Aligning Ontology with Methodology

I’m doing a Zoom talk on Friday afternoon at FLACSO Mexico City this coming Friday. The title of the talk is “Single Country Research in Comparative Politics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Aligning Methodology with Ontology.” There’s no paper yet, but I’m taking this as an opportunity to try out an argument about what has happened to comparative politics in the last 20 years. Here is the argument.

In “Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Politics“, Peter Hall argued that there was a growing disconnect between the regression-based model of large-n comparison in comparative politics, and the growing body of research on history, sequence, and path-dependence in many of the sophisticated comparative politics works of the late-1990s and early-2000s. He argued that they should be aligned:

I will argue for the usefulness of a method, based on small-N comparison, that has long been available to the field but underappreciated because small-N comparison has too often been seen as a terrain for the application of “weak” versions of the statistical method rather than as one on which a robust but different kind of method can be practiced.

But there is an unspoken assumption that underlies Hall’s argument. Like most everyone reading this piece, Hall assumed that a proper resolution of this tension would necessarily mean aligning method with theory.

I will propose on Friday that in point of fact, the opposite has happened. Twenty years on, comparative politics has aligned theory with method, and so the dominant ontology of comparative politics is one that is amenable to quantitative analysis in the causal inference template. This is an important thing to notice. And it is worth thinking about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

There will be plenty of graphs to make the descriptive point, but the bigger point is a conceptual one, so I’ll be walking through how I think about the argument and its stakes in more of a lecture format. The argument draws the arguments I’ve made here (PDF) and here (PDF) and on the thinking I’ve done with various collaborators about the past and future of comparative politics and area studies.