2009 NSF Workshop on Interpretive Methodologies in Political Science

This page archives materials from the 2009 NSF Workshop on Interpretive Methodologies in Political Science. Please see the headings below and links at the bottom of the page.


Where: University of Toronto

When: September 1-2, 2009 (Tuesday and Wednesday prior to APSA meeting)

Eligibility: Advanced doctoral students and junior faculty; priority will be given to US applicants and applicants enrolled in US institutions. Members of underrepresented groups are encouraged to apply.

Application deadline: April 22, 2009; applications will continue to be reviewed as long as space is available; support letters for doctoral students due April 27.

Financial support: Hotel at APSA conference rate for Monday and Tuesday nights; partial travel subsidy available based on need

The Workshop is intended for political science scholars doing empirical research who want to develop and improve their understanding and practice of interpretive research, through critical discussions with other participants and Workshop presenters. It is designed to connect leading scholars from a variety of empirical subfields, all experts in some aspect of interpretive methodology or method, with doctoral students and junior faculty who are pursuing such studies and who may lack opportunities for training or mentoring in their home departments. Political theorists (whether doctoral students or junior faculty) doing empirical research are also invited to apply.

Workshop activities will enable participants to better understand and articulate what is distinctive about interpretive methodologies and, specifically, what those methodologies can bring to the understanding of political issues. We expect the Workshop to equip all participants with the philosophical and methodological savvy to be able to articulate the distinctive perspective that interpretive approaches bring to causality, generalization, research design, and evaluative criteria. The Workshop will introduce participants to significant advances in the methodological components of interpretive research with which they may be unfamiliar, including a rich array of analytic possibilities. It will provide an opportunity for collective engagement among political science scholars, including the defining of new challenges for the discipline. Critical discussions with other participants and Workshop presenters/facilitators is intended to support participants in the development of their own research.

This workshop is made possible through the generous support of the National Science Foundation and the University of Utah (US), University of Toronto (Canada), and Vrije Universteit (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).




Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, University of Utah
Dvora Yanow, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Local arrangements

Edward Schatz, University of Toronto

Organizing committee

  • Robert Adcock, George Washington University
  • Lee Ann Fujii, George Washington University
  • Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, American University
  • Cecelia Lynch, University of California, Irvine
  • Julie Novkov, SUNY Albany
  • Ido Oren, University of Florida
  • Timothy Pachirat, New School
  • Dorian Warren, Columbia University

Please click here for a brief biographies of the Organizing Committee members.



Interpretive methodologies position the meaning-making practices of human actors at the center of scientific explanation.  Called qualitative research in some disciplines, it is conducted from an experience-near perspective in that the researcher does not start with concepts determined a priori but rather seeks to allow these to emerge from encounters in “the field” (which we define here broadly, to encompass both traditional in-country fieldwork, domestic and overseas, and textual-archival research).

Interpretive research focuses on analytically disclosing those meaning-making practices, while showing how those practices configure to generate observable outcomes.

Interpretive research methodologies and methods are not new but are today in a minority position in political science disciplinary training and mainstream journals.  Over the last decade, there has been increasing interest in, and recognition and support of, “qualitative” methods in the social sciences broadly and in the discipline of political science, in particular.  At the same time, “interpretive” methodologies and methods have also been drawing greater attention.  Whereas the philosophical grounding of interpretive research has long been clear, empirical issues of research design, research practice, and appropriate assessment have recently been developed in ways that can assist doctoral students and junior scholars to make their research more rigorous and to communicate their findings more effectively.

Although there is some overlap between qualitative and interpretive research practices (notably, in their use of word-based data), interpretive research is distinctive in its approach to research design, concept formation, data analysis, and standards of assessment (Bevir and Kedar 2008, Yanow and Schwartz-Shea, 2006; see also Klotz and Lynch 2007, Prasad 2005).  So, as Bevir and Kedar (2008) discuss, interpretive methodologies encompass an experience-near orientation that sees human action as meaningful and historically contingent.  In this view, social science and the subjects it studies are located within particular linguistic, historical, and values standpoints.  This contrasts strongly with the drive to identify generalizable laws independent of cultural-historical specificity.

See these links for a list of specific interpretive methods (pdf) and a bibliography (pdf).


Bevir, Mark and Kedar, Asaf. 2008. Concept formation in political science:  An anti-naturalist critique of qualitative methodology.  Perspectives on Politics 6 (3): 503-17.

Klotz, Audie and Lynch, Cecelia. 2007. Strategies for research in constructivist international relations.  Armonk, NY: M E Sharpe.

Prasad, Pushkala. 2005. Crafting qualitative research: Working in the postpositivist tradition.  Armonk, NY: M E Sharpe.

Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2006. Interpretation and method:  Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn.  Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.



Program Schedule

Two morning plenary presentations are oriented toward some of the key methodological debates: they will grapple with interpretive perspectives on explanation and causality.

