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Landscapes of Lifelong Learning Policies across Europe pp 41–60 Cite as

Comparative Case Studies: Methodological Discussion

  • Marcelo Parreira do Amaral 7  
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  • First Online: 25 May 2022

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning book series (PSAELL)

Case Study Research has a long tradition and it has been used in different areas of social sciences to approach research questions that command context sensitiveness and attention to complexity while tapping on multiple sources. Comparative Case Studies have been suggested as providing effective tools to understanding policy and practice along three different axes of social scientific research, namely horizontal (spaces), vertical (scales), and transversal (time). The chapter, first, sketches the methodological basis of case-based research in comparative studies as a point of departure, also highlighting the requirements for comparative research. Second, the chapter focuses on presenting and discussing recent developments in scholarship to provide insights on how comparative researchers, especially those investigating educational policy and practice in the context of globalization and internationalization, have suggested some critical rethinking of case study research to account more effectively for recent conceptual shifts in the social sciences related to culture, context, space and comparison. In a third section, it presents the approach to comparative case studies adopted in the European research project YOUNG_ADULLLT that has set out to research lifelong learning policies in their embeddedness in regional economies, labour markets and individual life projects of young adults. The chapter is rounded out with some summarizing and concluding remarks.

  • Case-based research
  • Comparative case studies

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1 Introduction

Exploring landscapes of lifelong learning in Europe is a daunting task as it involves a great deal of differences across places and spaces; it entails attending to different levels and dimensions of the phenomena at hand, but not least it commands substantial sensibility to cultural and contextual idiosyncrasies. As such, case-based methodologies come to mind as tested methodological approaches to capturing and examining singular configurations such as the local settings in focus in this volume, in which lifelong learning policies for young people are explored in their multidimensional reality. The ensuing question, then, is how to ensure comparability across cases when departing from the assumption that cases are unique. Recent debates in Comparative and International Education (CIE) research are drawn from that offer important insights into the issues involved and provide a heuristic approach to comparative cases studies. Since the cases focused on in the chapters of this book all stem from a common European research project, the comparative case study methodology allows us to at once dive into the specifics and uniqueness of each case while at the same time pay attention to common treads at the national and international (European) levels.

The chapter, first, sketches the methodological basis of case-based research in comparative studies as a point of departure, also highlighting the requirements in comparative research. In what follows, second, the chapter focuses on presenting and discussing recent developments in scholarship to provide insights on how comparative researchers, especially those investigating educational policy and practice in the context of globalization and internationalization, have suggested some critical rethinking of case study research to account more effectively for recent conceptual shifts in the social sciences related to culture, context, space and comparison. In a third section, it presents the approach to comparative case studies adopted in the European research project YOUNG_ADULLLT that has set out to research lifelong learning policies in their embeddedness in regional economies, labour markets and individual life projects of young adults. The chapter is rounded out with some summarizing and concluding remarks.

2 Case-Based Research in Comparative Studies

In the past, comparativists have oftentimes regarded case study research as an alternative to comparative studies proper. At the risk of oversimplification: methodological choices in comparative and international education (CIE) research, from the 1960s onwards, have fallen primarily on either single country (small n) contextualized comparison, or on cross-national (usually large n, variable) decontextualized comparison (see Steiner-Khamsi, 2006a , 2006b , 2009). These two strands of research—notably characterized by Development and Area Studies on the one side and large-scale performance surveys of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) type, on the other—demarcated their fields by resorting to how context and culture were accounted for and dealt with in the studies they produced. Since the turn of the century, though, comparativists are more comfortable with case study methodology (see Little, 2000 ; Vavrus and Bartlett 2006 , 2009 ; Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 ) and diagnoses of an “identity crisis” of the field due to a mass of single-country studies lacking comparison proper (see Schriewer, 1990 ; Wiseman & Anderson, 2013 ) started dying away. Greater acceptance of and reliance on case-based methodology has been related with research on policy and practice in the context of globalization and coupled with the intention to better account for culture and context, generating scholarship that is critical of power structures, sensitive to alterity and of other ways of knowing.

The phenomena that have been coined as constituting “globalization” and “internationalization” have played, as mentioned, a central role in the critical rethinking of case study research. In researching education under conditions of globalization, scholars placed increasing attention on case-based approaches as opportunities for investigating the contemporary complexity of policy and practice. Further, scholarly debates in the social sciences and the humanities surrounding key concepts such as culture, context, space, and place but also comparison have also contributed to a reconceptualization of case study methodology in CIE. In terms of the requirements for such an investigation, scholarship commands an adequate conceptualization that problematizes the objects of study and that does not take them as “unproblematic”, “assum[ing] a constant shared meaning”; in short, objects of study that are “fixed, abstract and absolute” (Fine, quoted in Dale & Robertson, 2009 , p. 1114). Case study research is thus required to overcome methodological “isms” in their research conceptualization (see Dale & Robertson, 2009 ; Robertson & Dale, 2017 ; see also Lange & Parreira do Amaral, 2018 ). In response to these requirements, the approaches to case study discussed in CIE depart from a conceptualization of the social world as always dynamic, emergent, somewhat in motion, and always contested. This view considers the fact that the social world is culturally produced and is never complete or at a standstill, which goes against an understanding of case as something fixed or natural. Indeed, in the past cases have often been understood almost in naturalistic ways, as if they existed out there, waiting for researchers to “discover” them. Usually, definitions of case study also referred to inquiry that aims at elucidating features of a phenomenon to yield an understanding of why, how and with what consequences something happens. One can easily find examples of cases understood simply as sites to observe/measure variables—in a nomothetic cast—or examples, where cases are viewed as specific and unique instances that can be examined in the idiographic paradigm. In contrast, rather than taking cases as pre-existing entities that are defined and selected as cases, recent case-oriented research has argued for a more emergent approach which recognizes that boundaries between phenomenon and context are often difficult to establish or overlap. For this reason, researchers are incited to see this as an exercise of “casing”, that is, of case construction. In this sense, cases here are seen as complex systems (Ragin & Becker, 1992 ) and attention is devoted to the relationships between the parts and the whole, pointing to the relevance of configurations and constellations within as well as across cases in the explanation of complex and contingent phenomena. This is particularly relevant for multi-case, comparative research since the constitution of the phenomena that will be defined, as cases will differ. Setting boundaries will thus also require researchers to account for spatial, scalar (i.e., level or levels with which a case is related) and temporal aspects.

Further, case-based research is also required to account for multiple contexts while not taking them for granted. One of the key theoretical and methodological consequences of globalization for CIE is that it required us to recognize that it alters the nature and significance of what counts as contexts (see Parreira do Amaral, 2014 ). According to Dale ( 2015 ), designating a process, or a type of event, or a particular organization, as a context, entails bestowing a particular significance on them, as processes, events, and so on that are capable of affecting other processes and events. The key point is that rather than being so intrinsically, or naturally, contexts are constructed as “contexts”. In comparative research, contexts have been typically seen as the place (or the variables) that enable us to explain why what happens in one case is different from what happens another case; what counts as context then is seen as having the same effect everywhere, although the forms it takes vary substantially (see Dale, 2015 ). In more general terms, recent case study approaches aim at accounting for the increasing complexity of the contexts in which they are embedded, which, in turn, is related to the increasing impact of globalization as the “context of contexts” (Dale, 2015 , p. 181f; see also Carter & Sealey, 2013 ; Mjoset, 2013 ). It also aims at accounting for overlapping contexts. Here it is important to note that contexts are not only to be seen in spatio-geographical terms (i.e., local, regional, national, international), but contexts may also be provided by different institutional and/or discursive contexts that create varying opportunity structures (Dale & Parreira do Amaral, 2015 ; see also Chap. 2 in this volume). What one can call temporal contexts also plays an important role, for what happens in the case unfolds as embedded not only in historical time, but may be related to different temporalities (see the concept of “timespace” as discussed by Lingard & Thompson, 2016 ) and thus are influenced by path dependence or by specific moments of crisis (Rhinard, 2019 ; see also McLeod, 2016 ). Moreover, in CIE research, the social-cultural production of the world is influenced by developments throughout the globe that take place at various places and on several scales, which in turn influence each other, but in the end, become locally relevant in different facets. As Bartlett and Vavrus write, “context is not a primordial or autonomous place; it is constituted by social interactions, political processes, and economic developments across scales and times.” ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 14). Indeed, in this sense, “context is not a container for activity, it is the activity” (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 12, emphasis in orig.).

Also, dealing with the complexity of education policy and practice requires us to transcend the dichotomy of idiographic versus nomothetic approaches to causation. Here, it can be argued that case studies allow us to grasp and research the complexity of the world, thus offering conceptual and methodological tools to explore how phenomena viewed as cases “depend on all of the whole, the parts, the interactions among parts and whole, and the interactions of any system with other complex systems among which it is nested and with which it intersects” (Byrne, 2013 , p. 2). The understanding of causation that undergirds recent developments in case-based research aims at generalization, yet it resists ambitions to establishing universal laws in social scientific research. Focus is placed on processes while tracking the relevant factors, actors and features that help explain the “how” and the “why” questions (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 38ff), and on “causal mechanisms”, as varying explanations of outcomes within and across cases, always contingent on interaction with other variables and dependent contexts (see Byrne, 2013 ; Ragin, 2000 ). In short, the nature of causation underlying the recent case study approaches in CIE is configurational and not foundational.

This is also in line with how CIE research regards education practice, research, and policy as a socio-cultural practice. And it refers to the production of social and cultural worlds through “social actors, with diverse motives, intentions, and levels of influence, [who] work in tandem with and/or in response to social forces” (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 1). From this perspective, educational phenomena, such as in policymaking, are seen as a “deeply political process of cultural production engaged in and shaped by social actors in disparate locations who exert incongruent amounts of influence over the design, implementation, and evaluation of policy” ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 1f). Culture here is understood in non-static and complex ways that reinforce the “importance of examining processes of sense-making as they develop over time, in distinct settings, in relation to systems of power and inequality, and in increasingly interconnected conversation with actors who do not sit physically within the circle drawn around the traditional case” (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 11, emphasis in orig.).

In sum, the approaches to case study put forward in CIE provide conceptual and methodological tools that allow for an analysis of education in the global context throughout scale, space, and time, which is always regarded as complexly integrated and never as isolated or independent. The following subsection discusses Comparative Case Studies (CCS) as suggested in recent comparative scholarship, which aims at attending to the methodological requirements discussed above by integrating horizontal, vertical, and transversal dimensions of comparison.

2.1 Comparative Case Studies: Horizontal, Vertical and Transversal Dimensions

Building up on their previous work on vertical case studies (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 ; Vavrus & Bartlett, 2006 , 2009 ), Frances Vavrus and Lesley Bartlett have proposed a comparative approach to case study research that aims at meeting the requirements of culture and context sensitive research as discussed in this special issue.

As a research approach, CCS offers two theoretical-methodological lenses to research education as a socio-cultural practice. These lenses represent different views on the research object and account for the complexity of education practice, policy, and research in globalized contexts. The first lens is “context-sensitive”, which focuses on how social practices and interactions constitute and produce social contexts. As quoted above, from the perspective of a socio-cultural practice, “context is not a container for activity, it is the activity” (Vavrus and Bartlett 2017: 12, emphasis in orig.). The settings that influence and condition educational phenomena are culturally produced in different and sometimes overlapping (spatial, institutional, discursive, temporal) contexts as just mentioned. The second CCS lens is “culture-sensitive” and focuses on how socio-cultural practices produce social structures. As such, culture is a process that is emergent, dynamic, and constitutive of meaning-making as well as social structuration.

