Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2001

Comparative Methodology

Lecturer: Professor Charles C. Ragin,
Northwestern University, USA
Dates: 30. July - 3. August 2001

Course description
Comparative social science is defined by its interest in (or at least a presumption of) meaningful "cases." Comparativists treat cases as whole entities purposefully selected (e.g., the French Revolution), not as homogeneous observations drawn randomly from a large pool of equally plausible selections (e.g., a random selection of cases from the population of all revolutions -- assuming such a population could be defined). This gives comparative work a special focus on "significant" cases. Case-oriented discourse speaks directly to the events and experiences of cases, abstracting from their histories and their specific characteristics and circumstances to draw out their theoretical significance. At the case level, researchers can make sense of seemingly unrelated phenomena, placing events and processes in context and in meaningful sequences. Thus, case-oriented discourse responds to the experiences of cases as singular entities and is capable of contributing directly both to the discussion of issues and problems faced by separate cases and to the elaboration of theory.

Discourse that is too case-oriented, however, has its own problems: Every case may seem too different to be compared with any other case, and scholarly authority may derive exclusively from in-depth knowledge of cases, not from explication of their theoretical relevance. In the extreme, discourse that is too slanted toward cases can atomize comparative social science, with each scholar attached to a seemingly unique case and deriving scholarly authority from a store of knowledge that cannot be easily shared or duplicated. A competing goal of comparative social science, therefore, is to derive general statements about theoretically important relationships. Making general statements requires using concepts and, at the level of cases, focusing on observable variables. Thus, concepts and variables permeate almost all social scientific discussion of cases, no matter how much or how little homage is paid to their singularity or meaningfulness as cases.

The course addresses the problem of balancing case-oriented and variable-oriented discourse in comparative social science. It offers an advanced introduction to comparative methodology, as it is -- or should be -- practiced in sociology, political science and related social sciences. The course is built around the contrast between the logic of comparative analysis and other analytic logics, with a focus on different forms of qualitative and quantitative analysis. A central concern is the comparative analytic techniques appropriate for different types of comparative investigations. The logic of comparative research is powerfully influenced by the number of cases included in a study. This course will explore a wide range of comparative designs, from comparatively oriented case studies to research on large numbers of macro-level cases and will focus on the tools needed to link case-oriented and variable-oriented discourse in these different research designs.

Basic readings

The lecturer
Charles C. Ragin holds a joint appointment as Professor of Sociology and Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is also appointed as a Professor II of Sociology at University of Oslo, Norway, and currently (2000-2001) holds an appointment as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His main interests are methodology, political sociology, and comparative-historical research, with a special focus on such topics as the welfare state, ethnic political mobilization, and international political economy.

His newest book Fuzzy-Set Social Science was published by University of Chicago Press in 2000. Previous books include The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (University of California Press, 1987), which won the Stein Rokkan Prize of the International Social Science Council, Issues and Alternatives in Comparative Social Research (E.J. Brill, 1991), What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Research (Cambridge University Press, 1992--with Howard S. Becker), and Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method (Pine Forge Press, 1994).