How can knowledge of the ways in which children learn and the means by which schools achieve their goals be verified, built upon and extended? This is a central question for educational research. The problem of verification and cumulation of educational knowledge is implicit in our discussion of the nature of educational inquiry in the opening chapter of the book. There, we outline three broad approaches to educational research. The first, based on the ‘scientific’ paradigm, rests upon the creation of theoretical frameworks that can be tested by experimentation, replication and refinement. The second approach seeks to understand and interpret the world in terms of its actors and consequently may be described as interpretive and subjective. A third, emerging, approach that takes account of the political and ideological contexts of much educational research is that of critical educational research.
The paradigm most naturally suited to case study research, the subject of this chapter, is the second one, with its emphasis on the interpretive and subjective dimensions. The first paradigm, the ‘scientific’, is reflected in our examples of quantitative case study research. The use of critical theory in case study research is at a comparatively embryonic stage but offers rich potential. Our broad treatment of case study techniques follows directly from a typology of observation studies that we develop shortly. We begin with a brief description of the case study itself.
A case study is a specific instance that is frequently designed to illustrate a more general principle (Nisbet and Watt, 1984:72), it is ‘the study of an instance in action’ (Adelman et al., 1980). The single instance is of a bounded system, for example a child, a clique, a class, a school, a community. It provides a unique example of real people in real situations, enabling readers to understand ideas more clearly than simply by presenting them with abstract theories or principles. Indeed a case study can enable readers to understand how ideas and abstract principles can fit together (ibid.: 72-3). Case studies can penetrate situations in ways that are not always susceptible to numerical analysis.
Case studies can establish cause and effect, indeed one of their strengths is that they observe effects in real contexts, recognizing that context is a powerful determinant of both causes and effects. As Nisbet and Watt remark (p. 78), the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Sturman (1999:103) argues that a distinguishing feature of case studies is that human systems have a wholeness or integrity to them rather than being a loose connection of traits, necessitating in-depth investigation. Further, contexts are unique and dynamic, hence case studies investigate and report the complex dynamic and unfolding interactions of events, human relationships and other factors in a unique instance. Hitchcock and Hughes (1995:316) suggest that case studies are distinguished less by the methodologies that they employ than by the subjects/objects of their inquiry (though, as indicated below, there is frequently a resonance between case studies and interpretive methodologies). Hitchcock and Hughes (1995:322) further suggest that the case