There is a sense in which virtually every activity that we associate with sociology might be called ”case studies.” These activities include the generation of samples (which are made up of individual cases) for statistical analysis, the use of empirical examples (or cases) to illustrate aspects of general sociological theories, and comparative analyses of the interconnected events (again cases) that form historical and cultural patterns. Indeed, Charles Ragin and Howard S. Becker (1992) have edited an anthology dedicated to defining case studies, entitled What is a Case? Historically, the answer that sociologists have usually given to this question is that case studies are in-depth analyses of single or a few communities, organizations, or persons’ lives. They involve detailed and often subtle understandings of the social organization of everyday life and persons’ experiences. Because they focus on naturally occurring events and relationships (not laboratory experiments or survey data), case studies are sometimes described as naturalistic. Case studies usually involve extensive interviews about persons’ lives, or direct observation of community or organization members’ activities, or both.

The case-study approach is not unique to sociology but is a general approach to social life that is used by social scientists (especially anthropologists and historians), psychotherapists and family therapists, and journalists. All such uses of case studies involve idiographic interpretation that emphasizes how social action and relationships are influenced by their social contexts. Case studies are unique within sociology because they require that researchers immerse themselves in the lives and concerns of the persons, communities, or organizations they study, or all of these. While case studies are based on the general scientific method and are intended to advance the scientific goals of sociology, they are also humanistic because they offer readers insight into the concerns, values, and relationships of persons making up diverse social worlds.

Social scientists use the understandings developed in case studies to introduce the general public to the unique ways of life or problems of communities, or both, to apply and build theories, and to develop policy interventions concerned with individual and social problems. Two classic examples of how case studies may be used to achieve these ends are Elliott Liebow’s (1967) Tally’s Corner and Helen MacGill Hughes’s (1961) Fantastic Lodge. Liebow’s book reports on his experiences as a participant-observer within a poor, male, African-American urban community. Liebow describes the practical problems faced by these men in living their everyday lives, and the practical strategies they used to deal with life’s pressing problems. The study challenged many of the prevailing assumptions held by policy makers and academics during the 1960s, and has been used to reassess how the social service and mental health needs of inner city, minority groups are best addressed.

Hughes’s study, which is subtitled The Autobiography of a Drug Addict, details the life experiences of Janet Clark, a young white woman living in a poor urban area. Hughes describes Ms. Clark as speaking from a marginal urban world made up of drugs and drug addicts, arrest and incarceration, and the urban ”sporting” life.The labeling perspective emphasizes that deviance is notjust a matter of rule breaking, but is always created through the official responses of others. It has had profound and enduring implications for how sociologists define, study, and analyze societal responses to rule-breaking behavior.


Sociological case studies are most associated with the ethnographic traditions established at the University of Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century. The Chicago school’s emphasis on case studies partly reflects the influence of Robert E. Park, who joined the Sociology Department in 1916 and later served as department chair. Park taught his students that case studies should emphasize how persons’ lives and the organization of communities are shaped by general social processes and structures. For example, Park analyzed the ways in which cities develop as interrelated territories involving distinctive ways of life and opportunities. He described such territories as ”natural areas” and stressed that they emerged based on social and economic competition.

Many of the best-known and most influential sociological case studies done in the United States were conducted in the 1920s and 1930s by students and faculty members at the University of Chicago who were interested in the distinctive ways of life in diverse natural areas (e.g., Anderson 1923; Cressey 1932; Shaw 1930; Thomas 1923; Wirth 1928; and Zorbaugh 1929). While it was done later, H. M. Hughes’s (1961) study of Janet Clark’s life is also an example of the Chicago approach to case studies and urban life. Perhaps the best-known and most influential case study done in the early Chicago school tradition is William Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society, a participant-observer study of a poor Italian-American community. The significance of the study is related to Whyte’s use of his observations to identify and explicate some basic sociological issues involving social relations and social control in small groups.

Park’s approach to case studies has been modified and refined over the years, particularly by Everett C. Hughes (1970), who developed a comparative approach to work groups and settings. The approach uses case studies to identify and analyze comparatively generalized aspects of work groups and settings, such as work groups’ definitions of ”dirty work” and their interest in controlling the conditions of their work. Becker’s (1963) use of multiple case studies in articulating the labeling perspective is a notable example of how the comparative strategy advocated by E. C. Hughes may be applied to develop sociological theory. Another major contributor to the Chicago school of sociology is Erving Goffman (1959), who used case studies to develop a dramaturgical perspective on social interaction. The perspective treats mundane interactions as quasi-theatrical performances involving scripts, stages, and characters.

Although less influential than the Chicago school, a second source for case studies in American sociology was structural-functionalist theorists who analyzed communities and organizations as stability-seeking social systems. Structural-functional case studies were influenced by anthropological studies of nonindustrial communities and the more abstract theories of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. These studies analyze how social systems are maintained and adapt to changing environmental circumstances. For example, structural functionalists have used case studies to analyze the consequences of organizational activities and relationships for maintaining organizational systems (Blau 1955; Gouldner 1954; Sykes 1958).

An exemplary structural-functionalist case study is Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (1977) analysis of a multinational corporation, which she calls Indsco. The study examines how social relations in corporations are shaped by social structures which produce feelings of uncertainty and marginality among managers and secretaries. Kanter uses her case study to illustrate how gender segregation is produced and maintained in Indsco as secretaries and managers cope with the practical problems emergent from corporate power and opportunity structures. She also makes some practical suggestions for altering these structures in order to better address the needs of managers and secretaries, and to produce more egalitarian relations between corporate members. Many of Kanter’s suggestions have been adopted by diverse American corporations. This is another way in which case studies may influence social policies.


While many qualitative sociologists continue to work within the Chicago school and structural-functional traditions, several important developments have occurred in qualitative sociology in the past twenty-five years. For example, many of the case studies of ethnic communities done by early Chicago school sociologists deal with the problems and social organization of European-American communities. Many more recent case studies, on the other hand, explore these issues within the context of nonEuropean-American communities. Ruth Horowitz’s (1983) case study of a Hispanic community and Elijah Anderson’s (1990) research in an African-American community are major contributions to this development.

Age-based communities have also emerged as subjects for case studies by sociologists. One focus in this literature involves the distinctive life circumstances and coping strategies of communities of older people. Arlie Hochshild’s (1973) study of a group of widowed women as an ”unexpected community” is an important example of this focus, as is Jennie Keith’s (1977) analysis of the social construction of community in a retirement facility in France. Another approach to case-study research is Jaber Gubrium’s (1993) analysis of the life stories told to him by a group of elderly nursing home residents. Equally significant are recent case studies of communities of young people, particularly of communities organized around shared interests in popular culture. A useful example is Sarah Thornton’s (1996) case study of dance clubs and raves in London. Thornton’s analysis extends traditional analysis of communities as subcultures by showing how this community was created and is maintained through the actions of (not so youthful) members of the London mass media.

A related change has been case studies of experiential communities. That is, social groups that share common social experiences, but not a common territory. For example, Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson (1992) analyze African-American males as a racial and gender community that is organized around shared practical problems and strategies for managing them. Using a semiotic perspective, Dick Hedbridge (1979) also analyzes an experiential community in using several case studies to show how young people form a subculture that is organized around the expression of cultural styles, which symbolically resist dominant forces in society. Another focus in this literature is on the distinctive life experiences of members of gay and lesbian communities. A notable example is Carol A. B. Warren’s (1974) case study of a gay community in which she raises some important questions about the labeling perspective. Thus, both Warren’s and Hedbridge’s research show how case studies contribute to theoretical development in sociology.

A different, but complementary, use of the case-study research strategy is auto-ethnography. These are case studies conducted within and about one’s own group. The researcher acts as both a sociologist seeking information about a community, and as a subject of the research. A groundbreaking auto-ethnography is David Hayano’s (1982) study of professional card players. This case study provides readers with distinctive access to, and insights into, the experiences of professional card players. Two other notable auto-ethnographies are Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s (1977) case study of her own and others’ exit from the social role of Roman Catholic nun, and Thomas Schmid’s and Richard S. Jones’s (1991) analysis of Jones’s and other inmates’ adaptations to prison life.

Auto-ethnographers’ concern for taking account of their own and others’ experiences is extended in another trend in sociological case-studies research. This trend focuses on emotions as a basic and important aspect of social life. Many case studies done by sociologists of emotions deal with other persons’ emotional experiences (Hochschild 1983; Katz 1988). Other sociologists, however, adopt a more auto-ethnographic strategy by treating their own lives and feelings as topics for sociological analysis. The sociologist’s feelings become the case or part of the case under study. An important example of the latter approach to case studies is David Karp’s (1996) discussion of his own experiences with depression, and his linking of them to the emotional experiences reported by other members of this community of sufferers.

