Social scientists contemplating or engaged in cross-national studies should be as open about their limitations as they are enthusiastic about their explanatory powers. The fact is that only certain subjects, and only certain aspects of those subjects, can successfully be measured cross-nationally. Stringent and well-policed ground rules for comparable survey methods should become much more common in comparative studies than they are now.
To avoid infringing well-established cultural norms in one country or another, substantial national variations in methods are sometimes tolerated that should render comparisons invalid.
To transform cross-national surveys from parallel exercises into joint ones, collective development work, experimentation, scale construction, and piloting should be undertaken in all participating nations. One should routinely include methodological experiments in cross-national research.
Analysts of cross-national data should try to suspend initial belief in any major inter-country differences they discover. All too often, such unexpected differences turn out to be impostors — the result of a poor translation, a subtly different show card, a variation in sampling coverage, or a particular cultural cue that subtly alters the meaning of the variable in that country.
If these rules were even roughly adhered to, the situation would improve considerably. Indeed, any comparative data set that complied with these rules would immediately transform itself from being deeply suspect to just plainly problematical.
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European programmes often include all EU member states, although the countries concerned may represent very different stages of economic and social development and be influenced by different cultural value systems, assumptions and thought patterns. The financial resources available for the research differ considerably from one national context to another. Funding bodies have their own agenda: The amount of time that can be allocated to the research, the ease with which reliable data can be obtained and the relative expense involved are also likely to affect the quality of the material for comparisons.
The problems of organising meetings which all participants in a project can attend, of negotiating a research agenda, of reaching agreement on approaches and definitions and of ensuring that they are observed are not to be underestimated.
Linguistic and cultural affinity is central to an understanding of why researchers from some national groups find it easier to work together and to reach agreement on research topics, design and instruments.
Even within a single discipline, differences in the research traditions of participating countries may affect the results of a collaborative project and the quality of any joint publications. Accessing comparable data In many European projects, national experts are required to provide descriptive accounts of selected trends and developments derived from national data sources.
The co-ordinators then synthesise information on key themes and issues see for example, Ditch et al. Since much of the international work carried out at European level is not strictly comparative at the design and data collection stages, the findings cannot then be compared systematically.
Data collection is strongly influenced by national conventions. Their source, the purpose for which they were gathered, the criteria used and the method of collection may vary considerably from one country to another, and the criteria adopted for coding data may change over time. In some areas, national records may be non-existent or may not go back very far. For certain topics, information may be routinely collected in tailor-made surveys in a number of the participating countries, whereas in others it may be more limited because the topic has attracted less attention among policy-makers.
Official statistics may be produced in too highly aggregated a form and may not have been collected systematically over time. In many multinational studies, much time and effort is expended on trying to reduce classifications to a common base.
Concepts and research parameters Despite considerable progress in the development of large-scale harmonised international databases, such as Eurostat, which tend to give the impression that quantitative comparisons are unproblematic, attempts at cross-national comparisons are still too often rendered ineffectual by the lack of a common understanding of central concepts and the societal contexts within which phenomena are located.
Agreement is therefore difficult to reach over research parameters and units of comparison. For example, the demographic and employment statistics compiled at European level are socially constructed and often conceal quite different national situations Hantrais and Letablier, Even the definition of a country or society can be problematic, since there is no single identifiable, durable and relatively stable sociological unit equivalent to the total geographical territory of a nation.
Language can present a major obstacle to effective international collaboration, since it is not simply a medium for conveying concepts, but part of the conceptual system, reflecting institutions, thought processes, values and ideology, and implying that the approach to a topic and interpretations of it will differ according to the language of expression.
Although defining a time span may appear to be a simple matter for a longitudinal study, innumerable problems can arise when national datasets are being used. These problems are compounded when comparisons are based on secondary analysis of existing national datasets, since it may not always be possible to apply agreed criteria uniformly.
Solutions to the problems of cross-national comparisons Most researchers engaged in cross-national comparative work admit that such research, by its very nature, demands greater compromises in methods than a single-country focus. The problems of building and managing a research team can often be resolved only by a process of trial and error, and the quality of the contributions to multinational projects may be very uneven.
The managerial skills and experience of the co-ordinators are, therefore, critical in holding the team together, in obtaining material and providing the comparative framework for the research, which also requires a sound knowledge and understanding of other national contexts, their languages and intellectual traditions.
When existing large-scale data are being re-analysed, the solution is not to disregard major demographic variables, since they may indicate greater intranational than international differences. The solution to the problem of defining the unit of observation may be to carry out research into specific organisational, structural fields or sectors and to look at subsocietal units rather than whole societies.
Where new studies are being carried out, it should, theoretically, be possible to replicate the research design and use the same concepts and parameters simultaneously in two or more countries on matched groups. Whatever the method adopted, the researcher needs to remain alert to the dangers of cultural interference, to ensure that discrepancies are not forgotten or ignored and to be wary of using what may be a sampling bias as an explanatory factor.
In interpreting the results, wherever possible, findings should be examined in relation to their wider societal context and with regard to the limitations of the original research parameters.
Why undertake cross-national comparisons? Although the obstacles to successful cross-national comparisons may be considerable, so are the benefits: When researchers from different backgrounds are brought together on collaborative or cross-national projects, valuable personal contacts can be established, enabling them to capitalise on their experience and knowledge of different intellectual traditions and to compare and evaluate a variety of conceptual approaches.
Comparisons can lead to fresh, exciting insights and a deeper understanding of issues that are of central concern in different countries. They can lead to the identification of gaps in knowledge and may point to possible directions that could be followed and about which the researcher may not previously have been aware. They may also help to sharpen the focus of analysis of the subject under study by suggesting new perspectives. Cross-national projects give researchers a means of confronting findings in an attempt to identify and illuminate similarities and differences, not only in the observed characteristics of particular institutions, systems or practices, but also in the search for possible explanations in terms of national likeness and unlikeness.
Cross-national comparativists are forced to attempt to adopt a different cultural perspective, to learn to understand the thought processes of another culture and to see it from the native's viewpoint, while also reconsidering their own country from the perspective of a skilled, external observer.
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