Political Science Research Design

I. I surveyed a few Political Science friends to identify how they approach a research project. Here is an amalgamation of the various responses:

1. Identify a problem
2. Survey the literature
3. Develop theory/formulate hypothesis
4. Choose appropriate method/Design a study
5. Operationalize
6. Gather data
7. Code data
8. Analyze data/test hypothesis
9. Write conclusions

II. Political Theorists, they say, don’t work like this. What, then, do they do? They ought to do something like this:

1. Identify a problem/question
2. Survey the (secondary) literature
3. Formulate a hypothesis
4. Operationalize (identitfy dependent and independent variables)
5. Choose appropriate method
6. Gather “wisdom” (i.e., read primary texts)
7. Sort “wisdom” into evidentiary argument (i.e., assemble your paper)
8. Test/revisit hypothesis (i.e., do the texts support your early hunches?)


III. These are, of course, the “pure” approaches to reserach. Here is what’s probably closer to the Order of Things, at least in the social sciences:

1. Pick a hot new method and/or instrument
2. Borrow or steal an “under-utilized” data set
3. Review literature until you find a hot theoretical conversation that might fit with data set
4. Operationalize
5. Code
6. Analyze data until,
7. an hypothesis appears, then
8. Re-code data to aid and abet hypothesis.
9. Formulate better hypothesis to fit output from re-coded data.
10. Emphasize bone fides by identifying problem with new method and/or instrument
11. Publish
12. Return to #6

IV. For Political Theorists, it would be like this:

1. Unselfconsciously choose a method by saying, “I’m a XYZ-ist (say, Marxist). I’ll do an XYZ-ist interpretation of…
2. …Max Sterner (who reads and publishes on this guy?! Excellent! Uncharted territory!)” It’s best to use German that no one understands because he’s such a bad writer (Niklas Luhmann is a good candidate).
3. Review the literature until you find a hot topic. Um, how about the “self”? It’s a catchy topic, so why not?
4. Assign signifiers to words in the text that pertain to superstructure, the self, power relations, or something that fits the “method.”
5. Search digitized texts for signifiers. Cut and paste paragraphs replete with signifiers. String them together to make a story.
6. Write introductory paragraph, claiming you’ve discovered a “thread” in Sterner’s work…
7. …then claim it sheds light on the uber-problem (the self, or identity, or inequality–whatever has been identified in 3)
8. Scan the text again for more evidence, or better, scan the secondary literature on Sterner for citations from Sterner that can be used. Fill your footnotes with this evidence.
9. Tweak thesis to better explain discoveries.
10. Never doubt method and make fun of other political scientists for caring about methods
11. Submit for publication, but make sure only your fellow XYZ-ists review the paper. These have been identified in 3 and 8.
12. return to 6, or, if you’re a purist, return to 2 but use Luhmann, (or maybe a feminist reading of Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim). One can also use a popular data set like, say, Arendt, but be sure to use “Revisiting” or “Reconsidered” in title


1. Pick an author, based solely on your love of his or her work
2. Reject methods altogether, because they don’t apply to political theory
3. Review the literature until you find an obscure, internal debate that could only be relevant to the 7 or 8 other people in the world that share your love of that author
4. Analyze texts until,
5. a mystery appears, then
6. scan the text for better evidence. Or better, scan the secondary literature for citations from your beloved that can be used. Fill your footnotes with this “evidence”. It’s even better if this evidence comes from obscure letters and notes that your beloved author never intended to see the light of day. This gives you “exclusive” knowledge.
7. Cut and paste paragraphs and string them together to make a story.
8. Write introductory paragraph, claiming you’ve discovered a kernel of your beloved author’s thought that renders all previous readings irrelevant.
9. Submit for publication. Hope that the 7 or 8 other people identified in 3 have time to review paper. If the beloved is somewhat obscure, those 7 or 8 people will be inclined to review the paper positively, “to get the word out.”
10. Return to 3.

— R. Avramenko
November, 2010