How Did the Case Study Originate?

How did the Case Study Originate?

Learning Objectives

  • Acquire a general understanding of the history of the case study. 
  • Examine the ancient roots of case logic and participant observation – two of the oldest features of case study.
  • Learn which three scientific practices have come to define the modern case study (above all others). 
  • Discover which professional fields popularized the term “case study” in the late 19th century and aided its migration into social science.

The Case Study’s Muddled History

Case study practitioners often rely on historical sketches at the front of normative textbooks or articles, or alternatively, edited volumes that are dedicated to its in-depth treatment in the social sciences (e.g., Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2000[a]; Hamel, Dufour, & Fortin, 1993; Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg, 1991). Regrettably, the vast great majority of these accounts offer badly muddled histories, distorted because of the authors’ decision to restrict the history to a single chronology, or use a presentist definition of the case study. Inevitably, the consequence for such “histories” is that they lose track of the multi-dimensional nature of the case study – its logic, its practices, its verbiage, and its popular usage – and inaccurately depict it as a fully formed strategy in its earliest years. This situation is less than surprising when we consider that most texts and articles are written by sociologists or psychologists who have little (if any) formal historical training. Detailed histories do occur outside of normative texts, but they tend to focus on the 20th-century “Chicago School” of sociology exclusively, and capture a very narrow chronology as a result (see for instance Low & Bowden, 2013[b]; Hart, 2010; Hammersley, 2010[b]; Deegan, 2001, 1997, 1988; Abbott, 1999; Lindner, 1996; Platt, 1996; 1995; 1992; 1983; Bulmer, 1984; 1983).

The point of this section is not to offer a complete case study history, which would be impossible in such a short space. Rather, the point here is to direct readers’ attention to the various kinds of historical questions that undergird the topic of the history of case study (see Figure 1 below), and to discuss some of the earliest developments in relation to these questions. The hope is that, by introducing these questions, readers will steer clear of overly simplistic “origin myths” pertaining to the case study, which not only confuse its past but also misrepresent its basic features (Platt 1996; 1992; 1983). Interested readers may follow-up as needed with some of the sources cited.   

FIGURE 1: The Three Senses of Historical “Origin” 

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1) Case-Based Logic

Case-based “logic,” or case reasoning, is much older than the scientific practice of case study. It dates back to Greco-Roman and Rabbinic traditions in philosophic ethics, which emerged sometime between 335 BC and 476 AD (Lozano, 2003; Forrester, 1996; Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988). Philosophers from these ancient traditions analyzed “instances” of a moral dilemma (i.e., the cases) in an effort to arrive at general ethical principles; a type of reasoning that later became known as “casuistry.” They believed that the study of real-world experiences could produce a general body of knowledge, so long as sufficient rigor was applied to the analysis of cases. They were reluctant, however, to afford this knowledge a broad universality, instead constraining it to the precise circumstances that had produced it. Casuist reasoning gained traction in European Catholicism after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD, which required churches to adopt auricular confessions and train priests in case-based logic (Lozano, 2003, p. 40; Forrester, 1996, pp. 18-19). Protestant scholars also trained in casuistry as part of their preparation for common law or ministry careers, where they expected to weigh “cases of conscience” (Leites, 1988; Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988).

The word “case” eventually traveled from Latin (cāsus) to the English vernacular (căs) in the 14th century AD, referring to an instance of a situation that happens to someone or thing; or a particular situation that belongs to a larger class of human experiences (“case,” OED, 6a., 6b., 8a.). Changes to English common law in the 16th century imbued with word with a greater sense of empiricism, with “cases” now meaning factual instances that had to be weighed for accuracy and consistency. Newly critical attitudes in legal theory and rhetoric engendered modern evidentiary categories such as “eyewitness accounts,” “impartial testimonies,” and “corroborated sources,” which became part of a larger “culture of fact” that reverberated throughout Western civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries (Daston, 2011; Franklin, 2001; Shapiro, 2000; Serjeanton, 1999; Poovey, 1998; Kelley, 1997). A wave of neologisms such as “case law,” “case-in-point,” “case book,” “case report,” and “case history” equipped civic authorities and learned men with the linguistic tools they needed to engage in this culture, demonstrating an empirical mind (OED, 7a., 7b., P11, C1, C2). The case history was an especially important innovation. It wove together a collection of first-hand experience (often in the form of professional notes or files) to produce biographical or contextual sketches of an individual – be it a clinical patient, a ward of the court, a criminal suspect, or whomever. The case history was new in that it summarized a person’s predicament holistically, compiling not just pertinent facts and contextual details, but also the expert’s own insights (Murdoch, 2007; Tougaw, 2006; Bromley, 1986; Rose & Corn, 1984; Foucault, 1977; Sheffield, 1920).

