Among the recent criticisms of QCA, Lucas and Szatrowski’s (LS) critique stands out in multiple respects, including its scope, its tone (QCA is “a nonanalytic means to identify asymmetric causal illusions”, p. 66), and the responses it provoked (and the notorious mistake in their first simulation). Naturally, the critical replies focused on LS’s assessment of QCA, but I find that they make an almost equally interesting and ironic claim at the end that went largely unnoticed.
Despite all criticism, LS attempt to add a constructive note at the end of their article by recommending the use of process tracing and comparative case studies instead of QCA. This is a paradoxical turn because that is what QCA started with, as the authors themselves note. The term ‘process tracing’ was barely in use when Ragin introduced QCA in 1987, although it was done in empirical research and comparative case studies were at the center of the debate about “the comparative method”.
Besides that the research goal of process tracing/case studies and QCA differs, it is well- known that QCA started off as a middle course between case studies and regression analysis. With respect to case studies, QCA aimed to overcome the small-n problem in the sense of getting the bigger picture and determining potentially redundant conditions. We can argue as to whether or to what extent QCA succeeds in bridging case knowledge and the formal analysis of a medium or large number of cases. However, the argument that we can make more solid cross-case inferences with more rather than fewer cases should be relatively uncontroversial. At least, this is the take-home message of Mill’s own reflection about his methods and of discussions such as Lieberson’s to which I subscribe.
In this perspective, it is ironic to plea for a return to case studies because this brings us back to the method and associated problems that QCA took off with. This is not to say that, as it stands, QCA works fine. However, abandoning QCA because of some problems that should not come as a surprise overstretches the point. Based on proper simulations and formal assessments of QCA, the way forward should be to improve QCA and to determine the conditions under which it works better or worse. The use of QCA and case studies/process tracing is not an either-or issue because there is a proper place for both methods in the social sciences.