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A Handbook for Social Science Field Research[1]

A Handbook for Social Science Field Research[1]

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01/28/2013

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Andrew Schrank

Though everyone who writes about case studies defines a case study
differently, the Oxford English Dictionaryoffers a suitable working
definition, describing it as an “attempt to understand a[my emphasis] par-
ticular person, institution, society, etc., by assembling information about his
or its development.”1

The information can be either qualitative or quantita-
tive or a combination of the two. It can be collected by an individual or a
team. It can consist of interviews with key informants, surveys of represen-
tative populations of actors, archival materials, observations by participants
(ethnographies), or any other widely accepted source. And it can be analyzed
using one or more of a wide variety of analytical methods, including, but by
no means limited to, close reading, historical interpretation, the construction
of “analytical narratives,” and even the use of inferential statistics. Consider,
for example, Robert Putnam’s study of “civic traditions in modern Italy” in
Making Democracy Work, which relies on surveys, key informant inter-
views, secondary sources, and the statistical analysis of subnational political

169

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performance. For the most part, however, case studies are distinguished
from other social scientific methods by the indefinite article “a” in the afore-
mentioned definition. A case study investigates a person, institution, or
societyrather than people, institutions, or societies more broadly.
The case study is the unappreciated workhorse of the contemporary social
sciences. It has made—and continues to make—enormous contributions to
every social scientific discipline. The classic works of sociology and political
science involve case studies. Anthropologists, geographers, and historians
use the approach all the time. And mainstream economists are quick to
underscore the virtues of a well-designed case study, at least when it suits
their rhetorical or polemical purposes.2
Nevertheless, the methodological literature on the case study is for the
most part defensive rather than instructive (Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg 1991;
Levi 2000). For every book or article offering insight into the practice of case-
based research, one finds a half dozen books or articles debating the very
merits of the approach—and most of those works, by the way, are critical.
Nor does the asymmetry end with books and articles. Think about it: We
extol the virtues of works like Charles Tilly’s The Vendée(1964),Guillermo
O’Donnell’s Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism(1973),and
Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle(1982) in our thematic
seminars, but we deride their research designs—and therefore, at least
implicitly, their authors—in our methodology classes. They have selected
their cases on the dependent variable. They have omitted potentially relevant
control variables. And they have “degrees of freedom” problems that just
won’t quit. Any reasonably well-trained third-year political science, sociol-
ogy, or geography graduate student can effortlessly recite the list of method-
ological transgressions—and that, in a sense, is the problem.
Our methodology classes tend to discourage students from pursuing
the types of projects they come to admire in their “substantive” classes: well-
informed, detailed inquiries into the interests, ideas, and behaviors of real
people in real places at decisive historical conjunctures. One wonders whether
dissertations like Seymour Martin Lipset’s Agrarian Socialism(1950),Nora
Hamilton’s The Limits of State Autonomy: Post-Revolutionary Mexico
(1982), or William Reno’s Who Really Rules Sierra Leone?(1985)would be
proposed—let alone welcomed—in our own departments. Increasingly, I fear,
the answer is “no.”

Don’t get me wrong. Truly exceptional work will always rise above
momentary fads and fashions, and I, for one, feel no need to challenge
Margaret Levi’s assertion that the first books of “such distinguished
contemporary comparativists as Robert Bates or David Laitin or Sidney
Tarrow” would, if written today, “still be published by a major university

170——Part II ♦Essentials for the Conduct of Research

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press” (Levi 2000, p.20). In fact, I would go even further and say that if they
were written today, they would still be classics in their respective fields. But
I am not at all sure that they would be written today, for many graduate
students in some disciplines have been turning their backs on the detailed,
single country (or community, region, firm, movement, etc.) case study for
more than a decade now in a potentially misguided effort to meet a uniform,
textbook standard of methodological rigor that holds that quantitative data
are necessarily better than qualitative, large samples are necessarily better
than small, and deduction is necessarily better than induction.
In fact, the prevailing view of the case study owes much to the critique
offered by Donald Campbell and Julian Stanley in their classic exposition of
Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research in 1966. Accord-
ing to Campbell and Stanley, the “one-shot case study” entails the observa-
tion of a “single group” that has allegedly been exposed to “some agent or
treatment presumed to cause change” (Campbell & Stanley 1966, p.6). If X
is the treatment (e.g., the “deepening” of import-substituting industrialization
described by O’Donnell in Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism,
1973) and O is the outcome (i.e., the onset of authoritarian rule), X is allegedly
responsible for O.

The limits to the one-shot case study are by now well-known. Absent
either a baseline measure of the outcome variable (e.g., an assessment of the
political situation prior to the process of deepening) or a control group (e.g.,
data on countries that failed to deepen their industrial structures), one can
neither be certain that a change in the status of the outcome variable has
actually occurred nor attribute the alleged change to the ostensible cause
with any degree of certainty. As a result, the case study methodology suffers
from “such a total absence of control,” in the words of Campbell and
Stanley, “as to be of almost no scientific value” (1966, p.6).
A number of well-known analysts have responded to Campbell and
Stanley’s critique by undertaking “comparisons between or among a small
number of cases,” in Bennett’s terminology, and thereby increasing their
sample sizes.3

The most commonly used small-n approaches derive from
John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” and “method of agreement.” The
former (Table 9.1) looks for two or more cases that are similar in all critical
respects except for a dichotomous outcome variable and a dichotomous
independent variable, which is assumed to be the “cause” of the outcome in
question.

