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How to Approach Methodology in IR Research?

The International Relations scholarship in the global South suffers from a dearth of thorough research methodology training, evident in scholarly writings. This observation is primarily the result of my reflection on how IR research is carried out in India.

As a PhD student of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s premier institutions for IR training, I can attest that methodological instruction is viewed as a farce that should be left up to the students to deal with.

Sometimes, the questions surrounding methods and methodology are dodged away as something that obscures the real intellectual output a scholar intends to produce. It is often seen as a barrier to one’s intellectual awakening.

I recently submitted a research paper to a renowned IR journal, but it was rejected after peer review. The reviewers noted that the paper lacks methodological elaboration, thereby constraining its scope of applicability. I have sometimes wondered what it means to write a sound methodological essay.

I asked many researchers how they dealt with the methodological question in this quest. One of the prominent tropes of responses was that one’s methodology should reflect one’s research choices rather than as a strategy to cloak one’s findings in complex, jargon-laden language.

What is the Meaning of Research Methodology?

Prof. Kanti Bajpai refers to methodology as a “heightened common sense” (I thank Vineet Thakur, a Lecturer at the University of Leiden, for introducing me to Bajpai’s quote). This quote initially reads as challenging; however, it covers the approaches taken to solve a specific research problem and how the outcomes advance our knowledge and generate new policy thinking.

In the purest definition, “common sense” refers to the knowledge of a certain topic held by society (in this case, an epistemic community).

Christopher Lamont’s Research Methods in International Relations, which offers numerous approaches to methodology questions, points out that the methodology used in IR scholarship depends heavily on the “kind of question we seek” to answer.

How do you begin your research in IR?

The first consideration in a research design is what kind of data to gather and how to structure a project. This step also assists us in refining our approach and methodological thinking.

The democratic peace theory, for instance, asserts that “[mature] democracies do not go to war with each other.” My approach to examining this proposition reveals much about the methodology I wish to follow.

Ask yourself relevant questions. In this case:

  • Should I compare the number of modern wars fought by two democracies using all available data?
  • Should I compare the number of modern wars between democratic states and those with others?
  • Do I conduct a qualitative analysis of the different ways that democracies at war with one another and non-democratic states at war with one another or a democracy had scope for mediation?
  • Do I list the number of wars fought between democracies and non-democracies? 

Understanding these questions and trying to resonate your interest in one of these questions will evoke our “heightened common sense.”

Methods and Research Methodology in IR

More importantly, it is also possible for us to consider a methodology based on how earlier studies with similar objectives conducted their research and our understanding of how I (as a researcher) may provide a more comprehensive assessment of the puzzle.

While methods and methodology have sometimes been viewed as interchangeable, I refer to the distinction posited by Moses and Knutsen in their Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research.

These scholars refer to methodology as dealing with larger questions of “how we know something”, while methods are the specific tools we use to know something.

Therefore, methods are the subset of the methodology. The IR scholarship has largely drawn its methodological rigour from other social science fields such as Political Science, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, Law, and Psychology, among others.

Rationalism versus Reflectivism

Given the wide array of theoretical debates, ranging from realism to critical scholarship, the methodological framework can be either rooted in empirical natural science tradition (realism and liberalism) or a more reflective interpretivist tradition (constructivism, feminism, and critical theory).

While the empirical approach posits an explanation of international outcomes as the core intellectual undertaking, the interpretivist approach tries to reflect on the “socially embedded meanings” surrounding an international event.

Positivists based on the empirical approach look for “objective laws” for international politics. In contrast, constructivist and critical scholarship based on the interpretivist approach look at the socially constructed meanings that make up identities, ideas, norms and cultures.

This methodological divide surrounding the epistemological categories of empiricism and interpretivism is very much prominent within IR scholarship.

How to Select Methods for IR Research?

Once you have established the methodological approach you seek to take, you identify the appropriate research methods. Methods are the tools with which to deal with a research puzzle.

Irrespective of the methodological approach, the approaches can be quantitative, qualitative, or mixed. For instance, rationalists and interpretivists (norm-based research) undertake qualitative and quantitative methods to solve their research puzzles.

Quantitative methods entail surveys, data collection, data analysis, etc. At the same time, qualitative methods include discourse analysis, content analysis, archival research, interviews (structured, semi-structured, and unstructured), etc.

These methods are the tools with which one deals with their research. Once you can identify the methodology you seek to undertake for your research, drawing down on methods is somewhat simplistic.

Concluding Remarks on Research Methodology

Even as I write this, I would like to caveat that I am no expert in methodology but a fellow traveller seeking to unravel the mystery of mastering methodology in one’s academic writing.

I hope this essay provides a preliminary understanding of what it means to be methodologically sound and employ appropriate methods in one’s research.

Tell me how you tackle the methodological question in your research in the comments below.

Cover Image: Unsplash/Daria Nepriakhina

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