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Chapter 1: Strategies for Comparative Research

There are several ways to design research that addresses the question of institutional arrangements and the way in which they impact on work and family behaviour. In this section, we will discuss a number of approaches that have been used by researchers in cross-national research. We divide these into three groups:

  1. The case study approach
  2. The macro-variable approach
  3. The typology approach
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The case study approach

The case study approach is based on in-depth investigation of a single country. The aim is to provide a detailed description of the particular institutional setting within which individuals or groups' actions take place in order to improve our understanding of the context in which the investigated relationships may be interpreted. Thus, a researcher interested in the relationship between the age of the youngest child in the family and the likelihood of divorce can seek the relevant information concerning custody law, child support enforcement and the regulation of divorce procedures. This approach does not provide explicit comparisons between countries, but under certain circumstances it is possible to draw implicit conclusions from such studies regarding the way institutions and cultural characteristics affect individuals’ behaviour and destinies. This can be done either by contrasting the unique characteristics of one single country with a more conventional or generalised case [Pap98] [Del98], or by gathering several ‘case studies’ that address the same research question in different institutional settings.

While each case provides a fairly complete study of the issue in a given context, by relating the relationships and outcomes observed in various settings to the different institutional contexts, one can draw conclusions, albeit tentative ones, about the importance of systemic factors to the observed variation at the micro-level (see e.g. [Sha98] [Blo97] [Dre98] [Ore98]). In many cases, one country’s unique characteristics are compared with a group of countries such as the European Union, OECD countries, etc. (see e.g. [Del98] [Pap98]). In other cases, several single-country analyses are presented separately, and similarities and differences are identified (cf. [Kur04] or even modelled [Sha98], chapter 1).

The main advantage of this research strategy is that it provides in-depth examination of national contexts in order to tap cross-country variation, a feature that is impossible when analyses involve many countries [Van02]. It is thus possible to gain detailed information about each country's idiosyncrasies and to provide a careful analysis of institutional arrangements and their historical development. It is also possible to conduct a detailed individual-level analysis within each country to investigate relationships between relevant characteristics, using national data sets and detailed appropriate measurements of variables and indicators.

Despite its potential for providing a rich and comprehensive description of the national contexts, the in-depth case study approach also suffers from drawbacks and limitations. Firstly, this strategy does not permit a direct examination of structural effects on individual behaviour. It is not possible in most cases to account for the specific influence of one institutional arrangement or another. For example, differences in marriage patterns, employment behaviour or education studied in this manner cannot be attributed to one single systemic characteristic but rather to the variety of institutions that characterise the society studied. These tend to be complex entities that involve the interdependence of specific history, culture, and organisation. Secondly, because analyses are often carried out in one country, it is not easy to generalise the outcomes. Lastly, when data from several countries are available, the list may be quite arbitrary, and the choice of countries (or the ‘standard comparison’) may not always be helpful in explaining the ways social institutions and specific policies affect individual consequences.

One way to address the effect of institutional contexts on individual behaviour and outcomes more directly is to purposefully design a comparison between a small numbers of countries. Rosenfled Kalleberg’s [Ros90] comparative study of the United States and Sweden represents such a study design. The main assumption underlying such a strategy is that each of the countries represents a unique context, so that differences in individual behaviour or outcomes could be attributed to the characteristics of that particular country (see for example [Bri01 [Dip00] [Nat95] [Har03] [Ros90] [Coo03]). One advantage of comparing only a few countries is the possibility of obtaining and generating identical indicators and similar variables, a task that becomes more difficult as the number of countries involved increases.

In order to establish a powerful comparison, it would be preferable if the countries differed with regard to features that are of theoretical or practical interest. At the same time, they should also have enough in common to isolate the effects of specific macro-level characteristics on individual behaviour. This is not always easy. Because countries differ on a large number of dimensions, it becomes almost impossible to determine which specific social institutions affect women’s market prospects and behaviour. For example, take a comparison between Sweden and the United States. Sweden has generous maternity and paternity leave policies, fully subsidised day-care facilities for children, a commitment to increased gender equality, a highly regulated labour market and a high level of de-commodification and de-familialisation [Esp99]. The USA is very different on all of these dimensions: the level of de-commodification is low, family policy barely exists and the market is not regulated. Which of these institutional characteristics best explains differences in women’s labour force participation and their work patterns over their life courses? Which explains gender inequality? It is almost impossible to decipher the effect of each of these dimensions, so it is not easy to test the outcomes of specific institutional arrangements. One way that is used to overcome this problem is to choose similar countries which differ on a single dimension (see, for example, Nati’s [Nat95] comparison of women’s part-time employment in the Scandinavian countries; Brinton, Lee and Parish's [Bri01] comparison of women’s employment in South Korea and Taiwan; Cooke [Coo03] on East and West Germany). However, this research frame limits the number of countries that can be included in the analysis to an even greater extent.

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The macro-variable approach

The macro variable approach takes quite the opposite methodological stance to the previous strategy. This approach to comparative research is based on the study of a large number of countries, and on quantitative examination of the (direct) effect of specific institutional characteristics on social and economic behaviour and outcomes. According to this approach, country names (or other social units of interest) are replaced by scores on particular macro-level variables. This approach thus offers a means of evaluating the direct effects of various institutional arrangements, such as specific policies or country characteristics, on country variations in outcomes. An example of studies that used macro-micro linkages in their analysis is the work of Gornick et al. [Gor98], who used a variety of indicators to construct an index of family policies, which was then used to explain country variations in the effect of young children’s presence on their mothers’ employment. In another study using more sophisticated techniques involving multi-level statistical models, Mandel and Semyonov [Man05] tested the consequences of family-supportive policies on women’s labour force participation, their concentration in female-type occupations and gender inequality in pay. Similarly, Uunk et al. [Uun05] tested for the net effect of childcare arrangements on women’s labour supply, controlling for alternative explanations (i.e. economic affluence and egalitarian gender ideology). Several studies examined the effect of policies, country characteristics, and other macro-level variables on the household’s division of labour [Fuw04] [Hoo06] [Sti07].

This approach allows researchers to explain country variations in particular behaviour (e.g. women’s labour force participation or women’s economic standing following a divorce) as a product of country-specific institutional arrangements (e.g. policies, family structure, labour market characteristics and more). Moreover, using data on countries as well as individuals within countries makes it possible to test for macro-micro interactions. This approach thus allows one to examine how institutional contexts mediate the relationship between two individual-level characteristics, for example, the effect of gender on earnings [Man05].

The advantage of this method is clear, since it enables the influence of individual-level and country-level characteristics on behaviour and outcomes to be disentangled [Van02], and provides quantitative estimates of the extent to which institutional arrangements (at the country level) account for differences in the outcome variable after taking into account the effect of individual-level characteristics.

The macro-variable approach, however, also has its limitations. They result from two sources: first, the measurement of institutional arrangements is at times difficult to operationalise precisely and it is even more difficult to find comparable indicators for a large number of countries. This limits, often arbitrarily, the number and the specific list of countries studied. It is often difficult to obtain comparable individual-level data for a large number of settings (e.g. to measure labour force involvement, familial arrangements or gender ideology in a comparable fashion). Consequently, some information, which could otherwise be obtained from in-depth individual-level studies of a small number of countries, is typically unavailable when dealing with many countries.

The macro-variable strategy is able to accommodate a large number of countries by representing them as a profile of scores for any number of variables that are theoretically relevant to the issue under investigation. In fact, for some analysis techniques a large number of cases is actually necessary. This is the source of the second limitation. In a multi-level analysis, which utilises fixed and random effects, a small number of countries may result in unstable estimations, and only a limited number of country indicators could be included in the empirical model. Increasing the number of countries is not always a viable solution, since it is not easy to combine macro and micro-level data for a large enough number of countries. The use of indices, such as the one proposed by Gornick et al. [Gor97], Gornick and Meyers [Gor03], and Mandel and Semyonov [Man05], can provide a partial solution to the problem. However, as argued below, indices may also create new problems, especially when different components of an index affect the outcome variable differently.

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The typology approach

A third widely used strategy for the comparative study of social systems is the typology approach. The roots of this approach can be found in Weber's ideal type methodology [Web49]. The ideal type is an analytical construct. It is an abstraction formed from the elements of a given phenomenon (e.g. ‘democracy’ as a political system) but it does not correspond to any real or concrete case. It is particularly useful for comparative studies, as various cases may be positioned in relation to the theoretical construct. The typology approach captures the middle ground between the two previously described approaches. On the one hand, it seeks generalisable systemic regularities that permit the grouping of certain societies (or, more generally, social systems) and contrasts them with others, the underlying assumption being that the variation within a set of societies closely associated with a certain ideal type is smaller that between societies associated with different ideal types. On the other hand, this approach still treats countries as holistic social entities that cannot be reduced to a finite set of variables. Probably the best known and most widely used typology of industrial and post-industrial societies is that proposed by Esping-Andersen [Esp90] [Esp99]. Using different institutional and ideological characteristics of countries, Esping-Andersen sorted them into three distinguishable welfare regimes. The three regimes – liberal, social democratic and conservative – can be viewed as ideal types and countries are classified as belonging to the type which their institutional arrangements most resemble. Esping-Andersen’s basic distinction between the three focuses on the ways social welfare is produced and allocated between the state, the market and the family. The contextual differences, best characterised by the level of de-commodification, and, in more recent work, also by the level of de-familialisation, are expected to affect workers’ welfare in general, and women’s work behaviour and their paths to achieving economic independence, in particular.

In contrast to much of the comparative research on family, work and gender inequality that focused on differences stemming from the social context of diverse welfare regimes, Crompton [Cro99] proposed a different typology that places gender as the central theoretical construct. The ‘gender order’, or ‘gender regime’ typology encapsulates the idea that gender relations are constructed in particular social contexts and that the structuring of these relations is complex, as they evolve from a multiplicity of origins. The gender order is pervasive throughout society, but ‘… the major dimension structuring the gender division of labor has been the gender coding of caring and market work’ (Crompton, 1999, p. 204). For a variety of reasons, societies may differ in their dominant form of gender organisation [Gor03]. The gender regime typology was ordered along a continuum: the historic male-breadwinner/female-carer at one end followed by the more common arrangement of dual-earner/female part-time carer, and, when both partners are involved in breadwinning and delegate the care work to a third party, two alternatives of dual-earner/substitute carer arise: one in which the state takes responsibility for care work (the dual-earner/state carer model) and one in which care work is carried out through the market (dual-earner/ marketised model). At the other end of the continuum stands the yet unattained model of dual-earner – dual-carer.

The advantage of the typology approach lies in its ability to focus on specific societal attributes and to group together a number of countries that share the attributes without necessarily providing an in-depth and separate analysis for each.1 This research strategy also enhances our understanding of societal phenomena by raising the level of abstraction and highlighting similar institutional patterns across societies and relating them to societal or individual-level outcomes. However, using a one-dimensional categorisation (as most typologies do) also has its drawbacks. Uunk [Uun04] pointed out that not all countries fall clearly into one category and that within-category country variation with regard to policies and behaviour is considerable [Gor97] [Sti01]. Furthermore, as opposed to the macro-variable approach, which is able to accommodate a situation in which countries have similar scores on one variable (e.g. female labour force participation rate), but different scores on a second variable (e.g. percentage of 3-5 year olds who attend day care), the typology approach generally requires exclusivity; i.e. a country will be classified in the best fitting category even if it has some features of other types as well.

The limitations of such an approach are evident when we consider that different institutions and arrangements that fall into a single category of a typology may affect differently various aspects of family-employment relations. For example, family supportive policies are expected to encourage women’s employment in general (and they do, as numerous studies suggest); however, lengthy periods of maternity leave may in fact be detrimental to women’s ability to accumulate resources through work in the market since they provide incentives for taking a long period of separation from market work [Gor03] [Sti03]. Typologies, then, provide crude measures that may conceal conflicting influences on individual behaviour that cannot easily be discerned. We should further note that the popularity of the typology approach in the study of women’s employment behaviour and their market prospects is accompanied by the presence of a sizeable number of typologies. Each relies on a different theoretical basis and utilises different institutional characteristics. It is not easy to choose the ‘right’ typology, which may at times depend on the specific outcome in question. As we intend to offer a typology as a didactic apparatus to guide the discussion and the assignments in this course, we introduce this note of caution so that readers can keep in mind the limitations as well as the advantages it provides for comparative research.

Before concluding this section, we should note that a problem common to all methods of analysis is the difficulty of identifying causal relationships among the constructs. To what extent do institutions and policies affect individual behaviour? Two issues are raised by this question. Firstly, can we establish a unidirectional causal link? Can we show, for instance, that a change in policy brought about a change in behaviour? Secondly, what are the mechanisms that link macro-level variables such as institutional arrangements to individual-level outcomes? How do such broad policies shape opportunities and constrain decision-making? Since the measures are crude and often cannot take into account a time dimension, it is hard to decide whether the specific institutional arrangement affects individual behaviour, or the reverse. Childcare arrangements, for example, were found to affect women’s labour force participation, but it is plausible to argue that a growing interest among women in joining the labour market creates pressures and demand for the provision of more child-care facilities [Gor03]. With available data, the problem of causality is almost impossible to overcome: its resolution requires longitudinal data on institutional arrangements as well as individual behaviour. The use of panel data from specific periods of time may provide a way of sustaining the directionality of effects from macro-level characteristics to micro-level behaviour.

In the following chapter, we will provide a theoretical framework (typology) for conceptualising country differences. We will then use this framework as a guide for our discussion of the ways in which families organise spouses’ paid and unpaid work. We will then consider the consequences for gender equality in the labour market and within the family.

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