Social Research update logo
Issue 13 Summer 1995

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Comparative Research Methods

Linda Hantrais

Linda Hantrais is Director of the European Research Centre, Loughborough University. She is convenor of the Cross-National Research Group and series editor of Cross-National Research Papers. The main focus of her research is cross-national theory, method and practice, particularly with reference to social policy. She has conducted a number of comparative studies, including ESRC/CNAF/European Commission-funded collaborative projects on women in professional occupations in Britain and France and on families and family policies in Europe. Her recent publications include a co-edited book, with Steen Mangen, on Cross-National Research Methods in the Social Sciences (Pinter, 1996).

Key points

The comparative approach to the study of society has a long tradition dating back to Ancient Greece. Since the nineteenth century, philosophers, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists have usedcross-cultural comparisons to achieve various objectives.

For researchers adopting a normative perspective, comparisons have served as a tool for developing classifications of social phenomena and for establishing whether shared phenomena can be explained by the same causes. For many sociologists, comparisons have provided an analytical framework for examining (and explaining) social and cultural differences and specificity. More recently, as greater emphasis has been placed on contextualisation, cross-national comparisons have served increasingly as a means of gaining a better understanding of different societies, their structures and institutions.

The development of this third approach has coincided with the growth in interdisciplinary and international collaboration and networking in the social sciences, which has been encouraged since the 1970s by a number of European-wide initiatives. The European Commission has established several large-scale programmes, and observatories and networks have been set up to monitor and report on social and economic developments in member states. At the same time, government departments and research funding bodies have shown a growing interest in international comparisons, particularly in the social policy area, often as a means of evaluating the solutions adopted for dealing with common problems or to assess the transferability of policies between member states.

Yet, relatively few social scientists feel they are well equipped to conduct studies that seek to cross national boundaries, or to work in international teams. This reluctance may be explained not only by a lack of knowledge or understanding of different cultures and languages but also by insufficient awareness of the research traditions and processes operating in different national contexts.

Approaches to cross-national research

For the purposes of this article, a study is held to be cross-national and comparative, when individuals or teams set out to examine particular issues or phenomena in two or more countries with the express intention of comparing their manifestations in different socio-cultural settings (institutions, customs, traditions, value systems, lifestyles, language, thought patterns), using the same research instruments either to carry out secondary analysis of national data or to conduct new empirical work. The aim may be to seek explanations for similarities and differences, to generalise from them or to gain a greater awareness and a deeper understanding of social reality in different national contexts.

In many respects, the methods adopted in cross-national comparative research are no different from those used for within-nation comparisons or for other areas of sociological research. The descriptive or survey method, which will usually result in a state of the art review, is generally the first stage in any large-scale international comparative project, such as those carried out by the European observatories and networks. A juxtaposition approach is often adopted at this stage: data gathered by individuals or teams, according to agreed criteria, and derived either from existing materials or new empirical work, are presented side by side frequently without being systematically compared.

Some large-scale projects are intended to be explanatory from the outset and therefore focus on the degree of variability observed from one national sample to another. Such projects may draw on several methods: the inductive method, starting from loosely defined hypotheses and moving towards their verification; the deductive method, applying a general theory to a specific case in order to interpret certain aspects; and the demonstrative method, designed to confirm and refine a theory.

Rather than each researcher or group of researchers investigating their own national context and then pooling information, a single researcher or single-nation team of researchers the 'safari' approach may formulate the problem and research hypotheses and carry out studies in more than one country, using replication of the experimental design, generally to collect and analyse new data. The method is often adopted when a smaller number of countries is involved and for more qualitative studies, where researchers are looking at a well-defined issue in two or more national contexts and are required to have intimate knowledge of all the countries under study. The approach may combine surveys, secondary analysis of national data, and also personal observation and an interpretation of the findings in relation to their wider social contexts.

