THE ELEMENTS OF A RESEARCH PROPOSAL
THAT ADDRESSES A QUESTION OF
Prepared by Robert J. Beck
University of Virginia
I. A STATEMENT OF THE QUESTION
All research designs should commence with a clear, succinct statement of the question to be addressed.
"International rules" scholarship addresses two general categories of questions: explanatory (why? how?) and prescriptive (what ought?).
A. Explanatory - The scholar addressing an explanatory question should begin by identifying the phenomenon to be explained. Among the "puzzles" that might be addressed:
1. Why or how (by what mechanism, process) did a given international rule or institution emerge?
2. Why or how (by what mechanism, process) did a given international rule or institution evolve?
3. Why or how (by what mechanism, process) did a given international rule or institution affect state behavior?
4. How, if at all, did a given international rule or institution influence a state's conception of its interest?
5. How, if at all, did a given international rule or institution influence a state's conception of itself (i.e., its identity)?
B. Prescriptive - The scholar addressing a prescriptive question should also begin by identifying her/his particular question. Here, however, the question will be of a different kind:
1. How ought states, by legal obligation, behave? That is: what specific international legal rules, if any, are binding upon states in a particular issue area? What is "the law?" (the Legal Positivists' principal question)
2. Irrespective of what rules may actually exist, what specific international rules should govern state behavior? That is: what should "the law" be?
II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUESTION
All research designs should next identify the significance -- scholarly, political, and/or moral -- of the general question to be addressed. For what reason(s) does the question merit (further) study? Here, the scholar seeks to answer the "so what?" question.
III. A REVIEW OF EXISTING ANSWERS TO THE QUESTION: EXPLANATIONS, PRESCRIPTIONS
A. Explanatory - The scholar addressing an explanatory question should next survey concisely existing explanations, and seek to demonstrate why these explanations are inadequate. Her/his examination of existing scholarly arguments/literature can include, inter alia:
1. exposing internal consistencies of existing explanations;
2. showing that evidence drawn from cases to which existing explanations explicitly apply does not support them; or
3. extending existing explanations to new empirical domains in which their explanatory power is restricted.
B. Prescriptive - The scholar addressing a prescriptive question should next survey concisely existing scholarly prescriptions -- either characterizations of legal doctrine or advocacy of desired international rules -- and explain why these prescriptions are, respectively, inaccurate or undesirable.
IV. A PRESENTATION OF THE SCHOLAR'S CONTENDING EXPLANATION OR PRESCRIPTION
A. Explanatory - The scholar addressing an explanatory question should next present her/his own candidate for explanatory cogency (i.e., her/his proposed explanation, interpretation).
1. Here, the scholar employing an empiricist method (i.e, positivist, social scientific) should identify her/his independent and dependent variables, and intervening causal mechanisms.
2. The scholar employing critical methods (e.g., constructivist IR, "New Stream" IL) will not likely express her/his general explanation in terms of "variables" per se, but might well identify salient mechanisms, processes, etc.
B. Prescriptive - The scholar addressing a prescriptive question should next present her/his own candidate for prescriptive cogency (i.e., her/his own proposed prescription).
1. for some prescriptive scholars, a cogent prescription is one that accurately characterizes "the law."
2. other prescriptive scholars, by contrast, strive to identify desirable and undesirable international legal rules.
V. THE METHOD OR METHODS TO BE EMPLOYED BY THE SCHOLAR
A. Explanatory - Having briefly set out her/his own general explanation for (or interpretation of) the phenomenon in question, the scholar addressing an explanatory question should next present the specific method(s) that she/he will employ.
1. Empiricists - among the approaches that empiricist scholars of international rules have taken: Classical Realist, Structural or Neorealist (including hegemonic stability and game theoretical methods), Rationalistic Institutionalist (including various regime analysis methods)
2. Critical scholars - the most prominent approaches to international rules of this sort are Sociological Institutionalism (interpretivist, cultural methods) and "New Stream" IL (deconstructive analysis of discourse)
B. Prescriptive - The scholar addressing a prescriptive question should next present the approach and specific method(s) she/he will employ.
1. Empiricists - among the approaches that empiricist scholars of international rules have taken: Naturalist (rationalist determination of transempirically sourced rules based on observation of the natural world, i.e., the social world), New Haven School (Lasswell-McDougal analytical framework), Legal Positivist (doctrinal determination based on [a] assessments of state practice, i.e., state consent, and [b] formal rules of treaty interpretation)
2. Critical scholars - the most prominent approach to international rules of this sort is that of critical Feminist IL (interpretivist, cultural, discourse methods)
VI. THE RATIONALE FOR SPECIFIC CASE SELECTION
A. Explanatory - In view of the specific method(s) she/he will employ, what specific cases will the scholar study? This identification of cases requires in turn:
1. the scholar's definition of what constitutes a proper "case." If, for example, she/he will use the Method of Agreement, how do the two or more cases chosen allow her/him to hold variables constant?
2. the scholar's delimitation of her/his research's parameters (e.g., historical, substantive). Why, for example, will certain cases not be considered?
B. Prescriptive - In view of the specific method(s) she/he will employ, what specific cases will the scholar study? As with those undertaking explanatory research, prescriptive scholars must:
1. explain what constitutes a proper "case"
2. justify any historical, substantive, or geographical delimitations (Can one, for example, develop an accurate characterization of a given realm of international law without focusing on all of state practice? By concentrating only on certain states? By treating only a limited time frame?)
VII. A DISCUSSION OF SALIENT EVIDENCE
A. A research proposal should conclude with a general discussion of the sources upon which the scholar intends to draw. These will depend, of course, on the method(s) to be employed and might include:
1. specific data sets
2. bibliographic sources
3. personal interview candidates
4. primary source documents
B. For a research proposal per se, no actual presentation of evidence is required. Instead, the scholar should suggest what sorts of evidence may be required to confirm her/his hypothesis, and, perhaps more importantly, what sorts of evidence would disconfirm that hypothesis.
The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable insights offered by his Department colleagues: David Waldner, Allen Lynch, Glenn Beamer, and Steve Finkel.
© 1996 Robert J. Beck.