Random thoughts on epistemology, ontology, and methodology

So, before I forget…. I wanted to commit to paper (eh, teh Internets) these random thoughts that I had before, during, and after research design class today…

  • Do most grad students start out as “problem driven” researchers? That is, don’t we mostly come to graduate studies due to interests in real substantive (as opposed, usually, to analytic) problems that we want to better understand? Nearly every grad admission essay I’ve ever read is about substantive rather than analytical concerns. And, in part, the process of grad school is a bit of indoctrination training to adopt and use different analytic (theory and method) tools to answer substantive questions. Only then do we become methods-driven or theory-driven researchers.
  • Are some scholars cognitively or psychologically more adept at certain types of research methodologies or their capacity to be analytically eclectic? For instance, are hedgehogs better at certain types of work than foxes? Can this explain some of the quantitative or qualitative divide? Or the positivist/post-positivist divide? Or, if interpretative methods are based on empathy and the ability of researchers to both know or understand in the common sense way and know as a stranger or expert (9-13, 19), then might some researchers be better able (due to personality) to empathize with their research subjects better than others? I can think of some people who’s ability to empathize with colleagues (not at my institution) suggests that they would be hard pressed to empathize with research subjects sufficiently to achieve verstehen. Isn’t it better, then, that they aren’t doing interpretive work? Or, is the ability to do meaningful interpretive work (pun intended) dependent on personality? Could we derive a model to predict this? Give researchers a personality test that measures ability to empathize, and then correlate that with some 3rd party coding/measure of the quality of their understanding as demonstrated by their research? Does this mean that Foucault was capable of incredible empathy? I wonder.
  • For class, we read pieces that claimed that quantifying things runs counter to the interpretive turn…. that numbers cannot capture the intersubjectivity of a text (broadly understood to include acts and artifacts as texts) and so have no place in interpretive work. Sure, I get that. But then what of the digital humanities movement, where folks are using textual analysis (counting of words) to describe and interpret and uncover patterns in texts? Admittedly, I don’t know enough about MLA -style interpretivism or the digital humanities, but the glimpses I’ve seen suggest that they don’t view counting words as antithetical to interpretation of texts. So, why can’t political scientists use textual analysis tools for interpretive analysis of texts? (And, in some ways, it seems to me, that many of the presentations I’ve seen of textual analyses are more descriptive than causal anyway….)

Regional linguistic affectations, or amateur linguistic analysis

My brother-in-law, who recently relocated from Texas to Western NY for his Ph.D., sent me this rumination on the use of “Y’all”, which I promptly forwarded to my Chair and a staff member, both of whom have either chuckled or LOL’d when I’ve said “y’all.” In response, the staff member admitted that Canadian’s have their own affectation, “eh?”, which led to a brief discussion of the meanings and use of “eh.” Yes, there are some people (not plentiful in Toronto or Hamilton, thank goodness), who seem to sprinkle “eh” at the end of every statement. But more often, it seems, to Brian and me at least, that “eh” is used in a sarcastic way to really invert the meaning of the previous statement, as in “Have a good day, eh?”, which you’re likely to hear a snarky barista tell a picky customer as they hand off their half-caff, triple tall, light foam, extra sweet, mocha soy latte.

I’m curious about other uses of “eh.”


What is the comparative advantage of political science in Canada?

Let me start by saying this is not a promise that I will be blogging again regularly. However, I’ve been thinking about this since last week’s graduate research design class, so I thought I’d go ahead and write these ideas down somewhere other than my Moleskine™.

For the first week of class, we read a handful of histories of the political science profession, most of which focused on the development of American political science (much to at least one student’s dismay).

One of the articles suggested that the Canadian market is too small to be a leader in all fields of political science, and instead, if international recognition and contributions were valued, then Canadian political science would be well-served by specializing in the areas of the field in which it has a comparative advantage. This got me and (then because I made them) my students reflecting on what subfields or areas within political science might Canada be reasonably expected to have a comparative advantage. Having been trained and taught in the U.S. system before arriving here, I have some thoughts based on observations of the differences, not only of political science as its practiced in Canada, but also differences in undergraduate education and society in general. So here are a couple of examples.

Examples of fields or areas in which Canada conceivably has or could develop a comparative advantage:

  • study of immigration policy and multiculturalism: The politics of immigration and of multiculturalism have become increasingly important and more widely relevant among advanced industrialized democracies over the last decade or so. To the extent that this has been a preoccupation within Canada for longer, it seems like Canadian political scientists can get and have gotten ahead of the curve in this area.
  • critical theory: Funding for the social sciences in Canada is housed with the humanities at the SSHRC, rather than with the natural sciences and engineering as they are housed in the U.S. I believe this difference in the funding structure (combined with a general tendency toward inclusiveness and multiculturalism, even within the discipline of political science) has given political science in Canada the freedom to develop a more eclectic range of acceptable (by the discipline’s local customs/norms) approaches. In contrast, I suspect that political science in the U.S. (behavioralism revolution aside) has constantly felt the need to justify itself and its ‘scientific’ credentials within the NSF as it is compared (at least implicitly, if not always explicitly) to the natural sciences.
  • federalism (and by extension other forms of multilevel governance): Many students (and also their instructors or the popular media?) nearly fetishize federalism. At a minimum, there is a lot of time spent thinking about and emphasizing how certain things (elections, party systems, policy, etc.) are overwhelmingly influenced by federalism. Surely these insights could be useful for lots of different questions.

