SOAS University of London

Department of Development Studies

Battlefields of Method: Approaches to International Development Research

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Full Year

The module equips students with the theoretical background and analytical skills to inquire into the relation between politics and method in the domain of international development. The module provides students knowledge about the plurality of methodological approaches in key areas of international development research, and the political choices and strategies associated with these. The module offers students the opportunity to practice with a selection of methods used in international development research.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Key focus of the module is to explore the relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘method’ in international development research. The relation between scientific method (as paradigm, as type of research, and as technique) and politics (as standpoint of the researcher, as policy perspective, and as contested social transformation) is not self-evident, and requires careful reflection and analysis.

At the end of the module, a student should be able to demonstrate…

  • the ability to assess the methodological foundations of empirical findings;
  • the ability to analyse the political dimensions of methodological choices and to compare different methodological approaches to a given issue;
  • knowledge of the most widely used research methods in international development research;
  • acquiring skills in selected research methods and the knowledge of how to retrieve, sift, select, analyse and synthesise relevant information


Teaching takes place through a weekly 2 hour seminar, but for each of the seven BOM topics, the second lecture is a ‘working session’, using different forms of interactive and practice-oriented teaching methods.

Scope and syllabus

Part I: Introduction: Focus, Theory Context

Introduction Explanation of module objectives, structure and organisation, and sharing of backgrounds and experiences of the participants, particularly as regards research methods in international development.

Politics and method Core theoretical session of the module that discusses the relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘method’. The lecture shows that there are neither simple 1:1 relations between methodological choice and policy and political perspective, nor is there independence of the two: method matters for politics and vice versa; how is a complex question.

Globalisation of research This session discusses (international development) research as a component as well as instrument of globalisation. It addresses the association of scientific research with colonialism and imperialism, but primarily focuses on how scientific practice as developed in western, industrialised contexts has institutionalised in other parts of the globe, in what kind of articulation with local and regional knowledge systems. It particularly focuses on the role of research in the post 1945 ‘development era’ and on the instrumental and reflective roles of international development research in that.

Boundary work: the research-policy interface The fourth session of the module zooms in on the theme of the ‘boundary work’ at the research-policy interface, an interface that has been considered as problematic, unproductive and otherwise undesirably shaped and functioning in the past decades of development practice. How academic research is and can be ‘put to work’ has been a vexing question for academic researchers, research funders, as well as development practitioners and decision-makers. The session reviews debates on this, employing theorisation of boundary processes as developed in the social study of science field.

Academic Tribes and Territories: Interdisciplinarity in International Development Research. One key challenge that international development research faces is the challenge of specialisation, which can easily become reductionist. Hence calls to the academic tribes and territories called disciplines to become ‘interdisciplinary’. Development studies as a field has often taken pride in claiming that it is ‘inherently interdisciplinary’. The session will show that interdisciplinarity is perhaps more about paradigms than about disciplines. It introduces the concept of ‘transdisciplinary’ research as an approach to democratising scientific practice.

Explanation: Complexity, Causality and Method The last session of the module returns to the starting issue of ‘paradigms’ and addresses the question, with reference to the BOM examples of the module, how methods are instruments for different kinds of explanations. The session zooms in on the meaning and types of explanation, and their related understandings of causality.

Part II: Battlefields of Method - Examples

The second part of the module presents seven examples of ‘battlefields of method’ in international development research and practice. The examples have been chosen to illustrate that ‘method matters’ for developmental understanding, choice, and strategy. In each example two or more different methodological approaches will be presented, discussed and compared, and their implications explored in terms of what they reveal and obscure, which development perspectives are associated with them, and what forms of international development research organisation they suggest. In the process students become familiar with a range of research methods employed in international development research. In every second session on an example the students actively engage with the methods through a variety of interactive and practice-oriented teaching methods.

Method of assessment

100% coursework. Each student will be expected to submit two essays, each worth 40% and a Policy Brief worth 20% of the overall grade. Resubmission of coursework regulations apply.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules