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Book Review: The Comparative Method

December 8th, 2007

comparative-method-book-review.jpgThis article by Sarah Tenney is a review of the book The Comparative Method by Charles C. Ragin, published by the University of California Press in 1987.


In this book, Charles Ragin puts forward a “qualitative comparative method” in an effort to preserve the essential features of case-oriented research while introducing Boolean algebra as a means of formalizing scientific inquiry and incorporating larger numbers of observations.

Ragin describes comparative politics as differing from other areas of social science in its attempt to examine two levels of analysis — the system level and the within-system leve l— at the same time. This approach developed in light of the nature of social interaction, in which a number of conditions can culminate in various ways and under different circumstances to produce similar outcomes. Thus, the comparative method takes a holistic approach. Rather than working with samples of large populations, it examines a small number of cases in detail. Ragin argues that unlike quantitative researchers who are focused on testing hypotheses across a broad spectrum of observations, comparativists are concerned with applying theory in order to interpret particular cases.

Against this background, comparativists have traditionally relied on Mill’s method of agreement and Mill’s indirect method of difference to identify cases and variables that warrant further investigation. Like King, Keohane, and Verba, Ragin notes that the components of scientific inquiry are not always developed separately or in order. He feels that the holistic comparative approach opens the way for a more constructive dialogue between theory creation and data analysis throughout the research process. Nevertheless, he notes, comparative research techniques are limited in their ability to address a large number of cases simultaneously.

At the same time, he says, although quantitative or variable-oriented methodology has the advantage of testing variables across a large number of cases, the emphasis it places on generalization through the assumption of unit heterogeneity is not always appropriate for comparativists. Therefore, he offers the so-called qualitative comparative method — or the use of Boolean algebra — as a middle ground that attempts to integrate the best features of the case-oriented approach and the variable-oriented approach. He argues that this approach will meet the needs of researchers by:

  1. addressing a large number of cases;
  2. fostering the comparative logic of research design;
  3. enabling them to formulate parsimonious explanations;
  4. serving as an analytic tool in efforts to examine both the whole and the parts of specific phenomena; and
  5. helping to evaluate competing explanations.

Although Ragin’s proposal seems to represent a major step forward in enabling traditional comparativists to conduct tests across a broad array of cases, it is not clear whether Boolean algebra addresses the weaknesses often ascribed to Mill’s method of agreement. For example, to the extent that Boolean algebra still relies on a process of elimination to determine which variables are present across a variety of instances to establish causation, it is not clear that would identify multiple causation in those cases where different variables could be explained by similar outcomes in a variety of cases. Could it address circumstances where two apparent “causes” could be the result of yet a third unidentified cause? Also, this approach could not be used to clearly estimate degrees of uncertainty.

In summary, Ragin’s “qualitative comparative method” seems to go a long way toward providing a middle ground for quantitative and qualitative researchers. However, it does not solve the problem of differentiating between correlation and causation common to both approaches.



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