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Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Critical Realism  

Uncovering the Shades of Grey

Dominik Giese and Jonathan Joseph

This chapter evaluates critical realism, a term which refers to a philosophy of science connected to the broader approach of scientific realism. In contrast to other philosophies of science, such as positivism and post-positivism, critical realism presents an alternative view on the questions of what is ‘real’ and how one can generate scientific knowledge of the ‘real’. How one answers these questions has implications for how one studies science and society. The critical realist answer starts by prioritizing the ontological question over the epistemological one, by asking: What must the world be like for science to be possible? Critical realism holds the key ontological belief of scientific realism that there is a reality which exists independent of our knowledge and experience of it. Critical realists posit that reality is more complex, and made up of more than the directly observable. More specifically, critical realism understands reality as ‘stratified’ and composed of three ontological domains: the empirical, the actual, and the real. Here lies the basis for causation.


Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Descriptive, Explanatory, and Interpretive Approaches  

Louis M. Imbeau, Sule Tomkinson, and Yasmina Malki

This chapter assesses descriptive, explanatory, and interpretive approaches. ‘Description’, ‘explanation’, and ‘interpretation’ are distinct stages of the research process. Description makes the link between what is to be described and a concept and its empirical referent. It defines a way to understand empirical reality, as variations, significations, or processes. Description refers to the ‘what’ question, as the first step towards explanation. When it comes to answering the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, some social scientists differentiate between explanation and interpretation. For them, the aim of social sciences is to ‘understand’, that is, to uncover the meanings of individuals’ or groups’ actions through the interpretation of their beliefs and discourses, whereas the aim of natural sciences is to ‘explain’, that is, to establish causality and general laws. The chapter presents an approach which offers a broader perspective for the social sciences, advocating an explanatory pluralism that allows for a more ecumenical approach.


Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Discourse Analysis  

Breaking Down Ideational Boundaries in the Social Sciences

Elisa Narminio and Caterina Carta

This chapter describes discourse analysis. In linguistics, discourse is generally defined as a continuous expression of connected written or spoken language that is larger than a sentence. However, as a method in the social sciences, discourse analysis (DA) gave rise to diatribes about where to set the borders of discourse. As language constitutes the very entry point to the world, some discourse analysts argue that all that exists acquires meaning through language. Does this mean that discourse constitutes reality? Is there anything outside text and discourse? Or is discourse one among many means of social construction? The evolution of DA in social science unearths an ontological debate between ‘realists’ and ‘nominalists’, which eventually reverberates in epistemological strategies.


Cover US Foreign Policy

11. Identities and US foreign policy  

Christina Rowley and Jutta Weldes

This chapter examines the role of identity in constructing U.S. foreign policy. Using a critical social constructivist approach, it argues that particular conceptions of U.S. identity constitute U.S. interests, thus providing the foundations for foreign policy. After providing an overview of the influence of interests on foreign policy, the chapter considers the basic assumptions of critical social constructivism, taking into account the social construction of reality and the concepts of discourse and articulation. It then analyses discourses as sites of power, identity, and representation, along with the importance of identity in U.S. foreign policy. It also looks at U.S. presidents’ articulations of state identity and foreign policy over the last six decades.


Cover Strategy in the Contemporary World

7. Law, Politics, and the Use of Force  

Justin Morris

This chapter examines the place of international law in international politics, with particular emphasis on whether legal constraint is effective in averting or limiting the use of force by states. It begins with a discussion of the efficacy of international law in regulating the behaviour of states, focusing on the so-called perception–reality gap in international law. It then considers various reasons why states obey the law, from fear of coercion to self-interest and perceptions of legitimacy. It also explores the role and status of breaches of international law in international politics as well as the functions of the two laws of armed conflict, namely, jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Finally, it analyses the apparent paradox of legal constraint on warfare in relation to power politics and the mitigatory effects of norms governing the conduct of war.