Blaze the trail
Getting on with fieldwork
- The rookie researcher’s check-list
- Fieldwork under threat
- Introducing yourself when starting fieldwork
- Pitching yourself
- Note taking and sharing
- Interview takeaways and throwaways
- In the data wasteland
- Documentation and sourcing
- Building your analysis on and through fieldwork
- The research question
- Going deep
- Illustration credits
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All these items are drawn from Synaps’ mentoring platform on management and methodology. Synaps doesn’t aim solely at incubating ideas: it ambitions to help build a brain trust of individuals who think creatively about the challenges we all face. This is why we invest heavily in human capital, through intensive mentoring and, we hope, effective management. This platform captures, unpacks and feeds back into that effort. For updates (typically less than once a month), sign up here.
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SETTING OFF on your first research project—or, for that matter, on any new one—likely will create some sense of confusion. You face a topic that, by definition, you don’t know much about, along with inevitably high expectations regarding outcomes. At some stage, you’ll have to know the issue inside out. For now, mostly, you draw a blank. A good place to start is to answer the following checklist of questions, which will point you in the right direction for the journey.
- Is my topic sufficiently well defined? A good topic, as this stage, is one that you understand, that appears doable on the face of it, and that seems interesting. If one of these three is missing, discuss further with your manager.
- Do I have a clear idea of the end-game? Your work should never be left open-ended. Make sure you know precisely what kind of output (an article, a thesis, a visual rendition) you are aiming for.
- What is my overall timeframe? Not setting a deadline guarantees that things will take longer than necessary, and adds an unwarranted element of uncertainty. Fill the void by defining your goals.
- Have I parsed my topic into subtopics? Any issue of interest contains a number of distinct facets or dimensions that you must think through and list. This list will guide you in your data-collection process.
- What are my preliminary interrogations? Don’t fear that your initial questions may sound naïve: they should be. By answering these quickly, you will move faster to more sophisticated ones.
- What kind of first-hand material will I use? Sound research cannot rest solely on work already carried out by others. You must therefore specify, early on, what observations, interviews, data sets you intend to garner and build upon.
- Who around me can help me get started? As we worry about the long road ahead, we usually ignore forms of support that are closest to home. Colleagues, friends, relatives, neighbors often have important leads or insights that may kick start data collection.
- What creative points of entry can I think of? Good data collection almost always flows from unexpected sources, which means that you, as a rookie on your subject, have the advantage of imagination. Use it.
- What existing literature is available? Virtually all topics are far better studied than we tend to assume. Of course, there is always a new angle, but to narrow it down, pull together a strong bibliography to cover your bases and find inspiration.
- What analytic tools can I build? Data is rarely pre-structured and must therefore be organized from the get go. Get started on whatever chronology, set of biographies, spreadsheet of figures or map may ultimately prove useful.
- What information system should I deploy? Your research likely will tap into a large variety of sources, that must be funneled effectively if you are to keep track. See more below.
- What academic disciplines can I draw upon? Not all research is academic, but academia has much to offer to any research project. Ask friends and colleagues with different backgrounds about conceptual approaches that may apply to your topic, or simply inspire you to take a fresh look at it.
- Which of my strengths can I play to? Two people working separately on the same topic will address it very differently, as a result of divergent skills, opportunities and instincts. Make the most of whatever your strong suits are.
- Which of my weaknesses must I factor in? Similarly, don’t pretend that you don’t have weak spots. Identify them to see how best to overcome or circumvent your handicaps.
- Are there executive decisions I must make? Managing your research project entails some pragmatism. If you evidently lack the time, resources, access or motivation to see it through, raise problems and make decisions about them without delay.
- When should I next see my manager? Having answered the above questions, give yourself a deadline for completing preliminary research, and schedule a chat with your manager to make it real.
At work, researchers usually must display high levels of autonomy, which in turn requires adequate tools. A big part of your ultimate success will stem from kitting yourself out from the very start. A central component of that equipment is what you could call the “the analyst’s information system.” This will depend on your topic, your specialty, your inclinations and so on.
In the Synaps context, a powerful information system, to comprehensively investigate and report on a specific issue, would include the following:
- List all relevant contacts, in separate categories. Distinguish those you already know, and can reach out to, from those you have yet to engage. Map connections between them, as figuring out potential introductions, factors of tension, and risks related to groupthink are all key. Break your network down into operational subcategories.
- Divide your overall topic into subtopics of interest and create a “running file” for each, where you will dump, for future reference, whatever corresponding material you come across as you keep up with your topic generally. Here you may also document your own thought process—ideas that arise and that you want to write down.
- Keep track, in a separate list, of the emerging “subjects” that you feel the need to investigate further, and possibly cover specifically, as you process such material.
- Identify key conventional media sources, or blogs, and subscribe to their mailing lists. Take time to check the right boxes to narrow down your options if possible. Create a label on Gmail (or any other server) and apply a filter to receive such emails in a specific folder.
- In parallel, take time to systematically unsubscribe from unwanted distribution lists, and report spam to reduce the clutter.
- Identify and group key Twitter sources in a private list.
- Befriend key Facebook sources and like relevant pages.
- Make sure to build diversity into your social media networks to capture the broadest sample of views.
- Define a policy for your social media usage, to cut down on random scrolling, and make the time you spend on Facebook and Twitter more productive.
- After interviews, systematically type your notes and organize them, with tags, to ensure you can navigate them easily even several years later.
- Finally, when saving documents, use file names that clearly identify them, ideally with date and subject matter. If you are handling large volumes of documents, distribute them into categories, themselves made clear in your folder names.
By the time you implement the right combination of ideas above, the void you may have felt as you initiated your project will already have started to fill. What was once a blank page is now pregnant with the reassurances of writing, and without even knowing it, you’re well underway.
SECURITY ISSUES are the Cinderella of field-based research, with organizations tending to gravitate toward either severe neglect or over-the-top fanfare—with advisors, trainings, forms, processes and procedures creating the appearances of full control, when no such thing is possible. Security policies often verge on the absurd: embassies write off whole areas as “red zones” when there is much grey and green within them; organizations commission expensive drills on deadly violence while ignoring equally or more important first-aid skills; and expats develop a bunker mentality that makes them even more vulnerable, by disconnecting them from their environment.
The difficulty in achieving the right balance on security issues is understandable, given the complexity of the problem: threats are multiple, dynamic, often ambiguous, and generally specific to each individual in a given context, making it difficult to design a standardized response. Moreover, addressing security issues is a matter of aligning multiple, very different logics. Shifting dynamics on the ground; informal personal routines; and formal organizational frameworks all play a role, and often make for awkward bedfellows. The danger comes from the fact that the first item may change faster than the second, which itself may quickly overtake the last.
Given the impossibility of a one-size-fits-all template, the emphasis here is on expounding an overall methodology that can be adapted to a particular context. Two essential notions are awareness—which hinges on the researcher in the field—and responsibility, which ultimately rests with whomever assumes a supervisory role. These, in turn, will require flexibility and effective communication in the moment, but also a measure of forethought and intellectualization: the more a researcher and manager have analyzed the risks faced in the field, the better their chances of keeping steady when the going gets rough.
