The horse, then the cart

Last week I said that one of my shortcomings is starting things but never finishing them. It seems like my personal flaws will be a strong theme in this journal, because this week I’ve been reminded of another one: I have a stronger, clearer notion of what I don’t want than what I do want.

The first lectures

This past week I had introductory lectures for the term’s courses, and there was something quite characteristic about two of them. While vastly different in the methods they will teach us, the qualitative methods and statistical methods lectures had a striking underlying similarity. Dr Hamill and Dr Tilley (respectively) both mentioned the idea that there really was no one ideal method, but that the chosen method depended on the research question you wanted to answer through it. The point of this, which might seem obvious, is that in my previous thoughts about my dissertation, I had been putting the cart before the horse. I tried to think about what dataset I would use, how I would access it, or whether I wanted to do a quantitative or qualitative dissertation. However, these considerations should be secondary to having a substantive question about the world. Once I manage to ask such a question, I will certainly have to address the best way, both theoretically and in practical terms, to go about answering it. The point is that I shouldn’t obsess over research methods without having a research question or at least topic of interest. I think that’s my main takeaway from this week’s lectures, considering that the contents were a bit introductory.

Meeting my dissertation supervisor

I also had my first meeting with my supervisor. Despite the briefness of the meeting, it was a relief to find out that she was very friendly and approachable. Just before we met, I had been stressing over what she might think of my highly undetermined research interests, but upon meeting her that stress mostly dissipated. It was predictable yet uncomfortable that she assumed I would be interested in doing research on Latin America and specifically on Chile, but when I clarified that I was not really keen on working on Chile she was very understanding about it.

Nevertheless, she did propose a topic on which I could do my research, and it is about Chile. It involves the analysis of a dataset for human rights violations by corporations in Chile, and if possible a case study into at least one of these events. An MPhil student did her thesis on the same topic for Perú and got a distinction on it. The dataset has already been put together and it’s a provenly relevant topic for graduate research in the social sciences. It seems perfect, and yet… Corporate human rights are not an issue that is especially interesting to me at present, and looking at Chile when I have the opportunity to study any part of the world in a globally oriented university doesn’t appeal to me either. I am aware that these are entirely personal preferences; skimming the thesis on Perú whose author kindly sent to me, it seems like robust and sociologically relevant research. And yet, I want to do my thesis on something that really interests me. Perhaps I’m being too picky but I don’t need to rush into a topic, not yet at least. In fact, my supervisor told me the same thing and encouraged me to keep a list of possible topics and be open to change.

So now I am in the confusing situation of a) having no idea what I want to write about, b) being basically offered on a platter a relevant and feasible topic about Chile but c) not really wanting to write about Chile. My classic problem of not knowing what to do but knowing all too well what I don’t want to do.

Do you see now why I’ve been thinking a lot this week about this character flaw of mine?

Trying to be constructive

Having reflected on the necessity of finding a research question before picking a specific method, and on the fact that I should work on finding a topic and not just complaining that I don’t like the one my supervisor kindly suggested, I set about looking for an area where I could ask a relevant research question that would also interest me personally. Among other things, I went back to my application essays, reviewed the research interests of various individuals at the Sociology Department, and downloaded a battery of papers by the ones whose lines of research seemed interesting (and that I swear I’ll read through eventually). I mostly looked at research in the areas of sociology of health and economic sociology, and even e-mailed a post-doc who is working on power structures and their effect on health policy outcomes. I will be meeting with him next Tuesday, and will try to look at the papers by various other faculty members throughout next week, so I will hopefully have more insights after that.

Concerning my application essays, I saw that past-Valentina had stated her interest in social movements, and in doing something with that and the World Values Survey. While the literature about this survey seeps into social psychology a bit and it doesn’t seem to be looked at very much in sociology, we are using a condensed version of it in our practical STATA lessons. Could that be a sign? In any case, I formulated a preliminary question based on these interests.

What is the relationship, if any, between a population’s social and political views and the occurrence of social movements and/or mass manifestations in that country? Most research on social movements that I’ve seen looks at specific movements or adopts a comparative perspective across specific movements in different parts of the world. An admittedly un-thorough search unearthed little material on how a specific national context can relate to the emergence of social movements within that country. If a country has a higher population with left-leaning views, does that increase the possibility of leftist social demonstrations in that country? Or maybe in countries where preoccupation for the environment is not strong, the people who do espouse such beliefs have more reason to organise and manifest themselves through protests?

Basically I imagine I could look at this from two levels: the WVS respondents’ views on political and social topics, and at the country level the presence/absence of social movements and manifestation. This would probably require some kind of separate investigation, since the WVS survey only has one question on participating in acts of protest, and more than participation at the individual respondent level, I would like to look at how individual political views relate to big acts of protest or social movements, e.g. anti-austerity movements, the Chilean student protests in 2011, the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, and so on. Even as I write this I realise that of course there are other country-level characteristics that must have an influence in the prevalence of such phenomena and I would have to account for, with economic performance and type of government seeming quite relevant at first thought.

Now the topic is starting to sound too broad and ambiguous, and I’ll have to consider it in depth and more realistically, but it’s just an idea, one that I won’t discard just yet. I will also discuss it with my supervisor, and look (once more) at the faculty profiles just in case there is someone else it could be appropriate to talk to.

I really have to try to be more constructive and positive, and I guess this is a start. Maybe that way, eventually, what I want will become more salient than what I don’t want.