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International Journal of Social Research Methodology

ISSN: 1364-5579 (Print) 1464-5300 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tsrm20

On the Applicability of the Most Similar Systems


Design and the Most Different Systems Design in
Comparative Research
Carsten Anckar
To cite this article: Carsten Anckar (2008) On the Applicability of the Most Similar Systems
Design and the Most Different Systems Design in Comparative Research, International Journal
of Social Research Methodology, 11:5, 389-401, DOI: 10.1080/13645570701401552
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13645570701401552

Published online: 05 Nov 2008.

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Vol. 11, No. 5, December 2008, 389401

On the Applicability of the Most


Similar Systems Design and the Most
Different Systems Design in
Comparative Research
Carsten Anckar
Received 13 September 2006; Accepted 12 April 2007
Taylor and Francis Ltd
TSRM_A_240041.sgm

In comparative political research we distinguish between the Most Similar Systems Design
(MSSD) and the Most Different Systems Design (MDSD). In the present work, I argue
that the applicability of the two research strategies is determined by the features of the
research task. Three essential distinctions are important when assessing the applicability of
the MSSD and the MDSD: (1) whether or not variable interactions are studied at a
systemic level or at a sub-systemic level; (2) whether we use a deductive or inductive
research strategy and (3) whether or not we operate with a constant or varying dependent
variable. The article argues that the combination of these dimensions is essential for how
the MSSD and the MDSD can and should be used in comparative research.
International
10.1080/13645570701401552
1364-5579
Original
Taylor
02007
00
Professor
carsten.anckar@abo.fi
000002007
&Article
Francis
CarstenAnckar
(print)/1464-5300
Journal of Social(online)
Research Methodology

The Most Similar Systems Design and the Most Different Systems Design
When applying the Most Similar Systems Design (MSSD), we choose as objects of
research systems that are as similar as possible, except with regard to the phenomenon,
the effects of which we are interested in assessing. The reason for choosing systems that
are similar is the ambition to keep constant as many extraneous variables as possible
(e.g. Bartolini, 1993, p. 134; Sartori, 1991, p. 250; Skocpol, 1984, p. 379). Although theoretically robust, the MSSD suffers from one serious practical shortcoming. There are a

Carsten Anckar is professor of political science (comparative politics) at bo Akademi University, Finland. His
most recent book is Determinants of the death penalty: A comparative study of the world (London & New York:
Routledge, 2004). Correspondence to: Carsten Anckar, bo Akademi University, Department of Political
Science, 20500 bo, Finland. Email: carsten.anckar@abo.fi
ISSN 13645579 (print)/ISSN 14645300 (online) 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13645570701401552

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C. Anckar

limited number of countries and therefore it will never be possible to keep constant all
potential explanatory factors (e.g. Meckstroth, 1975, p. 134; Peters, 1998, pp. 3839).
At the same time, there are two different ways to conceive of the MSSD. A strict application of a MSSD, would require us to choose countries that are similar in a number of
specified variables (the control variables) and different with regard to only one aspect
(the independent variable under study). A looser application of a MSSD would be when
we choose to study countries that appear to be similar in as many background characteristics as possible, but where the researcher never systematically matches the cases on
all the relevant control variables. If the MSSD is conceived of in the latter form, most
regional comparative studies could be said to implicitly apply a MSSD.
We cannot, however, escape the criticism that any MSSD model is likely to suffer
from the problem of many variables, small number of cases (Lijphart, 1971, p. 685).
To remedy this shortcoming, Przeworski and Teune (1970) came up with an alternative strategy, which they labelled the Most Different Systems Design (MDSD). Here, the
strategy is to choose units of research which are as different as possible with regard to
extraneous variables. The basic logic is that differences cannot explain similarities.
What is exceptional for the MDSD is the focus on variables below the system level. The
task of the researcher is to test and attempt to confirm one particular finding within a
wide variety of systems. Echoing Popper (1959), the claim is that falsification rather
than verification is central for the progress of science. By conducting tests in a variety
of sub-systemic settings, the problem caused by too many variables and too few cases
is remedied.
A number of studies have had the ambition to combine a MSSD with a MDSD (e.g.
Berg-Schlosser & De Meur, 1994; Collier & Collier, 1991; De Meur & Berg-Schlosser,
1994, 1996 and, less explicitly, Linz & Stepan, 1996). Of all the studies that have
attempted to use the MSSD and MDSD, the studies by De Meur and Berg-Schlosser
provide the most sophistic applications of these research designs. In their studies of the
conditions for survival or breakdown of democracy in interwar Europe, they combine
two research designs, comparing on the one hand, systems that are Most Different With
Same Outcome (MDSO) and, on the other hand, systems that are Most Similar With
Different Outcome (MSDO). Furthermore, they develop a Boolean measure for assessing the degree of similarity and difference between their units of analysis.
Recent Methodological Developments
Ever since King et al. published their seminal work Designing Social Inquiry (1994) the
amount of literature pertaining to methodological issues has grown substantially.
Especially two methodological breakthroughs during the last decade have been important. The first one was the development of sophisticated software packages which now
allow us to conduct multi-level analyses fairly easily. The second one was Charles Ragins
(1987) invention of the so called Qualitative Case Analysis (QCA), which, in turn, was
subsequently improved by the introduction of fuzzy-set analysis (Ragin, 2000).
Now, there is a fundamental difference in the logic behind the MSSD described
above and the QCA/fuzzy-set approach. Whereas QCA/fuzzy-set is a case-oriented

