Sunday, October 14, 2012

Personal Side of Case Studies

I am leaving Chile this evening after a few excellent days, and this made me think of methodology.

In political science there are a variety of methodological approaches, which become debates as people invest themselves and their careers strongly in them. What's missing from this debate is the personal benefit derived from particular approaches apart from the professional.

If you do large-N studies, then you gather data from quite a few countries and generate hypotheses from sometimes very large databases. It's time consuming and requires good quantitative methodological training but the payoff is very generalizable arguments and theory development. On the other hand, you don't get to know any particular country very well (or at all).

If you study cases, either by comparing events within them over time or by placing them in a regional context (e.g. Latin America), then you have to dig deep into a country. This is often associated with qualitative methods, but depending on the topic it's also possible to quantify (with, for example, electoral data).

The great thing about studying a country in depth is that research becomes intertwined with personal relationships. On the research side, I've developed contacts with military officers, legislators, and Chilean academics over many years. They generously offer other names, and it snowballs. In addition, I have both academic and non-academic friends to meet up with for coffee, dinner, etc. Some people might think I am crazy, but I've also developed a real fondness for Santiago itself. Research therefore becomes quite fun.

The downside is that you can lose sight of the comparative angle when you are so more immersed in the minute details of a case. I am fascinated by the dynamics of Copper Law reforms, for example, but it is unique so I have to think a lot about what comparative insights it might bring.

This is also where the benefits of blogging come into play. Last night I met up with Peter Krupa, Steven Bodzin, and Juan Andres Abarca, none of whom I had ever met in person but who I had "met" through my blog and Twitter feed. Research led to blogging, which then led to meeting new people.

If any graduate students are reading this, it is something to keep in mind.


Steven 11:21 AM  

We like an excuse to eat good food and have interesting chats, so please keep up the case studies.

But seriously: This same issue you mention is also relevant for reporters. And for foxes and hedgehogs. There's no one answer; it's important for some people to do one and some to do the other. Ideally we all stay in touch so that we don't start thinking something is "solo en country X" when it's a general phenomenon, and we don't make big sweeping statements based on superficial knowledge.

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