Case Studies and Ethnography

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    Dear all, I’m doing a compare and contrast and the advantages and disadvantages of Case Study and Ethnography research.  


    Is the difference in the output?  As I see much of the data collection methods to be the same i.e. observation, interviews, document and archival review.  


    Any good sites I might look at for insights?


    Love to hear from you. 

    Roger Gomm

    Dear Michael,

    The way you have asked your question suggests that you think that ethnographic and case study research are alternatives. Well, they might be, depending on the way ‘ethnographic’ and ‘case study’ are defined,but taking a broad overview of the way the terms are used in the literature, they are not, insofar as you can have case studies produced by ethnographic research (and case studies produced otherwise) and ethnographies which include case studies. I think it is probably best to think of case study as belonging to the discourse of research strategies, and ethnography as belonging to the discourse of data collection methods. In these terms then a case study is a detailed study of a ‘case’ which is defined by a theoretical sampling frame (maybe an implicit one) with the aim of throwing light on other cases of the same type: for example a school chosen as a case study, because it is a (hopefully representative ) case of foundation schools in inner city areas with 10% minority ethnic roll. The case study might well be conducted by ethnographic research, but it might be done by the statistical analysis of data from the annual school census – there are many quantitative case studies in the literature. Ethnographic research by contrast is/was usually taken to mean research conducted by observation, and especially with some membership participation by the researcher – here perhaps by a researcher in the role of a teacher. However, I note that more recently ‘ethnographic’ has come to include interview research as well and the term seems to be drifiting into becoming a synonym for ‘research generating qualitative data’.


    Quite a lot of ethnographic works give a broad overview of whatever is their topic and then embed within that more detailed studiesof situations (aka critical incident analysis) or people, which they describe as ‘case studies’. This assumes the same notion of case study as above: the detailed study of cases of types, and along the same lines we have interview studies (called ‘ethnographic’ or not) in which less penetrating interviews are conducted with a large number of people, and more detailed ones – called ‘case studies’ are done with a few – usually a few selected to represent types of respondent.


    Just to muddy the waters there is another rendering of case study research which is entirely opposite to the one above This is the research -often ethnographic’ – often associated with the term ‘ thick ethnography’ which regards cases as unique and their study as unable to form the basis for generalisation. This usage seems only to be current among (some)  sociologists and (some) anthropologists. Historians do it but don’t often use the term. Other disciplines use the notion I outlined earlier that case studies are studies of cases of types. To my mind the study of phenomena for their uniqueness can only go so far, first because while all phenomena are unique at some level, they are also all composed of components which exist more generally, and second that insofar as such studies use words which have general currency and often a theoretical tradition, they are inevitably involved in generalisation. Thus when Geertz refers to patterns of seniority shown in Balinese cockfighting, willy nilly he is referring Balinese cockfighting to other phenomena showing patterns of seniority – .ie he is treating this as a ‘case’ in a typology of phenomena showing patterns of seniority even if only an implicit one.


    If you haven’t already come across it, you might find our complication on case study research useful:


    Gomm,R.,Hammersley,M.and Foster,P.(eds) (2000) Case Study Method:key issues:key texts, London, Sage.

    This is a convenient single source of writings which have been influential in the debate about case study method, together with commentary by the editors.



    Dear Roger, thank you for your response.  The more I have got into the the more multi-layered it has become.  This is what I wrote in my conclusion of my draft paper on the subject.


    Case Study and Ethnographical Research are common within the field of Organisational Identity studies, yet due to their sharing collection and analysis techniques it can be difficult to discern the differences between them.  The researcher faces trade-offs in depth and breath in either case, and as Mill highlights, deep research should not be assumed to be justifiable (Mills, et al., 2010).   Doctorate research has theoretical contribution at the top of the agenda, and therefore whether case study or ethnography is undertaken, the explanatory power of the final result is without question.


    Due to the multi-layered nature of research methods, it would be wrong to categorically choose one and/or the other at this juncture, yet my intuition tells me that this research could be structured with a case study framework, yet still allow the spirit of ethnography to surround the project to allow for feminist and reflexive practices to endure during the research and finally on to the writing stages. 


    Thanks so much for replying.





    Hi Michael, 


    I am a research scholar from India and have been studying qualitative research methods for my doctoral thesis. As Roger and yourself have rightly pointed, there remains a trade-off for using either of these two methods. The catch is, as per my understandings, to strike a synergy with your study objective. As long as that happens, your interpretations will be of true value. Another thing I would like to point out – ethnography can be done using different approaches. Different paradigms co exist in a single methodology (Sanday 1979). May be it will be of your interest to take different aspects from different paradigms – holistic, semiotic and beavioristic and customize your own method to suit your study. 


    Thank you for the references and detailed responses. I’m still sitting on my conclusion, in particular whether to put case study under ethnography or the other way around. I’m also considering partial ethnography in combination with self ethnography!

    Best. Michael.

    Roger Gomm

    Dear Pratyush and Michael

    I’m afraid I disgree with both of you insofar as you are both treating ethnography and case study as if they were alternatives to choose between. In terms of how the terms have been used by researchers this is not so. You can have ethnographic case studies, and case studies embeded in ethnographic studies, and ethnographies which are not case studies, and case studies which are not ethnographic. In practice most  people who say they do ethnography are at the same time doing case study but many people who do case studies collect their data by methods other than or in addition to ethnographic. Ethnography as a practice is a method of collecting data whereas case study is a strategy of assembling data and drawing inferences from it. Therefore it makes no sense to talk about choosing between the two as involving trade offs. Nor does it make sense to ‘put one under the heading of the other’ in any single way.


    Of course  Pratyus is right to point out that those who conduct ethnographic studies (or indeed case studies) are informed by a very wide variety of different theoretical perspectives, and paradigms of assumptions about the best way of producing sound knowledge (epistemological assumptions).

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