Thursday, October 27, 2005

Boozing it up in style

Still, there was recompense to be had after the cycling debacle. A trip to the Peruvian ambassador's residence was undertaken on Tuesday evening (I admit it, I have friends in questionable places) where I availed myself of plenty of pisco and cycled home feeling slightly wobbly.

At least I think it was the alcohol. But knowing my cycling experiences...
Bike hassles

This week has been a series of early mornings as I have attempted to get to work in good time to be able to leave at 4.30 or thereabouts to attend seminars down at the LSE and ISA. But imagine my frustration when on Tuesday I walked out of the office in Angel to collect my bike and cycle to the first Latin American seminar of the the term at the LSE and found my back wheel had been nicked.

My bike was locked to one of the stands in the designated bays at the entrance to Islington Town Hall and under the CCTV. There is even a big TV screen showing the location just yards away at reception. Did the staff do anything at all? Not from what I can tell. Apparently it was a boy who got away quick.

Excuse me? Do you know how long it takes to get a back wheel off?

There was absolutely no consolation to be had as I spent 10 minutes trying to get through to the police station to report the crime (so they can collect the CCTV footage) and no apology or commiseration from the staff for what should be a sure area.

Getting the wheel replaced meant walking into the nearest bicycle shop in town with half a bicycle and paying £100 for the privilege of something that should be saving me money but isn't.

To add insult to injury I had barely got 50 yards down the road before the wheel came off. It would appear that paying £10 for labour doesn't mean that you'll get quality service. I'll spare the bike shop in question from being named, but I can assure you I am the end of my teather when it comes to cycling...
Unique or not?

Charles Jones, head of the Latin American Centre in Cambridge was at ISA last night to present a paper on American (in the hemispheric sense) international relations. His thesis was that there was a distinctive form of such relations, compared to the old world form - at least until the establishment of the bipolar and more recent unipolar worlds.

He based his argument on several factors, including the desire to create a 'new world' (i.e. eliminating indigenous populations, societies and structures), the primacy of economic concerns over political ones and the rhetorical commitment to legalism and the reality of force. Indeed, this latter point was expanded upon by his presentation of the US as a formal empire using indirect means to maintain control, in stark contrast to earlier imperial systems. This is seen most evidently in the disproportionate force against its foes, including Grenada and Iraq.

I can see where he's going with this argument, but I'm not personally convinced of the logic. I'll concede that the 'American' state was weak at its foundation compared to the European one, that the 'new world' thesis is strong. But surely legalism has always been a norm at the centre of the international system, as has the tension between pressure to conform and force to ensure it? The more I think about it, the less I am persuaded of exceptionalism, not just for the Americas, but in other regions as well. I've always been sceptical of such specifics, since it's a slippery slope towards the political cultural arguments that individuals like Wiarda make.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Less scientific, more intuitive

The other seminar today was that obligatory one devised to get first year Government students into the LSE first thing Monday morning. Christian List presented an overview of social choice theory (and in particular the problems presented with decision-making rules) while cecile Fabre offered an overview of some of the difficulties in normative political theory through the prism of her own work on the ethics of welfare distribution.

It's not an area that I know a lot about - and which I think was the same for many of my colleagues - so I fear that my questions were relatively simple in tone. What practical applications have social choice theorists done with their work (answer: not much, admitted Christian, but they should be used more often in areas like electoral reform), while I expressed concern to Cecile about my sense that normative theory seems to involve a sense of working back from an already drawn conclusion - which if starkly contrasted with political science (where the purpose seems to be to get at the 'truth'), is the opposite way around.
PhD and Lego

Whoever thought that doing a PhD would result in me playing with Lego? But it did and has made me think a little bit outside the box with regard to my research and possible approaches.

I've just come out of an extremely useful seminar, 'Authoring a PhD', which examined different ways of approaching creativity - in which Professor Dunleavy, the privider for these sessions, uses office buildings and the Gherkin as an analogy - and a facilitaive session during which we played with Lego. The toy acted as a metaphor, encouraging us to present our research interests and particular problems we may face in doing it.

