If you’ve come here for another post about interesting new research on international taxation, I’m afraid this is going to disappoint you.
As I turn the page on the first six months of my PhD Fellowship at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and as I roll into summer relaxation mode (see you in August!), I wanted instead to take stock of my experience so far and the outlook for the next two-and-a-half years before I (hopefully) finish my dissertation.
I’ll touch upon three topics in particular: Sources of inspiration, work environment, and life as an academic.
A political economist by education, the first things I read back in 2010 about international taxation was focused on “offshore”, texts by renowned scholars in International Political Economy (IPE) such as Ronen Palan and Jason Sharman. Along with fantastic lectures by Duncan Wigan at CBS, the topic really caught my attention. How could small island states with no power, in the conventional sense, play such an important role in the global economy? Palan and Sharman provided (some of) the answers.
As my interest grew, so did the sources of inspiration. Thomas Rixen and Philipp Genschel provided classical political science perspectives on the international tax system, explaining it in terms of rationalist games and state-centrism. Other, more critical scholars, such as Claudio Radaelli, Gregory Rawlings and Michael Webb weren’t mainly focusing on tax or offshore in their research, but had interesting views that stressed more institutional, ideational and transnational power angles. And others again, such as Richard Woodward and Richard Eccleston highlighted the organisational cultures of international organisations involved in regulation the international tax system. I also discovered a host of non-IPE literature on international taxation from law, economics, accounting and sociology.
Later, my eventual supervisors Duncan Wigan and Leonard Seabrooke would provide important inspiration through a fresh perspective on international taxation, stressing the key role of activists and groups of professionals in shaping the international tax system. I built on their work and others to complete my master’s thesis on professional competition in the OECD/G-20 BEPS project.
The point of this listing is to emphasise the stark contrast to what I have been doing for the past six months (and to some extent also before that). While the political economy of international taxation remains my ‘home ground’, the majority of my inspiration since commencing the PhD project has come from sociology.
I have found myself drifting – in terms of my thinking, my readings, my interest – a lot towards sociology, in particular economic sociology, political sociology, sociology of the professions, of expertise, and of knowledge. Questions about the social causes of the economy, political power relations in groups, the dynamics of knowledge-based occupations, and the social context of expertise have intrigued me.
The readings that have most fundamentally shaped my thinking recently have come from Andrew Abbott, the prominent American professions sociologist and proponent of ecological theory and process sociology; Pierre Bourdieu, the famous French political and relational sociologist; and Emmanuel Lazega, another French sociologist working on the sociology of networks and knowledge; as well as many scholars that have contributed inspirational insights building on or challenging these predecessors. Of course, there’s also the true ‘grandfathers’ of the discipline, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, George Simmel and others. I want to read more of their original works. While Abbott, Bourdieu, Lazega and others rarely touched upon international taxation, their insights, I believe, are extremely relevant for the topic.
What fascinates me about these sociological works is that there seems to be a greater emphasis on asking interesting questions as opposed to providing the “right” answers (thanks to a colleague in Amsterdam for that particular phrasing). That doesn’t mean sociology isn’t “scientific” nor that political science isn’t “inquisitive” but I sense the balance between the two is different. Political science, in particular the American political science that dominates IPE, has always been more aligned with economics, emphasising quantitative regressions and positivist scholarship.
That’s not to say I haven’t been reading IPE work on tax. Indeed, I have enjoyed (and reviewed on this blog) recent books by Thomas Rixen, Peter Dietsch, Thomas Pogge and Krishen Mehta and Gabriel Zucman. Of course I’ve also read the research of many others that have written on international tax issues. And beyond tax, I try to study broadly, keeping up to date with recent theoretical and empirical developments in the international political economy and other relevant areas.
My aim is, eventually, to bridge the disciplines, bringing perspectives from sociology and political science (and other areas) together in studying the dynamics of change and stability in international tax governance. I truly believe such a program has the potential to foster a better understanding of how and why global economic and fiscal governance structures emerge and transform.
Studying for a PhD can be a lonely endeavor. Most of the time, PhD students are resigned to their own thoughts, in their own world of study. As I was told before I started the project, the biggest challenge of completing a PhD is mental health.
Therefore, I can count myself fortunate to be doing my PhD in a very supportive, collective and caring environment.