The merger between empiricism and case reasoning formalized in the 19th-century as part of the codification of “the scientific method.” Philosophers John Herschel, William Whewell, and John Stuart Mill outlined in meticulous fashion the mental procedures for organizing empirical observations into “classes of fact,” and using these “classes” to produce and compare inductive hypotheses (Snyder, 2009; 2006; Yeo, 2003; Giere & Westfall, 1973). Mill’s A System of Logic proved to be the most successful of these efforts, spanning more than ten editions between 1843 and 1900, and reshaping modern concepts of “science.” Sociologist Herbert Blumer affirmed in the 20th century that indeed, “science gets its laws by starting from intensive studies of individual cases,” just as Mill proposed in his Logic (Blumer, 1930, p. 1103). Historians credit Mill, Herschel, and Whewell with laying the methodological foundations for university teaching and research at the turn of the 20th century (Rudolph, 2005; Oleson & Voss, 1979). One important example of this was the rise of the “Harvard case method” in legal, medical, and business education (1870-1920), which taught students how to think “scientifically” by analyzing real world cases for general principles (Kimball, 2009; 2006; LaPiana, 1994; Chase, 1979; Copeland, 1954).

2) Case Study Practices (in science)

Case studies are so overwhelmingly diverse that they defy ‘fit’ within a single profile or model. Looking through history, however, we can see that a small collection of practices does characterize the bulk of case studies, to the extent that they have become synonymous with the case study in certain scientific fields (Platt, 1996; 1995; 1992; 1983). The three that stand out the most are (a) unit selection; (b) participant observation, and (c) triangulation. Each practice is historicized in a separate sketch below, owing to its distinct starting point and chronology.

Unit selection. The practice of using a unit-framework for social research began with Frédéric Le Play (Figure 2), a French mining engineer at the École des Mines (Paris) from 1840 to 1855. He conducted many field studies on European working-class communities during the 1840s and 50s, investigating the “factors” of their living conditions. In 1855, Le Play gave up his engineering position to focus on social research fulltime and converted much of his earlier data into a six-volume treatise entitled “The Workers of Europe” (Les Ovriers Européens). He eventually published over 300 monographic studies in the 30 years that followed, elevating the monograph to the standard genre for Continental research. Le Play is widely regarded today as the founding father of the case study tradition, and one of the founders of modern social science (Hamel et al., 1993; Hamel, 1992; Zonabend, 1992).

In keeping with Mill and other philosophers of his time, Le Play embraced an inductive science, using instances to forge general truths. He argued that investigators in social research must “proceed like zoologists,” who examine “a few individuals to describe an entire species” (Le Play, 1862, pp. 179-80). It was the duty of the social researcher, therefore, to identify the proper “individuals” that would contribute to knowledge about the overall “species.” For Le Play, the individual units were the working-class families. He reasoned that “since these families lived in the place where they worked, secured their means of substance there, and took part in local affairs, the description of these families furnished a picture of most of the families and also the essential elements of the structure of a given society” (Healy, 1947, p. 99). Le Play used a purposive (non-statistical) approach to identify ideal families for his investigation, striving for those “native to the area and of nearly average conditions; that is, neither superior nor inferior to others in respect to its material situation or its morality” (Le Play, 1862, pp. 180-81).

