Why is international comparative research so difficult and how can this be approached? by Anna Kosmützky


Anna Kosmützky (International Centre for Higher Education Research INCHER-Kassel)
Anna Kosmützky (International Centre for Higher Education Research INCHER-Kassel)

Social science researchers who plan or are involved in international comparative research projects must make conceptual choices and answer methodological and practical questions that do not pertain to  non-comparative projects. 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 problems in an especially complicated fashion. 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. It is more complicated because you try to gather and to compare data from different (national) contexts, in different languages, and often with a multicultural research team from multidisciplinary backgrounds. And you need to make sure that your data (and findings) conveys the specifics of all “units” (e.g. higher education systems) that you compare but is also comparable. Consequently, if you want to achieve methodological preciseness and robust and reliable results, international comparative research needs more careful planning and methodological reflection than non-comparative research.

In a comparative project challenges arise at each stage of the empirical research process relating to different matters of equivalence. E.g., 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 like “”Why do I want to compare?”, “What do I want to compare?”, “How do I plan to compare?”, and “How can I achieve a comparability of my findings?” (Kosmützky and Wöhlert 2015). 

  1. Definition of Research Design (Why Compare? – Adequacy of Comparison):
    • Decision Criteria for a Comparative Approach and Design (e.g. most similar, most different, classification of cases etc.), Research Question
  1. Selection of Theories, Hypotheses, Empirical Objects and Levels of Comparison (What to compare? – Conceptual Equivalence):
    • Considerations on Suitability of Theory and Hypotheses in different Contexts
    • Considerations on the Equivalence of Country Selection
    • Consideration on the Equivalence of Data Selection and Levels of Comparison (object, context, part of a larger system) 
  1. Selection of Methods, Data Collection and Analysis (How to compare? – Operational Equivalence)
    • Considerations on the of Equivalence of Methods, Data Collection and Analysis
  1. Reflection on Results (Comparability of Findings? – Interpretative Equivalence)
    • Considerations on the Equivalence of Findings (incl. Evaluation, Classification, Documentation)

These concerns partly cut across methodological approaches and represent  “global challenges” (regardless of whether you have a comparative focus on European countries, OECD countries or even developing countries), but are partly also method-specific (depending on whether you use reactive or nonreactive methods; and qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods). Insufficient literature addresses these methodological challenges in higher education research. Some books and anthologies that present research results reflect on the methodological problems of comparative research; periodically, special issues of higher education journals focus on the topic, but no handbook or method book in higher education research reviews ground-comparative rules and methodological options. But some literature in neighboring fields—e.g., comparative education, comparative politics and comparative sociology—does offer helpful methodological instruction and discuss the advantages and pitfalls of diverse methods in comparative studies. In such literature you will e.g. find guidelines how theory has to be adapted for the comparison and how to (and, maybe even more important, how not) to select countries for comparison if you want to avoid tapping into the trap of a methodological nationalism.

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. But the literature does not discuss these social challenges, which also are rarely systematically reflected in research practice. As a consequence, researchers and research teams often struggle with their research. As Sonia Livingston, one of the few researchers who pinpointed such challenges (in media and communication studies), put it in a nutshell in an article on comparative research:

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: 9-10).

I suggest that we try to stimulate more discussion about the social dimension of our work among early career researchers, experienced (comparative) researchers, and within the community in general —e.g., via panels, workshops, and symposia—at higher education conferences. We also need more investigation of research-team dynamics and the collaborative dimension within higher education and beyond.

Livingston, S. (2003). On the Challenges of Cross-National Comparative Research. European Journal of Communication, 18(4), 477–500.

Kosmützky, A., & Wöhlert, R. (2015). International vergleichende Forschung. Eine interdisziplinäre Metaanalyse disziplinärer Zugänge [International Comparative Research. An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Disciplinary Approaches]. SWS-Rundschau, 4, 279–307.

See also article in EJHE: In defence of international comparative studies. On the analytical and explanatory power of the nation state in international comparative higher education research by A. Kosmützky.