Example of fields in which Canada is likely to be at a comparative disadvantage

  • quantitative analysis: Most undergraduate degrees are based on a British model where students specialize from year one and do not get a broad liberal arts foundation. Undergraduate political science majors are usually not required to take any lab science nor to complete even college algebra, let alone calculus. This means that when students go to graduate school, they seldom have the foundation necessary to learn advanced quantitative methods.
  • comparative politics outside the Anglophone world: Again, few students are required to take any foreign language as undergraduates and those that do, often take French (which will help with only a handful of countries). In addition, few undergraduates seems to study abroad and in general, when universities talk about “internationalization,” they mean attracting foreign students, not sending Canadian students abroad. This means that while graduate students can do fieldwork in non-English speaking parts of the world, few of them will have the really solid language skills to do so effectively (unless, of course, they had these from living abroad or from their families prior to school). Updated to add: As case in point, see page 10 of this mission statement from Mac’s president.

I’m sure there are more points that could be added to either list, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind as I (re)read these histories of the discipline last week.


Back in 2007 (or was it 2008?), I joined a group working to develop an online portal or community for folks teaching research methods. At the two APSA TLC meetings I attended, the folks in the teaching research methods track always wanted a place to post information and questions about teaching methods. Then, in 2007, Phil Schrodt, Jan Box-Steffensmeier, and Dean Lacy gave a workshop at the TLC about their efforts to develop a wiki-based, open-source textbook. It seemed logical to combine the textbook idea with the type of online community the APSA TLC attendees wanted. Bill Anderson and I were invited to join Phil and Jan’s efforts to get funding, and we picked up Bill Jacoby along the way, too. A few meetings and many, many emails later, we have funding and the beginning of a site, with the help of folks at ICPSR. I have been busy corresponding with the site developer at ICPSR to build the site and with the other members of project to put together our first workshops to get the project moving. Here’s the Call for Participants.

Using Mythbusters to teach intro stats concepts

Brian and I have watched a handful of Mythbusters lately that have used some basic statistics to either set up the test of the myth or to test the myth. I’m wondering if anyone’s ever used some of the clips in an undergraduate methods class. It seems there are lots of episodes that could but used to illustrate different types of experimental designs. But, there are also some that use statistics based on the data they collect. For instance, in this episode (see Vector Vengeance), they calculate the standard deviation across multiple cannons to determine which is the most consistent way to launch a ball. In this other episode, they are testing whether men or women, redheads or non-redheads, and cursing or not cursing explain differences in people’s ability to handle pain. They calculate means across the different groups, but stop short of a difference of means test. It seems you could (re)create the individual data to match up with their means and then do small sample difference of means tests in class.

For now, I’m making a list of episodes and saving them in my teaching undergrad stats folder in the event that I am called upon to teach that course. I also have a running list of episodes from The Big Bang Theory, including the opening scene of “The Friendship Algorithm,” when Kripke comes by and makes fun of Leonard’s experiment with 20K observations and not a single statistically significant result. Bazinga!

It has been 540 days since my last blog post

Once upon a time, I had a blog. The last post was a subdued celebration of the election of Barack Obama. A lot has happened in the world since then. A lot has changed in my life, too. Consider this both my last post on Profesora Abstraida and my first post here. I can’t promise regular updates, and I won’t promise the same level of scrutiny of Mexican politics as before, but I will try to do more than short Tweets. In the meantime, here’s an abbreviated update of what I’ve been doing for the last 540 days.

In November 2008, I interviewed for a faculty position in the Political Science Department at McMaster University. Everyone was very welcoming and nice, and I enjoyed my visit. Neither Brian nor I had never really been to Canada before, so he flew up after the interview for a weekend in Toronto. Though it was abnormally cold (according to my hosts), we enjoyed the Annex, the AGO, and Queen Street West.

January 2009 was a busy month. I heard that my tenure file had passed through the Institute-level committee, so things were looking pretty solid for promotion and tenure at Tech. I was also invited to interview at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I was also offered the position at McMaster. Though I enjoyed my campus visit at Texas State, I had to respond to McMaster before their interviews were going to be concluded. McMaster, though far from ‘home’ in Austin, seemed like a better fit for me, and Toronto seemed like a better fit for Brian. So, we decided to make the move. I accepted the position (though we didn’t tell anyone for several weeks).

In February, I received the official letter confirming that I had been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at Tech.

In March, we used spring break to move several things to a storage unit in Austin and to tell Brian’s family in person that we were moving to Toronto during the summer.

In April, we packed up the house and said goodbye, though things were so rushed that we didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone personally. That made me a little sad. I also started a new website to chronicle all the great things Brian says.

In May and part of June, we stayed with my mom in Austin and visited Toronto to sign a lease.

In late June, we packed up the Jetta with our 3 cats and 80lb dog for the drive to Toronto. Most of July was spent Craigslisting and unpacking. August, more of the same. Brian’s parents came to visit for 5 days in mid-August. Brian helped my grandparents move from Corpus Christi, TX to Flint, MI.

Classes started at McMaster in September. For the first time, I was teaching a graduate class in my area of research interest. So far, so good.

Over the holidays, I visited in Flint, while Brian went to Austin.

Spring semester, I taught intro graduate statistics and an undergraduate senior seminar in the politics of public policy.

In late January, my grandma passed away in her home in Flint. She left me a voicemail singing me happy birthday the night before.

In February, my book was published, and we went to Austin during reading week to visit and help my grandpa get everything settled.

In April, I received notice that my SSHRC Standard Research Grant was funded for the next three years.

…which brings me to now. I am happy in my new Department and University. We are happy in our new city.

And, I am looking forward to my second summer since graduate school in which I have not either:

a) moved our household internationally;
b) ran or participated in a summer study abroad program for at least 6 weeks; or
c) taught two courses during summer school.

I have lots of old projects to wrap up and new ones to begin. In the meantime, I’ll try to post here periodically.