FIGURE 2 – Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play (1806 – 1882)


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Sociologists in the United States adopted Le Play’s unit-framework in the early decades of the 20th-century, but they felt little obligation to restrict themselves to families alone. University of Chicago professor Charles Zueblin, for example, championed the study of complex trade zones on the border of industrial and undeveloped worlds, foreshadowing would later become “area studies” (Steward, 1950). He applauded Scottish sociologists for their interest in Cypress, “a geographical and historic, racial and social microcosm; and a unique region which, while practically a portion of the colonial empire, at once unites many of the most characteristic developments and problems of the old world” (1899, pp. 590-91). Zueblin’s successors at Chicago turned their attention to immigration and urban-industrial change and selected new units accordingly. Robert Park, for example, investigated the city’s ethnic settlers, impoverished residents, their social groups, their neighborhoods, and their larger urban districts (Low & Bowden, 2013[b]; Hart, 2010; Abbott, 1999; Lindner, 1996; Platt, 1996; Bulmer, 1984). Wilson Thomas and Florian Znaniecki adopted these units in their study of Polish Americans, referring explicitly to a “unit” framework in the text narrative (1918, I, pp. 88-101; 1920, V, 96-101). Their monograph, entitled The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920), emerged as the model for Chicago-style case research during the interwar period, and was widely respected for its empirical grounding and analytic reasoning (Roberts, 2010; Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2000[a]; Wiley, 1986).

Ethnologists also moved to a unit-framework about this time, hoping to manage the complexity of cultural systems by focusing on local hubs (Zonabend, 1992). The British movement began with Alfred Haddon, Charles Seligman and the “Torres Strait Island” expedition of 1898, but culminated in the intensive study of island villages by Bronislaw Malinowski (1915-1918) and Alfred Radcliff-Brown (1906-1908), the monographs for which appeared in 1922 (Urrey, 1984; Stocking, 1983). The American shift began somewhat earlier, in the 19th-century Indian studies of Franz Boas and Frank Cushing but failed to produce a consistent field methodology until the Chicago School founded urban community studies in the 1910s and 20s (Deegan, 2013, 2001, 1988; Lindner, 2013; 1996; Tedlock, 2000; Platt, 1996; 1992; 1983; Bulmer, 1984; 1983). Thomas and Znanieckie explicitly sought to fuse the “ethnography of primitive society” with “sociology” (1918, I, p. 17). Zonabend notes that “from the very beginning, the ‘new’ ethnologists studying the Western world chose small societies, where the small population, internal coherence, and clear spatial limits were not out of proportion with the means of an isolated investigator” (1992, p. 51).

Participant Observation. The idea that certain social truths cannot be “observed directly” (by watching events unfold), but instead require the intervention of the researcher within the populous, is a very old one. We know that early ethnographers from the 5th and 4th centuries BC, especially Herodotus (c.484-425 BC), Thucydides (c.460-400 BC), and Xenophon (c.430-340 BC), explored what was eventually labeled “participant observation,” in that they embedded themselves in a little-known society and attempted to gather data as a result of their social activity (Prus & Burk, 2010; Tedlock, 2000; Vidich & Lyman, 1994; Urrey, 1984). Luther Bernard, in his history of sociological methods, recognized that these Greek ethnographies were similar to “case studies,” except that they failed to produce a strong sociological dimension (owing to the Greek focus on foreign cultures), and failed to identify a clear unit-framework for a system (1928, pp. 307-08).

Centuries later, the art of participant observation found its way into the trailblazing case studies of Frédéric Le Play, who investigated rural mining communities. Le Play realized that social systems were too complex to entrust to “direct observations” alone, owing to their many moving parts and hidden forces (Porter, 2011; Healy, 1947). The solution, he felt, was to leverage his daily interactions with local workers to generate a multitude of data streams, each of which could “be checked against each other” (Healy, 1947, p. 101). Le Play’s usual haul for data included household budgets, patron/employer records, oral and written testimonies from the families, and even second-hand accounts from friends and neighbors. His multipronged approach illuminated the broader context in which working families operated and helped him understand the relationships that mattered most (versus those of trivial nature). It was a familiar strategy to ethnologists, who nevertheless failed to systematize their own version until Malinowski’s work of the 1910s, which then synthesized “direct observations” with “native statements and interpretations” (Malinowski, 1923, p. 3).

