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«The Methodological Challenge of Cross-National Research: comparing cultural policy in Britain and Italy Eleonora Belfiore Research Fellow Centre for ...»

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Another important factor that also bears important implications for the cross-national analysis of the development of cultural policy in the two countries is the fact that Britain is a common law country (where changes in public administration can be made without largescale law-making exercises being required), whereas Italy is a public law country (where change in law is required in advance, though is generally not sufficient to insure the implementation of changes in actual policy) (Lo Schiavo 2000, 693).



In the light of the preceding arguments and the case study of Britain and Italy, we are forced to conclude that the methodologies that currently guide comparative cultural policy research are largely inappropriate, and do not meet the specific requirements of cross-national research.

The final section of this paper will thus attempt to offer some suggestions towards the development of a more appropriate methodology for comparative, cross-national analysis within the cultural policy field. To this end, inspiration can be drawn from research and debates that have taken place in the context of other academic disciplines. In particular, comparative social research and comparative policy studies seem to be the areas that can provide the richest wealth of implications for the field of cultural policy studies. In particular, the notion of contextualization elaborated by social researchers will be shown to be especially significant and useful.

The reason why it seems convenient to look at these disciplines for a way out of the methodological impasse in which comparative cultural policy research seems to have been trapped, is that the theorization and discussion of methodological concerns in cross-national research are more developed within these academic fields. Moreover, a review of the available literature in cross-national social research and policy analysis reveals that the problems that scholars within these fields have had to face, when developing suitable research methodologies, are substantially similar to those facing the cultural policy researcher. Significantly, Hantras and Mangen (1999, 91), who have written extensively on the topic, consider that some of the crucial issues inherent in a comparative approach to social research stem from the fact that “[m]uch of the officially sponsored research is primarily dictated by pressures to extract ‘lessons from the homeland’”. They report that only recently the sector has witnessed the establishment of a more robust research agenda aiming at the definition of wellconstructed models and the testing of theories. However, they conclude that much of the extant literature on the comparative research process tends to focus on ‘thematic content and findings’ rather than on theorizations and explorations of the theory and

methodology of the research process. They maintain that:

[T]he growing interest in cross-national comparisons within the social sciences since the 1970s has not therefore been matched by commensurate advances at the theoretical and practical level.

As a result, the material collected in international projects is often not directly comparable, and the findings reported to sponsors may be biased or misleading” (Hantrais and Mangen 1999, 91).

These observations indeed reflect the objections moved against current practices in cross-national research in the cultural policy field cited earlier in this paper. These methodological difficulties, thus, are not exclusive to this field of study, but seem rather intrinsic to international comparisons of cultures and policies. However, the existence of these problems has been acknowledged and thus appropriately confronted in the social sciences. A number of ways have hence been suggested in order to be able to compare cultures and policies across nations in a more rigorous and meaningful way.

In particular, the most interesting contribution that comes from the sociological field is the development of contextualization as an approach to cross-national comparative research that can successfully circumvent some of the difficulties inherent in this type of research (Hantrais and Mangen 1999; Hantrais 1999).

Linda Hantrais (1999) maintains that contextualization is central to all the possible approaches to comparative social research. Currently, social scientists are indeed showing an increasing interest in issues surrounding contextualization, which is now considered a fundamental component in cross-national comparative studies. Hantrais (1999, 94) writes that “… an in-depth understanding of the socio-cultural, economic and political context in which social phenomena develop is a precondition for successful cross-national comparative research”. In the same paper, she also delineates the development of the discipline over time, and the changing attitudes toward the importance of context in cross-national research. She identifies three possible approaches to comparative social research: the universalist, culturalist and societal approach.

According to Hantrais’s schematisation, the belief of the early sociologists in the possibility of deriving general laws from sociological observation (in order to explain social phenomena across different cultures) deeply affected the international comparative research that was carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. Cross-national social research at this stage “…was grounded in the assumption that universal characteristics could be identified in social phenomena, independently from a specific context… This is because universalist theory was culture or context free” (Hantrais 1999, 94). The problem with the universalist approach is that it results in a research process which places its emphasis on the search for similarities and points of convergence among nations and cultures. It thus ignores the specificity of the social, political and cultural contexts of the social phenomena studied, since it is based on the assumption that “there are shared, universally identifiable, pressures and trends working across all industrialized societies” (O’Reilly quoted in May 1997, 181) Alongside this school of thought, a rather different approach was elaborated by the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s, on the basis of a number of studies that were undertaken on cultural diversity in urban settings. Whereas the universalists’ body of research aimed at seeking uniformity and commonalities among countries (in order to draw generalizations and infer theories from observations), the Chicago School chose to concentrate their attention rather on particularism and national uniqueness. They aimed at trying to underline differences among countries and cultures through comparative research. If the universalist approach takes no regard of context, the culturalist one is based on relativism and culture-boundedness.

Accordingly, the very possibility of generalizing from field observations was rejected on the basis of the denial of the existence of universal concepts that could be meaningful across national boundaries. Indeed, this approach “placed such great emphasis on social contexts and their specificity, distinctiveness or uniqueness, that meaningful comparisons and generalization were made very difficult, if not impossible” (Hantrais 1999, 95).

In between these two extremes, Hantrais (1999, 96-97) places an intermediate position which she defines as the ‘societal approach’. This is based on the view that it is possible to generalise from observation, and hence derive theories, provided that the national specificity of the social, cultural and political contexts in which social phenomena manifest themselves is properly accounted for. This last, societal approach to comparative research is indeed at the basis of the methodological model that this paper strives to advocate for the achievement of a meaningful cross-national cultural policy research. Such an approach might successfully contribute to overcoming some of the limitations, and prevent some of the abuses, of current comparative research in this area. The problems that the comparative researcher might incur are made clearer by the distinction made in 1990 by Else Øyen (1990, 5between four archetypes of comparative researchers: the purists, the ignorants, the totalists, and finally, the genuine comparativists.

The ‘purists’ are those who firmly believe that comparative work is no different from any other type of sociological research. They would therefore not feel the need to accompany their comparative studies with any particular methodological discussion relative to the specific problems of cross-national comparisons. The second group is represented by the ‘ignorants’, who are clearly ethnocentric in their approach. They indeed recognize the special nature of cross-national work, but they tend to ‘import’ uncritically in their research theories and principles developed in other countries, irrespectively of social contexts and historical and cultural differences. In Øyen’s words, they “pursue their ideas and data across national boundaries without ever giving a thought to the possibility that such comparisons may add to the complexity in interpreting the results of the study” (1990, 5). This is unfortunately a very common tendency in the sociological tradition. The third group are the ‘totalists’ who are – at least in theory – aware of the complications and the methodological issues involved in comparative research. However, “[t]hey consciously ignore the many stumbling blocks of the non-equivalence of concepts, a multitude of unknown variables interacting in an unknown context and influencing the research in question in unknown ways. And they deliberately ignore the scientific requirements regarding the testing of hypotheses in settings which do not and cannot meet the conditions for such testing” (Øyen 1990, 5). Finally, the ‘comparativists’, believe that comparative social research is a type of research that poses very specific methodological problems that need to be addressed, and they tackle their research questions accordingly.

Øyen’s categorization is obviously based upon ideal types, and it is thus somewhat artificial and schematic. However, it has the distinct advantage of facilitating the task of qualifying the most common type of comparative research that has so far been undertaken within the field of cultural policy research. It seems possible at this stage of the discussion, to suggest that extant cross-national cultural policy analysis is markedly ‘totalist’ in nature. Indeed, the intent of this paper is precisely to argue in favour of the need for comparative cultural policy research to shift from a ‘totalist’ to a more genuinely ‘comparativist’ position.


This paper has attempted to argue against a purely quantitative methodology, and against using public expenditure as the main cultural policy output measure, whilst at the same time alerting the reader to the inadequacy of the already mentioned ‘ten countries, ten chapters and a staple’ literature to generate true understanding of cultural policy issues across countries (Schuster 1996, 30). As noted earlier, changing patterns of public funding throw light on government’s changing priorities, which are of great importance in cultural policy. However, our argument is that comparisons of data on public expenditure on cultural policy alone do not suffice to offer explanations of developments within national cultural policies. Indeed, we have seen that one of the main problems with the currently available literature is its descriptive nature, and the fact that it does not always aim at providing an interpretation of the phenomena under observation, The descriptive moment is the necessary first step of any comparative research, but it will only produce information, not understanding. This is why there is a great need for a more theory-building approach to the study of cultural policy (Kawashima 1995; Schuster 1988, 6).

Equally important in defining an appropriate comparative methodology is the need to distinguish policy analysis from policy advocacy17. In Understanding Public Policy, Thomas R. Dye maintains unequivocally that “[l]earning why governments do what they do and what the consequences of their actions are is not the same as saying what governments ought to do, or bringing about changes in what they do. Policy advocacy requires the skills of rhetoric, persuasion, organisation, and activism. Policy analysis encourages scholars and students to attack critical policy issues with the For a discussion of the often-blurred divide between advocacy and research see Schuster (2002, 27-29) and Bennett (2004).

tools of systematic enquiry” (Dye 1975, 5). Unfortunately, as Dye himself recognises (1975, 14), this is often easier said than done, since the people who are actually undertaking policy research are often programme administrators, who have a vested interest in proving the success of their programmes. It is thus essentially important to separate as much as possible research from policy implementation and advocacy for funding. This is very difficult to achieve in practice though, in view of the way the cultural sector is structured and the way it works. More recently, Radin (2000, 92) has explicitly acknowledged that “[a]nalysts cannot insulate themselves from the dynamics of politics, interest groups, and deadlines”.

At the end of a detailed discussion of the many pressures that policy analysts have to operate under, Radin (Ibid., 105) concludes:

… the tensions between the imperatives of the two cultures – the cultures of analysis and politics – are not easy to avoid. They are a part of the day-to-day life of the policy analyst, playing out in different ways in different environments, and the stress that emanates from them is part of the lifeblood of the policy analysis profession and should be expected in a democratic system.

Analysts are rarely in the controlling role in this relationship, and most have acknowledged that their legitimacy is derived from elected or appointed political officials.

Although public policy experts agree that there has been a shift away from the belief that policy research can be fully apolitical (Radin 2000, 104), Oliver Bennett (2004) in a recent article warns about the consequences that are unavoidable whenever the researcher succumbs to the temptation of blurring of the boundaries between

research and advocacy:

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