The Embedded Research Network – Blog

Below is a blog posted on the Embedded Research Network blog.  The site was set up to provide a platform of discussion in which Embedded Researchers and anybody interested  in such research arrangement may  share ideas, information and news. The network is interested in meeting fellow “Embedded Researchers” – that’s researchers who are nominally employed or located in the organisation they are researching.  Check out the blog at


Beginning a PhD is always a daunting experience as you first sit down to read a towering pile of books and enter into a dialogue that’s gone on through the ages in hushed tones in hallowed halls.  Beginning a PhD as an embedded researcher is, by my reckoning, scarier still because your study is contingent on the continuation of the initiative you are studying, people staying in post, and generally the world going on as normal, which in these days is a lot to ask.

The difference between my dreams of doing of a PhD and the seat-of-the-pants reality came into collision at the end of my first year.

As for my dream, it is perhaps surprising for an anti-elitist but I have always wanted one of those Oxbridge chats with a professor, in high-backed chairs, beside a fire, port in hand, as we discuss what I might do after graduation.  I would suggest becoming a philosopher.  She would suggest I might do something practical like making jam.  What about a sociologist… or futurologist… or one of those people who writes fake reviews for businesses online? I would reply between her embarrassed headshakes.

The closest I came to such a conversation however was while in a conference centre bar and being handed a beer by one of my supervisors as he told me,

Haven’t you heard? Nick didn’t get the job, so he’s leaving. Henry’s handed in his resignation. So he’s off. It’s all a bit of a mess… Cracking data for you though.

This was June 2009 and I was to start my PhD fieldwork in September on an initiative called the Stockborough Challenge. Nick was the senior manager championing the project. Henry was the director of the Stockborough Challenge.  The initiative I was meant to research for my PhD had effectively ended before my fieldwork began.  Cracking data, cracked dreams.

At first I was pretty downbeat about the whole thing but due to the benefits of being an embedded researcher, specifically being a nominal employee of the organisation I was researching, and a bit of luck I was able to find the space and goodwill of the professionals in Stockborough to pursue a more interesting line of research, one that brought together research, policy and practice.  My findings are a subject for further posts. At this point I simply offer the advice to people embarking on embedded research that things might fall apart at some point but in the cracks you can find what you need to write your thesis.

James Duggan


2 thoughts on “The Embedded Research Network – Blog

  1. Hi James, et. al.
    ‘Embedded’ is an interesting notion – I guess if you’ve got some commitment to a disinterested position then it would be called ‘participant observation’. If you have some commitment to (critical? social?) change then it would be called ‘action research’. ‘Embedded’ seemed to come into vogue during the Iraq war (embedded journalists) but also be applied to the Afghan war, with lots of debate about ’embedded anthropologists’ – which is pretty much where we came in 100+ years ago with the origins of Anthropology as a discipline arising in the context of administering empire:
    You might be interested in:
    ‘Should anthropologies go to war?’,8599,1947095,00.html

    • Thanks Harry. I think the article you mention really picks out the potential problems, granted an extreme case, of research that is (partly) funded by and takes place in particular organisations or contexts. Educational researchers have gone into schools since year dot but we’re trying to explore the ethical, political and methodological challenges of conducting research when it’s paid for by, for example, an academy chain to conduct research on academies during a time when chains of academies look set to carve up public education… but then what to do, especially for new researchers coming into the field and trying to make a career.

      There are in the article some very interesting quotes from anthropologists who have engaged with the military…

      “One Human Terrain anthropologist told the Dallas Morning News that she wasn’t worried if the information she provided was used to kill or capture an insurgent. “The reality is, there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill,” she said. “I’d rather they did not operate in a vacuum.”

      These two scandals created an uproar at the AAA, and many anthropologists grew wary of military-funded programs. Over the past 30 years, according to an article by Montgomery McFate, the senior social scientist at HTS and a trained anthropologist, “the discipline has become hermetically sealed within its ivory tower.”

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