The myth of the ivory tower

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Bubbleby Rosanne Anholt | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /


In the social sciences, we often obtain our data from people. We may collect opinions, experiences or understandings from different groups of people through various methods, like surveys, observations or interviews. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do our research participants no harm, and to behave ethically and with integrity towards them. Often however, there are others involved in our research – in addition to research participants – and we have a responsibility towards them, too.

To protect those who allow us to interview them, partake in our focus group discussions or document their lives in our photovoice projects, we obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and put data protection measures in place. Besides research participants however, we may encounter a range of other people at various stages of the research process. Fixers, for example, who help us arrange interviews with people we might otherwise not have access to, or interpreters and translators, who help us understand our research participants. There may also be student-assistants, who transcribe our interviews, take over our teaching duties during our fieldwork, or accompany us in order to gain some research experience. Sometimes, we seem to forget that the “do no harm” principle applies just as much to them as to the people we interview or observe – of which the following true story is a deplorable example.

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During one of my fieldwork trips for my PhD research on how humanitarian and development practitioners interpret the idea of “resilience” and translate it into practice, I am hosted by a young Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization. One morning, as he and I are having chai (tea) outside in a hesitant Spring sun, he tells me about a time he was hosting a student from a European university who was studying the experiences of Syrian refugees for his master thesis research project.

Without any Arabic speaking skills nor access to the Syrian refugee communities, the student asked my Syrian host to help him out. They agreed on a decent compensation, after which my host organized more than a dozen interviews with different Syrian families both inside and outside the country’s different refugee camps, as well as acting as an interpreter during the interviews. When the student left the country, he promised to transfer the payment for the hours of work my host put in and the expenses he made – like travel costs and small gifts for the Syrian families participating in the study.

In the few months after the student left, there were different excuses to delay the payment. From bank accounts allegedly not working, to money running low due to hospital expenses made for a family member. The student even went as far to propose using his university department’s charity fund on the condition that my host could produce a counterfeit company name and registered address – the illegality of which could have put my host in real danger. My host declined, and when the student stopped replying to his messages, he eventually gave up.

If we fail to practice our research in a principled manner, as this student has, we may cause harm to the people we work with. We also risk discrediting the scholarly community, and ultimately put people’s trust in researchers and their willingness to work with them at stake. Transparency is one important measure we can take in order to be accountable to the people we engage with throughout the research process. This means, for example, to negotiate a contract when outsourcing research-related activities. We may also share information about the institutions and individuals – including supervisors – involved in a research project, to give research participants and others the option to file a complaint in case agreements are violated.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers don’t operate in a vacuum. The ivory tower, where researchers are completely cut off from the world in order to cook up scientific theories, is a myth. Even when we don’t co-produce knowledge through the interaction with research participants, we are ultimately embedded in institutions where we engage with our colleagues, students and non-academic staff. Moreover, universities increasingly interact with the outside world – not just with other academic institutions, but also with societal partners like municipalities or non-governmental organizations. That also means we may have more responsibility than we think.


Rosanne Anholt is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on how humanitarian and development organizations interpret and use the policy buzzwords resilience, humanitarian-development nexus and local ownership in responding to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

 

Wearing two hats?

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Serving seniors or serving science: a dilemma game

MarijeBlokBubble1 by Marije Blok | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Serving seniors or serving science?
Loneliness is a serious problem among older people. My organization, the National Foundation for the Elderly, aims to tackle this challenge through different activities. My team works on innovations to support ageing in a meaningful way. We investigate wishes of older people in interviews; explore their ideas in co-design sessions and test prototypes. I love my job! And it only got better when I succeeded in creating a PhD position to enrich it: now I would even be better able to serve the elderly! However, soon I discovered that serving science is not always the same as serving seniors and I started to face ethical challenges.

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Dilemmas of a double role
All researchers face ethical challenges. Lucky us: there are guides to help us out. The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the integrity Bible for (Dutch) researchers – provides methodological and ethical standards. It introduces a set of ‘virtues’ for good scholars, including honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

As a researcher working for an employer outside the university, I’m also supposed to take principals of my organization into account, including making a difference, being involved, flexible, connecting and distinct. However, both sets of principals sometimes conflict. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats, as values of my organization and science are not always aligned.

