RESEARCH TALK ▼
BY NECESSITY, WE NEED TO BE MUCH MORE STRATEGIC.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DEREK BEACH | by Katrin Bernsdorff
Name: Derek Beach
Field: Political Science
Occupation: Professor of Political Science, University of Aarhus
Research Interests: Case Study Methods, European Integration
How did you find your way into political sciences?
D.B. I started university in the United States. I did a year in the US and there you have time to shop around in your first years. When I started university I actually wanted to do philosophy. I had my first courses in philosophy and while I did like it, it was a little abstract. Then I had my first course in international relations. I had always been really interested in politics but I didn't think about political science. I mean as a kid – I was maybe 10 during the presidential election in 1980 – and I remember that, I remember discussing that with my parents.
That was very early on!
D.B. Yes, exactly and I remember that. You know, Carter against Reagan. I was particularly concerned about Ronald Reagan, he scared me.
In that aspect I was always really interested in politics but I just hadn't made the connection. I was having my first course in International Relations and it was like: 'I'm home, this is what I really like'. From then on I knew that political science would be it. I didn't know exactly where it was going to go, I didn't know if I wanted to be an academic or go into the real world, but that's how I started in this field.
Even though you had the experience that you were interested in politics, you decided to switch? When did the switch occur?
D.B. I didn't really think about it. I was interested in politics as a kid, yes, but there was something about philosophy… well it's just very interesting, isn't it? But once I had had my first introductions to both fields, it was easy. It wasn't very difficult to choose.
Then you decided to go to Europe and study there. Why?
D.B. I had been an exchange student in Denmark and I went back to the US, did another year and then all my Danish friends had finished high school (gymnasium) and were travelling. You don't really do that in the United States but I thought it sounded like fun so I did that and ended up back in Denmark. There I met my wife and did most of my undergraduate and graduate studies in Denmark.
And you even learned the language?
D.B. Yes, I actually learned it when I was an exchange student, most of my host family didn't speak English.
Not everyone learns the language in a foreign country.
D.B. True, but I was there for a year. I was young so it went a lot faster than it would today.
Now you also teach there, is that right?
D.B. Yes, I also teach there. I teach both in English and Danish but mostly in Danish actually.
Is it hard for you to teach in Danish?
D.B. No, I've lived there for 20-some years now.
Are there such things as calculated career decisions for you? Do you think about what would be a good step for your career or do you go with your passion?
D.B. It has to be both. You can follow your dream but… let's go back to the philosophy example: There's probably a lot of unemployed philosophers, or even worse: Actors. There's a lot of unemployed actors, people who are following their dream but are never going to get their reward. You have to think about: Are there actual jobs out there? I guess I was kind of lucky in my career path. I know that it's a lot more difficult now for those that do want to go into academia. The first couple of steps when you're done with your Masters, such as getting a PhD position, getting a Post-Doc, getting a permanent position... these steps are just so much harder today. I think you have to be, by necessity, much more strategic. I wouldn't say I kind of stumbled into it but I did things that interested me. I did pretty well in my courses but I didn't have a master plan. Probably the only strategic move I made was doing my masters at LSE, the London School of Economics, because I figured it would be good to have one stop on my résumé that was international. But that was also because it's a wonderful institution and London is wonderful so it wasn't following a path, no.
And then one other strategic decision that my wife and I made at was to move back to Denmark. I had just done a sabbatical in the United States and had been offered a job to stay and my wife had also been offered a job so we were thinking of staying in the United States and going into American academia. The competitive pressure in general, kind of the American way of life, means that you work a lot more. In Denmark, there is a very nice life-work balance. It was more of a family decision than a career decision though - more of a life decision like: Do I see myself living in the United States, having relatively small children and never seeing them or going back to Denmark and perhaps not working as much, not publishing as much but getting to see my children. I think those kinds of decisions, as far as also thinking of the consequences and making informed choices, is really important.
Do you want to pursue a scientific career or can you also imagine entering into the corporate world?
D.B. I don't think I'll do that. Actually, I was playing around with the idea because of the methods work that I do. But I like academia and I like teaching. My favourite teaching is teaching PhD students, holding theses methods courses that I teach all around the world. It's just wonderful because I'm meeting people that are extremely passionate, they're just getting into academia and they're really really smart. Helping them, giving them tools to structure their research is a lot of fun. That's really what I enjoy and I'm not sure I would enjoy just writing reports in some consultancy. I might get a little bit more money but…
Do you have a certain teaching philosophy?
D.B. Come prepared and try to structure your argument basically. Other than that it's simply, hopefully, finding an interest in what you're teaching so you can show commitment and engagement because that really shines through. If you're just teaching something that you have to teach and you don't find it very interesting yourself, it's not going to go over well. You have to burn for it so it shines through to the participant and they're engaged. That is how you inspire your listeners.
