In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)

  • Introduction
  • Case Selection and Combining Cross-Case and Within-Case Analysis
  • Applications of QCA
  • QCA Software

Sociology Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)
Axel Marx
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0188


The social sciences use a wide range of research methods and techniques ranging from experiments to techniques which analyze observational data such as statistical techniques, qualitative text analytic techniques, ethnographies, and many others. In the 1980s a new technique emerged, named Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), which aimed to provide a formalized way to systematically compare a small number (5<N<75) of case studies. John Gerring in the 2001 version of his introduction to social sciences identified QCA as one of the only genuine methodological innovations of the last few decades. In recent years, QCA has also been applied to large-N studies (Glaesser 2015, cited under Applications of QCA; Ragin 2008, cited under The Essential Features of QCA) and the application of QCA to perform large-N analysis is in full development. This annotated bibliography aims to provide an overview of the main contributions of QCA as a research technique as well as an introduction to some specific issues as well as QCA applications. The contribution starts with sketching the emergence of QCA and situating the method in the debate between “qualitative” and “quantitative” methods. This contextualization is important to understand and appreciate that QCA in essence is a qualitative case-based research technique and not a quantitative variable-oriented technique. Next, the article discusses some key features of QCA and identifies some of the main books and handbooks on QCA as well as some of the criticism. In a third section, the overview focuses attention on the importance of cases and case selection in QCA. The fourth section introduces the way in which QCA builds explanatory models and presents the key contributions on the selection of explanatory factors, model specification, and testing. The fifth section canvasses the applications of QCA in the social sciences and identifies some interesting examples. Finally, since QCA is a formalized data-analytic technique based on algorithms, the overview ends with an overview of the main software package which can assist in the application of QCA.

Qualitative Case-Based Research in the Social Sciences

This section grounds Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) in the tradition of qualitative case-based methods. As a research approach QCA mainly focuses on the systematic comparison of cases in order to find patterns of difference and similarity between cases. The initial intention of Ragin 1987 (cited under The Essential Features of QCA) was to develop an original “synthetic strategy” as a middle way between the case-oriented (or “qualitative”) and the variable-oriented (or “quantitative”) approaches, which would “integrate the best features of the case-oriented approach with the best features of the variable-oriented approach” (Ragin 1987, p. 84). However, instead of grounding qualitative research on the premises of quantitative research such as King, et al. 1994 did, Ragin aimed to develop a method which is firmly rooted on a case-based qualitative approach (Ragin and Becker 1992; Ragin 1997 for a systematic discussion of the differences between QCA and the approach advocated by King, et al. 1994). In recent years the fundamental differences between case-based and variable-oriented approaches have been further elaborated in terms of selection of units of observation or cases, approaches to explanation, causal analysis, measurement of concepts, and external validity (scope and generalization). Many researchers including Charles Ragin, Andrew Bennett (George and Bennett 2005), John Gerring (Gerring 2007, Gerring 2012), David Collier (Brady and Collier 2004) and James Mahoney (Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003) have contributed significantly to identifying the key ontological, epistemological, and logical differences between the two approaches. Goertz and Mahoney 2012 brings this literature together and shows the distinct differences between quantitative and qualitative research. The authors refer to two “cultures” of conducting social-scientific research. In this distinction QCA falls firmly in the “camp” of qualitative research. The overview below identifies some key texts which discuss these differences more in depth.

  • Brady, H., and D. Collier, eds. 2004. Rethinking social inquiry: Diverse tools, shared standards. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    This edited volume goes into a detailed discussion with King, et al. 1994 and shows the distinctive strengths of different approaches with a strong emphasis on the distinctive strengths of qualitative case-based methods. Book also introduces the idea of process-tracing for within-case analysis. Reprint 2010.

  • George, A., and A. Bennett. 2005. Case research and theory development. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Very extensive treatment of how case-based research focusing on longitudinal analysis and process-tracing can contribute to both theory development and theory testing. Discusses many examples from empirical political science research.

  • Gerring, J. 2007. Case study research: Principles and practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Very good introduction into what a case study is and what analytic and descriptive purposes it serves in social science research.

  • Gerring, J. 2012. Social science methodology: A unified framework. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An update of the 2001 volume which provides a concise introduction to different research approaches and techniques in the social sciences. Clearly shows the added value of different approaches and aims to overcome “the one versus the other” approaches.

  • Goertz, G., and J. Mahoney. 2012. A tale of two cultures: Qualitative and quantitative research in the social sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Book elaborates the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. They elaborate these differences in terms of (1) approaches to explanation, (2) conceptions of causation, (3) approaches toward multivariate explanations, (4) equifinality, (5) scope and causal generalization, (6) case selection, (7) weighting observations, (8) substantively important cases, (9) lack of fit, and (10) concepts and measurement.

  • King, G., R. Keohane, and S. Verba. 1994. Designing social enquiry: Scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A much-quoted and highly influential book on research design for the social sciences. This book aimed to discuss and assess qualitative research and argued that qualitative research should be benchmarked against standards used in quantitative research such as never select cases on the dependent variables, making sure one has always more observations than variables, maximize variation, and so on.

  • Mahoney, J., and D. Rueschemeyer, eds. 2003. Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a very impressive volume with chapters written by the best researchers in macro-sociological research and comparative politics. It shows the key strengths of comparative historical research for explaining key social phenomena such as revolutions, social provisions, and democracy. In addition it combines masterfully substantive discussions with methodological implications and challenges and in this way shows how case-based research contributes fundamentally to understanding social change.

  • Poteete, A., M. Janssen, and E. Ostrom. 2010. Working together: Collective action, the commons and multiple methods in practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The study of Common Pool Resources (CPRs) has been one of the most theoretically advanced subjects in social sciences. This excellent book introduces different research designs to analyze questions related to the governance of CPRs and situates QCA nicely in the universe of different research designs and strategies.

  • Ragin, C. C. 1997. Turning the tables: How case-oriented methods challenge variable-oriented methods. Comparative Social Research 16:27–42.

    Engages directly with the work of King, et al. 1994 and fundamentally disagrees with its authors Ragin argues that qualitative case-based research is based on different standards and that this type of research should be assessed on the basis of these standards.

  • Ragin, C. C., and H. Becker. 1992. What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Brings together leading researchers to discuss the deceptively easy question “what is a case?” and shows the many different approaches toward case-study research. One red line going through the contributions is the emphasis on thinking hard about the question “what is my case a case of?” in theoretical terms.

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