In addition to the changes discussed above, three other changes in case-studies research warrant special notice. They are the emergence of radical case studies, a focus on reality construction, and concern for the politics and poetics of writing case studies.


While early sociological case studies were sometimes associated with reformist movements, they were seldom intended to advance politically radical causes or to build radical social theory. This orientation may be contrasted with that of radical journalists of the same era (such as Upton Sinclair) who used case studies to highlight social problems and raise questions about the legitimacy of capitalism. Radical sociologists have begun to use case studies to develop their sociological goals. One source for radical case studies is Marxist sociologists concerned with the ways in which worker-management relations are organized in work settings, how social classes are perpetuated, and how capitalism is justified.

Marxist sociologists use their case studies to challenge more conservative case studies that, from the radicals’ standpoint, do not take adequate account of the ways in which persons’ everyday lives are shaped by political and economic structures. They are also used to analyze historical changes in capitalism and the consequences of the changes for workers. For Marxist theorists, a major change has been the rise of a new of society-monopoly capitalism—dominated by multinational corporations. These theorists use case studies of work settings to illustrate and analyze the effects of monopoly capitalism on workers (Burawoy 1970).

Although it is not as well developed in sociology as in anthropology, another focus of radical case studies involves the social and personal consequences of the international division of labor. The studies are concerned with the ways in which multinational corporations internationalize the production process by exporting aspects of production to Third World countries. Case studies of this trend show the profound impact of global economic changes for gender and family roles in Third World countries (Ong 1987). Finally, radical sociologists have used the case-study method to analyze the ways in which capitalist institutions and relationships are justified and perpetuated by noneconomic institutions such as schools (Willis 1977).

A second source for radical case studies is feminist sociology. While it is diverse and includes members who hold many different political philosophies, all forms of feminist sociology are sensitive to the politics of human relationships. A major theme in feminist case studies involves the ways in which women’s contributions to social relationships and institutions go unseen and unacknowledged. Feminist sociologists use case studies to call attention to women’s contributions to society and analyze the political implications of their invisibility. A related concern involves analyzing relationships and activities that are typically treated as apolitical and private matters as matters of public concern. One way in which feminist sociologists do so is by treating aspects of their own lives as politically significant and making them matters for sociological analysis (McCall 1993).

The case-study approach is central to the feminist sociology of Dorothy E. Smith (1987). Smith treats case studies as points of entry for studying general social processes that shape persons’ experiences and lives. Her approach to case studies emphasizes how the seemingly insignificant activities of everyday life are related by general social processes (such as patriarchy and market relationships) and how they help to perpetuate the processes. Smith describes, for example, how the commonplace activity of dining in a restaurant is organized within, and perpetuates, capitalist commodity relations. Smith’s analysis might also be seen as an example of the general analytic strategy, which Michael Burawoy (1998) calls the ”extended case method.” This approach to case studies involves four major steps:

• Researcher observations of, and immersion in, a social setting,

• Analysis of the researcher’s observations as aspects of general social processes that shape life in diverse contemporary social settings,

• Historicizing the observations and social processes by showing how they are embedded in historical forces that guide and structure the evolution of capitalist society, and

• Linking the observations and analyses to formal sociological theories that explain the researcher’s initial observations and their larger social and historical contexts.

This is one way in which case studies may be used as a springboard for developing systematic, general, and formal sociological analyses.


Basic to the case-study method and idiographic interpretation is a concern for human values and culture. Beginning in the 1960s, one focus of this concern has been with the ways in which social realities are produced in social interactions. The new focus is generally based on the social phenomenology of Alfred Schutz and ethnometh-odology. While different in some ways, both are concerned with the folk methods that people use to construct meanings (Silverman 1975). For example, Harold Garfinkel (1967), the founder of ethnomethodology, used a case study of a patient seeking a sex-change operation to analyze how we orient to ourselves and others as men and women.

Case studies of reality construction emphasize how social realities are created, sustained, and changed through language use. The emphasis has given rise to new orientations to traditional areas of sociological research, such as science. Until recently, sociologists of science have treated scientific work as a simple, noninterpretive process centered in scientists’ adherence to the rules of the scientific method, which emphasizes how ”facts” and ”truth” emerge from observations of the ”real” world. Viewed this way, scientific facts are not matters of interpretation or social constructions. This view of science has been challenged by case studies of scientific work that focus on the ways in which scientific facts are socially produced based on scientists’ interpretations of their experiments (Latour and Woolgar 1979).