Your interest in political science first started with the American elections and now spans to the EU Council. How did you get into the field and this particular interest?
D.B. When I came to the EU as an exchange student, the institution puzzled me because as an American I didn't understand it. Now I do but then I didn't. Why did a country like Denmark, a well-functioning national state, decide to engage in such deep cooperation with other countries? Now I know the answer but it was initially very puzzling for me. Being American helped. A lot of the best research on the EU has been done by Americans because we see interesting parallels and contrasts with our own history. The US is a relatively narrow state, especially if you look at the Constitution. The Federal Government can only regulate inter-state commerce which is much the same as the core competence of the EU - the internal market and the four freedoms: movement of capital, people goods and services. In that respect, it's very similar. The system is built on market integration. Obviously, in the United States there's also a very different historical context etc. and it's much further evolved. I don't think Europe will ever get there because of the differences between the countries: the cultures, the languages, etc… The States were their own colonies but they shared a language, shared some common culture eventhough then, as now, there's a huge difference between say Georgia and New York. But there's a much bigger difference between Malta and Finland for example.
If you say you found the answer, is there anything left for you to research?
D.B. Now I want to know how it works. In particular, the institutions: The Commission, the Council, the Council Secretariat and roles and influence they have. I now have an idea of why governments choose to enter into such cooperation but then the question is: How does it work? How does the system work? That motivates me in my research.
It's not an easy topic you've chosen; it can get quite explosive. As a researcher, did you build yourself a framework of values and ethics that guide you in your work? And if yes, how do you manage to stay true to it?
D.B. Hmm… I don't actually know how to answer that question. My professional ethic is trying to let the evidence speak. One of my core research findings was that the Council Secretariat - this little, technical part of the Council of Ministers – was incredibly influential in many intergovernmental negotiations. Governments didn't always know what they wanted or how to get what they wanted so they were highly dependent on the Secretariat. This gave the Secretariat enormous influence that they sometimes exploited. That finding is of course potentially politically contentious because that suggests that there's a lot of less-democratic procedures going on. I published this work in academic sources but I have not attempted to go out into the public. The picture is obviously much more complicated and to really understand what's going on is hard. I think in some cases my ethics would tell me: I don't want to be exploited by either a 'Yes' or a 'No' to the EU position. I don't want to be involved in politics and I don't want my research to be a weapon that someone can use in a political debate. I want it to be knowledge about how things work. If they spend time and read the academic journal they'd see that but then they'd also see all the caveats and the nuances. That is perhaps where I try to be very explicitly non-political as much as possible. There's a referendum campaign in Denmark right now and I do some research on referendums and public opinion. So right now I'm talking to between two and five journalists a day.
That's a lot!
D.B. Yes, it is. I always try to avoid politicised statements. For example, if somebody tries to ask me: 'Is it possible for Denmark to get a parallel agreement in Europe?', I'll tell them: 'We don’t know. Because no one has ever tried it.' That might be seen as support of a more 'Yes' position. You need to be true to the empirics and to what you know but you should also avoid becoming too politicised. You might have your own personal views but it shouldn't influence your research. Research should inform. Especially in EU studies, many scholars really believe in the EU so they hitch their research to it and use it. Sometimes it gets quite politicised when they engage with journalists. I think that's not the role of academics. I think we qualify debates but we're not politicians.
Looking back at your career development, is there any advice you can give to graduate students?
D.B. Right now, with the way the market is working, my tip is: Methods. Learn research methods, learn how to use them. Specialize in one or two methods because that will give you a comparative advantage and then find a research topic that really interests you. You're going to spend a lot of really boring hours looking at statements on whatever kind of research you're doing. You should be able to always stop and remind yourself: Why am I doing this? Because it will be boring at one point and you really need that fire to pull you through. Any good research is just an incredibly time consuming and strenuous process. But it can also be really rewarding when you have a good understanding of why something happened that you are interested in or care about. So I guess my core take home would be: Find something you really care about because that will get you through a lot of boring hours. And drink lots of coffee.
Yes, the coffee machine is very busy here. But then it's a good thing that our graduate school is so focused on methods.
D.B. Methods are just methods; they always have to be coupled with something. Methods are tools, different ways of learning about the world. But they give you a way to systematize. Be it ethnographic observations or quantitative statistical analysis, they give you a way of making sure that you're making valid scientific contributions. The standards, as far as what is accepted and what will get you published, are quite high nowadays and one of the most important aspects, either when applying for a PhD or writing your Master thesis, is to be meticulous about your methods. A little hint would be: Have a really good method section that you actually use - not just describe but actually use - and pump up your grade a few notches. ◼
// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff / Editing: Theresa Schmitz
Image Credits: © Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences