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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 reaction.” 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 theory Discussion: 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 scribd.com, Amazon Kindle, and iBooks. References Allergic to peanuts, even in donated blood (2011). New York Times, May 24, D6. Blumer, H. (1954/1969). What is wrong with social theory? In Herbert Blumer (1969/1986), Symbolic interactionism. (pp (pp. 140-‐152) Berkeley: University of California Press. Originally published in Vol. XIX in The American Sociological Review. Bryant, Antony & Kathy Charmaz (Eds.) (2007). The Sage Handbook of Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Bulmer, M. (1984). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, diversity, and the rise of sociological research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Corbin, Juliet & Anselm Strauss (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Cronbach, Lee (1975). Beyond the two disciplines of scientific psychology. American Psychologist, 30, 116-‐127. Denzin, Norman K. (2010). Grounded and indigenous theories and the politics of pragmatism. Sociological Inquiry, 80(2), 286-‐312. Denzin, Norman (1997). Coffee with Anselm. Qualitative Family Research 11(2), 1-4. Available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/27352636/Coffee-with-Anselm. Gilgun, Jane F. (in press). Qualitative family research: Enduring themes and contemporary variations. In Gary F. Peterson & Kevin Bush (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family (3rd ed.) (pp. 219261). New York: Plenum. Gilgun, Jane F. (2011). Theory and case study research. Current Issues in Qualitative Research, 2 (3). http://www.scribd.com/doc/48231895/Theory-and-Case-Study-Research Gilgun, Jane F. (2005). Qualitative research and family psychology. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(1), 40-50. Gilgun, Jane F. (2001). Case-based research, analytic induction, and theory development. This paper was presented at the 31st Annual Theory Construction & Research Methodology Workshop of the National Council on Family Relations, Rochester, NY, November 2001. Available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/56167556/Case-Based-Research-Analytic-Induction-and-TheoryDevelopment-The-Future-and-the-Past Gilgun, Jane F. (1999). Methodological pluralism and qualitative family research. In Suzanne K. Steinmetz, Marvin B. Sussman, and Gary W. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family (2nd ed.) (pp. 219-‐261). New York: Plenum. Gilgun, Jane F. (1994). A case for case studies in social work research. Social Work,39, 371-380. Gilgun, Jane F. (1992). Hypothesis generation in social work research. Journal of Social Service Research, 15, 113-135. Glaser, Barney. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press. Glaser, Barney. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press. Polkinghorne, Donald. (l983). Methodology for the human sciences: Systems of inquiry. Albany: State University of New York at Albany. Strauss, A. (1991). A personal history of the development of grounded theory. Qualitative Family Research, 5(2), 1-‐2. Strauss, Anselm. 1987. Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. New York: Cambridge University Press. Strauss, Anselm & Juliet Corbin (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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