‘Following the Trail’: Reflections on Investigative Methods in the Study of EU Law

Danai Petropoulou Ionescu |

When conducting empirical research in EU law and governance, researchers might often feel like they’re taking on the role of a detective or an investigative journalist. It all starts with an idea that becomes a workable puzzle, you gather data and compose it to tell a story, with the overall aim to uncover information and create knowledge about something. Oftentimes, unexpected information reveals itself along the way that might challenge the initial assumptions of the research. Some odd times, one starts from a surprising observation or a snippet of knowledge that hints towards a larger issue. Other times, the researcher will discover a new source of data while conducting an analysis. In studying the EU, a ‘creature’ that is already complex and sometimes unpredictable in its own ways, these twists-and-turns of the research process can unearth new insights that were often not part of the plan. How can we use these unforeseen developments along the research process to enrich our approach?

One potential answer to this question is quite straightforward: embrace them. Generally, research designs in this field, particularly stemming from the discipline of political science, follow a deductive approach – i.e., begin with a concept or theory that is used as a guiding point to investigate a given phenomenon. Embracing the unexpected in research, or even depending on it, calls for somewhat of a different approach. Specifically, this post proposes the introduction of investigative methods, in the methodological toolbox of studying political and legal (dis)integration in the Union.

Investigative methods, generally speaking, belong to the family of exploratory research methods and carry a number of unique characteristics. These mainly revolve around the presence of flexibility and adaptability at different stages of the research process. For instance, this approach proposes a structured starting point for the research process which, though informed by previous research, remains malleable and open to adaptation based on new ideas or new data. In practice, this can look like finding a ‘clue’ about the phenomenon at hand and using it as an ‘opening move’ or impetus for research.

For instance, in my own research on the process of creating EU soft law by the European Commission, a first clue was the fact that nobody seems to know how these instruments are made. Now this initial observation kicks off a myriad of other questions: why is that the case? Can this be attributed to the informal character of the instruments? Is it because it is difficult to find out? Is this a sign of fragmentation in the Commission’s internal procedures? This can then be used as separate avenues of investigation, all of which can inform our initial observation. Certainly, some will be more informative than others, but  that cannot be known in advance.

One of the more central aspects of this approach relates to its unique strategy of data collection. When using investigative methods, sources of data – data sets, data samples, interviewee lists, etc. – are not fixed for the duration of a given project. Instead, the researcher starts with the most promising avenue of data collection and acts as a detective; changing the composition and ordering of their data in accordance to new evidence or analytical ideas. This allows the researcher to ‘follow the trail’ and find answers to the central puzzle by exploring new angles, employing different perspectives from different disciplines or fields of study, and adapting their research strategy without being constrained by rigid conceptual frameworks and without forfeiting methodological rigour.

This is not entirely unfamiliar in the EU studies field. Elements of this approach are often used in empirical data collection, usually taking the form of ‘snowballing’ relating to, for example, the recruitment of interview participants or survey respondents. Still, the incorporation of investigative methods in the study of EU law goes much further and deeper, and primarily speaks to the overall design and epistemological approach of the research. It is the unique modelling and mapping of processes – e.g. administrative or policy processes – that investigative methods propose that enable us to gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of processes which would otherwise be inaccessible. That being said, so far investigative methods are primarily used in disciplines as psychology or sociology and have not been utilised in the study of the EU as a holistic approach.

Still, for legal scholars who work with empirical research, this approach and this process might sound familiar. It is very often the case that, when embarking on empirical legal research in EU matters, researchers find themselves in front of a sea of information with a simple question: where do I even start? This question is often followed up with trying to identify what is and isn’t there – are there relevant cases to my research problem? Have the concerned institutions made any statements about it? Is there someone I can talk to to find out more? This very exploration of what is and what is not available is part of the research and can be a finding within itself. Most importantly, this initial process of ‘figuring out’ potential avenues of data collection and inquiry sets the ‘investigation’ in motion. The flip side of this accidental familiarity of empirical legal scholars with investigative methods is that, by and large, legal studies are considered to be – sometimes unfairly – lacking in methodological rigour, primarily because it does not follow the stricter political science models of ‘theory-testing’ deductive models. Are these models the be-all and end-all of credible EU studies research? That is a discussion far more nuanced than the scope of this blog post. Still, I argue that there is significant merit in stepping away from predefined models and opening up the process of creating knowledge through research.

The point of this reflection is to propose investigative methods as an exceptionally useful tool in studying administrative and policy processes in the Union, both from disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. Such an approach is particularly useful in areas of regulation that are characterised by high informality, high techno-scientific complexity, or are generally high-paced – which are notoriously difficult to study due, partly, to the large quantity of data sources and research avenues, or research blind-spots. In this sense, this methodological approach, when applied in the study of EU law and governance can help empirical scholarship ‘keep up’ with legal and administrative developments or uncover complex formal or informal mechanisms that make EU law work in practice.

Still, with all that in mind, there is an important point to be made here regarding the limitations to creativity and exploration in research imposed by the very structures of academia – surely, tight deadlines, funding, and output expectations do hinder the process. This is the reality of the field in broader EU studies and every other discipline. Perhaps, this is an issue for further reflection.

In short, by placing a specific emphasis on exploration, description, adaptation, and explanation, investigative methods can open up an avenue of understanding the more ‘nitty-gritty’ aspects of EU law and governance in a way that other research methods cannot. This post offers a methodological reflection on how investigative methods can enhance the methodological toolbox of studying EU law and help us better understand the ever-changing nature of law in the Union. The point here is simple: embrace creativity in research and embrace the unforeseen.

An example of the application of this method can be found in Petropoulou Ionescu, D., & Eliantonio, M. (2022). Soft Law Behind the Scenes: Transparency, Participation and the European Union’s Soft Law Making Process in the Field of Climate Change. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 1-21. doi:10.1017/err.2022.31 available here.