3I - Case Study Methodology
Essex Summer School Exam 2011
1. Assessing research design
Lily Tsai, “Solidarity Groups, Informal Accountability, and Local Public Goods Provision in Rural China” (American Science Review, May 2007).
a) To what extent is the empirical research guided by theory?
A good case study promotes an active dialogue between theory and data. In her case study of rural China, Lily Tsai manages to keep this dialogue alive. Tsai’s aim is clearly stated: to investigate how public goods can be provided even in non-democratic systems where the public’s influence over local government is mostly limited to informal mechanisms. Specifically, she looks at the incentives of local public officials to provide public goods in such contexts. However, it can be questioned to what extent the theory was outlined to fit the data. Scholars argue that theoretical propositions should be a guide to empirical exploration (Hay, 2002; Yin, 2009). In that sense, as we will see below, we may ask to what extent Tsai’s study rather is an example of the opposite, namely that the empirical research seems to partly guide the theory.
Tsai proposes a model of what she calls “informal governmental accountability”, according to which local officials may have strong incentives to provide public goods, even when formal government accountability is weak, if citizen solidarity groups award them moral standing for doing so. Her hypothesis is hence that villages with greater social solidarity will experience better governance due to a higher level of social trust and mutual obligation. To create the needed conditions and incentives for officials to provide public goods, solidarity groups must be “encompassing” and “embedding”, that is they need to be open to everyone in the community and incorporate the local officials as a group member.
In all case studies, it is essential to ask and answer the question “what is my case, a case of?” As implied by her research question (“why would government officials in authoritarian and transitional systems, where formal democratic and bureaucratic institutions of accountability are often weak, ever provide more than the minimum level of public goods needed to maintain social stability?”), Tsai’s study is a case of how members of society may organize to create incentives to obtain public goods provision despite the lack of formal access systems and democratic control mechanisms. However, this crucial aspect of weak democratic institutions, as addressed in her question, seems to have been forgotten halfway through Tsai’s outline of her hypothesis. When she later on looks at the data analysis, makes inferences based on the results and tests the theory, it seems that the accountability aspect of her research question has been forgotten. When Tsai for example states that “[t]his paper simply suggests that all things being equal, solidarity groups with these two structural characteristics [encompassing and embedding; my note] have a positive impact on local governmental public goods provision” (p. 361), it seems that ‘what the case is a case of’ has shifted in due course of her paper and the issue of a non-democratic context has been dropped. It hence becomes difficult for the empirical research to be guided by theory when the framework of the theory is shifting. We can partly find the origin of this flaw among the background assumptions for Tsai’s hypothesis.
Case study methodology implies a strong combination of intense theorization and intense observations. These are both present in Tsai’s research, as it is generally well-designed and minutely implemented through an impressive use of mixed method where qualitative and quantitative data build on each other. However, some assumptions that form a crucial part of the basis for Tsai’s theory are not solid enough.
Geddes (2003) argues that “[a]t the stage of theory development, it is virtually impossible to avoid ‘overfitting’, that is,...
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