Stuff Political Scientists Like #6 — Soaking and Poking

12 July 2011, 2333 EDT

This one was inspired by Kate Weaver, and her dirty, dirty mind.

Sometimes numbers just won’t do. Political scientists occasionally require real-world knowledge and must come to terms with face-to-face human interaction. They have to do field research. Political scientists like to soak and poke.

Stop that. Don’t make this sexual. Get your mind out of the gutter. This is serious business. There is no room for juvenile humor in a discussion of political science methodology. The boys at PSJR will get upset.
Political scientists who do field research believe that the world is like first grade. Everyone is special and unique, like snowflakes. They all have something interesting to say. You will hang on their every word. You will struggle to decipher the meaning of every tiny gesture. If they give you the finger, don’t despair. That must mean something very different in the field.

If you want to soak and poke, you must start preparing very early. You will need to speak the local language fluently as every idiomatic expression tells you something new and different. Begin planning 8-10 years in advance. You might be tempted just to go to some Spanish-speaking country because you had a little in high school. But surely Spain will not satisfy the ruthless criteria for case selection in today’s political science. Is it a critical case? Does it give you variation on your dependent variable? Does it help you set up a natural experiment? I didn’t think so. Suck it up. You are learning Urdu. Also, you speak with a Mexican accent because your high school teacher was from Guadalajara. That will simply not do.

Still you might think strategically about it. The best place for soaking is Hungary. They have great bathhouses. And poking? Well, try Amsterdam. OK! I’m sorry!

Second you must wipe your mind clear of all preconceptions. Theory destroys meaning. You must forget all of your graduate training, everything you thought you knew. Break up with your boyfriend. It is best to forget all of your old ties if you are to integrate into a new society. Plus he is getting clingy. Hypnosis might help too.

You are now set to go out ‘into the field.’ Political scientists like saying ‘in the field’ because it makes them sound like secret agents when in fact they have more in common with farmers.

Soaking and poking requires ‘participant observation,’ getting as close as possible to your subject of study. But remember that soaking and poking is just a metaphor. Please do not feed your subjects. They cannot tolerate your diet.

For the best participant observation it is ideal for you to follow around your subject of interest at all times. You must know everything about them. But your very presence will alter their behavior, particularly if they know you are studying them. I recommend subterfuge.

First, before you make direct contact, get to know their schedule — when they drop their children off at school, when they go to bed, what they like to eat. Second, stage a collision at their favorite local coffee store, ideally when they have papers in their hands so you can help them pick them up. Then initiate a conversation about an interesting article they have probably read because you found it in their garbage. Parlay that into an internship in their office where you can observe everything about them and collect anecdotes for your ethnographic masterpiece.

This might sound like stalking but it is in the name of science. Any political ethnographer worth his salt has had a restraining order at one time or another. If you can break up his or her marriage to get closer that’s great. If you are not gay and he or she if of the opposite sex, you can always go Single White Female.

Now you are fast friends but you have to go further. Fight the civil war. Participate in the coup. Assassinate a foreign leader. You have to be there, become one with your subjects. Otherwise you will never truly understand. The Committee on Human Subjects can be dealt with later.

Not everyone is skilled at soaking and poking. Europeans seem to be more inclined to try it. They are excellent at ingratiating themselves into foreign cultures, particularly native ones. Their experience going topless at the beach pays off.

When you are done, you will have made a very important contribution. No one else will ever know more about life in a refugee camp during the second week of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border dispute. And from now on, you have a passive aggressive declaration making as a question for every single academic panel you attend in the future: “I am not sure if this theory works in the Ethiopian case…..”