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Informing Generality and Explaining Uniqueness: The Place of Case Studies in Comparative Research1

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Consistent with the thrust of American sociology, cross-national and other types of comparative research are interested in establishing broad and general findings that are theoretically relevant. Given this predisposition, such research tends to deemphasize single-nation (case) studies because they seemingly lack generalizability and theoretical significance. By contrast, we argue that the case study constitutes an important type of comparative research and, in fact, may be the preferred strategy in certain instances. More specifically, these studies are useful when (1) researchers do not have sufficient knowledge of a case to place it in theoretical perspective-the case does not fit any extant theory; (2) a case partially supports (or deviates from) existing theories; and (3) a case represents a special (perhaps unique) set of circumstances or phenomena that warrant intensive study. Moreover, we argue that case studies generally are not atheoretical; to the contrary, they help inform general theory and explain conditions that deviate from conventional theoretical explanations. Because many theories have been formulated in advanced Western societies, they reflect an (often unintended) ethnocentric bias against underdeveloped and other less studied regions of the world. Thus, case-study research is indispensable when investigating Third World anomalies with appropriate sensitivity and accuracy.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Sociology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, U.S.A..


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