Comparative Area Studies: Epistemological and Methodological Foundations and a Practical Application

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In recent decades, area studies have been transformed from mostly descriptive ethnographic and historical accounts to theory-oriented and analytical approaches. They retain some of their depth and cultural specificity, but have been widened in a comparative sense to come up with some broader social scientific explanations. This has been enhanced by more recent systematic comparative methods such as “Qualitative Comparative Analysis” (QCA) and related procedures, which are particularly suitable for medium-N studies of specific regions at the macro-level and cross-area analyses in contrast to more common statistical approaches. This paper discusses the epistemological background of this approach as well as recent methodological developments. As an illustration, it provides an example of an ongoing large international “cross-area” research project concerned with successful democratic transformations in different world regions and more recent threats to democratic stability and some of their underlying causes. Here, in particular, the relationships between level of socio-economic development and liberal democracy (the “Lipset hypothesis”) and the effects of “good governance” in terms of the World Bank indicators on democratic stability are investigated. This is done on the basis of selected “cross-area” cases with the help of both crisp-set and fuzzy-set QCA. In this way, both the utility of this approach for “medium-range theorizing” in the social sciences and possible practical-political applications are demonstrated.

About the authors

Dirk Berg-Schlosser

Philipps-Universität Marburg

Marburg, Germany
Professor Emeritus of Political Science


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