International Comparative Research

Theory, methods and practice

by Linda Hantrais

Table of Contents

Drawing on illustrations from the extensive international literature and real-life comparative studies, the chapters explore and document the many stages in the research process, from research design and data collection to the analysis, interpretation and dissemination of findings.

Chapter 1 - Defining and mapping international comparative research

This introductory chapter sets out to reach a working definition of international comparative research. It does so by exploring two key questions: What are the defining characteristics of international comparative research across nations, societies and cultures, and what are the benefits to be gained from undertaking comparative studies in international settings? The chapter goes on to map the development of comparative research from its origins to the present day. It focuses, in particular, on the changes over the past century associated with globalization, and the progress made since the 1980s at European and national level in response to the call for a coherent international engagement strategy for research and development.

Chapter 2 - Disciplinary approaches to comparative research in international settings

By tracking the evolution of comparative methods within different clusters of disciplines, the chapter examines the premise that individual disciplines have developed their own distinct theoretical traditions, which are reflected in the research design and data collection methods they adopt in comparative work. It also explores the proposition that some countries or regions are associated with particular epistemologies or intellectual styles and research paradigms that determine preferences for specific approaches. It argues that, while the approaches adopted by researchers from different national and disciplinary cultures may be mutually enhancing, they may also result in competition both within and between international teams.

Chapter 3 - Project design in international comparative research

The two introductory chapters suggest that the likely outcome of any international comparative project is largely determined at a very early stage in the research process. For example, decisions taken in reaching consensus over the epistemology of comparisons within and between different disciplines and research cultures can be expected to impact on research findings and, ultimately, on those who use them. Chapters 3–5 focus on the research process. Chapter 3 explores the many components of research design and the rationales for the theoretical and methodological approaches adopted in international projects.

Chapter 4 - Defining and analysing concepts and contexts

The lack of a common understanding of central concepts and the societal contexts within which phenomena are located and where national policies are formulated and implemented can undermine international comparative projects. In tracking the shift in international comparisons in the social sciences and humanities away from universalistic culture-free approaches to culture-boundedness, this chapter examines how some of the key concepts in the social sciences and humanities are understood and interpreted in different national, institutional and societal settings. It explores issues of equivalence of concepts, measurement and interpretation with reference to the socioeconomic, political and cultural contexts within which phenomena are located.

Chapter 5 - Combining methods in international comparative research

Reference is frequently made in Chapters 1–4 to the value of considering different sociocultural and disciplinary approaches when undertaking international comparative research projects. Chapter 5 pursues the discussion presented in Chapter 2 of the ways in which disciplinary boundaries are often crossed in international comparative research by drawing on and combining methods that were previously considered the preserve of other disciplines. This chapter explores the advantages, but also the problems, of combining and integrating multiple research strategies within and across paradigms in comparative projects. It reviews the reasons for the supposed incompatibility between epistemological approaches and the methods that have come to be associated with them. While acknowledging the limitations of multi-strategy comparative research, the chapter examines the various ways in which methodological pluralism can be exploited to extend the scope of comparative studies, test and reinforce their validity, develop new insights and offer concordant or discordant explanations for observed similarities and differences.

Chapter 6 - Research and policy in international settings

This chapter explores the research–policy interface from a number of perspectives. It examines what international comparative researchers can gain from studying the relationship between research and policy; what policy actors can learn from international comparisons of social phenomena; and how such research can inform policy. In addressing these issues, the chapter reviews a number of theories about the utilization of social science and humanities research by policy makers and practitioners, the differing objectives of researchers and policy makers, the limitations of social science knowledge, the capacity of research governance to integrate research and policy, and the attempts made to bridge the communications gap. The chapter goes on to look at the ways in which evidence-based policy, policy evaluation, learning and transfer have exploited international comparisons and the methodological issues they raise.

Chapter 7 - Managing international comparative research

The management of international teams in projects that cross national and sociocultural boundaries requires wide-ranging knowledge and skills that many researchers have had to acquire from direct experience. This chapter revisits the issues raised throughout the book to provide guidance for the effective management of projects that cross national, societal and cultural boundaries. It examines how the composition and coordination of research teams across disciplines and countries impact on research design and implementation. In addressing issues of funding for international comparative research, the chapter explores the implications of disciplinary classifications for access to funding, project management and cooperation. The conclusion offers a tentative assessment of the contribution that international comparative social sciences and humanities research can make to scientific inquiry, international understanding and the global socioeconomic knowledge base.