Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Making the Most of Configurational Comparative Analysis: An Assessment of QCA Applications in Comparative Welfare-State Research

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Making the Most of Configurational Comparative Analysis: An Assessment of QCA Applications in Comparative Welfare-State Research

Article excerpt


QCA's ability of addressing complex theoretical expectations and taking account of configurational relationships is rarely fully exploited. Assessing comparative welfare-state research, which has employed QCA, we find that only about half of the studies reviewed have expressed complex theoretical propositions in set-theoretical terms, revisited cases subsequent to the formal analysis, or subjected findings to robustness checks. We discuss the relevance of each of these three aspects and argue that carefully considering these will improve the quality of QCA applications.


There has been a remarkable growth of textbooks, method chapters, and articles on qualitative configurational methods, especially QCA (see, for example, Ragin 2008; Rihoux and Ragin 2009; Schneider and Wagemann 2010). Although these publications give valuable advice on many aspects of applying QCA, it is not clear to what extent scholars actually stick to best-practice with regard to justifying the choice of QCA and with regard to interpreting the results of the formal QCA analysis. We argue that medium-N studies using QCA should express the (complex) theoretical expectations in set-theoretical terms, go back to the cases when interpreting the formal results, or carry out robustness tests. Our argument is that the capacity of QCA to align with complex theoretical expectations and deal with configurational relationships is not used to the full. We advance this argument by demonstrating and assessing how researchers have used QCA in the field of comparative welfare-state research.

There are good reasons for the choice of comparative welfare-state research: First, QCA renders itself to comparative welfare-state research because of the limited number of countries with welfare states that can meaningfully be compared, because of elaborate theoretical frameworks suggesting that the development of welfare states is characterized by multiple configurational causation, and the view of cases being configurations of different dimensions. Thus, it is not surprising that QCA is frequently used and accepted as a valuable tool in comparative welfare-state research in sociology and political science (cf. Amenta and Hicks 2010; Rihoux, Rezsöhazy, and Bol 2011). Second, and related, in the methodological literature on QCA, comparative welfare-state data have often served illustrative purposes (e.g., Amenta and Poulsen 1994; Hicks 1994; Ragin 2000). This means that it should be relatively straightforward for researchers in this field to relate the guidelines to their studies. Basically, we argue that if any one field is suitable for an assessment of QCA applications, it would be comparative welfare-state research.

The paper proceeds as follows. First, we describe the criteria for the selection of studies to examine, provide an overview of the nineteen studies included, and discuss the contributions these studies made to comparative welfare-state research. Second, we discuss how scholars have specified their theoretical expectations. Third, we assess how researchers have performed with regard to the interpretation of the formal QCA results. We conclude with a few remarks on the main findings and a call for more conscious use of some comparative advantages of configurational comparative analysis.

QCA and Comparative Welfare-State Research

We include 19 articles in our survey of QCA in comparative welfare-state research. First, we limited our focus to "causal research" with welfare states (or some core aspect thereof) as the outcome that has been published in English-language journals.1 Second, we searched for the combination of "QCA" and "welfare state" or "social policy" in five databases-Academic Search Elite, JSTOR, Periodicals Achieve Online, Project Muse, and ProQuest. Third, we supplemented with studies in the bibliographical database on the COMPASSS (2011) website and in the review article on QCA in public policy studies by Rihoux, Rezsöhazy, and Bol (2011). …

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