Susan E. Clarke is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado. Her current research addresses human capital issues, regional politics, and school reform politics.
Clarke / TAKINGVCONTEXT SERIOUSLYLY / November 2001
Well, Maybe . . . : Taking Context Seriously in Analyzing Local Economic Development
Susan E. Clarke University of Colorado
Reese and Rosenfeld’s challenge to the myths about local economic development raises important questions about theory development and notions of causality implicit in current empirical work. In addition to the authors’advocacy of more utilization of combined research approaches, case studies, and cultural analyses, the author argues for embracing concepts of contingent causality, employing counterfactuals and pat- tern-matching methods, and developing more systematic and rigorous contextual methodologies.
Reese and Rosenfeld (2001 [pp. 299-312, this issue]) offer an intriguing challenge to conventional understandings about local economic development. They claim there is a narrow evidentiary base for myths about local economic development because of the constraints of the methods and mea- sures generally employed. As a result, the validity and stability of the findings are suspect; as they see it, when critical variables and dynamics are left out of models, the consequent mis-specifica- tion contributes to the low explanatory power of most models in the literature. In particular, they stress the importance of historical and cultural features in shaping local economic development strategies and the difficulties of systematically analyzing such features in current approaches. Not surprisingly, they argue for multimethod research strategies that bridge the divide of large N research and more intensive case studies. They model such a strategy by presenting aggregate anal- yses of survey data from U.S. and Canadian cities and case studies of matched pairs of selected cit- ies to demonstrate how the more intensive analyses inform the quantitative findings and question the conventional wisdom available in other (uncited) studies.
Such a broad-brushed critique invites a closer examination of the authors’ claims, of course. There would be little argument with their characterization of the literature as tending to split into quantitative and qualitative approaches, but they do slight the growing body of scholarly work using multiple methods to examine local economic development policy.1 Indeed, most of the reports and studies available through groups, such as the National League of Cities, the Urban Institute, and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department, customarily use such multi- ple method approaches. So their claim that such combined methods have “not been done in the eco- nomic development literature to date” misrepresents that literature (Reese & Rosenfeld, 2001, p. 301).
Similarly, the myths themselves tend to be overstated. Although these are thematic perspectives in the literature, they are rarely posited or used in the baldly determinative manner the authors imply. Even straightforward relationships between, for example, government structure and policy choices are usually considered in a relatively nuanced fashion by scholars arguing for their
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY, Vol. 15 No. 4, November 2001 320-322 © 2001 Sage Publications