Theories structure our thinking

With this article, we follow up on the previous IR in Science contribution with Dr Monique Taylor regarding theory. This time we asked Prof Dr Elvira Rosert how to work with theories once you already found a suitable theoretical framework and discussed other aspects regarding theories that interested us.


YJEA: You mainly do research in the field of international norms and international humanitarian law. Why are you particularly interested in these topics?

Rosert: My overarching research interest lies in the question of how social progress is possible. How can the world become more peaceful, how can we reduce violence, poverty, and inequality, and increase human security, how can more people fully enjoy human rights and live without fear and want? I view norms – not only at the international but also at the societal level – as one pathway towards these goals. That’s why I am studying how and why states and other actors agree on norms, how norms work and what makes them strong (or weak).

What I find particularly puzzling about international humanitarian law (IHL), which is the law that applies in situations of armed conflict, is that even in emergency situations like wars, many rules apply and are complied with. Considering the preventive and protective functions of IHL, I want to understand how IHL is created and how it can be promoted so it can contribute to saving lives and ensuring humane treatment of the victims of war.


Did you always want to go into research (since the beginning of your studies)? And what made you decide to do so?

When I started studying, a research career was not on my horizon – looking for a down-to-earth profession with a clear perspective, I decided to become a maths teacher. Soon into my studies, however, I became attracted to Political Science and discovered the many opportunities that this subject offers, of which a career in the public sector seemed most appealing to me. Then my master thesis went quite well, and I was actually enjoying the whole process, so my supervisors encouraged me to pursue a PhD, which I eventually did, following a year of internships and short-term positions. I will not conceal that in particular the first years of the PhD turned out to be not so enjoyable, but once my research project took shape, an academic career became more attractive again. I gave myself a year after the PhD defence to find a position in academia that would grant me a lot of independence and freedom to pursue my ideas, and luckily, was appointed Junior Professor before my personal deadline expired.


Your last research paper was about humanitarian disarmament campaign strategies with special attention to the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”. What is so interesting about this topic?

At a general level, I think it is necessary to study under what conditions prohibitions on the use of particularly inhumane weapons succeed because these agreements save lives. Despite the resistance against new norms of humanitarian disarmament, which is always there, the treaties turn out to be very effective: The Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, for example, has halted the use of these weapons almost completely, even by non-parties. Also, more than 30 countries have cleared their territories from mines since the treaty entered into force which means that they eliminated the danger for civilians to be injured or killed by a landmine.

My specific interest in the process aiming at regulation of autonomous weapons is both political and academic: We are dealing with a military technology that will be able to make life and death decisions without the involvement of humans, which is highly problematic ethically and legally. But, in contrast to other cases that I have studied, this is not historical, but an ongoing process on which an impact is possible. That’s why I am trying to develop policy recommendations on how regulation might look like and what strategies might help achieving it. At the same time, I find the norm-setting process an intriguing research case: Why have these weapons become an international issue, preventively, but not, say, depleted uranium which has already inflicted a lot of damage? Why does the framing of autonomous weapons follow certain established patterns, even though the technology itself is completely different? Why are countries that have championed previous bans remaining relatively silent on this issue?


You seem very passionate about making a positive impact with your research. So, do you think scientific research should always aim for societal progress?

Yes – but this includes at least two understandings of progress: improving the wellbeing of people is one understanding, satisfying our curiosity the other. Changing the world for the better is also just one of my personal motives for doing research, but I also simply enjoy thinking through things, making convincing arguments as well as structuring and amending existing knowledge. And of course, I also enjoy teaching and knowledge transfer to the broader public. Recently, in a podcast, I regularly listen to the question was raised why states reacted so fast to the corona pandemic but fail to act on climate change. I thought I can contribute some explanations, so I first wrote a tweet and then a longer article. Both were widely shared on social media (at least to my standards) and this was very rewarding: Obviously, my text neither stopped the pandemic nor the climate crisis, but apparently, it helped some people to understand better what is happening. This, in my view, is impact, too.


“There is rarely THE one right theory to address a research question – usually, we have to pragmatically synthesise different theoretical perspectives to develop our own approach to a particular research problem.”


Which theoretical approaches do you draw upon for your research projects?

My research is broadly situated in the constructivist paradigm which first and foremost means that I share the view that our world is socially constructed, and that social facts and ideas matter as much as material facts. But under this big constructivist umbrella, my work is best described by the term analytic eclecticism. This means that my projects are problem-driven and that I address those problems from different theoretical and disciplinary angles. I am, for example, interested in attention dynamics, studying which requires psychology but also media and communication science. I am also interested in implicit meanings conveyed in discourses, studying which requires poststructuralist approaches and linguistics. And I am interested in strategic decisions made by transnational actors, studying which requires certain rationalist and economic assumptions.


