Case study and generalisation

Hammersley, M.; Foster, P. and Gomm, R. (2000). Case study and generalisation. In: Gomm, R.; Hammersley, M. and Foster, P. eds. Case Study Method: Key Issues, Key Texts. London: Sage, pp. 98–115.



Case study research has often been criticized on the grounds that its findings are not generalizable, especially by comparison with those of survey research. The response of some case study researchers to this criticism has been to deny that their work is designed to produce scientific generalizations.

In this paper we will begin by examining the arguments for naturalistic generalization and transferability. We will conclude that while these notions capture one way in which case study research may be used - by other researchers as well as by lay people - they do not offer a substitute for the drawing of general conclusions in research reports. Indeed, we will suggest that to deny the possibility of case studies providing the basis for empirical generalizations is to accept the views of their critics too readily. We also point out that, in practice, much case study research has in fact put forward empirical generalizations. Indeed we suggest that in at least one respect this is unavoidable. We draw a distinction between generalization across and within cases, though we also note the similarities between the two; and we outline the strategies case study researchers can use to make reasonably secure generalizations of each kind. At the same time, we emphasize that the necessary precautions have not always been taken, and that the danger of error in dtawing general conclusions from a small number of cases must not be underestimated. We will illustrate these points with examples from case study research in education, but we claim that our arguments are applicable more widely!

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