One of the pleasures of Islamabad is to shop at Saeed Book Bank; and part of that pleasure is to marvel at the idiosyncratic filing approach through which they organize their offers: you find sound scholarly studies next to dusty volumes of oriental British officers, you find the latest epistemological critique of Hadith exegesis next to coffee-table selections of the "true sayings of the Prophet". What I found, among all this, is Sadaf Ahmad's study of Al-Huda and upper-class urban Pakistani women.1Much of what she wrote chimed well with my own project in Lucknow, but these lines in particular stuck (12f):

Rubina, whom I had known most of my life, listened as I told her about my research plans, and then quietly informed me that she had joined Al-Huda the month before. The time I spent in Islamabad was the time Rubina took the one-year diploma course there, which allowed me to get a very close look at the process she went through over time and to see what changes the Islam she learned about and engaged with at Al-Huda brought to her ideology, her behavior, and her relationships. one of the relationships that changes was our own. She was the only "subject" I allowed myself to argue with freely.

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:

This post will be very brief: after finally sorting out our Pakistan visas, we are in Lahore today, and among other things busy celebrating the Urs (annual pilgrimage) of Miran Badshah at Wazir Khan Masjid (see the picture). Whatever time and energy the Pir does not consume is eaten up by conversations with our lovely hosts or simply by the torching heat of pre-monsoon Punjab. I will be back with more extensive stories (and lecture notes - after all, this is a work trip) from next week onwards when we return to Lucknow and hope you excuse me til then - there is so much to see and hear and feel here, that I want to enjoy it without thinking of the blog for a while...

I always thought I were dependent on my high-tech equipment for fieldwork, but it turns out the low-tech is as important. Low-tech as in: running water and decent power supply. Both of which turned quite sketchy over the last days - forcing me to while away my time in the shady trees around Rifah-e-Aam, temporarily suspending thinking, not to speak of doing interviews or, God forbid, writing stuff. I can't even write blog posts, at least not about my topic. But I have plenty to say on other electricizing issues (does that expression exist in English? It does in German anyway). Here is my week's rant:

It all began when the summer heat turned above 45 degrees celsius. Reason enough for some thunder and lightning we thought - till we realized that the lightning occured between our AC outdoor unit and the metal balcony grill. Impressive, loud and bright - and, subsequently, hot within the flat and smoky outside. The electrician put in a new cable, fitted with tesa© tape, a high-tech German engineering product as he keenly pointed out. Just to be on the safe side, I later replaced the defunct tripping fuse as well - he rather opted to rely on his rubber-feet sandals and the many charms around his neck. Which could explain the short life expectancy of Indian electricians, and in turn the mediocre quality of service (and yes, I know this is a spurious circular argument - even in 45 degrees, I can think that much).

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!