Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) Methods Memo


Rebecca Herrington, CEO of Headlight Consulting Services; Chelsie Kuhn, CLAME Specialist; and Alison Harrell, CLAME Specialist


The Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) Methods Memo is the second in a series of more robust products intended to provide how-to guidance for professionals of all levels to implement stronger CLAME practices. Headlight’s free Methods Memos offer detailed how-to guidance, making best practices more accessible so that we can all uphold and contextualize the standards that lead to rigorous evidence for decision-making.

QCA is an evaluation and research method that, “enables the analysis of multiple cases in complex situations, and can help explain why change happens in some cases but not others,” (Simister and Scholz, 2017). The analysis is based on identifying a set of cases (individual activities or interventions) that have some common alignment and analyzing each case according to a set of factors to establish a cross-case comparison. Qualitative Comparative Analysis originated as a new method in the social sciences in the late 1980s to help researchers compare cases and parse through multiple variables to explain how cases were similar to and different from one another (Marx, Rihoux, and Ragin, 2013). This particular memo’s goal is to provide evaluators with practical guidance for deciding when Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) is a good fit and how to contextualize and implement the method. Its contents may also be relevant to organizations that are looking to establish and improve rapid feedback loops to better understand complex strategies or interventions and articulate any comparisons to other intervention styles. 

The Qualitative Comparative Analysis Methods Memo is organized as use-focused modules, and we start off with a brief introduction to refresh readers on what QCA is, when it is appropriate to use this method, how to implement QCA, competencies that the evaluator needs for implementation, and our top tricks and tips. From there, we dive into examples of how QCA has been used in the development field along with a comparison between those two cases to draw out what makes them a good fit. These subsections also include a brief history of the method, a decision tree for evaluators to consider, and visuals to depict important details for factor selection. 

Headlight has implemented QCA with USAID/Ethiopia to learn more about their use of flexible funding mechanisms in humanitarian assistance and development programming. In that evaluation, our team worked with implementing partners who received a variety of crisis modifiers to examine what outcomes resulted from the funding and how cases compared by funding, geographic area, or timeliness of response. As a result, the USAID Effective Emergency Response team has been able to modify its emergency funding consideration process and solicit additional ideas from development implementing partners about how to close the emergency response gap. 

We hope that this Methods Memo will help inspire evaluators, project leaders, and donors alike to start or continue applying the Qualitative Comparative Analysis evaluation method where appropriate and to fuel further innovation, rigor, and adaptation in our collective evaluation work. If you find this resource useful, we would love to hear about what you have learned and how you have applied it in your own work. And if your organization is interested in applying this method, but you need additional support from experienced evaluators, Headlight would love to support you! For more information about our services, please email info@headlightconsultingservices.com.

View resource: Headlight_Qualitative Comparative Analysis Methods Memo