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Ethnography and case study: a comparative analysis.


The purpose of the present paper is to describe the unique characteristics of ethnographic and case study research. The central difference between ethnography and case study lies in the study's intention. Ethnography is inward looking, aiming to uncover the tacit knowledge of culture participants. Case study is outward looking, aiming to delineate the nature of phenomena through detailed investigation of individual cases and their contexts. Some practical and theoretical applications of case study research are described. The comparative analysis of ethnography and case study is developed with illustrative examples from education, psychology, and sociology.


A recurring theme of student questions in our graduate classes on qualitative research methodologies involves the differences between types of qualitative research. We describe ethnography, case study, narrative, phenomenology, and action research as qualitative frameworks that use common data collection methods but are distinguishable according to individual characteristics. Nevertheless, the distinction between these qualitative approaches is not so apparent. The most poorly understood term seems to be 'ethnography'. Ogbu, Sato and Kim (1997) attribute the confusion and the misuse of the term 'ethnography' to the sudden rise in the employment of ethnographic methods as a fad in educational research.

Regardless of the reason for the confusion, the most difficult distinction for our students is that between 'ethnography' and 'case study'. Ethnography centers on culture (but so can a case study); case studies investigate an instance of some phenomenon in depth, in order to shed light on the phenomenon (but some ethnographies seem to do this, too). In an ethnographic study, the researcher does in-depth investigation of a unit--be it a tribe, a street gang, or a classroom. In a case study, the researcher may study one individual, but the 'case' may also be a tribe, a street gang, a classroom, or a society. The terms ethnography and case study are used almost interchangeably in many social science research journals. Taft (1997), in fact, discusses ethnography as a case study method (p. 74).

In view of the confusion between these terms, we will attempt to explore the various aspects of ethnography and case study, to elaborate on their boundaries, and to offer a distinction between them.


Ethnography is defined concisely by Fetterman (1998) as "the art and science of describing a group or culture (p.1)." Goetz and LeCompte (1984) say that ethnographies are "analytic descriptions or reconstructions of intact cultural scenes and groups ... (that) recreate for the reader the shared beliefs, practices, artifacts, folk knowledge and behaviors of some group of people" (p.2). Ethnography describes the behaviors, values, beliefs, and practices of the participants in a given cultural setting. However, as Wolcott (1985) writes in his classic article on ethnographic intent, description is not enough to constitute ethnography because "Culture is not lying about, waiting patiently to be discovered; rather, it must be inferred from the words, and actions of members of the group under study ... (p. 192)." Ethnography involves cultural analysis. Analyzing a culture means not simply recounting behaviors and events, but inferring the cultural roles that guide behaviors and events. The intention of ethnography is to capture the everyday, the unwritten laws, conventions and customs that govern the behavior of persons and sub-groups within a culture. Patton (1990) sets a more ambitious challenge for ethnography. He claims that an ethnomethodologist needs to "elucidate what a complete stranger would have to learn to become a routinely functioning member of a group, a program, or a culture" (p. 74). In order to accomplish this goal, Patton argues, the researcher should not be satisfied with in-depth interviews and observations but should perform "ethnomethodological experiments" that "violate the scene" or purposely "shake up" the taken for granted behaviors in that culture, in order to illuminate the roles that lie beneath behavior.

An example from artificial intelligence may help us understand this illumination of rules. One mechanism common in artificial intelligence is the expert system. An expert system is a computer program that 'imitates' the decision making process of an expert in some specific area. Thus, a medical diagnosis expert system would try to imitate the diagnostic physician, asking the users questions that a physician would ask a patient in the process of making a diagnosis. In order to design such a system, the interviewer, in this case a knowledge-engineer, would have to ask and observe the expert and to elicit all the tacit knowledge that the expert calls 'intuition'. From an ethnographic point of view, the knowledge engineer would have to elucidate all the knowledge, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and most important, cognitive strategies, of the group members called 'expert diagnosticians'.

