This Academic Life
Had a dissertation proposal defense this morning -- student doing an interesting project on mechanisms of social service provision in conflict areas. My interest in this is because of the methodology (go figure), which is processual all the way through: different social arrangements of brokerage affect the shape of the conflict. The student had a reasonably sophisticated way of describing the contexts within which social service provision takes place, although the mechanisms could of course have been more clearly specified; this kind of research operates interpretively, inasmuch as empirical research is expected to inform a better formulation of the analytical categories in a kind of process of hermeneutic updating.

The problem is that people who aren't familiar with this kind of approach assume that an initial specification is some kind of testable hypothesis -- as though the point of an analytic were to compare it to reality and see whether it corresponded. Please. These are very different methodological approaches; hypothesis-testing is a dualistic conception whereby empirical facts are thought to falsify initial guesses, whereas analytical interpretation is all about developing categories that make sense of complex situations by deliberately oversimplifying and abstracting. Trying to shoe-horn approaches into boxes where they don't fit annoys me to no end, and this did happen this morning to some extent -- both on the verbal level, as examiners kept referring to "variables" and "hypotheses" when such terms weren't really appropriate, and on the more serious conceptual level, as when the student was asked how he could draw conclusions from four data-points or whether brokerage or autonomy was the more important causal factor. The student defended himself okay, but I wish he'd been better equipped.

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In my work I am often quite aggressive trying to prevent readers from interpreting my work as participating in a methodological project that I find deeply problematic; I prefer to have those issues front and center, so that the status of empirical results I produce will be understood correctly. Perhaps this isn't always appropriate in all contexts, but it is the way I (aesthetically?) prefer my academic debates.

After the defense I went to an event I was hosting as coordinator of a speaker series here; we had a State Department guy in to talk about US-Russian relations. Obviously, questions about methodology would be out of place here -- we listened as the speaker discussed current tensions in the relationship, and then began asking him questions about whether the US government was worried about the dissolution of Russia, or what kinds of things might be done to advance non-proliferation, etc. Not looking for findings, so much, as trying to get a sense of how things appeared from the inside of the policymaking apparatus -- the whole thing was more like a piece of primary-source research.

One interesting finding, though: I pressed him on the reasons why the US held Russia to a higher standard when it came to democracy and human rights and the like, especially since his narrative about the tensions in the relationship was all about essential characteristics of the way things work in Russia (and sprinkled with references to Russian history -- they've been like this for centuries, never had an Enlightenment, etc.). And after a couple of rounds of that he admitted that the framework within which people at State thought about Russia was that Russia was a "Western" country and should look more or less like "the West," and that the weight of history was something that could be overcome through intelligent policy. Liberal empire in action, buttressed by a civilizational narrative: all "Westerners" (ignoring the whole slavophile/westerner controversy in Russia, and also the ongoing debate throughout 'the West' about whether Russia really was a "Western" country or not) are alike, deep down, even if they need a little help to realize that status.

So now if asked I have additional support for the enduring character of such enframing assumptions as exercising a shaping effect on policy writ large. One more story to help defend my way of worlding, as though ways of worlding could be empirically defended…

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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