15 January 2018

Ethnography & Case Study Research: Applying an ethnographic approach

Last week, I shared my recent experiences being hired as a research assistant at Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation to conduct a case-study on a local example of innovation in workforce development. In this post, I want to continue that discussion, thinking a bit more about: what case study research is, how it intersects with ethnography, and why this matters for anthropologists.

What is Case Study Research? 

As anthropologists, we might be used to referencing case studies in our classroom. Isn't Malinowski's work among the Trobrianders an interesting case study of non-market exchange? How have Evans-Pritchard's study of the Azande or Gmelch's study of baseball magic become textbook cases for discussing systems of supposedly irrational belief? Or we might ask students to focus their examination of course issues on a specific case-study in a final essay...

This way of understanding a case-study echoes how Robert K. Yin understands the term and frames "Case Study Research" as a (qualitative and/or quantitative) methodological approach in his text Case Study Research: Design and Methods (5th edition).

Interestingly, Yin argues that a case-study approach is useful
in situations when (1) the main research questions are 'how' or 'why' questions;  (2) a researcher has little or no control over behavioral events; and (3) the focus of study is a contemporary (as opposed to entirely historical) phenomenon (Yin 2013, 3).
Case studies, writes Yin, have been popularly used by a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology. Whether conducted from the perspective of a psychologist, political scientist, social worker, nurse or community planner, Yin states that "the distinctive need for case study research arises out of the desire to understand complex social phenomena. In brief, a case study allows investigators to focus on a 'case' and retain a holistic and real-world perspective" (Yin 2013, 4).

How does Case Study research reference or intersect with Ethnography? 

So far, this understanding of when and why to apply a case study research approach seems remarkably similar to ethnographic research! And the parallels continue...

Yin frames the six sources of evidence used in case study research as documentation, archival records, interviews, direct observations, participant-observation, and physical artifacts (Yin 2013, 105-118). Hmmm....

In order to be a good case study researcher, Yin argues (2013, 73-79) that one must:

  • Ask good questions - Essentially, Yin asks researchers to recognize the iterative nature of the research process and to constantly ask questions as the study develops during fieldwork, even as "substantive review" comes later. Yin even discusses grounded theory as an apt approach to case study research.
  • Be a good "listener" - Yin advocates that we be active listeners and pay attention to all the social cues given during interactions with study participants. Importantly, Yin is advocating a certain amount of cultural relativism -- without using this term -- and openness to paying attention to what people do as well as what they say.
  • Stay adaptive - "Few case studies will end exactly as planned. Inevitably, you will have to make minor if not major changes, ranging from the need to pursue an unexpected lead (potentially minor) to the need to identify a new 'case' for study (potentially major)" (Yin 2013, 74). If this doesn't sound like ethnographic research, I am not sure what does!
  • Have a firm grasp on the issues being studied - Yin's argument here is to keep one's research question or purpose in mind throughout the research, and attend to how the data collected might shape or demand a shift in the direction of the research.
  • Avoid biases - Yin urges researchers to be open to what the data shows, rather than trying to force the data to support a preconceived hypothesis. Again this echoes how anthropologists often pose exploratory how and why questions in our research.
  • Conduct research ethically - Here, Yin even cites the AAA's Code of Ethics among other disciplinary and processional ethical codes.

In many ways, how anthropologists approach ethnographic research seem to mirror how Yin frames the case study approach. Yet, Yin frames ethnography as a single method that can be incorporated into case-study research.

A good place to start unpacking the placement of ethnography in his toolkit for case study research is to reflect on how ethnography is understood outside of anthropology.

Although more and more people are being hired in alt-ac careers as professional ethnographers, there is still a misunderstanding or a "watering-down" of ethnography in industry and other professional spheres. What anthropologists are apt of see as "ethnography-lite" is a relatively narrow understanding of what ethnography is, and seems to reflect how this research approach has been popularly adopted by non-anthropologists, for instance in education, nursing, and business. As Marc LeFleur (VP Insights and Co-Head Health at Idea Couture) underscores "something has been lost in this widespread adoption of ethnography outside of academia. Ethnography is on its way to now just becoming another method, simply shorthand for hanging out with people for longer than a focus group would take, another hammer in the market researcher’s toolkit."

The Case for Ethnographers...

