mourning | celebrating

When I initially signed on to do my PhD, one of the things I most wanted to do was include a survey in the project. I’ve been almost exclusively trained as a qualitative researcher but felt, and continue to feel, that it’s important to learn new skills, skills that might actually help position me as a social scientist that someone might one day want to hire – what a thought! The real value of the method to the actual project was always going to be limited, but hey, you can’t let one conceptual question dictate everything.

But, today I reached a point where I actually had to acknowledge that the survey would not only have almost no benefit to my broader study, but that the emotional and financial costs mean that its probably not worth it. Over the last few days, since some #RealTalk from my supervisor, tears have been shed; pros and cons lists created, scrapped, more honestly recreated; a detailed flow chart of ‘to do if’ drawn up. But the reality is, you don’t need to be bound to your initial research plans. Especially if you’re not tied up in specific fundings terms and conditions, which I’m not, and if, as the initial research starts to come in, it becomes clearer that something different is required. If you want to be a good researcher, you have to respond to what you find along the way and acknowledge when your best laid plans are actually not going to work.

Wholly scrapping the plans for the survey and rethinking the project, how to move forward etc., will take a few days – there are several to do lists, timelines, and goals which need to be recreated – but deciding that it’s something which needs to be done has actually left me feeling quite liberated. It’s left some space for new ideas and plans. Space which will soon be filled with new stresses. But new stresses which will hopefully be more satisfying and productive to explore.

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oh, hi there, Vhembe

I’m currently up in Vhembe, where it’s a mild 31 degrees, so I thought I’d share three of my favourite things about being in the district with you.

(1) Baobabs

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(2) The food options are…interesting

The first couple of times I came up to Vhembe I was a committed vegetarian. So committed that I cumulatively ate four weeks worth of toasted cheese and tomatoes. Now that I eat meat, trips are far more pleasant culinarily speaking. Although, the nearest restaurant is sometimes still in the middle of the Kruger, and a fancy meal just means that you get olives liberally sprinkled on your chips.

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(3) A lot of the time you’re just going ‘WHERE AM I?’

To be fair, you could be anywhere in a fairly large area which borders Zimbabwe. And you might be lost. But you definitely won’t be bored.

 

 

Proposal presented

I (finally!) presented my PhD proposal last week. After two or three delays I couldn’t wait to get it out of the way.

Let’s be clear, the actual presentation is only the second step in the proposal submission process. Write*; Present; Re-write; Submit; Cry over comments from readers; Rewrite; Submit; Pray. Nevertheless, it feels like a massive achievement, and it was good to present it and get constructive feedback. And by that I mean feedback which didn’t fundamentally question the relevance or theoretical underpinnings of the project. Because, let’s face it, no one EVER what’s that kind of feedback.

In celebration of this step (albeit only one of many), here is a picture of me just prior to presenting**

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*this obviously involves multiple writings

**picture courtesy of Dave Francis’ amazing artistic skills

This time tomorrow: Knee deep in doughnuts

The visa gods looked kindly on Goitse and me yesterday, making sure we got our passports and visas a casual three hours before our flight (!).

So right now, we’re on our way to Ottawa, where on Friday (28 October), we’ll be participating in a symposium on Migration and Intersectionality.

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I’ll be presenting a paper on local level policy making, arguing that if we’re serious about intersectional or transversal policy making, we need to think seriously about making policy at a district level in South Africa.

If you’re interested, here and here are two of the seminal and (I think) better pieces on intersectionality out there.

‘A kind of freak accident’ / My MA found it’s way to the M&G

So I’ve been making a bit of a song and dance about research communication, what it is, and how you’re meant to do it. And then, on Saturday evening a friend texted me to say that I’d been quoted in the Mail & Guardian. After much ‘wait…what’ emoji sending and the locating of a copy of this week’s M&G, we found on page 13, in an article about VFS and the Guptas, a quote from my Master’s research report.

I was more than a little surprise. Everything, and I mean everything, that I’ve been thinking about research communication had made me think that it would land up being a Sisyphean task. I would plot and plan how best to communicate my research and ultimately getting nowhere. And you, dear reader, would read blog post after blog post about how people just won’t engage with research. And then, out of nowhere, an obscure piece of academic writing (because that really is what a thesis is) that I wrote about 18 months ago gets used in the M&G.

My hope in the universe restored, I contacted Phillip de Wet, the journalist who had quoted me, to find out how he’d found the quote/thesis. I’m not quite sure what I was imagining he’d say. I suppose part of me hoped that he’d have some ‘lesson’ for me to take forth and use in my further research communicating. Instead:

‘Think of it as a kind of freak accident, perhaps; considering how little (of) what we publish is drawn from research, pretty much every instance is…’

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*The M&G is behind a paywall these days unfortunately, I can’t even access the article electronically.

Post workshop / feeling overwhelmed by research communication

I feel like I may have created a bit of an impression that I actually know what research communication is and am really good at it. Let me put the record straight: that is not the case.