The Erasmus University developed the Dilemma Game, supporting researchers in practicing with hypothetical dilemmas. Inspired by playing this game in a course at the faculty, I reflect in this blog post in a playful way on dilemmas I faced in my work. Next to exploring what to do when interests of seniors and science seem to clash, I hope to motivate fellows operating both in science and society to reflect on their work as well. All blocks contain a dilemma (left) and the considerations I made (right).

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Representing a wellbeing organization, I felt responsible to make participating a pleasant experience for the older people (B). However, I also found the value of scrupulousness important and didn’t want to be flexible at the cost of this scientific value (A).  I choose A, as including new persons would anyway affect the reliability of the results (A+C). Unfortunately, this was not a happy-ending story. The collaboration was disturbed and another participant left because her friend wasn’t welcome.

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This dilemma forced me to choose between being flexible and connecting (A) – according to my organization’s values – or scrupulous and independent (B) – following scientific principles. C was a successful mix: beneficial for my organization without ignoring scientific standards.

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As an elderly organization, we joined this project to make a difference in older people’s lives and considered this approach (B) suitable for this. Our partners considered replacing participants at the cost of scrupulousness and not in line with ethical standards (A). We considered B, but first discussed this with the partners once again. This worked out surprisingly well, so we ended with C.

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Considering what would be most honest from a scientific point of view (A, B) I decided to be transparent in reporting, but to not use their input (A). Instead of interviewing her husband I spent additional time having coffee with the lady, as I felt responsible after her sharing her story (C). This mix was a good strategy and in line with both my organization and research

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A beautiful hat
I am not a talker at all, but I feel you really listen to me and that makes me share my story’ – an 85-year old lady when I finalize my interview. For a moment I feel guilty, as my primary interest was a valuable dataset. But then I realize that a valuable encounter can be valuable for my research at the same time. Reflecting on my dilemmas taught me that although my organization’s values are not always similar to those in science, decisions aren’t necessarily black or white. Am I wearing two hats, in my position? No, I’m not. I’m wearing a very special one and will do this with pride!


Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

 

Conflict of interest: you vs. your research

Looking at the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity with a qualitative eye

Lisa-Marie Krausby Lisa-Marie Kraus| Reading time: 6 Minutes / 

The replication crisis, questionable research practices, plagiarism and fraud. Anyone who is reading this blog post, is probably familiar with these buzz words. To promote and foster integer research, the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (NCCRI; KNAW et al., 2018) was introduced.

As a researcher, I have gone through both extensive quantitative as well as qualitative training. Thus, two types of methodologists reside in me. While reading the NCCRI for the first time, the code predominantly spoke to the quantitative rather than the qualitative researcher in me – which I think should not be the case.LMKAfb1

Let me explain why that is.

The code addresses topics such as Communication, Honesty and Transparency. Needless to say, all of these topics are important to academic research in general, but qualitative researchers would probably argue that there is more to Transparency than currently described in the code.

While conducting a study and when interpreting the findings, researchers bring certain values into the project, which are grounded in their own, unique worldview. Being aware of that, is a practice rather elementary to qualitative researchers. I would argue, however, that this habit is a valuable one just as much for quantitative researchers. It may be true that the epistemological assumption of quantitative research presupposes an objective reality that can be measured and described as such. Yet, the way surveys are put together – in terms of what questions are asked, and more so: not asked! – conducted and eventually interpreted by the researcher is a different story (here, also see Postpositivism). Hence, this “type” of Transparency, that is the elaboration on one’s positionality (O’Dwyer & Bernauer, 2013) is also advisable within the quantitative tradition to keep up comprehensive ethical standards.

Each person, regardless of their research approach looks at a topic through a certain lens, influenced by personal interests, preferences and world views. For example, a part of my PhD project (Becoming a Minority) is concerned with the reactions to growing cultural diversity of native, upwardly socially mobile individuals. Upward social mobility is the movement within the social hierarchy from a lower to a higher position in terms of social class. Since I am socially mobile myself, there are certain personal values and ideas that I hold and bring into my research. Needless to say that I do my best to be as objective as possible, yet it would be disingenuous to pretend my personal life trajectory has not shaped the view that I have on the topic.

