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Qualitative research is empirical research – stop equating “empirical” with quantitative

While I do multi-methods research, and I wrote three theses using quantitative methods, I have found that many of the research questions I explore are best answered with qualitative methodologies. I don’t know what it is, but every few months, I need to reassert the importance of methods where qualitative data is analyzed. But recently, I’ve had to remind people that qualitative research IS empirical.

While there are many ways of approaching this epistemological debate, and I actually don’t have the time to do so because I have papers to write, and research to do, I think the easiest way to examine this qualitative versus quantitative debate is using Russ Barnard’s piece: “Qualitative Data, Quantitative Analysis“.

There are qualitative data that are analyzed using qualitative methods, quantitative data analyzed with quantitative methods, and two other combos in-between.

Mahoney and Goertz (2006), in their “A Tale of Two Cultures: Contrasting Quantitative and Qualitative Research” piece, published in Political Analysis, make the argument that what we see is a cultural divide between qualitative and quantitative research traditions. As Meg Guliford’s tweet above shows, solid quantitative researchers are very appreciative of how difficult it is to undertake qualitative research well.

I don’t think qualitative methods are uniquely positioned to answer truths or deliver generalizations. But they can provide insight into patterns, behaviours, contexts, relationships. But the crux of the matter, and what prompted me to write this blog post, is the fact that both qualitative and quantitative methods have an empirical basis. As Tilda Gaskell aptly explains in her 2000 piece “The process of empirical research: a learning experience?“:

“Empirical research methods derive from the application of observation and experience to a research question rather than being grounded in theory alone” (Gaskell 2000, p. 349).

I think the problem here is that there’s a generalized perception that only quantitative methods are empirical. I see this misnaming in tweets from economists and political scientists and it makes my blood boil. I also hear scholars talk about “empirical studies” that are solely quantitative. But it’s not hard to make this distinction. A simple Google Scholar search on the phrase “what is empirical analysis” yields purely quantitative studies, and most of them economics-focused.

On a side note, and a more philosophical and epistemological note, I quite enjoyed Lowenberg’s 1940 disquisition on “What Is Empirical?” in the Journal of Philosophy, makes for a good read.

Posted in academia, research methods.

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Interview Research in Political Science (Layna Mosley, Ed) – my reading notes

I am editor for the Americas of a major qualitative methods journal (International Journal of Qualitative Methods), I am a self-identified ethnographer, and I teach courses on the topic. Therefore, knowing good books that I can recommend to my students is very important to me. Dr. Layna Mosley (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) assembled a fantastic edited volume that responds to my frequent query: “which texts should my students use to learn how to conduct interviews?”. While written by political scientists and aimed at students of political science/international relations/public policy/public administration, this volume is an extraordinary contribution to social science methods’ teaching. Interview Research in Political Science reads like a Who’s Who in the field.

As I said on Twitter, overall “Interview Research in Political Science” is an amazing volume, so we owe a big “thank you” to Layna for putting this together. Great for teaching and as a volume to be consulted frequently. My only complaint (and forgive the self-promotion) is that interviews with marginalized populations were not addressed in the volume. But my recently published paper with Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) can be used to remedy this absence.

Posted in academia, research, research methods, teaching.

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How to write the conclusion of a paper

My full process for writing a paperWhenever I read conclusions of papers, both in my students’ papers as well as in journal articles and book chapters, I find that writers are so tired of writing and doing the research that they end up exhausted. As I often say, they have “run out of gas”. Conclusions read hasty and rushed. I decided to write a blog post on best practices to craft the conclusion section of a scholarly paper, not using one of mine, but looking at papers that I thought had a really solid concluding section.

When I read papers (both my students and those I peer-review), I notice that most people write a one-paragraph conclusion. I find those rather boring, and worrisome. This happens to me too, as I often run out of gas while writing and all I want is to get the damn paper out. When I write conclusions, I am also very clear about the limitations of my study, potential improvements and “future research” issues. I kept this practice from my doctoral dissertation writing. As I did in my blog post on how to write an abstract, and on the one on how to write the introduction of a research paper, I also asked for advice from #AcademicTwitter on this topic. I’ve included their advice too.

My first piece of advice is (as I outlined in this post on how to write a first paper draft real quick in 8 simple steps), is to write bits and pieces of the conclusion as you write the main body of the paper.

