In Sweden, and I’m sure in many other countries, there is a strong policy push to internationalize our research. What is implied in the message is that scholars should network more, participate in and develop international projects, and – particularly – publish internationally. Indeed, to be an international scientist primarily mean to be someone who publishes high quality books and articles in English.
In this blog I wish to reflect on something far more substantial: to actually do international research. I am thinking primarily of doing such empirical research that includes non-domestic cases. This is intriguing and fun, but also challenging, costly, and most crucially, it is very important for scholarship.
For sure, this can be done by big international programs/projects in which country teams collaborate with each other through research design, aggregate comparative analysis, and publications; while each team does their empirical research task in their domestic context. An important benefit with big international projects is that scholars with the needed familiarity and understanding of their local context can be aligned in the project. However, the point I wish to make here is the experiential and hermeneutic value of going beyond the domestic sphere in one’s own empirical research.
Maybe environmental sociologists are already inclined toward doing international research because of the transboundary nature of environmental problems. Even so, there are many barriers to our reaching beyond national borders in empirical research. These can be external, such as physical distances; lack of funding opportunities (In Europe EU grants offer a good opportunity for international projects, but their bureaucracy threatens to kill the creativity in such projects); and personal barriers, such as lack of linguistic capacities (I am myself limited to Swedish, English and Google translate). In my experience, doing non-domestic empirical research is very challenging, but a challenge worthwhile to take. Here, I will briefly reflect on two projects.
One project I managed concerned the social dimensions of sustainable development, and focused on the challenges to incorporating the social pillar of sustainable development in a selection of transnational sustainability projects. My empirical role in the project concerned how the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC is a system for certification of sustainable forestry and labelling of forest products) made efforts to achieve social sustainability and how social sustainability competed or aligned with economic and environmental sustainability. I will not report on the results here, but can briefly say the publications (see examples below) reported challenges; and these challenges were reflected in the very research process itself. For example, “social actors” (e.g. trade unions, representatives of local communities and indigenous peoples) representing “social sustainability “ interests and concerns were much more difficult to reach for conducting interviews compared with “economic actors” and “environmental actors”. As our focus was the FSC on the transnational level we found it essential to include actors from different regions in the world and people who could talk about issues such as marginalization, worker’s rights, injustice, the role of indigenous people, local communities, and so on, including actors in developing countries. But how is this accomplished with limited project funding? Here, a big limit was language: we had to use English with telephone interviews. It was impossible to make field trips everywhere, although we did participant observations in one global meeting, as well as some face-to-face interviews and conversations. Obviously, practical circumstances meant that we faced the risk of failing to achieve a balanced and comprehensive perspective, including the views of the weakest actors. However, we decided it is better to make a try than not. Despite many challenges, I am happy we continued (more reflections on the advantages below).
I was (am) involved in another project, concerning transnational capacity building among local and national environmental NGOs. In this project we had project money to conduct field trips, so the project team did face-to-face interviews and document analysis in six countries: Sweden, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy. And we used seven languages (those mentioned + English). Lots of time, project money and energy was required to:
- Recruiting a multi-lingual project team so that we could do field trips in all countries, including staff with awareness of the local context
- Establish contact with ENGO-interviewees
- Establishing contacts with experts in each country with local expertise
- Planning the field trips
- Travelling to the interviewees (field trips to six countries, and the ENGO offices)
- Transcription and in some cases translation
First, quite naturally, the relative time and cost spent on one interview is much more than if we would have done our research only in Sweden and with Swedish informants. If the latter, the internationalization effort would only be on writing up the paper in English for an international publication. We would also look for researchers in other countries to conduct “comparative” analysis and write papers.
Second, in qualitative research the researchers strive for depth rather than breadth. However, the language barriers can be significant: it is not easy if you, as an interviewer (having English as a second language), try to get all the nuances regarding what’s told and untold from interviewees from very different cultures; and this when English is the second, third, or even fourth language of the interviewee. Interviewees may also speak of local issues that you don’t really understand in depth, because you have an insufficient understanding of the political, economic, cultural, and historical context. So collecting information is hard, and interpreting the information is perhaps even harder. Having researchers enrolled in the project with expertise and familiarity of the local situation is invaluable.
Are then the efforts, extra costs, energy, and time worthwhile? From my experience: yes! I don’t think it is possible to overstate how much more you learn both about your own “lifeworld” and the others’ – including the similarities of experiences, emotions, and motivations despite different context. I think it becomes part of one’s explicit as well as tacit knowledge about how it can be to experience, perceive and respond to environmental problems and many other issues in other countries. And even if it is easier to interpret someone from one’s own political culture, speaking one’s own language, isn’t it essential that we as environmental sociologists (and other sociologists and scientists) make a concerted effort to interpret and understand the lifeworld’s of others?
For many researchers in Sweden and elsewhere, travelling to international conferences and publishing internationally is, if not easy, clearly doable. Many researchers know English quite well, and with some extra effort, language editing, training, experiences and so on, one can gradually develop as an international researcher.
However, doing international research is unquestionably much more challenging than domestic research. Hard work is required. But this hard work has to be done. I think the benefits are invaluable. Even if one is embedded in a particular political culture, environmental sociologists have much to gain to develop a kind of “rooted cosmopolitan” perspective. Sidney Tarrow uses the term ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ in his book The New Transnational Activism, to denote people and groups who draw on both domestic and international resources and frames for their agency. Such experiences and perspectives are helpful not just to understand environmental problems better. And not just to understand better the geographically varied understandings, social constructions, and responses to environmental problems. But also to be able to study all processes of globalization, transnationalization and glocalisation by actually being a reflective part of these processes. And not the least to confront the kind of Xenophobia that is frighteningly increasing in Europe.
Boström, M. (2012) The Problematic Social Dimension of Sustainable Development. The Case of the Forest Stewardship Council. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology. 19(1):3-15.
Boström, M.; Casula Vifell, Å.; Klintman, M.; Soneryd, L.; Tamm Hallström, K.; Thedvall, R. (2015). Social Sustainability Requires Social Sustainability: Procedural Prerequisites for Reaching Substantive Goals” Forthcoming, summer issue 2015, in Nature + Culture.
Boström, M.; Rabe, L. & Rodela, R. (2015). Environmental non-governmental organizations and transnational collaboration in two macro-regional contexts: The Baltic Sea and Adriatic-Ionian Sea regions. Environmental Politics. doi=10.1080/09644016.2015.1027057
Tarrow, S. 2005. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press.