Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Starting to Do Research in the time of Corona

Last night, I taught another session of our Dissertation Proposal Workshop class, and the topic was the methodology section of one's proposal.  That is, how am I going to research this question and how do I justify the choices I made?  This is after going through the other pieces--the question, the proposed answer, what other folks have said about this or have said about other stuff that you want to bring to this project, the theory, and the hypotheses.  How does one test the hypotheses was the question du jour (or nuit). 

While we discussed all kinds of stuff, the issue of how to do research while self-isolating naturally came up.  In some ways, these PhD students have a slight edge over those who were in the class last year or the year before.  Those other students had plans that they may not be able to execute--they can't do fieldwork for several months, they can't travel some place to interview people, they can't visit an archive, etc. I really feel bad for those students, and, of course, all. 

My students can adjust their methods before they start their research so that they can make progress without leaving their home.  The question then becomes how to do that?  So, here are my first thoughts on this and am looking for suggestions with the caveat, of course, that the question and the theory determine the method, so there may not be much one can do....
  1. Quantitative work can, of course, proceed if one has a computer at home with the necessary software.  This might be a good time to do what I will avoid--find online courses on how to use R and start figuring that out.  
    1. Likewise, if one was intending to surveys, one might find a better (although perhaps tainted) response rate since everyone is home.  Of course, that depends on where one is doing a survey.
    2. There are other methods for doing research that don't involve travel or people, such as agent-based modeling.  Learning online how to do this stuff might be a good use of time if one can't do the travel/archival stuff.  
  2. Get your secondary research done as much as possible from home so that when things open up, one can then be ready to do the fieldwork quickly, keeping in mind that travel may open and close and open and close with waves of the epidemic until vaccination is close to universal.  Be ready to do the research travel in bursts when the windows are open. 
  3. Arrange interviews to be done by phone or via skype/zoom/facetime/whatever.  I prefer to interview in person and not just for the tourism benefits.  One can read the non-verbal cues, one can find interview subjects along the way that one would not find otherwise (the Chilean staffer helping us by grabbing legislators as they leave the chamber comes to mind), and so on.  This obviously can be problematic for all kinds of reasons:
    1. The interview subjects may not accessible via technology.
    2. The material is stuff that should not be discussed over technology that can be intercepted--research ethics boards may have something to say about this.  
    3. The interview subjects may be worried about who else is listening.  They will certainly not feel as comfortable.
  4. If one is doing a qualitative dissertation, focus now perhaps on the mini-cases.  In my work, I have tended to do larger case studies that tend to require travel and mini-cases to show that the stuff applies beyond the few major cases.  I use secondary research--reading the stuff that is out there--for the mini-cases.  So, I'd suggest working on those while one is cooped up.
  5. If possible, choose at least one of your cases to be local--so that one can do the fieldwork more easily.  This obviously works best if one lives in a national capital.
  6. Find a flexible, empathetic supervisor.
What else?

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