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Religion and Political Theory: Secularism, Accommodation and The New Challenges of Religious Diversity, Edited by Jonathan Seglow and Andrew Shorten

WA102 - Foundations of Set-Theoretic and Case-Oriented Thinking and Methodology

Instructor Details

Instructor Photo

Eva Thomann

University of Exeter

Instructor Bio

Eva Thomann is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics of the University of Exeter who specialises in Public Policy and Public Administration. Previously she held research positions at the University of Bern, the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research, the University of Heidelberg, and the European University Institute in Florence. 

Eva is the first author of Designing Research with Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). and the monograph Customized implementation of European Union food safety policy: United in diversity? 

She has published on case-oriented and set-theoretic research methods, policy implementation, and europeanisation using innovative case-oriented and set-theoretic methodology such as Enhanced Standard Analysis, formal set-theoretic theory evaluation, robustness tests, large-N QCA, congruence analysis, explanatory typologies, and Comparative Multilevel Analysis.

Eva Thomann teaches case-oriented and set-theoretic methods at doctoral schools, invited workshops, and at the MA level. She serves in various international networks and contributes to the development of pedagogical resources and other innovations in the use and teaching of QCA. See her personal website

Eva Thomann @EvaThomann

Course Dates and Times

Friday 22 February 13:00–15:00 and 15:30–18:00

Saturday 23 February 09:00–12:30 and 14:00–17:30

Prerequisite Knowledge

You should have basic knowledge of empirical social research design. In particular, I will assume you know the meaning of:

  • Theory, hypothesis
  • Empirical research, data
  • Case, observations
  • Variable, explanans, explanandum
  • Measurement, operationalisation
  • Qualitative and quantitative empirical techniques

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, contact the instructor before registering.

Short Outline

This course introduces you to the logic and basics of case-oriented and set-theoretic methods. It is particularly useful (and, for QCA, mandatory) preparation for the main courses on process tracing, comparative case study design, and Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA).

We start by reflecting on different types of research questions, evidence and observations, causal effects and causal mechanisms.

The course then covers the basics of set theory, sets, set calibration, and logical operations. We will discuss different perspectives on causation (probabilistic versus deterministic, symmetric versus asymmetric, causal complexity, context) and the logic of necessary and sufficient conditions. We will apply these notions by looking at different ways of defining, structuring, and operationalizing social science concepts.

For participants on the QCA course, the lab session includes a (mandatory) introduction to the R software environment.

For all other participants, the lab session offers problem-based learning on concept formation in groups.

Tasks for ECTS Credits

1 credit (pass/fail grade). Attend at least 90% of course hours, participate fully in in-class activities, and carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, class.

Long Course Outline

This course introduces you to the logic and basics of case-oriented and set-theoretic methods. It is useful preparation for the main courses on process tracing and comparative case study design, and mandatory for those taking the main course Introduction to Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)

By the end of the course, you will:

  • Be able to situate your case-oriented/ set-theoretic research within the plurality of approaches and methodologies in social science research, and identify areas of application
  • Have a basic understanding of the logical underpinnings, basic notions and analytical goals of case-oriented and set-theoretic methodology
  • Be familiar with a selection of classic and recent key readings about case-oriented and set-theoretic methodology
  • Understand, and be able to apply, basic notions of set theory, set calibration and set-theoretic concept formation in real-life research settings
  • Have practised to critically evaluate case-oriented and set-theoretic research with regard to their logical and analytical underpinnings
  • Be prepared for the main courses on process tracing, comparative case study design, or Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)

The course has an introductory and preparatory focus. It will not provide you with specific methods skills yet, but introduce you to the underlying logic of case-oriented and set-theoretic methods. The R lab session will not give you sufficient skills to independently perform empirical data analysis with R; instead, it will familiarize you with the very basic operational features of R in R studio, and give you an opportunity to gain a first experience in working with empirical datasets in R.

Session 1
I introduce basic notions of case-oriented and set-theoretic methods.

What kind of perspective do such methods adopt?
Why would we want to adopt such a perspective?

We start by identifying different epistemological perspectives in the social sciences and situation case-oriented and set-theoretic research therein. We will then reflect on different types of goals of research and research questions, and how they serve to disentangle different empirical patterns in terms of causal effects or causal mechanisms. I

We will also look at and contrast different types of evidence and observations to be used in such analyses, as well as the nature and role of context.

Session 2 

The basics of set theory. We start by defining what it means to think of social phenomena as sets, look into types of sets (crisp, fuzzy, multi-value), and how we can attribute empirical cases to sets (calibration).

Next, we will get familiar with logical operations on sets and relations between sets. This leads us to discuss the logic of necessary and sufficient conditions and its applicability in the theory and practice of social science research. Based on this, we will contrast different perspectives on causation (probabilistic versus deterministic, symmetric versus asymmetric).

Session 3

We start to think about the notion of causal complexity and what it entails in social reality. What does it mean when we encounter equifinality and conjunctural patterns in the social world?

This session introduces participants to the notion of INUS and SUIN conditions. We will think of complex combinations of sets in Boolean Algebraic terms, and briefly discuss rules for combining logical operators.

Session 4

We will apply these notions by looking at different ways of defining, structuring, and operationalizing social science concepts in qualitative and quantitative research settings.

We will discuss the multi-level nature of concepts and how many concepts (for example, definitions of policy target groups or of democracy) are set-theoretic in nature. We will briefly discuss possible pitfalls when defining and measuring concepts, such as conceptual stretching, contextual specifity and equivalence, and I will offer hands-on advice to tackle these.

Session 5

Lab session. For those on the QCA course, this includes a mandatory introduction to the R software environment.

For all other participants, this session will provide the opportunity to work on a problem-based exercise about set-theoretic concept formation in groups, and to prepare an informal presentation (c.5 minutes) for Session 6.

Session 6 

We begin by discussing possible solutions to the problem-based exercise of Session 5. The different groups of group 2 will briefly present their problem and the proposed solution, and group 1 will give constructive, critical feedback on these solutions.

We wrap up by discussing where you might apply case-oriented and set-theoretic methods in empirical social research, such as process tracing, typologies, and configurational comparative methods.

Day-to-Day Schedule

Day-to-Day Reading List

Software Requirements

R and Rstudio (freeware; latest versions)

Hardware Requirements



Beach, D. and R.B. Pedersen (2016). Causal case study methods: Foundations and guidelines for comparing, matching, and tracing. University of Michigan Press.
Blatter, J. and M. Haverland (2012). Designing Case Studies: Explanatory Approaches in Small-N Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Byrne, D. and C.C. Ragin (2009). The Sage handbook of case-based methods. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Goertz, G. (1994). Contexts of international politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goertz, G. (2006). Social Science Concepts. A User's Guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Goertz, G. (2017). Multimethod research, causal mechanisms, and case studies: An integrated approach. Princeton University Press.
Møller, J. and S.E. (2017). Explanatory typologies as a nested strategy of inquiry: combining cross-case and within-case analyses. Sociological Methods & Research 46(4): 1018-1048.
Ragin, C. C., & Becker, H. S. (Eds.). (1992). What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. Cambridge University Press.
Ragin, C.C. (1987/2014). The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Univ of California Press.

Ragin, C.C. (2000). Fuzzy-set social science. University of Chicago Press.
Rohlfing, I. (2012). Case Studies and Causal Inference: an integrative framework. Palgrave Macmillan.

Toshkov, D. (2016). Research design in political science. Palgrave Macmillan.

The following other ECPR Methods School courses could be useful in combination with this one in a ‘training track .
Recommended Courses Before

Summer School

R Basics

Recommended Courses After

Summer School

Multi-Method Research: Techniques and Applications
Case Study Research: Method and Practice
Peocess Tracing Methodology
Qualitative Comparative Analysis and Fuzzy Sets
Qualitative Data Analysis: Concepts and Approaches
Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Winter School

Introduction to Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)
Tools for the Analysis of Complex Social Systems: An Introduction
Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences
Comparative Research Designs
Introduction to Process Tracing
Process Tracing Methods

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed in due time.

Note from the Academic Convenors

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, contact the instructor before registering.

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