One of the more challenging tasks was to write an abstract on a flipchart of our thesis in 20 minutes - the twist being that we were writing it as if we had already finished it and were presenting our findings. It showed I need to think a bit more about what I'm trying to achieve.

But strangest experience of the session was the constant backgroun music - rock, classical and other sorts. Is there something subliminal that the organisers (the Teaching and Learning Centre at the LSE) was trying to get across? If so, I think I missed it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Where's the fairness?

Can someone explain this to me? Because I still don't get it.

Apparently it's really important that Saddam gets a fair trial in Baghdad. But at the same time there's no question of him walking free, is there?

So exactly how can it be free if the judgement is already predetermined?

It reminds me of Przeworski's description of democracy: certain rule which all actors abide by with an uncertain outcome. Anything other than that can't be democratic. Surely the same can be applied to judicial proceedings?
Culinary highs and writing lows

I feel like I've stepped up in the (academic) world. Where else but the LSE would a full lunch (OK, sandwiches and nibbles) be available as an incentive to a PhD seminar on comparative politics? I may be easily pleased, but it made my day, even if I did find it a bit of a struggle to keep up with far more well-read members on the programme. I think there was some discussion about democracy, regions versus universal explanations... um... ah...

Oh yes, I remember: what are the methodological limits to choosing regions over universal explanations? And this all led into a discussion about methodology - an issue which I revisted in the evening, at a PhD student-organised seminar on doing effective research design, including a clear hypothesis and breakdown of how the project is to be done.

But having spent the best part of this afternoon beginning the writing process, I've decided that the ideal and the reality don't mix.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Debating democracy and bureaucracy

A couple of activities this week. Discussion about different organisational dynamics and the strengths and weaknesses associated with particular forms of bureaucratic activity was discussed on Monday in my now-regular seminar. These included the strengths and weaknesses of four 'ideal' types, including bossism (where bureaucrats operate in a top-down fashion with an emphasis on standards), groupism (where peer pressure is paramount), competition (rivalry to encourage more effective output) and chancism (where randomness is the guiding principle). For those interested, Christopher Hood appears to be the one to read on this - and oh look, he's an LSE chap as well!

On Tuesday the Economist sponsored a debate on whether Latin America had 'citizens' democracies'. Speaking for the motion was the Economist's Latin American editor, Michael Reid, a Colombian academic and former government minister, Fernando Cepeda. Against was ISA's Maxine Molyneux (my old teacher) and Guilllermo O'Donnell - the main draw and the reason I attended.

The debate was quite laboured - it's a common discussion point regarding the region and not entirely original. And yet it is a good way in for those who are interested in Latin America but may not have a lot of knowledge about it.

What was most depressing (or positive if you're that way inclined) was the realisation as I looked around the room that the place was full of the Latin American scholarly and employment fraternity in London - academics, business risk associates (e.g. Global Insight and the EIU) as well as embassy staff. I caught sight of my supervisor in the corner, along with the rest of the teaching staff from the LSE's Latin American politics programme. Basically everyone's who's anyone was there.

Which in hindsight, probably called for a different motion for debate...

Monday, October 17, 2005

How times flies

I've established that you're never going to get a job in the academic world if you complete a PhD without having published something - either an article or a chapter - beforehand. That was one of the topics at today's seminar. Whereas 10 years ago it was still possible to complete the PhD, apply for a lecturer's job and then publish your first article, today's that's all changed.

I also recall looking at some of the PhD requirements from that period as well. You could start one without necessarily having a Masters degree, while it was similarly pointed out that not attending any conferences or networking during your time as a PhD student nowadays would be professional suicide.

It's at times like these that I think I should have just started the PhD programme after I first graduated, in 1998. Life seems to have been a lot easier then...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Approaching approaches

Been reading on comparative research and methodologies yesterday - and more today. Some of it is related to next week's seminar in Comparative Politics regarding democratisation studies while the rest is associated with comparative education.

There is some crossover between the two, not least in the extent to which findings are universally generalisable or specific to a particular situation (i.e. region or culture). Also this notion that selection of case studies can actually determine your findings, which is one incentive to take a broader perspective rather than focusing on a narrow topic (e.g. democratisation in Latin America as opposed to generally or comparing education outcomes between British schools as opposed to internationally).

Especially for the seminar next week I'm going to have to take a stance on which perspective is preferable. Yet I can see arguments both for and against the narrow and wide approaches. Indeed one text I read (Mahoney), argued for an accumulative approach to knowledge (i.e. scholars build on the analyses and findings of previous scholars to test and expand theory and methodology). This seems to implicitly argue for a broader approach. Yet as far as I can tell, doesn't most research build on the past? Does a research programme exist which hasn't 'borrowed' from others before? Even the use of game theory and rational choice in political science - coming from economics - has to be situated within a framework, in this case democratisation studies. Used alone it can't explain anything.

I see I'm going to have my work cut out over the coming few days...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Question of the day

Having just come out of an introductory seminar on comparative public administration, which is the most important? High-level, mid-level or street-level bureaucrats?

Answers on a postcard, please.
Counting crime

Finally a Lib Dem spot for those who visit this blog and wonder why it appears on so many Lib Dem bloggers' websites and yet seems more concerned with academic life.

I see from yesterday's BBC Politics Show that Lib Dem Islington's preference for voluntary Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) over anti-social behaviour order (ASBOs) hasn't helped reduce crime in anything like as dramatic a form as that of Labour-controlled Camden, with its penchant to write one out for the smallest infraction.

I didn't see the whole piece (capoeira meeting to go to), but looking at figures only tells one side of the story - just as evaluating students by looking at their grades does. I wonder whether there are other ways of assessing how the approach is perceived - and not just measured in black-and-white terms. It would also be interesting to see whether the falls in crime have taken place across the whole of the borough or within specific problem areas (and that information may not be available in government statistics, if I recall anything about their format).

Just a thought.
Evaluating what is evaluate-able

Quirkiness is good (see below) - especially after the readings that I subjected myself to at the tailend of last week. With education policy and its evaluation being the general theme for which I'm trying to find something sensible to say or a question to ask, I turned to that body of literature - or at least what's available in the LSE library.

Can I just say that it is just about the driest thing I've ever read? But at least it makes some interesting points, including that evaluation of schools, classrooms, students, etc is difficult to do since there are so many variables at work, all interacting with each other than it can be almost impossible to achieve an input-output result. It's all about the process within the school, classroom, by the teacher, etc.

Which has just made my area of research that much harder. How on earth can I assess whether left-wing education policy has made any difference when there are so many variables, factors and different ways of doing evaluation available?
Initial thoughts

John Siedel and Martin Lodge were the first to present themselves, their work and advice to students at this morning's first year PhD seminar. Some useful insights from both, which raised some interesting questions about reading, finding a question and ways of approaching the research. Siedel outlined his area of research at PhD level - local politics in the Philippines - and how his empirical experience through working there influenced his reading and decision to challenge the prevailing literature. Reassuring for me was his willingness to use texts and readings from beyond the region - something that I suspect I'll have to do, as what's been written on social democracy in Latin America is much less than that based on Europe.

Martin Lodge has moved from studying rail privatisation to esoteric things like examining moral panic and resulting dangerous dogs legislation and other forms of regulation. He invited the class to read a quirky piece on public policy and country music. That and his own research prompted my question about whether oddball research was acceptable at the PhD level - especially when we don't yet have tenure. Perhaps that's something for later on, once the viva is out of the way, I asked. Lodge responded by saying that as long as the quirkiness was not just for show, but had a point to make and related to a relevant it should be sufficient.

So what did I take away from this first week? Read, read and read - and not just on our own topics. Write, write and write - especially to get the thinking process going and also because of the research proposal we'll need to submit at the end of the academic year to be upgraded. And think of a question that isn't too broad or too narrow. Quite a tall order then...

Friday, October 07, 2005

My 500th post!

Utterly pointless post this, but if I can't give myself a little self-congratulation then who can.

It's taken me 18 months to reach this heady total. How long till I get to 1000.

