A plea for boring research (and how to make it interesting)

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

A widely cited article from 1971 by Murray Davis starts as follows:

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting[1] (p. 309).

Although Davis’ claim might be provocative to some, I will not throw down this gauntlet here in this blog. Instead, I want to show how I discovered in my research that the interesting stuff is sometimes found in what at first sight may seem utterly boring or mundane. By means of pursue and persistence, the interesting can be found in the boring.

My research is about collaboration between the different railway organizations in the Netherlands. These organizations have had a rather turbulent history (see, for just one example out of many: http://bit.ly/1HVeJ2X) and with all the current media-attention and public opinions about the performance of NS and ProRail, it is hard to see what exactly is boring about my research. Nonetheless, not long after I started my fieldwork I took interest in the work of train dispatchers, who are responsible for the safe and efficient coordination of trains through stations. In practice, however, most of their work is automatized and dispatchers are mostly busy with the task of monitoring. Monitoring means: lean back in your chair and watch the computer systems do your work.

this3At first sight, I hardly considered to study these monitoring practices into more detail. It was difficult for me to believe that it would be of any significance for my research. However, after observing the dispatchers for quite some time and hearing them talk about their own work, I soon realized that perhaps it is exactly these apparently boring practices that may reveal  a very interesting world of railway employees. In the end, monitoring actually became one of the topics of my research*.
Instead of ‘doing nothing’, monitoring revealed how dispatchers, by means of their computer screens, ‘see and sense’ the railways. Whereas I saw dots, numbers and lines that apparently supposed to represent the actual train service, dispatchers saw an actual, concrete railway world.

This seeing and sensing is based on the fact that many dispatchers have been working for the railways for decades and gained a massive amount of practical knowledge. This may be knowledge ranging from how railway switches work to contextual details of the landscape adjacent to the tracks. John, one of the dispatchers I studied, told me how he once guided  the police (by phone) to a location very close to the tracks where one train driver saw a group of children playing with a ball. At first instance, the police could not find the exact location, but John was able to tell them that “they had to approach the area from the other side, just in front of the sawmill, as there’s a big viaduct blocking easy access”.

Claire, another dispatcher, told me stories about her previous work as a train driver,and how this helped her in being a good dispatcher. Every other day, someone in the Netherlands commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. This can have a tremendous impact on train drivers. The dispatchers are a drivers’ first point of communication after witnessing such a horrible situation. According to Claire, she is capable of having this conversation with the driver in an efficient way (to reduce the impact of this incident for other trains) because she does so emphatically. In other words, her experience as a train driver and witnessing what it means to see someone ‘jump’, is of great influence how she does her job. These stories that lay beneath the ‘boring’ practice of monitoring, taught me how collaboration between the different organizations during disruptions is much more than what I would ever read in handbooks or manuals.

Boring stuff may make you yawn in the first instance.But, there are several strategies through which you can possibly make the boring more interesting:

  • Persist! Whenever you notice something boring, don’t walk away. It may take some time before you can appreciate your observations as more than dull. Always remember the saying: ‘Ambition is the path to success, persistence is the vehicle you arrive in’.
  • Zoom in! From a distance, boring stuff is boring. Make it more interesting by getting up and close. I can guarantee you that even the 50 most boring things in the world will eventually reveal some very unexpected insights.
  • Breach! There have been numerous scholars studying the boring and mundane after Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), ranging from how people queue in supermarkets to how people greet each other on the streets. One of the ways these scholars reveal the interesting in the mundane, is by breaching the social norms and implicit rules to which these actions are organized. So, the next time someone asks you ‘How are you doing?’, do not reply with the standard ‘Great’ but try the following: ‘What do you mean, how am I doing? Do you mean mentally? Physically?’. I can assure you an interesting conversation will emerge.

Here you have it, my plea for boring research. I highly recommend Davis’ somewhat provocative article and hope that you will value the generation of ‘interesting’ new theory as much as the testing or verification of ‘uninteresting’ existing ones.

References

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

Davis, M. S. (1971). That’s interesting. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309.

[1] Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

* The paper I wrote about monitoring was presented at the Process Symposium on Kos, Greece. I would like to thank the Graduate Fund for the financial support to go there.

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Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.

 

 

 

Robots in healthcare: Curse or Cure?

 Marloes SpekmanBy Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Mrs. Johnson stares out the window. She keeps hoping her children will show up for an unexpected visit, although that rarely happens nowadays. Some days, Mrs. Johnson only sees Jenny from home care. And to Mrs. Johnson’s regret, Jenny never has time for a cup of coffee. Her children, all of whom try to balance a 40-hour work week and raising children, usually visit her twice a month on Sundays, if they’re not too busy that is. She cannot help but feel neglected, especially because she was always there for the kids when they were little. “Mrs. Johnson, would you like some coffee?” a voice speaks. Mrs. Johnson looks up – where did that voice come from? A small, human-looking robot approaches her. Mrs. Johnson closes her eyes, folds her hands and prays the creature will be gone by the time she opens her eyes again…

When I tell people I do research on healthcare robots, I often get negative reactions. Many people are appalled by the idea of their (grand)parents being taken care of by a robot: “What a ridiculous idea! Robots for physical labor are okay, but you really need a human for social tasks. There are plenty of unemployed people!!!”[1]  Why do robots instill such negative reactions? Are we afraid that they will take our place, as is often suggested in newspaper headlines (e.g., “Will Robots Take Your Job?” and “The cute robot that may eventually take your job”)? Or is there something else going on? In this blog, I explain why we are afraid and shed some light on how (un)realistic this fear of robots actually is.

One of the explanations of our fear of robots is the so-called uncanny valley (Mori, 1970). According to Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori, we get an uncanny or eerie feeling when robots look a bit like humans, but do not look and behave human-like enough to be assessed as human. Suppose that you think a person is standing a few meters away. After looking at the person for a while, his/her movements appear unnatural and start to creep you out. Only when you get closer you figure out that the person was in fact a robot. This is exactly what the uncanny valley entails; the robot looks human enough from a distance, but creates an uncanny feeling because of its unnatural behavior. To avoid these feelings, robots need to be designed such that their looks and behavior match: The robot is either approached as human, or clearly approached as a robot (and not somewhere in between).

Another explanation for our fear of robots may be that we are afraid that they will one day take over, or that they will, somehow, evolve beyond our control. This concept is often referred to as singularity. It assumes that, once we build a robot that is more intelligent than the human kind, this robot will start to develop even better robots and artificial intelligence, at which point us humans no longer have control over those robots (Vinge, 1993). In the end, this could lead to dystopian scenarios such as those seen in the Matrix – where the machines use ‘hibernating’ humans as energy source – or I, Robot – where robots start locking people up as the robots have become overzealous in their job of protecting humans. Some scientists suspect that singularity will take place somewhere between 5 and 100 years from now, although other scientists, such as psychologist Steve Pinker, do not believe in the concept of singularity at all: “There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible.”

So how realistic is this fear of robots? Most robots currently being developed are only able to do a single thing really well. For instance, Roomba is really good at vacuuming, but is unable to bring you a cold beverage on a sunny day. Robotic seal Paro is really cuddly, and invitating for social interaction (either with Paro, or about Paro with other people around you), but it cannot do much else. For instance, Paro cannot decide for itself to go to the neighbor because it is unable to move independently. And the Japanese robot Ri-man is great at lifting patients, but it will not remind you of your upcoming appointments or that you have to take your medication. Many different kinds of robots already exist, but thus far none of them can do all of the tasks we would want, need, or even fear that robots could do. This is due to the enormous complexities that are involved in the integration of different robotic systems. Social robots in particular seem to be hard to create, as most of these robots currently can only do pre-programmed interactions or are secretly controlled by a human (a research technique often referred to as Wizard of Oz).

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Even though robots can currently only do so much, most people still have extreme expectations of new technologies such as robots – either positive or negative. Many of these expectations turn out to be unrealistic after people get the chance to   see the technology with their own eyes or, better yet, experience it for themselves. The same happened with cars; even though they were first seen as extremely dangerous and legislation required a person with a red flag to walk in front of every vehicle to signal its arrival, they now are considered indispensable. So, rather than panic about what the future might bring, we should inform ourselves about what’s already here[2]!

“Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson turns around and recognizes her home robot Alice. It has only been a few weeks since Mrs. Johnson was first introduced to Alice, but she already grew quite fond of her mechanical companion. “Ah yes Alice, coffee would be greatly appreciated!” Mrs. Johnson replies. “You know what Alice”, she adds, “Just sit down, I will make some myself!”

References

Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4): 33-35.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Vision-21: Interdisciplinary science and engineering in the era of cyberspace, 11-22. Retrieved on October 26th, 2015 from: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html

[1] This is an actual message found online in reaction to a newspaper article about healthcare robots that appeared in the Dutch newspaper Metro in 2012.

[2] For instance, you could check out the award-winning documentary “Alice Cares” (“Ik ben Alice” in Dutch) to see it for yourself: http://www.npo.nl/2doc/06-07-2015/KN_1671620 (Dutch version).

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

How not to drown at conferences: go out and run!

Marieke van WieringenBy Marieke van Wieringen /Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Conferences may be a one-day event, or last two or three days. When you include pre-conference workshops, which are common in some fields, conferences may even cover 5 full days. Sounds tiring? It is, in a way. Still, conferences are actually quite useful (as described by Anouk van Leeuwen in ” Is participating in academic conferences worth the time and money?“). That is, if you do not drown in the overwhelming amount of sessions, lunches, dinners, drinks and/or other social events. The question is: how? How not to drown at conferences? The simple answer: chose your sessions wisely ahead of the conference’ start.

Obviously, I have learned this the hard way myself. As a fourth year PhD student, I have attended quite some conferences. Fanatically attending every single round of sessions, I oftentimes found my attention slowly but steadily decreasing, sometimes already on the first day. Yet, this would generally not hamper me to continue in the same vein the next conference day(s). The consequence: when someone would ask me which sessions I had attended, I generally had difficulty remembering their content. Of course, I nonetheless also did learn from those sessions. However, I always needed the notes that I had made during the sessions to remember what I learned and liked exactly.

During my most recent conference visit, I decided to go about it differently. After two days of pre-conference workshops, I attended only one (to be honest, actually only half a) paper session on the third day. After that, I went for a run. Why? First of all, because I felt like it. Second, because the weather was way too good to stay inside. Third, because I was in the beautiful city of Vancouver, which is surrounded by water, ‘beaches’ and mountains, and because I was staying close to the marvelous Stanley park. From all of this, I basically had seen nothing yet. My run came with some spectacular views indeed (see below)! Fourth, and most importantly, I went for a run because there were no sessions in the program that afternoon that were of much interest to me. So why stay?

marieke

I know why you might stay, and will tell you why do not have to. To start, you may be afraid to miss out on a session that potentially could turn out to be of interest to your research after all. I know I was. However, I learned that sessions that did not grapple my intention in the program in the first place, never turned out to be interesting; on the contrary. You may also feel you have to stay because your university, graduate school, or may be even your own supervisor is paying for your visit to the conference. No worries, they will not be angry or, worse, disappointed if you wisely decide to take some time off to relax and re-energize so you can gain more from the sessions to come. If you are afraid to be caught skipping sessions by your supervisor, remember that when your supervisor finds you not attending a session, s/he is not attending either. More importantly, your supervisor has better things to do than checking on you, like enjoying the city themselves. (Make sure, though, that they come and attend the session in which you present your work!)

marieke2After my run and the afternoon off, I felt re-energized, and ready for two more days of ‘conferencing’. During these two days, I met a range of interesting people and got inspired by the sessions that I attended. Why? Because I attended the sessions that were of interest to me.

Yes, I had come prepared this time: before flying to the other side of the world, I had ploughed the program and made a selection of sessions that appealed to me. You can do the latter, for example, based on the (famous) people who will be presenting. If available, you could also have a quick reading of the papers that are presented. This will help you make informed choices, and also increase your involvement in the discussions during the sessions. Given that conference presentations generally only last 10-15 minutes there is only so much presenters can tell, and you oftentimes end up with only a hint of what a paper is actually about.

When you read the paper in advance, or have a look at previous work of the presenter, you are able to (publicly!) give intelligent comments or ask questions, which is always good at conferences, or so they say. Moreover, it will help you to get in touch with the presenters afterwards.

marieke3

So, instead of attending each and every session, my humble advice is to skip some, to choose your sessions wisely, prepare for those sessions, and join the discussions. To be honest, I have not actually joined in many plenary discussions at previous conferences. However, I will definitely (try again) next time… I will keep you posted!

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Marieke van Wieringen is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Science. Her research focuses on how actors within home care organizations perceive and act upon different institutional demands in their day-to-day work.

The Avengers and philosophy – Peace in the age of Ultron

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Why would anyone interested in peace (like me) go and look at a violence-packed superhero movie for inspiration? Doesn’t violence in movies lead to real world violence? Well, the evidence on that question is still inconclusive and Avengers: age of Ultron, when viewed with the right kind of questions in mind, offers insights into peace you just won’t find in arthouse beauties such as One day after peace.

Avengers - image retrieved from www.savethecat.combeat-sheetavengers-age-of-ultron-beat-sheet.com

Sure, most people going to watch the movie will do so because they enjoy the highly stylized violence, the beautifully choreographed fights, the exploding buildings or the testosterone packed jokes by the main characters. But the film also explicitly deals with the victims of the Avengers’ violent way of solving conflicts and the plot is driven to a large extent by various desires for peace going awry. Moreover, in the lulls between fights, the protagonists inadvertently end up having quite philosophical conversations on the meaning of peace, coming up with no less than five different conceptualizations of the term.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might find this post contains either spoilers or things you totally don’t understand. I apologize for the former and try to make up for the latter by explanatory hyperlinks. That said, here are the five concepts of peace that drive the plot development and make Age of Ultron one of the most interesting peace-related films I have seen in a long time.

  1. Tony Stark (Iron Man): Peace as the absence of any and all threats
iron-man-3-theatrical-poster-tony-stark

Tony Stark/ Iron Man “Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian.”

The first view of peace present in Age of Ultron reminded me of what I heard from people working at NATO: peace means the absence of any and all threats to human life. It is this drive for total security that leads Tony Stark, one of the heroes, to build Ultron, who then turns into the main villain of the movie (see below for his idea of peace).

Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian. As Anthony Giddens pointed out a long time ago, there will always be threats to humanity’s existence, and trying to control for all of them inexorably leads to new dangers. Or to a totalitarian dictatorship, the central message of Captain America: the Winter soldier, another Marvel superhero movie.

  1. S.H.I.E.L.D.: Saving civilian lives
sokovia evacuation

Evacuation of citizens of Sokovia

On a much less ambitious reading of peace, the rebuilt employment agency for superheroes, SHIELD,  limits its role to saving civilians from the combat zones where the Avengers do their job. Even if the town of Sokovia is annihilated by Ultron, at least the people living there get out of it alive and thus might be able to find peace again elsewhere. This echoes the Just War criterium of discrimination, the idea that armies ought to distinguish between innocent civilians and enemy combatants, and only target the latter. In the real world, it also seems to mirror (highly dubious) efforts by the Israeli army to get civilians out of the way before moving in to fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However, we can rightfully ask whether the refugees in question would agree that this is a form of peace. Taking their cue from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, some present-day critics of liberal peacebuilding point out that safeguarding the ‘bare lives’ of civilians does not really suffice to speak of any kind of peace ‘worth having’. Even though in mainstream academic literature, armed conflict is only defined in terms of how many people die as a result of the conflict: as long as nobody dies, there is peace. I have criticized this view in a previous blogpost.

  1. Dr. Banner (the Hulk): inner peace
hulk

The Hulk : “This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject”

Back to the movie. Dr. Banner, Tony Stark’s superhero partner also known as the Hulk, tries to come to grips with his (and mankind’s?) violent nature. Already in the first Avengers movie, Banner was found taking yoga classes in India, trying to control the violence in himself. At the end of Age of Ultron he flees his companions and sends a postcard from Fiji, supposedly having found peace there by sitting on a beach watching the sun set.

This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject. It does have one major drawback though, as Natasja Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow, points out in the movie while shoving dr. Banner off a cliff: “I adore you, but I need the other guy right now”. In order to save the world, the Hulk has to give up his inner peace and engage himself with the world, through violence if need be. This is the same criticism pacifists have received ever since the term was first invented: in a bad world, you have to make dirty hands.

  1. Ultron: harmonious balance with all of nature
ultron

Ultron: “His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’ is a step too far”

The theme of peace is running so strongly through the film that even the bad guy, Ultron, is driven by a desire for peace. Built by Tony Stark with the aim of creating ‘Peace in our time’ (a rather obvious reference to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler), cinematic logic demands that Ultron decides the best way to achieve this peace is the eradication of mankind. Our violent nature means we will never be able to live in peace, so perhaps we should just die out and make room for another, more peaceful species. Ultron sincerely cannot believe the Avengers, with their violent way of dealing with conflicts, are in any way agents of peace. He is probably right about that. His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’, however,  is a step too far for even the most radical eco-hippies. It does mirror the idea of peace as ‘living in harmony with all of creation’ though, adding another layer to the movie’s philosophical dealing with peace.

  1. Hawkeye: peace as normality
"As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment"

Hawkeye: peace as normality: “As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment”

One of the big surprises of this movie comes approximately halfway, when Hawkeye, a side character famous for shooting explosive arrows, turns out to have a family living in an idealistic mid-West cottage, apparently without 21st century technology. This cottage is the counterpoint to all the violence in the movie and the viewer is left with the distinct impression that Hawkeye is best off of all the superheroes. As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment. Which might be a lame conclusion for a superhero movie if you are a testosterone-filled 21-year-old comic geek, but it is the kind of peace your parents will definitely identify with.

 

 

So what have we learned from this brief exploration of Avengers: age of Ultron? I would say three things. First, peace and security are not the same thing, and the desire for total security threatens all other forms of peace we might be after. Secondly, if all we want is to safeguard our own inner peace, we leave the world to the bad guys. Sometimes we just “need the other guy.” Even though his violent acts might stand in the way of more durable solutions to the world’s problems. Finally, I would say that Hawkeye understands peace best of all. It is a lived experience, not some Utopian dream.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

Conducting Expert-interviews: some do’s and don’ts

Palm By Trineke Palm / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

In the spring of 2013 I stayed in Brussels for 3 weeks to interview policy-makers, military, diplomats and politicians on the development of the EU’s military operations. Interviewing is great fun, but also requires specific skills. Since there is relatively little guidance for doing interviews with elites & experts, let me share some first-hand experiences with you.

The people I spoke with, all have expert knowledge on EU military operations and the ability/opportunity to influence decision-making in this policy domain. Hence, they can be classified as both elites and experts (Littig 2009). This really sets those interviewees apart from conducting interviews with “normal” people who do not have a particular professional expertise and influential position in society. Expert interviews are all about: interest, power, control and hierarchy (Abels & Behrens 2009). How did I deal with these issues? Here are some practical tips:

Pre-interview: gaining access

Experts and elites are busy people. So, they’ll probably suggest to do it by phone or email. Don’t settle for that! Indicate that you are very flexible (make sure you really are!) and available to meet anywhere in a particular period of time (a few weeks). To make sure that your interviewees make some time for you, they have to see you as a competent scholar who is worthy to spend their valuable time with. This means that in your email you make abundantly clear that speaking to the particular interviewee is of great importance to your research. For this it helps to show that you know their CV. Also, attach two documents to your email:

  1. topic list indicating the topics you want to address in the interview. Although one could argue that you run the risk of too much transparency (e.g. you may steer the interview by explaining too well what you are after), I argue that it helps you gain access in the first place, and that this outweighs the potential disadvantages.
  2. An informed consent form. Although anonymity may be required, this way you can at least “proof” that you actually spoke with people and you were not just inventing your data. Moreover, while elites are well aware of the sensitivity of the information they provide, their influential position makes them vulnerable as well. Hence, to explicitly agree on the way the interview data is dealt with is part of a scientific and ethical approach towards conducting interviews – including expert interviews. Moreover, I had the impression that it contributed significantly to presenting myself as a competent scholar.

interThe interview itself: a balancing act

Since experts are accustomed to talk about their field of expertise and aiming at conveying a particular message (for strategic purposes), during the interviews itself some balancing acts are required.

