Fuzzy Sets on Shaky Ground: Parameter Sensitivity and Confirmation Bias in fsQCA

Abstract

Scholars have increasingly turned to fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA) to conduct small- and medium-N studies, arguing that it combines the most desired elements of variable-oriented and case-oriented research. This article demonstrates, however, that fsQCA is an extraordinarily sensitive method whose results are worryingly susceptible to minor parametric and model specification changes. We make two specific claims. First, the causal conditions identified by fsQCA as being sufficient for an outcome to occur are highly contingent upon the values of several key parameters selected by the user. Second, fsQCA results are subject to marked confirmation bias. Given its tendency toward finding complex connections between variables, the method is highly likely to identify as sufficient for an outcome causal combinations containing even randomly generated variables. To support these arguments, we replicate three articles utilizing fsQCA and conduct sensitivity analyses and Monte Carlo simulations to assess the impact of small changes in parameter values and the method’s built-in confirmation bias on the overall conclusions about sufficient conditions.

Publication
Political Analysis 23(1), 21-41
Date