My Research Explained to Practitioners

 

The other day I had the pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk on my research to WaterAid staff. I am collaborating with WaterAid on my doctoral research looking at NGOs’ moral legitimacy and applied ethics. Have a watch and let me know what you think!

Robyn Waite (Nov. 8, 2016)

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Is David Silverman Right? Are philosophical concepts moot points for qualitative researchers? I think not.

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Back in 2006, in his book Interpreting Qualitative Data, David Silverman argued that foundational philosophical concepts of qualitative research were unhelpful as they were unnecessary for the empirical task at hand. To quote, he says “I have lost count of the run of the mill qualitative research papers I have come across which find it necessary to define their work in terms of obscure philosophical positions such as phenomenology or hermeneutics. You will not find either of these terms in the glossary of this book for one simple reason. In my view, you do not need to understand these terms in order to carry out good qualitative research. Indeed, if you try to understand them, my guess is that you will not emerge from the library for many years” (2006, p. 7). While he might have a point, it is easy to go down a philosophical rabbit hole, let me tell you why you should steer clear of this advice.

From my perspective, there is no such thing (or should be no such thing) as purely empirical qualitative research – especially in the social sciences. A researcher does not create knowledge by merely recounting observation and experience, observations and experiences must also be interpreted, and this interpretation is critical to the production of meaning. Precisely the subjectivity of the social world and the nature of qualitative research being interpretive makes the philosophical concepts Silverman discredits as unnecessary, all the more necessary!

Because social reality is quite subjective, qualitative researchers are part and parcel of the research project, and cannot completely objectively separate themselves from their data. This is a hard truth qualitative researchers should recognize. However, of course social science researchers can (and should) make efforts to limit their subjectivity throughout the research project…and this is where self-reflection and theory grounded in phenomenology and hermeneutics comes in. Phenomenology sets the scene for thinking about qualitative research as an anti-positivist practice by emphazising it’s interpretive nature and the many influences on the construction of meaning, while hermeneutics provides the theory and method for interpreting the social world.

Because I view the social world as quite subjective, and social science research as largely an interpretive practice, my research is quite unstructured and inductive in nature, and throughout my research I will be prioritizing processes of reflection. Knowing that I play a role in the construction of my interpretations means that descriptions of why I made interpretations, and in what context, forms a part of my data. This also allows me to self-check for biases. In the dissemination of my findings, I will be equally reflective. I find it entertaining that Silverman complains about research papers defining their work in philosophical positions. To me, such information is necessary for the interpretation of a piece. As a reader, I engage in a process of interpreting the interpreter of the research. As such, in order to understand the piece, and make fair and informed judgements, I need information on the epistemological and ontological position of the researcher.

As you may have gathered, Silverman and I disagree from epistemological and ontological positions (the slides below from the University of Amsterdam Qualitative Research Methods MOOC provide a good overview of the different types of positions out there). Silverman leans more towards natural science methods as appropriate for the creation of social knowledge, and upholds a researchers ability to objectively study the social world. I on the other hand, view social science research as an inherently interpretive practice, and perceive social reality to be continually evolving by, and amongst social actors. By saying he cares little about phenomenology and hermeneutics, Silverman is merely asserting and rejecting certain epistemological and ontological positions.

Without an understanding (or at least an awareness) of the hermeneutic-phenomenological tradition, social scientists are at risk of blindly subscribing to positivist leaning schools of thought. While to each their own, all researchers should be aware of the different approaches in their field of study. Not only for the sake of knowledge of topics of debate, but also so that they can carve out for themselves what type of research approach best suits their topic and interest. Alan Bryman’s popular textbook  “Social Research Methods” provides a comprehensive overview of the different approaches. I recommend all new social researchers grab a copy.

– Robyn Waite (Oct. 26, 2016)

Slides are from Week One of the University of Amsterdam Qualitative Research Methods MOOC . This is a really great and FREE online course – I highly recommend it.

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Just starting a PhD? Here are my Top Tips for Breezing through 1st Year

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Are you just starting a PhD in the UK? Here are my top tips for kicking your studies into high gear right off the bat. Note that some of these tips I didn’t necessarily do my self. Looking back on year 1 however, I sure as heck wish I did.

  1. Start reading ASAP & enjoy the time you have now to read in depth – The first few months of your PhD should predominantly be spent reading. Don’t worry about starting to write too early in the game. To make yourself feel better, perhaps tell yourself that you will start writing XXX date, but until then its all about hitting the stacks. Enjoy this time, for once you start writing and collecting data, it seems like there is not enough time to read everything on your list, and you will dream of the days when you had what seemed all the time in the world to read.
  2. Read critically and take notes – everything you read you should be reading critically. This means that you should be asking questions as you read, making interesting links between your readings and existing knowledge, and disagreeing with / challenging the author from time to time. As these critical experiences happen, make sure you make note. I started off by writing my questions, thoughts, or disagreements in the margins of my book or article. Retrospectively, I wish I would have done this more cleverly from the get go. Now I keep a diary of readings where I jot down my notes as I go. This way everything I ever thought while reading the text is in one place and easily accessible for the future. Trust me, it’s annoying having to flip through an entire book at a later date to try to find your notes.
  3. Catalogue and save your readings systematically – It is essential to keep good track of all your readings. To do this you might want to use a reference management software. My school encouraged the use of Zotero (it’s free). From my experiences of trial and error, it is good for creating a catalogue of your readings, but pretty crap with in-text citation (it crashed loads and corrupted my word doc). I ended up using it to keep track of my readings, and for creating my final bibliography for my upgrade paper. You can make folders so I just added every reference cited in my paper to a folder, manually did my in-text citations (I discovered this to be a good way of working, it wasn’t time intensive as I cited as I wrote and it made me learn my authors and double check my references), and had the software create a bibliography from the folder once I was done writing. One more tip on this, if you are saving article pdfs to your computer, name them by the author last name and publication date (i.e. Waite, 2016). At first I saved by title of the paper, which proved very unhelpful in finding papers once I got to know my authors. You will likely go back to the same paper over and over again and will recall author, not title.
  4. Talk to people (especially your supervisor) – Don’t be shy about talking to people about your research. Reach out to academics that might have an interest in your topic and suggest a chat over coffee. The more people you talk about your research the better, and people are usually receptive to having interesting informal chats with motivated young researchers. Also, make sure you get to know your supervisor ASAP. You will want to have a sense of their working style, expectations, and interests sooner than later (talking to some of their current students might be helpful here). This way you can manage your work and communication with them accordingly and limit experiences of conflict.
  5. Stay cool, calm, and collected – You will likely feel lost and confused most of the year. This is normal and to be expected. If you aren’t lost and confused, you likely aren’t reading widely enough. Find peace in knowing that this is part of the process and an indicator of being on the right track. Don’t panic.

Hope these little tips prove helpful. I wish someone would have told me some of these things last year this time.

Robyn Waite (October 13, 2016)

Elon Musk says we’re a Simulation 😱 Here’s why I think the Genius is Wrong

“The odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions…tell me what’s wrong with that argument”

Elon Musk put this to the audience at the Code Conference this past June. No one made a counter argument (in fact, no one does when he makes the same statement and challenge here). Perhaps we all think he is a little too genius to disagree with? Well that attitude will stifle progress so let me take up the challenge.

My first refute to Musk is that he presents no argument – only a hypothesis. Minor detail aside, from what Musk has said on this topic publicly, he is basing his hypothesis solely on the world that he is currently experiencing. He is assuming that within every simulation, and in this theoretical “base reality”, a human like species exists, starts at a similar level of intelligence, and has the same trajectory of advancement. If this is the case, then theoretically, the human like species that exist across simulations will all have the potential to one day transcend consciousness (we have now come to recognize this potential in ourselves), and thus, we are likely one of these simulations.

Now, treading the line of assumption that simulated worlds roughly mirror one another, I can already poke a few holes in Musk’s theory. Fair – given current trends in technological advancements, the probability of us one day reaching the ability to transcend is high, but there is also the probability of humans going extinct before such endeavours are successful. If we do go extinct before then, the foundation of Musk’s theory is shaky, brining into question whether or not any other human like species has survived long enough to transcend. Actually, if we retain the assumption that all simulated worlds roughly mirror one another, we really have an either or scenario on our hands. With the crux of the argument coming down to a race against time, and having limited evidence to suggest which will happen first, to me it seems too early to make a firm hypothesis like Musk.

Prof. Nick Bostrom of Oxford, who pioneered the “simulation argument” in 2003, presents a stronger argument than Musk precisely because he takes into account this race against time (and a tad human nature). Given a few clearly outlined assumptions, Bostrom’s argument presents three potential realities of equal probability – (1) no human species has ever survived long enough to successfully transcend, (2) if a species has survived and transcended they are unlikely to run simulations of their evolutionary history, and (3) we are currently living in a simulated world. Bostrom notes in his work that the argument he presents does not start from a position of doubt. This is important because it means that the argument has strong internal validity, while likely having weak external validity. This brings me to my outward looking critiques of both arguments.

