Politics MPhil Methods

Key information

Year of study
Year 1
Department of Politics and International Studies

Module overview

This module introduces Doctoral Researchers in politics and international studies to basic problems surrounding the pursuit of a major research project and the tools that might solve such issues. Most sessions take the form of facilitated seminars with assigned readings. A range of Department staff members frame discussions, often with reference to their own work and research practices. Attendance and participation are mandatory requirements to upgrade from MPhil to PhD status. Most weeks will include presentations and participants are responsible for leading the discussion and generating questions. All participants must at least read the core texts prior to class and arrive ready to discuss them.

The module consists of three parts. The first part addresses core foundational issues in social research, including epistemological and ontological problems in the philosophy of social science, conceptual analysis, starting the literature review, and process tracing. The second part examines a range of contemporary methods, including qualitative practices (focus groups, interviews, discourse analysis, ethnography, archival work, and reverse engineering), and quantitative techniques (core design and approaches, surveys, data analysis, time series comparisons). The third part of the module considers a set of practical issues in academic life that are likely to be of concern to early career scholars.

Upon completion, participants should be able to understand and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the research apparatuses underlying scholarly work in politics and international studies. It is not the case that every research project will deploy all of the tools discussed, or that every week of the module will be equally relevant to each participant. Nonetheless, orienting oneself in relation to the range of approaches that other scholars adopt is a necessary part of becoming an effective scholar, capable of engaging with the wider discipline.

In practical terms, the seminars introduce the introductory knowledge for designing a doctoral research project and choosing and justifying an appropriate methodological approach. These are required elements of a successful Upgrade Paper. Writing the Upgrade Paper is the major task for all MPhil Doctoral Researchers. The 'MPhil Upgrade Paper Workshop' (15PPOH039), held in Term 2, offers a means to receive feedback on papers that will be submitted for examination, via a viva, in Term 3.


2 hour seminar per week

Scope and syllabus

Part 1: Foundations of Social Research

1) Introduction and Doing Social Research

2) Launching the Literature Review

3) Methods and Limits for Interpretation and Process Tracing

4) Theories, Concepts, and the Ladder of Abstraction

Part 2: Contemporary Methods

5) Interviews

6) Discourse Analysis

7) Reverse Engineering

8) Quantitative Methods I: Operationalization, Measurement and Datasets in Political Science

9) Quantitative Methods II: Describing and Visualizing Data

10) Quantitative Methods III: Statistical Inference

11) Focus Groups

12) Archival Work

13) Ethnography

14) Cross-Party Time Series Comparison

Part 3: Skills for Academic Life (Open to all Doctoral Researchers; required for first-year cohort)

15) Fieldwork: Preparation and Ethics

16) Teaching

17) Presenting and Publishing

18) Writing and the Viva Stage

19) Career Starts, Job Talks, and Applications

Suggested reading

An increasing number of books deal with the process and methodology of doctoral research, a number of which are in the SOAS Library (keywords ‘doing research’, ‘writing dissertations’). Some are general guides, while others address specific themes, such as coping mechanisms, field work, writing, viva processes, etc. While every research and writing process is different and the main supervisor should be the most important source of guidance, some of these books do offer useful strategies and pointers for organising the PhD.

Useful guides for the PhD project as a whole are:

  • Dunleavy, P, Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2003).
  • Petre, M. and Rugg, G., The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (Open University Press, 2010).

Good guides on methods and methodology include:

  • Alasuutari, P., Bickman, L. and Brannen, J., The Sage Handbook of Social Research Methods (London: Sage, 2009).
  • Bryman, A., Social Research Methods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, various editions, latest 2015).
  • Della Porta, D. and Keating, M. (eds), Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences: A Pluralist Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • Kellstedt, P. M. and Whitten, G. D., The Fundamentals of Political Science Research (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules