Moving on in the research process, we talked to Nele Kortendiek from the Zeppelin University about research design and methods. In this interview, we gained insights into what to do and what not when developing your research design as well as in Dr Kortendiek’s current research on civil society contestation of international organisations (IOs).
YJEA: Your field of research lays mainly in international organisations and migration policy. Why are you particularly interested in these topics?
Kortendiek: To begin with, I was very much interested in the basic question of who has a right to make collectively binding decisions for the global public. I started from this normative question and then got more and more interested in the empirical dimension of it. International organisations are very important sites of decision-making beyond the state. That is why I am interested in these actors, in how they shape global politics, how they engage in policy- and decision-making at various levels, and in who is actually involved in these processes. I think it is very interesting to study empirically which networks or experts are the ones who are capable of shaping the decision-making processes in IOs. In my opinion, that is an interesting question both at the normative and the empirical level and that is why I still very much enjoy researching international organisations.
My research in migration politics also started with a normative interest in borders. How do national borders create dynamics of inclusion and exclusion? And how is it justified that certain people are excluded from democratic or welfare systems? The empirical side of that question is also very fascinating to me because over the past couple of years migration has become one of the most salient political issues of our time and we still grapple with how to deal with it politically. On many levels, it is a very exciting question because it is ultimately not only about migration itself. It is also about whom we grant the rights to participate and whom we exclude from our polities. It is very relevant, not only because migration movements increased in terms of numbers over the past couple of years, but also because it is a very fundamental question if you are interested in relations beyond the nation-state as it touches upon issues of sovereignty, justice, democracy and human rights. I think it is one of the transnational challenges that really lie at the heart of international relations because it deals with the question of how we organise the world.
You seem really passionate about researching these topics. Have you always been passionate about that and when did you decide to go into academia?
I was always interested in international politics. I decided probably very early on, actually when I was doing my undergraduate studies, that I very much would like to go into academia. I was preparing a presentation for a scholarship program in my first semester of BA studies and read a book about reconciliation politics. I had been doing a history project in high school with French resistance fighters – which is a very different topic from what I am doing now but it was a project close to my heart at the time – and when I was reading this book about reconciliation and remembrance politics, I was fascinated by how what I knew form my own experience in this high school project was put into a theoretical approach. And how this approach outlined what I knew implicitly so elegantly and how it discussed the political implications of it. It was the first time that I read a book like this and I was like: “Wow! There’s really a reason why we need social sciences and why social theory is important”. That was the moment when I realised that this is the side of political science or international relations that I find most fascinating, and that research is something that I would enjoy doing.
Would you like to tell us a bit more about your current research project?
Sure, it is a collaborative research project on international organisations. What we want to know is under which conditions protest by civil society organisations, and by affected groups in particular, gets heard in international organisations and actually affects policy change. It starts basically with the observation that in some policy fields you have groups of people who are supposed to be protected by international policies but who challenge them. We look at child labour, drug use and trafficking, female genital mutilation and human trafficking. I, for example, work on human trafficking. While it is clear that human trafficking is an atrocity, the international policy response is mainly based on prohibition. But those who actually experienced human trafficking claim that strict prohibition does not really protect them. It leads to criminalisation and oftentimes the victims themselves are criminalised. So, they claim that the international policy response is not really helping them, and we are interested in how international organisations which make or implement these policies, take up this critique. We think that the claims by those affected by international policies are particularly legitimate as the policy is ultimately affecting their lives. So, if anyone, their voices are the ones that should be heard by policymakers in IOs. Therefore, we study how international organisations respond to this protest and under which conditions they actually change their positions on these topics. As a first step, we investigate who in the organisations is specifically working on the four topics. We are not treating the organisations as collective actors, but we take a look at which department or network is working on the issue and whether they engage with the civil society groups or not and then, in a second step, we analyze why and under which conditions their protest enters these networks. This is the broad outline of the research project.
Have you already got some results for us?
Like everyone else, we have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we do interviews with people in the organisations that work on the four topics, UNICEF, ILO, WHO and UNODC, our plan was to travel to Geneva, New York, and Vienna to meet with these persons and to do expert interviews on-site. Of course, that is not possible at the moment, so we started to do telephone interviews. It is actually working quite well. However, we are still at the beginning of the data collection process, so it still will take us a bit of time until we can present more substantive results. But what we have done so far, is a social network analysis based on LinkedIn and similar data to map who works on the four issues. International organisations are such complex creatures and thus it is sometimes very hard to tell who is concerned with which topic from the outside. Now, we are in the process of speaking to the thus identified people in order to reconstruct the networks more thoroughly as well as the policymaking process in these networks.
