Louise Cockram & Noah Schwartz
When we think about international research, we often picture traveling to far off places. We see this expectation reflected in the way that university International Offices sell studying abroad, with pictures of Thai Temples and famous monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower. However, valuable international research can happen closer to home, in a cultural context with which we are more familiar. This was the case with our respective dissertation projects. Louise traveled to the UK to interview MPs for her project that explores the orientation of new MPs in Canada and UK. Noah’s research took him to Washington, DC as he attempted to better understand the role that narratives about the past play in the National Rifle Association of America (NRA)’s influence on public policy.
Drawing from our experience, we wanted to offer three tips for doing international research close to home.
Being affiliated with a university in your country of study is a major advantage
Mobilizing the network of his supervisor, Noah secured a visiting scholar affiliation with George Mason University. During her field research, Louise was affiliated with the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. As a result, we were both able to take advantage of the study spaces and libraries at our respective host institutions. This eased the logistics of our fieldwork, resulting in lighter suitcases, a quiet place to work and even a room in the residences for Noah.
The second advantage was the brand recognition provided by associating with a local university. While your home university may be well-known in Canada, it might not have the same name recognition abroad. At the beginning of her research, Louise found it difficult to obtain interviews with British MPs. It wasn’t until she became a visiting researcher at the Crick Centre that she had success interviewing MPs. Noah found the institutional affiliation to be an asset when it came to recruitment for his research, as the participants he was working with recognized the George Mason brand.
Be aware of the political situation you are entering and your position in it
Being aware of the political situation you are entering can be a matter of physical safety for those doing international research in unstable regimes, or countries with less stellar human rights records. But this is still important closer to home as well. Both of us were entering our respective research sites in a time of intense political polarization.
Noah was conducting research in the American context where the Presidency of Donald Trump has brought to the fore political divisions within the country. Louise conducted her research in the context of Brexit, which has precipitated an existential crisis in British politics not seen since WW2.
Noah’s research concerns firearms policy, a major flashpoint in the culture wars. As such it was important to be aware of the situation he was entering and how he might be perceived as an urban, Jewish, upper-middle class academic. His positionality manifested itself in skepticism among his research population. Gun owners in the US often feel stereotyped and misrepresented by the media and academia. Noah had to be aware of this view in order to navigate these issues of trust with his participants.
Before Louise travelled to the UK, she was warned that MPs would be too pre-occupied with Britain’s exit from the EU to speak about their orientation as new MPs. Further, Louise was concerned that her own pro-remain position on Brexit might find its way into her question design and thus alienate pro-Brexit MPs. Louise tried to overcome these problems by reducing the length of the interviews to accommodate MPs’ schedules and by referring to Brexit only in the context of how it effects parliamentary procedure.
Take advantage of the opportunities around you
Being on the ground provided us both with the opportunity to situate our research in the local context of our chosen case studies. These opportunities presented themselves in ways we may not have expected. When exploring the preserved Civil War town of Harper’s Ferry, Noah learned more about John Brown, an abolitionist whose slave uprising served as a catalyst for the Civil War. He came across Brown’s uprising again in the NRA Museum, where it was presented in order to link firearms ownership to abolitionism. Having visited the site in his downtime gave him a deeper understanding of the local significance of the story.
For Louise this insight presented itself when she visited an MP’s constituency office and found a level of security that was startlingly higher than in Canada. This is because MPs in the UK receive an alarming number of death threats precipitated by the polarized discourse on Brexit. Louise found this to be unsettling but it gave her deeper insight into the dangers that MPs, especially female MPs and MPs of colour, now face.
We believe that important international research can happen closer to home. Hopefully these tips can help you to plan your own field research.
Have your own tips or experiences that you would like to share? Tweet at @eleanorlouCA @NoahSchwartzy and @Praxblog.