[1500 Words; 8 Minute Read] In this post, we focus on the importance of methods to aid international ‘real world’ research. Natural sciences often place emphasis on positivist approaches that operate in a closed system. Alternatively, social sciences can take broader philosophical approaches that involve, inter alia, a degree of interpretation (interpretative), they may be socially constructed (structuralism) or possibly experienced (phenomenology) or used in practice (pragmatism). For this article, there will be a discussion of ‘real world’ research that can integrate case-study methods, lesson-drawing methods, policy transfer methods, hybrid methods, stakeholder methods, and comparative methods.

3.1. Case-study methods

A case-study method is one way in which geographically bounded examples can be provided to give in-depth accounts of particular phenomena—such as, say, property in a neighbourhood of New York, planning in the city of Berlin, or a national strategic infrastructure plan for the United Kingdom. As such a case study can allow comparison of cases such as comparing property between different cities or compare similar national contexts (e.g. between more ‘developed’ nations) and identify how specific property elements such as key stakeholders involved are different. This is all assuming that a case study is considered a geographical case study. Other case-study structures can be used, for instance, a case study of institutional structures (e.g.networked or hierarchical) are the basis of the ‘case’. Proponents of case-study approaches are aware that case studies can synthesize with other methodological approaches and that case-study approaches are not mutually exclusive.

3.2. Lesson-drawing methods

Lesson-drawing is another method that can be synthesized with a more holistic conceptual model being proposed for making an international study of ‘real world’ research. The interest in lesson-learning here is, thus, as a lens to interpret the international approaches of real-world phenomena. Definitions of lesson-drawing in political science have been described as the explicit effort by one government to learn from the experience of others. As an example, in responding to a demand to do something, a government will want to ensure success by: (1) relying on what has worked before (a backwards-looking strategy) and learning lessons from the past; or (2) establishing a proxy evidence base by learning lessons from similar policies deployed in similar contexts elsewhere (a forward-looking strategy). In addressing the latter, it is, of course, essential to be aware of the contrasting time-space contexts of case study countries.

3.3. Policy transfer methods

Policy transfer refers to the process by which actors borrow policies developed in one setting to develop programmes and policies within another. This is an important area to study because transfer is a common phenomenon. Policy transfer is seen as being a greater task than lesson-drawing in terms of forming clear outputs for practical use. It is argued that whilst lesson-drawing offers the potential for comparing how policymakers behave with the expectations of lesson-drawing, policy transfer is even broader in scope, encapsulating lessons, other forms of voluntary adoption and coercive processes. Policy transfer is very difficult to disentangle from other forms of policymaking and researchers will find it very difficult to form clear outputs of practical use for assessing claims about changes in the importance of transfer. However, policy transfer is not dismissed as being too complex to handle if there is a focus on certain elements of the policy transfer concept and developing clearer outputs and measures of transfer might be one way to develop the approach.

Policy transfer also experiences amendments made to a policy by international pressures such as fitting any other multilateral regulatory agreements. This is in addition to changes in transfer born from third party external impacts, such as ensuring that specific communities are not adversely impacted upon. Furthermore, mixed features of transfer may include conditions being attached to an imported policy, such as central government fiscal control. In return, this may be met by obligations of groups such as the public sector taking on some financial risk in a project. More coercive features of policy transfer at the other end of the spectrum could affect the eventually transferred policy package. For instance, the direct imposition of a fixed rate of development tax or the inability to force a policy through due to strong pressure-group activity could change its appearance. Coercion may also originate from the pressure of think tanks and lobbyists that have been pioneering experts in initiating the policy for transfer.

3.4. Hybrid methods

This section explores a combined lesson-learning and policy-transfer model that plots various ‘levels of lesson drawing to the ‘likelihood of transfer’ to generate a more integrated theory when considering any levels of policy transfer. In doing so, inspiration between different contexts can be made as inspiration from clustered contexts within developing countries could be transferred to developed countries. Moreover, learning can be made between countries that share quite similar contexts, such as learning from phenomena within the boundary of sub-Saharan African countries. It is important to acknowledge what is meant by ‘systems’, as it constrains the likelihood of transfer and the level of lesson-drawing from one country to another. We can illustrate for instance that systems can consist of several context-dependent institutional aspects such as welfare, cultural, legal-administrative, political-economic and planning systems. To a certain degree, such systems can be grouped into families of nations. However, almost without exception, most countries have a mixture of systems that does not find its equal somewhere else. Therefore, drawing lessons from international examples is most likely to occur at the inspiration and learning level. Moreover, particular insights on the operational level of actions involved —including formal relations (such as procedures) and informal practices (such as roles)—might contain better possibilities for institutional transplantation than aiming at constitutional or policy area levels.

3.5. Stakeholder methods

Another important method to study international approaches to ‘real world’ research is through the stakeholder method. The stakeholder method involves a taxonomy used to identify the key people involved in a project—such as a developer, financier, planner, government official or community member. This stakeholder approach is supplemented by stakeholder planning where the agent builds-up support to help them succeed. The application of this selection of stakeholders and their support could be analysed internationally as there would be comparable agents in a project that may also vary in significance across national boundaries. A key review of stakeholder method literature demonstrates that there is growing popularity in its use and that this reflects an increasing recognition of how the characteristics of stakeholders—as individuals, groups and organizations—influence decision-making processes. Furthermore, stakeholder references are frequently found to be of relevance here, such as stakeholder ‘approaches’, stakeholder ‘frameworks’ and stakeholder ‘issues’. Most importantly here is stakeholder ‘approach’ theory, which is largely and originally attributed to management. This focus on the management of stakeholders with respect to a particular action means that the use of stakeholder approaches in analyzing international cases tends to be focused on the people part of the approach—such as in implementation.

3.6. Comparative methods

In making international comparative analysis, there is a healthy respect for time-dependent and place-dependent circumstances which we call context—there is therefore almost always to some degree an element of ‘context-dependency or path-dependency. There is a risk of an insular and navel-gazing approach if claiming that context is everything—an open mind is needed for knowledge and understanding to flourish. In doing so, it is the aim to start making sense of differences and similarities of context. Furthermore, this comparative thinking allows some conceptual equivalence. Conceptual equivalence being the way in which the same conceptual constructs or models can be placed in equivalence to each other, as would be applied to the logical field of mathematics. Even when direct equivalence can be made, particularly where unique features are being recognized, any limitations of knowledge transfer can still benefit those making the comparative analysis as wider lessons can be drawn from ‘real world’ scenarios. Comparison in the method is well embedded in contemporary research and has a rich history. For instance, as the world becomes increasingly more complex and interrelated, particularly with respect to greater porous national boundaries, more debates on the place and process of comparative research have multiplied.

There is certainly open debate on the opportunities and problems of such comparative methods. More positively there is the opportunity to explore the particularities of local experiences whilst understanding the forms and consequences of the general process. Clear spatial examples of comparison of the local and global phenomenon are those such as comparing spatial divisions across different industrial geographies. For others beyond the social sciences, comparative research can be seen as impractical, unfeasible and even undesirable—for the simple view that comparison is impossible due to the fundamental incompatibilities of concepts, cultures, and units of analysis. The intention here is not to over-philosophise the intricacies in the benefits and drawbacks of comparative methods, but to engage the comparative method with a model of ‘real world’ phenomena that can be used within and between national boundaries. The desire here to develop an internationally valid model is believed to be helpful within the comparative method and there is certainly international academic excellence and policy-transfer reputation that can be gained from such modelling. 

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