Another concept from artificial intelligence that may be relevant to ethnography is the Turing Test. In 1950, the famous English logician and mathematician Alan Turing devised a test that later was named after him (Turing, 1950). Turing proposed his test as a replacement for the question "Can machines think?" In the test, an interrogator questions two unseen respondents, one a human respondent and the other a computer imitating human responses. Turing's reasoning was that if the computer were indistinguishable from a human being, this would indicate that the computer is an intelligent agent. In the same vein, the ultimate test of an ethnographer would be for a naive member of a specific culture to ask both an ethnographer and a member of that culture to respond to specific questions and perform certain actions. If the judge failed to determine who is the genuine member and who is the 'imposter' ethnographer, this would indicate that the ethnographer has fully identified the characteristics of the group. Furthermore, such an accomplishment would indicate the advantage of an ethnographer over a naive judge. While the naive judge knows when an answer is correct, or when a ritual is performed according to the custom of the specific group, the ethnographer would answer these questions and perform these rituals with an added awareness. That is, the ethnographer would know that behaving in such a manner is a choice, while the original member of that group would behave in that manner automatically without any awareness of choice. Culture has sometimes been described metaphorically as a set of tinted glasses. Participants who have 'worn those glasses' all their lives assume that the world is naturally tinted with their cultural hue. The ethnographer who has identified the palette of a culture's 'glasses' can then put on and remove them. This indicates that the ethnographer has delineated the group's tacit knowledge (cf. Polanyi, 1966) and knows what the participants know but cannot tell.

Thus the ultimate goal of ethnographic study is to create the perfect spy, namely to obtain all the knowledge necessary for a complete stranger to masquerade as a participant, only on the basis of the information obtained from the ethnographer. Application of this idea can be see in the ethnographic study of Tobin, Roth and Zimmerman (2001), who explain that teaching in urban schools, which suffer from violence, lack of resources, and inadequate funding, is difficult. It is even more difficult to learn to teach in urban schools. Yet it has been shown that learning in those locations where one will subsequently be working is the best preparation for teaching. This ethnographic study describes the experiences of a new teacher and how she learned the school culture from within. This 'insider knowledge' enabled her to provide a curriculum that was culturally relevant to her African American students, and acknowledged their minority status with respect to science. With her insider knowledge the teacher was able to help the students pursue the school district standards. Tree understanding of minority groups and sub-cultures, in order to plan and deliver appropriate educational programs, can probably only be achieved through ethnographic work such as this.

There are almost no limits to what humans can do when they meet. However, most cultures have set certain codes as to how to react when two people meet, depending on where they meet, when they last met, who they are and what characterizes their relationship. Identifying these boundaries or restrictions (what is not done) illuminates the behaviors and values within the boundaries (what is done hi that culture). Thus, ethnography is an inward looking process, seeking to uncover tacit knowledge of participants in the specific culture under study, and it is most likely to deal with interpersonal interaction.

Case Study

In defining a 'case', Stake (1995) says that,
 Custom has it that not everything is a case. A child may be a
 case. A teacher may be a case. Nevertheless, her teaching lacks
 the specificity, the boundedness, to be called a case. An
 innovative program may be a case. All the schools in Sweden can
 be a case. However, a relationship among schools, the reasons for
 innovative teaching or the policies of school reform are less
 commonly considered a case. These topics are generalities, rather
 than specifics. The case is a specific, a complex, functioning
 thing (p.2).

The basic intent in the study of such a bounded system (Merriam, 1988, p.9) is the desire to better understand a certain phenomenon. Merriam uses Adelman, Jenkins and Kemmis' (1983) well-known phrase "an instance drawn from a class" to capture this idea. We study a particular case in order to gain detailed understanding of that case, and hope from this understanding to shed light on the wider phenomenon of which that case is an example.

A phenomenon is an analytical construct, whereas instances of a phenomenon occur amongst real people in real-life contexts. Kazdin (2003) offers a different perspective on case study from a clinical psychology point of view. He sees case study as an intensive study of the 'individual' where the individual can be a society, an institution, a group, an incident or one individual person. Case study focuses on complexity and rich illustration. Kazdin sees great value in case study as a source of ideas and hypotheses, a source for new interventions, a way to study rare phenomena or offer counter instances to a notion that is universally accepted, or as a mechanism with persuasive and motivational value. On the other hand, Kazdin points out the limitations of a case study, such as its anecdotal nature, which may distort the true nature of the situation, and its limitations in terms of generalization, which, Kazdin claims, is contradictory to the main goal of scientific research--establishing general 'laws'.

Yin (1994) distinguishes between three types of case studies, descriptive, which aim to present a complete description of a phenomenon; exploratory, which attempt to define a question or examine the feasibility of an in-depth study; and explanatory, which attempt to offer a cause-and-effect relationship. Stake (1995) differentiates between an intrinsic case study, in which the researcher is interested in the case per se, and an instrumental case study through which we aim to learn about a broader phenomenon and not just the specific case.

