By Goldsmith, Suzanne; Boo, Katherine
The Washington Monthly , Vol. 21, No. 5
The Case for the Case Study
In a classroom of graduate students in Harvard's department of government, students hunch over spiral notebooks, copying down terms from a lecture. "Theoretical linking structure." "Criterion of falsifiability." A professor, book in hand, reads a passage on the fallacy of falsification. "I remember the feeling I had when I first read this," he says, rhapsodically, "the feeling of scales falling from my eyes."
He scans the room. No scales falling here. One student has his open textbook propped up against the table. Nestled inside it is a book of comic strips. He turns a page discreetly.
Welcome to the world of quantitative theory, the preeminent discipline in university departments of political science. Combining mathematical modelling and sophisticated statistical analysis, quantitative theory tests hypotheses and derives principles for political behavior. "This is theory," emphasizes the professor, "as opposed to common sense."
In another classroom across the Cambridge campus, apostates hold a different sort of service. A student in the front row has been waving her hand since class began. The professor, pacing three rows back, finally swings around and points. "You. You're OMB." She smiles. "A hundred-and-thirty-five million dollars per expected life saved is too much," she says. "I'm not gonna pay it."
The classroom becomes a sea of hands. The professor hustles back and forth, barking questions, rapping on desks: You're Ford. The election is three months from tomorrow. What do you do? The subject is the swine flu vaccine. The students, mid-level federal bureaucrats in real life, are now cabinet members and agency directors, fighting out alternatives, discussing consequences, compromising, caucusing, and consolidating power. And while they're arguing the particulars of flu strains and campaign decisions, they're learning something enduring: the anatomy of political decision-making. The tool of this impressive trade? It's called the case study.
Within a political science establishment that emphasizes statistics and theoretical modeling, the case study is widely regarded as a poor relation. At the Kennedy School, its basic unit of currency is a 15- to 20-page paper that spells out the facts relevant to an actual event in government or politics, emphasizing the personalities of both the people and bureaucracies involved. Of course, many topics demand case studies of book length--Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, her tremendously insightful account of the origins of World War I, is but one example. What case studies have in common isn't length but the ability to recreate the historical moment, in all its complexity and idiosyncrasy.
At the Kennedy School, the case study is a hit. The Ford Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the National League of Cities, and other organizations have contributed millions to fund the development of new cases. And each year, nearly a thousand government professionals make the pilgrimage to Cambridge to hear Richard Neustadt, Ernest May, and other case-study gurus lead the arguments over Reagan and Lebanon, AIDS and the insurance industry, and other issues in American policy, prominent and obscure.
While the case study has fluorished at the Kennedy School, its true and tremendous potential remains untapped. The American Council on Education, the nation's largest higher-education trade organization, collects information on many forms of teaching; but not the case study. Out of the dozens of scholarly journals in the field of political science, none reviews case studies. No journal publishes them; no organization of advocates exists. "People aren't looking at the case study method much," says Jerry Stohler, of the American Educational Research Association, the country's leading organization for research on teaching techniques. "It's not what you'd call a big issue. …