In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Renewal of Qualitative Methods

  • Introduction
  • Current Approaches to Qualitative Methods and Causal Inference
  • Case Selection
  • Multi-Method Research
  • Counterfactual Analysis
  • Concept Formation

Political Science The Renewal of Qualitative Methods
David Waldner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0107


Case studies have been valuable sources of knowledge since the earliest days of the social sciences. But looking back on the methodological status of case studies in the late 20th century, even staunch defenders could easily find diverse faults with the nonsystematic nature of most qualitative inquiry. Indeed, in the mid-1990s, the best advice given to qualitative researchers was to emulate the logic and techniques of quantitative analysis. While a small number of early statements of qualitative methods have achieved canonical status, most of what we know about qualitative causal inference is the product of the past two decades of methodological research. Research has progressed along three fronts: better theoretical justifications for qualitative methods; refined statements of within-case and cross-case qualitative research designs and their inferential strengths and limitations; and better appreciation of the range of ambient issues and techniques that improve qualitative methods, from concept formation to counterfactual analysis, from case selection to the integration of qualitative methods into multi-method research designs.

First-Generation Approaches to Case Studies

Path-breaking statements of case-study methods identified three possible means of hypothesis testing: Eckstein 1975 articulated the logic of crucial case studies, Lijphart 1971 commented on cross-case analysis using Mill’s methods, and George and McKeown 1985 pioneered within-case process tracing. Skocpol 1979 offers a comparative study of revolutions that was long seen as the outstanding example of qualitative methods, while van Evera 1997 provides a concise primer that usefully summarized and synthesized existing knowledge. See also Przeworski and Teune 1970, Campbell 1975, and Collier 1993. These studies and others of the same decades did not have adequate responses to their critics (discussed below), and they had not yet developed an adequate appreciation of the distance between the logics of hypothesis testing and causal inference.

  • Campbell, Donald T. “‘Degrees of Freedom’ and the Case Study.” Comparative Political Studies 8.2 (1975): 178–193.

    A remarkable volte face by one of social science’s leading scholars of research design. Campbell had been critical of case studies for their lack of logical discipline, or degrees of freedom in statistical parlance. In this study, he acknowledges that when approached from the proper nonstatistical point of view, case studies generate multiple predictions that can be tested against the evidence.

  • Collier, David. “The Comparative Method.” In Political Science: The State of the Discipline II. Edited by Ada W. Finifter, 105–119. Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 1993.

    An important synthesis of existing approaches to qualitative methods that sought better integration of qualitative and quantitative methods and thus set the agenda for the next generation of research.

  • Eckstein, Harry. “Case Study and Theory in Political Science.” In Handbook of Political Science. Vol. 7. Edited by Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby, 79–138. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.

    Provides an important typology of case studies and their various contributions to theory building and testing. Of note, however, is that only the crucial case study involved sufficient logical constraint to test theories. Some of his ideas have been reexpressed as a Bayesian approach to hypothesis testing.

  • George, Alexander L., and Timothy J. McKeown. “Case Studies and Theories of Organizational Decision Making.” Advances in Information Processing in Organizations 2 (1985): 21–58.

    Pioneering study of the “process-tracing procedure,” which emphasizes within-case analysis by tracing the links between antecedent conditions, decision making, and outcomes.

  • Lijphart, Arend. “Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method.” American Political Science Review 65.3 (1971): 682–693.

    DOI: 10.2307/1955513

    Recognized that case study methods were inevitably more limited than experimental or statistical methods. However, Lijphart argued that some of these limitations could be overcome by emulating the logic of experimental and statistical designs, especially by using John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference,” in which we compare two cases: one with the outcome in question, one without it, and otherwise as similar as possible.

  • Przeworski, Adam, and Henry Teune. The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1970.

    Social theory searches for stable patterns of behavior, but behavior appears to differ according to specific time and place, especially across countries. Przeworski and Teune provide a pioneering statement about how to reach general and parsimonious explanations given the significance of particular social systems. Among their many lasting contributions is the recommendation to substitute variables for proper nouns and their articulation of “most-similar” and “most-different” research designs.

  • Skocpol, Theda. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511815805

    One of the most influential works of applied qualitative methods, it combined cross-case analysis using Mill’s methods with within-case narrative analysis, later known as process tracing.

  • van Evera, Stephen. Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

    A slim volume that is suitable for undergraduates and beginning graduate students. Its second chapter summarizes existing wisdom about case studies and provides some tools that will be adapted by later works.

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