Firstly, I reject the assumption that all simulated worlds mirror one another. Given the diversity that exists in our experienced world, I would be inclined to assume that even if all simulated worlds had a human like species present, and started at the same level of intelligence, trajectories of advancement would be starkly different. Diversity is known to be crucial to the success of eco-systems, both across and within. I really don’t think starting from a position of making assumptions based on select experiences of our world (technological advancements),  while ignoring others (diversity in eco-systems), is a valid starting point for this argument.

This brings me to a critique of traditional styles of thinking. We have been conditioned to think rationally, and both Musk and Bostrom are doing just that. One of my fav philosophers David Hume rightfully saw the biggest constraint on the search for truth to be staying true to our experiences of the world. My reaction to Musk’s hypothesis is no shit. He lives for technological advancements. For him, it really is the most logical explanation. As an academic, Bostrom recognizes that his unique expertise allowed him to make this inference in the first place. To he himself (in the context of his work and knowledge) it was a logical argument to present. So both Musk and Bostrom are not only staying true to current global experiences of technological advancement, but also quite specifically to their individual experiences. Many relevant theories and fields of studies are currently not engaged critically with this argument. So ultimately, the simulation argument is just another argument that will evolve and grow in complexity over time.

Humans logically have an obsession with rationality and causation. We want to be able to explain and understand our experiences. But the truth of the matter is that we do not live in a rational world (I would argue that we have more than enough evidence to support this claim), so perhaps we should start to accept that rational thought can only take us so far. From my perspective, our searches for truth lead us to the best answers in a any given moment, but honestly, we will never find truth. Our knowledge as a species is constantly evolving, with each finding leading us towards more unknowns. Therefore, the only position I can come to grips with in this argument, is that we can’t rule out the possibility of us being a simulation (this takes us back to the traditional “brain in a vat” paradox within philosophy). It is however, just one possibility.

The odds that we’re in a simulation is one in billions…tell me what’s wrong with that argument.

Robyn Waite (September 5, 2016)

 

 

Dear mom and dad: My Research Explained (in case you aren’t sure what I am doing with my life)

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I was home to Canada this past July and realized that my mother, father, sister, and best-friend had no idea what I was researching (don’t worry guys I have a hard time figuring it out myself). For all our sake – here is my attempt at clarifying what my work is all about.

Important research framing to keep in mind while reading…

Before we get started it is important to note that my research focuses on Northern International Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGOs) seeking long term poverty alleviation goals.

Also note that my research primarily brings a moral philosophy lens to analysis. I intentionally distinguish between the terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ in my research. Morals are established notions of what is right (or good), whereas ethics is the practical application of established morals. Without ethics, morals can lack meaning in practice and analysis.

Now onto my research…

I argue that NGOs main source of legitimacy is morally derived. Their perceived moral nature has fostered the development of public trust, as well as facilitated an ability to speak with authority, to secure a committed workforce, and attract diverse donors. Because NGOs’ legitimacy is primarily morally derived, their existence and practice is most logically supported by, and judged according to, what we would call, moral norms.

Historically, the mere assumption of an NGO as a moral actor was enough to secure legitimacy for operating in the space of international development. However, claiming moral legitimacy is no longer good enough – claims must be evidenced. This presents threats to NGOs’ legitimacy as there is an increasing body of empirical literature, as well as a prominent discourse of critique, raising concerns around whether or not NGOs live up to their moral norms in practice. These moral norms include normative understandings of good practice widely accepted across the sector, as well as NGOs stated values (e.g. see WaterAid, ActionAid, and Oxfam values). In order to strengthen and defend claims to legitimacy, NGOs must now be able to demonstrate that they apply these moral norms in practice.

And here presents the problem – NGO moral norms are currently not well understood. This is not surprising given limited engagement between fields of philosophy and development studies (particularly from an applied ethics and NGO perspective). Denis Goulet (pioneer of the emerging field of study Development Ethics) recognizes that “ethicists were late arrivals on the stage of development studies” (p. 5). And, as a result, I uphold that the NGO sector currently has well established morals, but is lacking the much needed ethics for bringing them into practice and under analysis.

This is what my research is all about – attempting to develop an understanding of what moral norms mean in the context of NGO development practice. I am essentially looking at how moral norms are used by the NGO at an institutional level (both internally and externally), and how NGO staff understand and apply moral norms in their day to day practice.

As already laid out, my research clearly holds significance for NGOs’ legitimacy – until we have a thorough understanding of NGOs’ morality in action, legitimacy will remain threatened. Because NGOs’ legitimacy is specifically moral in nature, my research also holds significance for NGOs’ applied ethics – understanding moral norms in practice is a crucial first step towards developing a level of applied ethics.

