Friday, February 13, 2009

Week 6: Case Study

I must post my disclaimer before I talk about the case study readings. For the most part, city/urban planning is “addicted” to case studies. If one was to go to the American Planning Association (APA) or American Collegiate Schools of Planning Conferences (ACSP), the method used by most researchers and practicing planners will be some form of a case study. In fact, I am willing to bet that 95% of APA and 85% of ACSP papers use case studies. Even within my own experience writing a thesis, I think I was the only one in my cohort of planners who did not do a case study. The case study is the default within planning and I must say that I am fairly suspect of any research project that says it is a case study research. (There is also an Old Guard/New Guard distinction/fight and that the New Guard prefers other methods over case studies in planning.) Normally, the case study in planning is poorly done (now, there are exceptions) and is normally indicative of a planning researcher either not understanding the issue, willing to do the work, or it is an advertisement for a place or company that wants to say “look at what I have done.” Am I bias towards case studies? Yes, but I recognize their value in informing specific questions, especially in limited resource research projects, but the flaw in planning case studies lies within the planning community’s desire to over generalize from the case study.
Blog Question: What are appropriate purposes of case studies, how are subjects selected, how is data collected and analyzed, and what kinds of generalizations are possible?
To answer the blog question, I will break up the question into four questions. 1) What are appropriate purposes of case studies? 2) How are subjects selected? 3) How is data collected and analyzed? 4) What kinds of generalizations are possible? I hope this helps.
1) Quite frankly, I find it hard to discuss case studies and not talk about Robert Yin. While this is slightly outside the week’s readings, I am using Yin for the OWS project (My group is doing a case study essentially). Yin offers a wonderful answer in Applications of Case Study Research to the first part of the blog question, what are appropriate purposes of case studies? Yin explains that the “method is appropriate when investigators desire to define topics broadly and not narrowly, cover contextual conditions and not just the phenomenon of study, and rely on multiple and not singular sources of evidence” (xi). Laura and Asher loosely approach this definition with their description of qualitative descriptive research definition at the beginning of Chapter 2, but I find Yin’s definition to be more eloquent and specific.
2) I find the selection of the research subjects to be the crux of all case studies. The entire validity of the study depends on whether or not the cases are accurate or applicable to whatever the researcher is studying (think back to week 4 about validity). For the most part, the subjects must be selected from a specific set of criteria or distinctions such as Flower and Hayes’s experts and novice. While the “Pause” research project left out a lot of demographic data about the subjects, it did make a case based on the criteria they set forth. However, I felt that the simple distinctions left out important information that could affect how pauses were used. I personally wanted to know more about what defined an expert and what specifics could affect the distinctions.
3) Data collection and analysis follows on Yin’s last point in his application of the case study, “rely on multiple and not singular sources of evidence” (xi). Therefore, much of the data is from multiple source or at least multiple points of data from a specific source and the analysis if often a synthesis of the many forms of data. The data is used to create a new conglomerate of understanding and knowledge in a broad sense about a subject area and not to show causation or a universal generalization. While it is not necessary, case studies are or often augmented by multiple or approaches (such as surveys, tests, statistics, or forms of quantitative research) that strengthen the researcher’s case.
4) What kinds of generalizations are possible is the crux of my frustration with many planning case studies. What kinds of generalizations are possible: None (generally speaking). Case studies cannot “prove” something. Often a case study of a community or place is used as attempt to prove that New Urbanism or roundabouts are the best, safest, or most appealing. However, the case study research method is to inform, describe, and explore the context and the phenomenon. Therefore generalizations as universals are dangerous for the researcher and case studies, in and of themselves, do not follow the central tendency concept.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Josh,
    I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with Yin; but I appreciate the addition to my "voluntary reading list!"

    Although I agree that the direct generalizability of case study is quite limited (to the point of non-existence, as you argue), I'm not sure I agree that there is no generalizability at all. Indirectly, case studies can recognize new variables and offer direction for further research. Immediately, the results are localized only to those subjects. In time, however, the case study can provide new directions and ideas which prove very helpful.