Principles of Comparative Research (MSc)

This the MSc course taught to students in the MSc in Comparative European Politics and the MSc in International Politics at Trinity College, for the Autumn 2010 semester.

Instructors: Kenneth Benoit and Robert Thomson

Version: October 28, 2010
Trinity College Dublin, Spring 2010
Thursdays 13:00-16:00
November 1, MONDAY, class will be in the IIIS Conference Room from 13-15:00


This course introduces students to the theoretical and practical issues they will need to conduct empirical political and social research. To be successful, political science research must be new, integrated into existing research, falsifiable and tested. The requirement that research claims should be falsifiable and tested against observable evidence of the implications of their claims, is demanding, and one that many students will initially find difficult. Nevertheless, it is the essential feature of successful political science research.

Learning Outcomes

Students taking this course will learn the principles of sound social scientific research design and how to apply them to their own research. Students will learn both good practice in research as well as the basic ideas of what constitutes good social science. Students will learn from examples found in class as well as examples from published literature. The class will culminate in the development of a practical research design by each student that will serve as the basis for each student’s MSc thesis.


We recommend that you purchase the following text:

  • King, Keohane and Verba (1994) Designing Social Inquiry. Princeton, Princeton University Press. (Hereafter “KKV”).

Copies should be available through Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street, around the corner from Trinity College. Copies will also be on reserve in the library.

Over the course, you should find time to read KKV from cover to cover, not just the pages assigned for particular weeks of the syllabus.

You may also want to read, although these are not required purchases:

  • John Gerring (2007) Case Study Research: Principles and Practices (Cambridge).
  • Henry Brady and David Collier. (2010) Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (Rowman & Littlefield) 2nd edition.

You will also need to devote time and effort to wide scholarly reading related to the research topic on which you may write a research paper.

Requirements and Grading


All course participants are expected to come to class each week having completed all the assigned readings and having thought about them carefully.

Class Participation (10%)

This is mostly a discussion class, not a lecture class. You will be expected to discuss (both talk and listen to each other) on the subject of some difficult material. 10 per cent of the total mark will be attributed to class participation.

Written Research Proposal: Outline (30% – see below)

Full Research Design (60%)

This assignment asks course participants to submit a proposal for a research project. We will evaluate this proposal according to the standards for research design that we cover in class. For this class, you will particularly emphasise the methods and data, rather than the substantive importance of the topic in question, which might otherwise require a lengthy literature review and substantive defence of the projects importance (although, despite this, at least some – and perhaps a great deal – of knowledge of previous work will be necessary to create a useful design on any topic). The class requires a project that is well-defined and specific, feasible, and methodologically sound. You are advised to use this to develop your dissertation project and also to start early on reading and thinking about your project.

You might find these guidelines for research papers useful.

The research design will happen in three stages:

  1. Research question: Due on Friday at end of the Week 3, a question that the proposed research project is expected to answer. The question must be causal in nature. The paper, not to exceed two double-spaced pages, will include a research question, an indication of the proposed causal explanation, and a brief explanation of why this is an important question. This assignment is required, but will not receive a grade. These papers will be distributed to class colleagues so that everyone can see how others are approaching the problems of research design.
  2. Project outline: Due on Friday at the end of Week 7 (Friday Nov 12). This short paper will provide a brief sketch of the project will propose in fuller form at the end of the term. It will include a research question, an indication of the key causal explanation, a discussion of the key observable implications of that causal explanation, and a justification for the project. This paper should be no more than five-double-spaced pages in length. It counts for 20% of the final grade. We will then distribute the electronic version to the entire class which will discuss (some of) them in Week 8 (as well as the other readings).
  3. Full Research Design: Due Monday January 10, 2011. The full proposal will include a clear definition of the variation to be explained, an outline of alternative explanations of the variation, address issues of testing, data collection and analysis, based on course materials as a whole. No more than fifteen double-spaced pages in length (excluding bibliography, but including all tables etc), no more than 5000 words of text (excluding bibliography).

Summary of Grading:

  • 10%: Class Participation
  • 30%: Project Outline
  • 60%: Full Research Design

All assignments – the basic idea, the project outline, and the full research design – must be submitted via

Plagiarism. You are reminded of your obligation to avoid plagiarism in the preparation of your academic work. All work of others must be suitably indicated and sourced. The class ID for Principles of Comparative Research is 3502092. You will be given the password in class.

Detailed Schedule and Readings

Week 1: Introduction – The Scientific Study of Politics

Required readings:

Recommended readings:

Week 2: Causal inference and causal mechanisms

Required readings:


Week 3: Falsifiability and Hypothesis Testing

Required readings:


Week 4: Explaining variation in outcomes

Required readings:

  • Przeworski and Teune. 1970. The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry. New York: Wiley. Reread pp26-30.
  • Review KKV pp107-112: “Select Dependent Variables Carefully” and “Maximise Concreteness”.

Recommended Readings:

Week 5: The Comparative Method

Required readings:

Recommended readings:

  • Rose, Richard. (1991) “Comparing Forms of Comparative Analysis”, Political Studies 39, 446-462.
  • Collier, D. & Mahon, J. (1993) “Conceptual ‘Stretching’ Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis”, American Political Science Review 87, 845-55.
  • Collier, David. 1991. “The Comparative Method: Two Decades of Change.” In Dankwart A. Rustow and Kenneth P. Erickson, eds, Comparative Political Dynamics: Global Research Perspectives. NY: Harper Collins.

Week 6: Case Studies and Case Selection

Required readings:

Recommended readings:

Some good examples:

  • Tsai, Lilly L. (2007) Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China (Cambridge UP). 1-27, 171ff.
  • Daniel Ziblatt, (2004) “Rethinking the Origins of Federalism Puzzle, Theory, and Evidence from Nineteenth-Century Europe” World Politics 57.1 (2004) 70-98
  • Posner, D. N. (2004) “The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi”. American Political Science Review 98:4.

Week 7: Reading Week (no class meeting)

Week 8: Discussion of research outlines

In this week we will discuss the research outlines submitted in Week 7, in light of the research design principles covered in Weeks 1-6.

Week 9: Case studies and process tracing

Required readings:

Recommended readings:

  • Henry Brady and David Collier. (2010) Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (Rowman & Littlefield) 2nd edition.

Week 10: Measuring concepts

Required readings:

Recommended readings:

Week 11: Examples of research designs: Putting it all together

Required readings:

  • Benoit, K. and M. Laver (2006) Party Policy in Modern Democracies. Routledge. Chapters 1 and 4.
  • Thomson, R. and F.N. Stokman (2006) Research design: measuring actors’ positions, saliences and capabilities, in Thomson et al. eds. The European Union Decides. Cambridge University Press.
  • Budge, I. (2000) Expert judgements of party policy positions: uses and limits in political research, European Journal of Political Research, 37, pp.103-113.
  • Sil, R. and P.J. Katzenstein. (2010). Analytic Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics: Reconfiguring Problems and Mechanisms across Research Traditions. Perspectives on Politics 8(2): 411-31.

Week 12: Review of work in progress on final research designs