PhD Students: research is hard and it’s OK to simplify

I’m going to list this under posts for social/ political science PhD students, but it has a broader applicability. The simple message is that: if you are finding it hard to research and write a complicated PhD it’s not all your fault.

There are practical ways to make academic social science research manageable. For example, most of my published work has been an exploration of specific theories, the description of a very specific case study, or a bit of both. The down side to this focus on specific case studies is that it is difficult to produce an overall sense of what is going on in the world (or even one country). It helps to use the same theory as a language with which to consider our accumulated knowledge from many cases, but the policy literature does not have a demonstrably good record on that front: there is a weird mix of detailed case studies in different places/ times/ policy areas, or a collection of large scale comparative studies which focus on a tiny part of the policy process. So, we may find it satisfying to complete a piece of case study research but be frustrated that it is difficult to relate our findings to those of our peers.

With Emily St Denny, I have begun to write a book which aims to do something different: focus on a policy solution – summed up in the terms ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ – that connects many case studies. We are using the same theories and concepts to get a sense of policymaking across 2 governments (UK and Scottish) and many (if not most) government departments. This allows us to identify common practices, policymaking constraints, and lessons that would not be as apparent if the same analysis were conducted by different people at different times, using a range of not-quite-compatible conceptual frameworks (even if we were all aware of, and interested in, each other’s work – which is not as common as we’d like to think).

So, we sort-of solved the problem I described but we also produced a whole set of others, including:

  • With a focused case study or vignette you can limit your analysis to key time periods, decisions, and actors. With our study comes a sense that everything is connected; that every decision to ignore something seems to undermine the analysis arbitrarily.
  • With a case study based on qualitative interviews you can often argue that, by interviewing (say) 20-30 actors you have captured the responses of a large part of the relevant policy making/ influencing ‘population’ (and perhaps much more so than a survey sample in a quantitative project). With our study comes the sense that we are scratching the surface; that our list of interviewees will seem one step up from random.
  • With a detailed case study you can give the sense that you have made sense of a series of important events. With our study comes the temptation to admit that we struggle to make sense of what it going on.
  • You can generally complete case studies on your own. In our case, my sense is that we are only going to achieve some success because we have been funded for two years to work as a team (as part of a far larger team) and, perhaps, because our ESRC funding/ status gives us an ‘in’ with interviewees that I don’t think I enjoyed in the past.
  • If you specialise, you can generate a reputation as an expert in a niche area, and generate some simple lessons from your research. In our case, we either know a little about a lot, or will be tempted to say ‘life is complicated’ or ‘everything is connected’ or tear out our hair while we impart our wisdom (after we say ‘yes, we didn’t know what prevention policy was either’).

This is a very roundabout way of saying that research is hard, and that it is OK to produce a very specific piece of work to make it manageable enough to be completed in a set amount of time (such as a 3-year PhD). It might seem like you are ‘zooming in’ on something fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things – like a sludgy brown piece of cardboard nothingness in a 10,000 piece jigsaw – but instead you are avoiding the problems that come with too much ‘zooming out’.

See also:

PhD chat

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21  PDF

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2015) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, PDF

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