In my research I hypothesize that the socially mobile could be more open to diversity. I do so since the socially mobile have experienced more heterogeneous types of contact throughout their life trajectory compared to socially stable individuals. Consequently, the socially mobile should be “used to” adapt rather easily to social change. At the same time, the upwardly socially mobile could have more negative reactions since their social position might be more sensitive to “threat” compared to other middle-class individuals who have inherited their social status from their parents.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise that, surely, the former is a finding much more appealing to me personally (to back-up this claim scientifically, check out Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2004) and the need for a positive image of the self). So what if I find a pattern revealing that in general the upwardly mobile do not “deal well” with growing diversity? Is it in my interest to reflected upon myself or the mobile as a group like that?

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I think that favouring one hypothesis over the other is not always a conscious process. But a first step is to be aware of your own background and critically evaluate it when conducting research. Your life trajectory influences the decisions you make as a researcher – and can pose conflicts of interest with the self. Hence, the NCCRI should also create awareness of these sometimes unconscious processes which can pose a threat to ethical research standards.

The NCCRI tries to tackle general integrity issues but the inference that can be made is that the “I” is in no way a matter that only applies to qualitative research. Also, more quantitative researchers face conflicts of interests. In order to be more inclusive of all types of methodologies as well as more exhaustive in general, the NCCRI should take the posed matters into account.

In conclusion, I propose to reformulate certain sections of the code. There is – to some extent – a guideline in the NCCRI that already hints at a topic related to the described issue. In the section for “Standards for good research practices” it states:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) interests, arguments or preferences.” (number 18, p. 17)

And

“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest” (number 55, p. 18)

As these predominantly refer to 3rd party interests, I suggest to include the researcher’s position and personal gains in the statement:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) nor your own interests, arguments or preferences.” (p. 17)

And

“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest”, by adding “[…], these include your own interests”.

References

KNAW; NFU; NWO; TO2-federatie; Vereniging Hogescholen; VSNU, (2018). Nederlandse gedragscode wetenschappelijke integriteit. DANS.

O’Dwyer, L. M., & Bernauer, J. A. (2013). Quantitative research for the qualitative researcher. London: Sage.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Political psychology: Key readings (pp. 276-293). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.


Lisa-Marie KrausLisa-Marie is a PhD candidate at the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research is part of the Becoming a Minority project and focuses on how (socially mobile) natives react to and make sense of becoming another ethnic minority in European cities.

 

Hardest hit: The impact of digital disadvantage on recovery after a disaster

By Femke Mulder | Reading time: 7 minutes

“I wasn’t at home when the earthquake happened” Ashmita says, pointing to the pile of rubble that was her house only two years ago. “I was in the fields with my two daughters. Fortunately, we were fine.” Ashmita is one of 500,000 Nepalis who lost their houses in the 2015 earthquakes.

It took a week before Ashmita was able to phone her husband who works in Quatar as a labourer. “Our local power generator had been destroyed and there was no network coverage. A friend told me that it was still possible to phone out from the largest village in our area. I walked for hours to get there in order to phone my husband.”

Ashmita has struggled since the earthquakes happened. Her husband did not have enough savings to fly back to Nepal or help her out much financially. “I didn’t know what to do or where to get help” she says. “My neighbours were able to get tarpaulin in the market and together we built a tent. My daughters and I still live there now. It’s freezing cold in winter”.

The government of Nepal has made funds available to help citizens rebuild their houses but Ashmita can’t access it. She is absent from local government records. NGOs who use these records in order to identify people who need aid also have no idea of her existence. “Our house was registered in my husband’s name” says Ashmita, “I don’t have a marriage certificate or any papers to prove my identity. Sometimes I listen to the radio on my friend’s phone”.

“There is public information about the earthquake and about the government’s compensation scheme. None of the information is relevant to me however because I don’t have the necessary papers. I have no idea how to get money in order to rebuild my house and provide my daughters with a future. I don’t know who to turn to or what to do.”

Birendra had a very different experience. “I was on the second floor of my apartment when the earthquake happened”, says he. “I ducked under my desk for shelter. It was terrifying. After the shaking stopped I immediately ran outside. I spent the night in my car. The next day I quickly went back inside my apartment to grab my laptop and my cell phone. Fortunately, the mobile network in Kathmandu was up and running so I was able to get online through 3G. I phoned around to make sure that my family and friends were alright. I managed to get hold of everyone that very day.

