In solidarity with SOAS support staff: Rally Speech – November 24, 2017

I had a blast speaking at a rally on campus last week in solidarity with SOAS support staff. Although it has been more work than expected, I am learning heaps from being in the Post Graduate Research Officer role and President of the Research Students’ Association on campus. While at times it can be frustrating and discouraging to see policies developed in such a haphazard way, diplomacy and dialogue are critical to moving forward constructively. Here’s to not only influencing specific policies on campus, but to facilitating the development of community norms that will benefit the institution as a whole.

In an attempt to being as accessible as possible, here is the speech in written form.

My name is Robyn Waite and I am the Post Graduate Research Officer and President of the Research Students’ Association (also known as the RSA).

To be honest this has been my first experience really engaging with campus politics. When I started in this role I had no idea I would be fighting so hard to put out fires and to have our voices heard. My default assumption was that the Senior Management would approach decision making sensibly – consulting stakeholders on decisions that affect them, ensuring transparency, and coming to thoughtful decisions having done essential research. I’ve been surprised and deeply disappointed that this not the case. Let me give you one recent example from the research student perspective.

Last week, we received an email from the School introducing a new attendance policy for Tier 4 research students. This policy would have had students’ checkin with Doctoral School support staff, in person, every three weeks, on a predefined date. It would have also required students to seek approval from the Doctoral School for any and all travel outside of the UK. While universities have to be able to demonstrate they comply with Home Office regulations, universities have much autonomy around how they go about doing this. A review of practices across other UK academic institutions demonstrates the policy developed at SOAS to be particularly inflexible and burdensome for students and support staff alike. For example, most other universities logically include supervisory meetings as key points for recording research student attendance. Not surprisingly, this particularly draconian policy released by SOAS caused much distress amongst the student body. The day after this policy was announced I myself was off to Amsterdam for a lovely long weekend with my husband. I felt very uncomfortable feeling as though I was already in breach of this new policy, and my stomach turned at the thought of my privacy and freedom of movement being infringed upon.

While strong opposition to the introduction of this new draconian policy at SOAS has resulted in its suspensions until consultation with the RSA takes place, this experience has raised serious concerns around how critical decisions are made on campus. It appears this policy was developed not only without consultation, but with little consideration of the current student and support staff experience, and without attempt to conform to sector norms or the values of SOAS.

The Doctoral School has been inadequately resourced and supported by SOAS Senior Management for far too long. Only recently, and thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of existing Doctoral School staff, 4 new members of staff were hired. We were under the impression that these new members of staff were hired to meet existing critical capacity needs. As such, it was unfortunate to see a policy introduced which would result in staff having to unnecessarily attend to an administratively burdensome new attendance policy rather than support students. As a research student body, we are deeply concerned about how such a policy would further stretch Doctoral School staff and deteriorate the research student and staff experience. In order to understand the current context, Senior Management must consult both the implementers of new policy, and stakeholders affected by new policy.

Sadly, the Doctoral School not being adequately resourced and supported by Senior Management has resulted in division between support staff and the research student body. Front line Doctoral School staff tend to bear the brunt of student and faculty frustration. This is not fair nor justifiable. We must come together in solidarity with support staff across SOAS. We are the life blood of SOAS, and collectively we have the power to create a community whereby transparency, consultation, respect, and informed decision making become the norm.

~ Robyn Waite (November 27, 2017)


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)

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


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.








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


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)

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

phd and parents

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



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