The PhD dissertation that (almost) never was: how multidisciplinary research rescued my PhD
Luis Mejía, PhD candidate at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, discusses how interdisciplinarity added a dimension to his PhD dissertation.
“A quick glance to the Utrecht Young Academy website is enough to be convinced why learning from multiple disciplines and methodologies is essential to conduct research projects that concern the governance structures that shape our daily life. Nevertheless, it is still worthy to stress about the perils of not supporting and designing projects using a more pluralistic approach to understand the complexity of contemporary social problems. The absence of fertile ground to pursue multidisciplinary research projects prevents scholars to engage with complex research puzzles and leaves relevant policy problems unattended.
The challenges that I have faced as an early stage political science scholar are related to the struggles of developing my project based on theoretical concepts from two different disciplines. To achieve my research goals I had to rely on comparative administrative law and political science to understand and analyze the contents of judicial appeals against regulatory agencies’ administrative decisions. My research design is evidently guided by a multidisciplinary approach, but this was only certain until I understood that my work could not be conducted without reaching out for the advice of legal scholars as well as from different methodological approaches.
"My research design is evidently guided by a multidisciplinary approach"
My PhD dissertation aims to understand why regulatory agencies fail to comply with legal and procedural standards in the process of enforcing the law (i.e. explaining policy failure). The relevance of my work lies in contributing to the literature on regulatory governance that studies the control mechanisms to overcome the ‘democratic and accountability deficit’ of independent regulatory bureaucrats. Despite the important role that courts play in the governance of regulatory agencies, few comparative studies analyze the contents of judicial appeals against regulatory decisions within European countries. Considering this gap in the literature, my research project aims to analyze and classify the content of 2,040 rulings against decisions issued by competition and telecommunications regulators in Spain and the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2016.
The dialectical pluralism approach
This situation led me to face a critical challenge that concerns the different epistemologies between law and politics to understand the meaning of ‘failure’, ‘legitimacy’, ‘unlawful behavior’, ‘irrationality’, or ‘procedural failure’ as qualifiers to assess a government’s performance. The struggle between concepts made it extremely complicated for me to analyze the content of judicial review rulings under a comparative perspective. Overcoming this challenge was essential to adapt my theoretical framework, analytical categories and hypotheses to fit the contexts between countries with different administrative traditions and judicial systems. To face these difficulties, the escape route was to follow a multi-disciplinary and mixed-methods strategy, following a dialectical pluralism approach. This concept is defined as an intellectual process to learn from multiple disciplines and methodologies while thriving on tensions from competing theories or methodological concerns.
The dialectical approach allowed me to identify the epistemological tensions between political science and administrative law regarding how to assess the legitimacy of regulatory agencies’ actions (i.e. through a positive evaluation of regulatory performance by citizens, or through the legality and fairness of the procedures to reach a policy decision). The solution was twofold: firstly, to consider the legality and fairness of agencies’ actions as the main aspect to study in the judicial appeals, using the core principles of administrative decisions (rule of law, fundamental rights and policy rationality) as a necessary condition for an act to be considered as legitimate. Secondly, to define the administrative decisions under judicial appeal using the concept of regulatory responsibilities to understand what the substantive policy areas under scrutiny are, linking the possibility to assess the regulatory performance of agencies.
This concept is defined as an intellectual process to learn from multiple disciplines and methodologies while thriving on tensions from competing theories or methodological concerns.
The way in which a multidisciplinary approach rescued my PhD research is an example of how understanding and overcoming disciplinary tensions could be translated into more gains to the explanatory power of our findings and policy recommendations, and the dialectical pluralism approach could represent the touchstone of research initiatives that engage with complex governance challenges.”