On stretching metaphors in the field of international development

December 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

While preparing an article for publication just now I came across these gems:

[NGOs need to] get…out of the driving seat and learn…to trust their chosen partner’s navigational skills. Just because they paid to fill up the tank does not give NGOs the right to determine the route.

[The saying goes that] if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, [but] what if that fisher is not a man but a woman? And what if she doesn’t own the water in which she is fishing?…[and] what if the NGO does not even know how to fish? (Eade, D. 2007 “Capacity building: Who builds whose capacity?” Development in Practice 17 (4) 630-639, cited in Ingram, Joanne 2011, “Volunteer tourism: How do we know it is ‘making a difference’?” in Angela M. Benson (ed.) Volunteer Tourism: Theory framework to practical applications, pages 217-8)

…Which make me feel better about my own stretching of the first of these metaphors during my Aid and Development classes this term.

Oh, and for another example of stretching a metaphor (in a slightly less meaningful way?) see this.


Being an academic at Xmas…

December 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

…with families and parties and small talk and stuff. On this subject I just wanted to share something posted on Facebook by one of my professors from back in the day at Warwick University:

Non-political scientists, in their desperate effort to make small talk with someone they see just every few years, make the assumption that political scientists know something about politics. They will ask, “What do you think Obama’s chances are?” Or, “do you think Herman Cain really groped that woman?” At this point, they will be inevitably disappointed by the response, which will be straight from the New York Times, where all political scientists get all their information about real politics –that, or the New Yorker. (“Stuff Political Scientists (Don’t) Like #13, Holiday Edition – Explaining Themselves to Loved Ones”, on The Duck of Minerva blog)

And now on with last-minute christmas shopping we go.


Christmas Day Carshare/carpool in London/to-from Heathrow

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a post about travelling on Christmas Day if you don’t own a car. It turns out that in the past 2 days 4 people I know have casually mentioned to me their intention to travel either to or from Heathrow on Christmas Day by public transport, to which I have less casually responded that this isn’t going to happen (a summary from Time Out is available here; for full details of public transport over the holiday period see TfL here).

For people with such plans I recommend exploring options for carsharing – either by using a search engine or getting in touch with me if a) you need to travel on Christmas Day, b) you might be interested in getting paid as a driver on Christmas Day or c) you have other suggestions.

Tools for activists/researchers looking at Indian parliamentary politics

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment


Essay advice for my students

December 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s that time of year, and as I teach on three courses and will be marking essays for all three, I thought I should share some tips with my students about what I’m looking for. I do so firstly by drawing the attention of my students to a document titled “Good Assignment Guidelines 10/11” which can be downloaded from the right-hand side of the SOAS Development Studies website and, secondly, in the form of responding to some of my students’ questions (because this enables me to adopt the literary form of an agony aunt, which is always fun). All names have been changed, obviously.

Dear Brendan,

I can answer the question, as the course convenor seems to want, but I don’t know what you want. The course convenor said explicitly not to go off-topic, but tutors for other classes also said explicitly that simply answering the question isn’t enough and doing so would result in a deduction. I don’t want to sound like a fussy student; I just want to know what’s expected of me. – Steve, Nottinghamshire

Dear Steve,

You don’t sound like a fussy student. But I’m not clear what the other tutors mean by saying answering the question is not enough. Of course answering the question is enough. The point is how you answer the question. The course convenor is right to say don’t go off-topic. To answer the question you have picked, I would expect you to start by explaining what the question means – for example, do not assume that the definition of what is an FBO or NGO is a straightforward business, and you will probably need to say “In this essay I am following [author 1] and [author 2] in adopting the following definition of what an FBO is, but I recognise that many scholars, including [author 3] and [author 4] have pointed out that there are problems with this definition.”

After this, go ahead and answer the question – what this means is that the essay is not only a description or discussion of the topic; the essay must take a position on what the right answer to the question is. The essay should present an argument for why you consider that position to be an appropriate position to take. Use academic readings and concrete examples to support your case. Acknowledge potential counter-arguments, and explain why they do not make your chosen position impossible to defend, for example by arguing “This counter-argument is important, but it fails to take into account x, y and z”. The essay should be structured so that when I read it I know what you are arguing and where you are going. This means the essay must have an introduction (where you tell me what you are going to say), a main body (where you say it), and a conclusion (where you summarise what has been said).

Dear Brendan,

I have heard from a friend on the course that you cannot submit essays where there is an overlapping theme. I looked through the Course Handbook but I can’t find any specific material saying that this isn’t allowed. I was hoping I could just double-check with you that this is ok – I won’t be using any of the same material or sources and was more thinking of it as a way to delve deeper into the topic, but if it’s going to change my final mark I will switch topics. Sorry for the odd question!

