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The "Autopsy Approach" to Case Selection: Re-evaluating the Role of Case Studies in the Social Sciences

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The status of case study research has generated a vigorous debate among social scientists. Some have claimed that case studies are an important, if not invaluable, part of the theory building process while others have challenged the assertion that case study research can contribute to the goal of evaluating general theories. This has been a fruitful debate inasmuch as it has encouraged us to think more carefully about our methodological choices. However, I argue that the debate surrounding case study methods is often informed by an overly narrow definition of science and causal inference—namely that science is reducible to the pursuit of general theory and establishing patterns of covariance. Instead of this narrow definition of social science, I suggest that we expand our definition to include explaining individual historical events, a practice I define as a “case study.” Toward this end, I suggest that we think of the case study in social science in much the same way a medical examiner would think of an autopsy. The goal of the medical examiner is not to test a “general theory of death,” but to use her knowledge about the causes of death to explain a particular instance of it. Making the explanation of single outcomes a legitimate goal of social research enables us to appreciate the inferential technique of retroduction, which is not only common in autopsies, but is also common in natural sciences like geology. It also helps us clarify the fact that we can only test hypotheses that purport to explain an individual outcome when we are using case study methods. I conclude by suggesting that the explanation of individual events is what makes case studies such indispensable tools for searching out new information that might improve our general knowledge of the social world.

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case (255), studi (221), method (116), causal (93), theori (81), general (77), observ (76), research (75), test (71), social (67), us (67), caus (61), process (57), scienc (55), outcom (52), make (52), variabl (50), would (45), event (45), like (44), import (43),
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Sinkler, Adrian. "The "Autopsy Approach" to Case Selection: Re-evaluating the Role of Case Studies in the Social Sciences" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hyatt Regency Chicago and the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, Chicago, IL, Aug 30, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p209882_index.html>

APA Citation:

Sinkler, A. , 2007-08-30 "The "Autopsy Approach" to Case Selection: Re-evaluating the Role of Case Studies in the Social Sciences" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hyatt Regency Chicago and the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, Chicago, IL Online <APPLICATION/PDF>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p209882_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: The status of case study research has generated a vigorous debate among social scientists. Some have claimed that case studies are an important, if not invaluable, part of the theory building process while others have challenged the assertion that case study research can contribute to the goal of evaluating general theories. This has been a fruitful debate inasmuch as it has encouraged us to think more carefully about our methodological choices. However, I argue that the debate surrounding case study methods is often informed by an overly narrow definition of science and causal inference—namely that science is reducible to the pursuit of general theory and establishing patterns of covariance. Instead of this narrow definition of social science, I suggest that we expand our definition to include explaining individual historical events, a practice I define as a “case study.” Toward this end, I suggest that we think of the case study in social science in much the same way a medical examiner would think of an autopsy. The goal of the medical examiner is not to test a “general theory of death,” but to use her knowledge about the causes of death to explain a particular instance of it. Making the explanation of single outcomes a legitimate goal of social research enables us to appreciate the inferential technique of retroduction, which is not only common in autopsies, but is also common in natural sciences like geology. It also helps us clarify the fact that we can only test hypotheses that purport to explain an individual outcome when we are using case study methods. I conclude by suggesting that the explanation of individual events is what makes case studies such indispensable tools for searching out new information that might improve our general knowledge of the social world.

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The Autopsy Approach to Case Selection: Re-evaluating the Role of Case Study Methods in the Social Sciences Adrian Sinkler Doctoral Candidate Department of Political Science University of Washington acs22@u.washington.edu Prepared for delivery at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association August 30th-September 2nd 2007. Abstract The status of case study research has generated a vigorous debate among social scientists. Some have claimed that case studies are an important if not invaluable part of the theory building
University of California Press. Raup D. and Sepkoski J. 1982. "Mass Extinctions in the Marine Fossil Record". Science Vol. 215: 1501–1503. Sartori Giovanni. 1970. "Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics " American Political Science Review (December): 1033-1053. Scriven Michael. 1976. “Maximizing the Power of Causal Investigations: The Modus Operandi Method ” in Gene V. Glass ed. Evaluation Studies Review Annual Vol. 1. Beverly Hills CA: Sage: 101-118. Stinchcombe Arthur L. 1991. “The Conditions and Fruitfulness of Theorizing About Mechanisms in


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