Not surprisingly, emerging literature demonstrates applied ethics to be essential for seeing moral norms fulfil their intended purpose. Therefore, moving beyond operating at a level of abstract morality to applied ethics is also in the interest of aid effectiveness. Not only this, applied ethics has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to promote ethical practice throughout sectors by improving problem solving within moral dilemmas, balancing asymmetrical relationships, and mitigating risks of decision making. AND, applied ethics might be particularly welcomed by NGOs for use in pushing back against donor requests that clearly undermine their ability to uphold moral norms in practice. Sadly I see mega-donors as a mega threat to NGOs’ moral legitimacy, and I want NGOs to have tools to protect their autonomy.

Michael Edwards recently wrote that “the moral energy and clarity of purpose that marked NGOs early years has largely disappeared”. NGOs really need to get back to, and start understanding, their moral roots – not least to strengthen and protect their legitimacy, improve aid effectiveness, promote ethical practice, and gain leverage in negotiations with mega-donors – but to maintain relevance in the sector. Increasingly having to compete with “other” actors in development, NGOs will need to start articulating what makes them different. Ultimately, what distinguishes NGOs from other actors in development comes back to morality. Hopefully my research can play some small part in equipping NGOs with the knowledge and tools needed to stay the course of their moral cause.

Robyn Waite (August 30, 2016)

Uncertainty, Isolation, & Adventure: Reflections from my 1st year of Doctoral School

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I recently completed my first year of doctoral school at SOAS in International Development Studies. It was an interesting year to say the least. It was filled with feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and adventure.

Apparently it is the norm for first year students to feel like they have no idea what they are doing. And trust me – that is how I felt most of the year. I felt seriously lost and confused. At first this made me angry and nervous. However, I came to realise that the uncertainty of it all was the point. The first stage of any independent study is to read, read, and read some more (all with a critical and reflect eye of course). If you are reading correctly you should feel confused, that is part of the process of strengthening your understanding of the topic. So despite my many break downs and WTF moments, I was accomplishing something, I was learning and developing my research project. To all those about to start a PhD – embrace the uncertainty…and don’t freak out (too much).

Now, isolation on the other hand is hard to embrace. Coming from the Canadian education system, I started my studies in the UK with expectations of frequently having stimulating discussions with peers over drinks in the pub, and feeling a part of a richly diverse student community. Sadly, my expectations were not met and I found myself quite lonely and craving opportunities for peer review. I have come to realise that my expectations of PhD life were guided by a different culture of academia.

In Canada, it takes most students between 5 – 7 years to complete a PhD. Students embark their studies having to do at least a year of core course work, which includes 3 graduate courses a term. Essentially, the Canadian system assumes you do not have the needed theoretical foundation to complete your doctorate. Thus, they ensure you acquire it. In contrast, the UK system assumes you have the theoretical foundation to be successful in your degree, and thus, does not mandate course work (although you are encouraged to audit classes). In the Canadian system, doctoral students must also be teaching assistants (TAs) throughout the entire course of their studies, while in the UK, such positions are limited and highly competitive; some students will never TA.

These differences in the culture of academia make for stark contradictions in the schools role in student’s social life. In Canada, I would have been on campus most days, had my own office on site, and forced to engage with all sorts of students. I would have literally been embedded in the student body. In the UK, many doctoral students work off campus and have little engagement with the school or their peers. It’s isolating man. I was lonely a lot of the time.

There is some good news though – if you are starting a PhD and are a social butterfly who values peer review like me – you can embark on many adventures to engage your peers. To be honest, I didn’t try my darndest during my first year. I could have gone to more seminars, been in the Research Student Association (RSA) office asking what the heck was up, or worked on campus daily. I did however initiate a student led seminar series in my program. It was initially like pulling teeth to get people to participate, but in the end, it showed value and people took part. A colleague and I are going to kick it off with enthusiasm this year. I am also getting involved with setting up a PubhD in London (remember Phd chats in the pub are my jam so this should be a good fit). Lastly, the RSA at SOAS has just created some critical new posts for boosting student social activities.  “Events Officer” – here I come (well I shall apply and see what happens). Being willing and able to engage in a diversity of opportunities for amping up student peer review is exciting!

All in all it was good year. Despite struggling with feelings of uncertainty and isolation it was an adventure. I came to appreciate and understand the uncertainty, and made strides towards alleviating my feelings of isolation. Going into my second year I feel better prepared to create the student experience I am craving. I charge all my fellow doctoral students to do the same – the beauty of doing a PhD in the UK is it’s flexibility. Create yours!

-Robyn Waite

August 11, 2016