Field research in precarious circumstances will generally rest upon a “system” that researchers themselves develop—consciously or otherwise. A researcher’s behavior is informed by a set of assumptions about the environment; various resources—including friends and colleagues—used to assess potential threats; and past experiences. Based on these, a researcher will define rules on where to go and not go; whom to rely upon or avoid; how to communicate with various networks; in what form and place to keep notes, etc. The effectiveness of the “system” that ties together all these decisions will improve considerably through self-awareness, on the part of researcher and manager alike. Recurring features are therefore important to consider:
- There are as many systems as there are people and situations;
- Systems are very personal and often instinctive—they may not be strictly rational, but rather drawn on beliefs, fears and comfort zones that have little logical basis;
- They develop over time, through incremental trial and error;
- They tend to remain informal—even when formal policies are enforced—because the latter are subject to being ignored, re-interpreted, or overtaken by spur-of-the-moment decisions and unforeseeable events;
- Last but not least, systems are intrinsically hard to discuss openly, for a variety of reasons—ranging from distrust, superstition and paranoia (which are part-and-parcel of working under threat) to conflicts of interest with top-down policies, through to the embarrassment felt at their improvised or pretentious character.
Indeed, researchers in challenging environments sometimes conclude that “no one understands” the exact nature of what they must handle, and therefore keep mostly silent about their modus operandi. That is, precisely, the greatest liability: systems are best intellectualized and enhanced through constructive discussion with others. General lessons-learned, from a variety of contexts, include the following:
- The biggest threat may well be… yourself. Your profile and/or the work you do introduce an uncertain variable in an unsettled environment, where people typically play by tenuous rules of the game. Many hazards come from mistakes you make, more than events beyond your control. Not only may you hurt yourself, but harm others. The upshot is that a large part of the risk relates to something we do govern: our own course of action.
- No amount of experience guarantees results. A frequent, hazardous misconception is that we get better and better at dealing with insecurity. There is no way of knowing in advance how we will respond to a novel threat, and only limited cause to think that we will react appropriately to a familiar one. A repeat may, for instance, bring up an element of trauma that will radically change the equation. As such, threatening environments demand (and impose) humility.
- Knowing your weak-points is your strength. Paradoxically, the hardest part of working under dangerous conditions can be throwing in the towel. You’re good at what you do—and excited by it. You can’t leave as things are heating up, getting more meaningful professionally. How could you justify giving up on a hunch… before something actually happens to you? Well, that’s precisely the point. The most durable researchers are those that have the courage to turn back when they feel they have reached their personal limits. Exhaustion, overreaction to minor events, a confused sense of dread, are sufficient reasons to pull out. You set the boundaries at least as much as the environment does.
- Movement is a core component of any system. Your awareness is a function of the interface you nurture with your environment, which itself depends on your ability to physically interact with people. Locking yourself into your first circle of friends—or, worse, your home—is a sure sign that you should be seeking ways of pulling out entirely instead.
- Your system works until it doesn’t. The instincts, routines and networks you hone in a certain time and space may be perfectly efficient, and still become a liability as soon as you change locations, roles or timeframes. In particular, deteriorating situations have a certain rhythm demanding sensitivity. You are working in an authoritarian regime, say. Under normal circumstances, only occasional reviews of your assumptions—to reflect the mood of the security services or the domestic balance of forces—are required. If popular discontent rises seriously, you may have to reappraise weekly. When an uprising breaks out, daily updates become mandatory. If you are caught up in the early stages of a war, time can further speed up; you may live hour to hour, if not minute to minute. And then, usually, things slow down again, into a “new normal” that can be both violent and relatively predictable.
- Know where you are and where you’re heading. Most dangers do not occur out of the blue: they ebb and flow according to changes, big or small, occurring within your environment or in your relationship to it. The appropriate response to a dynamic situation resides in understanding the moment you are in by contrast with the phase you are moving into: what is the transition about? This logic also applies to physical movements. Fieldwork, obviously, is safest in familiar contexts. It makes complete sense to explores new areas, but on condition that you are guided and endorsed by people who know them for you.
- Always analyze the unusual. Having grasped the essentials of your environment, it it crucial to stop and appraise whatever may seem out of the ordinary: bizarre calls, unjustified aggressions, a sudden silence in a usually noisy place, and so on. The first goal is to calmly assess whether there is any reason to pay further attention, conscientiously avoiding the two extremes of denial and paranoia. Most often, it is impossible to come up with a quick, satisfactory interpretation; you can then default to a slightly higher level of alertness, until further developments either confirm or dispel your concern.
- Go high-end or low-profile. Staying safe in a precarious environment requires one of two things: insulating yourself with bodyguards, armored vehicles and fortified dwellings; or, on the contrary, shunning all of the above in favor of integration. For a researcher—limited in resources and reliant on face-to-face engagement—the choice is usually clear: invest in friends, neighbors, and a broader network of contacts, who will help you navigate the risks that arise, and provide hints when you get out of your depth. You don’t need to blend in seamlessly if you’re not from the area, and you certainly don’t gain from pretending to be something that you’re not; what saves is trust-based, consistent, genuine and diversified relationships. Small gestures of respect—e.g. modulating your language, appearance and behavior—will help you being accepted for your differences.
- De-romanticize “intelligence.” In authoritarian settings, researchers—especially if they are working on sensitive topics—are often tempted to play spies. They may encrypt documents and emails, use ploys to shake any “tails,” and generally assume that they are under surveillance. Yet efforts to hide from security services will do more harm than good, raising red flags and drawing more attention than would otherwise be the case. A safer bet, then, is to be as transparent as possible on innocuous subject matter while concealing only what is compromising. That often isn’t much and may boil down to the names of interviewees in transcripts, rare pieces of truly damming information, and occasional contact details that may be more problematic than most.
- Tap the savvy that surrounds you. Although each situation is specific, there is no need to constantly reinvent the wheel. The diversity of systems mentioned above is a treasure-trove of ideas you can emulate, tweak, or reject. Many organizations possess enormous collective know-how, which remains underused for lack of discussion and excessive focus on procedures. You will benefit from defining, thanks to the experience of others, the true nature of a particular threat. War, for example, poses above all issues of cash and communications, to inform and fund the constant and costly adjustments it entails. Kidnapping, by contrast, is almost entirely about psychological resilience and external support systems, because there is very little hostages know about their own situation and even less they can do about it.
- Proactive communication is essential. Among the worst things you can do is stand alone in the face of your concerns, fears or actual threats. You’ll probably need help when you find yourself in a fix, and those who can lend a hand will be most effective the more and sooner they know. Your location, travel plans, meeting schedules, contact details, and personal risk assessments can be critical. Whatever it is you must share, and whomever you decide to inform, do so consistently. This also, critically, means building trust between researcher and manager.
From the manager’s perspective, it would be naïve to assume that the person conducting dangerous fieldwork is entirely responsible for his or her own fate; if a researcher is arrested, wounded, kidnapped, killed, or causes harm to people around them, the manager is answerable, in both practical and moral terms. At the same time, the solution does not reside in creating formalistic policies and procedures that tend to focus more on evading responsibility than assuming it.
As a conscientious manager, bear four duties in mind. First, you have an obligation to start with listening. As a rule, the person on the ground understands the environment best, senses how it changes, draws on available resources to manage such inflexions, and knows their own limits—or, in other words, has a “system.” Your surest way of getting a grasp of what is at stake is to hear your staff out and learn from them. This is also essential to gaining their trust, in return for deferring to their experience and judgment.
A second imperative is for you to adjust. If procedures and policies are already enforced within your organization, they must be discussed, explained, and tailored to each and every specific case. Managing security is an iterative process, demanding solutions that don’t generally preexist.
The manager’s third duty is to step in when necessary. Crises experienced in the field sometimes create the need for a steady point of reference—a turning point the manager must prepare for. There can be several reasons to intervene. Any breach of trust on either side of the staff-manager relationship must be overcome before any further research can be conducted. Wavering on the part of the person in the field—conveying a sense of unease, confusion and indecisiveness—is another sign that a manager should put his or her foot down, propose options or make decisions from outside.
