I am the Data or: How I Went from Gathering Data to Being a Data Point

While participants of the Aid Transparency and Development Finance conference were sharing their research on foreign aid, several people in the audience were also doing research... on them.

April 3, 2010

Mike Tierney

I just spent four days at University of Oxford sharing, vetting, analyzing and figuring out how to liberate more data on development finance. I was attending the Aid Transparency and Development Finance conference where I presented a paper on the links between aid transparency and corruption. More importantly, I learned a ton about aid allocation, aid effectiveness, and how John Henry Defeated the Steam Engine. But while we were sharing our research on foreign aid, several people in the audience were also doing research... on us.


Indeed, just after the opening session I was surveyed by a researcher from Development Finance International. She was doing research for a report of the UN Secretary General for the 2010 UN Development Cooperation Forum which seeks to understand what different aid transparency initiatives are actually doing to promote transparency. I expect they will be surveying folks from TR-Aid, aidinfo, and African Monitor too, since these initiatives also gather and/or disseminate information on foreign aid. This survey research strategy seemed "normal" to me since I also conduct surveys in my own research.


But while survey research is a common method used in political science, participant observation is not. Participant observation has become the province of anthropologists and ethnographers. There are not a lot of ethnographers hanging out at the conferences that I normally attend.


Separately, a bunch of us went to a great pub at the end of the first day of the conference. On the way, I met a Danish anthropologist named Brit. We talked about the papers, the AidData platform, the history of the PLAID project (the predecessor to AidData) and other stuff. After about 20 minutes of this I asked how long she had been studying foreign aid. She said, "Oh, I don't study foreign aid. I study the people who study foreign aid and I try to understand how information technology shapes the way researchers do their work." I was baffled, but intrigued. I always thought anthropologists did field research in exotic places, hacked their way through jungles, and talked/lived with half naked people who ate frogs as both religious and dietary supplements. After the anthropologist eats a sufficient number of holy frogs or observes lots of cock fights, then he or she understands the culture and interprets it for the rest of us.


Anyway, after answering lots of really good questions from Brit (some of which I had not really thought about before), I had some questions for her regarding her research methods. (What else do you talk about when you are in a bar with a beautiful Danish anthropologist!?)


It turns out that anthropologists have long abandoned the "fly on the wall" form of observation. They engage their subjects on their own terrain, watch them interact with other people and with "objects" in their environment, take lots of notes (but not in bars), and even tell their subjects about the nature of their research. Brit was self-consciously unconcerned that our knowledge of her research design would influence the way we behaved for the rest of the conference or, presumably, the rest of our careers.


It was both weird and fun to be a data point, rather than the person studying data points. I must admit that I did prefer the beer talk method to the survey method, which is causing me to re-think the way I am organizing my research in the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project where I periodically survey both the public and international relations scholars.


I continue to reflect upon the questions I was asked by both researchers and wonder whether the experience of being studied will change some of our practices. I'm guessing yes.