Fran Vavrus & Lesley Bartlett
The Comparative Case Study Approach
Today: Case Studies. My guests: Fran Vavrus and Lesley Bartlett . They have a new co-written book entitled Rethinking Case Study Research: A Comparative Approach, which will be published by Routledge later this year.
Fran and Lesley contend that the recent conceptual shifts in the social sciences, some of which have been discussed by previous guests on this show, demand that case studies re-configure their approach towards culture, context, space, place, and comparison.
Fran Vavrus is a professor in the college of education and human development at the University of Minnesota.
Lesley Bartlett is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
They have written an exclusive summary of their forthcoming book, Rethinking Case Study Research: A Comparative Approach, for FreshEd listeners, which can be downloaded here.
Citation: Fran, Vavrus, and Leslie, Bartlett, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 37, podcast audio, August 15, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/vavrus-bartlett/
Will Brehm 1:51
Fran Vavrus and Lesley Bartlett, welcome to FreshEd.
Fran Vavrus 1:55
Lesley Bartlett 1:56
Thanks. It’s so nice to be with you.
Will Brehm 1:58
You have a new book coming out. And you say you are responding to the methodological limbo of case studies. Why are case studies in limbo?
Lesley Bartlett 2:12
So, this is Lesley. I love that phrase methodological limbo. It’s one that political scientist John Gerring used in a 2004 article. And he said that researchers have difficulty articulating what it is that they’re doing. Methodologically speaking, the case study survives in a curious methodological limbo. Case study resort researchers is in this predicament because there’s really no established set of methods or agreed-upon design. This is something that sociologist Charles Reagan has written about extensively. And he said that scholars use the word case, with little consideration of the theories and meta-theories that they’re using. So, he says cases sometimes defined as place, it can mean a setting or an institution, or case sometimes means both the setting or the institution and the people within it. And that sometimes we also interchange case with units of analysis. And Reagan points out that this is problematic because it doesn’t sufficiently separate the categories we use to organize our data and to construct our analyses.
Will Brehm 3:25
So, I was going to say that you offer this comparative case study approach as a way out of this limbo. What is the comparative case study approach? And how does it address some of these methodological issues?
Fran Vavrus 3:40
So, this is Fran. Yes. So, Lesley and I have come to think of the comparative case study approach, or what we may refer to as just the CCS approach, as a heuristic or an approach to discovery and problem-solving. And in our case, we’re really thinking about discovering how a phenomenon of interest to a researcher has global, national, and local dimensions that are all interconnected over the spaces, and as I hope we’ll explore in this interview, how they’re connected over time. So, for us, this is an approach to case study research that attends to these different scales and two histories of how a phenomenon has come to be such in the first place. We also think that this comparative case study approach is particularly relevant for those of us who study practice and policy and let me try to explain what we mean by that.
Studies of practice or those that look at how different social actors with different motives and intentions and degrees of influence respond to social forces around us and we draw a lot on the work of Sherry Ortner, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and thinking about practice. And you know, some practices are very commonly understood, such as how we assess children’s performance in schools through written examinations, but others are very distinct, such as how we mark a marriage or even account for a death. Yet, these practices are never completely isolated, social actors are adapting them in relation to other groups and in relation to broader political and social and cultural forces. So, when we think about practice in relation to policy, the comparative case study approach helps us to think about how policy governs social life, how it’s regulated, but in often very unpredictable ways. So, we think about policy as a form of practice, sharing in this endeavor, with people like Cris Shore and Susan Wright, and in comparative education, Bradley Levinson and Peg Sutton. So, our approach to the study of policy from a comparative case study approach doesn’t really look at, primarily, whether a policy works or not for its intended audience. But we think about how policy is a social practice itself. It’s political, it’s cultural, and it’s historical.
Will Brehm 6:31
So, how is this approach different from other approaches to case study? And I’m thinking of perhaps Burawoy’s notion of the extended case study, or even Marcus’s notion of the multi-sided ethnography, which seems to be, you know, case studies in multiple locations.
