Professor Rachel Franklin

School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

First off, can you please describe your research interests? 

So most of my research has to do with the spatial distribution of population and demographic change, so some of that is characterizing what kinds of people live where and how places change through a demographic perspective and a lot of that is migration. Some of my research also looks what happens when places change, for example population loss & decline. This has implications for all sorts of things like labour markets, consumption patterns, where people want to live, how many children they're going to have, that sort of thing. I also look at natural change which is births and deaths. 

I'm a geographer but I would call myself a population geographer or spatial  demographer, which means that I’m always interested in people and how they’re tied to  place or move through space. 

How did you get into research? 

Well I guess my path is quite non-linear. I did my degree in French and Political Science and not anything quantitative at all. I then went on to do a MA in West-European Studies which is called Area Studies in the US. I took a class on Population Geography and had an amazing professor. Her approach was quantitative so it set me on that path and I’m very analytical in nature. I also loved the community within Geography! I ended up doing a PhD on low fertility in Italy which I finished in 2004 and spent half of the years up to now out of academia. Paths are so complicated by other things that happen in the life course. I’ve got three kids and my husband is an academic so there’ve always been lots of other choices that I’ve had to make and that has impacted my research, although I think things are changing for the better in that area. 

What methods do you use and why? 

I primarily use quantitative analysis, both descriptive and exploratory. I use these to measure aspects of populations, including standard forms of analysis such as multivariate regression. I also use spatial analysis methods, including GIS. 

A lot of my teaching has been around methods and I love teaching them. Methods enable students to critically engage in material and are an opportunity to produce and create outputs (such as maps) that they wouldn’t have been able to before! It is also really helpful for employability which is very important. 

Which methods excite you? 

I don’t really know if I would say there are methods that excite me. There are approaches I find really exciting in the Social Sciences, especially in Economics and quantitative Sociology and Geography. For example, there’s an interest in causality, How do you know X really causes Y? That’s an example of where you only get part of the the answer if you ask people because we all construct our own internal narratives about what we think caused Y to happen. Most quantitative methods also don’t establish causality, just allude to causation or association. You can say that more educated people tend to be wealthier but it doesn’t actually mean that the education itself caused the wealth, right? 

We talk about Big Data as helping us understand the world but I’m more excited about how innovative methods can help us to understand why something has happened. It's really important in epidemiology or trying to understand, for example, racial bias so that policies can be more effective. Some American economists are very thoughtful about this. 

Is there anybody that inspires you, methodologically? 

There are a number of Geographers that I think of doing exciting work. It’s common in quantitative methods to have people that focus primarily on methods development and then those who work on finding suitable applications for that method or model. I think that’s unusual compared to other kinds of methodologies in the Social Sciences because you wouldn’t develop an interview technique and then not actually do the interviewing. Some people are more firmly located in their substantive research areas and are quantitative – they’re my favourite kind of people because I care about answering questions! 

Is there anything about methods you wish your younger self had known? 

I would have made my younger self take more maths! Because it now constrains what my choices are. I feel increasingly that the stuff we say is hard and don’t like is exactly what we need to do! You don’t have to use it but at least then you can go back to it. I would tell anyone starting a PhD now to learn to code. 

If you could recommend that students read just one text to help them think about methodologies, what would it be? 

A book on cholera called ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson. He describes John Snow’s work on cholera and places the famous Broad Street Pump analysis within a broader historical and methodological context. The book identifies so many interrelated factors and is great for thinking about the complexity of methods.