APPP Discussion Paper No. 3. A research design fit for purpose.


The design phase of the Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP) was completed at a workshop held in Cape Town on 14-16 May 2008. Launched in July 2007, the programme committed the bulk of its first year to a series of activities - brainstormings, country scoping missions and debate around commissioned 'think pieces' - which were intended to feed into the necessary decisions about priorities and approaches for the forthcoming four years. This paper was written in April 2008 preparation for the Cape Town workshop. It was meant to set the scene, structure the agenda of discussion and, in particular, suggest realistic limits for the participants' expectations. It is addressed to the workshop participants. It can, however, also be read as an essay on the challenges likely to be faced by any consortium research programme starting, as the APPP does, with the ambition of addressing in a coherent way an important but only roughly formulated research hypothesis.

The paper responds to consortium members' hunger for 'definition' in regard to both outcome variables and explanatory concepts. In respect of outcomes, the case for adopting a programme-wide focus on the production of public goods is reaffirmed, with an emphasis on the need to distinguish between the theoretical concepts deployed in thinking about outcomes and their operationalisation. The paper argues additionally that the programme may find it useful to address the extensive literature on collective action problems in analysing the proximate causes of changes, or differences, in the under- or over-production of particular sorts of public goods. The assumptions about rational choice made by practitioners of this type of political economy may be too unrealistic to generate valid accounts of behaviour. Nonetheless, their work may provide a useful counterpoint in our efforts to generate better explanations. In respect of explanatory concepts, the paper draws attention to what is involved in defining a theoretical concept. It argues that disagreements about the meanings of words may need to be treated as pointers to important empirical or theoretical questions, rather than as mere confusions to be settled by definition.


London, UK, Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP), 40 pp.

APPP Discussion Paper No. 3. A research design fit for purpose.

Published 1 January 2008