Policy Sciences

, Volume 49, Issue 3, pp 335–348 | Cite as

Identifying context and cause in small-N settings: a comparative multilevel analysis

  • Eva Thomann
  • Anita Manatschal
Research Note


Qualitative small-N comparisons face the challenge to detect context-bound causality under conditions of limited empirical diversity. Rather than treating context as a causal factor, we test the usefulness of the novel method of comparative multilevel analysis (CMA) to identify and understand the role of context as a contingent necessary condition that enables a causal relationship to unfold. Combining CMA with pairwise comparisons, we assess how organ donation policies in Switzerland and Spain affect relatives’ refusal rates in a small-N setting exhibiting multiple contextual levels. To tackle limited diversity systematically, we suggest to refine the CMA methodology by accounting for several contexts and referring to higher-order constructs. Applying CMA with these refinements, we find voluntary information measures only affect refusal rates in contexts of a credible state explicitly supporting organ donation. The fact that CMA can easily be combined with other analytical and conceptual approaches makes it an effective technique to identify contextual effects in small-N research.


Comparative multilevel analysis Contextual effects Small-N comparison Limited empirical diversity Galton's problem 


  1. Blatter, J., & Haverland, M. (2012). Designing case studies: Explanatory approaches in small-N research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Braun, D., & Gilardi, F. (2006). Taking ‘Galton’s problem’ seriously. Towards a theory of policy diffusion. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 18(3), 298–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Byrne, D. (2009). Complex realist and configurational approaches to cases: A radical synthesis. In D. Byrne & C. C. Ragin (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of case-based methods (pp. 101–111). London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cioffi-Revilla, C., & Starr, H. (2003). Opportunity, willingness, and political uncertainty: Theoretical foundations of politics. In G. Goertz & H. Starr (Eds.), Necessary conditions: Theory, methodology and applications (pp. 225–248). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  5. Council of Europe. (2011). Newsletter transplant 2011. International figures on donation and transplantation2010. Retrieved July 20, 2014, from
  6. Denk, T. (2010). Comparative multilevel analysis: Proposal for a methodology. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 13(1), 29–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Denk, T., & Lehtinen, S. (2014). Contextual analyses with QCA-methods. Quality & Quantity, 48(6), 3475–3487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Engeli, I., & Varone, F. (2011). Governing morality issues through procedural policies. Swiss Political Science Review, 17(3), 239–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Falletti, T., & Lynch, J. (2009). Context and causal mechanisms in political analysis. Comparative Political Studies, 42(9), 1143–1166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Glennan, S. (2010). Mechanisms, causes, and the layered model of the world. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(2), 362–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Goertz, G. (1994). Contexts of international politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goertz, G. (2006). Social science concepts. A user’s guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Goertz, G., & Starr, H. (2003). Necessary conditions: Theory, methodology, and applications. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  14. Howlett, M. (2009). Governance modes, policy regimes and operational plans: A multi-level nested model of policy instrument choice and policy design. Policy Sciences, 42(1), 73–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lascoumes, P., & Le Galès, P. (2007). Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments—From the nature of instruments to the sociology of public policy instrumentation. Governance, 20(1), 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Levi-Faur, D. (2006). A question of size? A heuristics for stepwise comparative research design. In B. Rihoux & H. Grimm (Eds.), Innovative comparative methods for policy analysis (pp. 43–66). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Manatschal, A., & Thomann, E. (2011). Vergleich des Organspendewesens in der Schweiz und Spanien. Study mandated by the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health. Bern: Institute of Political Science and Büro Vatter AG.Google Scholar
  18. Mill, S. J. (1843). A system of logic. London: Harrison and Co. Printers.Google Scholar
  19. ONT. (2008). Actividád de Donación 2008. Madrid: Organización Nacional de Trasplantes ONT.Google Scholar
  20. ONT. (2009). Programa de garantía de calidad del proceso de donación. Memoria de resultados de la autoevaluación año 2009. Madrid: Organización Nacional de Trasplantes ONT.Google Scholar
  21. Pawson, R. (2002). Evidence-based policy: The promise of realist synthesis. Evaluation, 8(3), 340–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Peters, B. G. (1998). Comparative politics, theory and methods. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  23. Ragin, C. (2000). Fuzzy-set social science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  24. Rohlfing, I. (2012). Analyzing multilevel data with QCA: A straightforward procedure. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 15(6), 497–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ross, M. C., & Homer, E. (1976). Galton’s problem in cross-national research. World Politics, 29(1), 1–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Tarrow, S. (2010). The strategy of paired comparison: Toward a theory of practice. Comparative Political Studies, 43(2), 230–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Vedung, E. (1998). Policy instruments: Typologies and theories. In M.-L. Bemelmans-Videc, R. C. Rist, & E. Vedung (Eds.), Carrots, sticks and sermons: Policy instruments and their evaluation (pp. 21–58). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  28. Voß, J., Smith, A., & Grin, J. (2009). Designing long-term policy: Rethinking transition management. Policy Sciences, 42(4), 275–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mannheim Centre for European Social ResearchUniversity of MannheimMannheimGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Political ScienceUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations