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The case method (or the case study) is a prolonged, intimate, and detailed investigation of a single case or a set of cases. The in-depth analysis of a case or small set of cases illuminates larger sociological processes and phenomena. The case method is used in urban and rural ethnographies, life histories, and social histories of a group of people or an event. Cases can be empirical, theoretical, or “discovered” during the research process. The case method requires an ongoing, engaged, and critical conversation between data collection and data analysis. Typically, the social scientist using the case method refines her definition of a case throughout the course of a study (Becker 1992). The case method is especially useful in illuminating social worlds that are not appreciated or understood by others.
The history of the ethnographic case study is grounded in a volume of works produced by the Chicago school during the early twentieth century. Early Chicago school scholars used the case method to illuminate people’s understanding of urban culture (Zorbaugh  1976), race and ethnic relations, and social problems such as homelessness (Anderson and Council of Social Agencies of Chicago 1923), poverty and segregation (Wirth 1928), deviance, and delinquency (Thrasher 1927). The naturalistic case study grounds observations and concepts in everyday social interactions and processes, which are observed directly by the researcher. Social scientists using the extended case method seek to complicate or “extend” extant concepts and theory by explicitly linking the case under study to local, national, and global trends and histories (Burawoy 1998).
Today, the case method is valued for its utility in labeling previously undocumented or misunderstood activities and understanding complicated social or historical phenomena, including social problems such as poverty, homelessness, drug use, and inner-city violence. Like early Chicago school scholars, contemporary social scientists use participant observation and in-depth interviews to systematically examine a social group or social phenomenon, while also developing new and innovative ways to collect data (Emerson 2004). In addition to data collected from direct and participant observation, the case method also takes advantage of the available quantitative data, including public records, and, at times, archival data. The primary data source for ethnographic case studies is the field researcher’s notebook. Throughout the research process, the social scientist takes copious field notes, which are essential to data analysis and to the final presentation of the study to outside audiences (Emerson 2004). A common analytical tool used in case studies is analytical induction; a working hypothesis is developed once the researcher begins to collect data on his first case and then tests and refines his developing theory throughout the process of data collection and analysis (Becker 1998). Typically, the findings from a case study are presented in narrative form, as a story that conveys the lived experience of the social group, actor, organization, or historical event.
Large quantitative studies (such as a population census or a large-scale survey) emphasize researcher objectivity. In contrast, the case method uses a researcher’s subjectivity (Ragin 1997) or reflexivity (Burawoy 1998) as a tool to deepen one’s understanding of a social group or phenomenon. Field researchers who are concerned with limiting the influence of researcher bias may construct a team of field researchers that will effectively standardize the process of data collection and analysis (for example, Newman 1999). A noted strength of the case method approach is the validity of its findings. Typically, the researcher using the case method has a wealth of sources including field notes, interviews, media reports, and archived materials to “triangulate” or cross-check during the research process. Critics also argue that the case study method does not allow for the generalization of findings to a much larger population of cases. Some researchers identify this as a limitation of the case method in the presentation of their findings, while others argue that one can generalize from a single case study to others, if similar conditions exist (Becker 1967).
Social scientists who use the case method help to complicate our understanding of everyday life, social processes, and social phenomena in ways that are elusive or impossible for quantitative-based studies to accomplish. At times, the most rigorous case studies will form the foundation of larger quantitative studies. The deep insight generated from the case study illuminates the many problems that concern contemporary social scientists.
- Anderson, E. 2001. Urban Ethnography. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, eds. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Anderson, N., and Council of Social Agencies of Chicago.  1967. The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Becker, H. S. 1967. Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems 14 (3): 239–247.
- Becker, H. S. 1992. Cases, Causes, Conjunctures, Stories, and Imagery. In What Is a Case?: Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry, Charles C. Ragin, Howard S. Becker, and Gideon Sjoberg, 205–215. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Burawoy, Michael. 1998. The Extended Case Method. Sociological Theory 16 (1): 4–33.
- Emerson, Robert. 2004. Introduction. In Being Here and Being There: Fieldwork Encounters and Ethnographic Discoveries, Vol. 595 of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Series, eds. Elijah Anderson, Scott Brooks, Raymond Gunn, and Nikki Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Feagin, J. R., A. M. Orum, and G. Sjorberg, eds. 1991. A Case for the Case Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Newman, Katherine S. 1999. No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner-City. New York: Knopf and the Russell Sage Foundation.
- Ragin, Charles C. 1997. Turning the Tables: How Case-Oriented Research Challenges Variable-Oriented Research. Comparative Social Research 16: 27–42.
- Ragin, Charles C., Howard. S. Becker, and Gideon Sjoberg, eds. 1992. What Is a Case?: Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Thrasher, F. M. 1927. The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Whyte, W. F. 1943. Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wirth, L. 1928. The Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Zorbaugh, H. W.  1976. The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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