The subnational comparative method is an indispensable part of modern comparative politics research. Yet something has always bugged me about it, as I’ve recently noted. Yes, within-country variation can provide indispensable inferential leverage over knotty theoretical questions. But certain regions often stand apart from others, as in, Tibet is not just like the rest of China but with more Tibetans or more mountains. And data quality varies tremendously within countries too. More generally, what do we do with places like Chiapas, Catalonia, Zanzibar, and Xinjiang where politics just doesn’t work the way it does in the rest of the country? Are these “exceptions?” How should we proceed? What are the consequences for the subnational comparative method?
In a new working paper (PDF), I subject these and other questions to more scrutiny. I like to think it has something for everyone—it is probably the only paper in the world that cites Agamben, Angrist and Pischke, and Aspinall, or Mackie, Malesky, and McCargo—and features loads of examples from Southeast Asia. My takeaway message is one of optimism coupled with modesty: optimism about our ability to make sense of what I call “subnational peripheries,” but modesty about our ability show that context does not matter.