Lesley Bartlett 6:52
Our conceptualization of comparative case studies builds on those authors that you’ve mentioned, but aparts from them in some really important ways. So, the extended case method is rooted in work by anthropologists like Gluckman in the late 50s and taken up then by sociologist Burawoy and his students and colleagues used this extended case method to counter the excesses of positivism and interpretivism, right. That was their purpose. And so, they said that the extended case method consists of four distinct dimensions. First, participant observation or the extension of the observer into the world of the participant. Second, the extension of observations over time and space with consideration to diversify participants. Third, extending out from micro-processes to macro forces. And fourth, the extension of theory, often by using cases to critique existing theory and develop alternative hypotheses. So, we embrace that and take it up in several ways that includes the interest in critical theory, opportunities to generalize theoretically rather than statistically, and the comparing of theoretically similar work done on different topics in different places. But we diverge from Burawoy in important ways as well. So, for instance, more contemporary theoretical work allows us to engage processual and less static notions of cultural processes. And we’re striving in this work to avoid engaging a sense of economic and power structures as separate or apart from and impinging on local practices. And then finally, we seek to encourage thinking about the social production of space and place, as well as relations across scale. So, we’re drawing on extended case study in that way. At regarding multi-sided ethnography, it’s really been most coherently codified in the work of anthropologist George Marcus, who described this work as mobile ethnography that takes unexpected trajectories and tracing a cultural formation across and within multiple sites of activity. So, it’s what we are calling tracing a dispersed field across space, and we would add across time, it also entails the rejection of the notion of holism, which implies discrete and timeless cultures, and the reconceptualization of context to include a sense of place that are socially produced across scales.
So, we draw on that thinking, and our emphasis on tracing reveals that linkage, and yet it differs from more widely used approaches to multi-sided ethnographic research in several ways. First, where we expect multiple sites of study at a single scale, this is often not embraced in multi-sided ethnography. We also examine what they have in common by looking at national or international policymaking through vertical comparison. And we explore how these horizontal and vertical connections were formed historically and have led to spatially differentiated effects using the transversal comparison. I would also add, finally, that I think comparative case studies diverge in important ways from the most cited literature, methodological literature on case studies. Both Fran and I teach research methods classes, and the available texts on case studies seem to us insufficient. They described cases in pretty limited ways that often contradict good research practice and reduce the kind of claims that we can make about the significance of our research. And so, we’re, I think, responding to drawing on but trying to extend those three sources, in particular in this work.
Fran Vavrus 10:54
And I think relevant, in particular, for our field of comparative and international education is that we endeavor to highlight the importance of comparison. So, I think we’ll talk about that a little bit more. But I think that’s critically important for those in the field of CIE.
Will Brehm 11:11
So, Lesley, you mentioned, horizontal and vertical and transversal aspects of this comparative case study approach. And, you know, you both wrote widely on something you used to call vertical case studies. And I’m just curious as to how vertical case studies, your prior notion to case studies, differs from this new notion of the comparative case study approach.
Fran Vavrus 11:40
Yes, so I can take that up but Lesley, please jump in as you wish. When we first conceptualized this approach to case study research, we were most taken with ways of thinking about verticality, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. But we realized then that the other dimensions of a case study approaches, we imagine that we’re being neglected. And so, people were just focusing on this one axis, whereas we had written about all three. So let me talk a little bit more and give some examples of the horizontal and the vertical and what we call the transversal. And hopefully, this will allow listeners to see how they are all three inextricably interconnected.
So, the horizontal axis is probably most akin to what Lesley described as multi-sided ethnography, where a researcher considers how a similar policy or practice unfolds across sites. In our new book, we go into a little bit more detail about this. And we talked about two approaches to horizontal comparison, the homologous and the heterologous. So, by homologous, we mean entities that have some corresponding position or structure to one another, such as, you know, three third grade classrooms in a single school or two health clinics in adjacent cities. These homologous horizontal comparisons, both compare and contrast helping us to think about how something like a similar policy or an economic trend or an educational program might result in similar and different practices and why that might be the case. In contrast, we talk about heterologous horizontal comparison, when we’re looking at entities that one might think of as categorically distinct, such as a school and a health clinic and an NGO, but they’re important in understanding the unfolding of the phenomenon of interest to the researcher and they typically have some kind of gelling around at the same locale. So, in the book, we talked about the work of sociologist Matthew Desmond, who followed the process of eviction across the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and he looked at things like, you know, trailer parks and public housing units, abandoned houses, and churches, etc. So, these are hetero, you know, kind of heterogeneous sites. But he wanted to understand how they all play into the unfolding of this process of eviction. So, the logic behind these heterologous horizontal comparisons is really one of connection rather than comparing what we might think of as similar entities like three classrooms or three clinics. So that’s what we mean by horizontal. So, you can sort of picture that in your mind.
But then the second axis is the vertical. And, as you’ve noted, this is the one that comparative and international ed scholars have probably picked up on the most. But it’s been a bit misunderstood. And the new book and our new name for this approach, the comparative case study approach is an opportunity for us to clarify things. So, if you think about vertical, it opens up some possibilities for comparison, but it may also conceptually constrict one’s analysis if we think of vertical as kind of hermetically sealed levels. So, picture for a moment a high-rise apartment building, where the low-level workers are on the first couple of floors and the senior management are at the top, and the researchers interested in the company’s social responsibility policy. We could literally compare vertically in this kind of study to look at how the gender or social class of the entry-level workers and the executives affect their interpretation of the social responsibility policy. But this kind of rigid notion of a vertical axis doesn’t allow for tracing the interactions of employees throughout the entire building to see how they may be through informal flows of information around the common water cooler on the fifth floor generated this social responsibility policy or have influenced it or a key term in our work, how they have “appropriated” the policy and refined it and defined it differently depending on their location. So, what we’re thinking about here is the tracing of a policy in this case across a complex network of people. And this is similar to what policy sociologist Stephen Ball in a recent 2016 piece has called for scholars of policy to do more meaning look at policy networks and policy mobility, how do assemblages of actors come together to create and reproduce and modify policy so using forms of network analysis, network ethnography, we can explore that. And in our new book, we look at two primary cases in the chapter on the vertical axis that do this very well. One is a US domestic case book by Jill Koyama, called “Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools,” in which she uses a kind of network theory, actor-network theory, to develop a vertical and horizontal comparison of the infamous ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy and how it affected state and national and school level actors in different ways. And the other example that we look at in the chapter on the vertical axis is by Christina Kwauk. Her dissertation, entitled “Playing for the future: Sport and the production of healthy bodies in policy and practice,” used critical discourse analysis to explore the global sport for development movement and how it manifested itself through policies developed at the United Nations and in Australia. But how it also deeply affected everyday life on the Pacific Island nation of Samoa, where she did her ethnographic research.
Now, I think I’m taking up too much time. But let me quickly talk about the transversal access because this is, I think, a particularly important part of what we are trying to encourage through this heuristic of the competitive case study. So, what we want to emphasize is how these elements, horizontal and vertical, are connected, and how they change over time. In our book, we review a number of popular case study texts and show that case study research has traditionally not attended adequately and in some cases at all to historical work. Yet we believe that it’s only by looking at how a phenomenon, a policy, a practice, a program has come into being and been taken up at different sites and at different scales, do we begin to understand the phenomenon itself? For example, in the US, racial disparities in education didn’t just happen overnight. They reflect centuries, literally, of systematic underfunding of schools for people of color. And without looking at such historical analysis, social problems like these are very often, you know, blamed on the actions or inactions of those who suffer from them, rather than thinking about and studying systematic patterns of marginalization, as they have developed over time.
So, the chapter in our book that examines the transversal access, primarily, each of the chapters, the horizontal, and the vertical, and the transversal emphasize how they’re related. But one of the chapters does focus on the transversal axis and looks at several examples, including our separate longitudinal studies. So the first example is a book that Lesley and Ofelia García wrote, entitled “Additive Schooling in Subtractive Times: Bilingual Education and the Dominican Immigrant Youth in the Heights.” This was a four-and-a-half-year ethnographic study documenting the unusually successful efforts of a single New York City high school to educate Dominican newcomer youth. So that was one example of a process unfolding over time. And the second example in this chapter in the book on the transversal access is my own research that’s taken place over the past 20 years, that has explored various dimensions of secondary schooling in relation to international and national education policies, and how they have affected life in multiple ways in Old Moshi, which is a community on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where I’ve taught and been a researcher. So, I hope this discussion of the three axes helps to clarify what we mean by each of these and how they interact, or how we hope they interact in meaningful ways in people’s research.
Will Brehm 21:49
It seems like, you know, you’re incorporating as much as you can into how policies and practice form are operating and how their social positions and how they derive from history, and it makes me think of Arjun Appadurai’s phrase in his recent book, ‘Histories make Geographies.’ And I just wonder, you know, this is a very ambitious project, do you think it’s too ambitious?
