Recommendations for funding for research

The head of the £1.5b Global Challenges Research Fund, Dr Mark Claydon-Smith, met with academics last night and we offered some recommendations about good grant-making. Mine were based on the experiences of a collaborative research project (2014-2017, ESRC/DFID-funded) posing the over-arching question, what is the relationship between Parliament and the public when they are aiming for poverty reduction? Our coalition of political scientists, public policy / administration scholars, and anthropologists in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the UK are exploring how MPs interact with each other, their constituents, party workers, and CSOs and what this means for democracy.

Here is a summary of my recommendations:

Collaborative planning and review: We had no money for planning as a team before Ruth Fox (Hansard Society) and I submitted our proposal so at the start of the project it was hard to convince our colleagues in Bangladesh and Ethiopia that it was their project as much as ours. We all met in Dhaka as soon as we could, so at least we planned the project together in great detail in month two. This meant we could set limits on what we studied as well as plan to achieve some comparability. We realised that colleagues wouldn’t make progress if they did not own the plan. Plus we created incentives for them to commit the huge amount time required to do the research well, making sure they knew that they would be the ones publishing their findings. We keep in very regular contact through visits and Skype to keep the collaborative show on the road.

  • Recommendation 1: research grant-makers might consider creating small-grant schemes for the development of coalitions and projects so that researchers in the South get better opportunities to design and lead research.

What is ethnographic research?

As a third year undergraduate I was preparing for fieldwork with farmers in the foothills of the Himalayas, attending a course on methods and one of my favourite tutors advised; “just have an intelligent holiday.” I didn't want to appear stupid by asking what he meant. It took me years of experimenting to appreciate his advice. When doing anthropological fieldwork there are no easy formulas, tools or standards that you can arm yourself with in advance. I thought I was going to study how children learn caste in the Indian village in Himachal Pradesh but when I got there I realised since I didn't know a thing about child development or speak Hindi well enough, it would be impossible. So I tore up most of my research proposal and studied how the adults, many of whom were fluent in English, challenged caste rules or kept them the same and I found out about caste interaction by conversing, watching and making sense of contradictions.

In the last two decades I switched my attention to studying UK politicians at work, publishing one ethnography on the House of Lords and another on the House of Commons. Political scientists have often asked me what was involved. As tempting as it was to reply, “I was having intelligent holidays” I thought that might irritate, so tried to tell stories about what puzzles animated my research and then what I did to grapple with them. Why does whipping work in the House of Lords when there are so few bribes and threats for whips to use? Why do women thrive in the Lords and face such hostility in the Commons? What goes on behind the scenes when Parliament makes laws? I’d explain who I spoke to, what events observed and what processes I tracked to answer these questions.

It feels like being on holiday when you lurk in an Indian village, or the corridors of Westminster, trying to persuade an informant to spill the beans or reflect on what they usually take for granted because you are making strange and exotic discoveries. Curiosity sustains you. Intelligence is required, or more specifically practical judgement in Dewey’s sense of the phrase, because you don’t usually know what you have to ask or look for until you are in the moment. The tricky bit is moving from the moment to a place of some detachment so that you can theorise about what is going on. That process never stops; history continually changes.

At last I have put some of these experiences of ethnographic research in Westminster on paper, just published by the Journal of Parliamentary Affairs. It is only a tiny part of the story but it is a start.

NB thanks to ESRC-DFID for funding my current project on research in the Ethiopian and Bangladesh Parliaments which allowed me to write this article. For more on that see this blog.

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