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Notes: Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research



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Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research. Qualitative Inquiry: QI, 12(2), 219–245.






This article examines five common misunderstandings about case-study research: (a) theoretical knowledge is more valuable than practical knowledge; (b) one cannot generalize from a single case, therefore, the single-case study cannot contribute to scientific development; © the case study is most useful for generating hypotheses, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building; (d) the case study contains a bias toward verification; and (e) it is often difficult to summarize specific case stud- ies. This article explains and corrects these misunderstandings one by one and concludes with the Kuhnian insight that a scientific discipline without a large number of thoroughly executed case studies is a discipline without systematic production of exemplars, and a discipline without exemplars is an ineffective one. Social science may be strengthened by the execution of a greater number of good case studies. (p. 1)

The Conventional Wisdom About Case-Study Research (p. 2)

Case Study. The detailed examination of a single example of a class of phe- nomena, a case study cannot provide reliable information about the broader class, but it may be useful in the preliminary stages of an investigation since it provides hypotheses, which may be tested systematically with a larger number of cases. (Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner, 1984, p. 34)1 This description is indicative of the conventional wisdom of case-study research, which if not directly wrong, is so oversimplified as to be grossly misleading. (p. 2)

According to the conventional view, a case and a case study cannot be of value in and of themselves; they need to be linked to hypotheses, following the well-known hypothetico-deductive model of explanation. (p. 2)

I eventually found, with the help of Campbell’s later works (e.g., Campbell, 1975) and other works like them, that the problems with the conventional wisdom about case-study research can be summarized in five misunderstandings or oversimplifica- tions about the nature of such research: Misunderstanding 1: General, theoretical (context-independent) knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical (context-dependent) knowledge. Misunderstanding 2: One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development. Misunderstanding 3: The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building. Misunderstanding 4: The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Misunderstanding 5: It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propo- sitions and theories on the basis of specific case studies. (p. 3)

These five misunderstandings indicate that it is theory, reliability, and valid- ity that are at issue; in other words, the very status of the case study as a scien- tific method. (p. 3)

The Role of Cases in Human Learning (p. 3)

Phenomenological studies of human learning indicate that for adults, there exists a qualitative leap in their learning process from the rule-governed use of analytical rationality in beginners to the fluid performance of tacit skills in what Pierre Bourdieu (1977) called virtuosos and Hubert Dreyfus and Stuart Dreyfus (1986) called true human experts. (p. 4)

Common to all experts, however, is that they operate on the basis of inti- mate knowledge of several thousand concrete cases in their areas of exper- tise. Context-dependent knowledge and experience are at the very heart of expert activity. (p. 4)

It is only because of experience with cases that one can at all move from being a beginner to being an expert. (p. 4)

I figured if it is good enough for Harvard, it is good enough for me, and I suggest others might reason like this, including whole institutions of learning. (p. 5)

Is this idea conventional too? (p. 5)

Concrete experiences can be achieved via continued proxim- ity to the studied reality and via feedback from those under study. Great dis- tance to the object of study and lack of feedback easily lead to a stultified learning process, which in research can lead to ritual academic blind alleys, where the effect and usefulness of research becomes unclear and untested. As a research method, the case study can be an effective remedy against this tendency. (p. 5)

The second main point in connection with the learning process is that there does not and probably cannot exist predictive theory in social science. Social science has not succeeded in producing general, context-independent theory (p. 5)

As for predictive theory, universals, and scientism, the study of human affairs is, thus, at an eternal beginning. In essence, we have only specific cases and context-dependent knowledge. The first of the five misunderstand- ings about the case study—that general, theoretical (context-independent) knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical (context-dependent) knowledge—can therefore be revised as follows: 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. (p. 6)

Cases as “Black Swans” (p. 6)

The view that one cannot generalize on the basis of a single case is usually considered to be devastating to the case study as a scientific method. This sec- ond misunderstanding about the case study is typical among proponents of the natural science ideal within the social sciences. Yet even researchers who are not normally associated with this ideal may be found to have this view- point. (p. 6)

It depends on the case one is speaking of and how it is chosen. (p. 7)

In any event, Galileo’s experimentalism did not involve a large random sample of trials of objects falling from a wide range of randomly selected heights under varying wind conditions and so on, as would be demanded by the thinking of the early Campbell and Giddens. Rather, it was a matter of a single experiment, that is, a case study, if any experiment was conducted at all. (p. 7)

As regards the relationship between case studies, large samples, and dis- coveries, W. I. B. Beveridge (as quoted in Kuper & Kuper, 1985) observed immediately prior to the breakthrough of the quantitative revolution in the social sciences: “More discoveries have arisen from intense observation than from statistics applied to large groups” (p. 95). This does not mean that the case study is always appropriate or relevant as a research method or that large random samples are without value (see also the Conclusion section below). The choice of method should clearly depend on the problem under study and its circumstances. (p. 8)

Finally, it should be mentioned that formal generalization, whether on the basis of large samples or single cases, is considerably overrated as the main source of scientific progress. Economist Mark Blaug (1980)—a self- declared adherent to the hypothetico-deductive model of science—has demonstrated that although economists typically pay lip service to the hypothetico-deductive model and to generalization, they rarely practice what they preach in actual research. More generally, Thomas Kuhn (1987) has shown that the most important precondition for science is that researchers possess a wide range of practical skills for carrying out scientific work. Gen- eralization is just one of these. (p. 8)

Wissenschaft) means literally “to gain knowledge.” (p. 9)

interesting! Connecting with our discussions earlier on what does it mean to be scientific. (p. 9)

The balanced view of the role of the case study in attempting to generalize by testing hypotheses has been formulated by Eckstein (1975): Comparative and case studies are alternative means to the end of testing theo- ries, choices between which must be largely governed by arbitrary or practi- cal, rather than logical, considerations (p. 9)

Eckstein here used the term theory in its “hard” sense, that is, comprising explanation and prediction. This makes Eckstein’s dismissal of the view that case studies cannot be used for testing theories or for generalization stronger than my own view, which is here restricted to the testing of theory in the “soft” sense, that is, testing propositions or hypotheses. Eckstein showed that if predictive theories would exist in social science, then the case study could be used to test these theories just as well as other methods. (p. 9)

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. 10)

we can correct the second misun - derstanding—that one cannot generalize on the basis of a single case and that the case study cannot contribute to scientific development—so that it now reads, 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 alter- native to other methods. But formal generalization is overvalued as a source of scientific development, whereas “the force of example” is underestimated. (p. 10)

Strategies for Case Selection (p. 11)

And because this misunderstanding has been revised as above, we can now correct the third misunderstanding as follows: The case study is useful for both generating and testing of hypotheses but is not limited to these research activities alone. (p. 11)

Table 1 summarizes various forms of sampling. The extreme case can be well-suited for getting a point across in an especially dramatic way, which often occurs for well-known case studies such as Freud’s (2003) “Wolf- Man” and Foucault’s (1979) “Panopticon.” In contrast, a critical case can be defined as having strategic importance in relation to the general problem. (p. 11)

Cases of the “most likely” type are especially well suited to falsification of propositions, whereas “least likely” cases are most appropriate to tests of verification. (p. 13)

A final strategy for the selection of cases is choice of the paradigmatic case. Kuhn (1987) has shown that the basic skills, or background practices, of natural scientists are organized in terms of “exemplars,” the role of which can be studied by historians of science. In a similar manner, scholars such as Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault have often organized their research on specific cultural paradigms: A paradigm for Geertz (1973) lay, for instance, in the “deep play” of the Balinese cockfight, whereas for Foucault (1979), European prisons and the “Panopticon” are examples. Both instances are examples of paradigmatic cases, that is, cases that highlight more general characteristics of the societies in question. (p. 14)

Finally, concerning considerations of strategy in the choice of cases, it should be mentioned that the various strategies of selection are not necessar- ily mutually exclusive. For example, a case can be simultaneously extreme, critical, and paradigmatic (p. 15)

Do Case Studies Contain a Subjective Bias? (p. 16)

Francis Bacon (1853) saw this bias toward verification not simply as a phenomenon related to the case study in particular but also as a fundamental human characteristic. Bacon expressed it like this, The human understanding from its peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds. When any proposition has been laid down, the human understanding forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation. It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives. (p. xlvi) (p. 16)

Bacon certainly touched on a fundamental problem here, a problem that all researchers must deal with in some way. Charles Darwin (1958), in his auto- biography, described the method he developed to avoid the bias toward verification: I had … during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. (p. 16)

do the author’s arguments run such risks as well? Enough understanding of bigger N studies? (p. 16)

They are often seen as less rigorous than are quantitative, hypothetico-deductive methods. Even if such criticism is useful, because it sensitizes us to an impor- tant issue, experienced case researchers cannot help but see the critique as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of what is involved in case-study research. (p. 16)

case study has its own rigor, different to be sure, but no less strict than the rigor of quantitative methods. The advantage of the case study is that it can “close in” on real-life situations and test views directly in relation to phenom- ena as they unfold in practice. According to Campbell (1975), Ragin (1992), Geertz (1995), Wieviorka (1992), Flyvbjerg (1998, 2001), and others, researchers who have conducted intensive, in-depth case studies typically report that their preconceived views, assumptions, concepts, and hypotheses were wrong and that the case material has compelled them to revise their hypotheses on essential points. (p. 17)

Geertz (1995) said about the fieldwork involved in most in-depth case studies that “The Field” itself is a “powerful disciplinary force: assertive, demanding, even coercive” (p. 119). (p. 17)

According to the experiences cited above, it is falsification, not verification, that characterizes the case study. Moreover, the question of subjectivism and bias toward verification applies to all methods, not just to the case study and other qualitative methods. (p. 17)

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. (p. 18)

From this point of view, the proximity to reality, which the case study entails, and the learning process that it generates for the researcher will often consti- tute a prerequisite for advanced understanding. (p. 18)

The case study contains no greater bias toward verification of the researcher’s preconceived notions than other methods of inquiry. On the contrary, experi- ence indicates that the case study contains a greater bias toward falsification of preconceived notions than toward verification. (p. 19)

The Irreducible Quality of Good Case Narratives (p. 19)

Case studies often contain a substantial element of narrative. Good narra- tives typically approach the complexities and contradictions of real life. Accordingly, such narratives may be difficult or impossible to summarize into neat scientific formulae, general propositions, and theories (Benhabib, 1990; Mitchell & Charmaz, 1996; Roth, 1989; Rouse, 1990; White, 1990). This tends to be seen by critics of the case study as a drawback. To the case- study researcher, however, a particularly “thick” and hard-to-summarize nar- rative is not a problem. (p. 19)

Lisa Peattie (2001) explicitly warned against summarizing dense case studies: “It is simply that the very value of the case study, the contextual and interpenetrating nature of forces, is lost when one tries to sum up in large and mutually exclusive concepts” (p. 260). (p. 20)

The opposite of summing up and “closing” a case study is to keep it open. Here I have found the following two strategies to work particularly well in ensuring such openness. First, when writing up a case study, I demur from the role of omniscient narrator and summarizer. Instead, I tell the story in its diversity, allowing the story to unfold from the many-sided, complex, and sometimes conflicting stories that the actors in the case have told me. Sec- ond, I avoid linking the case with the theories of any one academic special- ization. Instead, I relate the case to broader philosophical positions that cut across specializations. In this way, I try to leave scope for readers of different backgrounds to make different interpretations and draw diverse conclusions regarding the question of what the case is a case of. 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. (p. 20)

Ludwig Wittgenstein shared this skepticism. According to Gasking and Jackson (1967), Wittgenstein used the following metaphor when he described his use of the case-study approach in philosophy: In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round London. I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch. After I have taken you many journeys through the city, in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times— each time traversing the street as part of a different journey. At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way about like a born Lon- doner. Of course, a good guide will take you through the more important streets more often than he takes you down side streets; a bad guide will do the oppo- site. In philosophy I’m a rather bad guide. (p. 51) (p. 21)

This approach implies exploring phenomena firsthand instead of reading maps of them. Actual practices are studied before their rules, and one is not satisfied by learning about only those parts of practices that are open to public scrutiny; what Erving Goffman (1963) called the “backstage” of social phe- nomena must be investigated, too, like the side streets that Wittgenstein talked about. (p. 22)

Labov and Waletzky (1966) wrote that when a good narrative is finished, “it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say, ‘So what?’” (pp. 37-39). Every good narrator is continually warding off this question. A narrative that lacks a moral that can be independently and briefly stated, is not necessarily pointless. And a narrative is not successful just because it allows a brief moral. A successful narrative does not allow the question to be raised at all. The narrative has already supplied the answer before the question is asked. The narrative itself is the answer (Nehamas, 1985, pp. 163-164). (p. 22)

It is correct that summarizing case studies is often difficult, especially as con- cerns case process. It is less correct as regards case outcomes. The problems 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 desir- able to summarize and generalize case studies. Good studies should be read as narratives in their entirety. (p. 23)

Conclusion (p. 23)

Let me reiterate, however, that the revision of the five misunderstandings about case-study research described above should not be interpreted as a rejection of research that focuses on large random samples or entire popula- tions, for example, questionnaire surveys with related quantitative analysis. This type of research is also essential for the development of social science, for example, in understanding the degree to which certain phenomena are present in a given group or how they vary across cases. The advantage of large samples is breadth, whereas their problem is one of depth. For the case study, the situation is the reverse. Both approaches are necessary for a sound development of social science. (p. 23)

the sharp separation often seen in the literature between qualitative and quantitative methods is a spurious one (p. 23)

an unfortunate artifact of power relations and time constraints in grad - uate training; it is not a logical consequence of what graduates and scholars need to know to do their studies and do them well. In my interpretation, good social science is opposed to an either/or and stands for a both/and on the question of qualitative versus quantitative methods. Good social science is problem driven and not methodology driven in the sense that it employs those methods that for a given problematic, best help answer the research questions at hand. More often than not, a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods will do the task best. Fortunately, there seems currently to be a general relaxation in the old and unproductive separation of qualitative and quantitative methods. (p. 24)

well said. (p. 24)