Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Journal Entry #18 - 2/22/12

I don't know if I've ever had a semester where I've thought as much or as hard as this semester. Going to Inquiry Conference this week has been another experience that has caused me a great deal of thought.

On a side note, all these thoughts are a good thing because they are reminders that I enjoy my major. I was frustrated for a while while I was trying to decide on a major because I felt like I liked learning about everything. That's good, and some people would say that's why I could just choose a major at random and I would end up happy regardless, but that's actually not it - I enjoy continually learning about everything, which means I needed a major that would allow me to educate myself broadly or I would get bored. So far, International Relations has been a wonderful way to learn widely about many things that I find interesting.

Back to the Inquiry Conference, today's conference lecture included a couple of presentations of students who created specific experiments and conducted them with NGO's in Uganda. I'm currently in PL SC 200, and we've been discussing the elements of a good research design. The students who gave the presentations did a great job of creating valid designs with randomization and control and treatment groups, discussions of internal and external validity, and statistical evaluations of their results. It got me really excited, but when I asked they told me that they took a research design class that taught them how to do each step correctly. Well, I really would like to know everything that they know right now, because I know it's going to be incredibly useful in England. There are at least a couple of experiments that I would like to try while I'm there that would involve randomization, control groups, and clever surveys (like the one I discussed in my last journal entry) that would clearly show attitudes toward religion in England. I have 90 days to do the work, and although that will probably end up being very short once I'm there, it's still a lot of time. I'd like to have meaningful activities every day that would be motivating and productive, and I'm a little afraid about getting there and simply not knowing how to put together the kind of brilliant surveys or experiments that would really make the experience useful.

Zooming out a little bit, I'm thinking back on my mission and the role that numbers played into our work. There were always people on both sides of the issue - those in favor of the numbers and who focused on them heavily and those who did not trust the numbers and held them more or less in disdain. In truth, both sides of the argument have some validity - 200 meaningless contacts in the streets was often much less effective than a couple hours of identifying less active members on the list and visiting them. The same argument comes up in research in the debate between the usefulness of qualitative vs. qualitative work. I agree with Professor Christensen - you have to look at your research question and see what kind of experiments would be possible in your area - quantitative and experimental, quantitative and non-experimental, and qualitative. Some areas of research simply cannot be studied quantitatively (like to what extent people agree or disagree with a certain policy - the variables aren't ordinal, they're just nominal), and some are naturally quantitative (percentage of people in a country who identify themselves as Christian, for example). In the Inquiry Conference today, David Remington talked about how many NGO or international development programs simply aren't useful at all, or do not accomplish what they set out to do (or, even more tragically, they find out that accomplishing what they set out to do would do more harm than good). The HELP International funded program lacked research and careful preparation that would have helped the program be more effective. In cases like Remington's, the research conducted by the other presenters is incredibly important. In contrast to the poorly informed program that Remington participated in last summer in India, the other presenters (Megan, Peter, and Madeleine) designed experiments to see if certain interventions (publicizing facilitating communication between NGO's for example) are actually beneficial based on statistical tests. Clearly, there are ways to use qualitative research in a meaningful way when studying the effect of certain policies. If they are beneficial in one place, they can be replicated on a large scale and be very effective.

In short - I want to use both qualitative and quantitative research on my field study. However, quantitative research takes practice and a lot of help...I'll need a great faculty mentor.

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