case study methodology

Thoughts on: Five misunderstandings about case-study research (Flyvbjerg, 2006)

One of the things that I’ve noticed as I explore the scholarly world is that there appear to be as many different ways to do research as there are researchers. Every time I’ve discussed my research with someone, they seem to have had a different take on the best way to do it. This, I guess, comes down to their experiences and how they would do it if it was their project, based on their way of seeing the world and the knowledge within. It shouldn’t surprise me then that, as people make these approaches and paradigms part of their identity, that they can get strangely passionate and maybe even political about ‘the right way to do things’. (Not everyone, mind you, but more than a few).

Which brings us to Flyvbjerg and this take on the value of case studies in qualitative research. Rather than simply talking through the nature and merits of the case study as a way of understanding something, the author positions it in opposition to common criticisms of this form of research. Kind of mythbusters for qualitative research I guess.

To be frank, I’m still getting my head around what research is, so rather than follow him down this rabbit-hole in depth, I’m just going to share the parts of this that stood out the most and that got me thinking about what I want to do. A significant part of the thrust of the paper seems to lie in whether we can be confident that a case study tells us something meaningful about the world. He comes back several times to a larger philosophical tension between case studies and larger scale quantitative research that seeks to prove a hypothesis or demonstrate the existence of things that in combination add up to something meaningful.

In addition, from both an understanding-oriented and an action-oriented perspective, it is often more important to clarify the deeper causes behind a given problem and its consequences than to describe the symptoms of the problem and how frequently they occur. Random samples emphasizing representativeness will seldom be able to produce this kind of insight; it is more appropriate to select some few cases chosen for their validity. (p.229)

For me, the main points of contention are: Is this simply a one-off outlier that you are describing or is this a situation that is likely to be seen repeatedly? (Generalisability) What does the fact that the research chose this particular case to study mean in terms of its independence or representativeness? (Verification bias) Is it possible to extract meaningful truths from this story? (Ability to summarise findings).


Flyvbjerg contends that looking at one case can indeed tell us a lot. The idea of falsification is, in essence, that it only takes one example that contradicts a stated belief to change that idea.

The case study is ideal for generalizing using the type of test that Karl Popper(1959) called “falsification,” which in social science forms part of critical reflexivity. Falsification is one of the most rigorous tests to which a scientific proposition can be subjected: If just one observation does not fit with the proposition, it is considered not valid generally and must therefore be either revised or rejected. Popper himself used the now famous example “all swans are white” and proposed that just one observation of a single black swan would falsify this proposition and in this way have general significance and stimulate further investigations and theory building. The case study is well suited for identifying “black swans” because of its in-depth approach: What appears to be “white” often turns out on closer examination to be “black.” (p.227-228)

Verification bias

In some ways, the other side of this is what we learn when the things that we didn’t expect to happen, do. Flyvbjerg seems to feel that this is a fairly compelling counter to the idea that researchers conducting case studies choose the cases that are most likely to match their hypotheses, noting that we learn much more when the unexpected occurs.

A model example of a “least likely” case is Robert Michels’s (1962) classical study of oligarchy in organizations. By choosing a horizontally struc-tured grassroots organization with strong democratic ideals—that is, a type of organization with an especially low probability of being oligarchical—Michels could test the universality of the oligarchy thesis; that is, “If this organization is oligarchic, so are most others.” A corresponding model example of a “most likely” case is W. F. Whyte’s (1943) study of a Boston slum neighborhood, which according to existing theory, should have exhibited social disorganization but in fact, showed quite the opposite (p.231)

Summarising findings

Life is complex and not everything can necessarily be boiled down to basic truths. Flyvbjerg largely rejects the position that this is a weakness of case studies, instead valuing ambiguity

The goal is not to make the case study be all things to all people. The goal is to allow the study to be different things to different people. I try to achieve this by describing the case with so many facets—like life itself—that different readers may be attracted,or repelled, by different things in the case. Readers are not pointed down anyone theoretical path or given the impression that truth might lie at the end of such a path. Readers will have to discover their own path and truth inside thecase. Thus, in addition to the interpretations of case actors and case narrators,readers are invited to decide the meaning of the case and to interrogate actors ’and narrators’ interpretations to answer that categorical question of any case study, “What is this case a case of?” (p.238)

I’m not sure that this level of ambiguity sits comfortably with me but I can see value in the case study as a whole. In terms of my own work, there’s a final additional quote that I like that speaks to the idea of research undertaken by practitioners – something I have noticed as somewhat of a gap when it comes to research about edvisors.

Here, too, this difference between large samples and single cases can be understood in terms of the phenomenology for human learning discussed above. If one, thus, assumes that the goal of the researcher’s work is to under-stand and learn about the phenomena being studied, then research is simply a form of learning. If one assumes that research, like other learning processes,can be described by the phenomenology for human learning, it then becomes clear that the most advanced form of understanding is achieved when researchers place themselves within the context being studied. Only in this way can researchers understand the viewpoints and the behavior, which characterizes social actors. Relevant to this point, Giddens (1982) stated that valid descriptions of social activities presume that researchers possess those skills necessary to participate in the activities described:

“I have accepted that it is right to say that the condition of generating descriptions of social activity is being able in principle to participate in it. It involves“mutual knowledge,” shared by observer and participants whose action constitutes and reconstitutes the social world.” (Giddens, 1982, p. 15)


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