-Laney, Mexico City

Dear Laney,

It’s not an odd question at all. I checked with the course convenor and he said “Provided she isn’t just cutting and pasting (i.e. the work is original) then there is no problem in covering a similar topic in two essays.” So go for it.
Best wishes,

Dear Brendan,
I have been looking for one of the books on the reading list insanely! There are no copies left at SOAS library. I tried the LSE library this morning but their only copy is missing and apparently none of UK’s Waterstones stores have it (I checked). Therefore I was wondering whether you owned a copy I could borrow for a few days. It would really help me out in the development of my argument, I’d really appreciate it.
-Tracey, Edinburgh
Try the British Library (you will have to read the book in the library, or photocopy some of it), or look at https://dropitintheocean.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/how-to-access-academic-readings-for-free-online/
Good luck!
Best wishes,
Dear Brendan,
I have a quick question about how to write ‘case study’ questions; I’ve never written an essay which specifically says answer ‘in reference to case study material’ and i’m not sure how to structure it. Is there a ‘better’ way to stucture it?! For example, use separate paragraphs for each study or is it okay to make a point and use the relevant part of the case study/studies as evidence (as there is soem overlap)? Probably a stupid question, sorry!
-Sandra, Canterbury
Dear Sandra,
Not a stupid question at all. I think the key is to structure the essay around your answer to the question rather than around the case study material: the case studies should support your argument, and so they should be brought in as evidence to support particular points you want to make. Using separate paragraphs for each study sounds like a bad idea – unless each case study allows you to make a single point, and then you move on to the next paragraph/case study to make your next point. Does that make sense?
Best wishes,
Yo Brendan,
Can I just ask you a question, since you are marking our papers, are you opposed to the use of first person in an essay? I know different tutors/lecturers have different styles so I just wanted to check…. Also, as an approximate guide, how many texts are you expecting in the bibliography? 10? 20?

– Dominique, Paris
Dear Dominique,
First person i fine. it’s not about the number of texts, it’s about how well you use them – i.e. whether you engage with them in a meaningful way. Hope that helps.
Best wishes

Guardian coverage of “Reading the Riots” project 1

December 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday the Guardian started publishing reports of the findings of the “Reading the Riots” research project which I have been involved in since October. My role in the project was to conduct some of the interviews with people involved in the riots. As I haven’t been involved in the analysis of the data gathered by myself and the 30 other researchers who carried out interviews, it has been very interesting to find out some of the findings of this analysis.

One of the thoughts that came to my mind as I read through the coverage in yesterday’s newspaper was that while the headline news is that most of the rioters emphasise negative experiences with the police as a significant motivation for their behaviour in August, the interview guide we used to conduct the interviews (available online here) studiously avoided asking direct questions about the police until the end of the interview. This is an important point which adds weight to this element of the findings: where rioters emphasised the police as a factor, this was not a result of prompting by the interviewers.


This is not an insigificant point given how Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange has reviewed the research project in The Telegraph:

The list of questions asked about the causes of the riots (p6) reflects that [the leftist bias Neil O’Brien attributes to the social scientists, researchers and journalists behind the project]: lots of reasons favoured by the left, and nothing about acquisitiveness. (Neil O’Brien, “How the Guardian destroyed the left’s excuses for the riots”, The Telegraph, December 5 2011)


Aside from the fact that ‘acquisitiveness’ is often understood to have a fairly similar meaning to ‘greed’ (which appears as one of the options on page 6 of the interview guide but appears to have escaped Mr O’Brien’s attention), Mr O’Brien misses the point that the main focus of the interviews was qualitative data gathered through open-ended interview techniques, rather than the multiple-choice questions at the end to which he refers (for more on the methodology see here). What this means is that the majority of each interview was carried out in the form of a conversation around certain topics, in which the interviewer avoided leading questions, to the best of her/his ability. In this context it is striking that most of those I interviewed mentioned negative experiences with the police long before we got to the multiple-choice questions.

At this point I don’t have the time to engage with the rest of what Mr O’Brien has to say; besides which it hardly seems likely that he would have any interest in my attempts to do so, given that – like most people, perhaps? – he seems to have all the answers to why the riots happened without the need to take into account the insights that might be provided by (leftist, biased) social science research.


Some of the coverage of the project so far:

My first Prezi (not to be confused with Prezzie)

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

A Prezzie is a present. This is not a blogpost about a gift, it’s about prezi, an innovative and somewhat gimmicky software tool for making presentations that I used on/with my students today for the first time. The prezi I prezented can be found online here. My verdict is that prezi offers a useable tool that didn’t particularly excite my students, despite its obvious differences in format from the powerpoint presentations I usually offer. Perhaps this is because I need to learn how to make more visually stimulating prezis by exploiting the range of possibilities this format has to offer. Perhaps my first prezi remains too closely tied to the idea of a powerpoint presentation and simply adds vertigo-inducing movement.

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