And that will be the subject of much more comprehensive festivities.
On show

I don't envy them at all. Yesterday I sat through the LSE Lib Dem students' AGM where the individuals put themselves up for selection of various society posts. Having been chair of the same society in... oh, I don't think we need to go there (OK, 1997 and 1998 but don't say that too loudly, OK?) I was impressed at the number of members willing to put themselves up. In my day it was me with three or four portfolios and no one else!

Apparently Jo Swinson is coming to speak in a few weeks' time. She was supposed to come this week, but she was on Question Time last night in Manchester - so I made a point of catching a bit of what she had to say. After all, I did sign her up to the party here. Unfortunately her moment in the spotlight and on my TV screen wasn't her finest hour - then again, when you're third in line to speak on why Turkey should join the EU and the previous two have said all there is to say... Well, it just looks like platitudes really.

But I digress. Back to the cloistures of the LSE. If there was one thing that I found a little troubling about the Lib Dem group was it's black-white perception of society. Apparently we're left-wing and vexed by the fact that the Tories and Greens have more members than us. Since when was political party labels important in a university? Perhaps I've been away too lomg, but was I like that when I was here before?

More interestingly though, was some chap called Clem who wants the group to push a 'progressive' agenda to encourage more working class applications and offers in the School. Really? Who's working class nowadays? And if by that they mean poorer students, exactly how is an offer going to beenough when the cost of studying here will be around £3000 per year, let alone living costs. Is the 'progressive' agenda also going to include demands for discounts?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stuck in the middle

There's also a Masters course I'm auditing - Lord knows when I'm going to get time to do my own research! However, it has some relevance, since it deals with public administration and given my own topic - does Left-wing education policy actually make a difference? - I can't afford to ignore the reading material and potential discussion which may result. There's also a further course after Christmas that also caters for the same students, on comparative public policy. So no doubt that will also appear on my timetable.

This week's question though is taxing: who has greatest influence in bureaucracies? Is it the senior civil servants, middle management or the street-level providers? A case can be made for either end but would you believe that having been divided into groups I would have to end up with the one section that seems vaguest? Yup, the middle managers...

The comparative politics seminar earlier today only consisted of around 6 of us - although another 2 are expected to turn up in later weeks. But one of John Siedel's questions to all us has already got me thinking. Since we're all doing different things - from the Latin American Left and education (that's me) to regulatory regimes for biotechnology, or forms of Catholic political organisation and democratisation and development in the Balkans - he asked each of us who the giants were in our field if we were to get others to understand what we were working on.

Hmmm. Well, there are probably two broad bodies of literature for me: the Left which would mean Castaneda and Giddens; and education/public sector reform which would mean Nelson, Grindle and Bresser Perreira. But since I want to see whether education policies make any difference I'm probably going to have to find material on evaluation - so who is a heavyweight in that field I don't yet know...
First week nerves

What a week - and it's only just half over. A quick break and then it'll be back to the coalface of library study.

So what does the first week of a PhD look like? Well, it starts Monday morning at 10am with more than 20-odd students filling up a classroom designed for less than 15. It consists of the PhD advisor saying the following: "Until now your academic career has been relatively structured. Even your Masters course was quite organised. That all ends now. Any questions?"

Yes. Just the one: where the exit?!

But seriously: the session was less than the allotted two hours and involved a rundown on what is expected from us over the next year. The first term will consist of Government Department academics making brief presentations on themselves and their work and the main themes in political science and theory will be covered. The second and third terms will involve us making presentations on our own work and gaining feedback. And the last thing we were told? "Start reading now. And the sooner you start writing the better."

Which brings me up to the second PhD-level seminar that I attended this afternoon: comparative politics. Although technically for second and third year students, first years can attend - although we may well be observers in the first part of the year. Still, it looks quite interesting, especially when entertaining the possibilities presented by John Siedel, the provider. We have as much freedom as we want with the seminar, so it may well become an eclectic mix of presentations of others' work, a reading group on methodology and other comparative literature, a discussion group with eminent names and other students on broader themes.

But I'm nowhere near being ready to present my own work! Give me a few months though...