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Using Narrative in Case Studies

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In a case study you must make sense of the whole by retaining the fibres that bind a whole story together. Those fibres concern time, place, meaning, intention and much more, all interrelating.



The posting below looks at some key points in writing effective case studies.  It is by Gary Thomas and is from Chapter 10, A Toolkit for Analysing and Thinking, in the book, How to do Your Case Study: A Guide for Students and Researchers. SAGE Publications Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320. [] © Copyright Gary Thomas 2011. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Using Narrative in Case Studies


Throughout this book I have stressed the importance of the narrative - the storyline - in a case study.

In the same way that a story has coherence, integrity and progression, so must a case study. In looking at the whole you are eschewing the reductionist, fractionating methods of much social science inquiry - methods that attempt to dissolve the connecting threads and fibres that hold social phenomena together. In a case study you must make sense of the whole by retaining the fibres that bind a whole story together. Those fibres concern time, place, meaning, intention and much more, all interrelating.

The interrelationship makes sense in much the way that a story does. We cannot take one page of a novel and make very much sense of it. Nor can we extract and analyse just the sentences that contain a character's name to work out his or her personality - we would probably form a very distorted picture of that character if we did. Rather, each character is understandable only in relation to the whole story. It's the same in a case study.

Not only this, but the structure of a story itself adds a great deal. In stories there are assumptions about, for example, motives, intentions, jealousies, kindnesses and so on. These are things that we all understand from our daily experiences, our understanding of life, and we use this experience and these understandings to deconstruct the narrative of a case study.

The great educator-philosopher Jerome Bruner (1997: 126) goes so far as to say that narrative is at the heart of all meaningmaking, even if it is scientific meaningmaking:

The process of science making is narrative ... we play with ideas, try to create anomalies, try to find neat puzzle forms that we can apply to intractable troubles so that they can be turned into soluble problems.

In his famous article in the journal of Critical Inquiry, he calls this the narrative construction of reality (Bruner, 1991: 1). I give below some key ingredients when using narrative in case studies. In doing this I have borrowed heavily from Bruner's 'ten features of narrative' (1991: 3), taking away a few of them and adding a couple of my own. It is an anatomy, if you like, of storymaking. I offer these ideas as ways to extract every possible drop of juice from the story you are telling in your case study.

Questioning and surprise - intelligent noticing and serendipity

You will have 'finds' as you construct your narrative. Be prepared to use these - to use surprise and serendipity. Samuel Johnson (1759/1963) (that's the famous eighteenth-century Dr Johnson) put it well: 'Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.' We shouldn't ignore these just because they fall outside the bounds of some prescribed method. When inventors and creative thinkers give us an insight into the ways that they think, it is clear that the generalisation, if it is significant, is secondary to metaphor, inspiration and imagination.

Storr (1997: 176) gives many examples of this kind of intuition in which a solution suddenly appears - he quotes from mathematician Gauss, for instance: 'Like a sudden flash of lightning, the riddle happened to be solved. I myself cannot say what was the conducting thread which connected what I previously knew with what made my success possible.' The same happens in social inquiry and a case study seems to be the ideal vehicle for this kind of insight, as long as it is enabled by a spirit of curiosity and not snuffed out in a relentless search for generality.

Heuristic and incremental chunking

Heuristic comes from the Greek heuriskein, meaning 'to discover'. It's from the same root as Archimedes' 'Eureka'. Archimedes, of course, jumped out of the bath with the solution to the problem of how to tell if his king's new crown was made of pure gold or had been adulterated with silver. We now use the term heuristic to mean an explanation that is assumed to be the best in the circumstances and 'for the time being'. Heuristics don't have to be the best for evermore.

How do we get to that Eureka moment? How, in other words, are the elements woven together? What depends on what? Where are there contradictions or paradoxes? This 'Eureka' of intuition, if dissected, is similar to Simon's (1983) tacit processes of incremental chunking. It is the putting together of related information to make a story. Be confident in doing this.