The CCS approach aims at studying educational phenomena throughout scale, time, and space by providing three axes for a “studying through” of the phenomena in question. As stated by Lesley Bartlett and Frances Vavrus with reference to comparative analyses of global education policy:

the horizontal axis compares how similar policies unfold in distinct locations that are socially produced […] and ‘complexly connected’ […]. The vertical axis insists on simultaneous attention to and across scales […]. The transversal comparison historically situates the processes or relations under consideration (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 : 3, emphasis in orig.).

These three axes allow for a methodological conceptualization of “policy formation and appropriation across micro-, meso-, and macro levels” by not theorizing them as distinct or unrelated (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 4). In following Latour, they state:

the macro is neither “above” nor “below” the intersections but added to them as another of their connections’ […]. In CCS research, one would pay close attention to how actions at different scales mutually influence one another (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 13f, emphasis in orig.)

Thus, these three axes contain

processes across space and time; and [the CCS as a research design] constantly compares what is happening in one locale with what has happened in other places and historical moments. These forms of comparison are what we call horizontal, vertical, and transversal comparisons (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 11, emphasis in orig.)

In terms of the three axes along with comparison is organized, the authors state that horizontal comparison commands attention to how historical and contemporary processes have variously influenced the “cases”, which might be constructed by focusing “people, groups of people, sites, institutions, social movements, partnerships, etc.” (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 53) Horizontal comparisons eschew pressing categories resultant from one case others, which implies including multiple cases at the same scale in a comparative case study, while at the same time attending to “valuable contextual information” about each of them. Horizontal comparisons use units of analysis that are homologous, that is, equivalent in terms of shape, function, or institutional/organizational nature (for instance, schools, ministries, countries, etc.) ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 53f). Similarly, comparative case studies may also entail tracing a phenomenon across sites, as in multi-sited ethnography (see Coleman & von Hellermann, 2012 ; Marcus, 1995 ).

Vertical comparison, in turn, does not simply imply the comparison of levels; rather it involves analysing networks and their interrelationships at different scales. For instance, in the study of policymaking in a specific case, vertical comparison would consider how actors at different scales variably respond to a policy issued at another level—be it inter−/supranational or at the subnational level. CCS assumes that their different appropriation of policy as discourse and as practice is often due to different histories of racial, ethnic, or gender politics in their communities that appropriately complicate the notion of a single cultural group (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 73f). Establishing what counts as context in such a study would be done “by tracing the formation and appropriation of a policy” at different scales; and “by tracing the processes by which actors and actants come into relationship with one another and form non-permanent assemblages aimed at producing, implementing, resisting, and appropriating policy to achieve particular aims” ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 76). A further element here is that, in this way, one may counter the common problem that comparison of cases (oftentimes countries) usually overemphasizes boundaries and treats them as separated or as self-sustaining containers, when, in reality, actors and institutions at other levels/scales significantly impact policymaking (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 ).

In terms of the transversal axis of comparison, Bartlett and Vavrus argue that the social phenomena of interest in a case study have to be seen in light of their historical development (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 93), since these “historical roots” impacted on them and “continues to reverberate into the present, affecting economic relations and social issues such as migration and educational opportunities.” As such, understanding what goes on in a case requires to “understand how it came to be in the first place.” ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 93) argue:

history offers an extensive fount of evidence regarding how social institutions function and how social relations are similar and different around the world. Historical analysis provides an essential opportunity to contrast how things have changed over time and to consider what has remained the same in one locale or across much broader scales. Such historical comparison reveals important insights about the flexible cultural, social, political, and economic systems humans have developed and sustained over time (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 94).

Further, time and space are intimately related and studying the historical development of the social phenomena of interest in a case study “allows us to assess evidence and conflicting interpretations of a phenomenon,” but also to interrogate our own assumptions about them in contemporary times (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 ), thus analytically sharpening our historical analyses.

As argued by the authors, researching the global dimension of education practice, research or policy aims at a “studying through” of phenomena horizontally, vertically, and transversally. That is, comparative case study builds on an emergent research design and on a strong process orientation that aims at tracing not only “what”, but also “why” and “how” phenomena emerge and evolve. This approach entails “an open-ended, inductive approach to discover what […] meanings and influences are and how they are involved in these events and activities—an inherently processual orientation” (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 7, emphasis in orig.).

The emergent research design and process orientation of the CCS relativizes a priori, somewhat static notions of case construction in CIE and emphasizes the idea of a processual “casing”. The process of casing put forward by CCS has to be understood as a dynamic and open-ended embedding of “cased” research phenomena within moments of scale, space, and time that produce varying sets of conditions or configurations.

In terms of comparison, the primary logic is well in line with more sophisticated approaches to comparison that not simply establish relationships between observable facts or pre-existing cases; rather, the comparative logic aims at establishing “relations between sets of relationships”, as argued by Jürgen Schriewer:

[the] specific method of science dissociates comparison from its quasi-natural union with resemblances; the interest in identifying similarities shifts from the level of factual contents to the level of generalizable relationships. […] One of the primary ways of extending their scope, or examining their explanatory power, is the controlled introduction of varying sets of conditions. The logic of relating relationships, which distinguishes the scientific method of comparison, comes close to meeting these requirements by systematically exploring and analysing sociocultural differences with respect to scrutinizing the credibility of theories, models or constructs (Schriewer, 1990 , p. 36).

The notion of establishing relations between sets of relationships allows to treat cases not as homogeneous (thus avoiding a universalizing notion of comparison); it establishes comparability not along similarity but based on conceptual, functional and/or theoretical equivalences and focuses on reconstructing ‘varying sets of conditions’ that are seen as relevant in social scientific explanation and theorizing, and to which then comparative case studies may contribute.

The following section aims presents the adaptation and application of a comparative case study approach in the YOUNG_ADULLLT research project.

3 Exploring Landscapes of Lifelong Learning through Case Studies

This section illustrates the usage of comparative case studies by drawing from research conducted in a European research project upon which the chapters in this volume are based. The project departed from the observation that most current European lifelong learning (LLL) policies have been designed to create economic growth and, at the same time, guarantee social inclusion and argued that, while these objectives are complementary, they are, however, not linearly nor causally related and, due to distinct orientations, different objectives, and temporal horizons, conflicts and ambiguities may arise. The project was designed as a mixed-method comparative study and aimed at results at the national, regional, and local levels, focusing in particular on policies targeting young adults in situations of near social exclusion. Using a multi-level approach with qualitative and quantitative methods, the project conducted, amongst others, local/regional 18 case studies of lifelong learning policies through a multi-method and multi-level design (see Parreira do Amaral et al., 2020 for more information). The localisation of the cases in their contexts was carried out by identifying relevant areas in terms of spatial differentiation and organisation of social and economic relations. The so defined “functional regions” allowed focus on territorial units which played a central role within their areas, not necessarily overlapping with geographical and/or administrative borders. Footnote 1

Two main objectives guided the research: first, to analyse policies and programmes at the regional and local level by identifying policymaking networks that included all social actors involved in shaping, formulating, and implementing LLL policies for young adults; second, to recognize strengths and weaknesses (overlapping, fragmented or unfocused policies and projects), thus identifying different patterns of LLL policymaking at regional level, and investigating their integration with the labour market, education and other social policies. The European research project focused predominantly on the differences between the existing lifelong learning policies in terms of their objectives and orientations and questioned their impact on young adults’ life courses, especially those young adults who find themselves in vulnerable positions. What concerned the researchers primarily was the interaction between local institutional settings, education, labour markets, policymaking landscapes, and informal initiatives that together nurture the processes of lifelong learning. They argued that it is by inquiring into the interplay of these components that the regional and local contexts of lifelong learning policymaking can be better assessed and understood. In this regard, the multi-layered approach covered a wide range of actors and levels and aimed at securing compatibility throughout the different phases and parts of the research.

The multi-level approach adopted aimed at incorporating the different levels from transnational to regional/local to individual, that is, the different places, spaces, and levels with which policies are related. The multi-method design was used to bring together the results from the quantitative, qualitative and policy/document analysis (for a discussion: Parreira do Amaral, 2020 ).

Studying the complex relationships between lifelong learning (LLL) policymaking on the one hand, and young adults’ life courses on the other, requires a carefully established research approach. This task becomes even more challenging in the light of the diverse European countries and their still more complex local and regional structures and institutions. One possible way of designing a research framework able to deal with these circumstances clearly and coherently is to adopt a multi-level or multi-layered approach. This approach recognises multiple levels and patterns of analysis and enables researchers to structure the workflow according to various perspectives. It was this multi-layered approach that the research consortium of YOUNG_ADULLLT adopted and applied in its attempts to better understand policies supporting young people in their life course.

3.1 Constructing Case Studies

In constructing case studies, the project did not apply an instrumental approach focused on the assessment of “what worked (or not)?” Rather, consistently with Bartlett and Vavrus’s proposal (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 ), the project decided to “understand policy as a deeply political process of cultural production engaged in and shaped by social actors in disparate locations who exert incongruent amounts of influence over the design, implementation, and evaluation of policy” ( Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017 , p. 1f). This was done in order to enhance the interactive and relational dimension among actors and levels, as well as their embeddedness in local infra-structures (education, labour, social/youth policies) according to project’s three theoretical perspectives. The analyses of the information and data integrated by our case study approach aimed at a cross-reading of the relations among the macro socio-economic dimensions, structural arrangements, governance patterns, addressee biographies and mainstream discourses that underlie the process of design and implementation of the LLL policies selected as case study. The subjective dimensions of agency and sense-making animated these analyses, and the multi-level approach contextualized them from the local to the transnational levels. Figure 3.1 below represents the analytical approach to the research material gathered in constructing the case studies. Specifically, it shows the different levels, from the transnational level down to the addressees.

figure 1

Multi-level and multi-method approach to case studies in YOUNG_ADULLLT. Source: Palumbo et al., 2019

The project partners aimed at a cross-dimensional construction of the case studies, and this implied the possibility of different entry points, for instance by moving the analytical perspective top-down or bottom-up, as well as shifting from left to right of the matrix and vice versa. Considering the “horizontal movement”, the multidimensional approach has enabled taking into consideration the mutual influence and relations among the institutional, individual, and structural dimensions (which in the project corresponded to the theoretical frames of CPE, LCR, and GOV). In addition, the “vertical movement” from the transnational to the individual level and vice versa was meant to carefully carry out a “study of flows of influence, ideas, and actions through these levels” (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017 , p. 11), emphasizing the correspondences/divergences among the perspectives of different actors at different levels. The transversal dimension, that is, the historical process, focused on the period after the financial crisis of 2007/2008 as it has impacted differently on the social and economic situations of young people, often resulting in stern conditions and higher competition in education and labour markets, which also called for a reassessment of existing policies targeting young adults in the countries studied.

Concerning the analyses, a further step included the translation of the conceptual model illustrated in Fig. 3.1 above into a heuristic table used to systematically organize the empirical data collected and guide the analyses cases constructed as multi-level and multidimensional phenomena, allowing for the establishment of interlinkages and relationships. By this approach, the analysis had the possibility of grasping the various levels at which LLL policies are negotiated and displaying the interplay of macro-structures, regional environments and institutions/organizations as well as individual expectations. Table 3.1 illustrates the operationalization of the data matrix that guided the work.

In order to ensure the presentability and intelligibility of the results, Footnote 2 a narrative approach to case studies analysis was chosen whose main task was one of “storytelling” aimed at highlighting what made each case unique and what difference it makes for LLL policymaking and to young people’s life courses. A crucial element of this entails establishing relations “between sets of relationships”, as argued above.

LLL policies were selected as starting points from which the cases themselves could be constructed and of which different stories could be developed. That stories can be told differently does not mean that they are arbitrary, rather this refers to different ways of accounting for the embedding of the specific case to its context, namely the “diverging policy frameworks, patterns of policymaking, networks of implementation, political discourses and macro-structural conditions at local level” (see Palumbo et al., 2020 , p. 220). Moreover, developing different narratives aimed at representing the various voices of the actors involved in the process—from policy-design and appropriation through to implementation—and making the different stakeholders’ and addressees’ opinions visible, creating thus intelligible narratives for the cases (see Palumbo et al., 2020 ). Analysing each case started from an entry point selected, from which a story was told. Mainly, two entry points were used: on the one hand, departing from the transversal dimension of the case and which focused on the evolution of a policy in terms of its main objectives, target groups, governance patterns and so on in order to highlight the intended and unintended effects of the “current version” of the policy within its context and according to the opinions of the actors interviewed. On the other hand, biographies were selected as starting points in an attempt to contextualize the life stories within the biographical constellations in which the young people came across the measure, the access procedures, and how their life trajectories continued in and possibly after their participation in the policy (see Palumbo et al., 2020 for examples of these narrative strategies).

4 Concluding Remarks

This chapter presented and discussed the methodological basis and requirements of conducting case studies in comparative research, such as those presented in the subsequent chapters of this volume. The Comparative Case Study approach suggested in the previous discussion offers productive and innovative ways to account sensitively to culture and contexts; it provides a useful heuristic that deals effectively with issues related to case construction, namely an emergent and dynamic approach to casing, instead of simply assuming “bounded”, pre-defined cases as the object of research; they also offer a helpful procedural, configurational approach to “causality”; and, not least, a resourceful approach to comparison that allows researchers to respect the uniqueness and integrity of each case while at the same time yielding insights and results that transcend the idiosyncrasy of the single case. In sum, CCS offers a sound approach to CIE research that is culture and context sensitive.

For a discussion of the concept of functional region, see Parreira do Amaral et al., 2020 .

This analytical move is in line with recent developments that aim at accounting for a cultural turn (Jameson, 1998 ) or ideational turn (Béland & Cox, 2011 ) in policy analysis methodology, called interpretive policy analysis (see Münch, 2016 ).

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do Amaral, M.P. (2022). Comparative Case Studies: Methodological Discussion. In: Benasso, S., Bouillet, D., Neves, T., Parreira do Amaral, M. (eds) Landscapes of Lifelong Learning Policies across Europe. Palgrave Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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Comparative Case Studies

Educação & Realidade , vol. 42 , no. 3 , pp. 899-920 , 2017

Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul - Faculdade de Educação

Received: 05 October 2016

Accepted: 08 December 2016


Abstract: What is a case study and what is it good for? In this article, we review dominant approaches to case study research and point out their limitations. Next, we propose a new approach - the comparative case study approach - that attends simultaneously to global, national, and local dimensions of case-based research. We contend that new approaches are necessitated by conceptual shifts in the social sciences, specifically in relation to culture, context, space, place, and comparison itself.

Keywords: Case Study, Research Methods, Comparison, Context.


Case study methodology is widely used across multiple disciplines and fields. But what is a case, and what is a case study? In his introduction to the fascinating edited volume called What Is a Case?, Charles Ragin (1992 , p. 1) argued that scholars use the word case “[…] with relatively little consideration of the theories and metatheories embedded in these terms or in the methods that use cases”. Case is often defined as place. Researchers may use ‘case’ to mean one setting, place, or institution, or they may use ‘case’ for both the institution (or place or setting) and each person in it. We may also use case interchangeably with ‘units of analysis’, but this can be problematic because it does not sufficiently separate the categories we use to organize our data and the categories we construct based on our theoretical framework. In his essay, Ragin posed a series of provocative questions: What is the relationship between a case and a variable? Are there times when these mean the same thing? What is the difference between case-driven studies and variable-driven case studies? Is a case study constituted by empirical units (e.g., a state, or a hospital) or theoretical constructs? Finally, are cases discovered or developed over the course of conducting research, or are they “general and relatively external to conduct of research” (p. 8)? The answer to each of these questions has implications for how a researcher thinks about and uses case studies.

In this article, we offer an alterative conceptualization of case studies and the value of comparative case study research. We begin in the first section by discussing traditional conceptualizations of case studies. We pinpoint the limitations of traditional models of case studies, focusing on the frequently narrow notions of culture, context, and comparison. We then explain why we favor process-oriented approaches and how they are more appropriate for a comparative case study (CCS). We provide details about the key ideas that undergird our comparative case study approach, which include: focusing on the processes through which events unfold; reconceptualizing culture and context; a critical approach to power relations; and a revised understanding of the value of comparison (for a fuller treatment of these themes, see Bartlett and Vavrus, 2016).

Traditional Case Study Approaches

While a wide range of authors discuss case study methods, in this article we focus specifically on three who have been very influential in the United States. They include Robert Yin, a social scientist with a background in quantitative and experimental methods. Yin’s book, Case Study Research (in its fifth edition at the time of our writing), has shaped research methods for decades. Yin (2014, p. 16) offered the following definition of a case study:

A case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon (the case) in-depth and within its real-world context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context may not be clearly evident. In other words, you would want to do case study research because you want to understand a real world case and assume that such an understanding is likely to involve important contextual conditions pertinent to your case.

Yin emphasized the difficulty of distinguishing context and case, the importance of context, and a focus on contemporary events.

We also engage the work of Robert Stake, whose 1995 methods book was aptly titled The Art of Case Study Research. Stake emphasized a focus on meaning, stating that “[…] the ethnographic ethos of interpretive study, seeking out emic meanings held by the people within the case, is strong” (1995, p. 240). For Stake (1995, p. 2), researchers should view a case as “a bounded system” and inquire into it “as an object rather than a process”. A case should be considered as “an integrated system” which “has a boundary and working parts” (p. 2). Cases, he said, are “holistic”, “empirical”, and “interpretive”. Cases might be prized for their “intrinsic” value to better understand a specific case, or they may be “instrumental” if they serve to provide theoretical insights or reconsider generalizations (2003, p. 136-138). Stake celebrated the particular and the unique, and, in comparison to Yin and his quite structured case study approach, Stake promoted a flexible design that shifts in the course of research. In these ways, Stake’s representation of case study methods is heavily interpretivist in orientation.

Finally, we consider the work of Sharan Merriam, whose 1998 publication, Qualitative research and case study applications in education, is widely cited in the education literature. Merriam (1998, p. xiii) described qualitative case study as “an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon such as a program, an institution, a person, a process, or a social unit”. She asserted that “[…] if the phenomenon you are interested in studying is not intrinsically bounded, then it is not a case” (p. 27). For Merriam, cases are particularistic and descriptive; they focus on particular situations, events, or phenomena, and they yield a ‘thick’ description. While we would agree with some of what Stake, Yin, and Merriam promote, their approaches suffer from serious limitations, which we outline in the next section.

Limitations of Traditional Approaches

First, Yin, Stake, and Merriam conflate phenonemon and context, creating difficulties for understanding the ‘case.’ For Yin (2014, p. 17), case study was distinguished from experiments, which “separate a phenomenon from its context”, and surveys, whose “ability to investigate the context is extremely limited”. In this and other quotes, Yin seemed to define case as place and conflate case and context, stating that “the boundaries between phenomenon and context may not be clearly evident” (2014, p. 16). Stake, too, defined qualitative case studies as those that are holistic (considering the interrelationship of phenomenon and context), empirical, interpretive, and empathic (focused on meaning). Merriam similarly described a qualitative case study as “an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon…” (p. xiii). She later stated, “One of the assumptions underlying qualitative research is that reality is holistic, multidimensional, and ever-changing; it is not a single, fixed, objective phenomenon waiting to be discovered, observed, and measured as in quantitative research” (1998, p. 202). While we share these positive valuations of naturalistic inquiry in context, we are concerned that they promote a notion of “context as container”, defining context as place. In other words, they frame the immediate temporal and place-based elements of the study are the only ones seen as relevant. As Ragin (1992 ) suggested, it demonstrates a fuzzy conflation of the place and the phenomenon, obfuscating the “theories and metatheories embedded in these terms” (p. 1).

This conflation of place and phenomenon relies on a misguided sense of holism. Holism is a concept linked to a traditional notion of culture and a functionalist theoretical stance. Classical ethnographies aimed to portray a whole way of life, which “implied a coherence of discrete cultures, a timeless ‘ethnographic present’” (O’Reilly, 2009, p. 100). In its contemporary form, holism denotes a respect for context (and contextual validity). However, the claim to value holism is an effort to distinguish, but ultimately conflates, case and context (often defined as place), and it is premised upon a bounded view of culture. It also defines out of the realm of study far-flung factors and processes that may be immensely relevant for understanding how a sense of boundedness is socially and historically produced. The notion of holism used in interpretive case studies is limited to thick description, to a dedication to “the particular”, and to a reduced notion of context that does not attend to how processes, politics, and ideoscapes - the ideologies and other political images that circulate globally ( Appadurai, 1996 ) - in other places or at other levels (or what we below call scales) impinge upon the case. Holism is surprisingly limited and rather blind to historical, social, and economic trends. Instead of this a priori bounding of the case to the ‘particular,’ we propose an iterative and contingent tracing of relevant factors, actors, and features.

Second, traditional case study authors insist on “bounding the case”. For Yin (2011 , p. 33-34), “bounding the case” is an essential step in the study. He wrote:

Once the general definition of the case has been established, other clarifications - sometimes called bounding the case - become important. If the unit of analysis is a small group, for instance, the persons to be included within the group must be distinguished from those who were outside of it… Similarly if the case is about the local services and a specific geographic area, you need to decide which services to cover…. [Clarify the boundaries of your case] with regard to the time covered by the case study; the relevant social group, organization, or geographic area; the type of evidence to be collected; and the priorities for data collection and analysis.

To be fair, Yin did acknowledge that the research design might change over time (2011 , p. 31-32); however, his emphasis on bounding is marked. Yin is not alone in his concern with “bounding” the case. Case study methodologist Creswell (2013 ) also suggested bounding by time and activity, and Miles and Huberman (1994 ) recommended bounding by definition and context. Each insists that bounding the case maintains a reasonable and feasible scope for the study. Stake (2003 ) adopted a functionalist notion of cases that relies on the sense of a case as a closed, bounded “system”. He wrote that the case is a “bounded system” with:

[…] working parts; it is purposive; it often has a self. It is an integrated system….Its behavior is patterned. Coherence and sequence are prominent. It is common to recognize that certain features are within the system, within the boundaries of the case, and other features outside… are significant as context ( Stake, 2003 , p. 135; Stake, 1994, p. 237).

We argue that this imposed sense of a case as a “system” risks incorporating a functionalist vision of the case. Finally, like Yin and Stake, Merriam (1998 , p. 27) was concerned with bounding the case. She wrote:

The single most defining characteristic of case study research lies in delimiting the object of study, the case. Smith’s (1978) notion of the case as a bounded system comes closest to my understanding of what defines this type of research [….] [T]he case is a thing, a single entity, a unit around which there are boundaries […] If the phenomenon you are interested in studying is not intrinsically bounded, it is not a case.

Merriam’s view appears to be shaped by Miles and Huberman’s (1994 ) understanding of “the case as a phenomenon of some sort occurring in a bounded context” (cited in Merriam, 1998, p. 27). This focus on bounding is distinct from our spatially - and relationally - informed understanding of context and our processual notion of culture.

We find this notion of bounding the case from the outset to be problematic. It aligns more with a neo-positivist design, which predefines variables and hypothesizes relationships, than it does with the iterative, processual designs more common in qualitative work. We contend that boundaries are not found; they are made by social actors, including by researchers, whose demarcations can often seem quite arbitrary and can have the effect of sealing off the case hermetically from other places, times, and influences. As we will explain further below, a priori efforts to “bound the case” rely on limited notions of context and comparison.

Third, traditional approaches to case study research understate the value of case studies in social science research. For example, Yin (2009 ) declared three types of case studies: exploratory (collecting data and looking for patterns), descriptive (considering possible theories to frame the study and questions), and explanatory (explaining the how or why of the topic or population studied). Of these, we feel only an explanatory case rises to the level of significance expected of most social science research. Cases that are merely descriptive or exploratory are rarely given much credence. For Stake (2003 , p. 136-138), “intrinsic” cases offer us a chance to better understand a specific case, while “instrumental” cases generate theoretical insights or prompt us to reconsider generalizations. Similarly, Merriam defined three types of cases (particularistic, descriptive, and heuristic, meant to increase understanding of the case and discovery of new meaning) and three purposes for them (descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative) (1998, p. 30). These descriptions largely remain limited to the particularistic and descriptive, declaring a reduced aspiration for greater theoretical import. The traditional view that case study research is often exploratory or descriptive denigrates it as an approach to meaningful scholarship.

Fourth, traditional approaches do not robustly defend the generalizability of case study findings. Yin promoted a distinct notion of generalizability for single case studies. He averred that “case studies, like experiments, are generalizable to theoretical propositions and not to populations or universes” (Yin, 2011, p. 21). Generalization, he said, can be a lesson learned or hypothesis applicable to other situations (2011). Yin warned against efforts to use single case studies for statistical generalization, as is common in quantitative studies (2011). We agree with his views of generalizing through theory; however, we worry that his conflation of phenomenon, context, and case limits the aspiration to generate theory or insights that will generalize to other cases. In contrast, Stake affirmed “understanding of the case rather than generalization beyond” (1994 , p. 236), and he suggested that “the end result regularly presents something unique” (1994, p. 238). While we eschew a neo-positivist notion of generalizability through statistics, we would certainly not wish to forsake a more appropriate understanding of how qualitative work generalizes through the generation of theoretical insights that transfer to other cases. Indeed, some argue that the question of generalizability is one of the main misunderstandings of case studies: Flyvbjerg (2011) asserted that “the case study is ideal for generalizing using the type of test that Karl Popper called ‘falsification’”, wherein “if just one observation does not fit with the proposition, it is considered not valid generally and must therefore be either revised or rejected” (2011, p. 305). We assert that, beyond falsification, cases generate rich theoretical insights that transfer to other times and places.

Fifth, we diverge from traditional approaches to case studies over the value of comparison. When addressing comparison, Yin urged replication to achieve external validity. Indeed, Yin considered replication to be the primary value of designs that include multiple case studies. He encouraged readers to “consider multiple cases as one would consider multiple experiments - that is, to follow a ‘replication’ design” by selecting cases that are expected to either produce similar results or produce different results for a predictable reason (2014, p. 57). Yin praised a tight, structured design for case studies and, in so doing, promoted concepts and approaches that are more appropriate for variance-oriented studies than the processual approach we advocate.

In his early work, Stake was circumspect about the value of comparison. Because he valued the particular elements of each case, Stake warned that “direct comparison diminishes the opportunity to learn from” the case (1994, p. 240). He continued: “I see comparison as an epistemological function competing with learning about and from the particular case. Comparison is a powerful conceptual mechanism, fixing attention upon the few attributes being compared and obscuring other knowledge about the case” (1994, p. 242). Stake felt that comparison prompted the decomposition of cases into variables. He contrasted comparison to thick description, and he stated that comparison downplays “uniqueness and complexities” (2003, p. 148-149).

In a later publication, Stake took a more sanguine view of comparison, acknowledging the value of the multiple case study. He described the multiple case study as “a special effort to examine something having lots of cases, parts, or members…. We seek to understand better how this whole… [or] ‘quintain,’ operates in different situations. The unique life of the case is interesting for what it can reveal about the quintain” (2006, p. vi). The quintain, then, is what is being sought across cases. Unfortunately, the concept as presented by Stake remains rather confusing. At some moments, Stake referred to the quintain as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It appears to be an ideal type that is reached inductively through review of cases. Yet, in his 2006 book, the quintain also appears to be something like the least common denominator, or the themes that are adequately present across the cases. Thus, for Stake, the comparison of multiple case studies illuminates some larger phenomenon as well as how context shapes social life.

Our comparative case study heuristic would agree with Stake about the value of multiple cases. While the notion of ‘quintain’ is a bit obscure, we would happily substitute ‘phenomenon,’ or possibly stretch the idea to include ‘policy.’ However, as described further in the next section, we encourage comparison across three axes: a horizontal look that not only contrasts one case with another, but also traces social actors, documents, or other influences across these cases; a vertical comparison of influences at different levels, from the international to the national to regional and local scales; and a transversal comparison over time.

Traditional approaches to case study research have had a far-ranging impact on research in numerous fields, including the fields of education and policy studies in which we primarily work. However, we have noted some of their shortcomings. In sum, we question the conflation of phenomenon and context, and we critique their limited notion of context. In addition, we question the need to “bound” the case, a priori, in any definitive sense; instead, we promote careful, evolving, iterative attention to the contours of the research design and how boundaries perceived by participants come to be meaningful. We insist on generalizability through the generation of theoretical insights. Finally, we argue that there is much more potential for comparative case studies beyond the logic of replication proposed by Yin or the vague discussion of ‘quintain’ offered by Stake.

Process-Oriented Approaches and the Comparative Case Study Approach

As we have already hinted, the comparative case study approach diverges from established approaches in several important ways. To begin, it adopts what Maxwell called a process orientation. Process approaches “tend to see the world in terms of people, situations, events, and the processes that connect these; explanation is based on an analysis of how some situations and events influence others” (2013, p. 29). They “tend to ask how x plays a role in causing y, what the process is that connects x and y” (2013, p. 31).

Thus, the process-oriented comparison inherent to our notion of comparative case studies insists on an emergent design, one hallmark of qualitative research. As Becker (2009 , p. 548) wrote, qualitative researchers:

[…] don’t fully specify methods, theory, or data when they begin their research. They start out with ideas, orienting perspectives, or even specific hypotheses, but once they begin, they investigate new leads; apply useful theoretical ideas to the (sometimes unexpected) evidence they gather; and, in other ways, conduct a systematic and rigorous scientific investigation. Each interview and each day’s observations produce ideas tested against relevant data. Not fully pre-specifying these ideas and procedures, as well as being ready to change them when their findings require it, are not flaws, but rather two of the great strengths of qualitative research [….].

Because qualitative studies are emergent, researchers have to make explicit what Heath and Street (2008 , p. 56) called “decision rules”, or decisions about how to focus or expand the study. These should be noted in one’s fieldnotes, and could be reproduced as a sort of “audit trail” (e.g., Lincoln; Guba 1985 ). The need for an emergent design is in conflict with the constant admonition in the traditional case study literature to “bound” the case. With this more process-oriented understanding in mind, we should be aware that some studies may be more pre-structured than others; the degree of flexibility will depend on the study’s aims, the researcher’s motivations, skills, and interests, and the available time and resources, among other things.

The CCS approach does not start with a bounded case. The effort to “bound” a case relies on a problematic notion of culture, place, and community; it also, quite inappropriately, defines out of the realm of study factors that may well be very relevant, such as historical circumstances that date back decades or more. Comparative case studies resist the holism of many traditional case studies, which stubbornly refuse to distinguish phenomenon from context, often defined implicitly as place. It is essential to divorce the phenomenon of interest from the context in order to gain analytical purchase. As Geertz (1973 , p. 22) famously explained, “The locus of the study is not the object of study”. At the same time, even while including multiple sites and cases, comparative case studies seek not to flatten the cases by ignoring valuable contextual information or imposing concepts or categories taken from one site onto another (Van der Veer, 2016). They seek to disrupt dichotomies, static categories, and taken-for-granted notions of what is going on ( Heath; Street, 2008 ).

Instead of this a priori bounding of the case, the CCS approach features an iterative and contingent tracing of relevant factors, actors, and features (see Bartlett; Vavrus 2016). The approach is aimed at exploring the historical and contemporary processes that have produced a sense of shared place, purpose, or identity. For example, a study might compare how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are operating in a particular region of a country and also contrast their interpretations of a policy to those of the NGO directors in the capital or to the NGOs’ donors in another country. This is a quite different conceptualization of replication design as promoted by Yin and the need for tightly-bounded units of analysis that it implies. However, writing about how processes unfold in unpredictable ways across space and time often proves to be more challenging than resorting back to descriptions of multiple cases juxtaposed with one another.

Another feature of the CCS approach is that it aims to understand and incorporate, at least partially, the perspectives of social actors in the study. This is common to most qualitative research, especially ethnography and ethnographically-oriented studies. As Willis and Trondman stated, ethnography (and, we would add, other qualitative methods) are “a family of methods involving direct and sustained social contact with agents and of richly writing up the encounter, respecting, recording, representing at least partly in its own terms the irreducibility of human experience” (Willis; Trondman, 2000, p. 394, emphasis ours).

The CCS approach is also informed by a critical theoretical stance. By critical, we mean that the approach is guided by critical theory and its concerns and assumptions regarding power and inequality. Drawing upon Marxist, feminist, and critical race theory, among others, critical theory aims to critique inequality and change in society; it studies the cultural production of structures, processes, and practices of power, exploitation, and agency; and it reveals how common-sense, hegemonic notions about the social world maintain disparities of various sorts 1 .

Attention to power and inequality is central to the CCS approach.

In addition to these features of the CCS approach, we have developed it as a way to ‘unbound’ culture while still seeking to conduct rich descriptions of the phenomenon of interest to the researcher. Traditional approaches to case study work tend to rely on a homeostatic notion of culture as bounded and unchanging, like a set of rules. But major sociological work propelled the notion of culture from “a set of rules” to something more akin to principles or understandings that people used to “make sense” ( Garfinkel, 1984 ; 2002) or develop a “feel for the game” ( Bourdieu, 1990 ). Furthermore, scholars averred that what is important is not cultural difference per se, but when and how cultural difference is made consequential - e.g., when difference is cast as deficit or disability (e.g., McDermott; Varenne, 1995). Further, culture must be considered in relation to economic, political, and social phenomena; as anthropologist Sherry Ortner (1999 , p. 9) averred, “the point is not that there is no longer anything we would call ‘culture,’ but that interpretive analysis of social groups should be situated within and, as it were, beneath larger analyses of social and political events and processes”. Contemporary notions of culture focus on “practice or performance and hence emphasize the process of making meaning over the meanings themselves” (Anderson-Levitt, 2012, p. 443). Today, anthropologically-informed scholarship generally treats culture as an ever-changing, active, productive process of sense-making in concert with others ( Erickson, 2011 ). Contests over meaning and practice are influenced by power relations, including direct imposition and, more commonly, the cultural production of “common sense” notions of social order.

There are important implications of this shift in conceptualizations of culture for case study research. While case studies frequently include a focus on meaning, this has sometimes been conceptualized as ‘discovering’ the meaning of a particular term or idea among members of ‘a’ culture or sub-culture, such as the meaning of style, respect, or success for working-class youth in Detroit or hedge fund managers in New York City. In contrast to this sense of (static) culture within a (bounded) group, the understanding of culture that undergirds the CCS approach provides strong justification for the importance of examining processes of sense-making as they develop over time, in distinct settings, in relation to systems of power and inequality, and in increasingly interconnected conversation with actors who do not sit physically within the circle drawn around the traditional case. The CCS heuristic warns against static and essentializing notions of culture, recommends attention to cultural repertoires and contestation, and emphasizes the need to consider power relations within a single institution or community and across communities, states, and nations. It also suggests that researchers pay particular attention to language, discourse, texts, and institutions as important social and policy actors. Finally, it insists on attention to social interactions, which may or may not transpire in person. This insight begs a consideration of context, another key term we consider central to CCS research.

The comparative case study heuristic draws upon a radical rethinking of context, another concept that is much-cited and yet ill-defined in case study research. In common parlance, context is often used to indicate the physical setting of people’s actions. The importance exerted by context is one of the primary reasons for selecting a case study approach to research. To represent this aspect, some scholars refer to contextual or ecological validity. These terms originated in psychological studies to indicate “[…] the extent to which the environment experienced by the subjects in a scientific investigation has the properties it is supposed or assumed to have by the experimenter” ( Bronfenbrenner, 1977 , p. 516). Since that time, among sociocultural scholars, the term has come to suggest the importance of maintaining the integrity of real-world situations rather than studying a phenomenon in laboratory contexts. The concept offers an implicit critique of the effort to generalize by stripping away the particular. As Geertz wrote, “No one lives in the world in general. Everyone, even the exiled, the drifting, the diasporic, or the perpetually moving, lives in some confined and limited stretch of it - ‘the world around here’” (Geertz, 1996, p. 262).

This point, we fully agree, is quite important. However, scholars continue to rely on a rather static, confined, and deterministic sense of context. No ‘place’ is unaffected by history and politics; any specific location is influenced by economic, political, and social processes well beyond its physical and temporal boundaries. As scholars Leander and Sheehy have argued, “context… has been overdetermined in its meaning by a seemingly natural interpretation of material setting or place” (2004, p. 3).

We contend that settings are constituted by social activities and social interactions ( Duranti; Goodwin, 1992 ; Dyson; Genishi, 2005 ). Indeed, for those who draw upon activity theory, activity itself is the context - made up of actors, their objectives, their actions, and the artifacts they engage, each with their relevant histories (see, e.g., Cole, 1996 ; Engestrom, 1987 ; Engestrom et al., 1999). In this view, context is not a container for activity; it is the activity. Engaging a notion of culture as strategic and symbolic “sense making”, we can see activities as purposeful efforts to respond to uncertainty in how to move forward. This way of thinking about context is also enhanced by Bourdieu’s concept of “field”, a symbolic arena in which agents are relatively positioned based on the (arbitrary, socially constructed, and open to negotiation) rules of the field, the agent’s symbolic capital, and the agent’s habitus (Bourdieu; Wacquant, 1992). We also embrace the idea of “fuzzy fields”, which Nadai and Maeder (2005 ) described as “social worlds [...] formed by sets of common or joint activities or concerns bound together by a network of communications”, wherein “sets of actors [are] focused on a common concern and [act] on the basis of a minimal working consensus” (2005). They continued, stating that “[…] identifying adequate sites, which add up to an ethnographic field, requires a theoretical clarification of the object of study first. Such a theoretical framework can then serve as a compass for the search of a field” (2005). That object of study is what we call the phenomenon of interest. In short, context is made; it is relational and spatial (see also Gupta; Ferguson, 1997 ).

Our notion of context also attends to power relations and the critical theories of place and space put forward by critical geographers and anthropologists. Doreen Massey (1991 ; 1994 ; 2005 ) argued explicitly against the romantic idea that a place has a single, essential identity based on a limited history of territory. In this view, place becomes a static, dead object. She critiqued this desire for fixity and boundedness:

Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether that be a street, or a region or even a continent. And this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local ( Massey, 1991 , p. 28).

So-called local contexts, she argues, are quite heterogeneous and produced from the intersection of social, economic, and cultural relations linked to various scales.

Further, rethinking the production of and interconnections across sites reveals the sociocultural production of inequality. As Gupta and Ferguson (1992, p. 8) wrote, “The presumption that spaces are autonomous has enabled the power of topography to conceal successfully the topography of power”. They asserted the importance of examining historically the processes by which local sites with different patterns of social relations came into being, rather than treating them as primordial places:

[…] taking a preexisting, localized ‘community’ as a given starting point… fails to examine sufficiently the processes (such as the structures of feeling that pervade the imagining of community) that go into the construction of space as place or locality in the first instance. In other words, instead of assuming the autonomy of the primeval community, we need to examine how it was formed as a community out of the interconnected space that always already existed (1997, p. 36; emphasis in original; see also Appadurai, 1999 ).

Gupta and Ferguson interrogated the all-too-common, apolitical and ahistorical term “community”, and they insisted on a historical and processual approach (see also Vavrus, 2015 ). Not only are sites not autonomous - they are influenced by actions well beyond the local context and the current moment, and thus the idea of “bounding” them, which others argue is the hallmark of case study research, is an illusion. The ‘unbounding’ we call for in comparative case study research requires attention to the processes mentioned above. It also requires attention to scale. Scale is often used to distinguish local, regional, national, and global levels, though critical geographers have argued forcefully against the tendency to conceptualize these as distinct and unrelated. As Bruno Latour (2005 , p. 177) stated, “the macro is neither ‘above’ nor ‘below’ the interactions, but added to them as another of their connections”. In CCS research, one would pay close attention to how actions at different scales mutually influence one another. Middleton (2014 ) made this point succinctly: “To make social relations their objects of inquiry, researchers must adopt a multi-scalar focus and engage in multilevelled analysis. They must identify relations of proximity and distance, tracing relational links between near and far” (p. 18). These relations are critical to understanding how topographies of power are formed through the concatenation of multi-scalar political-economic forces that act upon the social imaginary to produce towns, neighborhoods, and villages out of previously non-demarcated space, and to bestow privileges upon some of them but not others.

This reconceptualization of context using spatial theory has important implications for case study work. It encourages us to attend very carefully to the social relations and networks that constitute the most relevant context in one’s research and how these relations and networks have formed and shifted over time. Context is not a primordial or autonomous place; it is constituted by social interactions, political processes, and economic developments across scales and across time. Rethinking context steers us away from “bounding” a study a priori and, instead, makes the project one of identifying the historical and contemporary networks of actors, institutions, and policies that produce some sense of a bounded place for specific purposes. This inversion of the case study research process has important implications for comparison.

Finally, we argue that traditional case study approaches miss a major opportunity by not integrating comparison more centrally into their work. Our processual approach to comparison considers strings of relevant events and actors; it eschews staid notions of culture or context to consider those processes across space and time; and it constantly compares what is happening in one locale with what has happened in other places and historical moments. These forms of comparison are what we call horizontal, vertical, and transversal comparisons. What we aim for with our comparative case study approach is akin to what anthropologist Ulf Hannerz dubbed “studying through” (2006 , p. 24). The horizontal axis compares how similar policies or phenomena unfold in distinct locations that are socially produced ( Massey, 2005 ) and “complexly connected” ( Tsing, 2005 , p. 6). The vertical axis insists on simultaneous attention to and across scales (see also Bray; Thomas, 1995; Nespor, 2004 , 1997). The transversal comparison historically situates the processes or relations under consideration.

An Example of a Comparative Case Study

An extended example of the axes of the comparative case study approach may be helpful at this juncture (for more examples, see Vavrus; Bartlett 2009 , Bartlett; Vavrus 2016). Figure 1 represents a study we conducted with American and Tanzanian colleagues regarding the impact on Tanzanian teachers’ practice of the global push toward learner-centered pedagogy (LCP), an approach to teaching in which students are actively engaged in meaningful and constructive learning in the classroom as opposed to listening to lectures and memorizing factual information (Vavrus; Bartlett, 2013). During the past few decades, LCP has been heavily promoted by international education and development organizations for various reasons, including its assumed benefits for cognitive growth, self-efficacy and empowerment, and democratization and the development of civil society ( Schweisfurth, 2013 ). Since the mid 2000s, it has also been partially adopted by the Tanzanian government in its education policies and curricula.

Comparative Case Study Approach to Learner Centered Pedagogy in Tanzania

Illustrating the transversal axis, our study examined the ways in which LCP, a specific approach to teaching and learning popularized in the temporal and cultural context of the United States and the U.K. in the 1970s ( Cuban, 1993 ; Ravitch, 1983 ), has been taken up, simplified, and spread globally. In that process, learner-centered pedagogy diffused very particular understandings of teaching and learning that rely upon culturally-specific notions of individualism, competition, cooperation, and authority and presume certain material conditions in schools and classrooms (see also Vavrus; Bartlett, 2012 ). Emphasizing change over time, we examined how the government of Tanzania has incorporated this perspective on teaching and learning into its education policies over the past 50 years. We used discourse analysis to trace the gradual incorporation of global ways of framing learning in national educational policies, beginning in the Education for All era of the 1990s.

A careful vertical analysis across scales is also important to the type of case study approach we propose. We emphasize the importance of examining policy formation and appropriation across micro-, meso-, and macro-levels. In Teaching in Tension, we documented consequential tensions that influenced the appropriation of learner-centered pedagogy. External donor funding supported Tanzanian curricular projects, which incorporated heavy doses of LCP (Bartlett; Vavrus, 2014). Around this time, donors, and especially the World Bank, also emphasized the importance of rigorous, standardized testing to measure educational quality and hold teachers accountable, leading to a significant contradiction when assessment specialists within the National Examination Council of Tanzania continued to devise high-stakes exams that captured rote memorization more than critical thinking. Because the tests had serious consequences for student advancement to secondary school and college, for teachers who may receive “motivation” money if their students perform well, and for schools (especially private schools) whose existence may depend on the high scores that attract new families and their tuition fees, the tests paradoxically encouraged methods that emphasize the memorization of factual information rather than learner-centered pedagogical approaches. This tendency was compounded by the breadth of the exams, which cover four years of information for seven or more subjects, making the acquisition of both core knowledge and higher-order thinking skills a great challenge. Thus, the curricular and assessment arms of the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training were in conflict, and actors located in international and national organizations had a great influence over the policies and curricular materials available to educators.

The larger study also made use of horizontal comparisons across six high schools in two adjacent regions in Tanzania to demonstrate the significant impact of transnational institutions and social movements on the material conditions of local schools and on the organizational dynamics within them. For instance, teachers at the school funded by an American non-profit organization enjoyed extensive professional development in learner-centered pedagogy, a life skills program for students, a sizable library with materials for developing inquiry-based projects, and relative material wealth as reflected in the availability of books, handouts, paper, photocopiers, and Internet access. These factors influenced the shape and tenor of the appropriation of LCP at that school, as observed by the research team and reported by its teachers. In contrast, the Catholic and Anglican schools, affiliated with powerful and quite hierarchical transnational institutions, presented a markedly different context within which to develop the more egalitarian relations between teachers and students that are implicit in LCP. For example, one teacher at a Catholic school complained that there were constraints on teachers organizing debates among students on topics of concern and interest to students, such as prostitution or HIV/AIDS. In religiously-affiliated schools, teachers’ appropriations of the educational policies promoted by international institutions and embedded in national curricula were heavily influenced by religious notions of propriety, including gender norms.

More broadly, the horizontal comparison across these six high schools demonstrated how different material and ideological contexts affected the appropriation of learner-centered pedagogy within one country. According to the Tanzanian teachers who participated in the study, LCP is simply more difficult to implement in schools with overcrowded classrooms, few books to share among many students, limited poster board for making teaching aids, and even notebook paper to enhance group or pair work. ( Vavrus; Bartlett, 2013 ).

Finally, a horizontal comparison reminds us that policy is also made locally, and that teachers are key actors in educational policy appropriation: they interpret, negotiate, and revise policies on assessment, curriculum content, pedagogical methods, and language of instruction in the classroom (see, e.g., Menken; García, 2010 ). Our study, for instance, compared how teachers at six secondary schools struggled to implement a competency-based curriculum when the high-stakes, national exams continued to emphasize the recall of facts. Further, the project documented how teachers creatively enacted language policy, influenced by their own biographies as language learners as well as the social and material conditions in their schools and surrounding communities. Officially, at the time, secondary school teachers were required to teach and assess in English; however, this policy interfered with the implementation of learner-centered pedagogy because the latter demands greater English oral fluency in the language than many students (and quite a few teachers) possess (see Webb; Mkongo, 2013 ). Teachers commented frequently on the contradictory pressures created for them by the language, curricular, and assessment policies.

It should be clear from this example that the three axes of a comparative case study are mutually imbricated. For example, in comparing horizontally across schools and the teachers in them, we considered individual teachers’ biographies; in comparing vertically, we looked at how the relationship between international donors and the Tanzanian state differentially affected local schools; and, running through the entire project was the transversal axis of learner-centered pedagogy and how its growing prominence in Tanzanian education policy over time has shaped teachers’ biographies and has been shaped by donor-state relationships. Though we extricate the axes for purposes of explaining and illustrating them, it is essential to note the extent to which they can and do overlap (for more on each axis and how they complement one another, see Bartlett; Vavrus 2016).

In this article, we examined and critiqued traditional models of case study research. We problematized the notion of boundedness, in particular, and we also reconsidered notions of context and culture as they are used in the traditional case study literature. We argued that context should not be defined as place or location, but it should rather be conceptualized as something spatial and relational. We also explained why we eschew a static, bounded notion of culture in favor of a view of culture as an on-going, contested production. These notions are consequential for how we conceptualize case studies and comparison.

The Comparative Case Study Approach promotes a model of multi-sited fieldwork that studies through and across sites and scales. It encourages simultaneous and overlapping attention to three axes of comparsion: horizontal, which compares how similar policies or phenomena unfold in locations that are connected and socially produced; vertical, which traces phenomena across scales; and horizontal, which traces phenomena and cases across time. This revisioning has the potential to strengthen and enhance case study research in our field.

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Comparative Case Study

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A comparative case study (CCS) is defined as ‘the systematic comparison of two or more data points (“cases”) obtained through use of the case study method’ (Kaarbo and Beasley 1999, p. 372). A case may be a participant, an intervention site, a programme or a policy. Case studies have a long history in the social sciences, yet for a long time, they were treated with scepticism (Harrison et al. 2017). The advent of grounded theory in the 1960s led to a revival in the use of case-based approaches. From the early 1980s, the increase in case study research in the field of political sciences led to the integration of formal, statistical and narrative methods, as well as the use of empirical case selection and causal inference (George and Bennett 2005), which contributed to its methodological advancement. Now, as Harrison and colleagues (2017) note, CCS:

“Has grown in sophistication and is viewed as a valid form of inquiry to explore a broad scope of complex issues, particularly when human behavior and social interactions are central to understanding topics of interest.”

It is claimed that CCS can be applied to detect causal attribution and contribution when the use of a comparison or control group is not feasible (or not preferred). Comparing cases enables evaluators to tackle causal inference through assessing regularity (patterns) and/or by excluding other plausible explanations. In practical terms, CCS involves proposing, analysing and synthesising patterns (similarities and differences) across cases that share common objectives.

What is involved?

Goodrick (2014) outlines the steps to be taken in undertaking CCS.

Key evaluation questions and the purpose of the evaluation: The evaluator should explicitly articulate the adequacy and purpose of using CCS (guided by the evaluation questions) and define the primary interests. Formulating key evaluation questions allows the selection of appropriate cases to be used in the analysis.

Propositions based on the Theory of Change: Theories and hypotheses that are to be explored should be derived from the Theory of Change (or, alternatively, from previous research around the initiative, existing policy or programme documentation).

Case selection: Advocates for CCS approaches claim an important distinction between case-oriented small n studies and (most typically large n) statistical/variable-focused approaches in terms of the process of selecting cases: in case-based methods, selection is iterative and cannot rely on convenience and accessibility. ‘Initial’ cases should be identified in advance, but case selection may continue as evidence is gathered. Various case-selection criteria can be identified depending on the analytic purpose (Vogt et al., 2011). These may include:

  • Very similar cases
  • Very different cases
  • Typical or representative cases
  • Extreme or unusual cases
  • Deviant or unexpected cases
  • Influential or emblematic cases

Identify how evidence will be collected, analysed and synthesised: CCS often applies mixed methods.

Test alternative explanations for outcomes: Following the identification of patterns and relationships, the evaluator may wish to test the established propositions in a follow-up exploratory phase. Approaches applied here may involve triangulation, selecting contradicting cases or using an analytical approach such as Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). Download a Comparative Case Study here Download a longer briefing on Comparative Case Studies here

Useful resources

A webinar shared by Better Evaluation with an overview of using CCS for evaluation.

A short overview describing how to apply CCS for evaluation:

Goodrick, D. (2014). Comparative Case Studies, Methodological Briefs: Impact Evaluation 9 , UNICEF Office of Research, Florence.

An extensively used book that provides a comprehensive critical examination of case-based methods:

Byrne, D. and Ragin, C. C. (2009). The Sage handbook of case-based methods . Sage Publications.

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  • Extended Case Method
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Comparative Case Studies

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  • By: Delwyn Goodrick | Edited by: Paul Atkinson, Sara Delamont, Alexandru Cernat, Joseph W. Sakshaug & Richard A.Williams
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd
  • Publication year: 2019
  • Online pub date: September 17, 2019
  • Discipline: Anthropology , Business and Management , Communication and Media Studies , Computer Science , Counseling and Psychotherapy , Criminology and Criminal Justice , Economics , Education , Engineering , Geography , Health , History , Marketing , Mathematics , Medicine , Nursing , Political Science and International Relations , Psychology , Social Policy and Public Policy , Science , Social Work , Sociology , Technology
  • Methods: Case study research , Comparative research , Experimental design
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  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781526421036849021
  • Online ISBN: 9781529748338 More information Less information
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The comparative case study approach is a powerful design to generate causal explanations, and as such, it is well suited for answering “how” and “why” research questions. It privileges deep knowledge of cases or entities. Comparative case studies involve iterative phases of theory identification, case selection, data gathering, and comparative analysis, within and between cases. They can be adopted as the primary design framework in a research study or may be embedded within another design. For example, a researcher may include case studies within a broader mixed methods or experimental study to highlight causal mechanisms and to add richness and detail to research claims.

Comparative case studies are a defined type of case study. While comparative case studies share much in common with other case study approaches, a key differentiating feature is their focus on generating explanatory claims and the requirement for theory and evidence-informed case selection. The researcher explores and examines two or more cases to construct causal propositions or inferences about social phenomena. The researcher then selects subsequent cases to test and modify these propositions. This entry outlines key features of comparative case studies and provides an overview of key considerations in selecting this design for social research and program evaluation.

Causality in Social Research

Researchers interested in causal analysis will be attracted to the potential of comparative case studies. Traditionally, experimental designs have been privileged as the gold standard for causal explanation. The comparative case study design provides a compelling alternative to the experiment, as it supports a nuanced understanding of how and why observed patterns have been produced.

There is a good fit between the assumptions of realism and the use of comparative case studies. Most forms of realism claim that social knowledge is nonlinear, adaptive, and context-dependent. To understand causes in diverse social contexts, there is a need to understand how and in what ways mechanisms have “fired,” and how these mechanisms have been responded to by social actors within those contexts. Here context is understood as more than geographic setting but inclusive of sociocultural dimensions, politics, values, and social relationships.

An intervention, such as a reading program in schools, may produce differential outcomes for students in a range of schools. Researchers seek to understand why it worked in some cases and not others. They cannot manipulate or control the conditions or the students’ responses, but they want to better address the analytic puzzle to explain the reasons for differential outcomes.

Some social contexts demand a combination of research conditions or mechanisms to produce outcomes. The existence of the aforementioned reading program may not have, on its own, produced outcomes. Rather, it may be that it was a combination of the reading program, student engagement, and teaching quality that contributed to improved reading ability among students. In this scenario, the comparative case study researcher is interested in understanding the causal recipe or causal packages that influenced achievement of intended outcomes. To distinguish this type of causal reasoning from traditional conceptions of causality, the term case causality or generative causality may be a helpful qualifier.

The comparative case approach encourages researchers to examine cases in sufficient depth to understand the potential causal mechanisms, to describe context, and to explain complex patterns. To achieve this, the study will draw on qualitative and quantitative methods and incorporate systematic comparative analyses.

Like most research designs in the social sciences, paradigmatic commitments and disciplinary orientation influence the way that comparative case studies are conceptualised and practiced. Some empiricist researchers may reject the potential of any design outside the experimental design to generate and test causal claims, limiting the value of case studies to description or interpretation. Constructivist or post-structuralist scholars may challenge the value, feasibility, or appropriateness of causal analysis within the social sciences. While characterisations of comparative case studies reflect diverse perspectives, a moderate realist stance underpins much of the guidance offered in the literature.

Definitional Issues

There is considerable diversity in the way case study designs are described and defined within the literature. While this can be confusing to researchers new to case study, it is no different from the potential for confusion that surrounds other research designs. For example, quasi-experimental design is an umbrella term that incorporates several subtypes, including time series, pretest posttest, and nonequivalent groups design with either independent or repeated measures. Similarly, case study is the umbrella term, with varying subtypes, such as single or intrinsic case study, comparative case study, and descriptive case study.

Classifications are helpful, as they assist researchers to select approaches that address their research objectives. However, discussions of comparative case studies in the literature, like other types of case study, are marked by inconsistency in terminology, contradictory or conflicting guidelines, and differing perspectives on their scope. Case studies are variously associated with their purpose (e.g., as descriptive or explanatory), with the methods of data collection used (e.g., as qualitative or mixed method), or as a strategy for presenting reports (e.g., a case study report). The array of definitions of case study in the literature and conflation of terms limits the scholarly spread of case study approaches and contributes to a “curious methodological limbo” (Gerring, 2004, p. 341).

