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Some reflections after the PSA's Political Methodology Conference

Posted 23/1/2017

Last week, I presented one of my most important papers so far, titled "Often trusted but never (properly) tested: Evaluating Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)" (co-authored with Michael Baumgartner) at the Annual Conference of the Methodology Section of the Political Studies Association. I got many useful and encouraging comments, but what kept my mind busy for several more days following the conference was something else.

Over a coffee, I was talking to a PhD student from Harvard University about QCA, and the strong criticism this method has been exposed to mostly from researchers working at the University of California Berkeley. At some point, he said that, as an early career researcher in the US, you're well advised not to get dragged to close to anything related to QCA anymore if you want to get a job in academia.

After years of trying to de-politicize arguments about QCA on either side and to bring discussions back to science in all my publications and conference presentations rather than to join these ideological wars, this statement by that single PhD student showed me again, with all unconcerned directness, how little has been achieved so far.

Michael Baumgartner and I once tried to organize a conference with both proponents as well as opponents of QCA from Europe and the US in the hope that direct communication with each other would help bring the method, its mechanisms, and scientific arguments back into focus. We did not get any positive response to our plan and soon abandoned it. 

I have no illusions. Unlike the vast majority of all other formal methods of empirical data analysis and causal inference, QCA will remain a bone of strong contention in the future, and it may even completely disappear again at some point from the scene. But until that happens, everyone with a genuine and sincere interest in methodology and configurational methods should try and help keep the politics out for as long as possible.