One of my friends had set up a tent in his garden and I spent a week there, just streaming the news and Googling anything related to the earthquake I could think of. Via Facebook I found a local engineer who was able to check my apartment right there and then. Luckily, there was no major structural damage so after a week of camping outside I moved back into my apartment.”

Web 2.0: for whoever has, to him more shall be given…

In times of crisis, affected communities share a lot of information about what is going on, who is where and who needs what through social media and by phone. Through online platforms (like Facebook groups) they help each other find information about what to do, who to contact and where to go in order to address their specific needs. Governments and humanitarian organizations also make a lot of crisis information available on the internet. Search engines (like Google) make it possible for people to use all this information in order to find out exactly what they need to know. This is a lot more effective than listening to the radio or watching TV if you need information on how to solve your specific problems.

Indeed, having the mobile network up and running again within hours was very helpful to Birendra. Ashmita was not so fortunate. She lived in an area with poor ICT infrastructure and did not have a laptop or a smartphone. However, even if she had been able to get online, she would not have been able to use the information or meaningfully participate in online disaster community groups. Most relevant websites were written in English or Nepali. Ashmita does not speak either well. Her native tongue is Tamang, one of the 123 distinct language spoken in Nepal. Also, like 53% of women in Nepal, Ashmita is functionally illiterate.

As such, Ashmita is digitally disadvantaged: she is unable to use the internet in order to find the information and people she needs in order to get back on her feet. Digital privilege has a massive impact on people’s ability to cope when a disaster occurs. It also greatly influences how well people recover in the months and years following a disaster. Nine out of ten people who lack digital privilege are also disadvantaged in multiple other ways. Digital inequalities therefore mean that the web helps the relatively better off recover a lot faster, sometimes at the expense of those who are less well of. This can happen, for example, when aid gets channelled to groups who make themselves highly visible online and not to offline communities who are significantly less visible to humanitarian responders.

But there is hope…

A number of grassroots initiatives have sprung up that try to link the digitally disadvantaged to information and contacts available on the internet through human intermediaries. They use hand-held devices to help people like Ashmita find out who they should contact and what they should do to get access to relief services that are available to them. One example is the Accountability Lab in Nepal who I will be joining at the end of this month for a period of five weeks. I will observe the work of their community focal points in the field and carry out open and structured interviews with local people about how they accessed and shared important crisis related information after the 2015 earthquakes.


Femke Mulder is a PhD Candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. Her research especially focuses on how different humanitarian agencies map, interpret and govern (online) information networks in their efforts to respond to natural and man-made disasters and crises

If you are interested in how it went get in touch at f.mulder@vu.nl!

How to go from black tie to bathing suit? Gendered reflections on conference processes that shape our careers

By Luzan Koster & Thijs Willems | Reading time: 8 minutes

For many scholars, summer time means conference time. In winter we write an engaging abstract or paper to get accepted for a relevant conference. In summer we present our work to our scientific community who can challenge our line of thought. We hop from conference room to conference room to attend the presentations of others and engage in stimulating conversations during breaks and social events. Indeed, participating in conferences entails learning how to become a scholar and includes network activities that help sharpening our paper’s argument. The process therefore is a valuable and vital part of our work. But is this process as easy breezy as it sounds?

Smart debating does not only take place in the formal setting of conference buildings. Participants meet in various foreign countries, where one location is even more exotic than the other. In fact, so we argue in this blog, the informal events during conferences may potentially mark how our careers unfold. During such events, the boundaries between the formal/informal and professional/personal become blurred. This should urge us to be more aware of our role and that of others during conferences. We address this issue from one specific perspective: we show how our gender may shape how informal events at conferences are experienced.

Sunny setting

The following story takes place with the beautiful emerald blue Ionian Sea as its background. Here, at a yearly symposium, scholars gather to overthink theory and methods based on the theme ‘Process Philosophy’. The protagonists of the story are two PhD students, one male and the other female, who try to find subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to blend in with ‘the professionals’. The convenor opens with: “This is not just a conference but a symposium, emphasizing the importance of good food, drinks, and company”. Work goals and holiday moods might seem contradictory, but scholars widely agree that the open and relaxed atmosphere is inspiring. Yet, it may be hard to follow work ethics when you are invited to after curriculum activities…

Conference evening of a woman: “Gender trouble”!

