When Studying Countries, Context Matters
By: Nick Santangelo
Comparative area studies are viewed by many political scientists as a promising new methodology in comparative politics, but the approach isn’t entirely brand new. It builds on classic approaches to area studies, and as early as 2003 there was some debate about whether or not comparative area studies were prevalent. In an attempt to set the record straight, University of Pennsylvania Professor Rudra Sil gave College of Liberal Arts political science students and faculty a presentation on comparative area studies in Gladfelter Hall on April 30.
“Clearly this is not something that has gotten a lot of space,” Dr. Sil told his audience, explaining that comparative area studies’ alleged popularity 15 years ago was overblown. In fact, Dr. Sil said 85 percent of the examples given in one scholar’s argument of their pervasiveness concerned only single countries or intra-regional studies. This bends if not totally breaks the professor’s definition of comparative area studies.
Substantive comparative area studies, the professor explained, go beyond any one country or region. This can make them challenging to undertake, especially since many scholars believe they must invest massive amounts of time and resources to develop language fluency, networks and contextual knowledge of both areas they study. And while Dr. Sil does think authors of comparative area studies should take the time to research each area they’re studying, he argued that it’s not necessary—or even reasonable—for authors to become high-level experts on all areas they study.
”So, I think you need to say I am not an expert in every one of my cases. That’s OK,” he said.
Even for studies conducted completely within one region, such as Eastern Europe, most experts only learn a single language rather than becoming fluent in Turkish, Polish, Russian, et al. Additionally, while primary sources are always best, the professor contended that all secondary sources are not inherently bad. In fact, they are often necessary in order to collect a wider sample and avoid selection bias.
“There’s no reason to focus on one region, except for that people get trained that way,” said Dr. Sil. “All I’m saying is we need to be a little bit more thoughtful and not put shackles on ourselves.”
That’s not to say the professor wants scholars to jump right into comparing two nations from different regions without any knowledge at all about one of them. To the contrary, he lamented the fact that there is such a rush to publish early and often.
One faculty member in attendance said she compares Mexico and Kenya but admitted she’s not an expert on Kenya. Dr. Sil said this was fine, but he cautioned against researchers doing this type of work without spending at least some time familiarizing themselves with the country they’re not an expert on.
”The only question is, in the search for context, how much time do you spend on it?” he said.
The question was rhetorical, with Dr. Sil admitting he didn’t have a hard answer. But on a scale of zero to 10, he said a researcher should build his skill to “something more than zero,” but not necessarily all the way to 10. Researchers who are able to get to around a four or five on such a hypothetical scale have probably learned enough to conduct the study, he said.
Finally, Dr. Sil advocated for publishers giving scholars the space they need to fully establish and defend their theses while providing the proper context for them.
“You see a serious lack of depth and complexity in area-focused research,” he said.
Comparative area studies, he believes, have the potential to solve for a problem he called “Wikipedia case studies,” meaning those spanning only about five-to-seven pages. Dr. Sil believes this is only enough space to give a brief overview of a problem and that such studies suffer from selection bias. Comparing multiple, disparate areas can overcome that selection bias, but only if enough words are dedicated to the study. Generally, he thinks long articles are better than short articles and books are better than long articles.
“Everyone says context matters. But how does it matter, is the question I would ask.”