What was the first step you took in working with the theory after you had found the right one for your research question?

There is rarely THE one right theory to address a research question – usually, we have to pragmatically synthesise different theoretical perspectives to develop our own approach to a particular research problem. The first step in exploring a theoretical field will be to identify, thoroughly read and organize the relevant literature. By organising, I mean trying to understand how the different texts are positioned in relation to each other: What different research questions do we find in this field? What different answers are provided, and why are the answers different – in short, what are the (unresolved) debates of this field? What methods and research designs characterize it? How do the texts build on each other, contradict each other and advance each other? What are the remaining gaps?


If there isn’t THE one right theory, does it not sometimes feel tedious to always have to come up with something new? Or rather provocative: What is the use of setting up theories then at all?

Yes, research sometimes feels tedious and yes, thinking is tiring. But most of the time, I succeed at viewing the necessity to come up with something new as liberating. Isn’t it great not to be restricted by what is out there already but to have the chance to develop your own perspectives?

The question of what is the general use of theories has filled books, but my brief answer would be: It’s the level of abstraction provided by theories that enables us to discuss with each other, even though our empirical research fields may be completely different. Also, what I value about theories is that they structure our thinking, they give us ideas what to pay attention to, and they force us to think rigorously.


What advice would you give to students on how to work with the theoretical framework during the research process? Is it ok to adapt the theoretical part during the process?

It is absolutely ok – and in most cases even necessary – to adapt; research needs the freedom and the flexibility to evolve. After all, we don’t want to prove our pet theories, but to discover what comes closest to the truth, right? The purpose of the theoretical part is to help you to find out what you want to find out so if at some points you figure out that the theoretical lens that you chose is too rough or too wide, you will need to switch to another one or look for additional lenses. Most research projects include several loops between theory, methods, and data, meaning that it’s an iterative and ongoing process in which the fit of the different parts of your overall argument is (ideally) constantly increased. In my experience, the phrase “Nothing is finished until everything is finished” very much applies to the practice of research.



What is the most important element the theoretical part of a research paper needs in order to be convincing?

Clarity and precision – not only because it will provide a focus for your empirical research, but also because it is a prerequisite of a scientific debate. Our arguments need to be clear and our language straight and concise to make it easy for other scholars to understand what we mean, to decide whether it’s convincing and to come up with possible counterarguments.


Why is it so important to not just justify your theory but also examine alternative explanations?

This question is linked to the previous one as it also touches upon the persuasiveness of your argument. Taking alternative explanations seriously connects your research to the large body of research that is already there and demonstrates your familiarity with it and your aim to add to existing knowledge. The added value of your work increases if you can show that the explanation you suggest outperforms other explanations, that it is more convincing than they are.

Yet, considering alternative explanations has a practical purpose too: If we are interested in causes of certain phenomena, it’s probably because we want to know what factors policy needs to address, establish or remove in order to influence outcomes. As an example, imagine that during the negotiations of a new treaty, policymakers face resistance to including sanctioning mechanisms in this treaty. They will want to know whether it’s necessary to have such mechanisms to increase compliance or whether they can give in on this point and redirect their diplomatic resources toward other issues because what actually explains compliance is not sanctioning mechanisms anyway but domestic pressure on the government (that might be an alternative explanation in your research design).


How do you search for alternative theories and when do you have included all relevant ones?

As I said earlier, broadly researching, thoroughly reading, and systematically organizing the literature in the respective field is indispensable. During this process, you will automatically discover what the competing theories and contradicting arguments that other scholars engage with are.


Is there a point at which you know that you have included all relevant approaches? Or could you only really know it if you have read every single paper about the topic?

We will always miss some relevant texts, that’s unavoidable and you can only minimize the risk with systematic research. Yet, there is something that is called a level of saturation – but after some time, you will recognize the arguments made and the sources cited and realize that the amount of relevant new information that each text provides decreases. Luckily, most of us work under time constraints so, despite the feeling that we haven’t processed all the relevant literature, we will have to move to the next step at some point. Also, presenting your research to others is very helpful in that regard because the question “But isn’t it rather theory Y than your theory X” will usually be part of the feedback.


“After all, we don’t want to prove our pet theories, but to discover what comes closest to the truth, right?”


