Research

ISS develops interview-based case studies and synthetic, analytic papers based on cross-case comparison. Occasionally the program also supports other types of research activities. Please choose from the menu at left to learn more about what the program has to offer scholars or to review our interview procedures.

Interview-based case studies figure importantly in the work we do at ISS.  We use case studies for reasons both practical and scholarly.  See Chris Blattman's blog on our research rationale and also this blog post from Matt Andrews.

The practical rationale

ISS case studies help communicate information in an accessible manner. The stories they contain help others reflect on their own efforts. They provide food for thought. They also recognize the significant and undertold stories of reform leaders who have made practical differences in people’s lives, under difficult circumstances. They respond to the request we hear so often from people we interview: “Tell me what they have done in other countries about this problem!” 

The scholarly rationale

  • Institutional change is the main focus of ISS scholarship. Sometimes new practices have their origins in shocks or in a confluence of pressures. “Never waste a crisis,” say reformers. New routines and norms may also emerge incrementally, as a result of tinkering and problem-solving. In both instances, strategy matters—especially in winning implementation, managing potential spoilers, and building coalitions and constituencies to sustain innovations. Case studies are useful for capturing strategic structure.  Our case studies focus on the timing of reform moments, the options considered, and the logic of key actors as well as the resources people bring to negotiations, the influence of formal and informal rules on choice and implementation, and the way outcomes are (or are not) linked to the choices people make. 
  • The two main strands of scholarship on institutions have focused on sources of stability, not change. Rational choice approaches usually model institutions as equilibria, while historical institutionalist accounts often point to forms of path dependence that lock countries into particular organizational forms, policies or ways of doing things. In some of our work, we use case studies to help generate propositions or theories about why some reformers in some settings are able to depart from existing structures, rules, or norms while others are not. That is, we use some of our case studies as the basis for inductive generalization.
  • Case studies are also helpful for specifying causal mechanisms. A change in rules or practices may correlate with a condition present in a number of countries. This relationship may not be causal, however. Our cases help us identify the story line that links a condition and an outcome, and they help winnow out the correlations that have no real significance. When relationships are highly complex, as they often are, the cases help us unpack the influences of several causes on each other and on the outcomes we care about.
  • In some of our synthetic, analytic documents we use comparisons to evaluate a strategy or a design choice. There are instances when analysis across cases is helpful in adjudicating between alternative explanations. However, we take this step with caution and are careful to point out the limits. Tight, focused cross-sectional analysis is difficult when cases vary on many dimensions. Our case studies, with their built-in longitudinal comparisons, are often more reliable, though still only suggestive.  

Points of departure 

ISS encourages scholars to use the case studies as points of departure for more systematic analysis of particular policy interventions. Many of the things we highlight and study in our program are not amenable to statistical analysis or experiments, but some are. When possible, we highlight projects others may wish to pursue.