Once you have observed something, once you have interviewed somebody, how do you get from this pile of data to a compelling research report? Today's blog sums up the gist of a lecture I recently gave on this issue as part of my field methods teaching at SIT Study Abroad. It looks at four stages in turn: explorative analysis, draft writing, confirmative analysis and editing. These stages are, of course, most likely circular activities, through which you go back and forth until you a) arrive at a decent report or b) simply run out of time. Which is the chief reason why it is advisable to start the circle as soon as possible, not letting the pile of data become so scaringly tall in the first place...

The following are notes from a lecture on fieldwork in conflict settings which I delivered last week at the School for Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad (my other lecture in Pakistan by the way resembled this talk, thus no separate notes). I am thankful for the invitation and the engaging discussion with fellow PhD candidates and MPhil students; some of the points they raised are included below.

Before I begin, however, a brief explanation of the picture for today's post: this ambiguously dapper and nonetheless threateningly armed fellow is depicted on the cover of Faisal Devji's highly recommended essay on terrorism and humanitarianism;1 it was originally collected by Thomas Dworzack in Kabul in 2001 (see here). Why do I put it here? Mainly because the picture is a good reminder that social scientists should do their best to refrain from the ready temptation to render those we dislike (such as violent Taliban) as the ultimate and essential other (forgetting, for instance, the same Talibans' aesthetic desires, which they share with all other human beings). Which, of course, leads straight into the thick of my lecture. Here you go:

Good research rests on good questions: on good research questions, good interview questions - and good questions about questions. It is these latter ones, the meta-level ones, that I attempted to collect for today's post. I tried some of them with the students I tought and advised this spring; some more occured to me while reading their final papers.1 Whether you ask these questions about your own project or pose them to students: I believe they work best if answered in only one concise sentence each. Give it a try:

First step: finding an empirical puzzle and a research question (I am deliberately not talking "topics" here, since research built primarily around a topic rather than around "questions" and "puzzles" tends to be not as good)

1. Which incident or reading inspired your research idea?

2. What exactly puzzled you about this incident or reading?

3. What larger issue is that puzzle an example of?

4. Which questions does this puzzle put on the agenda?

5. Which of these questions do you want to answer?

6. How would an hypothetical sample answer look like?

  • 1. One of the joys of teaching this term was the chance to see actual (if small) research projects through from start to finish - a rare chance before you are tenured and have your own research students. Thanks to all of you students (and the staff at SIT New Delhi) for this opportunity!

This post concludes the tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 It addresses several issues faced by foreigners who do research in India (or elsewhere) as opposed to domestic scholars who research their own culture - and simultaneously problematizes this terminology. The lecture moves from the practical to the conceptual, picking four potential trouble areas: language, field relations, othering, and categories. The remaining posts of this series are here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

  • 1. More on this class here...

This post is the second in a tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 Before Azim Khan spoke about interviewing in more practical detail in the second half of our lecture, I framed the practical issues he raised by looking at the difference between research questions and interview questions. This post sums up my key points from this framing exercise; the rest of the series is here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

Let's first look at today's picture, taken at one of my earlier attempts to interview Maulana Khaled Rashid in Lucknow. All the practicalities are sorted: tea is being served, the Hadith commentaries provide a nice background, cameras and mikes are set up (the latter are not mine, of course - it was the time of the Salman Rushdie controversy, and I had to share my appointment with a dozen journalists). But the central piece is missing: the Maulana, with whom I hoped to have a conversation.

  • 1. More on this class here; this particular lecture (namely its emphasis on the advantage of clear epistemological bases) was inspired by Roulston, K, DeMarrais, K, Lewis, JB. (2003). Learning to interview in the social sciences. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4), 643–668.