Fran Vavrus 22:21
Well, that’s probably the question that we are asked, most frequently, people will, you know, particularly our own doctoral students, who are contemplating this, will say, you know, how can I plan my work? How long will I be in the field? Will I ever graduate if I look at the horizontal and the vertical and the transversal? And, you know, we get it, we understand these concerns because they’re real, you know, all of us must submit a research plan if we want to get funded. And our institutional review boards require plans to be submitted, we need for promotion or graduation to finish the studies we begin, and any into all of these concerns, we say yes, we understand that. But it is possible to use the comparative case study approach because we’ve done it. And many of our doctoral students and the doctoral students of our colleagues are now using the comparative case study approach. And, you know, the truth of it seems to be that researchers who engage in multi-sided ethnography or participatory action research face many of the same challenges of complexity and lack of certainty, apriori about what shape the study will ultimately take. We know we have to be intellectually dexterous and methodologically flexible in doing this kind of work, we have to be willing to review our data on a regular basis, we have to think about emergent findings and what that means for our studies. And I think it also may help people if they think about research in terms of phases. So maybe one phase might be a focus on the horizontal and historical dimensions. Another phase, let’s say, as a postdoctoral fellow compared to being a doctoral student, might be a focus on the vertical. So ideally, a comparative case study would give equal weight to these three axes. But we understand that’s not always going to be the case.
Lesley Bartlett 24:42
I think it’s overwhelming in two senses. One is the traditional research literature on case study methods talks about bounding your study. And I think sometimes students find that very reassuring that you delimit it, and then you can plan it, right. So, one of the things we talked about in the book is, that’s not really good qualitative work, you don’t set the parameters apriori, you have to what we call follow the inquiry, you have to get in it and see how it develops and continually revise the research plan as you move through it. That is good, iterative qualitative research. It’s also overwhelming though in the three axes, right. There’s so much to cover.
And so, there are a couple of different answers to that dilemma. I think one is to work in research teams, which is sometimes possible when you’re a doctoral student, not always. But the team might focus on the same problematic while members work on various pieces of it or in different sites and sort of divide up the study that way. So, for example, members might divide into sub-teams dedicated to the horizontal, vertical, and transversal axes are dedicated to different sites. And that option is more or less feasible, depending on the stage of your career and funding and collaboration, which is not easy to do, right. Fran and I have both been parts of research teams at different moments. And we’ve written even about our collaborative efforts and the challenges that emerged. So, while I’m not trying to portray that as easy, I am saying it’s possible. And I think it’s a real, a potential avenue for the field, I think we should be doing more kinds of collaborative studies like that.
Another possibility, though, is to rely on secondary sources for one or more of the axes. So, for example, you could use primarily secondary sources for the transversal axis, and then focus your own energies on the horizontal and or vertical, or vice versa, right. So, few of us can really give equal attention to all three of these axes. We all have limited time, limited money. But we still believe very strongly that it’s valuable to consider all of the axes and designing the study and consider whether and how to add them more centrally currently at the current date or at some later date.
Will Brehm 27:16
So, you’re both in the field of comparative education. How does your approach, the comparative case study approach, how does it rethink the idea of comparison?
Lesley Bartlett 27:27
Oh, I love that question. So, I am fascinated by the fact that though comparison is central to our field of comparative international ed, we’re not really clear what we mean by the term. And very often we find references to comparison in textbooks and other, you know, major representations of our field that limited to cross-national or what some called cross-cultural comparisons, that kind of definition really troubles me because it sort of defines out of the realm most of the really good contemporary qualitative work that’s being done in the field. And at the same time, education researchers and those in allied fields have truly underutilized comparison in case study work. In some of the methods books on case study work explicitly discourage comparison. And yet, as a field, we know that there is so much to gain from comparing, right, seeing how similar processes lead to different outcomes in some situations, or how different influences lead to similar outcomes in others, and how seemingly distinct phenomena may be related to similar trends or policies or pressures. So, comparison may also allow us to better address how insights generated in one study transfer to other cases or other places. And I think in that way, comparison, lets us make stronger arguments for the significance of our research.
So, comparative case studies then emphasize the value of comparison across space and time. And then the book we draw on the work of methodologist Joseph Maxwell, who identified two general approaches to comparison. One he calls variants oriented that tends to rely on a positivist epistemology and use quantitative methods. And another type that he calls process-oriented, which is more constructivist or critical, epistemologically, and uses primarily qualitative methods, although it might also incorporate surveys or other methods. And so, the comparative case studies were describing in our book promote processual understandings to comparison, while many of the predominant approaches to case study research, especially comparative case study research, are variants oriented. So, these comparisons, as Fran mentioned, when she talked about the axes, they may take really different forms. A study may compare and contrast how a policy or a phenomenon differentially affects similar sites, such as schools or classrooms, or it may trace a policy across a range of sites looking at connections across what may initially seem like really dissimilar sites. But one of the things, one of the points we’re really trying to make in the book, is the potential of comparison in case study research.
