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The case for the case study; what Imelda Marcos, Nikita Khrushchev, and Niccolo Machiavelli could teach the American Political Science Association.

The Case for the Case Study

In a classroom of graduate students in Harvard's department of government, students hunch over spiral notebooks, copying down terms from a lecture. "Theoretical linking structure." "Criterion of falsifiability." A professor, book in hand, reads a passage on the fallacy of falsification. "I remember the feeling I had when I first read this," he says, rhapsodically, "the feeling of scales falling from my eyes."

He scans the room. No scales falling here. One student has his open textbook propped up against the table. Nestled inside it is a book of comic strips. He turns a page discreetly.

Welcome to the world of quantitative theory, the preeminent discipline in university departments of political science. Combining mathematical modelling and sophisticated statistical analysis, quantitative theory tests hypotheses and derives principles for political behavior. "This is theory," emphasizes the professor, "as opposed to common sense."

In another classroom across the Cambridge campus, apostates hold a different sort of service. A student in the front row has been waving her hand since class began. The professor, pacing three rows back, finally swings around and points. "You. You're OMB." She smiles. "A hundred-and-thirty-five million dollars per expected life saved is too much," she says. "I'm not gonna pay it."

The classroom becomes a sea of hands. The professor hustles back and forth, barking questions, rapping on desks: You're Ford. The election is three months from tomorrow. What do you do? The subject is the swine flu vaccine. The students, mid-level federal bureaucrats in real life, are now cabinet members and agency directors, fighting out alternatives, discussing consequences, compromising, caucusing, and consolidating power. And while they're arguing the particulars of flu strains and campaign decisions, they're learning something enduring: the anatomy of political decision-making. The tool of this impressive trade? It's called the case study.

Within a political science establishment that emphasizes statistics and theoretical modeling, the case study is widely regarded as a poor relation. At the Kennedy School, its basic unit of currency is a 15- to 20-page paper that spells out the facts relevant to an actual event in government or politics, emphasizing the personalities of both the people and bureaucracies involved. Of course, many topics demand case studies of book length--Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, her tremendously insightful account of the origins of World War I, is but one example. What case studies have in common isn't length but the ability to recreate the historical moment, in all its complexity and idiosyncrasy.

At the Kennedy School, the case study is a hit. The Ford Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the National League of Cities, and other organizations have contributed millions to fund the development of new cases. And each year, nearly a thousand government professionals make the pilgrimage to Cambridge to hear Richard Neustadt, Ernest May, and other case-study gurus lead the arguments over Reagan and Lebanon, AIDS and the insurance industry, and other issues in American policy, prominent and obscure.

While the case study has fluorished at the Kennedy School, its true and tremendous potential remains untapped. The American Council on Education, the nation's largest higher-education trade organization, collects information on many forms of teaching; but not the case study. Out of the dozens of scholarly journals in the field of political science, none reviews case studies. No journal publishes them; no organization of advocates exists. "People aren't looking at the case study method much," says Jerry Stohler, of the American Educational Research Association, the country's leading organization for research on teaching techniques. "It's not what you'd call a big issue."

That oversight is what you'd call a big issue. The case study has the ability to rescue political science, and much of history, from the dreary quantification and abstraction that have befogged it. In many professional disciplines, including law, business, and medicine, the idea of educating students without the case study would be unfathomable. But the case study methodology needn't be reserved for professional school. Used wisely, it can inject sex appeal into government studies not only at the undergraduate level but even in high schools. The case study method can be adapted to teach virtually any lesson from political science and history--how wars start, how labor movements win, where good intentions can go awry. But the case study's most important message may be its most subtle--the idea that individuals matter. Case studies drive home, the way that mathematical modelling cannot, the complex interplay between personality and institutional culture that shapes politics and drives human events.

A quick look at the latest figures on voter turnout or cultural literacy emphasizes the need for the case study. Are these the people you want electing your next president? (Or staffing your local government?) Finding better ways to teach chemistry produces better chemists; finding better ways to teach politics and history makes better democracy.

The bureaucrats' tap dance

You. You're John Kennedy. It's October 16, 1962, and you've just had a really lousy morning. At 8:45 a.m. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, barreled into your bedroom with bad news: aerial reconnaissance photos show launch sites for medium-range nuclear missiles being installed by the Soviets 90 miles off the Florida coast, in Cuba.

The Kennedy administration's handling of the Cuban missile crisis (and how it differed from the Bay of Pigs) is probably the most famous of the Harvard case studies. It illustrates the nuances of the exercise of power that cases, at their best, can reveal. One important reason for the administration's earlier disaster at the Bay of Pigs, the president now realized, was the excessive trust he had placed in the chain of command. When Richard Bissell, the CIA's deputy director for planning, confidently promised that wholesale numbers of Cuban discontents would break ranks and fight Castro as soon as the invasion force landed, the leaders of the new administration bought it. Subtle warnings existed, but the president didn't know how to read them. So when the Joint Chiefs wrote in memo that the invasion had "a fair chance" of succeeding, Kennedy took it as an endorsement. In fact that tip-toe language was simply part of a bureaucratic dance intended to avoid offending the CIA: the service chiefs later explained that they were trying to warn of three-to-one odds against the invasion's success. Though a former war hero himself, Kennedy later told Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. that he had deferred to the military mystique. "If someone comes in to tell me this or that about the minimum wage bill, I have no hesitation in overruling them," he said. "But you always assume that the military and intelligence people have some secret still not available to ordinary mortals."

By the time of the missile crisis 18 months later, Kennedy had become more savvy about bureaucratic self-interest. He had also, as it happens, been reading Tuchman's The Guns of August, which illumines the dangers of reading the wrong signals from one's opponents. With Tuchman's account of World War I in mind, Kennedy, determined to do all he could to avoid war, was encouraged to seek friendly factions in the Kremlin and to scrutinize the most hawkish ones in his own bureaucracy. In convening a special Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), he found a way to balance the bureaucracy's advice with that of outsiders whose judgment he valued. Among them, for example, was Robert Lovett, the former Truman defense secretary (and a registered Republican). When Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and an esteemed Kennedy advisor, urged a surgical strike against the missiles, it was Lovett, himself once a navy flier, who reminded everyone how unsurgical airstrikes tend to be. Another ExComm member who made an important contribution was Llewellyn Thompson, an experienced diplomat with a feel for the rivalries within the Kremlin. When the Soviets shot down an American surveillance plane during the crisis, many of Kennedy's advisors saw the move as a conscious elevation of hostility; Thompson advised that it was probably just the Soviet military--a bureaucracy as hidebound as any--following its routine. And the most important outsider of all, of course, was Robert Kennedy, who, as attorney general, had no foreign policy or defense credentials, but who brought to the table brains and a freedom from institutional loyalties. Robert Kennedy played a pivotal role, both in arguing for a blockade instead of an airstrike and in conducting the secret negotiations with Anatoly Dobyrnin that assured the Soviets of the subsequent removal of American missiles in Turkey.

The administration's sensitivity to organizational behavior served it well as the crisis peaked. Two puzzling cables from the Kremlin arrived--one, long and rambling, seemed to accede to the demand to withdraw the missiles; the other, terse and official, appeared to retract that offer. What to do? Realizing that the different cables could reflect different Soviet power blocs, Kennedy simply ignored the second and responded to the first. The next day, Khrushchev agreed, and the world's closest brush with full-scale nuclear war was over.

Staying awake

The missile crisis combines two of the case study method's best attributes: excitement and nuance. "Part of what I'm trying to do is to teach them about institutions and how they actually work," says Fritz Mayer, a former case-study instructor at Harvard who now teaches public policy at Duke. "The problem with the quantitative approach is that it misses some of the subtlety, some of the flavor, of real politics." In class, students will sometimes join a role-playing exercise, in which they'll defend a point of view from the personal and institutional perspective of the actual people involved. "It's a high-pressure situation," says James Lieber, a master's student at the Kennedy School. "There's a lot of information coming in. There are very serious people representing very different positions, ranging from the joint chiefs to the attorney general."

You don't need the world poised on the brink of nuclear war in order to have an effective case study. One of Lieber's favorites is an examination of racial politics in suburban Cleveland. Specifically, the case revolves around the decision faced by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency over whether to finance a program meant to promote integration in Shaker Heights. Aimed at preventing the racial "tipping" of neighborhoods, it provided low-interest loans for whites buying in black neighborhoods, and, to a lesser extent, blacks buying in white neighborhoods.

"Suppose I say this is a great policy because it preserves integrated neighborhoods," Lieber says. "And somebody else looks at me and says, `And some bunch of white people has decided how many black people it's okay to have in a neighborhood, and then they'll steer them someplace else. You are in effect dispersing a black power base before it can consolidate, so you can't elect black political representatives.'

"So all of a sudden," Lieber says, "I feel confused--how can I seek integration without doing all this stuff that this other person has said is racist? Analysis of these things frequently reveals ramifications that people hadn't seen earlier."

Other examples that have gained students' enthusiastic endorsement:

Should the government finance kidney dialysis for everyone who needs it? "You had two students screaming at each other," says Sandeep Puri, a Kennedy School graduate. "This topic segued into another: the whole issue of whether to legalize laetrile, which became a discussion of paternalism, actually--when do you relax John Stuart Mill's absolute prohibition against paternalism. What about cigarettes and alcohol?"

Why did the neutron bomb meet with such a political stomping? "You could see huge institutional forces at work," says Bruce Auster, another Kennedy School graduate. "The president had antidetente forces haranguing him, and then The Washington Post describes the weapon as one that kills people but not buildings, and that plays into all kinds of psychological concerns that the Europeans had about becoming the next battlefield.

"One aspect of it is that it's a very active method," Auster says. "You're not being told things. You're contributing."

"I'll be candid," says Suneel Ratan, a Kennedy School student. "A lot of times around here you're functioning on four hours' sleep. In some of the classes where a teacher is drawing a graph on a board, I've had trouble staying awake. I haven't had that problem in the case study classes."

Cheerleaders and higher math

You. You're an undergraduate studying political science at a Hot College. The odds are pretty good that you'll glide right through school without studying much history. (And much of the history that you do study has the same theoretical pretensions as political science.) Nor will you get much sense of the institutional context of political power. The most recent survey by the American Political Science Association of undergraduate political science departments shows that fewer than one-fifth require their majors to take a single course in public policy or administration. A study by Dean McHenry, a political scientist, reported that only a sixth of the nation's graduate-level core courses in comparative politics had syllabi that include such essentials as "bureaucracy" or "administration."

The lack of politics in political science is old news. Once upon a time, of course, political science was dominated by what today's social scientists call the "participant-observer": men like Hobbes, Machiavelli, Madison, and Jefferson, who knew little about regression analysis and much about the workings of power. In the beginning of the twentieth century, as the modern discipline evolved, early political scientists divided into roughly two groups. One was an intellectually soft form of civics, a cheerleading exercise meant to encourage students to participate in politics. The other took its cues from scientific disciplines that were winning increasing prestige. Darwin had found the science behind evolution, Freud the science of the mind--was there not a science of politics waiting to be unveiled? Science-envy grew even stronger in the postwar years, as political thinkers wanted to enjoy the same status accorded physicists, who had unlocked the secrets of nuclear explosions, and Keynesians, who claimed to have divined the quantifiable principles of economic behavior. Doting on actual political experience seemed outmoded and "soft."

While scientific supremacy has begun to retreat in recent years, the mass migration of academics in the 1970s toward quantifiable subjects continues to echo. (Tenure helps keep the dons of quantification entrenched.) Coming unaware upon the American Political Science Review, the preeminent journal in the field, one would be forgiven for mistaking it for a journal of higher math. How much support can an incumbent expect when running for reelection to the U.S. Senate? The "Incumbent Support Model," featured in a 1988 issue, provides a handy formula--IV = a + b1P + b2I + b3cd + b4d + b5s + b6c + b7b + b8pc + b9pm + b10i$ + b11cps + b12cc + b13c$ + b14npc + b15mt + e--to conclude that the guy with the most money gets the most votes. Most of the time, that is. What you won't find in the journal, however, is an analysis of some of the seminal political issues of the decade: Iran-contra, the Reagan military build-up, terrorism in the Middle East. Between 1973 and 1975 not a single article on Watergate or Vietnam was published there.

Tenure track flak

Of course, bad case studies can be just as much of a dead end as the worst computer models. The success of the case study method depends both on having quality studies and having skilled teachers to tease out the right lessons. You do need to understand trends and employ analysis; statistics and quantifiable data can be important. The best cases--and the best case study instructors--know how to marry the flesh and blood of actual occurrence with the proper analysis.

Ironically, the Kennedy School has been both a pioneer of the case study method, with all its potential to explore broad lessons of politics, and a bastion of narrow and quantitative practice. (See "Harvard vs. Democracy," by Jonathan Alter, March 1983.) While the quantifiers who have helped earn the school its reputation as a "temple of technocracy" also use cases, they often employ them in a narrow and managerial way. "Too often in Kennedy School case studies, students aren't encouraged to ask: Is this right? Is it wrong?," says Bruce Auster. "Instead they're left to do what's considered bureaucratically realistic. Cases had you define three options and encouraged you to pick the middle road."