Afternoon break-out sessions will engage the rich array of analytic possibilities within interpretive methods: the first afternoon session of small group meetings is organized around the discipline’s subfields; the second afternoon small group sessions are organized around methods topics. One might envision these sessions as “master classes” such as take place in instrumental and vocal music — discussions focused on participants’ empirical research, facilitated by more experienced researchers whose work employs interpretive methods and engages interpretive methodological issues. Discussions might range from issues of research design to the kinds of changes made in encountering the specifics of field settings. The content of these sessions will be shaped by the participants and their questions.

These sessions and lunches, coffee/tea breaks, and a Workshop dinner will enable opportunities for more informal engagement, allowing participants to interact across ranks, subfields, and specific methods.


Accepted applicants must arrive in time for the opening session of the workshop, which will begin promptly at 9:00 am Tuesday, September 1. The last session ends at 5:00 pm on Wednesday, September 2.

For successful applicants, the Workshop will cover the costs of the seminar sessions, 2 nights’ lodging (Monday and Tuesday nights) at the APSA hotel conference rate, and 2 lunches plus the Workshop dinner Tuesday night.

Participants are responsible for making their own travel and lodging arrangements.

Travel: Participants are responsible for their own travel costs, although a stipend of up to $500 per person is available on a needs basis [see application form].

Lodging: A list of hotels will be available at this link. The University of Toronto is minutes from the APSA hotels, and directions will be provided.

Participants are also responsible for saving lodging receipts and, where applicable, travel receipts, including boarding passes if traveling by air, to submit for reimbursement.


Ph.D. students: Participation is limited to advanced doctoral students (those in the dissertation proposal-writing stage—3rd year and beyond: this includes those who will be entering their third year in or by September-October 2009).

Junior faculty (i.e., prior to tenure), as well as post-docs and others in non-tenure lines but within 7 years of receiving the Ph.D., are also eligible.

For both: Priority will be given to US applicants and applicants enrolled in US institutions. Members of underrepresented groups are encouraged to apply.

Application, Review, and Selection Process

Applications, due April 22nd, are to be made through the web portal (instructions below). The review committee will select participants based on academic merit but additional criteria will be used to achieve balance, e.g., across rank (doctoral student, junior faculty); institutional type; geographical location; subfields; and other forms of diversity. Priority will be given to US applicants and applicants enrolled in US institutions. Applicants will be notified by May 15th.

For Ph.D. students:

The heads of Ph.D.-granting departments are being contacted via an APSA email to invite nominations of students (with a limit of 2 nominations per department). Students without a departmental nomination are also invited to self-nominate.

All applicants will be required to submit a working dissertation title along with a brief statement including research focus, theoretical area, empirical setting, and methods.

We also ask for one letter in support of the application, which should be brief (no longer than a page) and address why you are an appropriate candidate for this workshop. The letter is due April 27th. A departmental nomination letter meets this requirement. Those who are nominating themselves are asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a faculty member.

For Junior Faculty:

Prospective junior faculty participants are invited to self-nominate by submitting the application through the web portal. We ask for information about your research; no recommendation letters are required.

Web portal instructions

Complete the online application. Except for the letter of support (where applicable), all information must be entered in one sitting. For preparation purposes, a sample application form may be downloaded.

Submission of an application will generate an ID number. Ph.D. students will need to give this number to the nominating department head or recommending faculty member, so that s/he can upload her/his letter.



Tuesday 1 September Wednesday 2 September
Morning plenary session (9-12)

Beyond explanation vs. understanding: Philosophy of science and the variety of empirical research methodologies

Presenter: Patrick Jackson
Video of Presentation: Part 1  |  Part 2

Morning plenary session (9-12)

Interpretation and causal inference: Challenges and opportunities for interpretive researchers

Presenter: Robert Adcock


Small group lunches (12-2)



Small group lunches (12-2)

Afternoon break-out sessions (2-5)

Interpretive methods in


American Political Development: Victoria Hattam, Dorian Warren*


Comparative Politics I: Robert Adcock, Jan Kubik*, Lisa Wedeen


Comparative Politics II: Lee Ann Fujii, Tim Pachirat*, Fred Schaffer, Ed Schatz


International Relations: Patrick Jackson, Cecelia Lynch*, Ido Oren


Public law: Pamela Brandwein*, Julie Novkov


Public Policy & Administration: Peregrine Schwartz-Shea*, Dvora Yanow

Afternoon break-out sessions (2-4:40)

Interpretive approaches to


Discourse analysis I: Jan Kubik, Cecelia Lynch, Julie Novkov*


Discourse analysis II: Pamela Brandwein*, Lisa Wedeen


Historical analysis: Robert Adcock, Victoria Hattam, Ido Oren*


Interviewing: Lee Ann Fujii*, Fred Schaffer


Political ethnography and participant-observation: Tim Pachirat*, Ed Schatz, Dorian Warren


Research design: Patrick Jackson, Peregrine Schwartz-Shea*, Dvora Yanow

Evening reception/Dinner, 6:30 pm


Program: Issues in Professional Development: Q&A
Panel: Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, chair; Pamela Brandwein, Lee Ann Fujii, Cecelia Lynch, Ido Oren, Tim Pachirat, Dorian Warren, Lisa Wedeen

Wrap-up (4:45 – 5:00)


* = Organizing Facilitator.



Please click the following links for resources provided during the Workshop:


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