Friday, March 28, 2014

The challenges of using QCA

This blog posting is a response to my reading of the Inception Report written by the team who are undertaking a review of evaluations of interventions relating to violence against women and girls. The process of the review is well documented in a dedicated blog – EVAW Review

The Inception Report is well worth reading, which is not something I say about many evaluation reports! One reason is to benefit from the amount of careful attention the authors have given to the nuts and bolts of the process. Another is to see the kind of intensive questioning the process has been subjected to by the external quality assurance agents and the considered responses by the evaluation team. I found that many of the questions that came to my mind while reading the main text of the report were dealt with when I read the annex containing the issues raised by SEQUAS and the team’s responses to them.

I will focus on one issue that is challenge for both QCA and data mining methods like Decision Trees (which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog). That is the ratio of conditions to cases. In QCA conditions are attributes of the cases under examination that are provisionally considered as possible parts of causal configurations that explain at least some of the outcomes. After an exhaustive search and selection process the team has ended up with a set of 39 evaluations they will use as cases in a QCA analysis. After a close reading of these and other sources they have come up with a list of 20 conditions that might contribute to 5 different outcomes. With 20 different conditions there are 220 (i.e. 1,048,576) different possible configurations that could explain some or all of the outcomes. But there are only 39 evaluations, which at best will represent only 0.004% of the possible configurations. In QCA the remaining 1,048,537 are known as “logical remainders”. Some of these can usually be used in a QCA analysis through a process using explicit assumptions e.g. about particular configurations plus outcomes which by definition would be impossible to occur in real life. However, from what I understand of QCA practice, logical remainders would not usually exceed 50% of all possible configurations.

The review team has dealt with this problem by summarising the 20 conditions and 5 outcomes into 5 conditions and one outcome. This means there are 25 (i.e. 32) possible causal configurations, which is more reasonable considering there are 39 cases available to analyse. However there is a price to be paid for this solution, which is the increased level of abstraction/generality in the terms used to describe the conditions. This makes the task of coding the known cases more challenging and it will make the task of interpreting the results and then generalising from them more challenging as well. You can see the two versions of their model in the diagram below, taken from their report.
What fascinated me was the role of evaluation method in this model (see “Convincing methodology”). It is only one of five conditions that could explain some or all of the outcomes. It is quite possible therefore that all or some of the case outcomes could be explained without the use of this condition. This is quite radical, considering the centrality of evaluation methodology in much of the literature on evaluations. It may also be worrying to DFID in that one of their expectations of this review was it would “generate a robust understanding of the strengths, weaknesses and appropriateness of evaluation approaches and methods”. The other potential problem is that even if methodology is shown to be an important condition, its singular description does not provide any means to discriminating between forms which are more or less helpful.

The team seems to have responded to this problem by proposing additional QCA analyses, where there will be an additional condition that differentiates cases according to whether they used qualitative or quantitative methods.  However reviewers have still questioned whether this is sufficient. The team in return have commented that they will “add to the model further conditions that represent methodological choice after we have fully assessed the range of methodologies present in the set, to be able to differentiate between common methodological choices” It will be interesting to see how they go about doing this, while avoiding the problem of “insufficient diversity” of cases already mentioned above.

One possible way forward has been illustrated in a recent CIFOR Working Paper (Sehring et al, 2013) and which is also covered in Schneider and Wagemann (2012). They have illustrated how it is possible to do a “two-step QCA”, which differentiates between remote and proximate conditions. In the VAWG review this could take the form of an analysis of conditions other than methodology first, then a second analysis focusing on a number of methodology conditions. This process essentially reduces a larger number of remote conditions down to a smaller number of configurations that do make a difference to outcomes, which are then included in the second level of the analysis which uses the more proximate conditions. It has the effect of reducing the number of logical remainders. It will be interesting to see if this is the direction that the VAWG review team are heading.

PS 2014 03 30: I have found some further references to two-level QCA:
 And for people wanting a good introduction to QCA, see


  1. (by Michaela, posted via email to Rick Davies)
    Hi Rick, many thanks for sharing your thoughts! A couple of additions/ clarifications for fuller understanding:
    The "model" reproduced in our posting has a very minor place in our inception report (that is why you have found it in the annexes). We we have used it only as a communication device to sollicit ideas and comments from the Reference Group. The purpose of our QCA is _not_ to test the model, but to identify combinations of conditions that lead to effective evaluations.
    Since our dialogue with the Reference Group in late 2013 we have adjusted and defined the five central conditions and their components. They look different now. For instance "convincing methodology" has been replaced by "compelling evidence", which is about quality standards in research (such as triangulation of data sources, transparent documentation...). Methodological choices enter the analysis as separate conditions.
    We have developed a battery of definitions, which we will post on our blog in April. They might be useful in other contexts, too. Watch this space.

    (post via Rick Davies)

  2. Hi Michael

    I clearly used the word "model" too losely. The diagram presents a list of ingredients to a model but does not specify how they are to be connected. That is for the QCA analyses to identify. When those results are finalised then we will have a model in the more normal sense of the word

    I look forward to seeing the revised set of conditions, and how the problem of limited diversity will be addressed, in a way that might address DFID's original interest in what sort of evaluation methods matter and how.

    regards, rick