The United Nations organization has been a subject of study in many disciplines such as political science, history, economics, law and others since its creation in 1945 and earlier if we take into account previous settings of multinational discussions such as the League of Nations. Various theoretical approaches — at times even competing with one another — have been used to examine the United Nations. For instance, in the 1960-70s, an extensive literature raised the issues of politics and power games in particular with respect to the voting patterns at the General Assembly as well as the Security Council (Alker and Russett 1967). An intergovernmental perspective dominated the literature and realist theories were mainly applied to study international organizations. However the 1970s witnessed a turning point in the way scholars examined these institutions. This period was marked by the rise of the regime literature, which goes beyond formal organizations. The study of international governance was understood as a set of rules, norms and principles. Scholars also started to consider other actors involved in this international governance such as NGOs and civil society. The late 1990s-early 21st century constituted a second crucial milestone in the study of the UN. In line with the critical perspective developed by Cox and Jacobson in 1973 and followed by Reinalda and Verbeek in 1998 and 2004, the academic community began to open the “black box” and look at the internal processes at play. In 1999 and 2004, Barnett and Finnemore laid the cornerstones for the study of the UN bureaucratic structure. They were followed by a growing field of research analyzing the UN as an international bureaucracy (Biermann and Siedenhüner 2009, Bauer, Knill, and Eckhard 2017). Despite this important theoretical development in the study of the United Nations, it has not been followed by a complete assessment of the methods used to research these organizations. Which methods are used and how? What would be a specific methodology applied to the case of international organizations (IOs)?
On the one hand, IO researchers have recently called for a renewal in the way international organizations are approached stressing the need for innovative tools to capture the intergovernmental world. Scholars also consider the relevance of a research "toolkit" which includes quantitative methods or mixed-method perspectives, that are used for instance in the context of European organizations (Van Ingelgom 2007). In addition, the digitalization of IO documents has allowed researchers to study them in new ways, providing an easier and global access to grey literature. Network analysis together with quantitative and qualitative discourse analysis is among methodological tools recently applied to enhance research on IOs.
On the other hand, many scholars have raised the difficulty to conduct research on IOs, due to the need for “discretion” and neutrality when addressing international civil servants (Dematteo 2011, Badaro 2011) or due to invisible entry barriers that make research impossible to outsiders, favoring research (almost) exclusively to former international staff (David-Ismayil 2010). The place of the researcher within these configurations with specific codes requires a permanent reflexivity (Laurens 2007). The entry into the field, the modalities of research and the exploitation of results are complex issues to negotiate in any context, and even more in a multilateral and bureaucratic one. Ethnographic approaches, applied both collectively and individually (Lewis and Mosse 2006, Abélès 2011, Müller 2012, Foyer 2015), are increasingly used to overcome these hurdles. Furthermore the work of historians is also considerably valuable to put multilateral practices into perspective (Kott 2011).
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