Generalizability in Case Study Research

Portions of the following article are modified excerpts from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 307-326)

Case study research has been the focus of several articles in Research Design Review. These articles range from discussions on case-centered research (i.e., case study and narrative research) generally — “Multi-method & Case-centered Research: When the Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts,” “Lighting a Path to Guide Case-Centered Research Design: A Six-Step Approach,” and “Ethical Considerations in Case-Centered Qualitative Research” — to articles where the subject matter is specific to case study research — “Case Study Research: An Internal-External Classification.”generalizability

One of the controversies associated with case study research designs centers on “generalization” and the extent to which the data can explain phenomena or situations outside and beyond the specific scope of a particular study. On the one hand, there are researchers such as Yin (2014) who espouse “analytical generalization” whereby the researcher compares (or “generalizes”) case study data to existing theory1. From Yin’s perspective, case study research is driven by the need to develop or test theory, giving single- as well as multiple-case study research explanatory powers — “Some of the best and most famous case studies have been explanatory case studies” (Yin, 2014, p. 7).

Diane Vaughan’s research is a case study referenced by Yin (2014) as an example of a single-case research design that resulted in outcomes that provided broader implications (i.e., “generalized”) to similar contexts outside the case. In both The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (1996) and “The Trickle-Down Effect: Policy Decisions, Risky Work, and the Challenger Tragedy” (1997), Vaughan describes the findings and conclusions from her study of the circumstances that led to the Challenger disaster in 1986. By way of scrutinizing archival documents and conducting interviews, Vaughan “reconstructed the history of decision making” and ultimately discovered “an incremental descent into poor judgment” (1996, p. xiii). More broadly, Vaughan used this study to illustrate “how deviance in organizations is transformed into acceptable behavior,” asserting, for example, that “administrators in offices removed from the hands-on risky work are easily beguiled by the myth of infallibility” (1997, p. 97).

In contrast to Yin (2014), there are researchers such as Stake (1995), who believes that the purpose of case study research is “particularization, not generalization” (p. 8), and Thomas (2010), who rejects the concept of theoretical generalizability in case study research, believing instead that “the goal of social scientific endeavor, particularly in the study of cases, should be exemplary knowledge . . . that can come from [the] case . . . rather than [from] its generalizability” (p. 576). Thomas goes further in asserting that simply attempting to generalize case study data will have the detrimental effect of dampening the researcher’s “curiosity and interpretation” of the outcomes.

So, the prospective case study researcher is left with somewhat of a dilemma:

  • Is my goal to generalize my case study to some greater theory?
  • Is my goal to envelop myself in this particular case in order to find in-depth meaning and derive valid interpretations of the data for this case, and not to apply my results to a preconceived theory?
  • Or do I want to strike some kind of balance and focus my analysis on “both the emergent theory that is the research objective and the rich empirical evidence that supports the theory” (Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007, p. 29)?


1 Smith (2018) provides a broader discussion of analytical generalization along with three other types of generalizability in qualitative research, i.e., naturalistic, transferable, and intersectional.

Eisenhardt, K. M., & Graebner, M. E. (2007). Theory building from cases: Opportunities and challenges. Academy of Management Journal, 50(1), 25–32.

Smith, B. (2018). Generalizability in qualitative research: misunderstandings, opportunities and recommendations for the sport and exercise sciences. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 10(1), 137–149.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Thomas, G. (2010). Doing case study: Abduction not induction, phronesis not theory. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(7), 575–582.

Vaughan, D. (1996). The Challenger launch decision: Risky technology, culture, and deviance at NASA. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Vaughan, D. (1997). The trickle-down effect: Policy decisions, risky work, and the Challenger tragedy. California Management Review, 39(2), 80–102.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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