Do you want to write a COVID dissertation?

Professor Sophie Harman gives some advice about coming up with dissertation topics related to COVID.

Part of the joy and point of writing a dissertation is for students to come up with their own subject and research question. Both students and supervisors know this is often the most painful part of the process (second only to the week before deadline – start early, marathon not a sprint etc!). I know good supervisors can support students writing dissertations in all manner of subjects and this is what makes it so rewarding. However, in a year where we’re all dealing with increased pressure, demands on our time, and managing screen headaches, I thought I’d put my 15 years global health politics experience to good use and make some suggestions/pointers to help you when a student comes to you as says the inevitable:[1]

‘I was thinking of writing my dissertation on COVID-19’

Below are 10 suggested questions with suggested literature and methods, covering institutions, security, race, policy, vaccines, gender, aesthetics, expertise, knowledge. These by no means cover everything and by no means prescribe how I think a dissertation on that topic should be written. If helpful, see them as jump-off points to think about these topics. The only caution I have is make sure all projects are only focused on the start/first 6 months of COVID-19 – we are only at the end of the beginning. This is also a pre-emptive move to stop you getting your students to email me for ideas.

Institutions and Global Governance

  1. Is the WHO capable of preventing and responding to major pandemics?

Literature: WHO, IHR, GOARN, global health security + previous outbreaks (Ebola, pandemic flu, HIV/AIDS)

Methods: Case Studies – look at the tools/instruments e.g. IHR, GOARN, Regional offices etc

  • Why did states pursue different responses to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Literature: Global health security, state compliance in IR, international law and international organisations

Methods: Pick two contrasting case studies e.g. England/Scotland, Canada/US, Germany/UK, Sweden/Denmark and then look at different levels of policy and decision making per chapter – Global, National, Regional/local and rationales behind decisions from – expert evidence, speeches, policy decisions, policy timelines

Gender

  • How can we understand the gender dimensions of COVID-19?

Literature: Gender and global health, Feminist IPE, Black Feminism, WPS (if looking at violence)

Methods: Explore 1 – 3 key themes from the literature – Care and domestic burden, Health Care Workers, Domestic violence in depth. Depending on networks and contacts, could run focus groups (ethics! And definitely NOT if doing violence), or analyse survey data – lots of surveys done on this and the raw data is always made available if have the skills to play with it.

Political Economy

  • Are states the main barrier to vaccine equity?

Literature: Vaccine access and nationalism, access to treatment, IPE of health and trade, pharmaceutical companies, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Methods: Look at the different stages of vaccine development for 2/3 trials and consider the role of States (where putting money, public statements, any actions e.g. email hacks), Researchers (where get money from, how collaborating, knowledge sharing), Institutions (CEPI, GAVI, WHO), and the Private Sector (pharma and foundations – who’s investing, what is their return – and private security companies – who protects the commodity?). Think: interests, investment, barriers/opportunities.

Security and Foreign Policy

  • Were state security strategies prepared for major pandemics prior to COVID-19? If not, why not?

Literature: Global health security, securitisation and desecuritisation of health

Methods: 2 – 3 state case studies or 1 in detail, think about Strategy, Training/Preparedness, Actors. Content analysis of security strategies and defence planning and budget allocations, speeches, training, simulations etc.

Aesthetics

  • What is the role of images in responding to outbreaks?

Literature: Aesthetics and IR, behaviour change communication and images in public health

Methods: 3 case studies on different types of images in COVID-19, e.g. 1. Global public health messaging; 2. National public health messaging; 3. Community Expression – OR pick one of these options and explore in depth.

Race and Racism

  • Could the racial inequalities of COVID-19 been foreseen and prevented?

Literature: Racism and global health, racism and domestic health systems, Black Feminism, Critical Trans Politics

Method: Option 1 – look maternal health as a proxy in three case study countries e.g. Brazil, US, UK; Option 2 – pick one country and look at three health issues prior to COVID-19 e.g. Maternal Health, Diabetes, Heart Disease.

Knowledge, Discourse, and Experts

  • Is COVID-19 the biggest global pandemic of a generation?

Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, poststructuralism; Politics of HIV/AIDS, pandemic flu

Method: Discourse analysis around ‘once in a lifetime rhetoric’ – who says it, when, and why; contrast with discourse around COVID-19 from countries with previous outbreaks e.g. Sierra Leone, DRC, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil (you’ll need to be selective as can’t measure discourse from all states! Think through why you make your choices here and how they relate to each other) OR contrast COVID-19 with a previous pandemic, e.g. HIV/AIDS

  • What knowledge counts in COVID-19?

Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, post-structuralism, IR and Global Health, politics of experts

Methods: Review lessons learned from previous outbreaks (there are lots of source material on this after Ebola and SARS for example) and how they led to changes/what learned for COVID-19; Stakeholder mapping and/or network analysis – Who are the experts? Look at backgrounds, types of knowledge and expertise, did they work on the Ebola response/HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s for example?; Case Study – UK/US – where have high concentration of public health experts and institutions, export knowledge to low and middle income countries, evidence of importing knowledge from these countries, especially given the experience?

UK/State responses

  1. How can we understand/explain the first 6 months of the US/UK/Sweden/Australia/South Africa/China/Brazil/you choose! response to COVID-19?

WARNING! This is the question that could descend into a polemic so approach with absolute caution. I would strongly advise against, but have included to give a clearer steer.

Key with this question is to remember you are not submitting a public health or epidemiology dissertation, so bear in mind you probably don’t have the skills and knowledge to assess what was a good/bad public health decision (other than obvious ones such as PPE stocks for example). What you do have the skills to do is to look at the politics as to why a decision was taken and how is was taken – investigate what the different recommendations/guidance suggested and who followed/ignored/subverted it and what outcomes this produced.

Literature: health policy, public policy, state compliance IR

Methods: 1. Global – map what global advice there was and how did the state follow (or not) in preparedness and response and what was the rationale for doing so – political circumstances at the time, stated rationale for decision, who was making decision; 2. National – key public health decisions, commodities, social-economic consequences – how were these planned for/overlooked and why. To look at these two levels may require mixed methods of global and national policy timelines, stakeholder analysis, content analysis of speeches and recommendations, mapping changes to data presentation and access.


[1] For the first two years of my career I supervised countless projects loosely based around ‘Is the War in Iraq illegal?’ I’m hoping some of the variety here will stop two years of ‘Is the UK government’s respond to COVID-19 a national scandal?’ or ‘Is the WHO fit for purpose?’ – two great topics, but tiresome after a bit.

Research Project: Mobile People

Co-directed by Professors Engin Isin and Kimberley Hutchings, Queen Mary University of London Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarships (QMUL-LTDS) will involve 21 PhD research projects (2018-2023) concerned with how the world is being dynamically constituted by mobile people in active and novel ways and how this affects fundamental social and political institutions.

Its aim is to generate theories, concepts, methods, and data that are necessary to understand mobility as a way of life – not as an exception but as an emerging norm. Current research demonstrates that developments in human mobility are interrelated with the ways in which they are studied, interpreted, documented, and managed. Thus, thinking about mobility as a way of life entails reflexivity about the processes of producing knowledge about mobile lives in an increasingly mobile world: how we study, manage, govern, and imagine it. The projects will address the transformative effects of mobile people on the social and political institutions they inhabit and construct. How mobile people are creating new worlds, not solely as host versus guest, mobile versus immobile relations, but in ways which fundamentally challenge social and political institutions of citizenship, democracy, nationality and security is the innovative focus of this programme.

The programme is organised according to thematic priorities which reflect established expertise at QMUL. These themes (boundariesgenerationsenvironmenthealthidentitieslanguage) will be studied in relation to the impacts of mobility as a way of life on social and political institutions (citizenshipdemocracynationality, and security). The organisation of the programme is guided by the principle that institutions such as citizenship (membership, rights, obligations), democracy (representation, participation, government), nationality (sovereignty, state, territory), and security (authority, legality, threat/protection) are undergoing profound transformations. These transformations are shaped by and reshape the articulation of spatial relations (boundaries), temporal relations (generations), meanings of place from world to home (environment), definitions and experiences of well/ill-being (health), dispositions and behaviours (identities), and communication and speech (language).

For further information click here

Women and the History of International Thought

Women and the History of International Thought

Lead Researchers: Professor Kimberly Hutchings, Professor Patricia Owens and Dr Katharina Rietzler

Funding Agency: Leverhulme Trust

This is a  four-year research project that aims to systematically recover and evaluate the international thought of women both inside and outside academe during the early to mid-twentieth-century. It will locate academic women researching international relations in Anglo-American centres of IR; analyse the intellectual contributions of women thinker-practitioners in non-academic locations to challenge existing standards of inclusion; and examine the writings of already canonical women that have so far been marginalised in histories of international thought. Given the influence of European traditions on the largely Anglo-American discipline of International Relations and the simultaneous neglect of black intellectuals it includes European and diaspora women such as Simone de Beauvoir, Anna Julia Cooper, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertha von Suttner, Eslanda Robeson, and Simone Weil.

