A little while ago, we spoke to Dr Nele Kortendiek about her work, how she approaches research designs and what students should be aware of when carving out a research idea. This interview with Prof Lisbeth Zimmermann from Zeppelin University is the second part of our series on research design and will provide you will valuable insights for your next paper.
YJEA: You mainly do research in the field of multilateral cooperation and international norms and institutions. Why are you particularly interested in these topics?
Zimmermann: They are the backbone of our international order. While many groups in the international context contest parts of them and try to change them, they are still fundamentally shaping the rules and procedures of interaction in the international system. I always found it fascinating how new norms and institutions develop and become part of this “order”, how international organisations interpret and disseminate them and how disputes arise over their substance and their implementation.
Did you always want to go into research (since the beginning of your studies)? And what made you decide to do so?
Academia was something I thought about early on – next to a dream, probably widespread amongst IR students, to travel around the world, doing some kind of highly important work for international organisations. My studies made me more reflective of how IOs or diplomacy work and made me more eager to spend time analysing and thinking about international politics.
“Don’t do it if you don’t love research; but also, be sure if this working environment and the type of tasks related to it actually suit you.”
During my studies, I also realised that I have the ability to spend time on long-term individual (often solitary) projects like research papers and final theses while staying focused and more or less sane. I can tell you that this is a significant plus to survive writing a doctoral dissertation – a phase with a lot of ups and downs as well as crisis moments. Last but not least, along the way, particularly when writing my dissertation, I asked for feedback and tried out many tasks related to a job in this field. Imagine working at a university for many years and not enjoying teaching! Academia is sadly a high-risk job market. Don’t do it if you don’t love research; but also, be sure if this working environment and the type of tasks related to it actually suit you.
You are working on the DFG-funded project “Open or closed international organisations? Reactions to civil society contestation” together with Nele Kortendiek from our last interview. We heard that Ms Kortendiek focuses on human trafficking within the project. Which issue are you concerned with?
I am working on the overall project coordination, but also do the case studies on female genital mutilation/cutting. I was surprised by how fascinating this topic is. It is such a perfect example to discuss all kinds of IR theoretical approaches with regard to norms: studies on transnational advocacy and global discourses, on IO policymaking as well as postcolonial and feminist critique are all of major importance. It has definitely not received enough attention in IR research – perhaps people think it is too controversial?
What is the importance of theory when selecting a research design? Are some approaches incompatible with quantitative research? And did it have an impact on your project?
A student of mine just did a quantitative survey experiment to answer a deeply constructivist question on how different photographic depictions of refugees shape our opinions about integration.
There are, of course, many ways to possibly approach one research question methodologically. For a student, it is often hard to tell which fits best. Do you have a general advice on how to sort out the right one when there are different possibilities on the table?
No, I am sorry. Sometimes your decision will be based on curiosity: As a student and even now as a professor I sometimes want to try something new: for example, in our current project, network analysis. Of course, think about feasibility and your resources: If you have only one month left to do your project, don’t come up with a large number of interviews, or 1000 newspaper articles that you want to code manually. But generally: Remain curious and sometimes think out of the box!
Resources – both time and money – play a role when choosing a research design and often limit especially students in how to conduct their research. Is it possible, also as a student, to achieve a methodologically satisfactory outcome and if yes, how?
Many universities have special funding for student research projects nowadays; sometimes there are also local foundations or sponsors. I know of students who travelled to climate change negotiations, interviewed local villagers in Nepal or did big surveys. Ask for advice from supervisors, fellow students or in class!
Imagine I am a student interested in addressing any given research question. I know that enough data is available and I have access to experts for interviews. What are the steps I need to take to craft a research design that will make the paper publishable?
Well, research designs come in myriad ways: Make sure that it fits your research question! If you are interested in publishing, make sure to think about where your research interests (and sometimes also methodological approaches) fit. If you find a suitable journal (once you’ve done your research), study articles that were published there: How are they structured, what kind of information and detail do they give on theory, design, methodology and empirics? Also, take time to think about your added value: Do you have some new findings which put into question established assumptions? Do you cover a new field, perhaps with new methods? What makes your paper interesting and important?
How do you balance external and internal validity, given that external validity (i.e. generalisability) of your work is such a core criterion for many journals, conferences, etc.?
This very much depends on your research question and, linked to that, on what kind of approaches (theoretically and methodologically) you prefer. If you were an Anthropologist, you’d probably be highly sceptical of external validity as a core criterion. There are also plenty of journals out there interested in post-structuralist research, weighing external and internal validity perhaps differently than American Political Science Review (APSR), for example. Take my example of female genital mutilation/cutting: You might be interested in the question if the global prohibition of the practice actually has effects. You can study 1) how the existence of the prohibition has changed percentages of cut children/women, i.e. in different countries, aiming for generalisability. You can also 2) go to communities and talk in-depth to different community members about how they understand/make sense/use this practice and how this has changed (aiming rather for internal validity). You need both to understand what’s going on, in my view. Neither is better or worse.
Many papers employing a case study design do not really follow a clear and systematic method. Given the sophistication of e.g. the process tracing literature nowadays, what are the main criteria that make a case study a good case study (no matter which design, within-case, cross-case, etc.)?
I don’t think that case studies are any messier than process-tracing, or than many other methods/designs you might use. My main advice is: Try to look at established textbooks/guides before you design your study and think about pros and cons. Later on, lay these open to the reader. Also: Be aware that your research process never goes the way you had envisioned it when you designed your first research design. Many factors might influence your decisions that do not fit the criteria in the textbooks. Sometimes you do not speak the language of the countries which would perfectly suit your design, sometimes a pandemic comes along, sometimes you have to change some major variables of your research along the way. That is completely normal and happens to all of us – don’t hide it.
There are data sets like the Eurobarometer survey or democracy indices that are commonly used and analysed in similar ways. Do you deem it problematic to rely on the same data and research method as scholars before? Or is it even an advantage?
I guess the important advice on all kinds of big data sets is: Do not take such data as heavenly-sent and in all ways perfect! Always try to think about the following questions: What might be biases of operationalisations, data collection, etc.? Is there more adequate data around? In many cases, big data sets in IR are scarce (although we see a huge endeavour to build these up in many fields nowadays) or come with certain problems.
Sometimes it might be interesting to study a specific question with different data or methods to see if the findings still hold. Yet, as in many other research fields, we have to improve replicability (with regard to quantitative and qualitative research designs). So, sometimes it might be helpful to actually repeat studies.
“Use the opportunities to explore new fields of knowledge, to be curious and open-minded, also across disciplines!”
Do you have a piece of reading advice concerning research design in political science or international relations?
Well, based on some of the scepticism of more qualitative and less comparative research in the interview questions, perhaps not a book on design, but on qualitative methods in IR: Qualitative Methods in International Relations. A Pluralist Guide by Audie Klotz and Deepa Prakash.
Could you give us a general piece of advice that you, as a student, would have liked to know?
Your student days will soon be over! Afterwards, everything will be more specialised, more formalised, more target-driven. Use the opportunities to explore new fields of knowledge, to be curious and open-minded, also across disciplines!