Department of Political Science

How do we tell Authoritarian Diffusion from Illusion? Exploring Methodological Issues of Qualitative Research on Authoritarian Diffusion

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  • Thomas Ambrosio, North Dakota State University, United States
  • Jakob Tolstrup

With the recent proliferation of comparative authoritarianism studies, a new research agenda on authoritarian diffusion has emerged. Authoritarian diffusion concerns the study of how events, institutions, and strategies relevant for autocratic political systems travel between them. So far, scholars have strived towards proving that authoritarian diffusion is real and is happening across a wide range of contexts. Now the time has come for the field to develop further. This involves improving our understanding of how important diffusion effects really are (the effect size), how diffusion effects come about (the mechanisms), and how contextual factors shape these two (diffusion’s conditional nature). To do this, more methodological reflection and rigor is needed. The aim of this paper is to push qualitative researchers of authoritarian diffusion to reflect more upon the methodological issues and challenges associated with examining diffusion in autocratic contexts. Based on a survey of the existing qualitative literature, we show that insufficient attention to issues such as case-selection, causal mechanisms and evidentiary requirements, restrictions on data availability, process-tracing methods, and alternative explanations is holding back the emergent research field on authoritarian diffusion. We provide researchers involved in this research agenda with guidance on both potential pitfalls and feasible solutions, and where possible we draw on best-practice examples from within the field itself and the wider diffusion literature. Authoritarian diffusion is a challenging topic to study; only conscious, analytical stringency and serious methodological reflection will pave the way for its further advancement.

Original languageEnglish
JournalQuality and Quantity
Pages (from-to)2741-2763
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019

    Research areas

  • Authoritarianism, Diffusion, Process-tracing, Qualitative methodology

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