of digital audiences (as happens on social media or messaging apps where it can be difficult to differentiate between groups of contexts/audiences), the merging of digital and non-digital contexts (for example, when working from home takes partly place in digital spaces like Teams, Zoom, Slack, and OneDrive), and the blending of digital and physical contexts when someone is simultaneously present in digital and physical contexts (like the hair salon client attending an online funeral service or a teenager messaging with friends while at the family dinner table).

My experiences show that doing a PhD is not about carrying out the research that you have planned (or that is part of a project), but that it allows you to get fully immersed in a topic. Moreover, a PhD dissertation is more than the sum of things, more than just a compilation of different papers. It is the place where you will find surprising similarities and differences between cases, and where the knowledge you’ve gathered during your research will help you to highlight these in overarching conclusions. To me, wrapping up my research in a dissertation always seemed like a daunting task. However, it turned out to be an organic process wherein revisiting my research and relevant literature inspired me to come up with the introduction and conclusion. And the best thing is that at the end of the trajectory, when you are forced to synthesise your findings in sensible answers to questions during your defence ceremony, you might suddenly come up with novel concepts or new insights.

Portrait picture of Anouk Mols

About Anouk Mols

Anouk Mols is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the SPATIAL project about trustworthy AI at the Department of Media & Communication, ESHCC. Her research interests are neighbourhood watch WhatsApp groups, digital communication, smart technologies (such as smart speakers and smartphone assistants), family surveillance, and AI. For more information, you can follow her on Twitter.

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