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology 391

method, the MSSD follows a strict variable-oriented approach. When making use of
MSSD, the ambition is to test the effect of an independent variable on the dependent
variable, while keeping extraneous variance constant. What is characteristic of the
QCA/fuzzy-set technique, on the other hand, is an ongoing interplay between theory
and data. Indeed, as Ragin (2000, p. 310) himself notes [f]uzzy sets are most useful as
tools of discovery. In other words, whereas MSSD aims at testing theories, the primary
goal by using QCA/fuzzy-set is to discover theories.
It is easy to reach the conclusion that multi-level analysis has made the MDSD obsolete. When making use of a MDSD, we first study variable interactions within different
systems and then compare the results obtained between the systems. If the results
differ, we turn to the system level (i.e. we introduce independent variables that denote
system-level characteristics). By the use of multi-level techniques it is possible to do
both things at the same time. This, however, does not mean that we should reject
MDSD as obsolete. Instead, I would argue that in comparative studies especially,
regression models using multi-level techniques should be built according to the logical
foundations of a most different systems approach. One could even go one step further
and argue that multi-level modelling makes it easier to apply the MDSD logic in
comparative research. In fact, multi-level modelling was exactly what Przeworski and
Teune (1970, p. 72) desired 40 years ago: [w]hat we need in comparative research
are statistical techniques that would allow the control variable to be measured at a level
different from the two variables that are tested.
The advantage of multi-level modelling is that it makes it easier to shift the level of
analysis. We no longer have to exhaust the variables at the subsystem level before turning to the next level of analysis. Instead, we can study effects of variables at both analytical levels at the same time. However, the field of comparative politics is special, in the
sense that the number of countries is limited and many features residing at the country
level go hand in hand. If we start introducing variables residing at the system (country)
level into the model, we very soon have to confront the problem of multicollinearity at
the systemic level. To take an example: A researcher who wants to explain the attitudes
towards the death penalty with regard to the level of education and system-level variables such as democracy, Christian dominance, and a historic absence of slavery will
soon discover that it is a hopeless enterprise since Christianity, democracy and a
historic absence of slavery go hand in hand (Anckar, 2004, pp. 9798).
In order to cope with this problem, we need to apply the principle of falsification
that the MDSD is built on. Since the inclusion of many system-level variables makes
the regression models unstable, the ambition should be to exclude as many system-level
variables as possible from the regression models. This is done by studying interactions
between independent and dependent variables in as varying contexts as possible. The
principle is easy: when an association between the independent and the dependent
variable is found in two varying contexts, the more the analytical contexts differ in
terms of systemic factors, the higher the number of systemic variables that can be disregarded from the regression model. If, for instance, it can be proven that a high level of
education is associated with a negative view of the death penalty in Sweden, Zimbabwe
and the United Arab Emirates we can disregard the system level variables democracy,

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C. Anckar

Christian dominance and historic absence of slavery since these features vary between
the three countries.
In the following section I argue that, in general, the fields of application of the
MSSD and MDSD have been unnecessarily restricted in the literature on social science
methodology. I further show that the application of MSSD and MDSD is dependent
on: (1) whether or not variable interactions are studied at a systemic level or at a subsystemic level; (2) whether we use a deductive or inductive research strategy and (3)
whether or not we operate with a constant or varying dependent variable.