Will Brehm 30:17
It seems like, you know, the counter that when we often think about comparison, particularly in the world of educational development, and the practice of the World Bank and the OECD, is PISA, right. This very quantitative look at different countries. So, it’s bound into the nation-state, and it’s static. And it’s not necessarily tracing the social process of these policies and these practices, but rather doing this cross-national comparison of education quality based on test scores. And it seems like your approach is sufficiently different to offer this more complex, qualitative understanding of what comparison is and how we can think about education globally.
Lesley Bartlett 31:12
And one that really thinks about context and culture in ways that are more aligned with contemporary social theory around those concepts.
Fran Vavrus 31:21
Yes, I think that’s a very important point, Lesley. But also, I want to say, Will, that when we talk about a phenomenon of interest, in the book we have a number of exercises to guide people through their thinking about what they want to study, what is a phenomenon that troubles you about the world, that interests you in the world, and one of those starting points are data from PISA let’s say, or TIMSS or other sources that raised to our consciousness, the disparities and education in different world regions, or within one country, by race or by gender, etc. So, I think that, in most of us start with reading those reports coming across this data as they’re used in the newspaper, and then I think many of us ask ourselves why would that be the case? How did this happen? And that’s, I think, where an examination of culture and context becomes so vitally important because I think, you know, our dear colleagues who do cross-national work would say, we can’t really tell you about the unfolding over time of education in Finland compared to, you know, the Congo, and that we could, you know, wager I guess, but that’s not really what we do, we can tell you their differences. But you can help perhaps through your approach to explain why these things happen. How has history mattered? How have differences in resources and political systems converged to create some of those data points that we see in across national research?
Will Brehm 33:12
So, how do the tricky terms “culture” and “context” relate to the methodology? Because these are terms that are so difficult to define for many researchers.
Fran Vavrus 33:26
Yeah, well, perhaps I could speak a little bit to context, we’ve talked about culture as being something that we see as a processes being more fluid and in the making than traditional notions of the culture of the people X, who live in region Y, we’ve, you know, kind of gotten beyond that, at least in most scholarship, but not all. But you know, context is really an interesting concept for us to take up. Actually, in the first chapter of the book, we talk about the three Cs of culture and context and comparison. And so, we do see them as deeply connected. But you know, context tends to be used to indicate the physical setting, where people’s actions are taking place. It’s usually what draws people to case study research in the first place because we recognize the importance of the integrity of a real-world situation for our study rather than carrying out, you know, randomized control trial in a more laboratory kind of setting if you will. But there’s still even within a lot of qualitative research that uses the term context, a somewhat static and confined notion that makes context sound like the place, and often the place is treated as separate from broader political and economic and social processes. So, in our book, and in the work that we’ve done using the comparative case study approach, we look at critical geographers and critical anthropologist, but particularly of late I would say, Lesley, that you and I’ve been trying to read critical geographers such as Doreen Massey, who argue explicitly against the notion that a place has a single, essentialist identity that is somehow bounded. So, we try to think about unbounding, and how this bounding of a case study limits the potential for us to think about culture and cultural production in important ways. So, we need to think about scale, we need to think about the local and regional and global as interconnected the way critical geographers would have us do, we also want to think about context as being very important to the study of the social relations and networks that we have referred to, and how they are formed and how they shift over time. So rather than think about context as a, like, primordial or autonomous place that’s the setting or container for our study, we want to think about context as created or constituted by social interactions and political processes and economic development, over developments, I should say, across scale and time. So, we want to steer away from bounding our case in advance and think instead about a project that helps to identify the networks of actors and forces that have produced a sense of boundedness in the first place.
Will Brehm 37:07
It just sounds like you have such an interesting approach to offer, and I really do think it takes the case study out of the methodological limbo. So, I really hope that students and listeners will start either applying the comparative case study approach in future work, or perhaps getting the book to really dig into more depth about a lot of the concepts we talked about today. So, Fran Vavrus and Lesley Bartlett, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.
Fran Vavrus 37:39
Thank you so much, Will.
Lesley Barlette 37:40
Thanks, Will, really appreciate it.