Triangulating Contexts, Not Just Methods: The Distinctive Contributions of Comparative Area Studies (CAS)
A guest lecture by Professor Rudra Sil of the University of Pennsylvania
Abstract: Area specialists in the social sciences must contend with the quite different expectations of area studies and disciplinary audiences. The triangulation of quantitative and qualitative approaches in mixed-method designs may well produce compelling findings, but this strategy tends to privilege disciplinary knowledge rather than meaningful engagement with area studies debates. Comparative Area Studies (CAS) encourages a different form of triangulation – the pooling and integration of observations and interpretations across cases drawn from multiple areas. It does so by emphasizing cross-regional contextualized comparison, a middle-range small-N approach that stands between single-area qualitative research that leverages area expertise and (Millean) macro-comparative analysis that brackets out context in search of causal generalization and engagement with more nomothetic enterprises. Importantly, CAS depends heavily on an area specialist's sensibilities and experience are necessary to not only appreciate local complexities and context conditions, but also for ensuring that the findings are not completely orthogonal to debates going on within area studies communities. Moreover, there is the added benefit of enabling different area studies communities to more productively communicate each other and to jointly illuminate the value-added of area-focused qualitative research (whether causal or interpretive). In sum, CAS is predicated on the bet that engagement with area studies scholarship and the pursuit of disciplinary knowledge can very much be a positive-sum game.