Recognizing the overlap and shared strengths of ethnography with case study research presents an interesting opportunity for anthropologists, especially those of us looking to engage a non-academic audience. Not knowing the language of Case Study Research means that anthropologists are missing out on important opportunities to bring our holistic, rigorous, and thickly descriptive approach into social research in the public sphere.

Like ethnography, case studies are used to answer how and why type questions. We can see from Yin's text that the sources of data used for case studies are the same as those any ethnographer would consider. Similarly, the skills and approach to research Yin outlines for case study research sound a lot like my second-year lecture on ethnographic methods.

What makes case study research different from ethnography?

Depending on the type of case study undertaken, there really might not be much difference between this form of research and ethnography. In my work with OCWI, I found that my research approach as a trained ethnographer fit rather seamlessly with the goals and structure sought for this report ― with the exception of framing the research question, anchoring my analysis, and writing for a non-specialist audience.

Research Questions

Importantly, case study research questions may be preset by the organization or funder rather than by the researcher themselves.

In my work with OCWI, I was hired to develop a research report on a single, predefined case that would speak to their mandate regarding workforce innovation. This meant that during research, I had to keep the priorities and interests of my employer (and case program stakeholders) in mind. A challenge here was balancing how to stay on task, while attending to interesting threads that were less pertinent but nonetheless important to understanding the case.

For instance, in my research of the Youth Empowering Parents program, I was interested in following up on the connections and outcomes surrounding voluntarism, community belonging, and the role of the YEP program in immigrant integration. However, with OCWI's key interests around employability, it was important to consider these research threads in relation to the task at hand. YEP's interest in framing their program as a youth empowering initiative and voluntarism opportunity for low-income youth encouraged me to trace connections between youth voluntarism, community/ civic engagement, and OCWI's key interests in employability. Questions around identity and community belonging -- although fascinating -- were less important to pursue in the context of this research.

Anchoring the analysis

While my background in social theory certainly helped me to analyse my data, this report was not to make theory explicit. When I began writing my first draft, I felt a little adrift in terms of how to speak to OCWI's understanding of employability and employment outcomes. This industry-specific language was not something which which I was familiar and I felt a bit out of my depth.

By recognizing my OCWI supervisor as a valuable informant in this field, I approached her for guidance. She steered me to key documents and policies from the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (which is funding these case studies). These documents helped to give me an anchor point for considering the Program Evaluation dimension of the intended final report. Grounding my report in this literature was important for helping produce a case study that would speak to our intended audience(s).

Writing for a non-specialist audience

One of the reasons that I was hired by OCWI to develop this case study, was because my supervisor recognized the value and richness of ethnography and wanted to bring this dimension into our report. The format of my report was set by the template developed by OCWI, covering context, history, implementation, and “lessons learned.” Being able to frame the lessons learned, or impact, of the YEP program in people's everyday lives was clearly well-suited to an ethnographic approach.

While case studies might be directed at academic readers, they are also likely to be of interest or use to non-specialists like community stakeholders, policy makers, practitioners, and funders connected to the case you are studying (Yin 2013, 180). In my case study for OCWI, it was clear from the outset that the report should be accessible, not overtly theoretical, but nonetheless based on rigorous empirical evidence and analysis. Our anticipated audience would be community organizers across Ontario (and potentially beyond) interested in implementing similar workforce innovations in their own communities.

In my case, I worked in close contact with both my supervising colleague at OCWI and my key contact at YEP throughout the writing phase. In many ways, this experience reflected the professional relationships that academic anthropologists have with colleagues/ supervisors/ reviewers and their research participants, incorporating and addressing constructive criticism and concerns for representation from both parties. Sharing my early drafts with both partners helped to ensure that my report met the needs of both my employer's mandate, and the needs of our community partner who would use this report to help grow their program in different communities and gain the support of additional funders.

The experience of learning about and doing "case study research" has raised some important questions for me about the intersections of this approach with ethnography -- some of which I have tried to answer here. Next Monday, we'll continue this series by thinking about some more of the parallels between this form of research common in alt-ac spheres and ethnography through the concept of "grey literature." Stay tuned!

If you have experience with case study research as an anthropologist, please let us know! You can tweet us @anthrolens or email us anthrolens@gmail.com.

Quick links and further reading: