Critical discourse analysis continues to remain a valuable method for understanding foreign policy. Situated in the broader interpretive methodological approach to the social sciences, it challenges the ontological and epistemological assumptions of more positivist methodologies by observing that the world is not pregiven, but socially constructed. In essence, we live in an intersubjective world where discourse serves as a powerful tool to set agendas, produce meaning, legitimize interests, and enforce power structures. Scholars devoted to discourse analysis enrich our understanding of foreign policy by highlighting the powerful role that discourse ultimately plays. One useful way of understanding its value is through representational practices. Relying upon the study of discourse from a wide range of sources (politicians, policymakers, scholars, journalists, and film), this research program emphasizes discursive representations. Far from being neutral representations, the United States constructs a U.S.-centric view of the world based on its own images, identities, and interests, while marginalizing the voices and experiences of others. U.S. foreign policies are described as positive. Those of other countries, particularly U.S. so-called enemies, are negative. Our knowledge of the world comes from these representational practices, which in turn has serious implications for foreign policy. Ultimately, discursive activities are used not only to frame and define foreign policy initiatives, but also sell such policies to the broader public. U.S. military interventions help illustrate this point. Interventions in Panama and Iraq become “Just Cause” and “Iraqi Freedom,” whereas interventions by, say, Russia are “acts of aggression.” Discourse often develops into binary oppositions that inform policy and create and sustain a dominant world position. Compared to the Global South, the United States is “developed” and “civilized,” while other nations are “underdeveloped” and “uncivilized.” Discourse analysis is not limited to military intervention. Scholars have applied the approach to a broad array of foreign policy initiatives, ranging from foreign aid and diplomacy to international economics. Nor is the approach limited to the United States; it has evolved into a far-reaching research program that offers insight into the foreign policy of any state. Discourse analysis stands in stark contrast to the more rationalist approaches, such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. These approaches, related to scientific positivism, emphasize self-interest, rational actors, material factors, objectivity, and causal hypotheses. Academics related to this scholarly community have expressed dissatisfaction with discourse analysis. Most important, critics point out that there is an objective reality, and therefore, research has little relevancy for the real world. But scholars who focus on discourse concede that there is a reality; however, reality has no value until we attach meaning to it. The deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, but they remain neutral until discursive activities (enemy, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and so on) frame them and inform foreign policy. Consequently, such representations have real-world relevancies, justifying war and surveillance, among other courses of action. Critical discourse analysis, as a result, has significant value for understanding foreign policy in the past, present, and future.
Charles G. Ripley
Recent methodological work on systematic case selection techniques offers ways of choosing cases for in-depth analysis such that the probability of learning from the cases is enhanced. This research has undermined several long-standing ideas about case selection. In particular, random selection of cases, paired or grouped selection of cases for purposes of controlled comparison, typical cases, and extreme cases on the outcome variable all appear to be much less useful than their reputations have suggested. Instead, it appears that scholars gain the most in terms of making new discoveries about causal relationships when they study extreme cases on the causal variable or deviant cases.
Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) was launched in the late 1980s by Charles Ragin, as a research approach bridging case-oriented and variable-oriented perspectives. It conceives cases as complex combinations of attributes (i.e. configurations), is designed to process multiple cases, and enables one to identify, through minimization algorithms, the core equifinal combinations of conditions leading to an outcome of interest. It systematizes the analysis in terms of necessity and sufficiency, models social reality in terms of set-theoretic relations, and provides powerful logical tools for complexity reduction. It initially came along with one technique, crisp-set QCA (csQCA), requiring dichotomized coding of data. As it has expanded, the QCA field has been enriched by new techniques such as multi-value QCA (mvQCA) and especially fuzzy-set QCA (fsQCA), both of which enable finer-grained calibration. It has also developed further with diverse extensions and more advanced designs, including mixed- and multimethod designs in which QCA is sequenced with focused case studies or with statistical analyses. QCA’s emphasis on causal complexity makes it very fit to address various types of objects and research questions touching upon political decision making—and indeed QCA has been applied in multiple related social scientific fields. While QCA can be exploited in different ways, it is most frequently used for theory evaluation purposes, with a streamlined protocol including a sequence of core operations and good practices. Several reliable software options are also available to implement the core of the QCA procedure. However, given QCA’s case-based foundation, much researcher input is still required at different stages. As it has further developed, QCA has been subject to fierce criticism, especially from a mainstream statistical perspective. This has stimulated further innovations and refinements, in particular in terms of parameters of fit and robustness tests which also correspond to the growth of QCA applications in larger-n designs. Altogether the field has diversified and broadened, and different users may exploit QCA in various ways, from smaller-n case-oriented uses to larger-n more analytic uses, and following different epistemological positions regarding causal claims. This broader field can therefore be labeled as that of both “Configurational Comparative Methods” (CCMs) and “Set-Theoretic Methods” (STMs).
Collaborative research has a critical role to play in furthering our understanding of African politics. Many of the most important and interesting questions in the field are difficult, if not impossible, to tackle without some form of collaboration, either between academics within and outside of Africa—often termed North–South research partnerships—or between those researchers and organizations from outside the academic world. In Africa in particular, collaborative research is becoming more frequent and more extensive. This is due not only to the value of the research that it can produce but also to pressures on the funding of African scholars and academics in the Global North, alongside similar pressures on the budgets of non-academic collaborators, including bilateral aid agencies, multilateral organizations, and national and international non-government organizations. Collaborative projects offer many advantages to these actors beyond access to new funding sources, so they constitute more than mere “marriages of convenience.” These benefits typically include access to methodological expertise and valuable new data sources, as well as opportunities to increase both the academic and “real-world” impact of research findings. Yet collaborative research also raises a number of challenges, many of which relate to equity. They center on issues such as who sets the research agenda, whether particular methodological approaches are privileged over others, how responsibility for different research tasks is allocated, how the benefits of that research are distributed, and the importance of treating colleagues with respect despite the narrative of “capacity-building.” Each challenge manifests in slightly different ways, and to varying extents, depending on the type of collaboration at hand: North–South research partnership or collaboration between academics and policymakers or practitioners. This article discusses both types of collaboration together because of their potential to overlap in ways that affect the severity and complexity of those challenges. These challenges are not unique to research in Africa, but they tend to manifest in ways that are distinct or particularly acute on the continent because of the context in which collaboration takes place. In short, the legacy of colonialism matters. That history not only shapes who collaborates with whom but also who does so from a position of power and who does not. Thus, the inequitable nature of some research collaborations is not simply the result of oversights or bad habits; it is the product of entrenched structural factors that produce, and reproduce, imbalances of power. This means that researchers seeking to make collaborative projects in Africa more equitable must engage with these issues early, proactively, and continuously throughout the entire life cycle of those research projects. This is true not just for researchers based in the Global North but for scholars from, or working in, Africa as well.
Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) is a method, developed by the American social scientist Charles C. Ragin since the 1980s, which has had since then great and ever-increasing success in research applications in various political science subdisciplines and teaching programs. It counts as a broadly recognized addition to the methodological spectrum of political science. QCA is based on set theory. Set theory models “if … then” hypotheses in a way that they can be interpreted as sufficient or necessary conditions. QCA differentiates between crisp sets in which cases can only be full members or not, while fuzzy sets allow for degrees of membership. With fuzzy sets it is, for example, possible to distinguish highly developed democracies from less developed democracies that, nevertheless, are rather democracies than not. This means that fuzzy sets account for differences in degree without giving up the differences in kind. In the end, QCA produces configurational statements that acknowledge that conditions usually appear in conjunction and that there can be more than one conjunction that implies an outcome (equifinality). There is a strong emphasis on a case-oriented perspective. QCA is usually (but not exclusively) applied in y-centered research designs. A standardized algorithm has been developed and implemented in various software packages that takes into account the complexity of the social world surrounding us, also acknowledging the fact that not every theoretically possible variation of explanatory factors also exists empirically. Parameters of fit, such as consistency and coverage, help to evaluate how well the chosen explanatory factors account for the outcome to be explained. There is also a range of graphical tools that help to illustrate the results of a QCA. Set theory goes well beyond an application in QCA, but QCA is certainly its most prominent variant. There is a very lively QCA community that currently deals with the following aspects: the establishment of a code of standards for QCA applications; QCA as part of mixed-methods designs, such as combinations of QCA and statistical analyses, or a sequence of QCA and (comparative) case studies (via, e.g., process tracing); the inclusion of time aspects into QCA; Coincidence Analysis (CNA, where an a priori decision on which is the explanatory factor and which the condition is not taken) as an alternative to the use of the Quine-McCluskey algorithm; the stability of results; the software development; and the more general question whether QCA development activities should rather target research design or technical issues. From this, a methodological agenda can be derived that asks for the relationship between QCA and quantitative techniques, case study methods, and interpretive methods, but also for increased efforts in reaching a shared understanding of the mission of QCA.