Fourth, anticipation is a must. Although the researcher may fail to imagine all possible threats and precautions, the manager has no excuse. A responsible supervisor must lay out, explicitly, the limits regarding what liabilities the organization is willing to bear, at what cost, and to what consequences. He or she must likewise articulate a deliberate policy regarding what insurances—health, life, travel, kidnapping—will or will not be taken out. In other words, the manager should have answers to every possible version of the question “what if?” In the absence of good answers, he or she must be comfortable taking the risk of heading into the unknown.
REACHING OUT to unknown people may be hard in ordinary circumstances. As we wade into an entirely new area of research—which typically, to prove interesting, must be removed from our social comfort zone—it can be daunting.
In practice, though, it’s really just a matter of finding where to start. Just like a conversation may naturally flow from the right introduction, fieldwork can quickly take on a dynamic of its own. And figuring out the starting point for the relationships you need to establish is not as hard as it sounds.
Of course, every round of fieldwork is unique, meaning you should discuss the practicalities of starting off on a case-by-case basis with people enjoying relevant experience. General principles, however, do apply.
A golden rule is to never lie—never pretend to be someone or something you are not. That may help in the early stages, but soon enough you’ll be busted and the word will get around. Good fieldwork ultimately will rest on trusted relationships, and nothing will do more harm to them than a foundational lie. When uncovered, it will bring into question everything else about you—your real identity, the nature of your intentions, the integrity of your organization, the sincerity of your friendship, and so on.
That said, when you present yourself to an individual removed from your usual circles, your more formal markers of status and purpose likely won’t make much sense. Research in itself is fuzzy, if not suspicious, in the minds of most people: why would he/she be genuinely interested in us? What is the hidden agenda? What good could come of discussing intimate issues with a stranger? Invoking the name of a research center may, at least, provide some reassurances as to the institutional reality behind your presence, but that won’t in itself dispel any of these questions. Titles like “researcher”, “fellow” or “analyst” won’t lift the haze but rather add to it, as will the jargon you may use to explain your topic to an informed audience. Academic concepts, NGO catch-words and other acronyms may impress people due to their esoteric authority, but they’re unlikely to contribute to a balanced, open dialogue.
Introducing yourself is about framing the interaction effectively. What is its raison d’etre? Or, in other words, why are we talking to each other? Basically you must explain who you are, why you are there, what you are interested in, and why that is understandable and legitimate. As soon as the interaction makes sense, all kinds of opportunities open up.
Here’s an apparent paradox: your starting point in presenting yourself should always be your interlocutor, not yourself. You must find a way of framing things that fits into his / her world, rather than trying to get him / her to understand and accept yours. Don’t spend time explaining why your research is critically important to their lives (sadly, it isn’t); why the sacrosanct pursuit of knowledge is justification enough (not quite); or why you’re definitely not a spy (now, who’s going to believe that?). Say in simple, relatable words why you’re sincerely interested in your topic: because of the issue’s intrinsic relevance; because of your life-story, that brought you to this juncture; or merely because you’re being paid to do this study—a motivation many will already have assumed is at the heart of your endeavor.
People we meet generally engage with us for what we might see as the wrong reasons. Often they hope they’ll get something out of it: entertainment, better connections, maybe some form of compensation or – why not? – a job or a visa. Some are awed by the researcher’s status and just don’t know how to say no. Many schedule an appointment only because you came with the right introduction. Or they are already in the business of answering questions, as politicians, spokespeople or pundits. Not infrequently, they are selling a narrative they have a stake in, which they expect you to buy and amplify, rather than deconstruct.
A surprising number of relationships thus start off on a misunderstanding—but that need not matter. On the contrary: ambiguity facilitates human interactions by allowing the parties to project something personal and meaningful into them. A researcher may say, “I got a position with a small organization that wants to understand problems from a local perspective, and convince donors to spend more wisely.” That statement may well be interpreted as follows: “aha, that must be a cushy job with the foreigners, but fair enough.” That initial perception may work just as well as a starting point for grounding the relationship’s raison d’etre; from there, you can build trust, prove your use, demonstrate your knowledge, establish your credibility, etc.
During or after your introduction, your interlocutors may already be keen to interject. Let them do so: they’ll be giving you hints as to where your relationship is going, and what initial perceptions are already gelling within them. They may be curious, indifferent, skeptical, or even openly hostile – none of which do more than tell you where the challenge of connecting may lie. Be prepared, also: you should be ready to answer all foreseeable, basic queries, so it is up to you to anticipate and “rehearse” the most obvious lines of an incipient conversation.
Once you get past the opening exchange, you can get into what you are interested in more specifically. Again, continue to seek an angle that makes things understandable and acceptable for your interlocutor. If you’re digging into, say, militant behavior, don’t throw in concepts like “radicalization,” which would reflect your biases. You may want to talk, rather, about disenfranchised youth, which virtually everyone will relate to. Sometimes it’s easier to use a very broad angle, working your way down from the economic environment or big political trends all the way to their very concrete manifestations in the neighbourhood.
Remember that there can be several beginnings to a conversation. Even if your initial entry-point turns out to be a dead-end, you’ll get second and third chances. Don’t belabor an argument that’s going nowhere; try a completely different angle, and yet another, until you you’ve reached the place where you wanted to go (or somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go). A conversation will feel right when something clicks with your interlocutor. That is what you must be looking for – because that connection means that you are both sincerely engaged in the interaction. Obviously, the very same people can behave completely differently on the same subject depending on how you approach it.
As you work your way into a conversation, don’t necessarily rush into what you believe is important. Finding ways of building the relationship is more important still. That can take you off on a tangent, in which case let yourself go. Most of what is truly interesting in an encounter is also, by nature, unexpected, so do not resist when people spontaneously try to take you into an area they believe is meaningful.
In fact, it is important to reinforce people in what they say, to encourage them to go on–to the point of either repeating what you found most relevant and pertinent, or commenting on it to indicate that you are taking that idea fully on board. A critical skill to acquire consists of sharing sound analysis based on what you just heard, which highlights both your interlocutor’s insightfulness and your ability to listen, understand, empathize and display value-added of your own.
Although it is essential to follow your interlocutor where he / she wants to go, you can’t allow them to just walk you round in circles. Out of sheer respect for everyone’s time, the conversation must be lively, informative, meaningful, rhythmic almost, and that is your responsibility by default. So you also want to be active, and steer the conversation implicitly or explicitly when you feel it is going adrift. Always try to preemptively chart a course, in your head: is this going in the right direction? Have I been here before? Where should I go next when I get stuck here? What’s the most natural direction as we move on? In the practical terms of a conversation, this means readying yourself with strategic questions and comments.
Finally, when things get going, enjoy! The pleasure you take at meeting different people, at hearing more about their lives, at seeing things from their perspective will show: once the interaction becomes natural and enjoyable to you, most likely it will be so for the person across from you.
In that sense, you should come to see “fieldwork” as something almost seamlessly part of the rest of your life. For example, a meeting with a donor supporting your fieldwork is also fieldwork. The point of the interaction, on the face of it, may be to sign a contract and get acquainted, but there’s more to it than that: getting to understand their perspective, establishing your credibility, building the basis for a relationship you want to develop and enrich, and even analyzing the dynamic between a grant-maker and recipient. Fieldwork is less work than way of life.
