“We are all just a footnote to Plato”

As our series on how to improve your research continues, we went on to talk to Prof Dr Christian Kreuder-Sonnen about his professional tips and tricks to find the right literature, sort out what already exists in the field and how to embed your own research in it.


YJEA: Most of your research centers around the field of global governance with a focus on the issues of democratic legitimacy and constitutionalism. Why are you particularly interested in these topics?

Kreuder-Sonnen: These topics are so foundational and involve such fundamental questions on everything political. It’s a question of how to organize society, how to create a legitimate system of self-government. I think that these are all debates that on the state-level have been carried out for millennia but at the international level are up for grabs! It’s a big question of the direction in which things develop and global governance nowadays is obviously different from domestic government, but some of the same questions apply. So, here’s a big gap that needs to be filled and where debates are very interesting.


How long have you known that you wanted to pursue an academic career and go into research? What made you decide to do so?

Well, I’m not sure when I knew but I started to be fascinated with the academic work and the prospect of an academic career when I was a student assistant at LMU Munich. My master thesis went well and got me hooked because then I felt like this was the first in-depth research project that I undertook and it worked well, it was fun. Then one step led to the next and here I am.


“What we want to do is accumulate knowledge and not duplicate it”


Your last research paper discussed the question of whether fragmentation and norm collisions between different institutions necessarily lead to conflict and disorder. What is so interesting about this topic?

The question is so interesting because it addresses some important debates in the literature on fragmentation and regime complexity that regard the future of global order. Several contributions from both international relations and international law have a rather skeptical outlook and assume that the increasing institutional density at the international level will have detrimental effects on the global order. The fear is that states will exploit institutional overlaps to eschew international obligations and thus return to more “Hobbesian” forms of international politics. This outcome is not necessary, though. To fully grasp the consequences of institutional complexity, we need to know if and when conflict between norms and institutions arises and how conflicts are handled. Our research shows that outright conflict is actually quite rare and that those conflicts that do arise are most often managed in cooperative ways. Hence, global order might not yet be doomed.


In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, you have frequently commented on issues such as the WHO’s management of the virus and emergency powers of international organizations more generally. Do you believe that IR research has the potential to inform policy choices adopted by political actors regarding the pandemic?

The potential – yes. With regard to the example of the WHO, where IR can probably help most with is the question of how to design more effective global governance institutions. Studying crisis management attempts by international institutions over time and from a comparative perspective will be especially beneficial. What has worked, what hasn’t and how may institutional structures help or undermine the effectiveness of IOs’ crisis responses. This is extremely relevant for policymaking. The question is whether suggestions are being taken on board by the decision-makers. Here, we are a long way from attaining the status that academics from virology or epidemiology currently enjoy in political circles. I think there’s some potential and it’s worth it for us, IR scholars, to fight for recognition by policymakers.


How much time have you invested in finding and reading the relevant literature for your last research paper?

For the last one, I can actually pinpoint it quite exactly: somewhere around four weeks. Normally, with many other projects ongoing, you have a basis of stuff that you’ve read and that you’re familiar with already. Then you just add on to that by reading more if you want to address a specific question. This was the first time in a while that I addressed a topic, I wasn’t familiar with. It was a paper about the International Organization for Migration. There, the literature is limited because this organization is not very famous and not much researched by IR scholars. However, that is the exception. The body of knowledge that has accumulated over time is the essential building block in most other cases. Usually, at least 50% of the literature I cite in a research paper I will have read long before I’ve started working on that paper. In that sense, it is very dissimilar to the typical student experience of writing a paper.


Do you usually undertake your literature research before getting started with the actual writing or is it rather a process that can run through an entire project?

I think this is a question of style. I know colleagues who do it this way and others who do it another way. Me personally, I will try to finish most readings before but then add further readings as I go. Very important to mention are also the stages that a paper goes through over time. Do we talk about the first draft of the paper? I will have a solid basis in the literature by then. But there will probably be two, three, four, five further iterations of that paper over time during which I receive feedback and read more and add that to the paper. So, in the end, it is a little bit of both.


Are there specific search engines or databases that you turn to first when starting your literature research? If so, which?

When trying to go about this systematically, I use the Worldwide Political Science Abstracts and the Web of Science databases mostly. But to be very honest, more recently, I’ve also just used Google Scholar. It’s obviously a little less targeted but extremely extensive. It yields an incredible amount of literature, also grey literature that you normally would not find in those databases that index officially published material only.


Most academic articles consist of a so-called literature review. What is the point of reviewing the existing literature on a topic?

It’s really one of the most fundamental aspects of academic work in general because what we want to do is accumulate knowledge and not duplicate it. Therefore, the first important function of the literature review is to allow you to find a gap in the literature. You could even say: Without a gap, there’s no point. Also, I believe it’s absolutely necessary to make readers understand how your work fits into the existing research landscape because this allows them to make systematic connections and to understand where the argument fits in. The same holds for theory, too. In political science, a lot is about generalisation and generalisability. Without reviewing existing theories and embedding your arguments in them, that is simply not possible.


What distinguishes a good literature review from a bad one?

I think there are two or three do’s and don’ts for literature reviews. One important point is to find a good balance between comprehensiveness and being on target. You don’t want to tell the reader everything you know about a topic. You want to bring to the table what is really important for the research object or the question that you will address in your work. It’s about making judgment calls on what is really important and whatnot. Furthermore, it’s pretty important to provide a clear depiction of the most important strands in the literature and their interconnections. How do the different strands speak to each other? Do they provide a comprehensive picture? Are they contradictory? Is there a debate going on?  “Be precise but be bold” is probably the way forward because that makes it readable. You don’t want to generalize everything, but you still want to make clear that there’s a group of scholars that says A and another group of scholars that says B. You have to push them into their camps without violating their work.


Literature reviews are often structured around a few subtopics or patterns within the literature. What is your approach to identifying these patterns?

That’s really tricky to say at an abstract level, it probably depends on the research topic that you have at hand. You have to always look at debates. I think that is the alpha and omega of literature reviews to be able to find contributions that stand apart because they take different approaches to a certain phenomenon. The construction of debates is a legitimate way of clustering literature in a review.


Would you say that the literature review consists of all the alternative explanations whereas the theory part represents your specific approach?

You will definitely find those papers that structure their literature review around different explanatory approaches. You could then formulate a puzzle out of these approaches. They both can’t explain the outcome and so we need a different theory that starts from scratch. That’s a way that is very common in the literature but it’s not the only way to structure literature reviews. In my book, for example, I do it differently. There are also alternative explanations, but I portray the existing literature in a way that I can synthesize some of the existing theoretical approaches and use aspects from them to build my own theory. I don’t only include articles in the literature review that I dismiss but also those that are helpful.



With the abundance of possible sources, how do you know that you have included all the relevant literature on a topic?

I don’t know whether I’ve included all the relevant literature, but I would hope that my literature search skills and my knowledge of the field give me enough of an impression to make me somewhat confident. The more important part, though, is that we do have mechanisms in the discipline to prevent the publication of pieces that miss essential literature. The process is long, you have many iterations. We show our work to colleagues, we go to conferences where we get feedback, and we have the peer-review process in journals. This means you should present your work to many, many people, basically as many as you can. They will tell you what they think is missing from the literature and so in the end you can be pretty confident that you didn’t miss anything essential.


Do you have practical advice for students on how they could get this done because usually, students do neither have the same sources nor resources for getting feedback?

I think this connects to the question of how to best conduct a literature search. The better your search skills and the more systematic you go about it, the more confidence you can have that you didn’t miss anything important. One search strategy that I think is smart is to start your literature review by finding the most recent articles and books that have been written on your topic as they often contain literature reviews. So if you have a piece that is from this or last year and it provides a decent literature review, then it is likely – if it was published in a good journal or outlet – that it will already tell you what the most important pieces are and you can take it from there. Then I would add a systematic search on those databases mentioned before. This obviously depends on the topic. If there is an abundance of literature, you will have to dismiss lots of it. In that case, I would go by the quality of journals in which they appeared, the number of citations they have acquired over time, sometimes the author is important in the field. If an article doesn’t check one of these boxes, you can throw it out. However, if there are just a few texts that you find through systematic search, then you just give them a read and see how you can use them. If you match these two, you can be pretty confident that there’s not anything major that you’ve missed.


One popular literature search method is the so-called “snowball method” which involves studying the bibliography of a key text to find other relevant titles and, once identified, doing the same with these new texts. Do you use this method yourself? What are the benefits and potential pitfalls?