Le Play’s habit of mingling various kinds of “observation” resurfaced in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Jane Addams used Chicago’s settlement house, “Hull House” (Figure 3), as a sociological research center, combining city census data, municipal records, field notes, and countless testimonies from immigrants and residents (Seltzer & Haldar, 2016; Deegan, 1997, 1988). Ada Sheffield, a social work pioneer, noted that case-work centers such as Hull House had “become […] social laboratories” for data collection and analysis (1922, p. 38). Mabel Rhoades, a former Hull House staffer, transferred this approach to her graduate research at the University of Chicago, producing the earliest known PhD case study from 1905 to 1906. In her study of juvenile male delinquency, Rhoades pulled hundreds of court records and police files, conducted dozens of interviews with officers who worked the boys’ cases, and even dispatched officers to inspect “the living conditions” of the homes (Rhoades, 1907). Contrary to Le Play, however, Rhoades purposely avoided interaction with the boys or their families, opting instead to rely on third-party “visitations” to maintain a proper distance (and hence, objectivity). A similar approach was used by Frederic Thrasher in his research for The Gang (1927), except that instead of police officers, his third-party informants were kids recruited from the street, who served as surrogates in an embedded field study (since Thrasher could not blend-in). When Eduard Lindeman introduced the label “participant observer” in 1924, he used it in a sense like Rhoades and Thrasher, denoting a group-insider who behaved as a surrogate for the researcher – not the researcher himself or herself (Platt, 1983, p. 386; Palmer, 1928, p. 104).   

FIGURE 3 – Jane Addams’ Hull House: An Early Social Research Center (Kirkland, 1935)


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The meaning quickly evolved, however, to denote a more personal interaction on the part of the researcher. Chicago ethnographer Paul Cressey introduced two styles of participant observation in his classic study, The Taxi Dance Hall (1927-1932), referring to the “sociological stranger” and “anonymous stranger” roles. In the former approach, Cressey forged local relationships as a respected outsider (a scientist), which motivated people to treat him as a “cathartic” outlet for their social problems. Using the latter approach, however, Cressey learned that people behaved more naturally, sharing insight into their daily thoughts and activities (Fritz, 2018; Bulmer, 1983; Platt, 1983). He surmised that while both styles of observation had their uses, it was generally true that “the exposure of one’s identity was detrimental in securing accurate information” (Fritz, 2018, p. 131). Vivien Palmer popularized the latter of Cressey’s observational styles in her methodological manual, Field Studies in Sociology (1928). She described “participant observation” as a way to “penetrate deeply into the life of the group” and “uncover the real significance of its activities from the standpoint of its members,” or in other words “the inside story” (1928, p. 106). Palmer’s definition came close to that of anthropologists during the 1930s and 40s, who agreed with anonymity but not the “stranger” role, since the researcher would have to live as (and partly become) a native. Ultimately it was William Whyte, a Harvard-trained anthropologist with leanings to Chicago sociology, who married the term “participant observation” with undercover roleplay and perspective-building. Whyte fused both ethnological and sociological approaches in Street Corner Society (1943), depicting field observation as an “intimate, lived-in, reportorial fieldwork” that captures the views of others (van Mannen, 1988, p. 39).

Triangulation. The logic behind “triangulation” is a relatively simple one, in that it proposes a “cross-referencing” of some kind that will improve the accuracy or completeness of a study’s results. Precisely what is to be cross-referenced, on the other hand, is a more complicated matter. Researchers have developed myriads of strategies over the years, including multiple source triangulation materials, multiple methods triangulation, multiple investigator triangulation, or some combination of the above (Fusch, Fusch, & Ness, 2018; Denzin, 2012, 1978; Fielding, 2009; Hammersley, 2008; Flick, 2007, 2004, 1992; Kelle, 2005; Shih, 1998; Smith & Kleine, 1986). Modules 7 – 8 will elaborate on the various types of triangulation that are now available to the researcher.  

The word “triangulation” was taken from the geodetic sciences in the 1950s by the Austrian-born philosopher Herbert Feigl, who intended it as a metaphor for scientific reasoning. Feigl replaced the original geodetic sense – namely, the use of two geographical points and their shared angles to locate a third triangular point (Figure 4) – with a looser philosophical sense, denoting the use of two or more scientific concepts to confirm a still tenuous idea in the “logical space” of the mind, thus improving its evidentiary basis. Feigl believed that all scientific concepts were the result of inductive fact-gathering and fact-ordering, and that because of their prior relationship in human experiences (and the pooling of these experiences in mental “space”), all concepts could be “fixed by triangulation in logical space” (1958, p. 401).  

FIGURE 4 – Geodetic Triangulation (Zübler, 1607, pl. 9)


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Feigl may have given the name, but the idea of “triangulation” originated in 16th and 17th-century evidentiary reasoning, prior to which Western civilization lacked the sort of empirical attitude that would have been necessary to seek a corroboration of factual evidence in the first place (Daston, 2011; Franklin, 2001; Shapiro, 2000; Serjeanton, 1999; Poovey, 1998; Kelley, 1997). Francis Bacon, a 17th-century jurist and philosopher, was among the first to demonstrate the value of cross-referencing in science, not only by weaving between multiple data sources but also by drawing on multiple research techniques in an intellectual movement called “humanism” (Serjeanton, 1999; Findlen, 1997; Shaprio, 1979). William Whewell, a Baconian disciple, revived to the topic of triangulation in the 19th-century as part of his codification of “the scientific method” (Laudan, 1971; Whewell, 1847, II, pp. 65-85). Whewell explained that most scientists, after recording their observations and assigning them to “classes of fact,” engage in a mental comparison process whereby they seek to identify which bodies of fact (and their hypotheses) best fit reality and align to existing theory. During this process, which he called “the consilience of induction,” scientists tend to assign a stronger weight to those bodies of fact which are generated through two or more independent methods (e.g., field observation and laboratory culturing); or two or more independent investigators (e.g., a scientist’s own observations combined with the testimony of a credible outsider). The evidentiary strength is particularly increased, according to Whewell, if two bodies of fact are found to align to a single hypothesis, creating a “consilience” in the description or explanation of a natural phenomenon: “When such a convergence of two trains of induction points to the same pot, we can no longer suspect that we are wrong. Such an accumulation of proof really persuades us that we have to do with a vera causa [true natural cause]” (1847, II, pp. 285-86).

Achieving this “consilience” would be more difficult for the study of society, however, because of inherent limitations of direct observations, which cannot peel back the hidden layers of a social system on their own. Le Play, in his trailblazing case studies, felt compelled to combine direct observations with the oral and written testimonies of working families, as well as the second-hand accounts of their associates, such that “the three sources [would] to be checked against each other” (Healy, 1947, p. 101). He envisioned a tradeoff in which some degree of scientific objectivity would be sacrificed (due to the various human perspectives involved) in order acquire an intimate knowledge of local factors at play in the social system (a result of his own personal interaction in the system). There would be some bias, admittedly; but the bias would be mitigated by the cross-checking of the combined data sources. It was an imperfect method, but one which Le Play felt was necessary for social science during its infancy (Porter, 2011).  

Collecting and analyze multiple streams of data became the hallmark of Chicago sociology after the turn of the 20th century. The women of Hull House and their male counterparts at the University of Chicago agreed with Le Play – that the cross-referencing of data sources (and even unique types of data coming from different methods) could produce a more reliable depiction of the social world (Low & Bowden, 2013[b]; Hart, 2010; Abbott, 1999; Lindner, 1996; Platt, 1996; 1992; 1983; Deegan, 2001, 1997, 1988; Bulmer, 1984). Yet contrary to Le Play, who considered triangulation only a placeholder until more objective methods arrived, the Chicago community revered it as a legitimate analytic technique in its own time. Thomas and Znaniecki, for instance, argued that the inability of the case study to achieve a strict objectivity “does not mean that the actual social technique should wait until the science is constituted,” since in the present, case study already proved serviceable (1918, I, p. 16, italics added). Herbert Blumer, a Chicago social philosopher from the mid-20th century, defended the value of the case study in the face of mounting criticism by quantitative researchers. He highlighted the case study’s numerous doorways into the social world – e.g., individual perspectives, material artifacts, documents, and local environments – which in his mind, procured a “genuine knowledge” that was otherwise inaccessible to statistical or experimental techniques (Hammersley, 2010[a]; 2010[b]). The analysis of multiple sources and use of multiple methods was superior, according to Blumer, to a statistical analysis that was devoid of localized context or sympathetic introspection and followed only a single methodological approach in data collection (e.g., experimentation or surveys).    

In 1959, two methodologically gifted psychologists named Donald Campbell (Northwestern) and Donald Fiske (University of Chicago) published a new research protocol that combined multiple (independent) statistical measures for the study of trait variables, and in so doing, transferred the Chicago multi-method tradition to statistical social science. Campbell and Fiske claimed that their analytic technique would increase the validity and reliability of results whenever a “convergence” could be shown to occur between two or more correlational measures (Fiske & Campbell, 1987; Campbell & Fiske, 1959). They summarized the logic of their procedure by quoting from Feigl’s essay the year prior, referring to “a triangulation in logical space” as the basis for trait measurement (1959, p. 83; Feigl, 1958, p. 401). Campbell and Fiske were not the only ones to pioneer a multi-method statistical approach – another psychologist named Wendell Garner was also working on “methodological triangulation” during the mid-1950s – but their paper was the most widely read and cited during the 1960s and 70s, benefitting from Campbell’s rising status as a methodologist (Overman & Campbell, 1988; Garner, Hake, & Eriksen, 1956; Garner, 1954). Through Campbell’s work, the practice of triangulating intermingled with statistically driven social sciences that largely disapproved of qualitative case studies. Campbell himself argued that case studies were “of almost no scientific value” because of their lack of standardized analysis and inability to produce generalizable results (Campbell & Stanley, 1966, pp. 6-7).

Even during this heyday for statistical science, however, the qualitative tradition of Blumer and his colleagues persisted and eventually diversified under the influence of Anselm Strauss, Barney Glaser, Harold Garfinkel, Aaron Cicourel, John van Maanen, and other qualitative methodologists. Norman Denzin, a Blumer-disciple, reminded social scientists in the 1970s and 80s that the main value of implementing multiple qualitative methods, and drawing from multiple source materials, was to identify the various subjective “meanings” that permeated social groups or cultures, and use them to construct a holistic picture of the local scene (Denzin, 1978, 1974, 1970[a], 1970[b]). It was Denzin, in fact, who first expanded the definition of Campbell and Fiske’s “triangulation” so that it included more than just a combination of multiple measures in quantitative research. In The Research Act (1970[a]) and Sociological Methods (1970[b]), Denzin argued that triangulation had always been a feature of qualitative fieldwork in the Chicago tradition, encompassing a cross-check between “multiple data sources, research methods, and theoretical schemes” to ensure that the situational context was accurately depicted in the description and analysis (1970[b], p. 21). In the second edition of The Research Act (1978, pp. 298-311), Denzin took the additional step of clarifying that each of the cross-checks (between multiple sets of data, methods, or theories) could be performed within a single methodological research tradition – either qualitative or quantitative – or they could be carried out across traditions, incorporating various forms of qualitative and quantitative sources, methods, or theories in a single study. He named the former approach “within method” triangulation and called the second approach “between method” triangulation (see Module 7 for details). After Denzin, social scientists were forced to recognize different types of “triangulation,” and acknowledge that quantitative and qualitative techniques could be mixed, depending on the rationale of the researcher (Jick, 1979).  

FIGURE 5 – Donald Fiske (Left), Donald Campbell (Middle), and Norman Denzin (Right): The Fathers of Modern “Triangulation”    


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3) The Term “Case Study”

References to “case study” began appearing during late 19th century, predating the term’s attachment to the scientific research strategy, which did not formalize until the 1920s and 30s (Platt, 1996, 1992). Two American innovations played a key role in this emerging “case study” language. The first was the “Harvard case method” in graduate studies of law, medicine, and business, which required students to examine “case books” or clinical examples for evidence-based reasoning (Kimball, 2009; 2006; LaPiana, 1994; Chase, 1979; Copeland, 1954). The second was the rise of the “case history” genre in American professional practice, which encouraged professionals (especially social workers, justice administrators, criminologists, psychiatrists, and physicians) to assemble holistic accounts of their human subjects by using case notes and similar documentation of first-hand experiences (Murdoch, 2007; Tougaw, 2006; Bromley, 1986; Rose & Corn, 1984; Sheffield, 1937, 1920). Hence, when criminologist Percy Kammerer used the verbiage “case study” in his study of unmarried mothers, he clarified that it was “a study of case records,” but also used the new “case method” to paint a broad picture of the social situation (1918, pp. 20-22). Even when Mabel Rhoades published her pioneering PhD in 1907, entitled “A case study of delinquent boys in the juvenile court of Chicago,” she drew the words “case study” from her professional background as a social worker in juvenile justice, where there was a thriving “case history” genre for documenting the life experiences of human subjects. The fact that Rhoades also incorporated research practices that later defined the “case study” scientific tradition was incidental at the time (Rhoades, 1907).

Two factors precipitated the transmission of “case study” verbiage from the professional practitioner’s sphere to the social science academic’s sphere. The first was the migration of U.S. social work pioneers and reformers (mostly women) into university departments or affiliated institutes, where they fashioned social science careers for themselves (Shaw, 2016, 2015, 2010; Seltzer & Haldar, 2016; Lengermann & Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998; Deegan, 1991, 1988; Fitzpatrick, 1990). Two notable examples were Nisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, both Hull House affiliates who obtained their PhDs from the University of Chicago in 1903 and 1905 and took up leadership positions in the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (Breckenridge became the director of social research at the School, and together with Abbott managed the journal Social Service Review during the interwar period). Their collaborative monograph, The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912), was similar to Rhoades’ doctoral research in that it drew “case” verbiage from the case history genre, but also incorporated elements from the later “case study” scientific tradition (by incorporating field observations and analytic triangulation).  

The second factor was the willingness of U.S. academic sociologists (predominantly men) to appropriate concepts and methods from professional practitioners, especially those in social work and psychiatry (Shaw, 2016, 2015, 2010; Seltzer & Haldar, 2016; Lindner, 1996; Deegan, 2013, 1997, 1988; Bromley, 1986; Bulmer, 1984). The University of Chicago was the point of nexus for sociology, social work, and (to a lesser extent) psychiatry during the early decades of the 20th century. Ernest Burgess maintained a close interest in the social work theories and practices of Breckenridge and Abbott and was especially attracted to the case method textbooks of Ada Sheffield, the Director of the Research Bureau on Social Case Work in Boston (Sheffield, 1937, 1922, 1920; Burgess, 1928). Wilson Thomas, meanwhile, drew inspiration from the clinical case methods of psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, who pioneered new protocols for documenting and analyzing individual psychologies (Leys, 1991, pp. 16-20). And when Vivian Palmer included “participant observation” in her manual on Field Studies in Sociology (1928), she was borrowing from the terminology of Eduard Lindeman, a social work instructor at the New York School of Social Work (Murdoch, 2007, pp. 214-15; Platt, 1983).

Social scientists agreed by the late 1920s and 30s that the “case study” was a special type of social study that focused on the “inner life” or “personal meanings” of individuals and groups, which required intensive fieldwork to obtain “sympathetic insight” or “sympathetic observation” (Platt, 1992, pp. 20-23). There was a particularly strong resonance between Sheffield’s “situational philosophy” in social case work, which sought to understand human beings as composites of external and internal meanings (the “self-environment” dynamic), and the sort of case study philosophy advanced by sociologists during the interwar period. Charles Cooley summarized on behalf of the latter that “We aim to see human life as an actual dramatic activity, and to participate also in those mental processes which are part of human function and are accessible to sympathetic observations […]. This is what I understand by case study: a direct and all-around study of life-history, as distinguished form the indirect, partial, and somewhat abstract information” that tends to result from quantitative method (1930, pp. 316-17). Decades later, during the 1980s, Robert Yin and a new generation of methodologists detached the case study strategy from its original focus – on the holistic account of individuals, groups, and their life situations – and instead align it with theoretically driven policy or program research, which relied on both qualitative and quantitative tools in data collection and analysis (Platt, 1992, pp. 44-47). But initially, the “case study” terminology was born out of an early 20th-cenury crusade to understand the “depth” of human experience, particularly in socially troubled groups. It was a crusade shared between social science, social work, and other professional fields.



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