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A Map through the Maze of Research Methods

Despite her intellectual curiosity, enjoyment of research and writing, and experiences with immigration law and policy, Anna Law found that the rigors of research for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin presented some surprising methodological challenges. As she told Sherrie Kossoudji, a social work professor specializing in immigration at the University of Michigan, she had imagined simply hiding herself in a closet like a monk for a year. "I would lock myself away and eat ramen," she said, "and at the end of that year, a beautiful, gleaming project would emerge called the dissertation, and I would graduate."

The reality, of course, was rather different. In a new online SSRC publication, Law has chronicled the bumpy road she traveled while seeking to link her questions with appropriate ways of collecting and analyzing data. Designed to help social scientists in all disciplines to address such issues, Researching Migration: Stories from the Field presents essays by Law and nine other scholars who received funding from the SSRC's Migration Program to write dissertations on issues related to U.S. immigration. But if the book's topical focus is migration, the introduction, co-authored by Kossoudji , Louis DeSipio of the University of California, Irvine, and Manuel García y Griego of the University of New Mexico -- all of whom served as on the program's awards committee -- clarifies how the essays can help researchers on other topics identify appropriate methods.

"We thought that by collecting war stories from young scholars in the migration studies field, we could help researchers across the social sciences as they grapple with the difficulties of choosing and using -- and at times combining -- qualitative and quantitative methods," said Josh DeWind, who directs the SSRC's Migration Program. "These stories transcend the particular topic," he said, "and can be valuable reading for any researcher embarking on a new project and wondering about the advantages and pitfalls of various methods."

The Germ of an Idea
Law begins her essay, "In Search of a Methodology and Other Tales from the Academic Crypt," by explaining that her immediate challenge was to take her interest in U.S. immigration policy and law and turn it into a dissertation. "All I knew for certain upon entering grad school was that I was interested in immigration -- but an interest does not a dissertation make," she writes.

Luckily, Law's interest was profound enough to withstand the agonies of that process. A first generation immigrant from Hong Kong whose mother did social work for immigrant clients, Law had firsthand knowledge of the issues immigrants face upon their arrival in the United States. With these issues in mind, she studied politics at Brandeis University and then got a masters degree in American civilization at Brown University, with an emphasis on racial theory and immigration history.

After Brown, Law worked for three years on immigration policy, including serving as a program analyst for the United States Commission on Immigration Reform, a bipartisan congressional commission charged with making policy recommendations to Congress and the White House. One day, her boss at the commission remarked that the Supreme Court was not very friendly about immigrants and that they were unlikely to win their cases there. Law found this curious and decided to seek an opportunity to do research the reasons for the high court's hostility.

Finding a Focus and Choosing Methods
Still, after joining the Ph.D. program at UT Austin, she had to spend nearly two years honing her research question and coming up with a valid research method for exploring that question. Arriving at a focus for her study proved relatively easy. As she was not a quantitative researcher, her study would consist of reading legal opinions. Also, she would need a large data set to avoid the charge that she had cherry-picked her data to produce particular results. This meant looking not only at Supreme Court decisions (not enough of a critical mass) but also those made by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Finally, she would have to include cases across a broad time period to allow for a larger range of cases and to account for variations in outcome.

Law's next hurdle was to settle upon an appropriate methodology for analyzing a wide variety of cases -- no easy feat given that her topic required straddling two very different disciplines: political science and law. "Law professors have a very distinct way of studying law through doctrinal research, by reading cases and examining precedent," she told Kossoudji. "But political scientists don't just look at legal doctrine. They include many other variables, such as the composition of the court and what's going on outside of the judicial structures."

As reported to Kossoudji, her "Aha!" moment arrived when she realized she could content-analyze the cases to identify patterns of legal reasoning used by judges. "The day I made the connection of how to use the concept of the modes of legal reasoning, a huge light bulb went on in my head. It was one of those dancing-across-the-room moments."

"The best-laid plans…."
Law's dissertation problems were far from over, however. She found that the data in her data set -- more than 1,700 cases -- was collected in a format that was not conducive to statistical analysis. And, just as she was nearing the end of her data collection, real-world events intervened in the form of the 9/11 attacks, throwing her study off kilter. Her supervisor said she would have to collect more data as people would ask her whether the terrorist attacks had changed the way the federal courts decide immigration cases. "I went home, cried, laughed, threw a couple of pillows," she told Kossoudji, "but then I collected the data. It was painful, but it was worth it."

A case of all's well that ends well? In the end, not only was her dissertation accepted but Law landed an assistant professorship in political science at DePaul University. She is now close to finishing a book project based on her dissertation, with an even larger data set and a more sophisticated methodology.

"Perhaps the best advice to give," Law concludes in her e-book essay, "is to expect the unexpected and know that when it happens, it is not the end of the project."

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Anna Law is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, where she teaches courses on race and public law. She received her doctorate in immigration studies from U. Texas at Austin with a fellowship from the SSRC's Migration Program.

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Audio

  • audio icon Anna Law Interview

    Anna Law discusses her Ph.D. methodology hurdles with Sherrie Kossoudji, a social work professor at the University of Michigan who served on the SSRC Migration Program's awards committee. [Interview date: October 26, 2007]

Published on: Wednesday, January 23, 2008