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Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research

Author: Bent Flyvbjerg Aalborg University, Denmark April 2006

Presentation: Mika Siikarla

The Article

Social science context More than the title suggests Studying cases is important in itself Partly flanks rather than dispels

Some myths are confirmed but undermined

Grr: social science is about generalizing

Case Study

Dictionary: The detailed examination of a single example of a class of phenomena. Traditional view a case study only has value when linked to hypotheses Flyvbjerg's view A case study is a result in itself Can be used with hypotheses Vital in learning, insight, breakthroughs, innovation Large-N: breadth; small-N: depth

1.General, theoretical knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical knowledge 2.Cannot generalize from a single case; single-case study cannot contribute to scientific development 3.The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses, others better for testing/building 4.Case study biased towards verification 5.It is often difficult to summarize specific case studies

Case Studies take heavy damage

Such studies have such a total absence of control as to of almost no scientific value

Human learning

Rule-based beginner => virtuoso expert

Intimate knowledge of thousands of concrete cases Only experience (cases) can achieve (repetition) Cases train to recognize and appreciate sensitive details and nuances in different cases Person's own experience as practitioner A researcher needs to learn the subject and research skills

Continued proximity to the studied reality No general context-ind theory for soc.sci

#1 Theory >> Practise

Sometimes it is important to look at a specific case in detail Not to prove but to (hopefully) learn something As for predictive theory, universals and scientism, the study of human affairs is, this, at an eternal beginning. In essence, we have only specific cases and context-dependent knowledge.

Predictive theories and universals cannot be found in the study of human affairs. Concrete, context-dependent knowledge is, therefore, more valuable than the vain search for predictive theories and universals

#2 Cannot generalize

Depends on the case and how it is chosen Galileo vs. Aristotle

Weight a factor in free fall acceleration? Individual case Not a large random sample of heights, weights, winds Also feather/metal in vacuum

Critical case; if it holds for this it holds for all (or many such) cases


Newton, Einstein, Bohr Disproving affluent worker: working class will become middle class

A favourable case chosen deliberately If false for this, it's false for less favourable cases A prosperous industrial center; high wages, social stability Working class still identified themselves as such

More discoveries have arisen from intense observation than from statistics applies to large groups


Formal generalization overrated and preached

In practise people slip

aiming at the disciplined application of theories to cases forces one to state theories more rigorously than might otherwise be done

Black swan

Falsification: if (even) just one observation does not fit, revise or reject all swans are white

Spotting a single black swan falsifies

Case study well-suited for spotting black swans

What appears to be white often turns out on closer inspection to be black

#2 dies

One can often generalize on the basis of a single case, and the case study may be central to scientific development via generalization as supplement or alternative to other methods. But formal generalization is overvalued as a source of scientific development, whereas the force of example is underestimated.

#3 dies

The case study is useful for both generating and testing of hypotheses but is not limited to these research activities alone.

Strategies for case selection

case studies are better for testing hypotheses than for generating them Testing candidate theories is important for theory building Testing hypot. => generalizability => case selection Generalizability Selection: to achieve the greatest possible amount of information Repr. case/random sample not richest in infmtn Clarify deeper causes behind problem & conseq Not describe symptoms and their frequency


Random selection

avoid systematic bias Sample size is decisive for generalization Maximize utility of information of small samples Based on expectations about information content Unusual, especially problematic/good in limited logical deductions of the type (black swan) Metaphor or school of thought for the domain

Information oriented selection

Extreme case

Critical case

Paradigmatic case

Critical case

Difficult to describe, easier to recognize most likely or least likely

For falsify or confirm

Author tried to choose most likely, failed least likely

Oligarchy in (flat democratic) organizations Boston slum: no social disorganization

most likely

most likely <~> least likely when proposition is negated

Paradigmatic case

exemplars Cases that highlight more general characteristics (of the societies in question) Kuhn: scientific paradigms cannot be expressed as rules or theories No predictive theory of how predictive theory comes about

Scientific activity is acknowledged or rejected based on exemplars

No standard exists, because it sets the standard

Paradigmatic case

Chosen by intuition, should be justifiable to other members of the discipline Not always possible to say in advance Execution of the case matters Reactions to the study

by the research community The group studied Possibly broader public

Social thingy

Strategies not exclusive

A case can be simultaneously extreme, critical and paradigmatic Interpretation of a case depends on the view Different interpretations provide perspectives based on what kind of a case it is viewed as

Subjective Bias?

Verification bias fundamentally human

The human understanding from its peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds.

Affirmatives >> negatives More room for researcher's subjectivity? Case study is close to the subject

The case IS. It is insistent Keeps the researcher honest Kills a from of bias (blind to details)

Small-N is large-N

Oops, it's the opposite

Would expect: case studies work out nicely Reality: stupid RL works wrong! Bias towards falsification not verification Bias always exists, not just case study

Selection of variables, categories, questions Structured questions: subjects do not talk back for feed back to correct mistakes

Large-N hides details, causes and interactions. NEW knowledge is hidden Researcher aims to understand: it is learning

Research is learning

Proximity to reality Learning process Case studies help learn that theory is crap Help learn why it is crap

The case study contains no greater bias toward verification of the researcher's preconceived notions than other methods of inquiry. On the contrary, experience indicated that the case study contains a greater bias towards falsification of preconceived notions than toward verification.

Irreducible narrative

Narrative is vital, it IS the case study The case study goes in-depth

Summarizing kills the details

Difficulty to summarize could be a sign of rich problematic one should not divest rich ambiguity The details make it real

Help understand and learn Help find causes and interactions

The contextual and interpenetrating nature of forces is lost in summary


Tells a story

Many-sided, complex, conflicting

Leave scope for readers' interpretations Case study is a result in itself Document a rich case, not prove with it Beginner's level is rules, virtuoso uses rules to express the real knowledge No brief moral

Doesn't answer a question, IS the answer

#5 dies

It is correct that summarizing case studies is often difficult, especially as concerns case process. It is less correct as regards case outcomes. The problem in summarizing case studies, however, are due more often to the properties of the reality studied than to the case study as a research method. Often it is not desirable to summarize and generalize case studies. Good studies should be read as narratives in their entirety.


Good (social) science is problem driven, not methodology driven Case studies are not the same, but they are important

Breadth vs. depth

5 claims have truth in them, but a narrow view Hand-waving in an article is ok