Tonight is the conference dinner, so I do my hair and put on a black springy gown. The long dress has a closed neckline and small see-through at the back, nothing too revealing. There normally are no strict dress codes, but most women do their best and bring their party clothes. When my Dutch colleagues and I arrive at the open-air venue, almost all tables covered with white linen at the seaside are already taken. The last table is held by only one man, so we ask if we can join him. We start talking and laughing, and when his group of friends arrives, we mingle. It turns out, the man is a renowned professor, but hierarchical positions do not matter now.

We move to a beach club to have more drinks. Everyone gets a big summery cocktail and sits down at the luxurious lounge. One of our new friends starts chartering everyone to go for a dive in the sea under the moonlight. While our group of the evening seems to have no problem to take their suits off, the rest of the conference participants raise their eyebrows. I feel somewhere in between, which presents a dilemma. On one hand, I do not want to be a spoiler and break the newly forged bond with an interesting group of scholars. On the other hand, I wonder how the image of my half naked body could harm my reputation in this scientific community! I hear a splash; the professor has dived in.

Conference evening of a man: Free your mind

Getting back to my room after an exhausting conference day, I take a cold shower to cool off. I unpack my suitcase to select the most fitting attire for tonight’s conference dinner. But what to wear? Stay on the safe side and wear something formal and too warm for the Mediterranean summer nights? “They won’t dislike me because of my choice of clothes”, I convince myself, “and besides, I’m a man and they would probably respect my laissez-fair attitude”. I hop on my comfortable short and airy t-shirt, and a few minutes later I am sipping a lovely local white wine with colleagues. Once seated, I notice that, while most women are dressed in a similar style as the luxurious setting of the restaurant, the other men wear their shorts, sandals, and half open shirts too.

At our table, theoretical approaches are casually merged in dinnertime stories. A heated discussion arises on Judith Butler’s ideas of ‘gender performativity’, referring to the fact that our gender is not given by nature, but very much socially constructed; the meaning of gender is created by humans as we act according to socially accepted and desired behavior. We leave the issue and move to the seaside bar where waves rhythmically hit the shore. When my mojito is almost finished, some part of our crew has raised the idea of a midnight swim. I waver for a second, hesitant to the idea of taking off my clothes in front of future colleagues. But the crowd clearly expects me to show some bravery, and shouts: “Come on man, don’t worry too much”. We jump in.

“Bodies that matter”: normative chains?

The work of Judith Butler (1990, 2011) shows that our gendered behavior is always to some extent prescribed by roles, gestures, clothing, and speech that are socially desired, depending on our male or female body. Our stories above indeed reflect how our body and gender influenced our thoughts, doubts, emotions, and choices for action. Whereas females usually ‘have to’ behave according to some undefined feminine standard, their scholarly male counterparts can break the rules as this portrays some undefined sense of ‘masculinity’. A woman may be frowned upon when dropping her dress, showing her body, to dive into the water, while a man may be applauded for having the guts to do so.

In no way, of course, we mean to say that women are determined to behave as women, and neither that there would only be one way that a man is expected to behave. The variations are endless and gender comes in many different shapes. However, what we want to address with this blog is that conferences are not some self-evident trips just for fun (in Dutch: ‘snoepreisjes’). When it comes to informal events at conferences, it matters ‘who we are’ and ‘how we are seen’. Especially so when we consider that there may be a difference, or tension even, between who we are as a scholar and who we are in private time. There are certain rules and expectations we should be aware of, which can play out differently for men and women.

In the process of becoming a scholar, PhD’s are often asked what kind of scholar we want to be. Seniors advise us to carefully think through our written work and to reflect on producing novel, exiting work as opposed to automatically following the main stream. However, what about informal factors? Who we meet at conferences affects our research perspectives and interests, opportunities for future projects and jobs. If conferences and informal networking are career changers, do we really have a choice to break conventions? What are the consequences if we do or don’t? How do these choices differ for men and women?

We hope this blog has inspired you to better reflect on your own role during informal events. For now: Happy conference season! 


Luzan Koster is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on ‘the interpretation of the new discourse by patients, professionals and informal caregivers and on the way this affects their identities‘.

Thijs Willems is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. His research focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’. 

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” London: Routledge.

