Comparative Area Studies

Comparative Area Studies

  • Comparative area studies (CAS) has experienced rapid development in recent years. Scholars have gone beyond their original area expertise and have established new international networks. The goal? To gain new insights through comparison – for example, into the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, the impact of economic crises or the causes of violent conflicts. The premise? Combining the context sensitivity of area studies with comparative methods yields increased analytical leverage.

    The GIGA recognised the potential of this epistemological approach with methodological implications many years ago. As one of Europe’s leading research institutes for social science-based area studies, the GIGA has since the early 2000s firmly embraced CAS and given it an intellectual home.

    Professor Rudra Sil, SAS Director of Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, University of Pennsylvania

    “GIGA has made tremendous strides... I am extremely impressed with, and grateful for, the intellectual connections and institutional support that GIGA has facilitated over the last years in the course of actively promoting the creative updating and integration of area studies and comparative analysis.”

    Idea of CAS

    The constitutive elements of CAS are a strong context sensitivity/expertise, and an explicit and systematic comparative approach. The CAS approach also benefits from a conscious use of the notion of "area", i.e. an awareness of both the potentially variable geometry of areas and the well-founded criticism of certain traditional notions of spatiality.

    The GIGA uses the following definition:

    Comparative Area Studies (CAS) is a scholarly field of study that combines the context sensitivity and knowledge of area studies with the explicit use of comparative methods as the appropriate means to generate both

    • contributions to broader disciplinary and theoretical debates, and

    • better insights into the cases.

    Hence, the cognitive interest of CAS encompasses generalisation as well as specification. We believe that contextually-informed and methodologically sound CAS benefit both the social-science disciplines and area-specific studies. CAS can add value, inter alia, by

    • mutually enriching the theoretical and conceptual repertoires, analytical frameworks, and methodological toolboxes of the disciplines and area-specific studies in question,

    • finding out whether both social phenomena and theories are geographically and/or culturally bound,

    • delimiting the scope of concepts by determining whether – and how far – these concepts can ‘travel’,

    • developing and forming new theories and concepts on the basis of comparative, context-sensitive evidence,

    CAS can be seen as the missing link between globally generalising, cross-country studies, on the one hand, and individualising, empirically "thick" case studies, on the other.

    Forms of Comparison

    Cross-regional comparisons

    “Cross-regional studies involve the comparison of analytical units across different regions.” (Basedau/Köllner 2006: 12) It is clearly the specific strength of the GIGA to be capable of engaging in cross-regional comparisons, thanks to our matrix structure regarding area studies expertise. Cross-regional studies are demanding in terms of both field knowledge and methodological rigour. Cross-regional comparisons usually focus on the country level, but could also be carried out on a sectorial and sub-national level.

    Intra-regional comparisons

    “Aspects or phenomena of different geographical entities within a given region are compared.” (Basedau/Köllner 2006: 11) CAS can also be pursued within just one area. Intra-regional comparisons usually have the advantage that a number of background conditions pertaining to geography, climate, history and culture are frequently broadly similar. By using CAS-based approaches in individual areas, the GIGA is reinforcing its pioneering image, but the institute needs to continue to promote CAS-informed methods among area studies communities worldwide.

    Inter-regional comparisons

    “The idea behind such projects is usually to identify regional patterns and to compare them to each other.” (Basedau/Köllner 2006: 11) Inter-regional comparisons serve mainly to describe and analyse similarities and differences in the paths, sequences, relevant actor constellations and outcomes of important trends in global development (e.g. democratisation, constitutionalism, regional cooperation). The more the GIGA employs inter-regional comparisons, the clearer the institute will be able to delineate the contours of the different geographical areas it studies. (N.B.: What constitutes an area may strongly depend on the exact research question and therefore may not be congruent with the Africa-Asia-Latin America-Middle East distinction represented by the GIGA’s four area studies institutes.)

    Case studies

    Additionally, the GIGA also conducts theory-driven single-case studies that are inspired by the CAS approach. There are different ways to undertake the qualitative analysis of a single-case study that very much depend on the objectives of the researcher. According to Sil, a particular piece of research may be distinguished in terms of whether it is relatively more nomothetic (designed to abstract the essence from complex processes in order to build or test portable theoretical narratives) or idiographic (containing context-specific narratives with more emphasis on details). Case studies can also be seen through these lenses. CAS-informed case studies are located closer to the nomothetic end of the scale, as they are theoretically grounded cases that have been designed to illustrate causal theories or mechanisms. Case studies conducted from this perspective can help determine, for instance, the most likely, the least likely, or the deviant case. Such studies are intrinsically comparative and constitute an invaluable instrument for adding more confidence to a general explanatory theory. In contrast, idiographic approaches to case studies accentuate the specificity of the context, a research strategy that precludes exporting to other cases any generalised causal relationships that may have been found in the initial case. Every case study is a mixture of these different research approaches, but those situated in the broader context of comparable cases should be included under the umbrella of CAS.

    CAS at the GIGA

    The GIGA’s institutional matrix, with its four regional institutes and four cross-cutting research programmes, not only is designed to enable scholars to pursue Comparative Area Studies in a sustained and systematic way, but is also implemented flexibly enough to be tailored to each individual research programme.


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