Case study method in anthropology

Karen Sykes, Anthropology.

A paraphrase of Gluckman’s thoughts on the case study captures the essence of the method:

Anthropologists use ‘case’ in a slightly different way than some legal scholars or psychoanalysts, either of whom might use cases to illustrate their points or theories. Anthropologists often describe a case first, and then extract a general rule or custom from it, in the manner of inductive reasoning. Most often, the event is complex, or even a series of events, and we call these social situations, which can be analysed to show that the different conflictive perspectives on them are enjoined in the same social system (and not based in the assumption of cultural difference as a prima face condition of anthropological inquiry).

The case study, as a part of ‘situational analysis,’ is a vital approach that is used in anthropological research in the postcolonial world. In it we use the actions of individuals and groups within these situations to exhibit the morphology of a social structure, which is most often held together by conflict itself. Each case is taken as evidence of the stages in the unfolding process of social relations between specific persons and groups. When seen as such, we can dispense with the study of sentiment as accidental eruptions of emotions, or as differences of individual temperament, and bring depth to the study of society by penetrating surface tensions to understand how conflict constructs human experiences and gives shape to these as ‘social dramas’, which are the expressions of cultural life.

Experts/users at Manchester

The Case Study Method in Anthropology is used in many different research projects from ethnography of urban poverty, through studies of charismatic Christian movements, Cultural Property and in visual methods.

  • Professor Caroline Moser - Caroline Moser, Professor of Urban Development and Director of GURC uses variations of the case study in her uses of the participatory urban appraisal methods to conduct research into peace processes, urban violence, as well as climate change.
  • Dr Andrew Irving - Andrew Irving has used variations of the case study as social drama when examining life-events of his informants, as way to access their thoughts about immanence of death (which he calls interior knowledge).
  • Professor Karen Sykes - Karen Sykes originally experimented with the use of case study method in order to understand how people came to see cultural property rights as a legal device to protect their cultural life from exploitation. Her book “Culture and Cultural Property in the New Guinea Islands Region: Seven Case Studies” was co-authored with J. Simet and S. Kamene and features the work of five female students at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Key references

Evens, T. M. S. and D. Handelman (2007) The Manchester School: Practice and ethnographic praxis in anthropology, Oxford: Berghahn. This book deals with the Case Study method as the cornerstone of all of the Manchester School methodologies.

Turner, V. (1953) Schism and Continuity in an African Society, Manchester University Press for the Rhodes Livingstone Institute. Turner’s first use of the social drama as a version of the case study method.

Mitchell, C. (1983) Case and Situation Analysis, Sociological Review, 31: 187 – 211. The definitive paper on Situational Analysis which can be compared to van Velson on the extended case method.

Van Velson, J. (1967) The Extended Case Method and Situational Analysis in Epstein, A. L., 1967, The Craft of Anthropology, London: Tavistock. This edited book collected chapters by Manchester School members on various approaches to anthropology.

PDF slides

Download PDF slides of the presentation 'What is a case study ... in anthropology?'