IT WOULD BE LOVELY if the purpose of an encounter defined it. Let’s say you must engage some official in a ministry to discuss a technical issue you have good reason to raise. From there, an apparently straightforward meeting can go any number of ways: the person you’re talking to can lock you out, pull you in, bounce you around, or keep things comfortably neutral. Much will depend on one of the most important and least discussed aspects of fieldwork: how you pitch yourself.
The meeting will occur if it has a raison-d’etre in the first place. This could be an introduction that is hard to ignore, or a topic of common interest that justifies the interaction. Sometimes the latter happens simply because we bump into someone; sharing the same space for a while almost inevitably prompts conversation.
As a rule, a mere chat or a more formal interview reflects some form of tradeoff or obligation. But it is also about two individuals meeting each other—an event during which both unconsciously gauge their interlocutor, his or her importance, temperament, intentions and relevance. Since you will be appraised as much as you do the appraising, you might as well be aware of the stakes. Just as your interlocutor may come across as dull, affable, arrogant or sharp-witted, you will leave him or her with a lasting impression—or no memory at all, which is rarely better.
Your title, institution, expertise and name-dropping will only shape the way you are perceived to a degree—for better or worse. The bulk of your persona will be determined by more intangible factors, which is why the “chemistry” of a relationship is so critical to the outcomes, even among people who have every reason to interact, such as negotiators or heads of state.
Dry research in and of itself is as lousy a way of pitching yourself as they come. Put yourself in your interlocutor’s shoes, and picture talking to someone who sees you as an object of study, who asks questions to probe and appraise your response, who seems to understand what you say differently from how you say it, and who appears focused on defining and diagnosing your problems. That would feel like talking to a shrink, if not worse: a shrink you didn’t make the appointment with.
Meanwhile, trying to erase yourself by bringing the interaction down to its hard kernel of questions and answers will turn you into a note-taker, and you will be treated as such: you will be told precisely what your interlocutor wants you to note, and only what he or she wants you to note, which is exactly what you don’t want to stop at.
An encounter is, whether we like it or not, a performance. That doesn’t mean you must parade your ego. It can, and should be, a performance of a subtle kind. It amounts, in essence, to seeking ways of making an exchange both meaningful and entertaining to both sides. That is why people will open up, give you more time, see you again, and take the trouble of introducing you to others. They will give you more of themselves if you take the lead in doing so. (Of course, narcissists just offload regardless, but they rarely are the kind of person you want to see more of anyway.)
A lot of what is at stake in a successful encounter is written between the lines of what you discuss ostentatiously or actually jot down: it involves body language, humor, personal anecdotes, listening skills, and tensions that are or not resolved. Preexisting biases and developing disagreements, if identified and addressed, can become an excellent way of cementing the relationship, around the bonding that comes from overcoming differences together. Initially tense interactions can turn out to be among the most fruitful ones.
Beyond your undeniable personal charm, a crucial part of connecting with someone derives from what you bring to the relationship, substantively: whether you’re conducting an interview as part of your fieldwork, taking the floor at a roundtable, engaging a potential partner, or speaking to the media, the key question is what the people you are addressing will take away from the discussion. That usually is just a couple of important things—novel ideas or uniquely insightful information of practical value to the recipient. This is your currency, your giveaways in an encounter that is necessarily, one way or another, a transaction. Indeed, your “pitch” is, all told, about what you have on offer.
With a little practice, it quickly becomes second nature to pay attention to the weft—or underlying fabric—of our professional interactions. It may sound instrumental but it’s not. A rich and enriching human experience is not, by definition, gratuitous: it contains give-and-take. Your being aware of it will benefit all.
IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts. Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.
Sharing them with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth, everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate to colleagues are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.
Writing up notes for others to read seems trivial, but it is in fact a skill that takes a little training to develop. There are varying styles out there, and the same person may take notes differently in different circumstances – from verbatim transcripts of official meetings to a few bullet points capturing essentials. Some people may get offended if you spend an hour asking them questions while keeping no visible trace of all their responses. Others, on the contrary, will find it awkward and unsettling, if not suspicious, if you start scribbling furiously. In yet other cases, you will have to go back and forth between taking down important facts, views and positions, and laying your pen down to respect an interlocutor’s expressed or tacit desire for more active engagement. There is no standard policy, and practice makes perfect.
Beyond practice, here is some general advice that applies broadly:
- Type up all meeting notes after the fact. Notebooks quickly become unmanageable unless you’re a journalist, writing relatively short pieces resting on a manageable amount of material.
- Do it as you go. Don’t delay typing memorized or handwritten material, as you’ll forget lots, fail to decipher your own notes, or just take shortcuts because of how grueling it is to catch up with a backlog. (When rushing from one meeting to the next over several days, you can at least keep track by sending yourself, for instance, quick emails drafted in between, which you can later revisit, organize and add to.)
- Be thorough, rather than limiting yourself to that part of the encounter related to your immediate centers of interest. Your future self will love you for all that material you garnered when you had no idea of its worth.
- Aim for a realistic rendition, capturing your interlocutor’s voice in the first person and through complete sentences, exactly like an audio transcript. It makes it easier for you to recollect the conversation, and for whoever you share it with to get a feel for its dynamics. It also is, quite simply, a more engaging read.
- Don’t obsess about the exact wording, which will always be lost unless the meeting is audiotaped: go for the meaning, which may be truthfully conveyed in different words. We can take some minor liberties–as long as we are careful not to change the meaning of what was said.
- Be very careful not to put words in your interlocutor’s mouth, though: what’s interesting is his / her views, not what you may want to hear or make him / her say.
- Be as structured as possible when typing your notes. Conversations tend to go all over the place, which is how the brain and social interactions function. But writing can only be consumed when organized in linear fashion, which entails a “translation”: even the fuzziness of life must, in writing, be described in a straight and continuous line. Cut out things that are irrelevant, and move pieces around if it helps to create a narrative, gathering in one place sentences bearing on the same issue, even if they were strewn out in the discussion. Subheadings indicating changes in topic are useful. This doesn’t exclude more impressionistic notes, but these are more personal and most difficult to share.
- Clearly demarcate something you’re not certain about (???), so that you or someone else can go back and check. The same applies to whatever needs background, explanation or analysis that was not included in the meeting itself, as well as to observations you may add about the atmospherics, which are important to. [One option is to keep your own voice between brackets.]
- Build political and other sensitivities into your system. As a rule, whenever something strikes you as potentially sensitive, it is advisable not to mention the names of your interlocutors, unless they are officials obviously speaking on the record. Anonymized interviews, however, must be labeled so as to convey their relevance and help remember who they were, as in “senior banking executive in Beirut” or “tribal leader from Basrah”. If ever you come across particularly dangerous material (especially what a security agency would qualify as “actionable”, time-sensitive intelligence, or simply information that could prove highly embarrassing if leaked), ignore it entirely. That should definitely not be shared, nor even written. Indeed, you should treat all digital documents as potentially public, a behavior that will quickly become second nature.
- But don’t go overboard and become paranoid: 99% of what we hear or witness is not truly sensitive!
- Finally, play a long game and make sure your notes build up into a database you can easily go back to. Notes can be used many times and have an enduring value, to the extent you organize them to facilitate your own easy reference. Ideally they should be tagged with keywords. At a minimum, label them with titles that will help structure your archives. A simple but efficient system consists of naming files starting with the date followed by a brief description, e.g. "2016-7-18 memo on note-taking & sharing.” Writing the date backwards will automatically file your notes in chronological order, which is the most straightforward way of saving them. And the description showing up in the title makes it easy to scan many files at a glance.
Rolling stones gather no moss, goes the saying. Well, if you take notes in earnest, you’ll prove it wrong, by retaining a huge amount of what otherwise would get lost. On one condition: keep a backup!