A major branch of ethnomethodology is conversation analysis, which focuses on the turn-by-turn organization of social interactions (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974). For conversation analysts, social reality is collaboratively constructed within turn-taking sequences, which may be organized around such linguistic practices as questions and answers or charges and rebuttals. A major contribution of conversation-analytic studies has been to show how IQ and other test results are shaped by the ways in which test-givers and test-takers interact (Marlaire and Maynard 1990). Also, sociologists influenced by conversation analysis theory have considered how power and dominance are interactionally organized and accomplished.

Some qualitative sociologists have extended and reformulated ethnomethodological case studies by analyzing the relationships between the interpretive methods used by interactants in concrete situations and the distinctive meanings they produce in their interactions. This approach to case studies focuses on the practical and political uses of meanings in social institutions. These ethnographers analyze meanings as rhetorics which interactants use to persuade others and to assign identities to themselves and others. An important contribution to this approach to case-study research is Donileen Loseke’s (1992) study of decision making and social relations in a shelter for battered women. Loseke details the practical contexts within which shelter workers, shelter residents, and applicants to the shelters encounter each other and manage their social relationships. It is in these encounters, Loseke states, that shelter workers and residents give concrete meaning to the abstract cultural category of battered women.

Two other important, and related, trends in case studies of reality construction involve comparative analysis of two or more cases, and the use of new theoretical perspectives in analyzing case-study data. One example is Jaber Gubrium’s (1992) comparative analysis of two different family therapy sites. Gubrium uses observational data from the sites to show how different therapy approaches are organized to ”detect” and remedy different kinds of family and personal problems. He also shows how aspects of Weberian theory may be used in analyzing the sociological significance of family therapy. Gale Miller and David Silverman (1995) have also contributed to this development by comparatively analyzing social interactions in two different counseling centers located in the United States and England. This study is based on the ethnography of institutional discourse perspective (Miller 1994), which is a strategy for developing general theoretical statements from case-study research.


While some qualitative sociologists focus on the folk methods of description and interpretation used by others in creating realities, other sociologists are reconsidering the reality constructing methods used by sociologists in writing case studies. Their interest centers in the question, How do we do our work? The question raises issues about the relationships between qualitative researchers and the people they study. For example, is it enough that case studies inform the public and sociologists about aspects of contemporary society, or should they also help the persons and communities studied? A related issue involves editorial control over the writing of case studies. That is, should the subjects of case studies have a voice in how they are described and analyzed?

Such questions have given rise to many answers, but most of them involve analyzing case studies as narratives or stories that sociologists tell about themselves and others. For example, John van Maanen (1988) divides ethnographic writing into several types of ”tales” involving different orientations to the persons described, readers, and authorship. Other analyses focus on the various rhetorical devices used by ethnographers to write their case studies (Bruyn 1966). Such rhetorical devices include metaphor, irony, paradox, synecdoche, and metonymy, which ethnographers use both to describe others and to cast their descriptions as objective and authoritative.

Qualitative sociologists’ interest in writing case studies may be part of a larger interdisciplinary movement involving social scientists and humanists. The movement is concerned with analyzing the rhetorics of social scientific inquiry (Nelson et al. 1987) as well as how to write better narratives. The latter issue is basic to efforts by British sociologists to develop new forms of writing that better reflect the ways in which their case studies are socially constructed (Woolgar 1988) and other sociologists’ interest in developing alternatives to the logico-scientific writing style that better express their theoretical perspectives, political philosophies, and experiences (DeVault 1990; Richardson 1990). A related change in this area is some sociologists’ interest in using performance art to represent their research data. For example, Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner (1992) have written a play about the experiences and dilemmas faced by women and their male partners in deciding whether to abort the woman’s pregnancy. Ellis and Bochner state that this presentational form allows for a wider range of communication devices than does the usual textual approach to reporting case-study findings.

In sum, the case-study method is a dynamic approach to studying social life, which sociologists modify and use to achieve diverse political and theoretical goals. While the popularity of the case-study method waxes and wanes over time, it is likely to always be a major research strategy of humanistically oriented sociologists.

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