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SIM – Comparative Method is an Assignment where you explore the concept of the comparative method.

SIM – Comparative Method is an Assignment where you explore the concept of the comparative method.


Estimated Time

An estimated 90 minutes is needed to complete this activity.


What is the Comparative Method?

The Comparative Method is the use of logic to compare at least two countries on explanatory and outcome variables of interest.

The logic refers to Mill’s Methods – WikipediaLinks to an external site., named after philosopher John Stuart Mill who published the book A System of Logic in 1843. I will not use the vernacular of Mill’s Methods further since it can be boiled down to more student-friendly language.

In a broader sense, the Comparative Method is a collection of approaches for comparing objects, in our case countries or parts of countries like governments, political geographies, economies, peoples and societies. Below are 5 approaches for comparing countries.

Approach 1: Comparing a Country to Itself

How can you compare a country to itself? Simple. You can look at the country’s past self (t-1) and compare it to its present self (t). The symbol t means time, and t-1 means time minus one period.

Countryt-1 versus Countryt

Approach 2: Comparing a Country to Another Country in a Single Time Period

How can you compare a country to another country in a single time period? Easily. You can look at one country and compare it to another country in the same, single, time period. This means you can compare Country A to Country B in a specific time period: past, or present, or future. The symbol t+1 means time plus one period.

  • Past: CountryA,t-1 versus CountryB,t-1
  • Present: CountryA,t versus CountryB,t
  • Future: CountryA,t+1 versus CountryB,t+1

Approach 3: Comparing a Country to Another Country over Multiple Time Periods

How can you compare a country to another country over time? Straightforwardly. You look at Country A and Country B over multiple time periods. The symbol C stands for Country, symbol O stands for observation of variable of interest, and symbol t+2 means time plus two periods.

CA Ot Ot+1 Ot+2 …

CB Ot Ot+1 Ot+2 …

Approach 4: Comparing Countries by holding the Explanatory Variable constant

An explanatory variable is like a “cause” while an outcome variable is like an “effect”.

For example, drought causes governments to provide aid to farmers. The cause is the drought, and the effect is the government providing aid to farmers.

Note that political scientists are careful about using the terms “cause” and “effect” since politics is complex, so it is difficult to say that there is a singular cause or singular effect of anything. But I use the language here since its more common to us.

When you compare countries by holding the explanatory variable constant, this means you are saying the same “cause” was present on or in both countries. Now, with the same cause, there can be two outcomes:

  • The outcome variable, or “effect of the cause”, was the SAME in Country A and Country B.
    • For example: Drought occurred, and both Country A and Country B’s governments provided aid to farmers.
    • In this example, a scholar may go on to compare HOW Country A and Country B provided aid, such as through direct payments, subsidies, technical assistance, water allocations, etc.
  • The outcome variable, or “effect of the cause”, was DIFFERENT in Country A compared to Country B.
    • For example: Drought occurred, and Country A provided aid to farmers, while Country B provided no aid to farmers.
    • In this example, a scholar may go on to explain WHY Country A provided aid to farmers, while Country B provided no aid to farmers, such as political gridlock, ethnic tensions, lack of budget resources, etc.

Approach 5: Comparing Countries by holding the Outcome Variable constant

Recall that an outcome variable is like an “effect” while an explanatory variable is like a “cause”.

For example, political opposition causes a leader to punish opponents. The cause is political opposition, and the effect is the leader punishing opponents.

When you compare countries by holding the outcome variable constant, this means you are saying the same “effect” was present on or in both countries. Now, with the same effect, there can be two explanations:

  • The explanatory variable, or “cause of the effect”, was the SAME in Country A and Country B.
    • For example, we observe the leader of Country A and leader of Country B punishing their opponents, and we also observe political opposition in both Country A and Country B.
    • In this example, a scholar may go on to compare HOW the leaders of Country A and Country B punished their opponents, such as withholding financial assistance or brutal repression.
  • The explanatory variable, or “cause of the effect”, was DIFFERENT in Country A compared to Country B.
    • For example, we observe the leader of Country A and leader of Country B punishing their opponents, but we do not see any political opposition in Country A, while we do see political opposition in Country B.
    • In this example, a scholar may go on to explain WHY Country A had no observable political opposition, while Country B did.

For Your Information: A Complex Definition of the Comparative Method

Arend Lijphart, a leading comparativist, writes[1]: “The comparative method is defined and analyzed in terms of its similarities and differences vis-à-vis the experimental and statistical methods. The principal difficulty facing the comparative method is that it must generalize on the basis of relatively few empirical cases. Four specific ways in which this difficulty may be resolved are discussed and illustrated: (1) increasing the number of cases as much as possible by means of longitudinal extension and a global range of analysis, (2) reducing the property space of the analysis, (3) focusing the comparative analysis on “comparable” cases (e.g., by means of area, diachronic, or intranation comparisons), and (4) focusing on the key variables. It is argued that the case study method is closely related to the comparative method. Six types of case studies (the atheoretical, interpretative, hypothesis-generating, theory-confirming, theory-infirming, and deviant case analyses) are distinguished, and their theoretical value is analyzed.”


Instructions

Step 1: Select two Approaches

  • Select two Approaches (from the 5 described above) that most intrigue you.

Step 2: Explain your Selected Approaches

In 5-sentences or more, explain the two Approaches you selected. You can use the following questions to help explain your choices:

  • Which two Approaches most interest you and why?
  • What is a real-world example of one or both Approaches?
  • What is at least one trade-off in focusing on two Approaches versus all the Approaches?
  • What is at least one benefit of using two Approaches versus using just one Approach?

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