YOU’LL OFTEN BE ASKED about the “takeaways” of a particular meeting. In other words: what was new and meaningful, to you or to a broader conversation occurring on a given topic? What are you going home with, and might want to share with others?
The query also suggests that there is much to cast aside and quickly forget. As a rule, the ratio between the time invested in social interactions and the immediate, measurable benefits we derive from them raises questions about why we talk to each other in the first place. Human encounters entail much flourish that shapes the relationship more than it advances the actual exchange of useful information. In linguistics, conversations are said to be largely “phatic,” or replete with utterances designed to express respect, gain trust, show interest, and so on. Throw in chitchat and banalities, and you’ll realize that a good part of an interview, when doing fieldwork, may not be worth remembering at all.
As note-taking and typing is eminently time-consuming, it’s good to stick to essentials and strike the right balance. It shouldn’t become so tedious as to disincentive plentiful meetings; by the same token, if you prioritize the latter but fail to keep their substance on record, you’re just chasing your tail.
The key elements of an interview are pretty straightforward.
- You really can’t miss jotting down basic facts that cannot be found elsewhere.
- You want to capture your interlocutor’s specific viewpoint or “narrative”, preferably through good quotes that aptly convey it.
- You should retain novel angles of analysis you hadn’t come across so far.
- Definitely don’t forget the names and details of other contacts, ideally with some background on why this person referred to them.
- And, at times, gossip may carry more value than we care to admit.
In addition, it is important to keep track of your own association of ideas as you receive and process such information. All meetings are, to some degree, a transformative moment: you shouldn’t be quite the same person with quite the same thoughts as you walk out. Fieldwork adds these encounters up into a deeper transformation, as you experience your topic, toy with it, and tie together the bits and pieces of analysis that came up all along. Your notes should reflect this other layer, which corresponds not to what is being said, but to its effect on you. [And make sure you mark it clearly as distinct, for instance by placing it in brackets.]
As you go from one interview to the next, note-taking should be cumulative. Verifiable facts and stereotyped narratives need only be logged once. Each encounter poses the question anew: what can I add to what I know already? Of course, having a good record of the latter helps a great deal with identifying the gaps.
Saving everything compulsively is the best way of drowning out both what’s meaningful and what’s missing. Takeaways from a truly informative interview rarely will be longer than two to three pages. In many cases, especially with sensitive issues or topics we are familiar with, a one hour conversation may boil down to two or three sentences.
The act of memorizing segments of a conversation can be a very efficient way of concentrating its substance into what really deserves to be preserved. This exercise, however, calls for a trained mind and uncompromising discipline. Just like a dream will be forgotten soon after waking, a conversation will quickly start to fade. Pinning it down starts even before it ends, by making mental notes of keywords and sequences. To be of any lasting value, these must be written at the first occasion. Only with that outline on paper or screen does it become possible to recall, typically within the next 48 hours at most, the flow and the detail of the discussion.
In this way, you can both be more focused and spontaneous during the interview and ensure that you distill it into its essence. Although this approach is far from ideal, it is often is the only way to go when fieldwork gets intense and more comprehensive methods become infeasible.
In any event, if you’re struggling to motivate yourself with note-taking and typing, consider this: if you’re not accumulating takeaways, that means you’re treating the entire, incredible, game-changing fieldwork you’ve undertaken as a throwaway. So go sharpen them pencils!
EVERYTHING IS DATA: from accurate figures to impressionistic narratives, through to rumors and plain lies, which carry information on the people articulating them. The issue with data is that, precisely because it is ubiquitous, it forms an incoherent slush until organized into something recognisable.
Its analytical value will depend on two variables in particular: volume and structure. Discrete information may yield indications on where else to look for more, but will fail to offer broader insight into social, economic or political trends. Large quantities of data will prove impossible to mine unless organized in such a way as to make it comprehensible. The goal, therefore, must be a critical mass of structured data.
The availability of different sorts of data varies widely from one part of the world to another, depending on how bureaucratic or informal their systems of governance are, how mature their civil society tends to be, and so on. Societies, also, can render themselves transparent or opaque to varying degrees. The Arab world, for example, is a case-study on data paucity: dysfunctional authoritarian regimes produce little reliable information and share even less, while citizens conceal much about themselves, notably on social media where multiple accounts, shifting aliases, and cryptic forms of expression, such as sarcasm, are the norm.
In such a data wasteland, even conventional wisdom becomes suspect and hard to fact-check. It will nonetheless reverberate, impose itself and often gain validation from supposedly legitimate and trusted sources. In Jordan and Syria, in the late 2000s, the UN embraced wild government estimates on the number of Iraqi refugees long before any institutional measures had been taken to register them. In Iraq, serious media outlets consistently describe Mosul as the “second biggest city” in a country that hasn’t had a proper census in decades, and even though Basra shows many signs of being larger. In Lebanon, a host of international bodies adopt economic figures that are rendered unverifiable by the government’s years-old refusal to divulge essential financial data or even a draft budget.
Groundbreaking research on social issues will often unearth, at first glance, a wealth of rich but not necessarily reliable narratives and a dearth of hard data. Academics and pollsters use various techniques to overcome this problem: notably they build questionnaires and code the answers given by respondents. The outcomes can help produce more clarity, which can be deceptive too, because respondents’ answers are shaped by predetermined questions.
The truth is that data collection, despite its façade of objectivity, is a handicraft more than a science. Success depends far more on common sense, creativity, trial and error, and flexibility than it does on any formalistic methodology. A farmer doesn’t need complex technology or methodology to develop a sophisticated database of his crop yields, factoring in diverse soils, climate patterns, past experiments with seeds or fertilizers, annual variations, comparisons with neighbors, etc.
Researchers can cultivate their field of investigation in much the same fashion. In fieldwork-based research, data collection consists of parsing information from a variety of sources and weaving it anew into thematic threads. All dates will go into a chronology (or several timelines covering different aspects of a topic). Information on individuals and their relationships can build up into a biographical data-set, which may be conducive to a genealogical tree, an organizational chart or a visualization of networks. Geographic information will naturally feed into maps. Descriptive “building blocs” will also emerge from scattered information, gradually adding up into a history of a particular institution, a memo on a specific legal issue, an infographic or the like.
The data itself will likely emanate from a mix of sources. Most topics will reveal themselves through existing “literature” or expertise; documents containing raw material; media mentions over a period of time; and interviews conducted with the concerned. As a rule, much more information is available than we are initially tempted to believe—simply because it’s convenient to save ourselves the trouble of digging deep into archives and narratives, which indeed is time-consuming. Assuming the opposite, i.e. that a data treasure trove is out there just awaiting to be discovered, will in fact save you time: more often than not, you’ll come across people who have already done much of what you could do. “Mapping the mappers” is, therefore, always a good place to start.
Shuffling data is tedious, for sure. But it is also an essential component of the analytic process. Our eye “sees” because it organizes things into categories—colors, textures, movements, distances—that may be irrelevant to other living creatures whose senses are wired differently. Their reality—that is, their understanding of the world—will inevitably be distinct from ours, since the information they collect and synthesize is itself different. Making sense of anything boils down, consciously, conscientiously or intuitively, to categorizing and reorganizing data.
This sorting mechanism adds layers of meaning to something initially nondescript and perhaps chaotic. You could be looking at a pile of blocs of different shapes and colors. If you leave it as such, that’s about all you can say about it. However, if you manipulate the blocs and separate them into groupings, many more things can then be said: how many they are in all; what exactly their shapes and colors are; what may be missing or lost; whether they are heavy or not; what material they are made of; what underlying logic they may conceal, etc.