Narrative diachronicity

Narrative diachronicity? Oo-er. Not the most user-friendly term. Thanks, Professor Bruner. 'Diachronic' means changing over time. So, narrative diachronicity means 'a story that changes over time'. (I know: why couldn't he say that in the first place? Someone call the Plain English Campaign.)

Someone doing a case study should be acutely aware of change over time - and not only in a diachronic study (see page 149). He or she notices change as it happens and seeks its antecedents and consequences. We have to find the 'sequence of steps', as Becker puts it (1992: 209), and understand cause in relation to time, with 'each step understood as preceding in time the one that follows it'. In doing this, we conjecture not only about how one thing is related to another but also how cause and effect change with time as other variables in a situation also change. Becker (1992: 209) gives an example:

Causes may be seen to operate, but now it is possible to treat a given casual variable as operating in different ways (or indeed not at all) at different steps in the process. In an analysis of heroin addiction, race might be a crucial variable in explaining exposure to the possibility of using drugs, but once a person has started to use drugs, race might play no further part in affecting whether people so exposed in fact use drugs, or, having used them, become addicted to their use.

So, time may switch on or switch off the potency of a variable and it is important to be aware of this since its significance is one of the ready-made, built-in advantages of the case study. While a reductionist inquiry shows the patchy significance of a variable only with great difficulty, a case study ought - by stressing the importance of the diachronic - to show how a variable such as race (in Becker's example) may ebb and flow in its significance.


In her novel Under the Net, Iris Murdoch (2002) has one of her characters come out with this line: 'All theorising is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular.' This is perhaps at variance with the advice I have been giving about the need for theorising and there is an apparent contradiction here. Certainly, if theory is about generalisation, there is a tension to be resolved - something I discuss further on page 211.

Without going into the ins and outs of this now, what Murdoch is getting at is that there is a uniqueness to a particular situation and we should seek to understand this without what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1967: 2) calls the 'irritable search for order'. We should not always judge this situation and its significance by reference to others but by reference to the particular.

This may call for a special effort of will from the student or professional researcher, given the ever-present desire to establish, develop and refer to a certain kind of generalising theory among social scientists.

Intentional state entailment

Bruner notes that we should observe not just what people do, but what they think and feel. It is their beliefs, intentions, hopes, desires and values that are important. There is nothing different here from the thick description of the interpretive inquirer (see page 124). It should be the unselfconscious hallmark of those doing case studies.

Breaching the canon ... and counter-factuality

Using the rather ugly word canonicity, Bruner (1991: 11) asks us to consider what is usual, normal, in a line of reasoning or the unfolding of an argument or a story. This is the 'canon' - it's the realm of what we expect. By suddenly throwing a spanner in the works, we can jolt our readers into thinking differently - perhaps differently enough to imagine an alternative explanation or a different state of affairs.

As narratives, case studies have the function of letting us understand and recognise how they differ from what is normal or expected. They let us guess how and why this may be so. Feyerabend (1993) suggested that we may use counterrules. These are hypotheses that contradict well-established thinking of one kind of another. Kuhn (1970: 52) suggested something similar in what he called the 'awareness of anomaly'.

Such a breach can be engineered by the deliberate introduction of an imaginary change of understanding, which is why I've taken the liberty of adding 'counter-factuality' (Kahneman and Tversky, 1973; Mandel et al., 2005) to the heading above using Bruner's phrase.

Counter-factuality is the imagination of a different state of affairs. This might exist if a particular event (usually, though not necessarily, a key one) had not occurred or if there had been some other outcome from it. Counter-factuality exists, in other words, in 'What if ... ?' questions.

The idea has been employed by historians (Ferguson, 1999), though it has not been widely used as part of the method for carrying out a case study in the social sciences. I'd like to see it used more. Ragin (2007: 63) has discussed its use, as has Lebow (2007). Interestingly, Ruth Byrne (2005) discusses how central a role counter-factuality takes in our everyday reasoning, showing how different kinds of reasoning - 'What if ..?', 'If only ...', 'Even if ...' - can be refracted through the counter-factuality lens. If only more case study inquiries (or, indeed, inquiries in general) used such aids to the imagination ...

