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Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and Set Theory  

Claudius Wagemann

Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) is a method, developed by the American social scientist Charles C. Ragin since the 1980s, which has had since then great and ever-increasing success in research applications in various political science subdisciplines and teaching programs. It counts as a broadly recognized addition to the methodological spectrum of political science. QCA is based on set theory. Set theory models “if … then” hypotheses in a way that they can be interpreted as sufficient or necessary conditions. QCA differentiates between crisp sets in which cases can only be full members or not, while fuzzy sets allow for degrees of membership. With fuzzy sets it is, for example, possible to distinguish highly developed democracies from less developed democracies that, nevertheless, are rather democracies than not. This means that fuzzy sets account for differences in degree without giving up the differences in kind. In the end, QCA produces configurational statements that acknowledge that conditions usually appear in conjunction and that there can be more than one conjunction that implies an outcome (equifinality). There is a strong emphasis on a case-oriented perspective. QCA is usually (but not exclusively) applied in y-centered research designs. A standardized algorithm has been developed and implemented in various software packages that takes into account the complexity of the social world surrounding us, also acknowledging the fact that not every theoretically possible variation of explanatory factors also exists empirically. Parameters of fit, such as consistency and coverage, help to evaluate how well the chosen explanatory factors account for the outcome to be explained. There is also a range of graphical tools that help to illustrate the results of a QCA. Set theory goes well beyond an application in QCA, but QCA is certainly its most prominent variant. There is a very lively QCA community that currently deals with the following aspects: the establishment of a code of standards for QCA applications; QCA as part of mixed-methods designs, such as combinations of QCA and statistical analyses, or a sequence of QCA and (comparative) case studies (via, e.g., process tracing); the inclusion of time aspects into QCA; Coincidence Analysis (CNA, where an a priori decision on which is the explanatory factor and which the condition is not taken) as an alternative to the use of the Quine-McCluskey algorithm; the stability of results; the software development; and the more general question whether QCA development activities should rather target research design or technical issues. From this, a methodological agenda can be derived that asks for the relationship between QCA and quantitative techniques, case study methods, and interpretive methods, but also for increased efforts in reaching a shared understanding of the mission of QCA.