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The extended case method was initially developed by anthropologists Max Gluckman (1911–1975) and Jaap van Velsen (1921–1990) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was designed to confront the decontextualized abstractions of structural approaches with richly detailed accounts of the actions and choices of real individuals. As conceived by Gluckman, the method places less emphasis on identifying structural regularities and more on detailed analyses of social processes wherein individual strategies and choices reveal the context of everyday life. He placed particular emphasis on extending case studies temporally, as “the most fruitful use of cases consists in taking a series of specific incidents affecting the same persons or groups, through a long period of time, and showing … [the] change of social relations among these persons and groups, within the framework of their social system and culture” (1961, p. 10).
Gluckman distinguished extended cases from two more restricted uses of the case study, both of which tended to serve structuralism’s concern with social morphology: apt illustration (describing a simple event or action in such a way that it serves as a persuasive illustration of some general normative principle), and the analysis of social situations (whereby more complex microsocial events are analyzed to reveal structural characteristics at the macro level). By contrast, the extended case method includes “analyzing the interrelation of structural (‘universal’) regularities, on the one hand, and the actual (‘unique’) behavior of individuals, on the other” (van Velsen 1967, p. 148).
Van Velsen, who preferred the term situational analysis, also noted that: “[Structural] analysis does not allow for the fact that individuals are often faced by a choice between alternative norms” (1967, p. 131). Moreover, for van Velsen, what ultimately recommends the method is its ability to illuminate the complex relationship between a social world of “norms in conflict” (1967, p. 146) and the strategies and choices of individuals. Van Velsen also suggests that extending case studies over a broad geographical area may help researchers clarify the problem of defining the appropriate unit of study (1967, pp. 145–146).
One of van Velsen’s students, sociologist Michael Burawoy, further defined the extended case method by highlighting its reflexivity (i.e., applying its method to the investigation itself) and by advocating it as a means to reexamine the relationship between data and theory. Burawoy closely associates the extended case method with what he calls a reflexive model of science (1998). Like Gluckman and van Velsen, he emphasizes the importance of variations in the case through time and space, as these often help to delineate the forces shaping a particular society (1991).
Burawoy also proposes that field researchers use their observations of specific cases to challenge and reconstruct existing theory. On this line of thinking, cases are selected specifically for their theoretical relevance, and by using a case to challenge existing theory, generalization from a single case study becomes possible (1991). This is accomplished through identification and analysis of anomalous cases (i.e., cases not accounted for by the existing theory). According to Burawoy, careful attention to such anomalies “leads directly to an analysis of domination and resistance” (1991, p. 279), thereby qualifying the extended case method as “the most appropriate way of using participant observation to (re)construct theories of advanced capitalism” (1991, p. 271).
- Burawoy, Michael. 1991. The Extended Case Method. In Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis, Michael Burawoy et al., 271–287. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Burawoy, Michael. 1998. The Extended Case Method. Sociological Theory 16 (1): 4–33.
- Gluckman, Max. 1961. Ethnographic Data in British Social Anthropology. Sociological Review 9 (1): 5–17.
- Van Velsen, Jaap. 1967. The Extended-case Method and Situational Analysis. In The Craft of Social Anthropology, ed. A. L. Epstein, 129–149. London: Tavistock.
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