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Level of Analysis
The MSSD is particularly useful in cases where we are interested in variables at a
systemic level. Similar systems designs require an a priori assumption about the
level of social systems at which the important factors operate. Once a particular design
is formulated, assumptions concerning alternative levels of systems cannot be considered (Przeworski & Teune, 1970, p. 36). As we have seen, the MDSD is used when the
variables are at a sub-systemic level. Of course, since all social interactions do not
reside at the sub-systemic level, Przeworski and Teune argue that the system level
must be accounted for as well. However, their basic argument is that the system level
enters the research design only if and when the analyses within systems show that
different variable associations exist within different systems (Przeworski & Teune,
1970, p. 35). The most serious limitation of the MDSD seems to be that it can only be
applied in situations where the dependent variable resides at a sub-systemic level. In
other words, independent variables can be measured at all levels but the dependent
variable should reside at a sub-systemic level. Needless to say, this qualification makes
MDSD inapplicable for a great number of comparative studies.
Deduction or Induction
There are two ways to approach a research problem. Either we focus on the independent variable or on the dependent variable. When the main research interest is on the
independent variable the research question is expressed in the sentence Does X affect
Y? We are, in other words, not primarily concerned with explaining all the variation in
the dependent variable, i.e. accounting for the explanatory value of every single explanatory factor. Instead, we have the ambition to establish whether or not there is a causal
relation between one specific independent variable and the dependent variable. When
our primary focus is on the dependent variable, the research process naturally begins
with a research question formulated in the sentence What explains Y? A research
question formulated in this manner indicates that we have the ambition to discover
the relevant independent variable(s).
Now, the former strategy requires, by necessity, a deductive approach. The independent variable has been identified in the beginning of the research process by means
of theoretical reasoning. Likewise, when we depart from the dependent variable it is
natural to apply an inductive research strategy. An existing theoretical framework is not

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology 393

a requirement, but instead the researcher is advised to enter the quest for the independent variable(s) with an open mind. However, an inductive approach is not an absolute
requirement. We can also attempt to identify all plausible determinants of the dependent variable by means of theoretical reasoning. In other words, a Does X affect Y?
question is always answered by using deduction and a What explains Y? question is
answered either by means of deductive or inductive reasoning.
In practice, the difference between the two strategies is likely to become blurred. For
instance, if we wish to assess the effect of X on Y we must control for a number of other
variables. It makes little sense to conduct only bivariate analyses. In a regression analysis, the position of the key independent variable is not different from the position of
the control variables since we measure the effects of each independent variable on the
dependent variable at constant values on all other independent variables. In other
words, we cannot assess the impact of one independent variable without assessing the
impact of all other independent variables included in the regression model. When
applying a MSSD, on the other hand, the position of the key variable of interest is
different from that of the control variables, since all control variables are kept constant
whereas only the key independent variable is allowed to vary.
Furthermore, no study is 100% inductive since we can never pay regard to all possible explanations of a phenomenon. To some extent, we are guided by a preconception
of the phenomenon which allows us to disregard a number of potential explanations.
Even though very little previous research exists in a specific area of research we usually
have a good idea in which settings we should look for the plausible explanations. The
dividing line between these two strategies, then, is anything but sharp. However, as we
shall see, for the purpose of designing a study according to the principles of MSSD and
MDSD, it is necessary to theoretically distinguish between a deductive and an inductive
approach to a research problem.
The Dependent Variable
When making use of the MSSD, we choose systems which differ with respect to the
independent variable whereas all contesting variables are kept constant. The requirement that all contesting variables are kept constant seems to presuppose that the theoretical framework from which we depart is fairly well developed. As we have seen, in
practice, this requirement can be remedied by using countries which are geographically
and culturally close to each other. In this way, most of the plausible explanatory factors
are automatically constant and cannot intervene in the relation between the independent and the dependent variables. Nevertheless, given the limited number of countries, it is impossible to find cases where all background variables are constant. Thus,
any MSSD model is, as Przeworski and Teune (1970, p. 34) put it, likely to overdetermine the dependent variable.
One major difference between the MSSD and the MDSD appears to be that whereas
the former method is concerned with the independent variable, the latter focuses on the
dependent variable. When examining the literature on the comparative method we
sometimes run across statements suggesting that a MDSD necessitates a constant

