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Learning from case studies

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  • UserPetri Ylikoski (University of Helsinki)
  • ClockWednesday 04 November 2020, 13:00-14:30
  • HouseZoom.

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The case study is one of the most important research designs in many social scientific fields, but no shared understanding exists of the epistemic import of case studies. One of the perennial challenges of case study research has been the problem of generalization. Social scientists expect to learn something more general from case studies, but articulating how this ‘generalization’ works has proved to be difficult. From early on, there has been an agreement that case studies cannot produce statistical generalizations and that statistical measures of representativeness are not adequate for the purposes of case study research. However, a generally acceptable alternative view has failed to emerge. Sociologist Howard S. Becker argues in his What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from Cases (2014) that case study research is about learning about social mechanisms. Rather than being about timeless generalizations about relations between variables, case studies help us to learn about social mechanisms, or logics of situation, that produce great variety of social experiences depending on contextual details. My aim is to provide a philosophical reconstruction of this idea. For Becker, the notion of a mechanism is basically a useful metaphor that captures salient dynamical features of some recurring social situations. I suggest that a more systematic idea about mechanism-based theorizing developed within so-called analytical sociology could be employed to make sense of case studies.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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