The latter (Table 9.2) looks for two or more cases that differ in all criti-
cal respects except a dichotomous outcome variable and a dichotomous
independent variable that is therefore assumed to be the “cause” of the out-
come in question.

Chapter 9 ♦Essentials for the Case Study Method——171

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According to Theda Skocpol, perhaps the foremost contemporary practi-
tioner of small-n comparative research, the comparative method is nothing
more than “that mode of multivariate analysis to which sociologists necessarily
resort when experimental manipulations are not possible and when there are
‘too many variables and not enough cases’—that is, not enough cases for sta-
tistical testing of hypotheses” (Skocpol 1976, p.177; Skocpol & Somers 1980).
Nevertheless, Mill’s methods have been criticized on a number of
grounds. They are vulnerable to selection bias, measurement error, and
curve fitting. They rely on an epistemologically untenable, deterministic
notion of causality. And they are confounded by interaction effects, omitted
variables, identical patterns of concomitant variation (i.e., situations in
which multiple predictors exhibit the identical pattern across cases), and
multiple causes of the same outcome. Consequently, Stanley Lieberson, per-
haps the foremost contemporary critic of small-n causal analysis, holds that
“the fundamental underpinnings of the Mill methods are indefensible.”4
Lieberson’s critique is powerful but not unassailable. While the case study
is by no means the appropriate research design for each and every social
scientific problem and is indeed ill suited to traditional, probabilistic causal
analysis, it is anything but useless. After all, Campbell himself concluded—
in a “partial recanting” published years after his magnum opus had become
the industry standard—that the case study offers more control than his
previous “caricature” would have implied, for the authors of case studies
frequently find that their prior beliefs are untenable when they reach the
field—an unlikely outcome in the absence of at least some form of control
(Campbell 1975).

172—Part II ♦Essentials for the Conduct of Research

Table 9.1

Mill’s Method of Difference

CaseOutcomeIndependent VariableControl Variable 1Control Variable 2

1

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

2

No

No

Yes

No

Table 9.2

Mill’s Method of Agreement

CaseOutcomeIndependent VariableControl Variable 1Control Variable 2

1

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

2

Yes

Yes

No

No

09-Perecman.qxd 12/22/2005 3:28 PM Page 172

When might a case study be appropriate? A number of situations exist:

•When it promises to yield fundamental insight into a rare but impor-
tant process or event that offers no obvious point of comparison
(March, Sproull, & Tamuz 1991; Adams, Clemens, & Orloff 2005).
•When it addresses an ambiguous, obscure, or otherwise inhospitable
population that is difficult to reach through traditional methods (Geis
1991).

•When it explores a crucial, deviant, or negative case that will shed
light on an established theory (Stinchcombe 1968; Lijphart 1971;
Emigh 1997).5
•When a case study approach is used in conjunction with a large-n
statistical study to flesh out underlying causal mechanisms (King,
Keohane, & Verba 1994; Ragin 1987; Skocpol & Somers 1980; Paige
1975; Romer 1993; Kurtz & Barnes 2002).
•When it is combined with a small-n comparative approach to assess
necessary causal conditions or conditional theoretical statements (Dion
1998; Paige 1999).
•When it can be evaluated against an established body of theory
that offers multiple observable implications (Campbell 1975,
pp.181–183).
•Or when no adequate body of theory exists, and the relevant hypoth-
esis or control group is therefore unclear (Walton 1992).

Any or all of these situations would justify the use of case-based methods,
regardless of whether they would foster valid causal inferences in the narrow
sense of the term. For ongoing discussions about the approach, see the
websites for the Consortium on Qualitative Research Methods (www.asu
.edu/clas/polisci/cqrm/) and the American Political Science Association’s
Qualitative Methods Section and associated newsletter (www.asu.edu/clas/
polisci/cqrm/QualitativeMethodsAPSA.html).
It took me a long time to realize that small-n researchers and large-n
researchers could profit from mutual dialogue. Large-n researchers have to
compromise nuance for generalizability; small-n researchers compromise
generalizability for nuance. In both cases, the goal is mostly to understand
social processes and their implications, and both methods are fraught with
fundamental study design concerns that allow only partial answers. But in
mutual dialogue, the two methodological enterprises can yield more com-
plete insights into social processes.

Chapter 9 ♦Essentials for the Case Study Method——173

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Notes

1.Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. (1989). Oxford, UK: Oxford University
Press. Retrieved September 23, 2005, from dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50034022/
50034022se53?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=case+study&first=1&
max_to_show=10&hilite=50034022se53.
2.The latter point is perhaps best illustrated in Srinivasan and Bhagwati (2001)
in the Bibliographies at the end of Part II.
3.Bennett, Andrew. (2001). “Case Study: Methods and Analysis.” Pp.1513–1519
in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J.
Smelser and Paul Baltes. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier. Quotation is from
p.1516.

4.Lieberson, Stanley. “More on the Uneasy Case for Using Mill-Type Methods
in Small-N Comparative Studies.” Social Forces72(4), 1225–1237. Quotation is
from p.1236.

5.Examples of the various stages would include Barrett and Whyte (1982),
Barnett (1990), and Emigh (1998). See the Bibliographies at the end of Part II.

174—Part II ♦Essentials for the Conduct of Research

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