I’ll be in Tokyo next week, delivering a paper at a conference of the International Sociological Association. Drawing on examples of research I’ve done, in both Kenya and North America, the paper discusses issues faced by researchers who undertake critical investigations of the way political power is wielded. It looks at the problem of how to get at “the truth”, as well as some obstacles posed by inappropriate research ethics protocols. Following is a brief summary of the paper, or, if you prefer, download the paper itself.
Case study research has unjustifiably acquired a reputation for being semi-anecdotal investigation of the small details of individual circumstances, research that is incapable of generating significant empirical or theoretical advances in knowledge. Drawing on a research methods literature, and on my own experience with case study research on two continents, I argue that case studies can serve as an indispensable tool, both for testing the validity of claims made for policy initiatives and political decisions, and occasionally for the generation of theoretically significant insights.
Case studies that involve critical assessments of the use of political power pose serious challenges for researchers because power holders may be in a position to exercise control over both the opinions of a researcher’s interview subjects and some of the contents of the documentary record. The challenge to the researcher is to evaluate the significance of various interviewees’ interpretations of the state of affairs or sequence of events under study, while separating out facts from interpretations, and testing the validity of factual accounts against the representation of those same facts in the documentary record. This study makes the case that power is unlikely to be so absolute as to withstand a scrutiny that includes careful cross-checking of the representation of facts in different, independent sources.
The study then turns to the problems posed by institutional ethics reviews, which, though well-intentioned, inhibit the kind of critical investigation that case study research requires, both by effectively legitimizing any efforts power-holders may make to conceal facts and obfuscate analysis, and by failing adequately to protect subordinates and ordinary people from reprisals for research findings that offend power-holders.