Epistemic and Methodological Variations


Epistemic and Methodological Variations



Learning Objectives

  • Take note of how the case study changed from the early to late 20th century, and what this change has meant for research epistemology and methodology.
  • Analyze the four common epistemological positions associated with contemporary case studies, and their corresponding methodological considerations.
  • Reflect on the different goals that align with these epistemological positions: namely, explanation, exploration, description, and prediction.

 

The Modern Case Study Orientation

As Module 2 noted, the case study began with a heavy emphasis on individuals, groups, and their unique life situations (life history), but evolved during the latter half of the 20th century to encompass the study of institutional programs and policies – mostly in education, public administration, and allied human services. The shift is credited with reviving a stagnant (if not declining) case study tradition, aiding its growth across numerous professional and academic disciplines during the 1980s and 90s (Fielding, 2005; Yin, 2000, 1993, 1981[a], 1981[b]; Platt, 1996, 1992). One of the chief architects of this transformation was Robert Yin, director of The Case Study Institute, Inc., in Washington, D.C. (now COSMOS Corp.), who detached the case study from its initial roots in the Chicago School and instead aligned it with the program evaluation paradigm, where it served as a flexible research design option (Yin, 2000; Platt, 1992; Yin, Bateman, & Moore, 1983). With this transformation, however, came a robust discussion about the appropriate epistemological foundations for case study research, and hence, the “right methods” to be used. Many social scientists continued to favor less positivist, more interpretivist foundations to case study than what was presented in Yin’s publications. They drew inspiration from the “naturalistic inquiry” movement of Yvonna Lincoln, Egon Guba, and Norman Denzin, which began in the mid-1980s and snowballed into the “Qualitative Revolution” of the 1990s and 2000s (Erickson, 2011; Fielding, 2005; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Vidich & Lyman, 1994; Smith & Kleine, 1986; Lincoln & Guba, 1986, 1985).

 

Below is an outline of four common epistemological positions in contemporary case research, along with bullet points of several of the methodological considerations warranted for these positions. “Epistemology” is conceived as the philosophy of knowing; or more plainly, the way in which we claim to have knowledge. One can find slightly varied treatments elsewhere in the literature; for instance, in Guba and Lincoln’s “Paradigms” overview (1994, pp. 105-17), which treats critical realism as the ontological foundations of post-positivism rather than its own separate epistemology. A review of the literature suggests that while critical realism began as entirely ontological philosophy, it has since evolved to include epistemology as its adherents seek to rationalize theory-building (Danermark, Ekström, Jakobsen, & Karlsson, 2002; Sayer, 2000, pp. 155-88).

 

Epistemological Positions and Methodological Options

Post-Positivist Epistemology

The researcher believes that knowledge is gained by examining falsifiable conjectures and building upon tentative theories about the nature of the world. Science, in the form of human sensory experience, leads to objective (albeit fragmentary) knowledge about world, and seeks to create a stronger foundation for this knowledge by testing theories, making predictions and running experiments. Total objectivity or certainty are discarded notions because of the probabilistic nature of human experience.

 

Implications for the case study: Study type: explanatory – or – predictive 

  • Theories and assumptions will have to be identified in relation to the testable hypotheses   
  • Cases must be chosen that are likely to offer insight into the theoretical foundation, and help test the subordinate hypotheses
  • Sampling and instrument design must show feasibility for examining the hypotheses
  • Quantitative methods must be incorporated to render measurable results for the hypotheses, and produce objective claims about their veracity
  • Qualitative methods could be combined with the quantitative methods to render descriptive results for the hypotheses, and produce (limited) objective claims about their veracity [Yin, 1993, 1992, 1989, 1981[b]]
  • The goal for data analysis results should be a convergence (via triangulation)
  • The goal for findings should be explanation or prediction (or a blend of both)

 

Critical Realist Epistemology

The researcher believes that knowledge is gained by searching for (and manipulating) causal mechanisms, even while accepting that in social settings, these fundamental mechanisms will be somewhat obscured by socio-cultural influences or group dynamics. Science, in the form of human sensory experience, leads to objective knowledge about the mechanistic parts of the world, but does not offer certainty (due to the sheer number and complexity of causal sequences involved in any given phenomenon). Critical realists believe that both quantitative and qualitative methods will be needed to investigate causes and produce theory.