Who are these others you should be presenting your ideas to? Are the most experienced academics the best option to ask such questions or is it more useful to get an outside perspective (maybe from somebody who is not so experienced in your field of research) if you are already stuck in the literature?

Different people may help you with different aspects. Sometimes, to clarify your research question and your argument, it turns out to be really helpful to explain to someone without knowledge of your subject, e.g. a friend or a relative, what you want to do. It forces you to simplify, to think clearly and to omit any jargon. Also, in my experience, other students are usually very good at recognizing what is still unclear about my projects: Often, I find their seemingly naïve questions, sometimes just asking for more information, to be spot on and helpful. More experienced academics who have a good overview over the particular field of research may hint you at some interesting authors, but, more importantly, they may have strategic suggestions on how to frame your argument and how to situate it within current research. Also, they should be able to provide pragmatic and uplifting advice like to trust in the process and, ideally, what to leave out and what to focus on.

When I was in the final stage of my dissertation, I realized that I neither have the time nor the space to complete and write up one more case study. I will always be grateful to my more experienced colleague and friend who then told me: After you have handed in the dissertation, you will still be a researcher. So even if this case study is not in the PhD thesis, you can still work on it later. So I submitted the thesis without this chapter, but finished the case study afterwards and used it for an article.


Articles are often referred to as being “theory-testing” or “theory-building”. What does that mean and why is each approach important?

First, let me emphasize that this is rather a question of degree than a question of kind. Every research project will necessarily evolve both elements, but they will be granted different importance, depending on what is taken as the starting point and the research aim of the project. Generally, I’d say that it depends on the state of the art whether a theory-testing or a theory-building approach is applied. If there already is a theory that claims to provide answers to your research question, but you have doubts that it is still valid or applicable in certain cases, you would pursue a theory-testing design. Also, if there are several competing theories and we want to assess their explanatory power, a theory test is in order.

If, however, you have discovered a theoretical gap, i.e. a phenomenon or an aspect of a phenomenon that has not been reflected theoretically yet, your aim might be to generate a theory. Let me emphasize that a theory-building design is not necessarily an inductive design where you formulate theoretical conclusions from empirical observations. It might also be a deductive design where you, for example, reassemble existing theoretical elements or draw on other disciplines to formulate theoretical propositions, which are then validated through empirical observations. Obviously, to ensure that our knowledge is advancing, both approaches are needed: We have to make sure that the established theories are valid through theory-testing and we have to make sure that new approaches improve our understanding of the world through theory-building.


Do you support the notion that every theory is valuable depending on its scope conditions or would you say that some theories just explain more than others and are thus more valuable?

That’s a difficult question, as both statements are true to a certain extent. I am leaning towards the first position because the social world is complex, and most cases have unique configurations of characteristics that will influence certain outcomes – we cannot, hence, expect that one theory, however fine-grained, will be able to explain every instance perfectly and have to be really careful in specifying the scope conditions of our theories. This might mean that a theory is rather narrow and applicable to only few cases, but it does not render it meaningless, since understanding those few cases still might be a worthwhile endeavor. At the same time, if we view theories as heuristic instruments helping us to make sense of the world, parsimonious theories describing general patterns that we can expect to be true in many cases are also indispensable.


Do you have a reading advice concerning theories in politics or international relations more specifically?

Since I have mentioned analytic eclecticism above, I’d recommend having a look at the book by Rudra Sil and Peter Katzenstein “Beyond Paradigms: Analytical Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics” (2010, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) that introduces this approach and discusses several studies where it has been applied. Regarding the interplay of neat – middle-range – theoretical arguments and rich empirical case studies, I’d recommend three books: Caroline Fehl’s “Living with a Reluctant Hegemon: Explaining European Responses to US Unilateralism” (2012, Oxford: Oxford University Press), Charli Carpenter’s “Lost” Causes. Agenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security” (2014, Cornell: Cornell University Press), and Andreas von Staden’s “Strategies of Compliance with the European Court of Human Rights. Rational Choice Within Normative Constraints” (2018, Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press).


Please name an aspect that you, as a student, would have liked to know.

I hope it is alright to name two. First, when you consider an academic career, it’s really helpful to have a broad training in research methods, social theories and different sub-disciplines of Political Science instead of specializing too early. It’s not exactly that I was particularly aware of this necessity when I was studying, but luckily, back then, it was quite common to take a broad perspective, looking left and right. Second, once you have discovered science and research, the feeling that there is still so much to read, to learn, to find out, and to write, will never cease again – and that’s a good thing.