The Art of international Friendship: Exploring Twining in a Global Age

The Art of international Friendship: Exploring Twining in a Global Age

Lead Researcher: Dr Holly Ryan

Funding Agency:  Economic and Social Research Council

At a time when social fragmentation and cultural polarisation appear to be on the rise, this research project seeks to advance and improve on academic and practical understandings of ‘international friendship’ by focusing on alternative drivers such as solidarity, empathy, artistic production and inter-cultural exchange. In particular, by weaving together concepts and methods drawn from International Relations, Social Movement Studies, and Aesthetics, it aims to generate new insights into how cross-border ‘friendships’ are formed, valued and maintained by state and non-state actors operating across the local, national and international levels.It seeks to:

  1. To generate new qualitative data on the civic, social and cultural value of town twinning.
  2. To rethink and revise the concept of ‘international friendship’ as deployed by scholars in the field of International Relations.
  3. To analyse neglected dimensions of twinning practice, including ‘public service twinning’ and ‘solidarity twinning’

Doing International Political Sociology

Queen Mary Convenor: Jef Huysmans

Website: https://www.doingips.org/

DoingIPS brings together researchers working in the broad area of International Political Sociology (IPS). They explore different theoretical and methodological lines of thought that are deployed in IPS and key themes of debate that are currently shaping IPS. More than a finite research group, DoingIPS is a hub that aims to promote International Political Sociology by adopting a flexible and inclusive approach.

Since its inception international political sociology has been defined by its distinct effort to articulate a critique of dogmatic conceptualisations of the international as a site of political life. To that aim, it explores the conceptions of the social and political that historically have been inscribed in ‘the international’, how the international is produced in multiple sites of political and social life and what the limits of the international are. One of the driving interests of IPS is to understand transversal social and political life that escapes institutionalisation in contained polities and societies. It creates a site for developing concepts, methods and theories that go beyond the inherited models of territorialised sovereignty, state/society relations and the international system while engaging some of the most pertinent challenges in world politics today.

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State transformation and the rise of China

Lead Researchers: Lee Jones (QMUL), Shahar Hameiri (University of Queensland) and Shaun Breslin (University of Warwick)

International Relations (IR) scholars are hotly debating rising powers’ effects on world politics. Often ignored is evidence that state transformation processes – fragmentation, decentralisation and internationalisation – related to deepening economic and security interdependence, influence rising powers’ international behaviour. Central to IR debates is China, the most important rising power and often assumed to be a unitary and coherent ‘Westphalian’ state. This project examines state transformation’s implications for its relations with Southeast Asia. The aim is to develop a new approach for analysing the dimensions and effects of contemporary rising powers, to advance IR theory and provide better policy tools for engaging rising powers.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Southeast Asian Responses

Lead Researchers: Lee Jones (QMUL) and Cheng-Chwee Kuik (National University of Malaysia)

This project examines China’s rise and Southeast Asian states’ response to it, focusing on China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). China’s rise is increasingly contradictory: it combines growing pseudo-military assertiveness in arenas like the South China Sea with diplomatic and economic charm offensives like the launch of the BRI and the associated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Our project seeks to explain both this contradictory approach and how Southeast Asian governments respond to it. We hypothesise that both are driven by regimes’ concerns for internal stability and legitimacy. The project is significant for two reasons. In terms of theory, it challenges the structural realist proposition that overemphasizes power-balancing as the drivers of state behaviour. In terms of policy, explaining how regional states are responding to China is crucial for understanding the direction of regional order in the “Asian century”.

For more information on that, check the research project website

Moral agency and meaningful human control: Exploring military ethical values for alignment in the use of autonomous weapons systems

Moral agency and meaningful human control: Exploring military ethical values for alignment in the use of autonomous weapons systems
Lead Researcher: Dr Elke Schwarz
 
Funding Agency: Leverhulme/British Academy
Advances in autonomous technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will shape civic and military futures in significant ways. Despite this, a focus on promoting innovation in these areas means that ethical aspects often take a backseat. There is broad consensus in current debates that ethical issues must be addressed in the development of robotic AI systems, but it is less clear what kinds of ethical values (as distinct from legal requirements) should factor into this enterprise. This is particularly crucial for the use of robotic AI systems in military operations, where human-machine teams will shape significant aspects of decision-making and operational conduct in future defence operations. This project examines how technologically advanced militaries view moral agency and ethical values vis-a-vis new autonomous and intelligent technologies. It seeks to:
(1) provide a clarification of ethical values and moral agency in military operations, and
(2) open an interdisciplinary dialogue on the topic to help shape policy and industry guidelines.