Case studies may also be categorized based on the research time perspective, namely, past, present or future oriented, and the always, namely the general role oriented case study. In a past oriented case study, we focus on a case in order to learn what happened. In this kind of case study, we want to document a chain of events, like studying the fall of Rome or the causes of the Civil War. Our intent is not to find general rules about war or how to prevent war, or how to conduct war in a better way. Although we may achieve these goals eventually, this is not our original goal. In a present oriented case study we attempt to identify the chain of events in order to find how or why something happened so that we can take specific action. We want to understand why a learning disabled student is not responding to our intervention, in order to change and improve the intervention. What we learn may be applicable to other cases, but that is not our immediate goal. In a future oriented case study we explore an incident in order to prevent it happening again, or to ensure that it will happen again. If a teachers' professional development activity for teachers, leads to full implementation of a new program we might study this case in order to help us design our next professional development activity so that it, too, will be successful. We may in the process also learn some general principles of effective professional development.

In each of these instances, the past, present and future oriented case study aims at concrete, in-depth understanding of a case, for interest's sake or in order to take practical action within that specific realm. While such case studies do not have generalization as their primary goal, the accumulation of such cases does lead toward generalized understanding of phenomena.

Finally, we have the general rule case study where our primary goal is generalization. It is difficult to generalize from one case, unless this case is unique and the chain of event is very dramatic. For example, if we find a drug that makes a tumor disappear, or a treatment that leads to the full recovery of an AIDS patient, we may formulate a general rule. Clearly this rule must then be tested with a substantial number of other cases before it can be widely accepted.

In our quest for understanding we need not seek out only the different and the dramatic. We can learn from both ordinary and extra-ordinary cases. Studying the poor black youngster from the ghetto who becomes a Nobel laureate, we learn about extraordinary effort and motivation. Studying an autistic child whose parents work with him intensively so that he functions well in regular society, we learn about the boundaries of autism and the dynamics of the family. In order to learn about the causes of and remedies for violence in the schools, we may study a school with high levels of violence or a school with virtually no violence, and in both cases we grow in understanding of the phenomenon of violence in the school. In medicine, we may study an individual in order to understand the development of an illness; in law, all precedents are actually case studies from which students can learn and draw inferences to similar cases.

Case study is outward looking. From the details of the case, we want to grow, to expand our knowledge and refine our behavior. This means both intensive study of the case itself and extrapolation (a more appropriate word than generalization) to other cases and to the nature of the phenomenon. Intensive study of the case is done through multiple data sources. This means not only participant observation and interviews as in ethnography, but extensive document analysis and, not infrequently, the use of quantitative as well as qualitative data. The historical and social context of the case must be understood as well, in order to reach meaningful conclusions. The final analysis is likely to be organized according to themes, which, while they grow out of intensive study of the particular case, expand our understanding of the phenomenon, and give us a framework within which to view other cases.

Closing Words

Despite common methods of data collection, there is a difference between ethnography and case study. That difference lies in the intention of the study. Ethnography is inward looking and, as we have described it metaphorically, aims to create the perfect spy. Case study is outward looking and aims, based on intensive study of a case, to contribute to our understanding of a phenomenon. The difference is not merely semantic. A study's intention should influence formulation of research questions, approaches to data analysis and interpretation, and dissemination of results.


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Benfer, RA, Furbee L, & Brent, E.E. (1996). Expert systems and the representation of knowledge. American Ethnologist, 23(2), 416-420.

Fetterman, D. (1998). Ethnography step by step (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Goetz, J. & LeCompte, M. (1984). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research. San Diego: Academic Press.

Kazdin, A. E. (2003). Research design in clinical psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Merriam, S. (1988). Case study research in education: A qualitative approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ogbu, J. U., Sato, N. E., & Kim, E. -Y. (1997). Anthropological inquiry. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.), Educational research, methodology and measurement: An international handbook (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Pergamon Press.

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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

Taft, R. (1997). Ethnographic research methods. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.), Educational research, methodology and measurement: An international handbook (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Pergamon Press.

Tobin, K., Roth, W. & Zimmerman, A. (2001). Learning to teach science in urban schools. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38(8), 941-964.

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460.

Wolcott, H. (1985). On ethnographic intent. Educational Administration Quarterly, 21, 187-203.

Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Arie Cohen, Bar-Ilan University, Israel Deborah Court, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Arie Cohen is a professor in the School of Education. Deborah Court is a lecturer in the School of Education.
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Author:Court, Deborah
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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