I’m off to Chicago to deliver a paper about case study research methods to the Urban Affairs Association. This is a slightly revised version of a paper delivered in Tokyo in December. I wrote the paper after it dawned on me that many of my colleagues devote a lot of their research career to case studies, as I do, but that we rarely discuss how we do them.
However, the part of my paper that stirred up the most interest in Tokyo started as an afterthought: a discussion of how research ethics protocols militate against, not only sound methodology, but also ethics itself. You can read that discussion by going to p. 12 of the paper available at the second link above.
Despite the interest in the ethics issue, I haven’t given up on the idea of a dialogue about the much-neglected topic of case study research methodology. If you’d like to get to the meat of that discussion, check out Section 2 of the paper, starting on p. 4. I’m convinced that nothing is more important to the future of social science than getting case study research methods right, and I’d be really interested to learn from my colleagues what they think about the issue. I invite comments below.
In order to develop the discussion about research methods, I provide examples of research I’ve done in Africa and Canada. Check out section 3, starting near the bottom of p. 6, for that material.
If you’re looking for an overview of the paper, here’s the abstract:
Epistemological, practical and ethical considerations in case study research
Case studies have 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. It is argued that the case study is, at best, a preliminary step, in that it may generate hypotheses that can later be tested using such “more reliable” methods as standardized questionnaires or statistical data. In the study of politics, however, that sequence of research initiatives may well work better in reverse.
When political action generates new policies, or creates new states of affairs, these changes invariably come complete with a set of justifications, with or without a claim that the justifications are founded in scientific investigation or well-established social theory. Often, a very effective way of testing such claims, and the social science backing them, is to do a case study of the policy, or the changed state of affairs, enquiring into its causes and the effects it has produced, in order to test the validity of the original justification. A series of such case studies may, in turn, generate insights that are capable of producing theoretical advances, provided the case studies employ sound methodology. This paper considers the epistemological and practical questions that must be resolved in arriving at sound case study methodology. It 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 power-holders do not like.