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Comparative Research Designs

Benoît Rihoux

Université catholique de Louvain

Benoît Rihoux is a full professor of political science whose research interests include political parties, new social movements, organisational studies, political change, and policy processes.

He is manager of the COMPASSS international research group on comparative methods, in the development and refinement of which he plays a leading role, bringing together scholars from Europe, North America and Japan in particular.

Benoît is a convenor of international methods initiatives more generally, and has published Innovative Comparative Methods for Policy Analysis: Beyond the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide (Springer/Kluwer, ed. with Heike Grimm 2006) and Configurational Comparative Methods: Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and Related Techniques (Sage, ed. with Charles Ragin 2009).

He has published extensively on systematic comparative methods (QCA in particular) and their applications in diverse fields – especially policy- and management-related – with interdisciplinary teams.

Course Dates and Times

Monday 27 ꟷ Friday 31 July 2020
2 hours of live teaching per day
Courses will be either morning or afternoon to suit participants’ requirements

Prerequisite Knowledge

Little prior knowledge is expected. Any training in qualitative and/or quantitative methods would be an asset, but is by no means a requirement. You should simply be willing to reflect openly about your research design – there is no ‘best’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ comparative research design.

Short Outline

This seminar-type course provides a highly interactive online teaching and learning environment, using state of the art online pedagogical tools. It is designed for a demanding audience (researchers, professional analysts, advanced students) and capped at a maximum of 12 participants so that the Instructor can cater to the specific needs of each individual.

Purpose of the course

This course provides training on methods that enable a researcher to construct a solid and well-argued comparative research design (CRD) – any research enterprise that comprises at least two ‘cases’ or units of analysis. 

We will cover multiple options, from very few cases (small-n) to multiple cases (intermediate-n) to many cases (larger-n). 

By the end of this course, you will be able to write up a well-constructed CRD section for your project and to reflect strategically on your comparative research project.

ECTS Credits

3 credits Engage fully with class activities 
4 credits Complete an 8–10-page comparative research design, due by Friday 21 August, which will be evaluated and annotated by the Instructor.

Long Course Outline

Key topics covered

We will cover a logical sequence of topics that constitute the core building blocks of a solid CRD: 

  1. Thinking upstream: why go comparative? What is the added value of comparison? What should be the mindset of a good comparative researcher? What is the link between a research puzzle and the choice for a CRD? How to formulate a comparative research question? 
  2. ‘Casing’ operations: what are my cases, how to define them, conceptually and empirically? At which level(s) (micro, meso, macro) can they be apprehended? And what about the time dimension? 
  3. Which case selection strategy to choose? How many cases and which ones? Should I go ‘smaller-n’ or ‘larger-n’? Should I select cases with similar or different outcomes? Which basic case selection strategies are available, and what are the pros and cons? And what about more advanced strategies, e.g. ‘nested’ (multilevel) designs, designs including multiple time periods, etc?
  4. How to systematically collect good-quality data when covering multiple cases? What are the tricks of the trade? How to gain sufficient ‘intimacy’ with the respective cases (case-based-knowledge)? And how to compile and manage this data?
  5. How to engage in comparative data analysis? Which toolbox(es) to select, among ‘qualitative’ (case-oriented), specifically comparative (in particular QCA – Qualitative Comparative Analysis), and ‘quantitative’ (statistical, variable-oriented) data analysis techniques?

We’ll unpack topics 1, 2 and 3 in detail, and take a bird’s eye view of topics 4 and 5 because they refer to multiple methods and techniques (and multiple specialised – including many courses in weeks 2 and 3 of the 1st ECPR Virtual Methods School).

How the course will work online

This course helps you make concrete progress on the CRD of your main research project, in three ways:

  1. getting access to multiple resources and tricks of the trade
  2. discussing with small groups of fellow participants facing similar challenges
  3. receiving tailored feedback and guidance from the Instructor

The course operates in two stages: first, independent, pre-course activities 12ꟷ26 July, followed by live sessions 27ꟷ31 July, in effect spanning around three weeks. During the first two weeks, you can navigate through the pre-course resources at your own pace. During the third week, there will be time slots for ‘live’ interaction with the Instructor – more details nearer the time.

The pre-course part will comprise access to:

  1. preparatory readings, including some annotated readings
  2. a broader, commented list of recommended readings, based on your specific challenges and interest
  3. pre-recorded lectures by the Instructor
  4. a medium to start interacting with fellow participants.

Then the live, interactive part of the course will comprise: 

5. short plenary Q&A sessions about the pre-recorded lectures and the preparatory readings
6. seminar-style discussions and presentations in smaller breakout groups – with the Instructor hopping from room to room
7. short 'lessons-learned' sessions.

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.