Case study research: How social science underestimates it and places obstacles in its way

I’m at the Canadian Political Science Association meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, delivering a paper that makes the following argument:

Political 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 social theory. Often, an effective way of testing such claims 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. The paper looks at how we can mobilize the mountain of data we are likely to amass in the course of a case study in order to arrive at judgements, which necessarily involve an element of subjectivity, while offering some assurance that those judgements are not, in the end, simply a mirror image of our prejudices. The paper next 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.

To download a copy of the paper, click here.

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