Thesis planning


in Oxford, Politics, Science, The environment

In four weeks’ time, I need to submit a 6000 word paper outlining my research question and methodology. Today, I gave a twenty minute presentation that basically outlined my area of interest and touched upon some possibilities. Until I’ve done more of a review of the literature, choosing a specific topic is probably unwise. There is much to do, and time for it is short.

The general research area is environmental politics: by which I mean the study of international agreements and actions related to the physical environment. Examples include climate change, fisheries, and pollutants. Within that playing field, I have also identified two directing interests: the relationship of science to policy, and the connections between all of this and development.

Science and policy

The natural sciences have a number of characteristics much admired and emulated by social scientists – as IR scholars frequently categorize themselves. As generally understood (and Tristan is going to murder me on this), science is a set of tools and approaches that allows people to learn about the true nature of the world. Theories are developed to account for observations and they are tested using other observation. Deficient theories are refined or rejected and progressively better understandings emerge. This is a very old and powerful account of the nature of scientific approaches.

From a global environmental politics (GEP) standpoint, the first area of interest here has to do with epistemic communities. That’s basically a fancy word for ‘fields’ or ‘disciplines.’ Members of such communities have their own vocabularies and ways of doing things: they have tools and competencies. Critically, they also have credibility in certain areas. What is interesting for my thesis is how science, credibility, and politics interact. When the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks out on nuclear testing or climate change, they wade into fundamentally political waters. Why are people generally willing to listen to what they have to say? On a related note, how do those seeking particular policies select and generate science that can be used to bolster their case; to what extent is science in environmentally relevant areas politicized, or otherwise prescriptive in non-obvious ways?

Another way in which GEP is concerned with science has to do with bureaucratic politics. That’s to say, how different constituent parts of a decision-making organization interact. An example would be the relationship between Congress, the presidency, and other actors in the formulation of American foreign policy. A standard account holds that these subsidiary groups vie for influence while engaged in complex negotiations with one another. Depending on how constructivist you care to be, you can also talk about constitution through iterated interaction. Analyzing global environmental regimes (for instance, the Kyoto Protocol) through a bureaucratic politics framework means examining which organizations helped to form it and what role they are playing now. The practical and theoretical connections between environmental scientists and organizations they dominate and the overall policymaking landscape are certainly worthy of investigation.

The development dimension

The two big environmentally relevant development issues, as I see them, are the emergence of new industrializing powers and the material conditions that have contributed to the absence of development in other areas. It says something that while I raised both in my presentation, everyone who responded mentioned only the question of China and India, never the one of the least developed states.

Anyone who glances at the state of commodities markets today can see that a China growing at near-double-digit rates has a huge appetite for energy and raw materials. The overall impact of that trend on the state of the world environment promises to be huge: more so when you acknowledge that China isn’t the only populous state growing rapidly. If we are to hope that these states will follow a more sustainable path to prosperity than the currently developed states, we are going to need institutional and legal structures that are both up to date with the best of environmental science and politically aware enough to craft incentives so that good outcomes will actually be achieved.

In contrast to the rapidly emerging economies are those that are not obviously improving in basic measures like life expectancy and health. Environmental factors probably play a role here as well: desertification, climate change, and the like. Likewise, an important role is played by factors that are both environmental and political, such as health and the search for raw materials. The more people with whom I speak, the clearer it becomes that this area is probably not a very interesting one for most people in the department, at least in terms of the considerations that go into thesis topic selection. Doing anything interdisciplinary with people in Oxford studying fields like health or geography seems to be quite difficult.


Between the areas mentioned above, there are many lifetimes worth of research that could be done. I want to find a question that is specific, novel, and original and that will allow me to make prescriptive suggestions for the improvement of some important area of environmental governance. As I progress towards that topic, I will put more information here. Of course, comments are extremely welcome.

PS. I got back the numerical result for my qualifying exam from Dr. Hurrell today: 68%. Missing a distinction by such a small margin makes me wish I had studied harder.

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