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Typically a 'case' is thought of as a bounded instance - like, for example, drawing a circle around a single person, or a single school and saying, 'that is my case which I will now study'. You will then only look at what is inside the circle. This is a very restrictive definition which leads to a number of methodological issues. How do you link - or generalise from - the single case to other cases and thus the whole 'population' of actual and indeed, possible cases? If you, as researcher, are outside the case will you 'contaminate' the case by trying to 'get inside it'? Can you remain 'outside' and yet still study the 'inside'? The process of making a 'case' involves the creation of boundaries, how to define them, where to place them - see for example the Methodological Appendix to the ACE project which includes a discussion of how categories are formed. Hence:
What do I mean by 'case'? I am using the term very generally, indeed as loosely as I can get away with. The 'case' is a useful term only as a framing device for qualitative research. In my view, case studies are misunderstood if they are seen as self contained spheres. They are also misunderstood if they are drawn into the discourse of statistical theory which demands that samples are categorised into homogenous groups. Equally, social action and institutional structures and processes are distorted and misunderstood if they are subjected to crude techniques of abstraction for purposes of statistical analysis or indeed, the relentless abstraction involved in some versions of grounded theory (c.f. Strauss and Corbin 1998). As pointed out by Ragin (1992:217) the term 'case' is used in a multiplicity of unhelpful ways, expressing 'data categories, theoretical categories, historically specific categories, substantive categories, and so on'. Rather than using the term case, he advocates the term 'casing' to ‘bring operational closure to some problematic relationship between ideas and evidence, between theory and data’ (Ragin 1992: 218). Operational closure, of course, has the effect of tidying up a complex field of interactions in such a way that the complex becomes manipulable under a given heading. In my view, a case study cannot be some synthetic unity of all the diverse elements to be found within it, if it tidies and thus distorts the realities of the subjects under study.
(Schostak 2002: extract from chapter 1)
In this view, a case is not a namable unity. A case study names the effort to study a messy, conflictual, ever receding horizon of enquiry. What does this mean?
Case study - from egg to scrambled egg
The notion of the case is best seen as a framing device, that is, as an artful process involving both thought and practice. At one extreme one might think of the frame as being rather like the enveloping shell of an egg. The 'case' contains a complex yet highly structured and functionally related set of constituents. This is a metaphor employed by the architect le Corbusier to describe how he wanted to construct cities. At the other extreme, the case is rather more like a very runny scrambled egg - slippery, messy, spilling all over the place - its shape hard to define and represent.
(the page is in the process of development)
Ragin, C. C. (1992) '"Casing" and the process of social inquiry', in: Ragin, C. C., and Becker, H. S. (eds) (1992) What is a Case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Schostak, J.F. (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education. Framing the Project. Open University Press
Schostak, J.F. (2006) Interviewing and Representation in Qualitative Research Projects, Open University press
Strauss, A., and Corbin, J. (1998) Basics of qualitative research : techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, Thousand Oaks, Calif. London ; Sage