Research Methods

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For studying legal cases, see Law. Nexus Cognitive Sciences.



Denzin and Triangulation A research strategy that involves using several methods to reveal multiple aspects of a singel empirical reality. It assumes that looking at a problem from more than one standpoint reveals further aspects of its characteristics.

Discourse Analysis

See Discourse Analysis.

Data and Sources

Source critique Rolf Torstendahl, professor emeritus i historia vid Uppsala universitet, Introduktion till historieforskning (1966), en doktorsavhandling om källkritik och vetenskapssyn i svensk historisk forskning, ett flertal artiklar om källkritik i svenska och internationella tidsskrifter, däribland artikeln Källkritik, metod och vetenskap i Historisk tidskrift (2005).


Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

Hollis, Martin and Steve Smith, Explaining and Understanding International Relations

Positivist approaches

The ‘positivist’ (or better today: ‘post-positivist’) approach seeks to formulate objective and verifiable laws to explain social relations in a similar way that the natural sciences explain the physical world. Those who adopt this approach are interested in observable facts and measurable data, in precise calculation, and the collection of data to find recurring patterns or even “laws”.

Focus: Explaining, Hypothesis, Collection of data, Scientific knowledge, Theorist outside subject

A classic, provocative and thought-provoking article is M.Friedman (1953): ‘The Methodology of Positive Economics’, in idem: Essays in Positive Economics, University of Chicago Press, ch.1

Interpretative approaches

The interpretative approach is a non-individualist one that accepts the complexity of the human world and seeks to understand social relations in a humanistic way, acknowledging contingency and the potential for transformation. Those who adopt this approach are interested in imaginatively entering into the issue or problem they are studying in order to understand the moral and practical dilemmas this involves.

For an example of understanding, see M. Weber The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for an example of explaining, see E. Durkheim, On Suicide.

Focus: Understanding, Meaning, Judgement, Historical Knowledge, Theorist inside subject

Interpretative phenomenological analysis IPA is a qualitative research approach that examines how people make sense of their major life experiences. Its main theoretical underpinnings are phenomenology, hermeneutics, ideography.

Ethnography: Thick Understandings of Cultural Practices

Aims and Content: Ethnography is a two-stage practice of knowledge production. The first involves the organization of data collected using methods such as participant-observation and undirected (open-ended) interviews. The second takes the form of a report that understands the specific experiences of local actors as part of a holistic universe of meaning. The power of ethnography is in its recognition of situated perspectives, its ability to locate associations and meanings that may be less than fully transparent even to the actors themselves.

a) Participant Observation.

b) Holism. On one hand, the ethnographer “synthesizes disparate observations to create a holistic construct of ‘culture’ or ‘society’”; on the other hand, “Good ethnographic data are wide-ranging”, having breadth. Attention is directed towards creating a representation that puts different aspects of life in relation to one another.

c) Context Sensitivity. Actions, words and things are understood not only in terms of their form, but also in their context. Believing that all social processes are situated, and that nothing happens in a “cultural vacuum”, the ethnographer draws attention to the ways in which context imbues specificity of meaning.

d) Sociocultural Description. Data collection is in the service of creating a “detailed depiction and analysis of social relations and culture”. Its object is to understand not only what culture looks like analytically, but also what culture is, experientially and phenomenologically, for the actor.

How might ethnography be used to help define a research question? Can it be used to test general explanations?

Comparative Method

Implicitly or explicitly, a lot of social science research is comparative. Comparative research, however, is more than just analysing two or more cases side by side: it involves an active intervention from the researcher to select and study the cases in such a way that they allow for conclusive arguments. The Skocpol text gives the basic argument: when doing comparative research, think about what and how you are comparing (cf. also Hancké). When reading it, ask yourself the following questions: what is the logical structure of comparative research? Try and come up with an example (real or imagined) yourself, and make explicit why and how this design is a strong comparative design. What are the weaknesses of the method (is it possible to actually find such beautifully matching cases; consider the implicit critique of the comparative method by Locke and Thelen; also think back to what Van Evera had to say about that)? (How) could within-case variation help? To what extent does Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) circumvent some of the problems of the comparative method?