Context sensitivity and negotiability

Perhaps in the same way that Barthes (1974) talks about 'writerly' texts, in which the meaning is (perhaps confusingly) created by the reader (as distinct from 'readerly' texts), so the assumption should be that the interpretation of the case is embedded in the inquirer's (and the reader's) own experiences.

Interpretation is personal. It is sensitivity to context that enables readers to make sense of the narrative of the case and agree or disagree with the research. As Bruner (1991: 17) puts it: 'You tell your story, I tell mine, and we rarely need legal confrontation to settle the difference.'


We make sense of the unfamiliar by reference to the familiar, drawing likenesses between one situation and another. We use our own knowledge to do this, our 'common sense'. Our understanding is based on myriad personal interpretations we weave together into meaningful stories that help us to make sense of similar events and situations, similar plotlines.

The narrative that a case study lets you draw can be the ideal frame for enabling such analogy and metaphor. Tavor Bannet (1997: 655) discusses analogy and, interestingly, says that it is a, 'method of reasoning from the known to the unknown, and from the visible to the speculative' by carrying familiar terms and images across into unfamiliar territory. It is like a form of translation, 'a way of transporting something from place to place, from old to new, from original to copy', and we can therefore move from one context to another. We bring together, juxtapose and see similarities across contexts.

In discussing the importance of narrative in the case study, Abbott (1992) suggests that we should always be seeking what he calls 'causal narrativity', but I personally prefer to suggest that, in social science, we are, as with 'theory', making connections rather than trying to find causes. Becker (1998: 60-61) puts this very nicely: he suggests that the use of the word 'cause' is a misnomer in social research, given its complexity, so, we should see ourselves as seeking narrative rather than a cause:

Assume that whatever you want to study has, not causes, but a history, a story, a narrative, a 'first this happened, then that happened, and then the other happened, and it ended up like this.' With this view we understand the occurrence of events by learning the steps in the process by which they came to happen, rather than by learning the conditions that made their existence necessary.

It is the case study that enables such creativity - allows you to suggest these bridges and passages between ideas.



Abbott, A. (1992) 'What do cases do? Some notes on activity in sociological analysis', in C.C. Ragin and H.S. Becker, What is a case? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, R. (R. Miller, trans.) (1974) S/Z. New York: Hill & Wang.

Becker, H.S. (1992) 'Cases, causes, conjunctures, stories, imagery', in C.C. Ragin and H.S. Becker, What is a Case? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, H.S. (1998) Tricks of the Trade. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bruner, J. (1991) 'The narrative construction of reality', Critical Inquiry, 18(1): 1-21.

Bruner, J. (1997) The culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Byrne, R.M.J. (2005) The Rational Imagination: How people create alternatives to reality. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ferguson, N. (1999) Virtual History: Alternatives and counterfactuals. New York: Basic Books.

Feyerabend, P. (1993) Against Method (3rd edn). London: Verso/New Left Books.

Johnson, S. (1759/1963) 'The Idler, no. 58, Universal Chronicle', in W.J. Bate, J.M. Bullitt and L.F. Powell (eds). Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 2. London: Yale University Press.

Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1973) 'On the psychology of prediction', Psychological Review, 80 (4): 237-51.

Kuhn, T.S. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lebow, R.N. (2007) 'Counterfactual thought experiments: a necessary teaching tool', The History Teacher, 40 (2) (available online at:

Mandel, D.R., Hilton, D.J. and Catellani, P. (2005) The psychology of Counterfactual Thinking. Abingdon: Routledge

Murdoch, I. (2002) Under the Net. London: Vintage.

Oakeshott, M. (1967) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen.

Ragin, C.C. (2007) 'Comparative methods', in W. Outhwaite and S.P. Turner, The SAGE Handbook of Social Science Methodology. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Pp. 67-81.

Simon, H. (1983) Reason in Human Affairs. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Storr, A. (1997) Feet of Clay: A study of gurus. London: Harper Colli