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Many of the historical and contemporary phenomena in which social scientists are interested are difficult to study using traditional methods of comparative analysis. Since most cases are complex systems – marked by interdependence and operating at multiple levels of analysis at once – controlling comparisons to adjudicate causality is fraught with difficulty. This chapter argues that scholars can use historical archival research to help disaggregate the temporal and spatial properties of the phenomena we hope to compare while also tracing connections among those disaggregated elements. Specifically, practices associated with archival inquiry – classifying, contextualizing, layering, and linking – allow us to identify the boundaries around subsystems that can be treated as relatively independent while identifying the hierarchical connections tying those substemic activities together. The chapter concludes by showing how William Tuttle’s masterful history of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 provides a template for comparing complex cases.
Comparison is a key tool in the social sciences. Scholars make comparisons across time and place to better understand our social and political worlds. A central technique that scholars use is often called ‘controlled comparison.’ Controlled comparisons rely on scholars holding possible explanations for the outcome of interest (e.g., revolutions or political participation) constant across different cases. This approach has been central to some of the most influential works of social science. It has helped scholars explain everything from divergent development outcomes to difference in regime type. Yet controlled comparisons are not the only form of comparison that scholars utilize to answer important questions. There is little guidance, however, for how to design or execute these comparisons or why research that does not rely on controlled comparisons can offer important insights. The goal of this edited volume is to begin to develop some of these guidelines. To do so, this volume explores two of the most fundamental questions in the study of politics: (1) why do scholars compare what they compare and (2) how do the methodological assumptions scholars make about why and how they compare shape the knowledge they produce? By answering these questions, the volume creates new resources for future students and researchers to draw upon in their efforts to advance knowledge.
If case study comparison is useful in the social sciences, it should be at least as useful as a way of understanding the political preferences and participation of individuals as it is for larger and more complex social categories such as organizations, parties, militaries, or states. Thus, qualitative comparisons involving the political preferences and activity of American billionaires will serve as a benchmark for the plausibility of various comparative frameworks. The chapter will demonstrate that applying Mill’s method-type comparison to billionaires generates inferential absurdities and also shows that regression-type logics of control are a poor fit for individual-level qualitative analysis. More feasible frameworks for understanding qualitative comparison at the individual level come both earlier and later in the inferential process. Cross-case comparisons are highly valuable for concept formation and theory building prior to any systematic effort at causal inference and also play a meaningful role in inferences about moderation effects after process tracing has been successful within each case. Furthermore, multi-case qualitative analysis that is not structured as explicit comparison can make crucial contributions to multi-method research on individuals.
During the Cold War, comparisons between the state-socialist bloc and democracies sparked scholarly controversy. With scholars pursuing innovative comparisons between China and other political systems, it behooves us to revisit some of the questions that such comparisons pose. Specifically, when is it reasonable to pursue them, what is their purpose, and what do they entail? Giovanni Sartori usefully cautioned against comparing unlike entities, yet his advice was overly confining. Sometimes gaps or disjunctures between political phenomena in dissimilar political systems provide opportunities for innovation, even if they complicate Mill-style comparison. In particular, such projects can provide intellectual payoffs through the way in which they frame a topic of study, specify its universe of cases, and scrutinize the gains and risks of including phenomena from disparate contexts in a common category. Further, they provide opportunities for conceptual development by elaborating on and exploring these shared phenomena. Such cross-regime comparisons are not always feasible or useful. When successful, however, they can provide rich and thought-provoking new theoretical and conceptual departures. I illustrate this with examples from research projects comparing China with the democratic systems of India, Taiwan, France, and the United States.
This chapter examines the trajectory of a research project on militant organizations’ adaptation that began as a “classic” case comparison and was “re-cased” into an explicitly network-based comparison of intra-organizational networks. In doing so, it outlines a method of comparison focused primarily on roles, relations, and emergence rather than on organizational form or behavior. The chapter starts by discussing the project’s initial research design, which proposed a study of militant organizations across three Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that largely adhered to Millian logic. The project dedicated extensive research time to establishing a pre-invasion “control” by seeking to demonstrate pre-shock organizational uniformity across the communities under study. However, the evidence gathered often complicated or contradicted logics of control, independence, causality, and identification that undergird dominant approaches to comparison. Rather, it repeatedly indicated that complex, relational, often contingent interactions among geographic environment, communities’ interpretations of violence, and organizational structures influenced outcomes of interest. The chapter leverages this experience to establish core tenets of a broader approach to studying organizational change in comparative perspective.
What does it mean to advance women’s status and well-being? And how should we think about the role of the state in bringing about that advancement? Our work analyzes the approach and role of the state in promoting women’s empowerment, drawing on large-N country-level data and in-depth case studies of state action in the United States, Norway, and Japan. Our three country cases vary greatly in terms of the state’s approach to women’s rights; we picked them because we believe them to be extreme examples of how state action is driven by different visions of what women’s empowerment is about. Conducting fieldwork in these different contexts allows us to study some of the variation in people’s views of both state action and empowerment. It sharpens our awareness of important assumptions that underlie studies of empowerment. It also helps us determine the right questions to ask. To the extent that we study causal relationships, we do so based on large-N data within cases, not across them. And rather than assume that the same causal patterns apply across cases, we draw on our fieldwork to better understand why the same policies produce vastly different effects in different contexts. This chapter is a reflection on some of the goals of comparative studies that are unrelated to drawing causal inferences, and how to think about research design and case selection to achieve these goals.
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