Monday, 21 March 2011

While you were out...

My supervisor Robin Brown was at a conference in Montreal last week (and I went on a long weekend to Venice...we're such jet-setters). I've had a read through his paper and thought I'd write up a few thoughts from it--concrete proof that I read his blog and that I'm still getting some work done on the PhD. Of course, knowing he might read my blog, the pressure is on to get it right...

His paper, Public Diplomacy and Social Networks, looked at some of the current challenges in PD studies and argued for a social network approach to PD studies. There were quite a few points that really hit home for my research--instead of reviewing his paper, I'll just outline those.

3 challenges in PD studies:
--The first challenge he named was "de-Americanising PDS", and its one that I really have to come to grips with myself. PD is an American term, and obviously my own background makes it hard for me to be critical of the US-based approach to PD. America's approach often just seems intuitive to me. I need to learn to take it out of context and think critically.
--The second challenge Robin mentioned was structuring the research agenda, and in this section, his point about evaluation really caught my attention. He pointed out the need to understand successes and failures of PD in different contexts--i.e. what works for one country doesn't necessarily work for another. This is an important point to consider in my research. Fulbrighters are unique individuals, going to unique destinations, and their experiences and outcomes should be expected to vary as such. My research should consider PD successes & failures in these varied contexts, and seek to derive some overall advice for student exchange PD 'best practice'.
--His third challenge was about bridging the gap between international relations and communications studies within PDS. This is something I've struggled with before--really, ever since starting the lit review. My project has a couple more disciplines thrown into the mix, with education and psychology lit, but his point remains the same: there needs to be more comprehensive, interdisciplinary work done in the field. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment, and I'm definitely going to take some of his citations as reading suggestions now. One author he mentioned in the next section, R.S. Zaharna, is already in my long annotated bibliography. She's written a few pieces on relational frameworks that I've really liked.

His argument for using social network analysis was convincing (all the more so because I'd already heard it from him in seminar). As far as I know, nobody has studied the social networks of student exchange participants. Yet they are a prime subject for it--one of the objectives Fulbright himself put forward was the establishment of international peer networks. There are so many unasked questions relating to the social networks of Fulbrighters--do they make friends with host country peers, do they maintain friendships over time, how strong are their relationships, do they use them for personal reasons (friendship) or career functions (networking), etc. At this point, I'm not sure where it will all fit in with my research...but it's an interesting and original direction.

In terms of my research process, I'm starting to think more about the upgrade document. Apparently it should be a chapter-size piece of the dissertation, dealing with your theoretical basis, literature and research questions, and in some ways that's easier than the proposal (5,000 word summary of every bit of your proposed project!). One idea I've had about this chapter has been to do some work on the debate about the role of PD in student exchange. After all, that's kind of my whole jumping off point when I started the project--I didn't know PD came into student exchange at all, and the idea that governments spent money in this way really surprised me. The debate is essentially arguing over the extent to which foreign policy should or should not come into student exchange. There are other questions, too: If it's such a long-term practice, how can it be of any use to short-term foreign policy interests? Where does strategy come into it, if at all? Should taxpayers pay for a student to go to country X or country Y, or both or neither? All in all, I'm actually looking forward to the upgrade. It'll be great to get it out of the way, and if/when I pass, I'll be a real PhD candidate and I'll be eligible for travel grants so I can go to conferences...just like a real academic.

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