Most immediately, the work environment at CBS is fantastic. We have a group of around 15 PhD students at the Department of Business and Politics, who are collegial, social and helpful. I have been able to share frustrations, receive feedback and discuss ideas and progress in a constructive manner. The same can be said of the Department itself, of around 40 researchers, whose camaraderie and feedback continue to help me and challenge me (sometimes also to my frustration). The Department also houses at least six researchers whose main topic of interest is international taxation – it is nice being able to ping-pong with like-minded colleagues on my own topic of interest. Finally, I am blessed with outstanding supervisors, who always open new doors, enabling and encouraging me to do things I would have never thought of.
Beyond CBS, I am part of COFFERS, a European Union-sponsored research program with ten universities and civil society partners around Europe, all focusing on current challenges in international taxation and fiscal affairs. The funding from COFFERS has allowed me to carry out research that wouldn’t have been feasible otherwise, and has also allowed me to meet peers from all around Europe and learn about interesting work done elsewhere.
Of course, I have to mention Twitter as well. Twitter offers a constant stream of new information about tax and research – often hard to keep up with – but it is a uniquely valuable resource in that respect, bringing information to me that I would have otherwise had to dig for. It also provides a forum for discussion and dissemination of ideas and news, where others can comment and discuss my work and thoughts, making learning opportunities possible in a completely open and decentralised manner. It allows me to discuss my views with people I would have never otherwise encountered.
Most importantly, of course, Twitter supports a broad community of professionals, academics, activists and others with an interest in tax and beyond, of which I am lucky to be a part. #TaxTwitter in particular has allowed me to foster relationships with a range of different people, many of whom I have also fruitfully met in real-life. It has led to many instances of international travel, interviews, coffee, breakfasts, dinners, engaging conversations, even research projects, and of course new ideas.
Finally, this very blog has been a useful outlet. As I am constantly submerged in research and thoughts about tax and other topics, the blog has been a valuable tool to ‘get things out’ that perhaps weren’t specifically relevant to the PhD project, but which were still worthwhile to reflect upon and write down for others to see. The feedback I get on blog posts offers another valuable route to learning and thinking and discussing. But even if no one was reading, there would still be some value for me personally in, simply, writing things down in an informal format.
I want to also note the life-changing experience of ‘becoming an academic’. It entails so much more than merely conducting research, reading and writing. It is a fundamental transformation of life-style.
At first glance, being an academic entails more ‘freedom’ than most people have in their jobs. Although the extent varies, academics generally play a more significant role in determining their own tasks, their own topics of work, and the design of their workdays, compared to most other occupations. However, that degree of freedom requires correspondingly more self-organisation, a challenge in itself which is compounded by the aspirations held by most academics to, essentially, change the world. Whilst juggling administrative duties, teaching, supervision and so forth, finding the time to ‘make your mark’ can be difficult. Of course, as a PhD student I am able to prioritise ‘making my mark’ more than most academics, but there is still no escaping perpetual self-doubt (“am I doing enough?”). Constantly surrounded by and reading people who are doing exceptional work, the ‘imposter syndrome’ is never far away.
Being an academic also requires adjustment to an entirely different ‘game’ than is played in other workplaces and occupations. “Publish or perish”, as they say, there is a tacit and also explicit requirement to get published in the right journals, bring forward groundbreaking new ideas, get cited, get funded and so forth. Again, I am in no position to complain about this; as a PhD student, in particular as a recent one, I am spared from most of these demands (for now). But socialisation into academia means these thoughts are inevitably on my mind, and it is important to learn to deal with them. I have already experienced the disappointment of a rejected journal submission after a revise-and-resubmit, a well-known irritation to established researchers.
At the more practical level, my everyday as an academic is wildly different from my previous jobs. Most of my time is spent reading and thinking by myself, with department meetings, interviews and fieldwork, data analysis and conferences sprinkled in. My research is rather ‘outward oriented’, in the sense that I spent quite a lot of time with fieldwork, interviews, and conferences, but it remains a fraction of my overall work life.
Taking all of these new benefits and challenges into account, I am happy with the progress I have made so far. Since I started my PhD, I have read countless pages of research, conducted around 25 structured interviews and roughly 150 hours of field observation, presented my research at seven different events and workshops, and finished one training course. And, aside from the journal rejection, I have submitted another journal paper and completed first(!) drafts of three more papers/chapters, with lots of other scattered writing. Most importantly, I have learned a lot and met many great people. I hope that continues.