Posts Tagged ‘Research Design’

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Fuzzy Sets and Public Diplomacies

March 15, 2019

One way that sciences create difficulties for themselves is when their conceptual frameworks diverge too much from the reality of what they are studying.  Concepts are always abstractions but there is a trade-off; more abstraction means greater universality but also less discrimination.  Abstract thinking is much more prone to  distinctions that are much sharper than are found ‘out there’.*

I’ve always thought that one of the problems with research on public diplomacies is a tendency to emphasize categorical; what is or is not public diplomacy, diplomacy, cultural relations or horror of horror ‘propaganda’.  Have worked through so much of the history I think happens here is that we as scholars import arguments from what we are studying.  Countries have generally want to differentiate what they do from the other side’s ‘lies’ and ‘propaganda’.  At the same time at home organizations have protected their turf by constructing conceptual distinctions between what they do (cultural relations, international broadcasting) and what other organizations do (diplomacy, propaganda, development).  When you focus on organizations, practices and programmes ie what actually gets done such neat conceptual distinctions really lose a lot of their importance.

One idea that I’ve found useful is the opposition between ‘crisp’ and ‘fuzzy’ sets (Ragin 2008).  A crisp set is one with a dichotomous membership, ie state versus non-state a potential member is either out or in.  Fuzzy sets have degrees of membership so rather than starting with a cut-off point you start with criteria that would define 100% membership,  potential members can then be scored.  The essential point is that you define the core of the set rather than its limits.   Hence to go back to the state/non-state example you would define criteria for something to count as 100% state (eg finance, legal status, responsive to guidance) and score from there.

This is similar to network analysis where you can assess degrees of membership of cohesive subgroups even within a network where everything is connected.

The focus of my history project is overt civilian, peacetime public diplomacies but in coming up against the historical record, for some countries at least, the overt, civilian and peacetime stuff doesn’t make much sense if your rigidly exclude activities that don’t quite fit.

* This is a rather old problem, I can’t remember who said it  (probably Nietzsche) but the quip that ‘the Greeks invented the concept and thought they had discovered reality’ is a useful one to keep in mind.

Ragin CC (2008) Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.