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Political research methods: what does this mean?

Chapter 1


  Political research methods: what does this mean? 2


  The art of systematic analysis: the development of political science 3


  The language of political research methods 5


  The development of political research methodology: the relationship between political research and theory 6


  Conclusion: the necessity of a scientific approach towards political research 9


  Further reading 10


Political research methods: what does this mean?

In our day-to-day life of watching and reading about political events we are bombarded with a whole range of facts, figures and points of view, and it is usually the case that we will believe, or accept, some information whilst choosing to question other claims. The focus of this text is an analysis of this process of information retrieval and assessment in our role as political researchers - that is, empirical political research. We are not inactive recipients of political information: we make some sort of choice about what newspaper we read, whether to watch the news, which books we read and, indeed, which courses we might study as part of our degree. Obviously, we are not totally 'free' to make these decisions, and most decisions we make are usually subject to some constraints - for example, whether we can afford to buy a newspaper every day; also, during your degree some courses will be compulsory whilst some will be optional.

As members of a social and political system we rarely look at information without applying past experience and knowledge, hence we are always 'judging' what is presented to us. As students of politics you will (hopefully) spend a considerable amount of time reading books, journal articles and newspapers, and will make use of a variety of other source materials (such as surveys and reports) in order to prepare for essays and examinations. Your tutors would also hope that, as your studies progress, you become more aware of, and even critical of, particular debates and arguments. Our experiences in research face similar constraints: what materials are available in our library? is existing survey material easy to obtain? are we able to interview the relevant political actors? The aim of this text is to make 'better' political scientists of you by becoming aware of problems and hurdles which one faces when, first of all, you employ particular information to produce coursework, and second, when you go on to perform hands-on research, such as writing a dissertation.

What does the study of politics involve? Is it political ideas, institutions, attitudes and behaviour, policy making decisions and networks? It is, at different times, all these aspects, and those studying politics as an academic subject will undoubtedly become familiar with all of them at some time. What methods do we use? That will depend upon the subject matter. Indeed, political research is rarely 'ideal', particularly if it involves surveys and interviews, although this does not prevent political researchers from trying to obtain the highest quality of information possible (by adopting what we might call a 'scientific' approach). What this text will do is familiarise you with these different empirical methods (such as comparative analysis and case studies to name but some), suggest when it is appropriate to use particular methods and, most importantly, identify some of the advantages and disadvantages of using different methods. For as Halfpenny (1984, p. 2) suggests: 'Imaginative research is research done with a critical awareness of what alternative ways there are of doing it, of what the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative are, and of why you are doing it the way you are.'


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