My full process for writing a paperMoreover, I extract ONE insight from each section of the paper regardless of whether it is a book chapter or a journal article. I find that grabbing a topic sentence from the Discussions/Analysis sections and expanding on that particular insight in the conclusion helps me summarize the entire paper itself. I use that insight as a “topic sentence” to create a paragraph that explains the contributions of my findings to our overall understanding.

To me, conclusion sections are supposed to help the writer “finish off”, “bring everything together” they are supposed to re-center the paper’s discussions and explain how what we’ve found actually connects with the overall literature and the field. The first sentence of my conclusions’ sections usually reads as a global summary of the paper’s goals: “in this paper, I discussed polycentricity as a theoretical framework through which we can see multilevel water governance.”

As for concluding sections of entire book manuscripts, I’ll use my PhD thesis as an example. When I wrote the conclusion to my doctoral dissertation, I grabbed the conclusion of each chapter and I distilled ONE insight from that chapter to create the introduction to the concluding chapter. Then I created sections per dissertation chapter and summarized what I learned. I have seen this done with other books too.

The previous example is from a paper by Dr. Jordi Diez Mendez, a good friend of mine who is a professor at University of Guelph. The following one is from Nate Millington.

I usually maintain a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump on “stuff I like and I’m interested in but I don’t have the time to actually study”. Millington’s paper belongs to that CSED.

Authors usually show different rhetorical moves in their conclusions, but most commonly they link what they say in the Introduction and Abstract to their Conclusion (which is why I recommend the Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion content extraction method for quick/speed/skim reading).

The paper below shows classic rhetorical moves connecting Abstract and Introduction to Conclusion sections.

Hopefully, armed with the examples I’ve outlined in this post, readers of my blog may be better positioned to write the conclusion section of their papers.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide (my reading notes)

I had known of the excellent work of Dr. Leanne C. Powner for a very long time. We are both political scientists, and since I write so much about academic writing, and I have taught research methods, it was just a matter of time until I got to read Leanne’s excellent book, published by Sage Publishers: Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide. It’s a book that is highly recommended, and I am happy to vouch for it too.

As I commented on Twitter, I am distracted and therefore I bought two copies: one through and one at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) in Chicago, last year. And yes, I know I should know better, so sue me.

Leanne does something very few authors do: she talks about the ins and outs of the research process in both traditions (qualitative and quantitative). This is very hard to do. Something important for both qualitative and quantitative scholars that Leanne does in her book is distinguishing how different methods, data sources and analytical techniques apply to various research designs and paradigmatic and methodological choices. This advice is pure gold.

Chapter 9 (writing up your results), 10 (peer reviewing work) and 11 (posters, papers, presentations, conferencing) are excellent, but I wish Leanne had done a companion workbook that focused solely on those components. I haven’t taught Research Methods in a while (as a stand-alone class, I mean – I teach my RAs and students how to do research all the time). But it seems to me as though this book should be taught over a two-semester class rather than in one semester. Or maybe teach the book over one semester and devote the next to writing.

At any rate, an excellent book that deserves all the accolades that it gets on a regular basis.

Posted in academia.

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Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (my reading notes)

A few weeks ago, University of Toronto Press sent me a complimentary copy of “Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD“, a book written by Dr. Loleen Berdahl and Dr. Jonathan Malloy. It’s the first time I have gotten a complimentary copy of a book of this type and while UTP did not ask me to review it, I figured that it would be good for those who follow me on Twitter to get a sense of what the book offered.

I stand by what I said on the above shown tweet: I don’t think anybody who wants to work in academia should do a doctoral degree right now. The market is atrocious and we don’t anticipate that it will improve any time soon. But since there are thousands of PhD students worldwide, and I DO want them to succeed, I will continue to write about how to do a doctoral degree as much as I can.

There are a number of things that make “Work Your Career” worth checking out. It’s an honestly written book, and it does offer lots of good suggestions. It also speaks to challenges doctoral supervisors face. And as always with books like these, there are important gaps. Berdahl and Malloy cover grant proposals (which many books don’t), but they skim over the thesis writing process (which is what many books DO cover, and one of the places where most students get stuck). As I said, I like this book as a backbone/workbook to work from. his book is an excellent and refreshing addition to my collection of books on how to help doctoral students.