Irrespective of the organisational structure of the research, a shift is occurring in emphasis away from descriptive, universalist and 'culture-free' approaches to social phenomena. The societal approach, which has perhaps been most fully explicated in relation to industrial sociology (Maurice et al., 1986), implies that the researcher sets out to identify the specificity of social forms and institutional structures in different societies and to look for explanations of differences by referring to the wider social context. Another result of the greater emphasis on contextualisation in comparative studies is their increasingly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary character, since a wide range of factors must be considered at the lowest possible level of disaggregation.

Problems in cross-national comparative research

The shift in orientation towards a more interpretative, culture-bound approach means that linguistic and cultural factors, together with differences in research traditions and administrative structures cannot be ignored. If these problems go unresolved, they are likely to affect the quality of the results of the whole project, since the researcher runs the risk of losing control over the construction and analysis of key variables.

Managing and funding cross-national projects

The mix of countries selected in comparative studies affects the quality and comparability of the data as well as the nature of the collaboration between researchers. In ideal conditions, a project team manager will be able to select the countries to be included in the study and researchers with appropriate knowledge and expertise to undertake the work. In small-scale bilateral comparisons, this may be feasible, but more often the reality is different, and participation may be determined by factors (sometimes political) which do not make for easy relationships between team members. 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: a topic that may attract interest in one country may not obtain funding elsewhere.

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., 1995). 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, 1996). 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. An attempt has to be made to establish comparable groupings from the most detailed information available the raw data and to focus on the broader characteristics of the sample.

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:

References and further reading

Castles, F. (ed.) (1993) Families of Nations: Patterns of Public Policy in Western Democracies, Aldershot: Dartmouth.

Ditch, J., Barnes, H., Bradshaw, J., Commaille, J. and Eardley, T. (1996) A Synthesis of National Family Policies 1994, York: Social Research Unit.

Hantrais, L. and Letablier, M-T. (1996) Families and Family Policies in Europe, London/New York: Longman.

Hantrais, L. and Mangen, S. Cross-National Research Methods in the Social Sciences, London/New York: Pinter.

Heidenheimer, A., Heclo, H. and Adams, C. (1990) Comparative Public Policy, 3rd edn, New York: St Martin's Press.

Johnson, J.D. and Tuttle, F. (1989) Problems in Intercultural Research, Newbury Park: Sage.

Jones, C. (ed.) (1985) Patterns of Social Policy: an Introduction to Comparative Analysis, London: Tavistock.

Kohn, M.L. (ed.) (1989) Cross-National Research in Sociology, Newbury Park: Sage.

Maurice, M., Sellier, F. and Silvestre, J-J. (1986) The Social Foundations of Industrial Power, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

yen, E. (ed.) (1990) Comparative Methodology: Theory and Practice in International Social Research, London: Sage.

Ragin, C. (1991) Issues and Alternatives in Comparative Social Research, Leiden: Brill.

Smelser, N. (1976) Comparative Methods in the Social Sciences, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall.

The Cross-National Research Group

The Cross-National Research Group was established in 1985 with the aim of providing a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas and experience between researchers from different social science disciplines engaged in cross-national comparative studies, for those planning to embark on cross-national projects and for policy-makers interested in exploiting the findings from international studies.

The Group has organised four series of seminars in cross-national research methods:

  1. Doing Cross-National Research;

  2. The Implications of 1992 for Social Policy;

  3. Concepts and Contexts in International Comparisons;

  4. Concepts and Contexts in International Comparisons of Family Policies in Europe;

  5. Methodological Approaches to International Comparisons.

The contributions to the seminars are published as Cross-National Research Papers and in an edited collection (Hantrais and Mangen, 1996).

The Group holds a database containing information about researchers engaged in cross-national comparative work.

Enquiries about the Cross-National Research Group should be addressed to:

Professor Linda Hantrais
European Research Centre
Loughborough University
Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)1509 222984 Fax: +44 (0)1509 223917

Social Research Update is published by:

Department of Sociology
University of Surrey
Guildford GU2 7XH
United Kingdom.

Telephone: +44 (0) 1 483 300800
Fax: +44 (0) 1 483 689551

Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Summer 1995 © University of Surrey

Permission is granted to reproduce this issue of Social Research Update provided that no charge is made other than for the cost of reproduction and this panel acknowledging copyright is included with all copies.