The perpetuation of degree ceremonies

Wearden, Sandra and Hamilton, Mary and Saunders, Murray (2017) The perpetuation of degree ceremonies. PhD thesis, Lancaster University.

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Despite being able to trace their heritage back over eight hundred years, degree ceremonies have been taken for granted in higher education which is evident when attempting to find previous studies about them, yet there are indications this may be changing. As significant numbers of new higher education institutions open around the world, and more institutional collaborative partnerships are forged, how degree ceremonies are prepared, maintained, and performed has become a matter of concern for those involved. At the moment, with few studies to draw from, organisers and leaders in institutions are having to resolve how they arrange degree ceremonies through previous experience, or by trial and error. Hence, the focus of this research is on how these remarkably resilient ceremonial occasions are assembled and perpetuated over time and particularly during a period of global growth in higher education. Degree ceremonies are important to institutions not just because they provide a celebratory experience and rite of passage for graduating students, but also because as this study shows, they provide them with opportunities to publically display, and transmit their reputation, credentials and heritage to a wide range of stakeholders. This makes them fertile territory for research but contemporary studies have been rare. Those that have been produced emanate from the USA, and focus on challenges and effects large, lengthy ceremonies produce. Few studies have considered how these ceremonial occasions are assembled outside the UK, USA and Europe, or how material artefacts contribute to the construction of meaning and extension of ceremonies. Similarly, scant attention has been paid to extensive preparation and maintenance work that goes on behind the scenes often hidden from view to most. Resting on a constructionist theory of knowledge, this inductive comparative case study draws on basic theoretical devices used in actor-network theory to foreground these matters. A variety of qualitative methods were used to collect data and a three stage analysis applied to examine degree ceremonies at four higher education institutions in the UK, one of which has collaborative institutional partnerships in the UK, and overseas. The analysis provides insight into social and material actants involved in ceremonies, and how their relations with others intensify effects of institutional authority and hierarchy. Material actants are shown to be involved in the extension, stabilisation and adaptability of degree ceremonies over time and space. By making visible preparation and maintenance work that goes into degree ceremonies, this study highlights the culturally situated nature, fragility, dynamism, adaptability and vulnerability of these highly ordered events, which are so often viewed as consistent, fixed and stable. There is evidence too of how degree ceremonies are being increasingly used by institutions for marketing purposes as they are drawn into a global competitive ‘reputation race’. In this progressively competitive and fragmented global context the western model of degree ceremony being perpetuated helps to sustain and project a collective image of higher education. It does so by connecting higher education institutions with the rich heritage of the past, capturing the present, and alluding to future ceremonies to come. In doing so, degree ceremonies reinforce the heritage, authority and credentials of higher education as a sector, whilst at the same time provide individual institutions with opportunities and choices about how to build their own distinct institutional reputation.

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Thesis (PhD)
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16 Aug 2019 13:15
Last Modified:
05 Jun 2024 23:42