(by Martin Pioch)
As a PhD student you study your topic intensively, measure it as good as possible and try to read every relevant publication about it, however, nothing teaches you more than the direct engagement with your research objectives though research trips. And this is even more the case when you study international institutions, which in most cases have a very special life of their own. In my case, for the last 2 years I read in my office and discussed on conferences the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the effects of the rise of the BRICS states Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. I analyzed data, reviewed the literature and published articles. But while I actually moved to Russia for the PRIMO project and visited China for a PRIMO workshop, I haven’t been to the WTO so far.
Therefore we organized in early 2017 a research trip to the WTO in Geneva, where I had the great possibility to study for 3 weeks in the WTO library, which also gave me access to the whole WTO building and thereby offered the possibility for many talks with the WTO staff and some country delegations. Furthermore, this trip was not simply organized to get to know the WTO, but also to conduct interviews for my PhD research. After I have already done most of my analytical studies, the time had come to test and discuss my findings with the actually involved actors at the WTO. Therefore I conducted several interviews with different staff from the WTO’s secretariat and with some of the BRICS states delegations to the WTO. Moreover, in Geneva also a huge part of the United Nations, especially the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where I also spoke to officials. And I also conducted interviews with staff from the Advisory Center for WTO Law (ACWL) and with other former diplomats or officials, who work in Geneva on international trade.
While the interviews were very helpful and gave great insight in the life and dynamics of the institution itself, I was confronted with several problems of field research. The two biggest obstacles were access and anonymity. I managed to speak with some BRICS delegations, however, other we just not replying to any requests. Also, while many interviewees gave me further contacts, these were mostly the same circle of persons, leaving out other significant parts. At the same time, some delegations, and especially the staff of the WTO’s secretariat demanded anonymity, or even no mentioning of the meetings at all, while other delegations and officials did not object to direct quotations and recordings of the talks. Therefore I am now confronted with several (expected) methodological questions about the further operationalization of the interviews and their explanatory power.
In preparation of this trip, I was already in December 2016 for one week in Moscow, where I conducted interviews with academic experts on the BRICS and the WTO. I visited in Moscow the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), the People’s Friendship University of Russia, as well as the Russian Institute for African Studies and the Institute of Economics, both from the Russian Academy of Science. Here the interviewees were much opener about quotations, probably because all of them were scientists and not state or WTO officials. Also, working myself in a Russian university helped to establish contact.
In conclusion, both trips gave significant input for my research in the framework of the PRIMO network. Also all interviewees were very interested in the PRIMO project itself and highlighted the importance for this kind if global research networks. I can only recommend every PhD student to do field trips and to visit the objectives of interest. For me, for my research, but also for my future career prospects this trips were very helpful.