Possible Research Questions

One of my current tasks is to sharpen the theoretical questions I am interested in exploring through my doctoral work.

While I am thankfully still some time away from having to select a dissertation topic, the process of thinking through and refining my interests will help me identify possible research projects and help guide me as I select from a seeming infinite array of classes, readings, and activities.

So what are the theoretical questions I am interested in exploring? Well, since “ALL OF THEM” doesn’t seem to be a productive answer in this regard, I will attempt to articulate a somewhat more narrow scope.

Broadly, I am interested in civil society – and I am convinced that network approaches can bring value to our understanding. To be perfectly clear, I’m not referring solely to the understanding of academics, but of all of us individual, people who are living in communities.

That is, while network science can certainly be used to help political scientists better model the societies they study, I am more deeply interested in the civic studies question: what should we do?

There are many ways I can envision network science contributing to our collective attempts to answer this question.

First, on a broad scale, I think network analysis can help us more accurately conceive of the communities of which we are a part. I live in a very engaged community with a robust level of social capital, and yet I am also very close friends with some people who I barely see in person. Is one these settings more accurately a “community”? How should I make sense of my place in each of them?

I am particularly interested in trying to capture “layers” of community. If I were to do a power analysis in my local, geographic community I would find many individuals and institutions I could have direct interaction with. I could imagine multiple ways for my own voice and agency to have a real impact on policy or the culture of my community.

But if I were to do a similar analysis at a national or perhaps international scale, I would quickly find myself feeling powerless. Can I change international law? Perhaps some individuals are positioned to do so, but I most certainly am not.

In such a setting, then, I am left little but a foolish choice between inaction and the vain hope that my representatives will represent me, that my voice among thousands will carry some weight.

I’d previously seen this as an argument for more local engagement. Why shout in the wind of national politics when real work can be done at the local level?

But I wonder now if this is simply a false dichotomy. We envision local work and national work, and perhaps other scales of regional work or international work as well. We treat our communities as tiers – scaled up versus hyperlocal.

But what if there’s a better way to think of it? A better way to conceive of our multiple communities, overlapping, intersecting, complex and ever changing. What might that look like?

A second area of interest is around interactions within a given community. While the first set of questions struggles with how we might define the borders of a single community, the second explores what we do once we know what “we” means.

More explicitly, this area centers around questions of dialogue and deliberation. What does “good” dialogue look like? How are ideas exchanged and opinions altered? Using strategies of epistemic network analysis one might even ask questions such as, what does a “good” deliberator look like? What does a good moderator look like? Is there a way of thinking that can categorized as “good” deliberative thinking?

Finally, I’m very interested in applying network science to better understanding the network of ideas and morals held by an individual. This line of thinking can be closely tied to questions of deliberation – asking what idea structure a person ought to have in order to be a “good” deliberator.

But there are other ways to take this question as well – are there features of an individual’s moral network which are better or worse than others? If so, what ought a good person’s moral network look like? What network characteristic should we each seek to cultivate?


These are not entirely disparate questions, but they do each take the confluence of civics and networks in different ways. I’m not sure where the next five years will lead me, but I look forward to delving in!


One thought on “Possible Research Questions

  1. John Fitzgerald

    Hi Sarah,
    I’m another doctoral candidate, from Sydney Australia. I’m convinced network analysis has a rare power to inform and persuade. Its combination of mathematical precision and graphic representation of its results is very impressive, to me.

    My own work is using network analysis to uncover the internal structure of enacted legislation. I know this sounds a bit dry but: the approach has the potential to “reveal” legal texts to a wider audience – thus assisting the democratic basis of law.

    John Fitzgerald


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