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Book encourages research collaboration across specialties

May 11, 2010

Advances in research methods within the social sciences have led to debates over which method is best suited for particular projects, and have also caused researchers to become isolated.

The new book "Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice," published by the Princeton University Press, examines the advantages that can be gained from drawing on several different research methods and the challenges of a multi-methods approach.

Co-author and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, founding director of Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, explains that right now in the social sciences there is a "'my method is better than yours, my discipline is better than yours mentality, which is destructive."

Ostrom, along with co-authors Marco Janssen, an assistant professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Amy Poteete, assistant professor of political science at Concordia University, Montreal, look at how different methods have promoted various theoretical developments, and they demonstrate the importance of cross-fertilization involving multi-methods research across traditional boundaries.

The book looks at why cross-fertilization is difficult to achieve, as well as ways to overcome these challenges through collaboration.


"It isn't realistic to think a single researcher can master all the different research methods used today," said Poteete. "By looking at a single body of research at different stages and different points you see how these methods complement each other, which I hope will encourage people to collaborate when opportunities become available."


Poteete added that collaboration won't be easy because of institutional problems at universities and funding organizations that encourage people to work in "silos." She said the book can lead to these institutions making changes and updating funding criteria so researchers are actually awarded for collaborating.

The book provides numerous examples of collaborative, multi-methods research related to collective action and the commons. It examines the pros and cons of case studies, meta-analyses, large-N field research, experiments and modeling and agent-based models, and it looks at how these methods contribute to research on collective action for the management of natural resources.

In addition, "Working Together" outlines a revised theory of collective action that includes three elements: individual decision making, microsituational conditions and features of the broader social-ecological context.

"Many researchers limit the questions they ask by the methods they are trained in. In the book we encourage them to define questions first and then decide on the appropriate methods to use to address those questions," said Janssen, associate director of Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity. "If we want to make progress in answering the big picture questions we need to not limit ourselves to specific methods we have been trained in."

Janssen added that new tools, new software and new technologies are rapidly changing, so it is essential for researchers to not only keep up-to-date with these changes but to familiarize and expose themselves and their students to many of the research methods available.

In 2004, Ostrom asked Janssen and Poteete, who worked with her as post-docs at Indiana University, to partner with her on the book. She recognized that their work and skill sets were complementary.

Ostrom has a strong background in research relating to the governance of common pool resources; Poteete's specialty is in natural resource management and research methodology; and Janssen's expertise is in agent-based modeling and experiments.

"'Working Together' turned out to be a great title for our successful effort to 'work together,'" said Ostrom, also a professor of political science in Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences. "We have all been interested in a similar set of questions about how to solve collective-action problems related to common-pool resources, but we each bring a different set of tools to the enterprise. Having worked with Janssen and Poteete on several earlier projects, I thought the three of us could really build on that foundation for a book. It turned out to be a major effort, but well worth it."


Scott Southward,