By Theofanis Exadaktylos, University of Surrey and Kennet Lynggaard, Roskilde University
As scholars of politics and international relations we are trained to design our research based on methodological and research design traditions. For those of us working on EU politics, broadly speaking, the way we conceive the EU as a political reality and entity reflects the way we study it and the way we design our research in terms of methods, data and analysis. Are we therefore falling into a trap that predetermines our research findings based on our practices of research design?
In our recent article at JCMS, we took up a meta-analytical exercise to review the literature around EU politics, zooming into the way some of the most influential articles in our field use certain methods, design their empirical research and produce specific types of findings (for similar exercises see Exadaktylos and Radaelli 2009 and Exadaktylos and Lynggaard 2016). Our cue was the work by Colin Hay (2002) followed by the reflections of Manners (2011) who suggest that there is a so-called ‘directional dependence’ between the way we understand our object of study, the type of knowledge we produce about it and the way we get to that knowledge. This is a trap we can all fall into when those dependencies become fixed and automatically sneak into our research design choices almost diluting the research problem at hand.
There may be damaging effects when falling into this trap that can constrain the scope of innovation in our field, the type of questions that we ask and the way we analyse EU politics. In our article, we don’t attempt an evaluation of the quality of our field of research; our purpose is to map out those research design practices and explore their consequences for the way we view and understand the actuality of the EU. In plain words, what do we see when we look at EU politics through our preferred research design? More importantly, what questions and dimensions of EU politics are not exposed enough or are even silenced in the process?
There are some strong methodological and research divides in EU studies, for instance between rationalist and constructivist methodologies or between quantitative and qualitative methods and data. While there are some commendable attempts to bridge traditions and break methodological silos, the divisions persist. Building bridges is a difficult ambition requiring a good definition of scholarly positions and can lead to either descriptive exercises or doing methods for methods’ sake.
Recognising favouritisms and negligence in research design practices moves us beyond the principled positions of the past; we understand the richness of topics around EU politics, and we make better sense of their impact in defining and demarcating the scope of our research field. Therefore, does a degree of directional dependency exist in EU studies and how high is it? Are the choices we make automatic, and do they damage our field at an aggregate level?
In our article, we sketch out those choices and describe how deviations can be possible. We suggest two pathways, stemming from our primary choice of studying the effect of EU politics as a cause, or placing the EU as a cause of effects. The figure below shows how the paths operate in terms of the subsequent choices once we embark on our research journey.
Our analysis of the state of the art in the study of the EU confirms an important degree of traditionalism in our research approaches. The lion’s share of EU politics literature we examined exhibits a high degree of directional dependency in the way their research is designed. This is not say that this is problematic, considering that shared paradigms favour aggregation of knowledge and solving puzzles. But innovative research may suffer (see Kuhn 1996  for a wider discussion) and our portrayal of the EU as a political reality can become static. We lose out on pluralism and multidimensional views of the EU.
Explorative pieces of research are not as prominent in our field in terms of opening up new areas of research or focusing on less prominent aspects of EU politics, but those who manage to break this barrier create vibrant and innovative research agendas (see for example the JCMS special issue on ‘Another Theory is Possible: Dissident Voices in Theorising Europe’). On a similar vein, the majority of the literature adopts rich sets of variables, which of course allow capturing and understanding of the complexity of EU political phenomena. However, research that is more parsimonious may hold the key to new agendas and to making claims about the wider dynamics and implications of EU politics.
Despite the high degree of a directional trap in EU politics literature, there are examples of departing from the beaten track. The pathways are not, and don’t need to be, deterministic. Although rare, studies that take paths least travelled can offer nuances or alternatives to the current state of play (see for example the nuanced typology by Dunlop and Radaelli (2013) on policy learning in the EU). Taking less traditional approaches, such as political economy, deliberative intergovernmental, or narrative approaches, help to actively pursue alternative designs and generate innovative research outcomes (Copelovitch et al 2016 or Puetter 2012 are good examples).
There are multiple reasons as to why the trap exists, frequently starting from the way we are being trained as researchers, our comfort zones, the pressures to publish in specific outlets or to increase our specialisation, and from the publicly acceptable paradigms that are reproduced within our very own research communities. But there are also plenty of reasons why we should reflect and avoid a stasis in the production of knowledge around EU politics and why we should not be afraid to go off the beaten track.
Theofanis Exadaktylos is Professor in European Politics at the University of Surrey. His most recent book is the co-edited volume with Nikolaos Zahariadis, Evangelia Petridou and Jörgen Sparf on Policy Styles and Trust in the Age of Pandemics: Global Threat, National Responses (2022). He is the co-editor of Research Design in European Studies: Establishing Causality in Europeanization (2012) (with Claudio Radaelli). Find his academic profile here.
Kennet Lynggaard is Associate Professor in European Politics at Roskilde University. He is the author of Discourse Analysis and European Union Politics (2019) and co-editor of Governments’ Responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic in Europe: Navigating the Perfect Storm (2023) (Kluth, M. and Jensen, M.D.) and Research Methods in European Union Studies (2015) (with I. Manners & K. Löfgren). Find his academic profile here.