When I first set up the blog, I wanted to get a baseline for how well I have been communicating my research pre-blog so that in a year or two I can see if the blog has led to any improvements. So I sent out a Google Forms survey to friends and family with a couple of questions, for e.g.: where do I work; what does my job entail; what is my research about; what was I doing in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The good news finding from my survey is that I can only improve…

Although friends and family are arguably not the primary audience I am trying to communicate my research to, they are a good place to start. Let’s face it, no one else is reading my blog yet!

I must admit, however, that thinking about who my primary audience is, is a little daunting. Largely  because they’re the same group of people that I need to use as research participants. My research around policy process – who influences policy, how is policy influenced, etc. – requires interviewing, working with, and critiquing policy makers, key stakeholders, and CSOs (Civil Society Organisations – what we now call NGOs I’m told). But these are the exact same people I need to communicate my findings to and who I hope will learn from my research. And let’s be honest, this is going to require a level of tact and subtly that I do not have!

So while I’m feeling suitably more au fait about writing press releases and facilitating workshops, successful research communication is going to require a lot more.

#sex #slavery / ethical considerations in research communication

We’ve just finished day 2 of the workshop, and I’m pretty sure the facilitator thinks I’m the most annoying person in the world. What?! I’m enthusiastic!

I’m really enjoying the workshop, but am a bit concerned that we haven’t once spoken about the ethics around research communication. We’ve discussed in depth the use of social media, but ethical considerations have not been given the same consideration.

From my experience, once you’ve developed a research proposal you send it to an ethics committee who assess whether you have sufficiently engaged with the ethical implications of your research and will provide for your participants’ needs. By, for example, providing them with an outline of the research and your contact details, and the details of support networks and care providers if you are talking to vulnerable people or asking personal questions.

While, to my knowledge, research communication is not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny, as researchers this is definitely something we should be thinking about. The most effective way to communicate your research may be to use an image of a participant, but is that ethical? Perhaps it may be to use the moral panics around women and children, #sex and #moderndayslavery, but is it ethical to indulge that panic even momentarily and even if it gets people to read your research? We’re being told to communicate our research as much as possible, but every study has its limitations, and those limitations are seldom acknowledged in our dissemination where we focus on the findings and evidence – because that’s what people/policy makers want – but surely that’s problematic?

But perhaps I’m being too difficult, maybe all of these things are ok. There’s so much terrible information and bad evidence out there, if you have to appeal to people’s love of panic or breeze past your study’s limitations what’s the harm really? At least people are reading your work?

 

Remember Kony 2012? / The importance of research communication

I’m currently at a three day science communication and engagement workshop facilitated by Dialogue Matters and organised by the British Council, Newton Fund, and ASSAf (Academy of Science in South Africa). In honour of my involvement in this event and because I might (secretly) enjoy blogging, I’ve decided to do a short three part series on science communication and my experiences of it to date.

Some of the research that I’ve been working on around policy process and the Trafficking in Persons Act has shown that South Africans, generally, are incredibly reactive towards any information that gets shoved in their faces. We don’t tend to be proactive and find information out for ourselves, we wait for information to come to us via Facebook or Twitter and then, without verifying it, repost or retweet and come to bizarre conclusions about the world. Anyone remember Kony 2012? This is largely what happened with the moral panic* around trafficking in South Africa – those who shouted their ‘facts’ loud enough and presented them in a glossy enough way were believed and were able to make trafficking – a phenomenon of which there is no evidence in SA – part of the national conversation.

So there’s definitely a need for those of us doing methodically sound research to do a better job of telling people about it so that we can avoid or defuse moral panics. Some have also, however, suggested that it’s an obligation of those doing research to communicate it better, or at all. Philosophically, I agree. But on a practical level part of me wonders whether we can expect a bunch of socially awkward academics, in a time of budget cuts, increasing class sizes, and decreasing research funds to find the time to do more with their research findings.

Luckily for me, I’m on a fully funded position with no teaching load, and plenty of time to blog!

 

*For those interested:

For more on moral panics see Cohen, S. 1980. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson

‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.’

A blog? In 2016?

 

Yup, that’s right folks, I’m starting a blog in 2016. I haven’t had one of these since I was 15 and I’m pretty sure the background involved butterflies. However, the contract that I signed when I started my PhD with the Migration and Health Project (maHp), includes a clause about writing a blog and communicating my research and the research process – so I’m stuck here, and you’re stuck with me trying to make sense of my research in public. My one consolation is that if my concerns and struggles are documented on the internet for all to see, I might avoid becoming that person at dinner parties who shouts ad nauseum about their work.

One of the focus areas of maHp is ‘knowledge production, dissemination, and uptake’. Research uptake/science communication describe a growing trend within the academy for researchers to do a better job at communicating their research outside of the university space, or even just outside of the obscure journal in which they managed to get their research published.

As such, I’ll be using this blog as a general space to talk about the research process and what my research entails and shows. Due to some concern about journals being willing to publish things that have already been published elsewhere, especially a publicly available blog, until I’ve actually published my findings, I’ll be posting more about the research process and the projects that I’m involved in than the research findings themselves.

For now, while I work on more exciting content for the blog, feel free to peruse the other pages and blogs that I’ve linked in to find out more about the work at ACMS and maHp.