“You should write an empirical paper” – an interpretive reposte


I don’t regret the methodology of my research – agency-centred, bottom-up – because it can engage with the very actors who are often left out of political science. It can also engage with actors on their own terms, in their own words, whereas surveys (I argue) largely verify researchers’ deductive ideas. However this does not mean I’m immune to concern about how I’m positioned within the political science, the dominant thrust of which remains positivist, if not highly quantitative. When it comes to the big conferences of the discipline (e.g. APSA, MPSA) in my unrepresentative experience, 90-95% of papers given feature quantitative analysis. So, where are all the people doing qualitative research?

Perhaps they’re being convinced not to do it. I was recently advised to write or co-author an “empirical paper”. I retorted that I do write empirical papers, I have data, it’s qualitative data, it’s ethnographic data, and it’s certainly data! It was gathered through blood, sweat and tears. It was transcribed, translated and coded. It was then whipped together into chapters, which I’m iteratively revising.

What they meant was, I should write a quantitative paper, replete with regressions to show I’m not anti-quantitative (which, inherently, I’m not). My argument is different: I can’t trust existing sources of quantitative data in my cases. I don’t trust existing sources of quantitative data, whether censuses or citizenship statistics. They’re gathered both in highly politicised contexts (in both my cases, Moldova and Crimea) and by politicised, interest-driven kin-states (Russia and Romania) where the regime has an interest to collect a certain kind of data to fulfil a certain kind of state-building and/or nation-building project. If the gold standard of positivist data is objectivity, then using these sources of data falls extremely short of objectivity. Rather it tells us far more about regimes than it does about social actors within these regimes .

I’m also critical of surveys. Not least because I’ve done them and found them wanting but because they work, I argue, primarily to verify and test academic assumptions about the world. They’re not good at exploring the grey zone, or informal practices, or how things actually work. Which is why, I argue, the bottom-up, agency-centred perspective helps to get at aspects of politics that usually are difficult to capture.

So I don’t regret the methods I used. I think they generated interesting data but I wish I didn’t have to explain that it was data, meaning-rich, context-rich data, that can’t be reduced to numbers and regressed.

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.