Maps methodology methods PhD Research Social Sciences Teaching

The Mountains of Metaphor

I’m so excited to be launching this project. I’ve mentioned it a few times (just a few) over past blog posts, but here we are… it’s live! You can visit the site here, and I’ll be posting more about the processes involved and how I’m approaching it here.

Copyright Clare Williams 2021, images reproduced here with the kind permission of tl;

This project has been a long time in the making. I first started sketching out what my “journey” might look like in 2019, right after passing my viva and feeling that I could give myself permission to step away from the core content of my research for a bit. It had been a long 8 and a half years. In hindsight, it was worth every step. But there had been moments along the way where I’d sworn blind I wasn’t cut out for this and was going to quit.

Fortunately, for me, I had a wonderful support team of supervisors and mentors who made sure that the nuclear option never happened. But I’m not alone in having moments like this – any long research project has its ups and downs. Sometimes we want to give up. We don’t feel we’re good enough, or can make this lifestyle work.

So, the Mountains of Metaphor project is a way for me to share my story and reach out. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar? Maybe you’re considering a PhD but aren’t sure how to approach it, mentally?

There are some supplementary materials on the site that you can download and play around with – why not try creating your own map of your research journey? Where are you on the map? What’s going on around you? Can you still see your eventual goal?

Why not send us a postcard from where you are?

3D interactive methodology Visualising ESL

ESL in 3D (the first steps)

What if we could visualise frames and concepts in 3D and move around to see the impacts of those frames?

With the help of a little 3D modelling software called Blender, this is possible.

How can we visualse a frame – literally and metaphorically?

This is the very first step towards making a 3D version of my thesis. There is a lot more to learn, and a lot of work to be done, but the possibilities here are extremely exciting. Currently, this is compressed and uploaded as a GIF, meaning that the sequence is shorter, the frame rate is reduced and there’s quite a lot of noise. But you get the idea… what if we can visualise the frames, concepts and theories that we talk about in the social sciences? How could the visual assist in exploring how we do, talk, and think about law and economics?

acoustic jurisprudence economics Embeddedness methodology methods Research Visualising ESL

Diving in to an ESL frame…

This mini animation, with sound, asks what the reintegration of the economic, legal and social might look like and sound like.

This is relevant for each and every interaction that occurs – there are always legal and economic aspects to every interaction, but we tend to forget that talking about the legal and economic in isolation from the social is a metaphor, or fiction.

How might we think about integrating legal, economic and social phenomena conceptually?

How could frames or lenses like ESL help us to remember the social basis for any legal or economic aspects of interactions?

Development economics methodology methods Research Vignettes World Bank

Vignettes as method… both an input and output tool

Vignettes can be an invaluable tool for generating, controlling for, interpreting and contextualising research data in a variety of fields. They can be both input and output methods of research. Finally, they can also frame, and be framed by, the research raising important questions about comparability, use, and ability to measure culturally relative norms. This post discusses the use of vignettes, when they might be appropriate, some relevant literature, and matters to be aware of.

Gourlay et al define vignettes as “short stories about a hypothetical person, traditionally used within research (qualitative or quantitative) on sensitive topics”. They can be used to gain insight into people’s beliefs, and can be a way of discussing sensitive or personal topics freely by projecting these on to a third person. Vignettes can be constructed through text or images, and Hughes and Huby set out a guide to constructing and interpreting vignettes as a methodology in the social sciences.

Vignettes can both generate or refine data. As the GIF above shows, they can be an input tool, generating and shaping the data gathered. Similarly, they can be used as an output tool, contextualising and illustrating research findings. Kandemir and Budd note that, given the debate ongoing about the precise definition and use of vignettes, simulations, real-life stories, anecdotes, or simply a narrative form of presenting research findings have all been referred to as vignettes.

In development economics, vignettes are not commonly deployed, but can respond to a specific methodological problem. For example, the measurement of intangibles such as happiness or subjective wellbeing or satisfaction can suffer from cultural relativity. Concepts, words, and their ultimate meaning can all vary by country or culture, making comparative studies in their area particularly tricky to undertake. However, in an era when the value of measurements like GDP have been questioned as inadequate, being able to measure satisfaction, happiness and similarly intangible attitudes is especially important for those working in development.

Reviewing the literature on what constitutes happiness between cultures, Uchida et al find that there are a variety of factors that determine an individual’s likelihood of declaring themselves happy, and that these requirements are culture-specific. What constitutes a good life in Japan includes emotional support from others, while personal achievement and self-esteem feature more prominently in the United States.

There are also cultural differences in the way we describe our happiness. Research by Minkov cited here notes that responses from Middle Eastern respondents tends towards extremes of happiness and unhappiness, while Asian and Western respondents tend towards moderation. Minkov and Bond have also examined the genetics of happiness as well as the impact of local climate, finding that certain genetic traits have a far greater impact on perceived happiness than factors such as recent economic growth or the rule of law.

King et al examined the incomparability of survey results when measuring subjective wellbeing and explored the use of vignettes as a way of measuring the incomparability. They find that “[b]ecause the actual (but not necessarily reported) levels of the vignettes are invariant over respondents, variability in vignette answers reveals incomparability. Our corrections require either simple recoded or a statistical model designed to save survey administration costs. With analysis, simulations, and cross-national surveys, we show how response incomparability can drastically mislead survey researchers and how our approach can alleviate this problem”.

One technique to measure and make sense of the variables in to anchor survey results to vignettes. This method is used by Angelini et al in their cross-country comparison of subjective wellbeing in 10 European countries. Standardised vignettes on life stories were included in each of the ten national surveys, and the vignette responses were included through econometrically rescaling self-responses according to how the respondent rated the standardised vignettes. This reduces disparities in life satisfaction across nations, and changes the ranking across counties from the original unadjusted cross-country data.

While the anchoring vignettes method has the potential to improve welfare comparisons and reporting, it relies on certain assumptions like vignette equivalence. This means that a particular vignette is capable of being interpreted and have the same cultural ramifications across the populations surveyed – for example, is a large family a blessing or a burden? There are ways of testing vignette equivalence, but this also usually requires some degree of interpretations and relativity.

Jed Friedman remarks that “[v]ignette anchoring can indeed improve the inter-comparability of different samples so where researchers have the opportunity to add meaningful vignettes to a planned survey then they should do so. But the assumption of vignette equivalence is not guaranteed, especially when comparing dramatically different populations in terms of culture and custom. If we have any doubt about vignette equivalence there may be no alternative to more focused mixed-methods research into the interpretation of [subjective wellbeing] concepts specific to the populations studied”.

While vignettes anchored to subjective wellbeing analyses can measure the incomparability of data, there are limitations to their use that also need clear explanation. The problems with language, interpretation, translation, and cultural norms remain, and there is the possibility that use of a vignette as a methodological tool to control for variability and comparability is still simply testing cultural frames. As noted, vignettes can both be used as a tool to output (explain, contextualise and understand) data, and as a tool to input (gather, frame, collect) data. Kandemir and Budd note that, to be of value, the vignette must be specific enough to guide the respondent, but not too specific as to nudge the respondent into an “expected” answer. In short, vignettes can both frame, and be framed by, the cultural norms in which they are constructed and deployed, and any researcher must be mindful of, and reflexive about, the use existing frames within vignettes when these are used both as research method inputs and outputs.