I don’t really use that method. I might have when I was a student though. I think it is obviously useful because it increases the amount of relevant literature you find exponentially. It is important though that you start with the right text. If you start with the wrong one, it gets you in the wrong direction. Also, even if it is a key text, but it’s ten years old, it is obviously only giving you references that are older than the text itself. So, it is going down in history and you will not find anything that has appeared in the past ten years.


With all the literature that is already available on such a vast variety of topics, do you at times find it hard to find an original issue that still needs to be addressed?

Not at all. I think that’s one of the cool things about studying political science: New things happen every day. Just look outside and you see the research topics falling from the sky. Okay, maybe you have to cross a certain threshold. For some time, you might increasingly feel like everything has been said the more you read, but there comes a point when you get beyond that. Then you will understand how things relate to each other, get an understanding of the field and the empirical side of things. Then you will start connecting the dots and finding the gaps. The questions will start popping up everywhere!


Oftentimes a paper’s conclusion offers further research implications. Do you sometimes get your ideas from there?

In general, I think this is a very smart strategy to identify research questions, especially for students. For researchers, it’s a bit more complicated. On the one hand, you would probably not build an entire research project on the concluding recommendation by another scholar. If you have an overview of the field, you are more likely to connect several dots and take such hints at “future research should…” as one source of inspiration among many. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that quite often concluding avenues for further research are advertisements or justifications for the authors’ own work that is already in the pipeline.


Has it ever happened to you that you have started on a project and only realised late in the process that your research question has already been answered elsewhere? Or, in other words, have you identified a potential literature gap to later find out that it was no gap at all? If so, what have you done to refocus your previous work on the issue?

No, not really. I have been surprised every now and then by work appearing that I didn’t see coming. However, there’s never been a moment of “Oh my God, my research question has already been answered!” Because research questions are so sensible to wordings and concepts, there are just extremely few cases where it’s exactly your research question that is being addressed. And even if it is the exact same research question, the likelihood that someone else also applies the exact same methodology is extremely limited. So, what happens more often is that you may be surprised but then realise that there’s just someone else in your area who you can talk to. That, in turn, adds to your literature review and gives more credence to your work as there are others also working on it. This is one of the fun parts about being a researcher too: You read people and then at some point you start meeting them at conferences or drop them an e-mail because your topics are closely related. Then you start interacting, sometimes even cooperating and the next thing you write is together.


“Newton’s right. We’re all just a footnote to Plato! Yes, the literature review is important for scientific progress.”


Isaac Newton once remarked in a letter that if he has seen further “it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Would you in the same spirit agree that the literature review is crucial to fulfilling the goal of scientific progress? Is there any form of research in which the literature review can be neglected?

Newton’s right. We’re all just a footnote to Plato! Yes, the literature review is important for scientific progress. As mentioned earlier, the accumulation of knowledge and generalisability are absolutely crucial. Honestly, I have to think very hard about any scenario in which a literature review could be neglected. I’m not saying that every book or every paper needs to have a giant literature review. But the basic idea of highlighting what is there in order to make sure to not take anyone’s credits away and building on those already existing arguments is essential.


So, you would say that it is impossible to do something that is completely new?

Yes. I would say that it is even theoretically impossible to do something completely new. At least, it would go beyond my brain capacity to imagine such a scenario. For even if something entirely different emerges, it would still require a literature review to explain in what ways it differs from all previous work.


Which publication would you recommend to students of political science to improve their own research?

I have two, if I may, which are from my field of international organisations. The first is Barnett and Finnemore’s’ Rules for the World. International Organizations in Global Politics. It’s the foundational reading for all constructivist theorising about IO’s. It’s amazing because it does a wonderful job with the literature review, situating itself in the debate and thus explaining what its great contribution is. Also, in terms of qualitative methods, it’s excellent. Furthermore, I would add Tana Johnson’s Organizational Progeny: Why Governments are Losing Control over the Proliferating Structures of Global Governance. This one is just methodologically flawless, so that’s really great to find out how to structure social inquiry.


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

I guess I would’ve liked to know how much time it takes and how intense it can be to read, to really read an academic text, in particular in the early years of my studies. It’s just so different: In high school (at least in Germany) you read some German literature and apart from that just textbooks. At university, they suddenly put some Waltz in front of you and you’re like “What?” That’s hard to digest as a student and I acknowledge that today as a professor. Entering a political science programme, you need to relearn to read.