Brexit: Dirty, Spicy or Hairy? Why Metaphors Matter

By Britta Brugman | reading time: 6 minutes

Even for me as a teacher and researcher in political science, explaining world politics to students is often a challenge. The main reason is that many political issues and events are also difficult to understand. Fortunately, politicians often use metaphors that help me explain the political world to my students better. The metaphors I choose to use, however, considerably influence how my students understand the political issues and events under discussion.

Metaphors are figures of speech that define one concept in terms of another concept. In politics, metaphors work by connecting political concepts to non-political concepts. Political debates that are often explained metaphorically are EU debates. For instance, the most common way to discuss Brexit is by referring to a “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit”. Yet, what does it mean when Brexit is described as “dirty”, “spicy” or “hairy?

Hard or soft Brexit

The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” compare the negotiations between the EU and UK to the firmness of objects like rocks or pillows. They define how much the EU and the UK are prepared to compromise on issues such as UK’s access to the EU’s internal market. A “hard Brexit” implies firm positions of both parties and therefore a total divorce of the UK from the EU. In contrast, a “soft Brexit” implies that both parties will maintain as close a relationship as possible.

Clean or dirty Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May introduced alternative metaphors to the Brexit debate. She uses the metaphor “clean Brexit” to describe the UK’s strategy in the Brexit negotiations. Political opponents within the EU have responded that a “dirty Brexit” may instead be more likely. The words clean and dirty generally mean the degree to which objects or places are cleaned and organised. By using the metaphor “clean Brexit” Theresa May emphasises a “clean break” from the EU, meaning that the UK will leave quickly and completely. A “dirty Brexit” rather entails no agreement after months of deliberation.

Nevertheless, there are multiple interpretations of the metaphors “clean Brexit” and “dirty Brexit” possible. They may for example also encourage people to think about the integrity of the Brexit negotiations. A “clean Brexit” would imply that the EU and UK take their time to negotiate a precise, comprehensive and mutually beneficial deal. A “dirty Brexit” may indicate hasty and unfounded judgements. The interpretation of these metaphors thus depends on the context in which they are used and the politicians who use them. 

Spicy or mild Brexit

In one of their reports, the European Commission has spoken about a “mild Brexit” scenario, which would be the opposite of a “spicy Brexit”. The words mild and spicy usually indicate whether or not food has a strong hot flavour. In the context of Brexit, one of the most straightforward interpretations is that the words illustrate the degree of consensus between the two parties about important decisions. A “spicy Brexit” is for instance characterised by increased tension between politicians, while in a “mild Brexit” scenario there may not be as much political conflict.

Hairy or shaven Brexit

Finally, Boris Johnson has even warned the UK public for the possibility of a “hairy Brexit”. The positive equivalent of this metaphor would be something like a “shaven Brexit”. In ordinary language, the words hairy and shaven indicate the amount of hair on a body. However, with regard to Brexit, Johnson meant to stress the perceived complexity of the negotiations between the EU and UK. Whereas a “hairy Brexit” is complex and potentially dangerous in terms of the political and economic implications, a “shaven Brexit” may simply run relatively smoothly.

Metaphorical reasoning

Taken together, these examples show how different metaphors can influence our understanding of political issues and events differently. The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” limit our understanding of Brexit to what outcomes the EU and UK want to achieve. At the same time, metaphors like “dirty Brexit”, “spicy Brexit” and “hairy Brexit” focus on the nature of the negotiations (integrity, political conflict, complexity). These metaphors each emphasise a different aspect of Brexit, which means that they can only provide a complete picture of the political dynamics of Brexit when they are used in combination.

Previous research shows that the degree in which metaphors influence our understanding of politics depends on multiple factors. My own research also focuses on examining when political metaphors are most persuasive. One factor that already seems to be important is the complexity of the topic. The more a political topic is difficult to understand, the more likely people are to rely on metaphors to understand political debates. Since many political issues and events are considerably complex to begin with, metaphors can play a crucial role in our political reasoning.

Thus, explaining world politics to my students becomes easier by using metaphors but it is important to be aware of how these metaphors may influence their understanding of political issues and events. Because each metaphor uses a different non-political concept as the basis for comparison, each metaphor emphasises different aspects of the political concepts under discussion. Therefore, to do justice to the complexity of today’s political world, a diverse set of metaphors is necessary to make my students adequately understand world politics.


Britta Brugman is a PhD candidate in the department of Political Science & Public Administration. Her research focuses on ‘the effects of metaphorical frames on voters’ political attitudes‘.

References

Brugman, B. C., Burgers, C., & Steen, G. J. (2017). Recategorizing political frames: A systematic review of metaphorical framing in experiments on political communication. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(2), 181-197. doi:10.1080/23808985.2017.1312481

Burgers, C., Konijn, E. A., & Steen, G. J. (2016). Figurative Framing: Shaping public discourse through metaphor, hyperbole and irony. Communication Theory, 26(4), 410–430. doi:10.1111/comt.12096

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Doing your first conference presentation – Tips and Tricks

By Jitske Both-Nwabuwe | reading time: 5 minutes

At one point in your PhD career you will most likely present some of your work at a conference. The first time can be scary. I know I was! It was pretty scary to fly halfway across the globe to present to people I did not know.

I had my first conference presentation at the 2nd Meaningful Work Symposium in Auckland, New-Zealand. In this blog I share my experiences and give you some tips and tricks on how to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

Phase 1: Preparations before the conference

You got the acceptance e-mail: you are going to present at a conference!  I do not know about you, but for me – after the initial thrill – I started to worry: How am I going to pull this off? Well just follow these tips:

  • Contact your hero – fellow PhD student (if you have one)

Maybe be you have a fellow PhD student who can present very well. He or she is your hero concerning presentation skills. Well, find this fellow PhD student and ask for help.

  • Choose your key message

Usually your paper, which you are about to present, contains multiple key messages. However, you cannot tell them all! A general rule: for every key message you need 10 minutes. Try to find out how much time you will actually have and choose your key message wisely. I ended up choosing the ‘wrong’ key message. So make sure you know the reason why your article was accepted. Don’t worry if you can’t tell about everything that is important. People will ask you to share more during the round of questions. They did so after my presentation, so be prepared!

  • Use pictures

Ask yourself, what do you like to see: a picture or a sheet full of words? Right, the idiom “a picture is worth more than a thousand words” is also very true for your conference presentation. Try to use pictures instead of words. The slides are there to support your verbal message. Do not write down the whole story on your slides.

  • Make it fun

Your audience members are human beings. Human beings like to be entertained. So present your main message with some fun. This can be a story, an anecdote or a funny picture. In my case I used the anecdote of President Kennedy visiting NASA Space centre.

  • Practice for a variety of audiences

This includes practicing in front of yourself in the mirror.  Then, practice in front of your family. Most likely your family will listen and nod friendly. They will, however, not understand the message. But they can give you great feedback on the speed of your words, pronunciations, jokes etc. Also try to practice in front of your supervisors. And finally, practice in front of yourself in the mirror again. Especially when you are not a native speaker it is good to practice with pronunciations. The general rule is: practice at least three times and one time more than you think is necessary.

Phase 2: During the conference and presentation

So it is your time to present. Whether you are first or last, it does not matter. This is your moment and you should grab it. If you have practiced your presentation, you will do fine.  Here are some tips if:

  • The computer/beamer is failing.

If your presentation does not start (like mine), do not panic. Just ask for help.

  • You get difficult questions

When your presentation is finished and you get a question you cannot answer: do not panic. It is a good sign if you get questions.  People relate to your story and you made them think. Difficult questions are a good sign as well: you made them think deeply! If you do not know the answer, no problem, just ask a question in return. Can you explain?  What do you mean? And make it interactive. You are here to exchange ideas and to get feedback on your work to improve it.

Phase 3: After the presentation

Be proud (no matter how it went). You have survived and made your introduction to the scientific community! Enjoy the rest of the conference and the pub later. Connect with the people who asked questions and the other presenters. In the end this is the main purpose of presenting at conferences; getting to know colleagues in your field of expertise.

Veni, vidi, vici

So I survived my first conference presentation. Although it did not go perfectly, I had fun, got thought-provoking questions, learnt a lot, and met interesting colleagues. I hope my experiences, tips and tricks will help you to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

For more tips on tricks on presentations you can also read the blog: ‘how to make a successful research poster‘.


Jitske Both-Nwabuwe is a PhD candidate in the Organizational Science department. Her research focuses on ‘The role of meaningful work in the sustainable employability of nurses‘.

N.B. trip was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS), for which I was really grateful