The Value of Comparative Research

by Oona Hathaway

Chris makes several excellent points about the value of comparative research. I think it is worth mentioning that I came to this topic from the comparative perspective rather than the other way around. I have for four years now been working on a project in which I am examining the international and domestic lawmaking processes of the 186 countries that have a constitution (or basic laws that essentially operate as one). When I examined the initial data this past summer, I was surprised to see that the United States was such an outlier. This struck me as an interesting puzzle: Why and how did the United States come to have such an unusual international lawmaking process?

The comparative research thus puts the U.S. experience into perspective and offers us a better sense of the range of possibilities. This can be helpful because scholars who have written about the international lawmaking process in the United States frequently assume that the U.S. international lawmaking process is the norm. Seeing our practices in comparative perspective makes it clear that it is not.

I do not mean to suggest that doing things differently from the rest of the world is in itself wrong or unwise. As I put it in the article, “[t]hat the process for making treaties in the United States is extremely unusual does not mean, of course, that it is necessarily wrong or misguided.” But it does lead us to ask why our way of doing things is so unusual–and if there might not be a better way. To me, that is the value of the comparative perspective for this project.

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