I am glad they do offer suggestions to faculty who supervise doctoral dissertation, but if I may be so bold as to say, I think Berdahl and Malloy should have scolded supervisors more! At any rate, a good read, which I am sure will help my own doctoral students.

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to Write a Thesis (Umberto Eco) – my reading notes

I sometimes eschew book recommendations even though I have an intuition that these may actually work for my purposes. A number of scholars had recommended to me that I should check Umberto Eco’s How to Write A Thesis whose 2015 reprint was published by The MIT Press, particularly since I’ve been reading a lot of books on how to do a doctoral dissertation (mostly for my own students, but also to help others globally). As I mention in my tweet below, I’ve never been a fan of Eco’s, so I was a bit skeptical. I take my skepticism back.

After reading Umberto Eco’s book, I think I agree: yes, PhD students should his book How to Write a Thesis. Aimed at Italian students and the Italian model of a PhD, his adaptation and translation into English is super useful. I imagine it would be useful to Spanish speakers too (the Spanish version of course). I will be recommending it to my own doctoral students.

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The Dissertation ‘Two Pager’: A strategy to sustain a “big picture” view of a doctoral thesis

When I was in graduate school, I took several courses with Professor Anthony (Tony) Dorcey, Professor Emeritus with the School of Community and Regional Planning at The University of British Columbia. Perhaps unbeknownst to everyone but only those closest to me, my first interest was in water planning and governance using multistakeholder processes. Professor Dorcey was an expert precisely in this field, and he taught me a method that I have adapted for my own doctoral students, the Dissertation Two Pager (DTP).

Literature Road Mapping

The way Tony Dorcey taught me to write a DTP was basically to summarize my dissertation in a narrative form within the constraints of a 2 pager. I couldn’t find a link on his website to draw upon, and I only found one version of a similar document here, by Lynne Roberts. Anyways, a two pager is a document whose maximum length is precisely 2 pages, single-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman. Tony asked that his students maintained a DTP throughout their studies, and I now do the same with my own doctoral trainees. I have obviously adapted Tony’s approach to my own, particularly because not everyone can write the narrative from scratch, and I ask my students specific questions that help them guide how they think about their research problem.

As I mentioned on Twitter, DTPs evolve through time. I wouldn’t expect a first year doctoral student to know exactly what they want to answer. But I still ask them to write a DTP. I would characterize four types of DTP:

  1. A pre-comprehensive exams’ DTP. In this case, the student is still doing coursework and hasn’t written his/her doctoral exams. At this point, I would expect DTPs to be still draft forms of research questions, methods and expected outcomes.
  2. A post-comprehensive exams’, pre-proposal defense DTP. At this stage, I would expect the student to know his/her/their field well enough that he would have a very clear outline of what he/she/they plan to do and within what time frame. I would expect that my students would use their DTP to formulate their proposal.
  3. A post-proposal defense, fieldwork-focused DTP. At this stage, I would expect that the trainee would be incorporating results from what he/she/they have found in their research. It’s likely that by this point, one or more of their papers would be submitted to a journal.
  4. A pre-doctoral defense DTP. At this stage, I would expect the student to have dominated every single element of his doctoral research, and therefore his/her/their DTP would be an extended version of their thesis’ abstract.

A DTP for Stages 1 and 2 would include, in my view, the following elements (I pay particular emphasis on the gap in the literature and how the dissertation contributes):

For a DTP at Stage 3 and 4, I would expect them to be able to answer all the items I mentioned in this blog post.

As I mentioned on Twitter, my students’ DTP change every semester, and they notice the difference. I wrote my doctoral dissertation as a book, but I’ve mentored students to write 3 papers’ theses. That’s why I find the DTP such a useful tool: you can synthesize all three (or four) papers, show The Throughline (main argument), or you can summarize all chapters in the thesis, and still be able to show The Throughline. I also insist that my students write their DTP in a positive, assertive voice. “In this dissertation, I show how A, B and C variables impact Y phenomenon. Using a combination of text-as-data, social network analysis and ethnographic fieldwork strategies, I demonstrate Z“.

This last item is perhaps the one that is the most overlooked when I read doctoral dissertations for external examination. Students are hesitant about what they found. By the time you’re done with your PhD thesis, YOU are the expert. You should write as such. Hopefully my adaptation and version of the Dissertation Two Pager technique will help many students keep seeing the forest while focused on the trees.