The act of compiling data will likewise reveal trends, inconsistencies, ambiguities, voids, distortions and so on, all of which are precious analytical material that was not visible when data remained in bulk. Even when incomplete, a chronology, a biographical data-set, a map and a collection of figures will all help make sense of various complex and competing narratives.
Besides, information collected systematically will bolster your credibility and boost your value-added—especially in an environment where it is a rarity. Information is power, they say. And as you chose research, it may well be the only means you’ve got to get a little taste of it. It would be a pity not to indulge!
IN THE INTERNET AGE, desk research would seem like the easiest thing: aren’t unfathomable amounts of information instantly available at our fingertips? Yet the surplus of digital information in fact raises serious challenges: besides its sheer, overwhelming volume, much of this material is incomplete, poorly structured and unverified, making for an open-ended process of ploughing through endless amounts of content. It also eclipses equally essential analog sources, such as books and physical archives. But the hardest part of documentary research is that it looks easy, and therefore is rarely guided by an explicit methodology. That’s how analysts so often get lost in the material that was supposed to guide them.
Circumventing desk research entirely, to hurtle down the more exciting path of field-research, is as tempting as it is treacherous. Failing to acquaint yourself with the basics of your topic is disrespectful to people you interview, and a sure way of discrediting yourself in their eyes. Conversely, insight you acquire through documentary research is a precious resource and “currency” during your fieldwork, enabling you to establish your credentials, call your interlocutors’ bluff, and perhaps even tell them something they didn’t know. In short, the solidity and shelf-life of your output will depend on your ability to acknowledge, build on and expand what others have contributed. Because desk research is an integral part of the research process, you should approach it strategically.
First, start with the endgame. When the moment comes to draft your findings, the strength of your arguments will hinge on incorporating datasets, hard facts, illustrative case studies and other supporting evidence—a large share of which will flow from desk research, and must be meticulously sourced. Critically, effective sourcing begins not at the time of drafting, but the day you sit down to start reading background: if you haven’t been structured from the get-go, you will get bogged down in a swamp of documents and webpage links. This will turn writing, which is hard enough in itself, into a nightmarish exercise in stop-and-go.
The only solution is to systematize the process of archiving and referencing the material you collect over time. If you find a striking quantitative figure, for example, its usefulness down the road will depend entirely on two things: ascription to a specific source (including a link, if digital), on one hand, and some point of comparison putting it into perspective, on the other. Similarly, a picture will serve little purpose unless you provide basic context such as a date, a location, an author of some sorts, and ideally a caption providing some measure of detail regarding the image’s relevance. Archiving of textual content also requires consistent labelling, which is why you should adopt one of many systems codifying the author-title-publisher-date combination, e.g. Aya Chamseddine, “The Cocoon,” Synaps, 20 March 2017. (If this doesn’t apply, as in the case of a law, use another accepted classification, as in 44/2017 on elections of the members of Parliament.)
To be clear: however interesting or useful you find it, an unidentified picture or an excerpt from an anonymous document say strictly nothing a reader can trust. Whatever you think worthy of keeping must be properly sourced in your own archives, so you may easily convert it into a formal reference when the need arises. This will save you precious time and focus when it comes to drafting your analysis.
Second, tend to your logical tree. The worst thing to do is tip everything you collect into a data dump, such as countless clippings copy-pasted into a single file, or a vast collection of documents bookmarked or saved haphazardly. Break subjects down into separate themes, subcategories, and so on. Your filing system must reflect these divisions, with each folder receiving material relevant to a specific aspect of the topic. Such distribution may entail parsing any given source and allotting its most notable content to various folders: for instance, if you are building a set of biographies, you will use information coming from a variety of sources compiled under a single entry. There are several reasons for doing this.
A vital goal of this process is to facilitate comparison. Figures produced by different institutions, relating to the same issue, should be brought together in the same place, where they will complement, support or challenge each other. That is equally true of narratives, say, offering diverging interpretations of a contentious event. Another aim consists in visualizing what information is available on any given aspect of the topic. By putting data from various sources side by side, you will move toward recognizing well-researched, agreed upon points or, by contrast, residual gaps. Finally, this process of structuring information is an indispensable analytical tool, creating categories, boundaries and, consequently, a semblance of order, where large quantities of disparate information would otherwise produce confusion.
Third, know that your labor is not in vain. The benefit of documentary research tends to increase with the amount of effort poured into it. A strong dataset is exponentially more valuable than random figures. A collection of biographies fleshed out over months or years, an extensive mapping of relationships, or a thematic chronology that has reached maturity, all provide extraordinarily rich and compelling bases for analysis. Past a certain threshold, they typically become easy to update and can be reused indefinitely. In a sense, those are the green leaves sprouting from the branches of your logical tree.
Achieving this result requires perseverance on your part, all the more given that the sources you are mining are themselves inconsistent. Attention to detail is essential, including building a coherent system for file names, references, numbers, dates, spelling, even formatting. Wherever possible, create and fill out tables and templates. If archiving large documents, you will want to add your own brief takeaways or, better still, summarize them into bullet points. The latter is particularly important with audio and video material, which should be annotated so as to refresh your memory years later if need be.
Lastly, set concrete targets. Desk research is not an end in itself, nor is it particularly exciting (unless you are an obsessive type, in which case the following restrictions apply even more stringently). Once your logical tree has blossomed, it must be trimmed ruthlessly: some branches are dead wood, while others could grow until they blot out the sun. Determine what is useful enough, to you and to others, to warrant your investment. More likely, that will include a good overall understanding of the topic’s different facets; a studious grasp of any cornerstone work already published; the most relevant and credible datasets; and truly problematic gaps in the existing body of knowledge, which you may hope to fill, at least partially.
With these objectives in mind, reading hundreds (or thousands!) of pages of background documentation will prove not just a good use of your time, but an essential—and, ultimately, gratifying—component of the research process.
AS YOU CARRY OUT INTERVIEWS, bear in mind that your fieldwork is geared toward developing your analysis of a particular topic. Sometimes, we know what that topic is from the outset, and structure the fieldwork accordingly. Oftentimes, however, fieldwork produces insights into topics that we were not pursuing deliberately, and nonetheless impose themselves upon us. In any event, the raison d’etre of fieldwork is to acquire the material and personal experience necessary to produce “analysis,” an exercise that is not entirely easy to define.
Analyzing consists of introducing an “order” among things that are otherwise diverse and confusing. Through your fieldwork, you observe behaviors, talk to people and hear narratives—all of which produces the material you must process. You shift from fieldwork to analysis by moving from things (objects, people, attitudes, stories) to concepts. You switch from individuals to “categories of individuals”; from distinct conversations to “collective narratives”; from personal conducts to “patterns of behavior”; from simple causalities to complex systems. None of the items between “” actually exist: they are concepts that approximate observed realities and organize them somewhat artificially, in ways that help make sense of what we observe.
Science offers a useful illustration. Although conventional wisdom would have it that science uncovers, through the microscope, some hidden script that organizes the world, it doesn’t. Scientists collect observations, develop hypotheses about them, and strive to answer this basic question: “what will happen within a certain set of circumstances, based on observations already made?” A good scientific “theory” doesn’t give us access to any superior “truth”: it simply offers a satisfactory level of predictability and reliability about what can be expected to happen under certain conditions. In other words, we only know that a good theory is good because it is not contradicted by further observations.
In our work also, an analysis is good because it works. It doesn’t conflict with existing observations, nor does it leave out potential observations that might conflict with it. It explains dynamics by articulating what factors cause which outcomes.
