Shandana Khan Mohmand is a Fellow in the Governance Team at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. She is a specialist trainer in multi-methods research and has led several ELLA research workshops.
The ELLA programme deals with some exceptional researchers. Why do I say that? Well, about two years ago we asked them to team up with a counterpart research team from a different continent – Latin American researchers teamed up with African researchers – to conduct comparative research. We paid no regard to the actual comparability of the two regional or country contexts. What mattered instead was that they be interested in the same topic, and that the topic be of great concern to policy actors in their respective regions and countries. Other than that, context didn’t matter, but we did want them to produce rigorous, high quality comparative studies. This is what I would call piling the stakes against them. And yet two years on they’ve emerged with incredibly exciting questions that will soon lead to strong comparative papers. Exceptional, they certainly are!
But why would we not pay more attention to context to begin with? Comparative studies have for the longest time been restricted by the warning that apples and oranges cannot, and should not be compared. What matters most is that contexts be comparable. However, policy problems can emerge without much regard for context. For example, domestic violence affects women everywhere in the world, and governments need to come up with ways to protect women against it. Context makes a difference to the sort of policy that works, but much of the package of required interventions will look the same. So Ghana and Mexico may be worlds apart, and many things may be different about their socio-economic contexts, but it is interesting to ask why such different countries produced two similar legislations in the same year. Did we know about this similarity at the start? Not really. What we did know was that researchers in both Mexico and Ghana were fully invested in wanting to do policy relevant research that would have something useful to say to policy actors in their countries about preventing domestic violence and rehabilitating survivors. The two teams came together because of their common interest and motivation. The rest happened as part of the process.
This story is repeated across almost all of ELLA’s teams. The Colombia and South Africa team – researching the nature of informal labour markets in their countries – believed that their task was extremely difficult, with a comparison that made no sense. Colombia has a large informal workforce and a real policy interest in reducing its size. South Africa has a small informal workforce but an incredibly high unemployment rate, and thus a real policy interest in finding ways to enlarge the informal labour market to absorb some of this unemployment. What could they possibly have to say to one another, or gain from one another? And then one day they presented to us the results of their incredible effort to find common ground. They put up a table that ran through a host of statistics that showed how similar Colombia and South Africa really were across a host of socio-economic indicators that are relevant to informal labour markets. And suddenly they had their question – why had two such similar countries evolved in such different ways, with such different labour markets?
The Argentina and Kenya teams were equally sceptical at first about the value of each other’s context for their own policy concerns. Yet, they soon discovered enough similarities between their two federal, presidential systems to be able to ask interesting questions about what allowed for so much informality in horizontal accountability between the executive office and the legislature in their countries. Similarly, the Peru and Kenya teams realised that pastoralists in both the Andean altiplano and the East African Savannah share similar issues of a loss of common land rights in response to very similar economic and political changes. Another team came to realise that donors and governments in both El Salvador and Nigeria have experimented with community-based crime prevention programmes to complement the efforts of formal agencies in high crime contexts. And the Ecuador and Uganda teams turned an initially difficult conversation into a real dialogue about extractive industries’ experiences with improving economic outcomes in the areas where they operate, asking why some countries in both regions have had more success than others.
Apples and oranges may have more in common than we realise at first. But by restricting our search to a comparator case that allows a neat comparison to be set up from the outset, we restrict ourselves in two ways. First, we unnecessarily limit the range of possibilities for comparative work that might exist out there, were we to allow ourselves more creative license and be willing to offend the gods of methodological traditionalism a little. Second, we allow ourselves to be led by the method rather than the purpose of research. Policy focused research may have the greatest potential for practical application in cases where the same issue is burning through policy agendas, rather than where they match up perfectly and neatly.
All this is not to argue against methodological rigour. ELLA’s teams have not compromised on the quality of their comparative design or the rigour that they are now trying to bring to their analysis. They simply took longer to realise the richness of the comparison that they could undertake with their counterpart team. In each case, given a choice, this is not the comparator country they would have picked. But this process has pushed them to think in newer ways, not just about that far off country about which they knew little when they first started, but also about their own case. An unusual, creative comparison can get you to think in new ways about the reality that you thought you already knew well.
It is not hard to explain why. Unusual comparisons can force new, previously ignored variables into the equation. Imagine that you picked apples and apples to compare because it makes the most sense, given that they both have common variables A, B and C. But your apples are now paired with an orange that exhibits variables F, G and H. Your need to now find common ground between the apples and oranges moves you from just considering A, B and C, to also now looking at the equivalent indicators for variables F, G and H in your particular context. And in most cases within ELLA, we noticed that this proved to be a very useful exercise, alerting researchers to dynamics within their context that they were not paying sufficient attention to. This is the magic of bolder, more unusual comparisons.
We shall soon see these play out in comparative papers, and in the online Learning Alliances between the teams that will create even more space for highlighting exciting aspects of these comparisons.