Few things are more rewarding than receiving an email from your supervisor, expressing concern that he has not heard from you for a while, and then replying back, promptly(!), with a 200-page, 80,000-word monster of a first draft…

That will shut him up for a while, which is not to say that we do not get along fine.

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Top universities

While I do not give a rat’s rear about the usefulness of so-called academic league tables, it is striking just how much in favour they are of English-speaking institutions. The Times Higher Education – 2008 QS World University Rankings place only one non-anglophone university in the top 20: University of Tokyo (19); and a total of five six within the top 30: ETH Zurich (24), Kyoto University (25), U of Hong Kong (26), École Normale Supérieure Paris (29), and National University of Singapore (30).

What happened to Continental European institutions? Germany’s highest placed entry, Heidelberg, for example, comes in at 57.

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Methodology in a nutshell

Writing the obligatory methods section is an attempt to make sure that no-one, except for the truly hopeless, actually enjoys doing or reading scholarly work. A filtering mechanism. It is, in other words, a way of equipping any piece of academic writing with a built-in mechanism for putting readers to sleep before they reach the interesting bits. The interesting bits, also referred to as ‘empirical’ or ‘analytical’ chapters, are those that differ ever so slightly from the millions of other books and articles on the very same topic using a couple of different wordings here and there. Of course, no-one actually reads a methods chapter in its entirety, but, for those who have not understood the argument or failed to read the thing in its entirety, which is the rule rather than the exception, it provides a convenient excuse for pointing out all the grave mistakes that have been committed along the way. Secondly, the vast amounts of literature available on methodology, the thrust of which can be summarised in, say, 12 sentences, provide a never-ending source of income for academics who have given up on conducting their own research or become paranoid about leaving the safe confines of their office.

Did I mention that I am working on my methodology section right now?

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Hell on earth

When doing qualitative research, it is quite well-known that the researcher becomes embedded in the world he/she seeks to describe, whereby the border between ‘research life’ and ‘private life’ is rendered problematic. In trying to get to grips with what ethics is about, I have felt this confluence acting out in many, many ways.

It is, however, nice to know that I have yet to go completely native, as witnessed in my devilish laughter this morning. Someone sent out an email to one of the ‘ethical’ mailing lists I subscribe to, looking for a couple of new housemates:

Re: Two Housemates Wanted: Green/Creative share in Cornerville*

How do you like the idea of waking up on a Sunday morning to the aromas of freshly-brewed fair-trade coffee and fried eggs crawling their way up the stairs from the kitchen, the faint sound of self-penned songs dedicated to the perils of modern living coming from downstairs, cherishing the luxurious knowledge that once you’ve struggled out of your semi-slumber you’re just a 14 minute tube ride to London’s thrumming heart?

You would be sharing with a mixture of musical, artistic and green-minded folk (aged 25-29) who offer various communal schemes – collective organic cookery, evenings out – for those who want to join in, within a cosy, laid back, TV free space.

The house itself is a lovely, spacious Victorian behemoth of a thing with a large living room, large kitchen and a back garden patio-ish thing with a regular squirrel. (and bikes, a compost heap, and struggling vegetables).

Yes, I am an evil, reactionary, sad git.

*I made up the name. Out of common decency, of course.

Posted in Ethics, Fieldwork 2 Comments »

Another quote from the basement

I have spent yet another weekend tied to the computer, working on the Unmentionable. So, instead of posting something about my vegetable plot or means of transportation, here is another brilliant quote by Karl Weick:

Investigators who study organizations often separate environments from organizations and argue that things happen between these distinct entities. This way of carving up the problem of organizational analysis effectively rules out certain kinds of questions. Talk about bounded environments and organizations, for example, compels the investigator to ask questions such as “How does an organization discover the underlying structure in the environment?” Having separated the “two” entities and given them independent existence, investigators have to make elaborate speculations concerning the ways in which one entity becomes disclosed to and known by the other. But the firm partitioning of the world into the environment and the organization excludes the possibility that people invent rather than discover part of what they think they see (Weick 1979: 166).

I use this quote, and the line of reasoning more generally, to say something about how companies should not think of standards merely as descriptive devices or neutral instruments in interacting with the ‘world’ and defining their spheres of accountability.

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Unfortunately, social scientists rarely get to experience “eureka!” moments like those of Archimedes taking a bath or Newton noticing an apple falling from a tree (or maybe we are I am just too thick-headed to pick up on the ‘signs.’)