Posted in academia, research, research methods, writing.

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Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (my reading notes)

This book, Howard Becker’s “Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article” is an excellent volume and should be read, though as I warned in my thread, must be read primarily by those who are Becker’s peers: doctoral students’ advisers. Because of the memoir style that Becker uses (a la Stephen King’s On Writing), those who will be best positioned to understand where he is coming from are those who have conducted the same activities as he has: supervising doctoral students. I do not believe this book is targeted for those who are still undertaking their doctorate.

#AcWri on the plane

Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists is a memoir-style book (a la Stephen King’s “On Writing”, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4), but the way Becker delivers his insights is entirely for DOCTORAL STUDENTS’ ADVISORS. He shares how HE supervised/s students, and issues they face/d. Becker’s book is NOT written for doctoral students, in my opinion. And therefore the title is misleading (”How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book or Article”). In my view, students need to read “The Clockwork Muse” by Erubavel, or “Authoring a PhD” by Dunleavy, or Bolker’s “Writing your Dissertation in 15 Minutes“.

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The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books (my reading notes)

The Clockwork MuseAs many people who follow me on Twitter know, I’ve been reading numerous books on how to write, and particularly in the past few months, how my doctoral students can write their doctoral dissertations. My goal with all this reading is not only to improve my own writing, but also to learn better techniques to help my students get through the finish line. Doing a PhD isn’t easy and I want to make sure that as a PhD advisor I am doing the best I can. Someone on Twitter recommended The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books, and I absolutely LOVE IT. The Clockwork Muse is THE PhDJourney book that everyone should read. It’s an incredibly fast and agile read and will help those who write PhD theses-as-books or 3-paper-dissertations. I’m impressed Eviatar Zerubavel is so concise and precise.

I wish I had read Zerubavel as a doctoral student, and I keep it handy in my campus office now that I am a professor.

One of the most important elements from Zerubavel’s book is his emphasis on what Scandinavian authors call the Red Thread (Pat Thomson discusses this concept in her post, the Red Thread being a coherent line of thought that goes throughout the entire manuscript and makes the argument entirely coherent). William Germano calls it the Throughline. But very few authors of writing volumes seem to place much attention on this idea, that there is one line of argument, one Red Thread or Throughline that should be discernible as you read a book, or dissertation.

Strongly recommended, both for doctoral students AND for authors (prospective and published) of books.

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Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (Kamler/Thomson) – my reading notes

While I’ve followed and interacted with Dr. Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) for a very, very long time (and I really like her), I haven’t read all the books she’s published. She’s someone who not only studies scholarly writing, but also does A LOT of it. But I am looking forward to reading more of her work. Nevertheless, I have read a few works of her that are really important for academia as a whole. Her volume with Barbara Kamler, “Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published” is one of those.

There is A LOT to like about the Kamler and Thomson book, but I am particularly fond of the Tiny Texts’ approach.

There are four moves in Tiny Texts’ construction, as shown below.

  • LOCATE: Situating the paper/book/contribution within the larger context.
  • FOCUS: Narrowing the discussion to an examination of specific questions we want to address.
  • REPORT: Describing how the research was conducted so as to provide answers to the questions addressed.
  • ARGUE: Theorising and analysing and outlining the contributions. As Kamler and Thomson indicate, it links back to the LOCATE component by discussing “so what” and “now what” questions.

I linked to Pat and Barbara’s approach in my How to Write an Abstract of a Paper blog post. But I wanted to make sure to publish a post on their actual book because I believe it offers way more than just an approach to write abstract. As Pat and Barbara indicate in their book, there are 3 and 5 moves’ Tiny Texts.

In the 5 moves’ Tiny Text, the additional category (ANCHOR) goes right after focus, as it provides more grounding (methodologies’ description and contextualization).

In the 3 moves’ Tiny text, right after LOCATE, and instead of FOCUS and REPORT, the author is expected to PROBLEMATISE and create a more theoretical discussion. Then ARGUE provides the overall argument for the paper and the expected contribution and future research.

Overall, I strongly recommend Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. It’s a really good book, and not only for the Tiny Texts’ concept, and the Four Moves, but for delving more deeply into what we do as scholars.

Posted in academia, writing.

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