Has it always been clear for your project to take on this research design or why did you pick this one?
As the project is funded by external research funding, we had to write out the research design in quite a lot of detail before we started the project which was a very helpful step. We put quite a lot of time into thinking about and writing the research design. I would say that we have a rather complex research design. It is a comparative case study design. We study four organisations that each work in two of the four different policy fields. For example, for human trafficking, it is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). These are thus two cases, so we have eight cases in total. We conduct the social network analysis for all policy fields to see which people are actually working on the four topics. As a second step, we do process tracing to reconstruct the decision-making processes within these networks. We combine process tracing and social network analysis and then, in a final step, we compare all cases to see whether there are similarities in terms of conditions that make it more likely that IOs or respectively the networks within the IOs respond to civil society contestation. It took us some time to design this research design because we want to get to the heart of these intricate decision-making processes. This cannot be done by using readily available data, so we have many different steps of data collection. We wanted to be able to make generalisable claims at the end of the project which is why we have eight cases. But at the same time, it relies on in-depth research, going into these organisations and reconstructing the networks. It is also the combination of in-depth and comparative research that made us decide to have this rather complex research design.
“The research design is there for you, not the other way around. It is there in order to help you to answer your research question and so it should suit your needs.”
Do you see that in your field of research qualitative research design is prevailing or is it rather even?
I think in international organisations’ research, it is very much evened out between quantitative and qualitative research and I deem that a good thing. The question of quantitative versus qualitative research can get very paradigmatic. This is not helpful in my opinion because it really depends on the research question that you are interested in and then the design should follow suit. It is not a fundamental decision but rather the research question that leads you to the research design and not the other way around. We have big datasets for example on the authority of international organisations which are extremely useful. And then you have very singular in-depth case studies which shed light on different aspects of international organisations and how they affect global politics. I would say it is a good thing that we have both types of research and that they are sort of evened out.
Do you only do qualitative research, or do you also switch between them depending on your research question?
I personally do mostly qualitative research because to me these are the more fascinating questions. I enjoy tracing networks and speaking to people, for example. It can sometimes be a very tedious research process, but I think it tells you a very interesting story about international organisations.
From one of your previous answers, one could draw that you recommend thinking about the research design at an early stage of the process. Is that general advice?
I would definitely say so. It is incredibly helpful for your research process to think about the research design very early on. The most important point is of course having your research question down and then the second step should be to write out the research design. However, it will definitely need adaptation throughout. Rarely the research process goes as you envisaged it at the very beginning – whether it is a BA thesis or a large collaborative research project. But nonetheless, I think it is very important to do this early on. When I supervise Bachelor or Master theses, I advise my students to sit down and begin by thinking about the research design. That is the part where I invest most of the time with my students because it helps tremendously. You, nevertheless, often need to be pragmatic. Sometimes data collection just does not work out in the way you envisaged it and then you have to adapt. But generally, it would be my advice to start early.
What do you deem the most common mistakes concerning research design?
I think the most fundamental mistake that you could make is that the research design does not match your research question. Really think about what it is that you want to know: What do you want to explain? Which kind of data do you need to do so? And which data is available or can be collected? Sometimes you can think about wonderful research projects that are just not feasible because you cannot access the data. That should factor into writing your research design. Probably another mistake that sometimes can be made particularly by students is to think too religiously about the research design. The research design is there for you, not the other way around. It is there in order to help you to answer your research question and so it should suit your needs.
Do you have an example of what this mistake could look like?
I often encounter this problem when supervising Bachelor’s or Master’s theses. Sometimes students are afraid that their research designs or their projects are not ‘scientific’ enough. Typically, they have very good ideas and relevant research questions, and they know for example that they want to do expert interviews. They already know which people the important experts are to talk to, but then they become worried that their sampling has not been rigorous enough, for instance. Then they come up with very complex ways to select the right people, but you can get lost in this. This is one example where I would say you are not there for the research design, but the research design is there for you. It is, of course, extremely important to be rigorous, but you do not need to make up abstract standards that do not actually fit your research question.
What are the criteria for a good research design then or are there even generalisable criteria?
As a very general rule, as I said before, it needs to fit your research question. If you have a research design geared towards a completely different unit of analysis, for instance, it is not useful for answering your research question. It could be a good design for an entirely different project. This is the most fundamental thing: What is the research question, and does it fit? After that, it really depends on the specific projects.
Does the ‘perfect’ research design exist?
My students ask me this question, as well, but there is just no universal answer to this – at least in my opinion. It is not very useful to be too religious or too paradigmatic about the right research design. I think it really depends on your research interests. There are different designs and different methods, and they all have their justification. I think it should suit your research interests and, again, I think sometimes you can think too much about the research process itself. Your research should be animated by an interesting puzzle or a new empirical phenomenon that needs explanation. Then think about how can we get there? How can we get the data and how can we resolve this puzzle? If you think too much about research steps in an abstract manner, it can lead you away from the phenomenon you actually want to explain. Instead, you should stick with your research question and then think about the tools you need in order to answer this question.
Do you have some general advice for students on this kind of issue?
Research can be very intimidating, and I think it comes with seniority that you trust yourself as a researcher a bit more. This would be my advice for students, as well: Trust what you are interested in and trust that you are capable of answering this question. Of course, students usually have limited possibilities in terms of time, funding, and access. I mean the most interesting questions are always the toughest to answer. Therefore, you need to boil them down to a certain extent. My advice is to just trust yourself as a researcher. Most students are very capable of answering important questions. You just need to boil it down and stick to the one aspect that you can answer with your resources. Most of the big research questions can be broken down. Focus on one aspect that gives you a piece of the big puzzle. Most social science research does that anyway. And then another piece of advice would be to stick with it and to continue. There may be other opportunities later on to continue this research, whether it is a bigger research project with your Bachelor thesis or whether you continue to stay in academia. Just don’t get discouraged!
When it comes to writing a university paper or a journal article, what needs to be mentioned in the methodology section to make it understandable what you are doing?
It is important to document your research steps and justify why you chose a particular methodological approach. This choice needs a good explanation. Then it is also important to elaborate on the particular steps that you have taken in order to make it understandable for the reader. I think this applies to all student papers and journal articles as a general rule. Another thing, that students might be still inclined to do is to recount a methods handbook in that section, which is not necessary. It is important to tell your reader why you have chosen a particular method and briefly explain what it is, but you do not need to recount a handbook.
“My advice is to just trust yourself as a researcher.”
Again, this has to do with trusting yourself because we are all inclined, especially at the beginning of our research careers, to stick to what other people have said and to quote the experts. But when it comes to the methods section, the reader wants to know what you did, not what somebody wrote on the standards of qualitative research, for instance. You should of course adhere to them, but you do not need to repeat abstract standards or ways to proceed in great detail.
When you as a lecturer receive and grade university papers, how important is the research design compared to theory, for example?
It is, of course, very important, but it is still a part of the entire story. It needs to fit with your theoretical approach and your research question. If the methods section in your paper is not written well, the empirical analysis will probably suffer, too. There will be follow-up mistakes. I think it is very important, but I could not quantify or put a number on it. However, if it is missing or if I cannot understand what you did in terms of your empirical analysis, it is very hard to understand the rest of your paper and then your overall grade will suffer. Hence, it is important invest in that section. Do not only think it through before you start the research process but also invest in writing that part because it will enhance the overall quality of your paper tremendously.
Do you have some reading advice for research design in international relations?
“Writing a research paper in political science” by Lisa A. Baglione is a very useful book that deals with the whole research and writing process in general. Then it depends again on which kind of approach you choose. A good book for more positivist research designs is “Research design and method selection” by Diana Panke. Another one that I like very much is “Interpretive research design” by Schwarz-Shea and Yanow about interpretive research designs. I think these books are very helpful for understanding what a good research design looks like and which steps you need to think about. These books are very helpful to read before you start writing a research paper in order to think about the necessary steps and afterwards you can design your own research project. What is always a bit tricky about these books is that they are written for a general audience. So they need to be adapted. It is not like a cookbook where you can just follow the steps, but you always need to adapt them for your own purposes, for your own research questions. I can only encourage you to dare to change them according to your own needs.
As a wrap-up, could you name one aspect that you as a student would have liked to know at the beginning of your studies?
One point is to trust your instincts and your interests. Young students can get discouraged by all the knowledge and books that are already out there. But I think it is really important to trust what you are interested in and to follow that path. Do not get discouraged by everything that has been written before you but use this in order to follow your own research interests. I think that is something that would have helped me as a student.