From time to time, though, I have experienced breakthroughs – as breakthrough as it gets when you are in the business of producing convincing documents – prompted by a good question, an everyday event or, as in most cases, a compelling metaphor.

I thought I wanted to share one such anecdote, falling into the latter category, which gave me a whole lot to think about a year or so back. It was certainly a moment that tied together a lot of loose ends in my thinking, namely about ethics as something that is performed rather than a given in the order of things.

The quote below, which is a telling indicator of Norbert Elias’ ‘process sociology,’ led me to think that ‘ethics’ is always ‘ethicising’ in more or less durable configurations, suggesting that any form of ethicality is always contested, becoming, and in the making – and nothing else.

We then think of wind as a thing that can take days off and not be blowing. But wind only exists as blowing. We would do better to say ‘the wind is blowing’ and better still to do without the noun/verb syntax entirely and only use the gerund, blowing, to recognize that blowing is all there is (Frank 2004).

Ethicising, it makes things so much more, um, complicated. I have since added several more gerunds to understand these processes, in fact, my thesis is built around the sub-themes standardising, materialising and unethicising. And now back to work…

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An academic jumble

[Update] There is now a post-event blog online, however, I doubt that the strange tribe members of the Academy will engage with it: A Turn to Ontology in STS?

I have been awaiting this week with great anticipation. Not only is Mr Ostrowski visiting from Denmark, but we have two conferences ahead of us.

A Turn to Ontology, bringing together a fabulous team of social scientific researchers to discuss whether and how organisations and people can address truth claims in practical ways.

Imagining Business, as noted previously, asks questions about how modern businesses use imagery as part of their everyday operations.

This may be old news to some people, and boring news to others, but I am once again organising the Ethics in Practice panel for this year’s joint EASST/4S Conference in Rotterdam, this time along with Dan Neyland.

Finally, I have been fortunate enough to secure Sarah Whatmore and Geoff Bowker as my examiners for the viva voce aka judgement day, two scholars of remarkable quality.

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Later this week I am addressing a very prominent crowd including His Excellency Dr Mugheer Al Khaili, Minister for Education of Abu Dhabi, The Lord Aldington, Chairman of Deutsche Bank, and Hugh Crisp, former CEO of Freshfields.

This would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that I have four minutes to talk about four years of research under the headline “Business Schools in the 21st Century – Delivering Outcomes that Matter.”

Maybe a Sound of Music themed presentation would do the job

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The future, finally it is here…

It has come to a point where I can talk about my future without, god forbid, jinxing it.

I decided a long time back that a full-time academic career would not be compatible with what I want in my life and the kind of professional roles I envisage myself in. However, I would hate to break off my connections with the research community that I value so much, in Oxford and beyond. I have thought a lot about the best ways in which to maintain links with the Academy, on the one hand, and industry, on the other, without compromising my integrity in either role. This in turn has led me to invest a lot of thought in myself as a ‘project’ – and no doubt I will need to do a lot more work before everything falls into place – but I believe I have cracked it.

So, upon submitting my thesis within the next few months, I will take up a position as a partner in a London-based CSR consultancy working on a range of really, really interesting projects for corporate clients mainly. It is a small employee-owned company that I know quite well since I have worked for them in various capacities over the past couple of years. Also, the job will entail quite a lot of traveling in Scandinavia, Norway in particular, so I look forward to re-discovering my viking ancestry and catching up with friends and family… (in addition to the business aspects, of course.)

Secondly, I am currently planning a research project on a yet to be shared in public theme under the auspices of the James Martin Institute. This is something I will be doing part time in collaboration with one or two brilliant people – yay!

Thirdly, I will maintain Oxford as my base for at least another year, in fact I will be moving to a place that is, even for Oxford standards, steeped in history.

As remarked by our all-time favourite social thinker, “I love it when a good plan comes together.”

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Could you please find somewhere else to talk…

Just as I am meant to lock up the door and return with the prefix “Dr” in three months’ time, it seems that all the interesting people in the world have decided to congregate on Oxford:

On May 1, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz will deliver a talk entitled Meeting the Challenges of Global Governance in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Global Financial Market Debacle at the Sheldonian Theatre.

On May 7, Jonathan Zittrain will deliver a lecture and talk about his new book entitled The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

On May 12, Sir John Sulston, another Nobel Prize winner, and John Harris will address the question: What is science for, what good does it do and should it do good?. Introductory remarks to be delivered by Richard Dawkins.

There really is no place quite like this, but how are we supposed to get any work done here…

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