Switzerland’s Cantons as a Most-Similar Design?

From time to time I come across research that claims that Switzerland is the ideal place for many comparative studies. The argument is that the 26 cantons of Switzerland offer similar institutional settings, yet have plenty of autonomy in other regards. The intuition is that the federalism inherent in the Swiss system allows to hold constant many aspects while testing for other differences: a most-similar research design.

While I like the idea of working with sub-national data, I’d suggest a more careful look: in some cases the situation may indeed allow most-similar design, but in others this does not seem to be the case. Here I simply list a few reason why the Swiss cantons may not be the ideal place for comparative studies. Whether this matters will depend on the individual study.

Let’s start with the institutional setting. In broad terms, it’s the same across Switzerland: three levels of government (municipal, cantonal, national). When it comes to details, however, we can see that autonomy means something in Switzerland. Let’s take just two examples. Each canton has an authority to deal with immigration issues (on its own or attached to another service), except for the Canton of Bern which has four of them. The electoral system for the lower chamber is the same in all cantons, for the upper chamber it’s up to the canton to decide — and they make use of this.

Even though there are efforts to harmonize the educational system in Switzerland (a bit over half the cantons now harmonize their systems), there’s still much variety.

More profound differences may exist between regions. The difference between language regions is often highlighted, but there’s more than the share of French-speakers in a canton. The traditionally dominant religion in the different cantons varies and cuts across the language regions. If we look at distance to traditional trade routes through Switzerland (think contact hypothesis), we get a different picture still. And then there is history: different parts of Switzerland have become part of what is present-day Switzerland in quite different circumstances (something many accounts apparently manage quite well to gloss over).

Don’t care about culture? Let’s consider the economy. While Switzerland overall is a rich country, there’s a big difference between economic centres like Zurich, Geneva, or Basel, and other places. We could consider the degree of urbanization here, or the importance of agriculture, average incomes, average rents, and other economic factors.

The point here is not to dismiss the claim of a most-similar research design, but to highlight that the situation is not as simple as often implied: there are significant institutional, socio-economic, and cultural differences within. Whether they matter will depend on the research question.

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