A Handbook of Comparative Social Policy
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A Handbook of Comparative Social Policy

Edited by Patricia Kennett

The current context of social policy is one in which many of the old certainties of the past have been eroded. The predominantly inward-looking, domestic preoccupation of social policy has made way for a more integrated, international and outward approach to analysis which looks beyond the boundaries of the state. It is in this context that this Handbook brings together the work of key commentators in the field of comparative analysis in order to provide comprehensive coverage of contemporary debates and issues in cross-national social policy research.
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Chapter 15: Living with imperfect comparisons

Else Øyen


1 Else Øyen Together with the scope and extent of research, the number of comparative studies has increased greatly in recent years. As more and more countries are brought into such studies a growing array of social phenomena, variables and processes are being compared. Globalization, educational exchange programmes, access to megasize databanks, speedy electronic communication and increasing intellectual curiosity about ethnic and cultural differences can all be seen as part of this picture. The unfortunate thing is that comparative methodology has not developed at the same speed as new information and information technology.2 While there are now masses of empirical material available and more power to incorporate large amounts of variables in a comparative analysis, basic methodological questions remain unsolved. For example, how do we know that one variable in one country carries the same cultural understanding in another country and therefore can be compared directly? How are we to understand the differential impact of the social context on a variable that is seemingly similar in different countries? How is it possible to control for the cultural impact of researchers on the formulation of research questions and interpretations of results? How can countries be compared where the lacunae in data give priority to better understanding of those countries that are rich in data? This is of particular importance since many countries in the South suffer from lack of data and are likely to do so for a long time to come. Is it at all possible to draw comparisons between...

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