The perfect counterexample to analysis is paranoia, which appears increasingly prevalent, and a big part of our daily experience in the field and beyond. Paranoia organizes discreet observations through a theory that connects the dots and fills the blanks, but only works to the extent that its bearers ignore or dismiss any countervailing observations and evidence. Of course so-called “conspiracy theories” function that way; more troubling, so does much of the “instant commentary” produced by journalists and pundits, who make sense only on the basis of blatantly incomplete information.
In practical terms, beware of common mistakes on the part of researchers attempting to draw analysis from their fieldwork:
- Waiting for the analysis to come from your interlocutors. These do sometimes yield interesting bits and pieces of analysis that may give you a lead, a hypothesis to toy with, or a fragment of a broader and deeper analysis that you can develop. Your analysis should take into consideration the various analytical views of others, but it must always seek to add to them, to tie them together, or to take a fresh angle.
- Getting lost in fieldwork. The material we collect doesn’t organize itself. On the contrary, it naturally forms an increasingly complex, nuanced, confusing mass. Many researchers deal with the resulting anxiety by doing more fieldwork and accumulating more material, both to keep busy and postpone the moment of truth. Of course, this invariably makes the problem worse. Therefore there must be a cut-off moment, typically when you’ve done the rounds, and feel that more interviews don’t bring anything new.
- Clinging to literature. A typical academic error is to adopt some preexisting “analytical framework” and force observations into it. Academic and other literature should remain a source of culture and inspiration—a toolbox we can pick from opportunistically.
- Staying alone. Analysis truly takes shape as you are trying to convey it. It doesn’t “happen” in isolation; rather it occurs in a dialectic relationship, with a mentor, a manager, a colleague or your mum. Not uncommonly, analysis gels in your thought process as you picture a conversation: you may be alone in practice, but you are still talking to someone. Writing your notes, a memo, or the outline of an oral presentation equally develops your analysis, as you seek ways of sharing your thoughts. Language is an analytical prism in itself.
- Starting from the wrong end. Many researchers are tempted to sit down and think hard until a general theory of things dawns on them. Analysis, however, is not an act of creative genius; it is a protracted work process, more akin to handicraft than art. It flows from something that could look like a police investigation board: we collect all the evidence we can; we lay everything out in front of us; we move things around, and try different ways of organizing it; and then we take action on the strongest hypotheses, which we test by taking them further.
- Separating fieldwork from analysis. Yet another common mistake is to do fieldwork first and analysis second. The relationship between the two is a constant back-and-forth. Form hypotheses as you go and take time to try them out on real-life people. Bounce your instincts and your conclusions off of individuals you interview. They may or may not agree, which says nothing definite about whether you’re wrong or right, but will almost inevitably raise new issues, provide nuance, and add human depth to your ideas.
To conclude, best is to ground your analysis in very practical questions you should ask yourself as you process your notes. Why is this important? What does it reveal about this person / situation? What does it say about the broader scheme of things? Why does it trouble me? What connections did it prompt in my brain, however farfetched they may seem?
Indeed, don’t forget that our brain is highly analytical, naturally. Often, it makes the most useful connections in a state of “free association.” In other words: when you’re stuck, take a walk.
IT IS INTRIGUING that something as central to academic work as the “research question” would go without a clear-cut, consensual, practical definition. Some see it as a technically-worded version of the question you set out to answer when you start your research process. Others view it as a paradox—a counterintuitive formulation of deceptively familiar problems, shedding an entirely new light on them. Others still believe that it comes closer to a hypothesis you intend to prove, turned into a rhetorical question. Meanwhile, many students go years without truly grasping the concept supposedly at the heart of their dissertations.
If truth be told, the research question is a case-by-case determination that cannot be brought down to a scientific formula, leaves enormous space to subjective judgment, and is validated mostly by its effectiveness in shaping the argument: simply put, it is a question posed to organize the material garnered through research in such ways as to make it interesting to others. If we apply the “research question” as a concept to this very article, namely to the “research question” as a topic, the outcome could look like this: “why is the research question, ill-defined as it is, nonetheless indispensable to meaningful research?”
This interrogation is designed to spur various answers, or hypotheses, which flow from a certain research material—in this context, the reading, conversations, experiences and thoughts one can have on the issue of the “research question.” The exact formulation of this interrogation aims to structure this material into a satisfactorily consistent, well-rounded answer. Here, by way of example, the answer to the question posed can be broken down into five points.
First of all, the articulation of a research question comes at a crucial—and not altogether intuitive—moment in the research process. It cannot occur at the outset, before you have actually gathered the material you are attempting to organize. Nor should it be delayed too long, however, given its importance in shaping your late-stage interviews and analysis. The best timing is halfway through a given project. The first part of your project will see your research of a particular topic produce more and more data, analysis, nuance, complexity and, consequently, confusion. The second half must be devoted to outcomes, which always take much longer than we assume: drawing conclusions, drafting a paper, editing it, developing visuals and the like. The research question resembles a lens, used to refocus the widening scope of your research, and narrow it back down toward its closing stage; graphically, it connects two equally-sized, inverted cones.
Second, however conceptual it may seem, the research question must fulfill very pragmatic functions if it is to help you wind down your project and synthesize the final product. It should define the exact scope of it, based on what fieldwork you have managed to conduct: the research question is meant to frame your initial topic to fit within the contours of the actual data and interview transcripts you have on hand. In addition, it must also clarify, in straightforward terms, the interesting nature of the work you have done. The research question consists in highlighting the importance of your initial topic, as seen through the lens of your specific approach, in such ways as to make it relevant to others. (Therefore it has much in common with notions such as “angle,” for reporters, or “theme” in more literary narration.)
Third, it is wise to accept that what is truly significant in what we do typically eludes us in the early stages. Your research question will likely come to life only gradually, through a reflective process involving you, your manager(s) and people you engaged with during your fieldwork. As a matter of principle, your research should have challenged your initial thinking, added layer upon layer of facts, narratives and complications, and brought out very specific sources of blockage and frustration. These, typically, are precisely the cues you need: what resists conventional analysis is inherently interesting; and what confounds you in a topic is what you must understand. Discussing your confusion, as well as the hypotheses you form to get past it—with people both in the field and far removed—is how you will form your research question: such back-and-forth, between your thought process and their experience, will help you reword the enigmas you have run up against into an interrogation you happen to have better answers to than you thought.
Fourth, the research question essentially captures your own itinerary, as you explored your topic: what was most significant in what you learned and why? This entails undertaking the journey in the first place, and thus taking the risk of an open-minded and necessarily confusing exploration. And it involves a turning point at which you must step out, distance yourself from your own experience, juxtapose it to that of others, and figure out what fundamental truth you can hope to extract from the obstacles you encountered. Some academics would call this “problematizing,” in the sense of turning a general topic into a problem worth solving.
Fifth and last, there is an unconscious reason why we struggle to shift from wide-ranging reading and interviewing to narrow analysis: the challenge that is writing. The research question is a momentous decision, where we simultaneously unlock the riddles the topic posed to us and begin to lock-in our answers to them. Hence you are well-advised to de-romanticize the issue. There is no unique, definite research question for any given topic. There are options that you must try out like outfits, under the observant and sympathetic eye of people involved in your inquiry, to see which one works best for you. It “works” when you feel it captures best what you were grappling with and now understand. That is how meaningful studies are born: by questioning the research until it yields the research question.
