, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 93-110

Scaling Down: The Subnational Comparative Method

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Subnational units of analysis play an increasingly important role in comparative politics. Although many recent studies of topics such as ethnic conflict, economic policy reform, and democratization rely on comparisons across subnational political units, insufficient attention has been devoted to the methodological issues that arise in the comparative analysis of these units. To help fill this gap, this article explores how subnational comparisons can expand and strengthen the methodological repertoire available to social science researchers. First, because a focus on subnational units is an important tool for increasing the number of observations and for making controlled comparisons, it helps mitigate some of the characteristic limitations of a small-N research design. Second, a focus on subnational units strengthens the capacity of comparativists to accurately code cases and thus make valid causal inferences. Finally, subnational comparisons better equip researchers to handle the spatially uneven nature of major processes of political and economic transformation.

Richard Snyder is assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author ofPolitics after Neoliberalism (2001). His articles on regime change and the political economy of development have appeared inWorld Politics, Comparative Politics, Journal of Democracy, andBritish Journal of Political Science.
I appreciate helpful comments on this material from Nancy Bermeo, Dexter Boniface, David Collier, John Gerring, Edward Gibson, Robert Kaufman, Juan Linz, James Mahoney, Kelly McMann, Gerardo Munck, Peter Nardulli, David Samuels, Judith Tendler, and two anonymous reviewers. I also benefited greatly from the insightful comments on an earlier draft provided by the participants in the conference on “Regimes and Political Change in Latin America,” held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 1999.