PhD student develops method to measure the growth of international norms

May 17, 2021

Tyler Girard, PhD student in the Department of Political Science

Photo and story by Rob Rombouts

Tracking how different societies and countries change over time is not easy. Understanding what makes different states move toward an international norm requires tracking complex and differing causes and changes. But Tyler Girard has developed a way.

Inspired by an assignment in a research methods course, Girard, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science, developed a new way to measure the international norms around lesbian, gay and bisexual equality. Girard then turned a class assignment into a paper published in the top-rated journal in his field.

The paper, ‘Reconciling the Theoretical and Empirical Study of International Norms: A New Approach to Measurement’ was published in the February 2021 issue of the American Political Science Review.

“It’s hard to overstate how important it is to have an article published in the APSR”, said Dave Armstrong, professor, and Canada Research Chair in Political Methodology. “It’s the journal of record for political science. To have that on his CV already, will immediately make Tyler more competitive.”

In the paper, Girard brought a quantitative approach to the study of international norms, an approach that has not typically been used. International norms, Girard said “are a shared understanding of appropriate behaviour.” While there have been theoretical approaches to determine how norms change over time, and how certain countries adopt them, there has not been a way to empirically measure the adoption of international norms in a way that is consistent with theory.

Girard said there are generally two approaches to studying international norms. The first relies on country-specific case studies, which provide deep analysis of changes within one country, but require a fair amount of time and money.

The second approach involves collecting and analysing data from many countries, but this approach necessitates a loss of details about the development of norms in each country.

To strike a balance between these approaches, Girard considered what different indicators of a norm might be, and how that data could be collected and analyzed over time.

“Other people had thought about using versions of this method in other contexts – such as studies of voter behaviour or measuring ideology,” said Girard, “But in the field of international relations, these techniques aren’t necessarily used.”

When considering issues for LGB norms, Girard identified thirteen policies, including the legalization of same-sex marriage, which highlighted the increase of LGB rights in a country. By measuring when or if states adopted these policies, Girard was able to measure the development of the international norms across time, and incorporating many countries.

“Tyler Girard's article in the APSR is a great demonstration of the importance of quantitative research in studying norms of international behaviour,” said Matthew Lebo, chair of the department of Political Science. “And it also shows that Western is a leader in Canada in teaching the cutting-edge methods for research in political science.”

In the past five years, the department has hired more methods-focused academics – including Zack Taylor, Dave Armstrong, Mathieu Turgeon and Lebo. This has allowed an expansion of methods training at the graduate level.

“It's been really great to see a significant uptick in graduate student publishing. This single-authored paper is the culmination of this new culture and training in our graduate program,” said Chris Alcantara, professor and graduate chair in the department.

The department is “a place that offers broad training in methodology,” said Armstrong. “It puts us among the top departments in the country, if not in a different league altogether.”

While the department’s strength in quantitative methods has increased, it is intended as a way to support, not replace, other approaches to the discipline.

“We are trying to produce students who have top-notch training methodologically to answer the questions they want to answer,” said Armstrong. “Including a quantitative approach to their work makes it stronger. Tyler is a great example for someone for whom that is true.”