Today, a civil war of sorts is being waged between cliques of Kennedy School faculty. On the one hand are those who continue to emphasize the technical skills of being a civil servant. In opposition are faculty members who want the curriculum to pay more attention to the rough and tumble of actual politics, to immerse students in the nature of political situations. Though members of either faction might enlist case studies in their cause, it's the latter--those who understand politics to be imprecise rather than scientific--who can wring the fullest value from the cases. Credit the Kennedy School for making better use of case studies than most other places; but keep in mind that even at the Kennedy School their full potential remains untapped.

Throughout the country, the system of academic reward and punishment offers case study practitioners little of the former and much of the latter. In the world of publish-or-perish, academic incentives promote technical research, not effective teaching. Given the academic's need to publish, political scientists who venture away from mathematical modeling may be venturing away from the tenure track, too. "Just because writing and teaching cases seems to be a good way to convey knowledge doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to write them," says Richard Ellmore, professor of educational administration and adjunct professor of political science at Michigan State. "It has to be part of the reward structure. Since [writing case studies] is down on the list of things that you get credit for doing, most people will do other work first."

Blood for kids

The incentives aren't much better at the high school level, where case studies could enliven texts that are as bloodless as those typically used in college. Science envy, it seems, trickles down. High school texts spice up their commentary with allusions to "situational factors," "probability sampling," and "solidarity groups." In the literature of education reform, scathing critiques of high-school civics texts are abundant: "superficial and uninspired," says Ernest Boyer in his reform-minded High School. "Students are not even beginning to have an understanding of the institutions that govern us."

The vogue in high school teaching now is "coverage," a dash past important dates, places, and people that leaves little time for sustained inquiry. This trend is driven by the elevation of test scores (usually from multiple-choice tests) as a way of judging a school district's success. And as merit pay gains acceptance, failure to teach the test can affect a teacher's pocketbook too. Alan Lockwood of the University of Wisconsin, author of one of the few existing high school texts based on the case method, was turned down by a half dozen commercial textbook publishers before Columbia Teacher's College decided to bring out his book. While a popular high school textbook might sell 10 million copies, Lockwood's has sold 25,000 since 1985. "They all said, `This is great stuff, but we can't take the economic chance,'" Lockwood says. "It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any author of case studies to get major commercial publishers to handle them."

One bit of good news comes from California--which accounts for about 10 percent of the national school textbook market. Bill Honig, the state's innovative superintendent of schools, recently announced plans for a major overhaul of social studies, involving grades K through 12, with a new emphasis on--that's right--case studies. Honig said California is promoting a new curriculum because history had grown too "conceptual. Kids need the specifics: time, place, and people."

"You can say to the kind, `You argue for England's position after the French-American war,'" Honig says. "You say, `We just fought a war to protect you--shouldn't you pay some of the costs?' What you're making the person do is understand the facts and argue the rationales back and forth."

A case of Cory

You. Put down that Incumbent Support Model. You're a student in Marvin Kalb's Kennedy School course on the press and politics, reading case study # C16-88-868.0, The Fall of Marcos. The case, a 25-page paper, sets the dictator's 1986 downfall in context, describing the history of U.S.-Filipino friendship, the exile and assassination of Benigno Aquino, and Marcos's announcement of a "snap election" on the David Brinkley show. The case has wide applicability--its author, William Kline, suggests that it be taught in conjunction with a similar look at the fall of the Shah (a despot's demise with less happy consequences) to probe the workings of U.S. foreign policy.

But that's not Kalb's main purpose. He spends 15 minutes adding details to the historical context that the case doesn't mention, says Suneel Ratan, one of Kalb's students, "then he said, `Okay guys, why was there so much coverage in America of Aquino's assassination. After all, this guy's only an opposition leader in a foreign country.'

"The first reason that someone tossed out was the obvious one--the history of close ties. Then someone else said they speak English. And then someone said, `Look at Aquino--when he was banished, he came to Harvard and he made lots of friends among the American intelligentsia. A lot of those influential Americans are also members of the press--when he died, they jumped on it, or got their friends to jump on it." To Ratan, the most memorable part of the case is the fact that Marcos chose the David Brinkley show to announce the election--an indication, he said, of Marcos's contempt for his own people. "I mean, on the David Brinkley show!"

Beth Knoble, a Harvard student working on a doctorate in politics and the media, said that as a result of Kalb's class, she thought of Marcos's attempts to appeal to the U.S. media during Gorbachev's visit to the U.S. "Look at when Gorbachev was in Washington and he stopped on Connecticut Avenue to shake hands," she says. "That was a real media ploy. Doing cases makes you much more aware of what politicians do for policy and what they do for politics.

"They really give students a chance to get into people's minds," she says. "It's a very effective way to teach."
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Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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