  1.  Central to all introductions of conducting good interviews is that you have to ask open questions: You have to be open to what the interviewee is about to say and allow the interviewee to lead the conversation (Littig 2009). Take care however, that you do not end up listening for more than an hour to information that is irrelevant for you. You don’t want to leave the room without having raised the issues that are important to you!
  2. Hence, you’ll have to complement this open approach with leading questions. These induce the interviewee to go beyond the strategic message he/she aims to deliver. Of course you should make sure not to end up in a discussion with your interviewee – it’s not about what you think. Yet, by referring to other interviews, statements in newspapers/policy documents, or hypothetical situations you can confront your interviewee with competing viewpoints/explanations.
  3. Dare to drop a silence. Your interviewee may need to think for a while, and a silence subtly encourages them to further elaborate on the topic.
  4. Moreover, summarize what your interviewee has said, not only to make sure that you understand the interviewee correctly, but also as a follow-up to another question.

The avoidable risks

Abels en Behrens (in Littig 2009) distinguish some typical risks in the conversation with elites/experts. You have to know the risks to avoid them:

  1. The interviewee may take a paternalistic attitude, and not take you very seriously. Instead of answering questions about the topic of interest, this type of interviewee may want to give you some “advice” on your research design. Either allow the interviewee to make his main point in this regard, or propose to come back to this issue at the end of the interview. You may partly use this to your advantage – at least the interviewee does not see you as a threat;
  2. The interviewee may act as an iceberg, i.e. is not really willing to share information. This is a difficult, but in my experience also quite rare, situation. You can avert it by starting off with an open question about his/her position: this allows the interviewee to say a little more about him/herself, which make most icebergs melt.
  3. The interviewee may ask your opinion on the topic. This one is the most challenging, as you are indeed usually knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic. Yet, make sure that you don’t fall into this trick, as the interview is not about your opinion. Smile, thank the interviewee for asking and state that you are more than happy to provide him/her with the report once the research is finished.

Post-interview: stay in touch and keep control

After the interview, transcribe the interview and send it to the interviewee for a final check. This is a nice opportunity for dissemination of your data and a great way to stay in touch! Although some scholars (Dexter 1970/2006) argue that elites use “their roles as gatekeepers to information to control the conclusions the researcher may draw”. I have, however, luckily never experienced that. The informed consent form may also help in this regard because you’ve clearly discussed how you will deal with the transcription beforehand.

After having conducted a number of interviews, you’ll notice that not all interviewees have been of equal importance. While it is important to detect patterns and find a red thread, when interviewing experts and elites it is not so much about the consensus and the numbers. Rather, exceptions, deviations and unusual interpretations may be of great value to your research, particularly when provided by interviewees whose account is comprehensive, plausible and consistent.

In sum, when you are aware of the particularities of interviewing experts, they are a rich source of information. Moreover, because of their influential positions, they may turn out to be an important channel for the dissemination of your research.

Be well prepared, don’t get too much impressed and gently keep control. Good luck!

http://affiliate-101.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/top-affiliate-marketing-tip-for-beginners.jpg♦ Need to develop or refresh some fundamental interviewing-skills? Check out the summer course “Interviewing individuals and groups” offered by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences ♦

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Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy.

Summer Workshops at the Graduate School of Social Science

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By The Graduate School of Social Sciences / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

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The Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) is happy to announce its upcoming summer workshops which will take place in June/July 2015. The intensive workshops focus on specialized qualitative and/or quantitative methods, and provide you with hands-on experience. Summer workshops are a great way to develop and/or strengthen your skills in between busy semesters of study and work.

And in between your hard labour you can enjoy the summer in wonderful Amsterdam.

Well, here goes a summary of the courses’ content and objectives.

  • Conducting Meta-Analyses.

     (By Prof. Brad Bushman, June 15-19, 2015)

The course aims at providing you with the essential tools to conduct high-quality meta-analysis. By the end of this course, participants: (1) will be able to formulate a topic to conduct a meta‐analysis on; (2) will be able to conduct a literature review to collect relevant studies for their topic; (3) will be able to code relevant variables from the studies they retrieve; (4) will be able to meta‐analyze the effects from the studies they retrieved; (5) will be able to interpret and write up the meta‐analytic results

During the five days of the course you will review and discuss important aspects about conducting meta-analysis research. And, most importantly, during the afternoons you will apply the techniques learned on your own project!!

  •  Programming and Analyzing in R.

     (By Dr. Wouter van Atteveldt, June 22-26, 2015)

R is a statistical toolkit that is becoming increasingly popular for more advanced analyses in the social sciences. R has a number of advantages over other toolkits such as SPSS and STATA. It is free of charge and open source, and it is very easy to write additional packages to add functionality.

