Politics in Space: Methodological Considerations for Taking Space Seriously in Subnational Comparative Research

30 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2015 Last revised: 29 Sep 2015

See all articles by Imke Harbers

Imke Harbers

University of Amsterdam

Matthew C. Ingram

SUNY University at Albany

Date Written: September 14, 2015


Over the past two decades, a rich research program has emerged in which scholars draw on the subnational approach to better understand phenomena such as state formation, democratization, and development. Despite its undisputed potential, however, the subnational approach also creates specific challenges for researchers throughout the research cycle that have yet to be resolved. This paper explores how insights from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial analysis can help us work through some of these challenges. Furthermore, we highlight how a spatial perspective can increase the potential of the subnational approach by opening up new opportunities for theory development and analysis. “Taking space seriously” has key conceptual as well as theoretical implications. A major implication is the need for a more thorough recognition of the structural dependence that exists among units of observation. To be sure, this recognition is also important in international relations and cross-national comparative studies, but the analytic shift is perhaps most important at the subnational level where units of analysis have boundaries that are more porous than international borders. More importantly, however, the value added of spatial analysis for subnational research does not only lie in getting “right” answers to existing questions, but rather in bringing to the table exciting methods for (a) seeing existing questions in new light, and (b) identifying new and interesting questions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Taking space seriously thus also implies considering how this spatial dependence structures outcomes and relationships of interest. This paper is intended as a contribution to a conversation about how to go about studying subnational politics in a more disciplined and self-conscious way by examining the implications of spatial thinking across three stages of research design: (1) conceptualization, (2) theorizing, and (3) analysis. Within each of these phases there are lessons to be learned from taking space more seriously and there are important costs analytically of not doing so.

Keywords: subnational, interdependence, spatial analysis, propagation, context

JEL Classification: C49, H70, Z00

Suggested Citation

Harbers, Imke and Ingram, Matthew C., Politics in Space: Methodological Considerations for Taking Space Seriously in Subnational Comparative Research (September 14, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2552002 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2552002

Imke Harbers

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Matthew C. Ingram (Contact Author)

SUNY University at Albany ( email )

135 Western Ave
Milne Hall 314-A
Albany, NY 12222
United States

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