Chancellor's Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine
Tel: (949) 824-9450
Office hours: by appointment
Charles Ragin: A Brief Biography
by M. K. Driscoll, Ph.D.
The primary goal of Charles Ragin, social scientist and innovative methodologist, is to develop methods that help students and researchers unravel causal complexity in their research. This has led to his developing and championing the use of set-theoretic methods in the social sciences, most notably, his Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and fuzzy set analysis. In a recent review article in Contemporary Sociology entitled "The Ragin Revolution" (Vaisey review), sociologist Stephen Vaisey describes Ragin's work as a "principled alternative" to quantitative analysis (which assumes away casual complexity) and qualitative case-based methods (which lack tools for generalizing across cases.) Many who have adopted Ragin's methods believe that these techniques combine the strength of both quantitative and qualitative methods, while transcending their limits.
Ragin graduated from high school at age sixteen, college at age nineteen (University of Texas, 1972), and graduate school at age twenty-two (University of North Carolina, 1975), the year he started his assistant professorship at Indiana University. He began his work on social science methodology in graduate school, when he became interested in bridging the methodological gulf separating variable-based and case-oriented research. As an assistant professor, his curiosity turned to frustration when he tried to produce robust results with cross-national data using conventional quantitative methods. Too often the results hinged on minor specification decisions or on how researchers dealt with missing data or measurement error. Too often results fell apart when causation was complex, a typical characteristic of social phenomena. How is it possible to capture the true complexity of social phenomena without losing the capacity to generalize across cases? The classic struggle of the researcher to achieve specificity as well as breadth has fueled a career-long passion for developing techniques that allow researchers to learn more from their data.
The techniques that Ragin developed have opened a new field of comparative methodology. His methodological alternative has been called both a revolutionary campaign against conventional research methods, and its opposite, an approach that raises the olive branch between the two camps by combining their best elements. Whether revolutionary or conciliatory, colleague Howard Becker says that Ragin's techniques, "speak to questions we all have."
Ragin's ideas and applications are used broadly across the social sciences today, as well as by researchers in many other fields. They are applied in medical, organizational, and electrical engineering research. His methods are taught as part of the standard curriculum at many universities across North America and Europe, and a growing number in Asia. Top journals regularly publish articles using his methods.
His interest in causal complexity led to his first book, The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (1987) in which he develops formal techniques grounded in set theory for comparing cases as configurations. He extends his techniques in his 2000 book, Fuzzy-Set Social Science, which demonstrates the use of fuzzy sets to address phenomena that vary by level or degree. In Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond, 2008, he unravels causal complexity still further, elaborating the set-theoretic basis for linking variable-based and case-oriented thinking.
His other books on social science methodology include Issues and Alternatives in Comparative Social Research (1991), What Is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Research (with Howard S. Becker, 1992), Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method (1994; second edition with Lisa Amoroso, 2010), Configurational Comparative Methods: Qualitative Comparative Analysis and Related Techniques (with Benoît Rihoux, 2009) and Handbook of Case Based Methods (with David Byrne, 2009). Ragin's work has been published in numerous languages, including French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Slovenian, and Persian.
Currently a Chancellor's Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, Ragin has recently pioneered set-theoretic methods for studying overlapping social inequalities. He is developing "possibility analysis" (the study of the conditions that make an outcome possible) as an alternative to the analysis of outcome probabilities. Also, he is devising set-theoretic methods for the study of longitudinal trends, which challenge the use of pooled cross-sectional time-series models.
Ragin travels internationally, conducting workshops and lecturing on social science methodology. The World Bank, Rand Corporation, and other organizations consult with him regarding applications of his methods. In addition to his regular teaching at the University of California, Ragin hosts annual workshops on comparative methodology which attract a broad national and international contingent of advanced graduate students and professionals.