Research Strategy, Design and Writing

Research Design and Formulating a Research Question

Research design is a critical part of research: it provides the link between the theory or argument that informed the research, on the one hand, and the empirical material collected on the other. Research design addresses at least three issues.

First of all, and most importantly, it must allow the researcher to engage in an on-going debate: (social) science proceeds by examining critically the positions in a debate, discover unanswered (or poorly answered) questions, and then engage the debate through an analysis of these weaknesses. Research design therefore has to address the debate, and allow the researcher to make a contribution to that debate.

Secondly, and as a result, the design of a research project must aim to include not just the answers that the researcher is trying to give, but also explicitly address the positions in the debate. Case selection thus becomes an instrument that allows an intervention in the ongoing debate, and therefore needs to be done not just with the researcher’s final argument in mind, but also explicitly engaging the most important alternative explanations.

Third, the research design must allow the researcher to make the step from argument, over well-specified hypotheses (about the probable outcome of the research) to the actual cases studied. Developing theory or argument, translating them into well-specified hypotheses, and collecting empirical material therefore are steps in the research process that are closely linked to one another. In sum, research design and the selection of cases is an intricate part of building the argument: cases offer analytical leverage.

Questions: What are the methodological foundations of good qualitative research? What is the potential strength of (single) case studies for building arguments? How do the studies and research strategies discussed by Rueschemeyer address these issues. What do you think of Emigh’s argument against the background that explaining ‘why something does not happen’ yields complicated research designs? If you want to study the explanatory power of a theoretical concept, what are the pros and cons of, either applying a single theoretical concept, such as path dependency, in different settings or applying two competing concepts in one setting (as Rico and Costa-Font do when examining health care federalism)? Finally, discuss how a theory affects the research design, using the article of Røgeberg and how he applies it to economic research.

What are the criteria one should look for in a research question?

• Relevance • Concreteness and abstraction • Focus • Falsifiability • Simplicity • Researchability • Parsimony

For an interesting discussion on ways of constructing research questions as gap-spotting, and problematisation, see Sandberg. (1)how do organizational researchers construct their research questions from existing literature, as expressed in research texts? (2) what ways of constructing research questions are likely to facilitate the development of interesting and influential theories? (3) what and how do social norms guide researchers to construct research questions in particular ways and not others?

Quasi-problematisation : 'It is well known that critics ‘project’ their own pet ideas on to the texts they claim to be criticizing. They exhibit their ‘discoveries’ triumphantly and rhapsodize over their relevance, without ever suspecting that they have retrieved unaltered the very thing they fed the machine in the first place to ensure its functioning.' (Girard, 1988: 229)

Problematisation asks what may be fundamentally ‘wrong’ with the assumptions underlying existing studies, even those underlying one’s own favourite theories, and tries to challenge them as a key ingredient in constructing research questions. Disruptive modes, such as problematisation, are inclined to specify problems with this research rather than issues that remain to be researched. Sandberg: 'Track bound research follows procedures, and uses other work and empirical observations as positive signposts and building blocks to stand on when formulating research questions. Disruptive research involves critique and problematization and aims at confronting or preventing a particular logic from being outlined.'

Research Strategies: Statistical and Configurational Methodologies

Two different research strategies and the methodological conditions under which they can be used: statistical versus configurational analysis. In part these conditions are handed to us by the nature of the (relevant) universe. Sometimes that universe is large enough for statistical analysis, but on other occasions N is (almost) 1, and then statistics are out of the question. It also has to do with the nature of the explanations (marginal change versus complex causation) and with the type of answers that can be obtained.

Questions to ask while reading scholarly material

Without being able to answer these questions not all is gotten out of the text.

QAQC: Quotation, Argument, Question, and Connection

QAQCs to deal with an argument, article, or book. Around 600 words and with following structure:

Research Proposals

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