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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 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 strengths of both quantitative and qualitative methods, while transcending many of their limits.
Ragin graduated from high school at age sixteen, college at age nineteen (University of Texas, 1972), and defended his PhD dissertation at age twenty-two in 1975 (University of North Carolina), the year he started his assistant professorship at Indiana University. He subsequently moved to Northwestern University as an associate professor in 1981, and was soon promoted to full professor and chair of the department. In 2001 he moved to the University of Arizona as full professor of sociology and political science. Since July 2012 he has been Chancellor's Professor of sociology and political science at University of California, Irvine.
He began his work on social science methodology in graduate school, when he became interested in bridging the methodological gulf separating variable-oriented 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 characteristic feature 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 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 (http://compasss.org/bibliography/).
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 extended 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-oriented and case-oriented thinking.
More recently he has applied his methods to the study of social inequality. In 2017 he published Intersectional Inequality: Race, Class, Test Scores, and Poverty (with Peer Fiss). The book begins with the controversy regarding the relative importance of test scores versus socioeconomic background on life chances, a debate that has raged since the 1994 publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. In contrast to previous work, Ragin and Fiss bring an intersectional approach to the evidence, analyzing the different ways that advantages and disadvantages combine in their impact on life chances. Moving beyond controversy and fixed policy positions, they proposes sophisticated new methods of analysis to underscore the importance of attending to configurations of race, gender, family background, educational achievement, and related conditions when addressing social inequality in the U.S. today. Sociologist Christopher Winship calls it a 'breakthrough book.'
Ragin's 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; third edition with Lisa Amoroso, 2018), Configurational Comparative Methods: Qualitative Comparative Analysis and Related Techniques (with Benoit Rihoux, 2009) and Handbook of Case Based Methods (with David Byrne, 2009). Ragin's work has been translated into numerous languages, including French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Slovenian, and Persian.
His honors include the Stein Rokkan Prize, awarded by the International Social Science Council of UNESCO; the Donald Campbell 'Methodological Innovator' Award of the Policy Studies Organization; and the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Award of the American Sociological Association, recognizing a career of distinguished scholarship in sociological methodology.
Currently a Chancellor's Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, 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 researchers, including advanced graduate students and professionals.