The good news is, once you’ve learned to use R, you have access to a vast array of statistical methods and visualization techniques and to extremely versatile data processing and visualization techniques. R. This intensive hands‐on workshop will get you started using R on your own dataset. The course will provide you with both theory and hands-on practice. After having discussed the topics related to analysing in R, you will have the opportunity to use R on both provided data and your own project’s data. On the final day of course you will finally present the progress of your analyses and visualization in R: a great chance to receive feedbacks from your fellow colleagues and from the instructor.

  • When and How to Design Experiments.

     (By Dr. Jona Linde & Dr. Camiel Beukeboom, June 29- July 3, 2015)

This course will provide you with the tools to successfully design and use experiments in your project. Experiments are a very common tool in many fields of social science (e.g. communication science; organization science, psychology) and are becoming more common in fields where experiments used to be rare (e.g. political science). This course offers you a great chance to expand your knowledge of experiments and their tailored use in social sciences’ research.

The workshop will cover the philosophy of science behind experimental research, many examples of different types of research questions and experiments, the use of experiments in different social sciences, and practical issues for designing, conducting and reporting proper experiments.

Theory and practice will go hand in hand. You will not only be taught how to successfully design and carry out an experiment, but will also have the chance to update an existing design that can be used in your own research.

  • Interviewing Individuals and Groups.

      (By Prof. Francesca Polletta & Dr. Jacomijne Prins, July 6- 8, 2015)

Interviewing is a standard technique in social research, yet it poses numerous practical challenges. How should you decide whether to do individual or group interviews? How many interviews do you need? How should you deal with sensitive topics? How should you make sense of your data? Can the things people say in an interview setting be taken as what they really believe?

These are the main questions which you will be able to answer to after having attended the course.

During the workshop you will you will cover four main topics: 1) deciding whether to use individual or focus group interviews, 2) choosing a method and sample, 3) conducting interviews, 4) analyzing interview data and writing up findings. For a further intensive workshop on part 4, you can additionally follow the next workshop.

Whether or not you have already set up your project, this course will help you in developing the required skills for reflecting critically on the practical, ethical, and theoretical issues involved in interview‐based research

  • Collecting, Analyzing with Atlas.TI, and Publishing Qualitative Data.

    (By Prof. Barbara Risman, July 13- 15, 2015)

As a researcher you observe, make notes of you observations, interview people, sometimes take pictures, use written and electronic archives and do ethnography. The workshop is designed to equip participants with conceptual tools for analyzing qualitative (e.g., interview) data. Participants will develop hands on skills with how to analyze qualitative data using Atlas Ti by completing in‐class exercises with data provided. Finally, the third objective of this workshop is to provide skills to successfully turn qualitative analysis into manuscripts that can be submitted to journals for review.

The main focus of the course is on analyzing qualitative data once you have collected them.

During the three days of the workshop you will be practically trained on understanding the conceptual background of computer assisted qualitative analysis thru coding data and analysis. If available you can practice on your own data.

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So, what are you waiting for???  Check the Summer Workshops Manual for more information on the courses, credits, fees and timetable here.

Remember to spread the news to fellow colleagues at the VU and at other universities.

To sign up for the courses, or to ask questions and request additional information, email the VU-GSSS at graduate.school.fsw@vu.nl

In addition, there are more courses available in the Amsterdam Summer School. For instance have a look at the highly recommended course “Big Data in Society”, taught by  a number of Professors from our Faculty:

http://www.studyabroadinamsterdam.nl/en/summerschool/courses/big_data/big_data.asp

Enjoy!

Coping with your PhD

Marloes Spekman By Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Most PhD students will agree with me that doing a PhD project often feels like an emotional rollercoaster. For instance, you step into your office in a good mood and happy to finally start working on your data analysis or any other part of your study that you really enjoy doing. However, at the end of the day you are totally worn out by the fact that your journal/conference submission was rejected and you did not get any real work done after you received that e-mail. To make matters worse, guilt keeps you up at night, as a little voice in your head reminds you that “You should have been working on your project tonight! Your roommate is making much more progress on his/her project than you!”

As I have experienced quite a few emotional highs and lows since the start of my project, I have been looking everywhere for advice on how to cope with these PhD-related emotions. Over the years, I have talked to many people about it, participated in a variety of workshops and courses (such as the course “PhD Success and Personal Efficacy”, and workshops like “increase your confidence as a researcher[1]” and “happiness booster[2]”), and read quite a lot about it on the Internet and social media[3].

To keep you sane, here are a few points of advice that I got from these talks, courses and workshops which have helped me cope with my project thus far:

