Comparative-historical analysis (CHA) has a long and distinguished pedigree in political science. In a discipline in which a succession of different movements has advocated new approaches promising more powerful theory or new methodologies for more rigorously testing theory, or both, CHA has stood the test of time. It remains the approach of choice for many scholars spanning all generations and continues to set agendas – both theoretical and substantive – for many other scholars who use alternative analytical and methodological tools.
In this introductory chapter, we explore the resilience and continuing influence of CHA in contemporary political science. We attribute the enduring impact of CHA to strengths built into its very defining features: its focus on large-scale and often complex outcomes of enduring importance; its emphasis on empirically grounded, deep case-based research; and its attention to process and the temporal dimensions of politics. These features not only distinguish CHA but also endow the approach with comparative advantages not found in other research.
The methodological churning within political science is not new, and yet it seems to have intensified over the past several years. Beginning in the late 1980s, the field underwent important changes as rational choice theory made its way into the mainstream of the discipline. Scholarship using game theory was greeted with considerable fanfare and controversy, celebrated by some for the theoretical elegance of its models, criticized by others for the limited leverage that these models often seemed to offer in explaining real world outcomes. Even if this line of work did not have the transformative effects that some predicted, clearly it now occupies an important place in the discipline.
More recently, an empiricist strand of work has emerged with similar energy and force. Billed by its proponents as a “revolution in causal inference,” the experimental method has been sweeping through many departments. Today's experimentalists put great emphasis on research design, often recruiting subjects – in the lab, in the field, or online – to participate in experiments that attempt to isolate the effects of variables of concern.