Case studies can produce theoretical advances: here’s an example

Case studies have unjustifiably acquired a reputation for being semi-anecdotal investigations 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.

Immigration and homelessness studies

A case in point is a series of case studies I’ve undertaken, now nearing completion, that were designed to test the efficacy of government immigration and homelessness policies, and, as well, to test some theoretical propositions I had earlier formulated – on the basis of other case studies – about the much-underestimated policy significance urban population growth rates.

In order to produce theory, studies must be grounded in theory. The starting-point for my case study series was the widely held recognition that globalization has moved cities to centre-stage in societies everywhere. Our collective well-being, both economic and social, depends on the prosperity and well-being of our cities, because, although we need food, minerals and other products of the countryside, it is cities that are our primary centres of creativity, decision-making, and ultimately of wealth-generation.

Globalization has sharpened our awareness of this reality because free trade agreements have reduced the capacity of national governments to protect urban regions from international competition, and modern communications have reduced the importance of location, plunging cities everywhere into direct competition with each other. Accordingly, we need to think carefully about how our political decision-making affects our cities. Governments everywhere, including the Canadian government, are doing that, by trying to find ways of ensuring that national policies contribute to the economic viability and social health of cities and communities.

This task is complicated by the fact that each community is as unique as each human individual. Therefore, although it is possible to set national objectives and standards that apply to all communities, complete uniformity of policy making and implementation is probably not achievable and is, in any event, undesirable, because what works in one city may not work in another. The Canadian government has addressed this reality by trying to ensure that the implementation of national policies can be tailored to the particularities of different communities.

My study focused on two examples of policies designed in this way: the National Homelessness Initiative and Immigration and Settlement. My research assistants and I looked at the implementation of these policies in three very different cities – Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saint John, New Brunswick – in order to test whether these policies were successfully adapted to a range of very different local conditions.


Here are some of our most interesting findings:

The rate of a city’s population growth plays a critical, and widely overlooked role in determining the appropriateness of different policy choices. Policies that may be appropriate for rapidly growing cities are different from those that are appropriate for slow-growth cities. There is a strong tendency, however, for decision-makers in slow-growth cities to pretend that they will be able to increase their rates of growth, and premise their policies on future rapid growth – growth that rarely materializes.

The National Homelessness Initiative (NHI) contained provisions for consultation with local service providers to determine how NHI funding would be allocated. However, the NHI was created to address conditions in rapid-growth cities, and federal government policy in this area was not sufficiently flexible to allow for adaptation to the very different circumstances in slow-growth cities. As a result, NHI policies that were reasonably responsive to conditions in Vancouver proved ill adapted to the circumstances of Winnipeg and Saint John.

Federal immigration and settlement policies were adapted to local circumstances via federal-provincial agreements that devolved some responsibilities to provincial governments. In Vancouver, a famously effective network of settlement service providers suffered setbacks stemming from the British Columbia government’s rigidly ideological approach to service provision. In Saint John, immigration and settlement objectives were thwarted by a local culture that proved relatively unreceptive to immigration. In Winnipeg, the provincial government implemented a set of immigration and settlement policies that have been recognized as a model, thanks to extensive consultation with service providers and flexible, thoughtful administration of a provincial nominee program.


The theory about the surprising importance of growth rates in setting the conditions for a wide range of policies first occurred to me because I had done case studies on a variety of subjects in such rapidly growing centres as Toronto, Vancouver and Portland, Oregon; and such slow-growth centres as Winnipeg and Edmonton, when the latter was a slow-growth centre. Because I was doing case studies, I was not narrowly focused on my particular research questions because case studies require the researcher to look broadly at the context of the question being investigated. As a result, I could not help noticing the striking differences among the cities I studied, and the way in which those differences corresponded to differences in rates of population growth.

In my comparative case studies of immigration and homelessness policies, growth rates were one of the criteria I had in mind in selecting research sites. The findings of those studies gave insights into the two policy areas and into some of the problems and possibilities of multi-level governance. But they also confirmed that policy and implementation problems were different in different cities, and that those differences were strongly influenced by population growth rates.


For more about slow growth, see:

Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, “Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy”. Journal of Urban Affairs, 22 (2), 2000, pp. 193-213.

Christopher Leo and Katie Anderson, “Being Realistic about Urban Growth”. Journal of Urban Affairs. 28 (2), 2006, pp. 169-89.

For more about the findings regarding homelessness and immigration, see:
Leo, C. (2006). Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique, 39 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0008423906060240

Christopher Leo, “National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City”. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 15 (1) (supplement) 2006, pp. 1-21.

Christopher Leo and Martine August, “The Multi-Level Governance of Immigration and Settlement: Making Deep Federalism Work”. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 42 (2), 2009, pp. 491-510.

Christopher Leo and Jeremy Enns, “Multi-level governance and ideological rigidity: The failure of deep federalism”. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 42 (1), 2009, 93-116.

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