Research as a social process

Writing a book about MPs in the House of Commons has reminded that that it is impossible to make sense of the world on your own. The House of Lords in the early 2000s was easier to study because a shared ethos emerged out of conversations with peers, for instance about meritocracy in the Chamber. Peers will listen most carefully to those they deem to be most expert. To see whether or not this is true you have to watch them, but at least all regular attenders made similar claims. In contrast everything in the Commons is fragmented, contested and changeable. Conflicting views about the work and behaviour of MPs are found between parties. Factions within parties disagree about the role of the whips. Different women and men perceive the rules of debate through varying lens. Those ambitious for frontbench posts work differently from those who focus on scrutiny and the representation of their constituents. And on it goes. So I'm showing my first draft to MPs and officials and rather than thinking of this as a process of correction, it is part of the process of researching the multitude of views about what goes on in the British parliament. Their responses to my draft will help me develop a fuller understanding of these views and the contradictions between them.

My new parliamentary research project involves working in a coalition. It is intellectually much more exciting to be working as part of a team. Our study of the role of parliament and public democratic engagement in poverty reduction in Ethiopia and Bangladesh will be enriched by difference. It is inter-disciplinary: I'm a political anthropologist, my Hansard Society colleagues are politics scholars and seven colleagues in Dhaka and Addis Ababa belong to anthropology, public adminstration and public policy; we are six men and four women; our origins are found in three countries; and between us we have professional experience of working in universities, parliament, international development NGOs and think tanks. The team can be found on the Hansard website. Diverse identities and experience will be productive for making sense of what we find, as long as we keep debating and negotiating our different understandings. But coalitions can bring their problems. The power dynamics within any group of people – even when small in number – can lead to difficulties. Disagreements laced with resentment can demotivate people. For this reason I focus on three things as Principal Investigator to try and manage this project in ways that work for the whole team. One of the goals states that I'm responsible for enabling national researchers in Ethiopia and Bangladesh to develop their clout, skills and capacities. This means that if I undermine them, for example by claiming their research as my own or making contacts without making links to the rest of the team, then I'm failing against the goal I have to report on to our funder. Since I plan to show all reports (financial and narrative) to the whole team and invite ESRC/DFID to contact any of the team if they wish, I can't make it up. Creating a direct link between the other researchers and the funder reduces my opportunities for unscrupulous or high-handed behaviour. Secondly, I try to answer emails and get the admin done fast. It is dull processing payments and harrassing bureaucrats but if you are in the business of redistributing wealth, in this case most of a large grant from ESRC/DFID, then timely finance really matters. Thirdly, we keep a conversation going within our coalition so that it is relatively easy for anyone to suggest, contest or complain and then come to collective decisions without grief and anguish (so far).