Thinking about my academic tribe…what’s yours?

During the semester I good fortune to take Dr. Mara Schoeny’s course on qualitative research for the social sciences at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  We kept logs about the experience and we dealt with questions pertaining to ethics and interpersonal aspects of conflict analysis and resolution.  While these were important, what particularly came through during the latter part of the semester was the way that I engage with and reflect upon the fact that I’m a member of a “tribe” in terms of how I conceive of and do research.  Framing my “tribal affiliation” in a way that both empowered me as a researcher, while also helping me reflectively frame the ways that other research “tribes” contribute to the work that I currently do and will do in the future was a huge help as I prepare to write a dissertation next year.

Dr. Schoeny and I had spoken a few times about the way that different tracks of research frame ideas and concepts, test them, understand them, and recognize the value-added of research.  She talked about being at the ISA conference in San Diego this spring and attending the security studies-oriented panels, then compared the experience to attending a panel focused on inter-personal peacebuilding.  Both panels discussed parallel themes, but the language and methodology were completely different.  The feeling of the panel and the culture of critique were notably different as well.  I reflected on these conversations and tried to figure out which tribe I run with, and how to use reflective practice to get the most out of this affiliation while also learning from and appreciating the work done by scholars from different tracks within the conflict analysis and resolution space.

To start with, I reflected on where I estimate I fit within the academic space.  This was my opportunity to decide which tribe I was part of.  I started with some basic reflections on how I do research.  I tend to be quantitatively oriented and generally frame my research questions as hypotheses, focusing on “why” questions as opposed to “how” or “what” questions.  While I tend to be quantitative in my approach I also am comfortable using qualitative approaches to research when appropriate.  After reflecting on these aspects of my research approach, I was comfortable framing myself as a positivist.

This was further reinforced when I considered particular epistemological questions about the practice of research.  One that came up was whether research should empower the informants, or if research should be focused on the maintenance of a studied distance from the daily lives and impacts on the local community being studied.  As I reflected I settled on the position that research need not be done with empowerment as the goal, and that most of the research I do is unlikely to be focused on a community in a way that they would derive direct benefit from it.  The irony is that a long term research paper I’m working on with another doctoral student from the University of London on mobile phones and their impact on Kenyan governance could have very real implications for how large civil society organizations interact with local leaders.  The lesson I took from this was that in my approach to research there can be positive benefits for a community if I focus on doing good research, and don’t necessarily focus on doing research to empower a community.  A comfort with the fact that a post-modern focus on empowerment and power dynamics would feel disingenuous helped me be comfortable with both my own positivist approach and acknowledge the value added by researchers who focus on community empowerment when they do their research.

The second aspect of my research practice is that I’m a Realist in terms of how I view the international relations field.  While I see the value in understanding Liberalist and Constructivist approaches to analyzing international relations, I prefer to frame my research through the lens of treating the state as the key actor.  In S-CAR I have felt like something of an anomaly for taking this position, but again by reflecting on what I study and why I study it my realism adds value to the space while benefiting from the critical viewpoints held by my fellow cohort mates.  To find my comfort zone, I reflected on what it is that I actually research.  Most of my work centers on structural factors around military to civilian leadership transitions in post-conflict environments.  I also study macro level impacts of information communication technology on these transitions.  My target audience is both the academic and the policy community (particularly UN and NATO agencies), so it makes sense that my research is state-centric; in the operational space that UN and NATO operate in the member states drive the programming.  Even though these entities are liberalist constructs, at the core it is states and the inter-relations between states that make them operate.  Through a thorough reflection of who my audience is I can be comfortable with my approach to conflict analysis and resolution research, and even provide value added to the work being done by my classmates who focus on different aspects and levels of conflict.

Getting back to my tribe, when I integrated my reflections on methods, schools of thought, and audience, I decided that I probably run with a sub-tribe of political science focused on security and political economy.  I reflected on my own experience at conferences and thought about which panels were the most interesting, and also the most comfortable for me.  I many cases I find myself in the panels that focus on economics and conflict, or technology for conflict prevention and management.  Reflecting on this allows me to frame my interests within a wider body of literature, and to recognize the limits and purposes of my own research.  By knowing my “tribe” and the limits of what my “tribe” can understand through our standard methodologies and institutional views, I have found I am far more likely to reach out to researchers from other backgrounds to work together to find knowledge at the intersection of our shared interesting in conflict analysis and resolution.  Through regular reflection I am comfortable within research community and literary space, and this comfort makes it easier to reach across methodological and ontological boundaries to do research that unravels and clarifies the complexity of conflict and conflict resolution.

What tribe do you affiliate with?  I’d love to hear about your experiences as researchers and how experience and audience shape your approach!

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