ON MOST SUBJECT MATTER, there is no shortage of information and analysis. What’s missing, by and large, is reliability and depth. Facts must be checked, theories tested and stories well-researched, no doubt. Beyond that, however, is a quest for greater perceptiveness and more humanity—a profundity that is hard to define and harder to attain, but which we must nonetheless try to intuit. Indeed, that is where we are being asked to make a difference, not least in reaction to increasing volumes of ambient noise.
Meeting the demand for higher quality is a thankless undertaking. Virtually no one—from employers to potential clients to consumers of your work—will fully appreciate just how resource-intensive first-rate fieldwork and analysis can be, let alone foot the bill. Don’t we all grumble about “fake news”, sensationalist journalism, shallow punditry, redundant expertise and introverted academia, while simultaneously complaining about paywalls and other supposedly overpriced content? As such, seeking depth should be understood as a vocation—a private undertaking more than a salaried job. Your success will be a function of how much you are willing to do on top of what is typically rewarded within the current laws of the intellectual marketplace.
The bedrock of any quality analysis is a strong general culture, which in itself is an enormous personal investment. Reading a significant number of fundamental books, in the relatively short span of a lifetime, can only be done with iron discipline. Although you could get away with it, you don’t want to be a journalist, a think tanker or an academic who browses only what colleagues write or, worse, forms a quick opinion via excerpts and commentaries. Given how “busy” we all seem to become, the risk of incestuous intellectual cross-pollination is growing.
Precisely because our professional circles and social media networks lock us into echo chambers, our reading habits must serve as a window into the wider world—an exit that, again, demands resolve. Our prison-break is a patient, determined effort, which we won’t realize unless we steal a couple of hours a day and work to a plan. The latter amounts to systematically compiling and updating a reading list, which can be structured around three principles. First, there is no excuse for circumventing the classics in our immediate field of activity. Second, eclecticism is the greatest source of enrichment, providing counterintuitive avenues for inspiration. Third, we are part of a “civilization,” which for generations has weaved a tapestry of knowledge: tapping into that collective depth will define our own.
But knowing lots doesn’t necessarily mean much. On one hand, your culture is not something you put on display, on spectacular bookshelves designed to impress visitors, or through multiple scholarly citations at the forefront of your writing or public performances. Genuine culture is a far subtler backdrop to your persona: it gives you more and better references to draw on discerningly—not to shine, but to shed light where need be.
On the other hand, bookish erudition is no substitute for human experience. However smart and cultured you are, you’re at your wisest when you write and talk about things that you have actually engaged with or endured. And here the depth and breadth of your practical exposure is critically important. We learn most from people we have least in common with, who take considerable time to access and comprehend. We learn from encounters that transform us, and that generally doesn’t happen fast. We learn through repeated trial and error, and by overcoming our own biases and inhibitions, which we only uncover gradually as we delve into deeper layers of understanding. Topics that challenge us, or even seem impossible to grasp, likely will be those that pay off the most.
In other words, learning about things is about giving them an opportunity to change us. That may be a straightforward statement, but for most people it is not an easy undertaking. It is also a tricky process, which leads some to lose their own judgment. It is hard to choose, indeed, which is preferable: a person unremittingly projecting him or herself onto the “object” of research, or an individual who ends up dissolving into his or her topic, by parroting the views of the “subject.” All too often, these extremes represent the bulk of available commentary—especially when it comes to complex and polarizing issues that beg for nuance, such as the Syrian war in recent years.
“Going deep” exists in a dialectic, back-and-forth relationship with “pulling out.” Extensive fieldwork is a must, and there is virtually no limit to how far it can go. We often feel that we have reached a plateau and that there is little more to learn. Almost always, however, another ridge and another dive are waiting for us just over the horizon, simply requiring a journey on the flat before we are ready again to plunge. A topic’s profundity will further reveal itself once our thinking has matured; when chance encounters open fresh perspectives; as the context shifts to create new dynamics; because our pent-up frustration at roadblocks spurs creative solutions; or if the work of others presents us with an unexpected tool, data-set or analytical breakthrough.
Pulling out and doing other things is just as important, though. It seems we genuinely process experiences and information when we stop thinking too deliberately about them. And our analysis will sharpen as we engage in diversified “cycles” of learning instead of focusing narrowly on a particular area of expertise. The best specialized scientist may have an extraordinarily restricted understanding of the world, if he or she failed to combine an exhaustive grasp of a minuscule corner of it with the necessary roving of a rich intellectual and personal life.
Within this general approach to deepening our insight, more specific pieces of advice bear mention. They revolve around what depth isn’t.
- To start with, objectivity is a hoax. Of course, any sound analysis must be thoroughly backed by methodology, research and evidence, but simply assembling these components requires multiple subjective decisions. Our subjectivity is an asset, if properly recognized, objectified and harnessed. It gives value to the human dimension that is integral to good work.
- Big words, fancy concepts, elaborate frameworks frequently obscure more than they illuminate. We don’t need more people saying rather simple things in esoteric ways; the real need, challenge and talent is to be found in articulating complicated ideas in accessible language. We are deep when our thoughts resonate deeply, not when they are impossible to decipher.
- This also means that being deep is not an individual attribute: it defines a certain style of interaction with others. It entails a good measure of selflessness, the aim being to highlight the depth of a topic rather than of oneself. To touch upon the universal, your ego must fade away.
- This is easier to do if you embrace the untold amount of analysis we borrow from others, through readings, fieldwork, mentors, colleagues and even unrelated casual conversations. Our contribution is often a matter of how we organize things, take them just a step further, tweak them somewhat: your value-added is what you alone can provide given your specific experience. We are part, in other words, of a humbling collective process.
- That is also why depth is both much more and much less than extensive knowledge. Certainly, you should have covered all possible bases. But sharing too much only confuses an issue. Analysis is a distilling process, in which large volumes of material are brought down to an essence, that nonetheless captures the topic’s complexity. Here your subjectivity, your intimate experience of your subject, your instincts as to what aspects are most important to your target audience, will come decisively into play. It is a tough and ad hoc determination, that typically requires much thought. A topic we know well will present numerous layers of analysis. Take war: it can be apprehended through individual itineraries, collective narratives and dynamics, day-to-day tactics, broader campaign strategies, a fluctuating geopolitical equation, historical precedents, the technological factor, the making and unmaking of social contracts, etc. An analyst would ambition to understand all these facets, but ultimately must decide which combination of discrete conclusions helps create more clarity in the melee.
All told, depth will hinge on picking, informed by all that intense reading, rich experience and hard work that disappears into the background, a particularly pertinent angle. What may that be? A safe bet is to speak to the public’s desire for making sense of something troubling. What is disconcerting about a topic? How can such disquiet be defined, addressed and perhaps overcome? And what in our research process gave us some keys for doing so? That is what may resonate deeply—a lived but unconventional and otherwise unavailable wisdom.
- Cover: 1967 Soviet Union 6 kopeks stamp by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- The rookie researcher’s check-list: Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Holland goes over the pre-flight checklist while sitting in the SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Fieldwork under threat: John Bauer The boy who could not be scared by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Introducing yourself when starting fieldwork: Alice finds a tiny door in the curtain by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Pitching yourself: wig by Max Pixel / licensed by CC.
- Note taking and sharing: Johann Sebastian Bach Choral prelude “Der Tag der ist so freudenreich” by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Interview takeaways and throwaways: Bernhard Otto Holterman with 630lb gold from Hill End by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- In the data wasteland: Wasteland with elephant by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Documentation and sourcing: partial map of the Internet by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Building your analysis on and through fieldwork: Skokloster Castle Vertumnus by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- The research question: optometry by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Going deep: Sigmund Freud by Wikipedia; gradient by Pixabay; layers in the sand by Geograph; citric acid crystals under polarised light by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.