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Making the Most of a Case Study: Theories of the Welfare State and the American Experience

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Although the reputation of case studies has recently been on the rise in social science, they face a number of analytical obstacles. The questions asked in case studies are often thought to have little value for advancing theory. Moreover, case-based explanations are often considered suspect. The "identification" problem means that alternatives cannot be fully appraised. Finally, few believe that the findings of case studies have theoretical implications that go beyond the case. This paper suggests five ways to minimize the problems of case studies through comparative strategies tied to theory: (1) to use theoretical ideal types and predictions to select and frame a problem for explanation; (2) to divide the outcome to be explained into parts that can be compared; (3) to map the historical trajectories of outcomes in order to appraise theoretical expectations in detail; (4) to explore most similar system" comparisons, cases alike in many ways, but different in the outcome to be explained; (5) to amass relatively large-N data sets across subunits of the case. The paper explores these strategies through theories of public spending and the American experience of public social provision.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Sociology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, U.S.A.


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