You can’t escape the KKV

A year and a half into my postdoc/researcher/comms person at ESID, one could take a look at my recent papers and interpret that I have given up on the methodological training that I received as a political science grad student: for the most part I have collected qualitative data and analyzed it in a more narrative than positivist way to make policy points. That is because I have learned that policy research is about persuasion as much as it is about the quality of the evidence. Plus I have wholeheartedly adopted Max Weber‘s philosophy that social science is the purposeful act of organizing the world to address relevant questions.

And yet as I have sit down to design new research the old names manifest again in the darkes corners of my brain: Gerring, Ragin, George & Bennet… Whispers of forgotten questions resurface like flotsam: unit homogeneity, measurement validity, functional equivalence, process tracing, fuzzy sets… Some of my research has already reached a broader and more relevant audience than a paper in Comparative Political Studies ever could. But once a political scientist, always a political scientist – even after moving to a British development studies community much less fascinated by economics and its physics envy.

These days I find myself revisiting Qualitative Comparative Analysis and fuzzy sets, wondering whether 18 cases is a large enough N to use set analysis for the identification of causal configurations. I decided to buy Gerring’s Social Science Methodology. I actually bought a new copy of Ragin’s Redesigning Social Enquiry, my second one after the first got destroyed in a flooded basement in Ithaca while I was away in West Africa. And even though I don’t have their book anymore and have long rejected their hegemonic agenda, the specter of KKV (King, Keohane, Verba) still haunts this humble qualitative researcher: Will I have enough observations? Will my observable implications make sense? How will I know that I am making the correct inferences?

Ever since I read my first social science methodology book I have been an outspoken skeptic, ready to snipe at whatever deliriums of grandeur polisci may have compared to actual sciences. I fondly remember Clifford Geertz‘s quip that social science was the process of coming up with a hypothesis, going to the field, realizing that you were wrong all along, making up a new theory to make sense of the data, and then presenting it as if it had been your plan all along.

But you just can’t escape the KKV: it’s to political scientists what value-for-money is to development practitioners – mostly pointless, counter-productive at times, and yet a useful reminder that you can always aspire to be a bit more consistent and accountable for what you do. It may not help you to generate the most interesting or relevant research, but it keeps you honest.