These differences in characterisation of case study extend to comparative case studies. The design considerations and use of case study approaches differ within and across disciplines, and according to the epistemological stance of key authors. For example, Robert Yin (1984/2014), writing about case studies in the social sciences, orients his approach to case studies from a moderate realist position, maintaining concern for the “holy trinity” (Kvale, 1994) of internal and external validity, and reliability. Robert Stake (1995) adopts a social constructionist perspective emphasising the value of impressionistic interpretation, trustworthiness, and thick description in collective and multiple case studies. Alexander George and Andrew Bennett (2005) highlight multimethod analytic techniques that may be useful for comparative case studies in comparative politics and international relations from a neopositivist perspective. More recently, Lesley Bartlett and Frances Vavrus (2017) pointed to the value of sociocultural and processual approaches to comparative case studies in policy studies using predominantly interpretive qualitative methods. These different stances necessarily shape researchers’ understanding of the purpose, design, and analytic techniques best suited to case study, and by extension to comparative case study. While this section has identified differences in approaches, these scholars do share a commitment to structured comparison within and among cases, and case-based knowledge.

The Role of Comparison

Comparative case studies involve explicit, formal, and structured focus on comparison to produce causal inferences about social phenomena. Comparison indicates that the researcher is systematically examining similarities and differences within and among cases. The goal, however, is to compare to generate an understanding of the way patterns and configurations of cases work. This contributes to differentiating the cases (Ragin & Amoroso, 2019).

While there is some level of comparison in all case studies—even single case study (which draw on comparison with a wider class of events outside the study)—in many case study approaches, comparison is used to inform case description, illuminate social processes, or showcase complexity. Comparison is not used for explanatory purposes, and methods that facilitate comparative analysis may therefore not be used. While a thick, descriptive account may be valuable in illuminating social processes, a collective or multiple case study may not be appropriately classified as a comparative case study.

The popular adage in social research “correlation is not causation” has a fitting analogy in comparative case study: “Comparison does not make a case study comparative.” For many program or policy evaluators, the focus on a case—for example, implementation success or outcomes from implementation of a new information and communication technology (ICT) initiative in schools—may lead to a simplistic assessment that the study is a comparative case study design. The case involves assessment of implementation of ICT initiatives, and the schools that have implemented the new initiative are identified as sites to study implementation. The study may be focused on describing the use of ICT in schools using mixed methods or conceptualised as a collective case study where similarities and differences within and across cases are examined. However, it is not necessarily a comparative case study, as it may not include theoretically informed case selection, and may not utilise analytic techniques that enable explanatory claims to be made about causal conditions within and across cases. In this sense, adopting the term comparative case study as a label for the study is inappropriate. The design is used as a label, as a “methodological blanket” (Bartlett & Varvrus, 2017), rather than as an explicit framework that guides researchers in how they conceptualise, conduct, and report their research.

Central Features of Comparative Case Studies

This section highlights core features of comparative case studies. The purpose of the presentation is to differentiate comparative case studies from other types of case study. There are four key characteristics of comparative case studies:

  • 1. A focus on causal explanation
  • 2. Theory-guided case selection
  • 3. Iterative use of qualitative and quantitative methods
  • 4. Case-based knowledge.

A Focus on Causal Explanation

Researchers who adopt comparative case studies seek to generate causal explanations about social or historical contexts. This means they will necessarily need to address issues of causal complexity, as there is unlikely to be a single explanation or explanatory condition for observed outcomes (Ragin, 1987). A key task is to explore how patterns or configurations of conditions are linked to different outcomes. This requires careful and systematic definition of the outcome, and thorough knowledge of the contexts in which these outcomes have or have not occurred. It also requires understanding of conditions that may produce these outcomes.

Traditional approaches to causal analysis (e.g., forms of regression analysis) are variable rather than case oriented. The data set often consists of a large number of cases and a limited number of variables to be examined. The level of each variable is compared with the outcome variable in an additive manner. During the process, conditions or variables that are weak may be discarded to generate a parsimonious explanation of causal effects.

While assessing cause and effect in this way is useful, it does not help researchers understand how and why an intervention worked or did not work. Such approaches are not well suited to address complexities in social life and do not account for the existence of multiple conditions or independent variables that may combine in different ways to produce an outcome (known as equifinality). For example, a researcher may be interested in understanding how and why a student well-being program worked well within a particular region and did not work so well in others. While the program may have been implemented with fidelity to the overarching model, it is likely that elements of the school context (teachers, sociodemographic characteristics of schools, school governance and leadership) and students’ responses (level of motivation and interest, perceived program relevance) may have influenced the outcomes achieved. A feasible research strategy may be to report differential outcomes by school and associate these outcomes with patterns of implementation, but a more relevant analysis for a policy audience may be to explain the reasons for the similar and different outcomes.

Selection of several schools with similar and different patterns of outcomes may generate propositions about the core mechanisms in operation within and across these diverse environments. From a policy perspective, this is valuable information for improving policy implementation and for increasing knowledge about what is required to achieve outcomes.

The analytic processes used in comparative case studies are based on an appreciation that there is no straightforward, linear relationship between causes and outcomes. Similar processes can lead to different outcomes in different contexts. And seemingly distinct processes may lead to similar outcomes. Identifying presence or absence of conditions or outcomes is not adequate. The researcher seeks to understand and explain patterns and establish plausible explanations for why they have occurred. The comparative task is to question and explore configurations across cases, not to merely compare them in a static way.

Most analytic techniques used in comparative case studies combine some element of process tracing (reconstructing the causal sequence of conditions and linking these to outcomes) and narrative explanation. Alternative explanations for outcome patterns are sought, and rival (or competing) explanations are systematically identified and ideally eliminated. A replication logic (Yin, 2014) underpins many of these analytic techniques, as patterns are examined across cases and tested in subsequent cases, but some (e.g., qualitative comparative analysis [QCA], some forms of process tracing and most different cases/similar outcome; most similar cases/different outcome [MDSO; MSDO]) require strong quantitative skills, while others (e.g., horizontal, vertical, and transversal comparison; narrative comparison) require strong qualitative skills.

Table 1 provides an outline of the most common analytic strategies. These are analytic options, not prescriptions for analysis. Analysis is an intellectual and conceptual activity, not merely a technical one. There are a range of techniques developed to support causal comparison in case-based studies, but they should not be uncritically applied.

Techniques may be usefully combined; however, methods are underpinned by different principles, with specific technical requirements, which may make integration challenging. The reader interested in comparative case studies should select the analytic methods most suited to his or her research objectives, cases, and the required knowledge and skill set.

Theory-Led Case Selection and Iteration

A second key feature of comparative case studies is concerned with case selection. As the purpose of comparative case studies is to generate explanatory claims through recursive examination of cases, the researcher needs to provide a clear rationale for inclusion and exclusion of cases within the study.

Cases in comparative case studies are cases of something. For example, in an evaluation of the impact of an ICT intervention in primary schools, schools are selected because they will shed light on reasons the intervention was successful or not successful. The school is the entity selected, but it is only of interest as a case because it will enable the researcher to examine the topic of interest (i.e., impact of ICT). There are scope conditions and boundaries that structure decisions about selection of the case. Charles Ragin famously suggested the need to clearly identify, “What is this a case of?” (Ragin & Becker, 1992), recognising that this may shift over the course of the study. Gary Thomas (2011) refers to the importance of clarifying the subject and object of study. The subject in this example is the school selected, and the object is the impact of the ICT intervention.

Initial case selection is guided by analytic interest or theory. Provisional explanations may be formed, and then other cases selected to build, elaborate, or test theory emerging from the study. Selection of cases and case comparisons are iterative, not opportunistic or probabilistic. This means that case selection and conditions for case comparison cannot often be fully specified at the beginning of a study.

As researchers gather evidence, they generate conjectures and propositions. These are then systematically tested with subsequent evidence and subsequent cases and refuted or incorporated into the explanation. Researchers using comparative case studies can select a number of different cases with similar outcomes or similar types of cases with different outcomes to trace the causal pathway and identify the causal recipe (Ragin, 2008).

There are a range of ways that cases can be selected, and case selection will depend on research goals and budget and time considerations. In large N comparative case studies, a purposeful random selection of cases that share criteria may be adopted. However, in small N studies, like most comparative case studies, random selection may be problematic. Other case selection techniques that may be considered include the extreme case, the deviant case, and the local knowledge or exemplary case.

In practical terms, researchers choose cases that will provide the strongest possible test of theories. Deviant cases may be of interest in generating new propositions or identify other conditions that were left out of the initial specification. For example, the researcher interested in explaining the way that a school leadership program influenced school outcomes may elect to examine a case where causal conditions were present (attendance and completion of a school leadership program), but exploring where the expected outcome did not occur would be useful in highlighting the influence of other conditions. Alternatively, selecting a case (a school) that has good school outcomes but did not have the program in place could be useful in identifying additional conditions or new causal conditions that contributed to school outcomes.

Mixed Methods of Data Collection

The researcher undertaking comparative case studies needs to be methodologically dexterous in applying a range of techniques, including surveys and secondary data analysis (quantitative) and interviews, observations, and focus group discussions (qualitative) as appropriate in the study. Qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques are drawn on to support case-based understanding and to facilitate comparative analyses.

Depending on the scope, availability, and quality of data, the researcher may give more “weight” to particular sets of data than others. These decisions should be made explicit in construction of the reports. Janice Morse and Linda Niehaus (2009) developed useful notation rules to encourage researchers to be explicit about their decision rules for prioritising evidence derived from adopting both qualitative and quantitative approaches in a study. These notations that reflect weighting of components and sequencing of methods may be instructive for researchers using comparative case studies and facilitate methodological transparency. They argued that most studies have an inductive or deductive drive and, while these may overlap, it is useful to identify which is dominant at stages within any given study. In historical comparative studies, the role of retroduction and abduction could also be considered.

The use of mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative) or multiple methods (interviews, observations, and document analysis) within a methodology may strengthen claims by balancing the potential weaknesses of mono-method studies. Triangulation relates to strategies to overcome the potential weaknesses that can arise from the use of a single method, single data source, single observer, and/or single theoretical base.

While there are four types of triangulation, the research selects those most relevant to the study to test and refine propositions. Triangulation in this sense is not just about seeking convergence but addressing the reasons for divergent findings as well. The researcher does not merely focus on the technical aspects of method, although these are important but makes thoughtful inquiries into converging and diverging patterns.

Case-Based Knowledge

All research is in some way about cases. Researchers who use comparative case studies recognise the importance of understanding cases within their contexts to make plausible causal claims. The focus is on the cases and understanding the cases rather than focusing on the variables or conditions that make up the case. Being case oriented means that the researcher is interested in the complex interactions of conditions through an intensive focus on a limited number of cases.

There are inevitable trade-offs between breadth and depth. Comparative case study researchers must balance theoretical sharpness and explanatory strength with practical considerations about the number of cases that can be examined. One exception is worth noting. In large N case studies (up to 200), it is likely that the researcher will not have deep case-based knowledge. There are limits in the researcher’s capacity to explore context and gain an in-depth understanding, especially with a growing number of cases, and the researcher may also experience difficulties in his or her capacity to address and consider multiple conditions across cases under study. It is likely that this will influence options for comparative analysis; in large N studies, the use of narrative comparisons or causal narratives will be limited.

