Now, the dissertation

The University of Toronto Department of Political Science website lists the requirements for completing a PhD:

  • Field 1 (Canadian Politics: 2012-13)
  • Field 2 (Public Policy: 2013-14)
  • Qualitative Methods Requirement (2014)
  • Quantitative Methods Requirement (waived from undergrad and Oxford MPhil coursework)
  • Field Examination in Field 1 and Field 2 (February 2014 and January 2016)
  • Thesis Committee (August 22nd, 2017)
  • Thesis Proposal (August 29th, 2017)
  • Language Requirement (waived from undergrad coursework and Summer Language Bursary Program)
  • Ethics Review
  • Candidacy Completion
  • Dissertation

It hasn’t exactly followed the ideal schedule, but I have done quite a few other things at the same time.

The aim now is to get ethical approval by October and finish writing and defending the dissertation by September 2019.

Learning and teaching

Thesis proposal reading continues to dominate my information diet, but I bought a couple of unrelated books today.

Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s Napoleon’s Buttons — recommended by my friend Myshka — describes the influence of seventeen molecules on human history. I’m about 60 pages in and have been finding it entertaining and reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections television series (he also talks a lot about coal tar and the rise of synthetic chemistry) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

I also got Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, which was recently reviewed in The Economist.

Term time is rapidly approaching. In addition to my PhD research, I will be working as a teaching assistant for a second year “U.S. Government and Politics” course, which I did previously in 2013/14. I also applied for TA jobs in “Introduction to Peace, Conflict and Justice”, “Quantitative Reasoning”, and the “Canada in Comparative Perspective” course I have helped teach three times already. I’m done with coursework and comprehensive exams, so a double TA load should be manageable. It’s pretty important given that I haven’t had a paycheque since the spring, and my funding package as a sixth-year student is cut in half.

Contentious politics scholars can be inconsistent with their definitions

For analyzing climate change activism, the contentious politics theoretical framework associated with Doug McAdam (a sociology professor at Stanford), Sidney Tarrow (a professor of government and sociology at Cornell), and Charles Tilly (formerly a social science professor at Columbia) has much to recommend it. In particular, it incorporates many explanatory factors used in the related social movements literature (like the construction of meaning through frames, seeing protests as performances, and the importance of political opportunities and mobilizing structures) while also looking at phenomena broader than social movements, including revolutions.

One just criticism of the literature is that terms are not rigorously defined and consistently used. Ideas like “cycles of contention” are central to the literature, but every author seems to think of them a bit differently, and the same person even uses the idea differently in one text as opposed to another.

I’m only partway through, but so far McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention seems to demonstrate a lot of the problematically obscure language use within the literature. Generally, I find that this literature is best when it sticks closely to empirical cases, rather than wandering out into broad theorizing. Long discussions of abstract nouns like “mechanisms” versus “processes” versus “episodes” can be especially hard to draw useful inspiration from.

I have a stack of other contentious politics books picked up from the library today, with the aim of further fleshing out the theoretical framework for my proposal and finding additional examples of methodologically similar research.

The ‘right to be forgotten’

In Argentina and the European Union, people can assert a “right to be forgotten“, in which internet companies are obligated to delete content which those complaining are unhappy to have online.

There is also a Canadian connection:

In June Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to stop its search engine returning a result advertising a product that infringed on a firm’s intellectual property… The Canadian ruling against Google, which applies worldwide, could be just the start. Later this year the European Court of Justice will decide whether the EU’s much-contested “right to be forgotten” applies not just to Google’s European sites, but to all of them. This would mean that links to information about people that is deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” in the EU will no longer be returned in response to any Google search anywhere. If the firm does not comply, it may face stiff fines.

The Economist raises the risk that allowing such censorship by governments could “create a ‘splinternet’, with national borders reproduced in cyberspace”.

I am fairly skeptical about rights-based approaches to ethics to start with, in part because they aren’t very useful as soon as one person is asserting Right A against someone else’s Right B. In this case, the other relevant rights are freedom of speech and what might be termed the freedom to record history.

I think all this is particularly risky when it comes to photography. In many places, the fact that a statement is true is a defence against allegations of slander or libel. Unedited photographs are in some sense always truthful historical records, but there are nonetheless many reasons why people aside from the photographer or the media source using them might want to see them purged. Letting people use a supposed extension of their right to privacy as a mechanism for censorship risks stifling artistic and creative expression, as well as depriving the world of information about what really happened in various times and places.

It’s not surprising that people want unflattering things about themselves removed from the internet, from criminal records and critical news stories to photos they dislike and things they wrote themselves but came to regret. At the same time, the people who post media online have an interest in keeping it up, and the world as a whole has an interest in knowing what has happened in the past. Granting people the power to use the courts to manipulate the historical record seems worrisome to me, as well as a substantial burden for all the platforms where such records are stored.

One downside to electronic media of all forms is the possibility of after-the-fact censorship, which would be impractical for things like printed books and newspapers.