From Researching to Teaching Qualitative Methods: what I’ve learnt from the bottom-up

I’ve just finished a 10 week qualitative methods course, a basic how and what introduction to the basics of doing qualitative research in political science for a generic MA-level audience. It was challenging, not least because it followed a quantitative methods course – in the ongoing battle between quant and qual, which may be imagined and farcical but certainly is a battle that feels real – it’s harder when you have to pick up off where quant left off, beginning from the basics for an audience that already thinks cross-national regressions is what’s expected of them in political science.

However, it was also very rewarding. I’ve taught comparative politics, nationalism and other things related and not to my research. But I’ve never taught anything where my personal, direct field experiences have been so useful. I suddenly had an audience for all my mess ups, and an audience to tell – don’t do it this way! (I had an audience too for my successes, but this was less funny) I had an audience that enjoyed my silly anecdotes about designing a survey where I asked people to “describe their ethnicity”. The point was to encourage people to identify how they wanted to rather from my subscribed categories. This plan backfired wholly when I got the response “pleasant” and “fine”, when what I was looking for was, you know, “Russian” or “Romanian”. I promptly gave up surveys after this, wanting a format to be able to interact with my respondents (and challenge them about the how and why of their responses) and haven’t looked back since…

I have another audience: an audience to make heart-felt recommendations about the books that helped me feel a sense of belonging to a discipline that, when I started, felt wholly foreign. For me, that book is Political Ethnography by Schatz et al.. Looking back to first PhD year, it was this book 100% that made me want to continue. Political ethnography jelled with how I saw the world; it made sense, in a way that variable-centred-ways of thinking (a la KKV, Designing Social Inquiry) did not, and probably never will. I was interested in meanings and experiences and it was Schatz and his co-authors that made me feel I could try to do the same. And now I have an audience to explain the battle I’ve encountered in realising I have to pre-empt the question of whether my research is “representative”. Of course it isn’t and that’s not how a 50 interview based study should be judged.

But as much as books helped me belong, it was by doing that I really learnt what was interesting, what was research and what I would do differently. This was then another rewarding aspect: an opportunity to invest in the lives of others by facilitating them to learn qualitative methods by doing. Whether it was an ethnographic experiment, encouraging them to do participant-observation and field-note taking in class, or an interview experiment, my fellow teachers and I were committed to showing students how to do it, and how to question the methods, not just discuss the vast literature. I learnt stuff too – I learnt that blogging might be a really good way to take field-notes in the future, I learnt that you can’t please or convince everyone about interpretivism or post-structuralism, because that’s not how everyone sees the world. But, when students say events happen, you can retort “well, Baudrillard said the first gulf war didn’t happen” in a ridiculous call to arms of – how do you know anything happens? My job, then, is not to convince but to encourage reflexivity (i.e. challenging their own assumptions, position and influence/impact on what they’re researching).

There’s still a question that perplexes me, and I hope by the time I next teach qualitative methods that I’ll have a better response. It’s the issue that comes up time and again about whether ethnography is just “journalism” or “storytelling” (honestly, this comes up a lot). How do you convince people that ethnography is not just description but hard-core analysis? I’m working on developing a response. I know it’s about systematisation and being rigorous, but I still don’t think “they” are convinced, and that’s my job.


Crimea referendum – our experts react: Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago

This short piece was originally posted on EUROPP following the Crimean referendum in March 2014.

Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago. Then it was a relatively stable and peaceful multinational peninsula, with a growing post-Soviet generation who saw themselves as politically affiliated with Ukraine. Today it is an emerging frozen conflict with a referendum declaring high turnout and high support for joining the Russian Federation. Men are able to sign up to self-appointed militia and dissenters are penalised. The week before the referendum, there were reports of kidnappings of those connected to Euromaidan networks, abuse of journalists and the impression that for those not supporting joining Russia, this was their last opportunity to protest.

This is also not South Ossetia, Transnistria or Kosovo. What has occurred in Crimea is unique, involving a much larger population than previous frozen conflicts and a Russian naval base. While I have already seen reports from friends that they would not like to stay in a Russian Crimea long term, the message from Crimean Tatars is that this is their legitimate home and one which they will not leave again, as they were forced to in 1944.

What is equally alarming is that Crimea is not a self-sustaining peninsula, dependent on Ukraine for gas supplies, fresh water and rail and road transportation links to Russia, excluding those via sea. I would be concerned also about a potential struggle that might arise between the Crimean separatist administration and Russian Federation, concerning their ideas about what Crimea’s autonomous status might look like in whatever comes next.