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dependent variable. In other words, the phenomenon under investigation should not
vary (e.g. Landman, 2003, pp. 2934; Sartori, 1991, p. 250). This appears to be the most
serious weakness of the MDSD. The research strategy of operating with a constant
dependent variable is an issue that is extremely controversial and open for an ongoing
debate in the literature since it only allows the researcher to identify the necessary conditions of a phenomenon (e.g. Dion, 1998; King et al., 1994, pp. 129132, pp. 147149).
However, as will be shown momentarily, the question whether or not a MDSD presupposes a constant dependent variable is totally dependent on the research design.

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MSSD and MDSDWhen to Use and How to Use


The discussion conducted above has focused on three essential distinctions which are
relevant when discussing the applicability of MSSD and MDSD: (1) systemic level vs. subsystemic level; (2) deduction or induction and (3) constant or varying dependent variable.
The combination of these dimensions is essential for how the MSSD and the MDSD can
and should be used in comparative research. Figure 1 sums up the discussion.
First, let me focus on MDSD and its requirement that the dependent variable is
constant. This feature of MDSD is sometimes mentioned in the literature on comparative method. At the same time, it is worth emphasizing that a reading of Przeworski
and Teune does not support the conclusion that a MDSD requires a constant dependent variable. To be fair, however, it is easy to see why many authors have interpreted
Przeworski and Teune this way. Przeworski and Teune (1970, p. 35) give two examples
of how the MDSD can be understood: If the rates of suicide are the same among the
Zuni, the Swedes and the Russians, those factors that distinguish these three societies
are irrelevant for the explanation of suicide. From this example it is evident that the
dependent variable (the rate of suicide) should not vary across the three different
systems. However, the authors continue with another example: If education is
Figure 1

How to use MSSD and MDSD in comparative research.

Formulation of
Does X affect Y?

research problem

What explains Y?

Consequence of
formulation of
research problem

Deduction

Induction

Comparative
research design

MSSD

MDSD

MDSD

MSSD

Constant

Varies

Varies

Constant

Extraneous
variance
Level of
analysis

system

(subsystem)

system subsystem

system subsystem

system (subsystem)

Dependent
variable

not considered (not considered) constant not considered

constant

constant

Figure 1 How to use MSSD and MDSD in comparative research.

varies

(varies)

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology 395

positively related to attitudes of internationalism in India, Ireland and Italy, the differences among these countries are unimportant in explaining internationalist attitudes.
In this example, the dependent variable does not necessarily have to be constant across
the three systems. Instead, what is of importance is the fact that the pattern of the causal
relation is the same within the three systems (see especially Przeworski & Teune, 1970,
pp. 7685). It is important to note that in both cases, the logic follows what De Meur
and Berg-Schlosser (1994, 1996) has labelled MDSO. The only difference is that in the
first mentioned example, a variable is constant across cases whereas in the second
example a relationship between variables is constant across cases.
When using the MDSD in a deductive study it is preferable that the dependent variable is not considered prior to the research problem. However, if the research question
is inductive (as could be the case in the example with the Zuni, the Swedes and the
Russians) it is easy to see why the dependent variable must be constant. If the units of
analysis differ with regard to the dependent variable and are also dissimilar with regard
to most of the plausible determinants, it is impossible to identify the relevant explanatory variable(s).
What about MSSD then? We have seen that in a pure MSSD, the independent variable should vary, whereas values on the dependent variable are of no interest in the
beginning of the research process. It appears, then, as if a MSSD can be used exclusively
in situations where the research problem is formulated in the sentence Does X affect
Y? and consequently a deductive approach is used. This, however, is not true. Both in
principle and in practice, it is possible to use the MSSD in an inductive study, but this
presupposes that we begin the research process by focusing on the dependent variable.
We then secure variation on the dependent variable among systems that appear to be
very much alike (see Ragin, 1987, p. 47). The works by De Meur and Berg-Schlosser
constitute an excellent illustration of such a research design. They label this form of
investigation most similar cases with a different outcome (De Meur & Berg-Schlosser,
1996, p. 425). Their approach is highly inductive in that they make use of not less than
63 independent variables.
One could argue that a pure MSSD requires that theory guides the choice of both the
independent variables that are allowed to vary and the extraneous variables that are to
be kept constant. When induction is used in its purest form we do not know which
extraneous variables are to be kept constant. Instead, we are keeping as many plausible
extraneous variables as possible constant by choosing countries that are (or appear to
be) similar. Since similarities cannot explain differences, the goal is to find variables
that differ. The relevant independent variable is arrived at by means of falsification and
the method used is identical to Mills (1874, p. 280) method of difference (for an illustrative discussion on how the MSSD and the MDSD can be mirrored with regard to the
structure of the dependent variable and to Mills methods, the reader is referred to
Murray Faure 1994, pp. 316318).
Let me then focus on the level of analysis. Previously it was argued that the MSSD is
suitable for the systemic level and the MDSD should be applied when studying variable
interactions at a sub-systemic level. Evidently, the logic of the MSSD can be applied at
the lowest possible analytical level as well. Thus, at least in principle, it is possible to