 

Implications for the case study: Study type: explanatory – or – exploratory

  • Theories and assumptions will have to be identified with respect to causal sequences (the researcher may include a “model” or “map” to illustrate, per Yin, 1993, 1992)   
  • Cases must be chosen that are likely to offer insight into the suspected causes
  • Sampling and instrument design must show feasibility for studying the suspected causes
  • Quantitative methods could be incorporated to render measurable results about causes
  • Qualitative methods could be incorporated to render descriptive results about causal sequences [Yin, 1993, 1992, 1989, 1981[b]]  
  • Qualitative methods could be incorporated to explore and describe the potential variables at play within a little-known causal system
  • The goal for data analysis results should be a convergence (via triangulation)
  • The goal for findings should be explanation, or a blend of explanation and description (as a result of mixed methods); no prediction is possible

 

Constructivist Epistemology

The researcher believes that knowledge is gained by examining mental “constructs” of the phenomenal world, which are partly the product of human sensory experience, and yet partly (or mostly) the result of societal interactions. Science cannot access purely objective knowledge because it investigates the world through human perspectives, which are filtered through a cognitive framework that has evolved over time and adapted to social/cultural context.

 

Implications for the case study: Study type: exploratory/descriptive

  • Theories and assumptions must be identified for the constructivist philosophy: e.g., for “social constructivism,” what is the precise claim made about the social shaping of knowledge?
  • Cases must be chosen that are likely to align with (or shed light on) constructivist claims
  • Sampling and instrument design must show an awareness of the construct’s ability to shape the data collection and analysis
  • Qualitative methods will have to be incorporated to capture constructed viewpoints and weave together the social/behavioral experiences which shaped them
  • The goal for data analysis results should be a holistic narrative (via triangulation); divergent results should not be discounted or discarded
  • The goal for findings should be a summary of descriptive features and/or exploratory outcomes

 

Interpretivist Epistemology

The researcher believes that knowledge is gained by searching for subjective meanings in the phenomenal world, while acknowledging that this search imposes new layers of personal meaning in the process (emanating from the researcher). There is no objective reality; the only “real” is a multiverse of personal experiences, which must be woven together for holistic understanding. Science is largely (if not entirely) an interpretive process, or hermeneutic.  

 

Implications for the case study: Study type: exploratory/descriptive

  • Theories and assumptions must be identified for the interpretive philosophy: e.g., for “symbolic interactionism,” what is the precise claim made about the ability to access symbolic meanings in the social setting?
  • Cases must be chosen that are likely to shed light on the “inner life” or “lived experience” of groups/individuals being studied
  • Instrument design and analysis protocol must show a commitment to peeling back superficial layers, accessing the deeper subjective meanings within words and observed activities
  • Qualitative methods will have to be incorporated to capture the highly subjective views of participants and map the meaning units/themes found in their words/activities
  • The goal for data analysis results should be a holistic narrative (via triangulation); divergent results should not be discounted or discarded
  • A reflexive strategy should be employed to bracket the views (biases) of the researcher from those of the actual study participants
  • The goal for findings should be a summary of descriptive features and introspective realizations about the lives of others

 

 

References

 Danermark, B., Ekström, M., Jakobsen, L., & Karlsson, J. C. (2002). Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. New York: Routledge.

 Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.) (1994). Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Erickson, F. (2011). A history of qualitative inquiry in social and educational research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research (4th ed., pp. 43-60). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Fielding, N. G. (2005). The resurgence, legitimation, and institutionalization of qualitative methods. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6 (2). Retrieved from: 

http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/455

 Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 105-17). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1986). But is it rigorous? Trustworthiness and authenticity in naturalistic evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation 30 (2): 73-84.

 Platt, J. (1992). “Case Study” in American methodological thought. Current Sociology 40 (1): 17-48. 

 Platt, J. (1996). A History of Sociological Research Methods in America, 1920-1960. London: Cambridge Univ. Press.

 Sayer, A. (2000). Realism and Social Science (pp. 155-88). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Smith, L. R., & Kleine, P. F. (1986). Qualitative research and evaluation: triangulation and multimethods reconsidered. New Directions for Evaluation 30 (2): 55-71.

 Vidich, A. J., & Lyman, S. M. (1994). Qualitative methods: their history in sociology and anthropology. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 23-44). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Yin, R. K. (1981[a]). The case study crisis: some answers. Administrative Science Quarterly 26 (1): 58-65.

 Yin, R. K. (1981[b]). The case study as a serious research strategy. Science Communication 3 (1): 97-114.

 Yin, R. K. (1989). Case Study Research: Design and Methods (1st ed., Revised). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Yin, R. K. (1992). The case study as a tool for doing evaluation. Current Sociology 40 (1): 121-37.

 Yin, R. K. (1993). Applications of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Yin, R. K. (2000). Case study evaluations: a decade of progress. In D. L. Stufflebeam, G. F. Madaus, & T. Kellaghan (Eds.), Evaluation Models: Viewpoints on Education and Human Services Evaluation (pp. 185-94). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

 Yin, R. K., Bateman, P. G., & Moore, G. B. (1983). Case Studies and Organizational Innovation: Strengthening the Connection. Washington, DC: COSMOS Corp. 

 

 


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