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Current Issues in Qualitative Research

An Occasional Publication for Field Researchers from a Variety of Disciplines

Volume 2, Number 4 May 2011

Yes  They  Are:  The  Generalizability  of  Case  Studies      

by  Jane  F.  Gilgun  

single  case  study  can  change  long-­‐held  understandings.    The  latest  example  is  a  case  of  a  6  
year-­‐old  boy  who  went  into  anaphylactic  shock  after  he  received  a  blood  transfusion.  He  
broke  out  in  a  rash,  had  difficulty  breathing,  and  his  blood  pressure  dropped.  Prompt  action  
led  to  his  recovery.  He  had  received  blood  platelets  from  five  donors.    
His   mother   told   the   medical   team   that   her   son   had   experienced   the   same   reactions   when   he   ate  
peanuts   five   years   earlier.   He   had   had   no   peanuts   since.   A   blood   test   showed   that   the   boy   had  
experienced   an   allergic   reaction   to   peanuts.   The   team   contacted   the   five   donors.   Three   of   them   had  
snacked  on  peanuts  the  night  before  they  gave  blood.  

The  team  that  treated  the  boy  reported  the  case  last  week  in  the  New  England  Journal  of  Medicine.  
Members   of   the   team   from   a   medical   center   in   the   Netherlands   thought   that   the   “consumption   of  
peanuts   by   the   donors   before   blood   donation   provide   the   trigger   for   this   patient’s   transfusion  

They   pointed   out   that   other   patients   may   have   had   similar   reactions,   but   no   one   knew   how   or   why.    
“It   is   possible   that   allergens   transferred   in   blood   products   have   led   to   reactions   that   have   gone  
unexplained  and  unreported,”  they  wrote.  

Case  Studies  and  Generalizability  

This   case   study   and   the   lesson   learned   from   it   show   how   important   case   studies   are.   Many  
researchers   believe   that   case   studies   are   not   generalizable.   They   are.   This   case   shows   the  
generalizability  of  lessons  learned  from  one  case.  The  medical  team  learned  that  allergens  related  to  
peanut  consumption  can  be  transferred  through  blood  transfusions.  This  is  a  learning  that  can  be  
applied  to  other  situations.  

In  the  future,  blood  banks  throughout  the  world  will  ask  potential  donors  if  they  have  eaten  peanuts  
recently,   or   at   least   they   should.   If   donors   have,   their   blood   products   would   be   so   labeled.   Some  
blood  banks  may  not  take  blood  from  persons  who  have  eaten  peanuts  recently.  

If  donors  forget  they  have  eaten  peanuts  or  lie  about  it,  then  recipients  with  peanut  allergies  may  go  
into  shock.  If  this  happens,  medical  teams  will  know  right  away  that  peanuts  may  be  the  cause.  

Medical  team  will  also  ask  if  candidates  for  blood  transfusions  have  allergies,  such  as  those  related  
to  peanuts.    They  will  know  to  avoid  products  that  may  contain  traces  of  peanuts.  

Generalizability  to  Other  Situations  

The  findings  of  case  studies,  therefore,  are  generalizable.  The  case  itself  is  unique,  but   the   learnings  
can  be  applied  to  other  situations.    Sometimes  this  kind  of  generalizability  is  called  transferability.  
Sometimes  it  is  called  analytic  generalizability.    It  is  not  statistical  generalizability.  

Persons   who   claim   that   the   findings   of   case   studies   are   not   generalizable   do   not   understand   that  
there   is   more   than   one   type   of   generalizability.   They   believe   that   one   type   of   generalizability   fits   all  
of  research.  This  is  not  so.  

Lee   Cronbach   said   many   years   ago   that   any   finding,   no   matter   which   type   of   research   it   was  
developed  upon,  can  be  useful  in  other  settings.  This  is  generalizability.    He  also  said  that  we  must  
test  these  findings  for  fit  when  we  want  to  apply  them  in  new  situations.    

This   means   that   in   situations   where   individuals   are   to   receive   donated   blood   products,   medical  
teams  must  know  if  patients  have  allergies  to  peanuts  and  if  the  blood  products  contain  traces  of  
peanuts.   Making   these   applications   will   initiate   prevention   strategies.   They   also   will   help   explain  
reactions  that  until  now  have  gone  unexplained.  Researchers  use  case  studies  to  develop  and  test  

Learnings  from  Cases  are  Generalizable  

Each  case  is  unique,  just  as  each  person  and  each  situation  are  unique.  What  is  not  unique  are  the  
concepts   and   ideas   that   we   draw   from   case   studies.   These   concepts   and   ideas   are   generalizabile.  
Researchers  and  people  living  their  everyday  lives  do  not  need  random  samples  in  order  to  learn  
something   from   particular   situations.   What   they   need   is   imagination   and   capacities   to   abstract  
ideas  from  particular  cases.  Then  they  need  imagination  and  attention  to  detail  to  see  if  what  they  
learned  from  other  situations  fits  new  situations.  

Probabilistic   generalizability   requires   random   samples.     Generalizaling   from   one   case   to   another  
does   not.   There   is   more   than   one   type   of   generalizability.   Case   studies   are   important   sources   of  
knowledge.  Findings  from  case  studies  are  generalizable.  

About  the  Author  

Jane   F.   Gilgun,   Ph.D.,   LICSW,   is   a   professor,   School   of   Social   Work,   University   of   Minnesota,   Twin  
Cities,   USA.   See   Professor   Gilgun’s   other   articles,   books,   and   children’s   stories   on,  
Amazon  Kindle,  and  iBooks.  


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