The case: generalization, theory and phronesis in case study

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Arguments for the value of case study are vitiated by assumptions about the need for generalisation in the warrant of social scientific inquiryand little generalisation is legitimate from case study, although an argument exists for the role of the case in the establishment of a form of generalisation in a certain kind of theory, a line of reasoning that I appraise critically. But outside the discussion of generalisation specifically in case study, commentary has pointed to the failure of social science generally to offer any special kind of generalisation which can be shown to be more reliable and valuable than the everyday generalisation of the layperson. If such critical commentary has validity, the failure, then, is a failure not unique to case study: such failure haunts all kinds of social inquiry. I argue that case study's conspicuous shortcomings in generalisability, far from minimising case study's offer, in fact free it to offer something different and distinctive in social scientific inquiry. Thus, the potential of case study may be realised in developing something rather more nuanced than generalised knowledgein what I call exemplary knowledge. The latter, drawing its legitimacy from phronesis as distinct from theory, I argue to be clearly different from generalisable knowledge.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-35
Number of pages15
JournalOxford Review of Education
Issue number1
Early online date7 Dec 2010
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2011