More on Case Studies
Interview-based case studies figure importantly in the work we do at ISS. We use case studies for reasons both practical and scholarly.
The practical rationale
The scholarly rationale
- Institutional change is the main focus of ISS scholarship. Sometimes new practices have their origins in shocks or in a confluence of pressures. “Never waste a crisis,” say reformers. New routines and norms may also emerge incrementally, as a result of tinkering and problem-solving. In both instances, strategy matters—especially in winning implementation, managing potential spoilers, and building coalitions and constituencies to sustain innovations. Case studies are useful for capturing strategic structure. Our case studies focus on the timing of reform moments, the options considered, and the logic of key actors as well as the resources people bring to negotiations, the influence of formal and informal rules on choice and implementation, and the way outcomes are (or are not) linked to the choices people make.
- The two main strands of scholarship on institutions have both focused on sources of stability, not change. Rational choice approaches usually model institutions as equilibria, while historical institutionalist accounts often point to forms of path dependence that lock countries into particular organizational forms, policies or ways of doing things. In some of our work, we use case studies to help generate propositions or theories about why some reformers in some settings are able to depart from existing structures, rules, or norms while others are not. That is, we use some of our case studies as the basis for inductive generalization.
- Case studies are also helpful for specifying causal mechanisms. A change in rules or practices may correlate with a condition present in a number of countries. This relationship may not be causal, however. Our cases help us identify the story line that links a condition and an outcome, and they help winnow out the correlations that have no real significance. When relationships are highly complex, as they often are, the cases help us unpack the influences of several causes on each other and on the outcomes we care about.
- In some of our synthetic, analytical documents we use comparisons to evaluate a strategy or a design choice. There are instances where analysis across cases is helpful in adjudicating between alternative explanations. However, we take this step with caution and are careful to point out the limits. Tight, focused cross-sectional analysis is difficult when cases vary on many dimensions. Our case studies, with their built-in longitudinal comparisons, are often more reliable, though still only suggestive.