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C. Anckar

study if income is related to voting behaviour by choosing individuals which differ with
regard to income but show a resemblance on a number of background characteristics.
(Of course, since the number of cases is always high at the individual level, we would
prefer to use regression analysis in this example). However, the very notion of comparative politics requires that we make cross-national observations. This requirement
disqualifies the use of MSSD at the sub-systemic level at least in comparative research.
Finally, we should consider the applicability of MDSD at the systemic level. Here, I
would argue that the logic of MDSD can perfectly well be used in situations where the
dependent variable resides at the country level as well. Indeed, when trying to find examples of studies where the MDSD has been used authors generally refer to Theda Skocpols
States and Social Revolutions (1979), where the dependent variable, the occurrence of
major revolutions, resided at the systemic level. It is easy to agree with Sartoris (1991,
p. 250) assessment that the requirement that the MDSD must operate at a sub-systemic
level is a differentiation open to question. The MDSD can easily be used across systems,
for instance, by studying why the level of democracy is high in Finland, Botswana, Costa
Rica and Palau. However, if a MDSD is applied at a systemic level my earlier conclusion
that a MDSD does not presuppose a constant dependent variable must be qualified.
When we use a MDSD at a systemic level the dependent variable must, by necessity, be
constant. This is so, because if the phenomenon we wish to explain resides at the systemic
level, we cannot identify the explanatory factors across different countries unless we look
for similarities in these dissimilar systems. For instance, if we wish to test the assumption
that modernization brings about democracy we cannot test this ambition by comparing
Sweden and Afghanistan. True, the two countries differ with regard to the dependent
variable and the independent variable but they also differ with regard to many other
plausible determinants of democracy, e.g. religion, and civil society.
Thus, whether we use the MDSD with an inductive or a deductive strategy at the
systemic level, the ambition is to find common denominators across systems and the
research method is identical to Mills (1874, pp. 278280) method of agreement. De
Meur & Berg-Schlosser (1994, p. 198) use the expression most different systems with
the same outcome to illustrate this design (see also Murray Faure, 1994, pp. 316318).
The only difference between a deductive and an inductive MDSD at the system level is
that when we use the MDSD with a deductive strategy at a systemic level, our ambition
is to study if the independent variable is present in all cases. When using an inductive
strategy, on the other hand, we do not have an a priori notion of the relevant explanatory variable, and our ambition is to look for the determinant of the dependent variable
with an open mind.
The Applicability of Mills Methods of Difference and Agreement in the Social
Sciences
Of the eight models of research design that emerge in Figure 1, all but one (MDSD, in
deductive studies at the sub-systemic level) make use of Mills methods of difference or
agreement. These methods have been debated extensively during the last decades.
Lieberson (1991) has argued, among other things, that the methods cannot cope with

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology 397

probabilistic assumptions and measurement errors. This assessment, however, is unfair


to small-N analyses. A single exception from a rule does not lead us to reject a hypothesis in the social sciences and nobody would even consider demanding that a quantitatively oriented researcher who finds that all cases are not situated along the regression
line rejects his or her hypothesis (Goertz, 2005). Also, as shown by Ragin (2000), it is
perfectly possible to make use of probabilistic criteria when assessing necessity and
sufficiency and the same logic can consequently be applied to MSSD and MDSD. In
fairness, however, we cannot escape the fact that a case that contradicts a general rule
is more problematic the smaller the number of cases.
Savolainen (1994, pp. 12201221) disproves another point of criticism raised by
Lieberson (1991, pp. 312314), namely that Mills methods do not cope with interaction effects. Here it is worth emphasizing that the method of difference allows for the
creation of interaction terms. For instance, suppose we believe that democracy is
enhanced by insularity and British colonial heritage. However, we expect that neither
of these variables in themselves bring about democracy. Instead, the combination of
British colonial heritage and insularity is crucial for democracy. In this case we would
simply form a category consisting of those countries only which meet both of these
criteria (British colonial heritage and insularity).
Admittedly, it is difficult to discover interaction effects with Mills methods. In the
following example (Figure 2) we have the ambition to study if insularity is related to a
democratic form of government in an African context, using the Mills method of difference.1 Two control variables are introduced: British colonial heritage and Christianity
(> two-thirds Christians).
Based on these results, we would reach the conclusion that insularity is associated with
a democratic form of government. However, it might well be that the real explanation for
democracy is a combination of insularity and colonial heritage, a combination of insularity and Christianity, or a combination of insularity, colonial heritage and Christianity.
The independent effect of insularity on democracy can only be assessed by including
more cases, which allow us to keep constant British colonial heritage and Christianity at
Figure 2

Problem of discovering interaction effects in a MSSD.

Seychelles

Swaziland

Insularity

yes

no

British colonial heritage

yes

yes

Christianity

yes

yes

------------------------------------------------------------------Democracy

yes

Figure 2 Problem of discovering interaction effects in a MSSD.

no

398

different values. This is illustrated in Figure 3. When including the first matched pair,
namely the cases of Cape Verde and Rwanda into the analysis, the result is confirmed in
countries without a British colonial heritage, which means that we can rule out the insularity/colonial heritage combination as an explanation of democracy. In the next step,
we introduce the pair Mauritius and Somalia into the analysis whereby the insularity/
Christianity combination is falsified. Finally, we introduce the pair Madagascar and
Chad by which we can rule out the possibility that insularity in combination with either
colonial heritage or Christianity is required for democracy to emerge.
When applying the method of agreement our ambition is only to identify necessary
causes of the dependent variables. If we succeed in identifying a single necessary condition for the outcome then it follows logically that this variable in itself is necessary for
generating the outcome regardless of how it interacts with the control variables (Ragin,
2000, pp. 100101). The problem of identifying interaction effects arises when we find
more than one necessary cause to the phenomenon under study. In these cases too, the
researcher should try to include more cases in order to find out whether or not the
respective variables are capable of generating the outcome on their own or only in
combination with each other.
Admittedly, the limited number of countries places restrictions on the extent to
which we can include new countries in the research design in the manner described in
Figure 3. In most situations when we apply the MSSD and MDSD the number of cases
is limited and we have to face the problem of causal complexity. In other words, it is
impossible to account for all possible combinations of the independent variables.
Suppose, for instance, that we have the ambition to identify the necessary conditions of
the use of the death penalty. Using the method of agreement, we would then identify a
common explanatory cause, say, an autocratic form of government. The countries
included in the study vary in a number of characteristics that could constitute plausible
determinants of the use of the death penalty: level of crime, history of slavery, dominating
religion, socioeconomic development, level of corruption, conflict intensity etc. (Anckar,
2004). However, an examination of the cases would reveal, among other things, that
none of the authoritarian countries making use of the death penalty exhibited a high
Figure 3

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C. Anckar

Coping with Interaction Effects in a MSSD.

Figure 3 Coping with Interaction Effects in a MSSD.

