Jesse Wozniak jets off to a job interview this week, where he’ll talk about his research on state reconstruction and the new Iraqi police force. Jesse is an advisee, Contexts student board member, and frequent contributor to the Office Hours podcasts. All dissertations demand sacrifice, but this one posed particular challenges.

In fact, Jesse’s project calls to mind what Pierre Bourdieu called “the craft par exellence of the researcher:  investing a theoretical problem of far-reaching implications in an empirical object that is well constructed and controllable with the means at hand, that is, possibly, by an isolated researcher, with no funding, limited to his[her] own labor power.” Doug Hartmann loves this passage, as it simultaneously conveys both the enormity of our task and our power and capacity to get it done.

The “theoretical problem” of civilian policing and state reconstruction certainly has far-reaching implications. I couldn’t be 100% sure, though, that the “empirical object” of contemporary Iraq training academies was quite so “controllable with the means at hand.” And, despite a fine academic record, Jesse had a tough time securing funding for his ambitious dissertation plan — observations at training academies, interviews with officials, surveys and interviews with recruits in training, extensive archival research, and some very costly plane tickets and living expenses.

While he put in several grant and fellowship proposals, most reviewers and funders simply viewed the project as impossible. How could a single graduate student possibly secure human subjects approval, gain clearance from the Department of State, learn a new language, live and travel extensively in a war zone, and gain repeated access to the officials and recruits he planned to interview and survey?

Well, now he has done the impossible and returned with data in hand. When he didn’t get funding, this “isolated researcher” was undaunted – he simply took on extra teaching and all manner of additional work so that he could self-fund the project. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding that Jesse is still preparing. Having seen the materials he brought back from Iraq, however, I’m confident that the hard work and fearlessness will pay off in a terrific dissertation and book.

In some ways, we’re fortunate to work in a field where isolated researchers can still learn so much by the sweat of their brows. And while a couple years of cushy dissertation funding would have made Jesse’s life a whole lot easier, I’m guessing that something real and true has been gained in the struggle.

* The quote is from page 156 of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1988 “Program for a Sociology of Sport” in the Sociology of Sport Journal 5:153-161.
** The photo is from Ben Brears’ photostream, licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) under creative commons.