What is International Comparative Social Research ?

International comparative studies are simultaneously “exciting but difficult” and “creative but problematic” (Livingstone, 2003).

Challenges of International Comparative Research 

Although international comparative research does not differ in its logic and methods of analysis from research undertaken within a country, and making comparisons among units is a crucial aspect of any scientific analysis, international comparative research designs are more complex, and they pose some especially complicated problems. In addition, the principles applied in any good research design – which assure validity, reliability, and plausibility, and its equivalences for qualitative research (e.g., neutrality, intersubjective comprehensibility, and procedural and intercoder reliability) – are more difficult to achieve in international comparative research. This type of research is more complicated because you typically must gather and compare data from different (national) contexts, in different languages, and often with a multicultural research team from multidisciplinary backgrounds. And you need to insure that your data and findings convey the specifics of all “units” that you compare, but are also comparable.

A Complex Research Design and Additional Layer of Methodological Considerations

In a comparative project, challenges arise at each stage of the empirical research process relating to different matters of adequacy and equivalence (figure 1). For example, you need to consider the conceptual equivalence as well as operational and interpretive equivalence of the research design, and you can address them by reflecting – in the planning process of a project – on questions such as, “Why do I want to compare?”; “What do I want to compare?”; “How do I plan to compare?”; and “How can I make sure my findings are comparable?”

Consequently, methodologically precise and robust international comparative research, which produces reliable results, needs more careful planning than non-comparative research and adds an additional “layer” of methodological reflection dedicated to the comparative intellectual operation in each step of the empirical research process.

In addition to specific methodological complications, the social complexity of research teams and collaborative research poses additional multifaceted challenges and calls for reflection regarding aspects of cooperation and the division of labor; project management; team dynamics; and data ownership and publication strategies. As Sonia Livingston summarizes:

“Cross-national collaboration confuses the boundary between the professional and the personal […] the researchers involved become, to some degree, friends. They meet in different countries and spend the evenings together at leisure, often debating the contours of their everyday as well as professional lives.[…] They must sustain good working relationships at a distance and over considerable time, relying heavily on communicative […] etiquette (including conventions of trust, courtesy, reciprocity, etc.) as well as on the interpersonal skills of the project director. […] Researchers must reveal their difficulties with writing (including […] working in foreign language and the inequalities introduced by the common resort to English as the lingua franca), they face inequities in funding, institutional support or ease of data collection, and they experience anxieties over the issues of data ownership and intellectual property that arise in collaboration.” (Livingston, 2003).

If you work together in an international team you should address such practical and social challenges by reflecting – in the planning process of a project and repeatedly during the research process – on the question: “How do we coordinate and collaborate?” (figure 1).