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology 399

level of socioeconomic development, no history of slavery, a low level of corruption, a


low level of conflict intensity and Taoism as dominant religion. Consequently, we do
not know if this particular combination also would generate a state which makes use of
capital punishment or not.2,3
However, comparativists will never overcome the problem of causal complexity
regardless of which method they use. We simply cannot create countries that meet
the requirements for experimental designs and the problem of social complexity is by
no means unique for the MSSD or MDSD approach. Results reached at by means of
conventional multivariate regression models suffer from the same shortcomings,
since there are vast areas of the vector space that lack empirical instances (Ragin,
2000, pp. 198199, pp. 312313). The greatest advantage with the MSSD and MDSD
is the possibility to exclude contesting variables from the analysis by carefully matching the cases according to the principles of the two methods.
The shortcomings ascribed to MSSD and MDSD usually do not arise as a consequence of the logic of the methods but rather by the small number of cases included in
these studies. However, since we cannot manipulate the number of independent countries, we have to make the best out of the methods that are available. The central feature
when applying the MSSD and the MDSD is the ambition to isolate the explanatory
value of the independent variable as much as possible. This is done by choosing countries that are as similar as possible on the background variables (in a MSSD) or as
dissimilar as possible (MDSD). The selection of cases is done only with regard to these
principles.
An alternative view is advocated by proponents of the so called case oriented
approach, who suggest that we should not focus on variable interactions in social
research. For instance, Abbot (1988; 1992) has pointed out that quantitatively oriented
social scientists tend to fail to consider the fact that causal relations may take different
forms in different cases and do not pay enough attention to the actual processes
preceding the outcome (for a similar argument see Byrne, 2002, p. 2943).
These arguments are well-founded and should not be dismissed lightly. I fully agree
that establishing causal variable interactions across cases is a tricky business in social
sciences. The other side of the coin, however, is that we need variables in cases where
the ambition is to assess the general validity of a theoretical statement. Having said
that, it should be acknowledged that within the field of comparative politics, where the
number of cases is limited, the distinction between case-oriented studies and variable
oriented ones is often blurred (e.g. Ragin, 1987, pp. 6984). In this respect, the MSSD
and MDSD actually function as bridge builders between case oriented and variable
oriented researchers. The status of the method of agreement in particular is unclear,
since it is widely used by case oriented researchers, but still aims at identifying
commonalities across cases that vary with regard to the control variables. The MSSD,
with its focus on securing variation on the independent variable while keeping extraneous variation constant, is closer to the traditional variable oriented design.
However, since we operate with a limited number of cases, it is impossible to lose sight
of the case-specific peculiarities of the countries. Accordingly, cases are never reduced
to data spots in a diagram, a risk which is inherent in statistical large-N analyses.

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C. Anckar

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Conclusion
Although new analytical tools have emerged during the last decades, it is easy to predict
that the MSSD and the MDSD will continue to play an important role for social scientists engaged in comparative research. The MSSD and the MDSD can be used in a
number of ways, depending on how the research task is designed. Authors are therefore
advised to fully take advantage of these possibilities of MSSD and MDSD. The biggest
advantage with the MSSD and MDSD lies in their ability to eliminate a large number
of potentially relevant explanatory variables from further analysis. By carefully matching a small number of cases across a wide range of potential explanatory variables we
can exclude a wide range of variables from further analysis. The outstanding examples
in the literature are the studies by De Meur and Berg-Schlosser (1994, 1996), who used
not less than 63 variables and 18 cases when accounting for the determinants of authoritarianism, fascism and democracy in interwar Europe.
Notes
[1]
1

[2]
[3]
2

Lieberson (1991, p. 312) constructs an often quoted example involving car accidents to illustrate this.
I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me by using another example.
Lieberson (1991, pp. 313314; 1994, pp. 12331235) also criticises Mills methods for not
being able to deal with multiple causes. When using the method of agreement, this is perfectly
true and consequently the ambition can only be to identify necessary causes of a phenomenon.
Regarding the MSSD, Liebersons (1994, p. 1235) example does not meet the requirements of
a MSSD, since the background variables are not kept constant. In a pure MSSD, we would
secure variation on the independent variable and keep constant all other plausible explanatory
variables. If we also want to test effects of another independent variable this must be done by
choosing another set of countries, whereby it is possible to secure variation on the new independent variable and keep all other plausible determinants constant. The solution to the
problem of identifying multiple causes is the same that applied to identifying interaction
effects, i.e. to introduce new cases which allow us to keep constant background variables at
different values.

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