Journal article Open Access

Rethinking comparison in the social sciences

Simmons, Erica S.; Smith, Nicholas Rush; Schwartz, Rachel A.

The articles in this symposium explore two fundamental questions in the study of politics: (1) why do we compare what we compare; and (2) how do the methodological assumptions we make about why and how we compare shape the knowledge we produce? Qualitative comparative methods—and specifically controlled qualitative comparisons—have been central to some of the most influential works of social science. Controlled comparisons drive studies on phenomena as varied as the preconditions of social revolution (Skocpol 1979), the divergent effects of working class mobilization (Collier and Collier 1991), and the consequences of social capital for state effectiveness (Putnam 1993). Indeed, controlled comparison is such a dominant force in political science methods training that two leading methods scholars note, “Nearly all graduate courses on comparative politics commence with a discussion of Mill’s methods of ‘difference’ and ‘agreement,’” which serve as the foundation for controlled comparative studies (Slater and Ziblatt 2013, 1302).

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