An Illustrative Example

The following scenario provides a concise example of the strategies that researchers may consider when designing a comparative case study. The example relates to an evaluation study commissioned by a government agency in Australia.

The agency commissioned an evaluation to assess the impact of an ICT program in 40 schools across two municipalities. The policy audience was interested in finding out how the initiative was implemented and what difference the initiative made to students’ skills in using ICT, their engagement in the classroom, and their capacity for problem-solving.

A working theory (developed from program theory and logic mapping) was proposed that one of the causal mechanisms underpinning the success of the ICT initiative was the level of student confidence. It was argued that students that experience success with their ICT project and enjoy undertaking the project will feel more confident in using ICT and better engage in classroom learning.

The evaluator needs to understand how the program was implemented and to what extent intended outcomes occurred. The evaluator may also be interested in understanding positive and negative unintended outcomes of the intervention (such as the impact of the ICT initiative on teachers’ confidence). But, the evaluator is also interested in examining the mechanisms through which these outcomes have occurred, understanding that there are likely to be multiple causal pathways, not just one.

The comparative case study is separated into phases. In the first phase, the evaluator obtains background information about the ICT program and the rationale for the program, contextual information about the two municipalities, and gathers information from schools implementing the initiative. Data collection includes a school survey, student attendance data, and implementation interviews with the key teachers and the ICT program manager. This initial scoping generates data about the characteristics of schools involved in the ICT initiative (including sociocultural and demographic elements, teacher experience, and previous inclusion of ICT within the curriculum).

In Phase 2, the evaluator analyses the initial data collected and looks for patterns—similarities and differences in implementation and in outcomes across schools. Propositions are developed about conditions (confidence and any other conditions identified from Phase 1 data gathering) that seem to be associated with the desired outcome (student skills in ICT, student engagement). In Phase 3, the evaluator may choose to purposively select cases on the following basis:

  • Selection of cases (schools and students) where students had low levels of confidence but achieved high levels of engagement in the classroom and skills in ICT;
  • Selection of cases (schools and students) where outcomes were achieved but with diverse levels of implementation of the program;
  • Selection of cases where students exhibited high levels of confidence but did not achieve anticipated outcomes.

Case selection strategies in this context may overlap as there may be clusters of causal conditions that were sufficient to produce the outcomes without the ICT intervention.

This design will require further data collection, which may include interviews with students and teachers within the selected schools, focus group discussions (with program implementers), and review of secondary data. Other select schools can then be included to examine similarities and differences in responses of students, teachers, and experts to the program, and their influence on outcomes. The brief example illustrates the design considerations that comparative case study researchers may need to consider, and the importance of conceptual, technical, and methodological skills.

Guidelines for Designing Comparative Case Studies

While the discussions of comparative case studies share the purpose of generating explanatory claims and a focus on causal inference, researchers differ in their presentation of the core requirements for comparative case study design, strategies of case selection, and analysis requirements. A key challenge for the use of comparative case studies is that the application of these techniques has often not been explained well, and the logic underpinning comparative analysis has not been well articulated. The following series of guidelines for effective comparative case studies are offered for heuristic purposes to encourage transparency.

1. Describe the Purpose of the Comparative Case Study and Determine the Types of Entities That Will Be Studied

The researcher will need to clarify the objective of the comparative case study, the topic of focus, and the rationale for case selection. It may be that this initial conception of the case and parameters for case selection will shift over time, but initial mapping will ensure that design decisions clearly follow intent.

2. Identify Positionality and Orientation to Comparative Case Studies

There are a range of ways that comparative case studies can be designed and conducted. Many of the differences in the literature reflect different disciplinary traditions and paradigmatic stances. A comparative case study undertaken from a realist position (e.g., George & Bennett, 2005) using process tracing and QCA is likely to be very different from a comparative case study undertaken using interpretive analytic techniques (e.g., Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017). The meaning of comparative case studies needs to be made explicit within parameters of disciplinary approach, assumptions, and methods. Researchers must make their approach to comparative case studies explicit so that reviewers and readers are able to assess the alignment with approaches documented in the literature.

3. Construct a Design Diagram

As comparative case studies often incorporate multistage sampling and diachronic data collection and analysis processes (Thomas, 2015), reliance on a narrative description of the design may be inadequate. It may be helpful to construct a diagram that depicts the elements of the design, including the context in which the cases are situated, the cases themselves, case selection strategies, and the methods of data collection and analysis. A diagram can assist readers in making sense of the comparative case study design and assist them in critical assessment of it.

A comparative case study research plan may also include a matrix or table of the characteristics/features of each case with relevant conditions to be explored, elaborated, or tested to demonstrate the way in which theory informed initial specifications, case selection, and analysis. Reviewers need to assess the relevance of case selection to analytic questions.

4. Identify Methods That Will Address Research Objectives and Generate a Depth Understanding of the Cases

Decisions about methods will necessarily be balanced with practical decisions including availability of data, access, time frame, and budget. In historical comparative case studies, primary data collection may not be possible, and the researcher will rely on secondary data. In most situations for causal analysis, case selection will evolve based on findings and propositions from fieldwork. Variations in application of methods across cases should be documented and propositions linked to subsequent case selection. This documentation will assist in maintaining an audit trail (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) of design, method, and analysis decisions.

5. Be Explicit and Transparent About Within-Case and Cross-Case Data Analysis Processes Used to Generate and Test Propositions

Analytic choices in comparative case studies will include a combination of within-case and cross-case analysis. While a range of techniques exist to support causal reasoning, simplistic application of these techniques may not be sufficient. Alexander George developed the method of structured focused case comparisons to encourage rigour, transparency, and to support some level of standardisation in the process. The concern for rigour is shared by Yin (2014) who recommends the development of a case study protocol to guide decisions about the study. In structured focused comparison, the researcher creates a set of general questions that relate to the research objectives and specifies the cases to structure initial data collection and analytic frame to ensure relevance.

6. Address Trustworthiness and Transferability of Claims

Given the array of approaches to social research, it is important that researchers adopting comparative case studies address potential criticisms. Comparative case studies have been criticised for inadequate specification of the limits of generalisability arising from case selection. Generalisability is synonymous with external validity. Criticisms of the limits of generalisability of comparative case studies appear to be associated with an empiricist conception of the term generalisability .

Traditionally, generalisability relies on representativeness of a sample to the population and a sufficiently large sample to enable sufficiency tests of generalisability. As comparative case studies are theory informed and the cases are purposively selected to build, test, elaborate, or refute theory, probabilistic generalisation may be less relevant. Indeed, probabilistic generalisation is only one form of generalisation. In comparative case studies, two alternative conceptions of generalisation can be identified.

Yin’s (2014) concept of analytic generalisation in case study aligns with the commitment to limit conclusions to the class of events under study, which is similar to contingent or limited generalisation. Generalisations are at the level of theory rather than at the level of the relationship between sample and population.

In interpretively oriented case studies, the concept of naturalistic generalisation coined by Stake (1995) may also provide useful guidance to the comparative case studies researcher. Naturalistic generalisation occurs when the reader translates the evidence presented in the case study to his or her own context. The rich description inherent in many case studies provides the opportunity for the reader to apply claims to wider contexts with which he or she is familiar.

Good comparative analysis requires systematic procedures, conceptual insight, questioning, iteration, and practical wisdom. Donald Campbell (1984) pointed to the need for researchers to welcome being part of a disputatious community. Researchers need to make rigorous, defensible claims, while being open to challenge from other scholars and the wider community. Comparative case studies offer researchers guidance on how to balance depth with breadth to generate plausible causal claims.

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Comparative case studies

Comparative case studies can be useful to check variation in program implementation. 

Comparative case studies are another way of checking if results match the program theory. Each context and environment is different. The comparative case study can help the evaluator check whether the program theory holds for each different context and environment. If implementation differs, the reasons and results can be recorded. The opposite is also true, similar patterns across sites can increase the confidence in results.

Evaluators used a comparative case study method for the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Community Cancer Centers Program (NCCCP). The aim of this program was to expand cancer research and deliver the latest, most advanced cancer care to a greater number of Americans in the communities in which they live via community hospitals. The evaluation examined each of the program components (listed below) at each program site. The six program components were:

  • increasing capacity to collect biospecimens per NCI’s best practices;
  • enhancing clinical trials (CT) research;
  • reducing disparities across the cancer continuum;
  • improving the use of information technology (IT) and electronic medical records (EMRs) to support improvements in research and care delivery;
  • improving quality of cancer care and related areas, such as the development of integrated, multidisciplinary care teams; and
  • placing greater emphasis on survivorship and palliative care.

The evaluators use of this method assisted in providing recommendations at the program level as well as to each specific program site.

Advice for choosing this method

  • Compare cases with the same outcome but differences in an intervention (known as MDD, most different design)
  • Compare cases with the same intervention but differences in outcomes (known as MSD, most similar design)

Advice for using this method

  • Consider the variables of each case, and which cases can be matched for comparison.
  • Provide the evaluator with as much detail and background on each case as possible. Provide advice on possible criteria for matching.

National Cancer Institute, (2007).  NCI Community Cancer Centers Program Evaluation (NCCCP) . Retrieved from website:

'Comparative case studies' is referenced in:


  • Rainbow Framework :  Check the results are consistent with causal contribution
  • Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIE)

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methods for comparative case studies

This page deals with the set of methods used in comparative case study analysis, which focuses on comparing a small or medium number of cases and qualitative data. Structured case study comparisons are a way to leverage theoretical lessons from particular cases and elicit general insights from a population of phenomena that share certain characteristics. The content on this page discusses variable-oriented analysis (guided by frameworks), formal concept analysis and qualitative comparative analysis.

The Chapter summary video gives a brief introduction and summary of this group of methods, what SES problems/questions they are useful for, and key resources needed to conduct the methods. The methods video/s introduce specific methods, including their origin and broad purpose, what SES problems/questions the specific method is useful for, examples of the method in use and key resources needed. The Case Studies demonstrate the method in action in more detail, including an introduction to the context and issue, how the method was used, the outcomes of the process and the challenges of implementing the method. The labs/activities give an example of a teaching activity relating to this group of methods, including the objectives of the activity, resources needed, steps to follow and outcomes/evaluation options.

More details can be found in Chapter 20 of the Routledge Handbook of Research Methods for Social-Ecological Systems.

Chapter summary:

Method Summaries

Case studies, comparative case study analysis: comparison of 6 fishing producer organizations.

Dudouet, B. (2023)

Lab teaching/ activity

Tips and tricks.

  • Basurto, X., S. Gelcich, and E. Ostrom. 2013. ‘The Social-Ecological System Framework as a Knowledge Classificatory System for Benthic Small-Scale Fisheries.’ Global Environmental Change 23(6):  1366–1380.
  • Binder, C., J. Hinkel, P.W.G. Bots, and C. Pahl-Wostl. 2013. ‘Comparison of Frameworks for Analyzing Social-Ecological Systems.’ Ecology and Society 18(4): 26. 
  • Ragin, C. 2000. Fuzzy-Set Social Science . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Schneider C.Q., and C. Wagemann. 2012. Set-theoretic Methods for the Social Sciences. A Guide to Qualitative Comparative Analysis . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Villamayor-Tomas, S., C. Oberlack, G. Epstein, S. Partelow, M. Roggero, E. Kellner, M. Tschopp, and M.  Cox. 2020. ‘Using Case Study Data to Understand SES Interactions: A Model-centered Meta-analysis of SES Framework Applications.’ Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability .


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