  • Ask yourself: Does obtaining a PhD degree make you a (morally) better person? Does a degree define you as a person?
    If you said yes to these questions, you either put too much pressure on yourself, or you don’t really struggle with these emotions as you are very motivated to devote your time to your PhD (which is awesome of course, as long as it makes you happy!).
    If you said no to these questions, you should probably not be working on your PhD 24/7, and you certainly should not feel guilty about mindlessly watching television at night after a day at the office, or devoting time to other activities that are important to you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other PhD students.
    No PhD project is the same, and every PhD student is different in terms of ambitions, norms, skills, and productivity. If your office roommate often works at night and appears to eat, sleep, and breathe his/her research, that does not mean you have to do the same. Every PhD student has his/her own ways to be most productive. For example, I write best when I’m in the office with a little noise around me, while one of my roommates needs absolute silence and writes best in isolation. You can try out different things (including the things that work for PhD students around you), but try to find the way that works best for you.
  • Set small and feasible goals
    I personally find it difficult to read without getting distracted. My roommate suggested that I set a timer for 20 minutes, and stick with my reading for that 20 minutes (regardless of how much I actually read in that period). After 20 minutes, I give myself a 5-minute break and start a next cycle of 20 minutes. I have found that it’s now easier for me to accept distracting (and often unimportant) thoughts and basically say to them: “That’s okay, but I’ll get back to you in max. 20 minutes”. It has become easier to let it go, and the really important thoughts will pop back up after the 20 minutes. Since I use this method, reading has become much less of a hurdle. This also works for writing: instead of putting “finish dissertation” on your to-do list, try to break it up into little chunks (e.g., “Today, I will write the outline for my first chapter”). Achieving these smaller goals will make you feel good about yourself, and makes writing your dissertation a much more manageable task.
  • Reward yourself and celebrate your successes!
    Positive emotions are important to build resilience for coping with future periods of negative emotion and consequently for emotional well-being (according to the Broaden-and-build theory; Fredrickson, 1998; 2001). Thus, it is important to allow yourself some time to experience these positive emotions instead of rushing through them. Take some time to enjoy your achievements!
    Celebrate the big things, but do not forget to celebrate the little things as well! Did you write an awesome paragraph, or a great blog post? Reward yourself! If you do not know how to celebrate, then think about what makes you happy, and do that whenever you have something to celebrate! (It does not have to be big – 5 minutes of social media time can also be rewarding ;-)) Did you achieve something big? Then celebrate this big times!!
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
    Even though a PhD project may, at times, make you feel very lonely, know that you are not the only one who experiences these emotions. Many PhD students are surprised to learn that the Imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here because everyone else is doing better than you – is very common among PhD students. Other PhD students at times also have trouble finding their motivation or to keep themselves from procrastinating. If you talk to people about it, or search for it online, you will find a wealth of information and tools to help you through the project.

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Experiencing these kinds of emotions as a PhD student is not strange. Even the most motivated PhD students (and professors as well!) have to deal with setbacks. It is part of the process. Remember, that you can do this! Just keep calm and write on (but take it one paragraph at a time ;-)).

 

 

 

Want to read more? Check out these pages:

References

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of general Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

[1] Workshop by Robert Haringsma of the IVPP (Instituut voor Positieve Psychologie; Institute for Positive Psychology), organized by the Graduate Platform of Social Sciences in January 2013.

[2] Workshop by Matthijs Steeneveld during the 2012 PhD Day organized by ProVU.

[3] Twitter follow tips: @PhD2Published, @thesiswhisperer, and @ltrprmvrn (and, if you are out for a laugh, try @YourPaperSucks, @AcademicBatgirl, @ResearchMark, or @angry_prof)

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

Five peaces for Lebanon (and the rest of the Middle East)

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

For my PhD in political science, I study the meaning of peace. Not in the dictionary sense of the word, but in practice: as an objective of ‘peace work’. Why and how you would want to do that is the subject of another blog. When studying the meaning of peace, you will very soon find out that the dictionary sense of the word is not going to help you make sense of most peace work. For instance, the most widely used academic measure of peace boils down to ‘a situation in which no more than 24 people die in a given year because of armed violence.’ But how does that relate to working on post-conflict reconciliation? Or to building democratic institutions? Let alone to peace education or youth peace camps? The amount of people dying is far too crude a measure to serve as an indicator for the success or failure of such peacebuilding work. So my question became: what could be a good indicator? To answer this question, I first had to find out what people were actually trying to achieve with their peace-work.

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As part of this quest, I recently interviewed a series of peace workers in Lebanon, asking what peace means to them. What is peace in Lebanon? Considering that peace is a word that lacks a plural, they gave me a surprising variety of answers.

Most interestingly however, at least for a student of political science, was the lack of answers containing the word ‘political’. In Europe I found that peace work is often seen as highly political (in contrast to more ‘technocratic’ development work). Peace work consists of facilitating political dialogues to reduce violent conflict, building the capacities of local peace ngo’s, or lobbying for the abolition of certain weapon systems. For the Lebanese peace workers I interviewed, none of this was part of their repertoire, nor, in their opinion, a prerequisite for achieving peace.

This is not to say that there is no political notion of peace in the Middle East. There is. The ‘peace process’ (or lack thereof) between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries is an example of this political kind of peace. It is even the first thing many Lebanese mention when you ask them about peace.

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In Arabic this peace is called salaam. Etymologically, as well as in the minds of people, salaam is related to the word Islam, which is ‘(inner) peace through submission to God’s will’. This element of submission is, to my mind, why so many Arab people reject this form of peace: it is not that they necessarily want to wage a total war against Israel, they just don’t want to surrender to it either. A peace between sovereign equals (like the paradigmatic Peace of Westphalia) is just not the kind of peace that Lebanese have in mind when they talk about peace in the political sense of that word. To them peace (salaam) means submission. Hence, almost all organizations working on other forms of peace are very careful to point out that they have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor with politics in general.

Instead, many organizations are working on a ‘civil peace’, or silim in Arabic: establishing good relations between Lebanon’s many different religious groups. This is important, because the political situation in Lebanon is so very tense. And because a breakdown of civil peace leads to civil war in the way Hobbes wrote about it: a war of all against all. This is something no Lebanese who has lived through the civil war wants to experience again. Even if they have grown accustomed to low level political violence. A car bomb detonating in the middle of Beirut is considered no more of a nuisance than a traffic accident, but this violence should never be allowed to spiral out of control again.

On an even more individual level, peace is associated with personally not using violence in your relations with other people. Former combatants from different sides, united in an organization called Fighters for Peace, accentuate the need for a personal commitment to non-violence as the only guarantee for peace. Even if they are privately wondering whether it is wise to uphold such a commitment when you are facing an enemy like the Islamic State.

DSCN0237The most personal kind of peace that people are working on is inner peace: peace of mind. A range of trauma counselors, religiously inspired actors and social and humanitarian workers claim that this is the kind of peace they want to contribute to. Mostly because they believe any other form of peace will only last if people are ready to accept it, and acceptance depends on their state of mind.

Finally, there are some peace activists who see peace explicitly not as a noun, but as an adjective. They share the personal commitment for not using violence, but add another normative goal to it: justice. In the eyes of non-violent activists, peace is not a state of affairs at all, but a way of acting (silmiya, peacefully). Which does make peace political again: it is ‘the continuation of policy by political means only’ (to paraphrase Clausewitz). Peace however, is no longer the objective of this policy, which makes it fundamentally different from the peace process with Israel. Justice is not submission, although peace can mean both things. As well as three others.

So, what is peace in Lebanon? The honest answer is that I am not entirely sure. Which also means that I am not entirely sure whether one can say that there is peace in Lebanon or not. But at least these five concepts give us some clue what it would mean to say there is peace. Which is infinitely more than counting dead people can ever tell us.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

The light of peace – reasoning by metaphor

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes
I study peace. Which is quite unusual. In political science, but even in peace and conflict studies. Many people say they study peace, but really what they study is war. Or ‘armed conflict’, which is war on a smaller scale. These people argue that peace is the absence of war. Hence, if we understand what causes war to either erupt or end, we will also know something about how to keep or achieve peace. Which makes some sense. But problems arise as soon as you are talking about peace-building in post-conflict situations, in frozen low-intensity conflicts or as a preventative measure. You cannot judge the success of these activities solely in terms of how much armed violence they have prevented. Both because it is very difficult to measure violence that did not happen, and because peace is much more than the absence of war.

To explain this to readers unfamiliar with peace and conflict studies, I will introduce a metaphor. I am not sure whether the metaphor works, but it might be illuminating, so let’s give it a try. Let’s say that war is like darkness, and peace is like light. This carries some beautiful religious overtones, and is thus very useful for Christmas dinner conversations or other midwinter nights. In a situation of total and utter darkness, you will want some light. That makes sense. Just as, in really desperate cases of war, you want peace. Any peace. This light can come from many sources: candles, classical light bulbs, low-energy light bulbs (CFLs), oil lamps, led-lights, a fire, a pocket torchlight. Even a match will do when you’re really afraid of the dark. Likewise, peace can come from many sources: armed intervention (or winning the war), promoting non-violence, statebuilding, democracy, improved standards of living, trade, meditation or peace education.

It is an empirical question which of these mechanisms does ‘better’ in terms of preventing or ending armed conflict, just as it is an empirical question how much light stadium lights provide compared to matches. On a quantitative approach to peace, this is as far as you can get. But more interesting than the amount of light (peace) a certain intervention brings, is the question what kind of light is needed for this situation. Especially when it is not totally dark.

Then you might not want to risk burning your fingers on a match, especially not if the match will not add much to the already shadowy illumination. And when you are feeling sleepy, lighting a candle to drive away the darkness might not be the best solution (as your local fire brigade will no doubt be glad to tell you). Making love (instead of war) is best done by soft candlelight, whereas rebuilding calls for construction lights. Comparable advantages and disadvantages can be found for all other forms of illumination, but the point is clear.

In a situation of total darkness you might want any kind of light, but as soon as there is some light to go by, you have to start thinking about the pros and cons of different forms of lighting.

It is the same with peace. In a situation of total war, like the Syrian conflict, it is extremely useful to think of different strategies to stop this war and try any of them. But fortunately, in most other conflicts the situation is not as dark as it is there. Which means that you have to think carefully about the kind of light (the kind of peace) you are bringing to those situations.

You can’t do this solely by studying the darkness and measuring its depth. You have to study the varieties of peace, as phenomena in and of themselves. Because different (post-) conflict situations call for different forms of peace. Sometimes you will need reconciliation, sometimes accountability. Sometimes you will have to work on people’s mindset, sometimes on institutional constraints. Sometimes you will want a candle, sometimes construction lights. What you probably don’t want is to set the world on fire, even though in a situation of total darkness  this will provide some  light.

But, unless you study peace as a positive phenomenon, you will have no idea what the candle, the construction lights and the fire are metaphors for. I am open to suggestions.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.