Home > Identity, Uncategorized > Case Study and Ethnography compared

Case Study and Ethnography compared

The purpose of my blog is and always has been as a personal record of my progress of becoming a researcher, and share that record to assist personal reflexivity.  In my first six months, and what can only be called a false start can be regarded as a useful period of learning and reflection.  Since then my progress has been steady, with research philosophy completed, research methods underway, a new topic chosen, and finally a new proposal submitted.  This hard work was rewarded this week with my place as part-time post graduate student confirmed by Strathclyde Business School.


One thing that surprises me in the academic world is the tremendous depth to the academic canon, within disciplines, sub-fields and subjects.  This is no different in the area of organisational identity study literature, nevertheless, this seems to be a mere shadow of the work done in research philosophies, methodology, and methods.


From my last blog entry I identified both case study and ethnography as two research methods that were commonly used in Identity studies.  Since then I have been attempting to compare and contrast these methods/methodologies and have come off a little shell shocked!  So much has been written about both approaches.  There are positivist slanted case studies in order to get closest to acceptable science, and emergent subjective alternatives. There are many flavours of ethnography from studying the exotic or the mundane, getting close to the action, or in the case of self-ethnography (not to be confused here with auto-ethnography) distancing oneself sufficiently from the action (Alvesson, 2003).


Case study and ethnography have many similarities, and can use common data collection methods such as observation, interviews, documents, and archival analysis (Tellis, 1997).  Data analysis, again seems to follow a similar pattern by generally using grounded theory or literature informed inductive methods to extract findings from the data, although Case Studies need not necessarily be bounded by this statement.  I have noticed that articles do seem much more likely to clearly outline data collection methods where the data analysis methods on the other hand often seem light in their description.


If I can posit the differences so far between case studies and ethnography, it would come down to politics, purpose, research period, the output and at a stretch where the researcher is positioned.


Case Studies were most used in Identity Studies, and do seem more outward looking, and interested in the inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ with a bounded system called the case.  They can be descriptive or explanatory, or instrumental; multi or single site; multi or single case (Stake, 2005).


Purpose: and outward looking inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ within a bounded system

Politics: (seems can be used particularly to get funded research)

Research Period: Shorter observational periods than ethnography (contestable)

Output: Case report (reaching for a funded outcome as agreed in the beginning)

Research Position: close or far, but more often than not trying to maintain a certain neutrality.


Ethnography, on the other hand, can be described as inward looking, creating the ‘perfect spy’, and embedding the researcher in order to inquire to the unwritten/tacit laws that operate within a certain culture or organisation (Cohen, et al., 2003).  This being said, it does seem that there is much more acceptance to move away from the anthropological history of “exotic” inquiry towards the “mundane” of  organizational life (Rosen, 1991).


Purpose: inward looking, and extraction of the unknown rules within a culture

Politics: seems largely apolitical on the surface anyway, and may struggle to be considered a ratified research method and the juxtapostioned funding problems.

Research Period: Longer observational periods than case studies to become part of culture, but again this can be argued that organizational ethnographies are not any longer than the case study observation.

Output: A major difference must be here, where the ethnography has many examples of getting closer to a creative fiction that accurately depicts a non-fiction.

Research Position: close (even with self-ethnography), trying to ‘go native’ yet maintain reflectivity and reflexivity.


I am particularly like the safety that comes from the case study protocol, its acceptability even if it must come to grips with general qualitative research method criticisms.  I don’t like though the rigidity, some of the postivist undertones, and competing views of what is an effective case study.  It also makes me nervous to come to grips with multiple methods of both data collection and data analysis i.e. being skilled interviewer, statistician, or observer.  Following on, my trying to think through how to compare potential incommensurable data is also uncomfortable.


Thinking of case study I wonder IS organizational identity, or identity construction the phenomena under study?  


Ethnography seems wonderful with its creativity, its ‘suck it and see’ approach to what comes out of the study.  Equally it feels risky, unstable, and what if nothing significant emerges?  Funnily, I tried to maintain an ethnographic diary for two days last week documenting my observations during those days… I liked it, and quickly hated it at the same time.  How so?  Well, I liked the writing down my thoughts, reflections, and sometimes the a following sentence was modified due to reading what I just wrote!


As an example:

“I luke warmly said hello to a few people, and a little warmer to others.  They asked where had I been, had I been in Al Ain the whole time.  ‘What an insult’ – I thought – how little people really care.  No idea where I was I what I had done – equally, I had given up on them also, so perhaps I was [and previously] insulting them.


Reading this again now, a further recognition to the kind of narcissistic self centeredness of my comments…. Reflection on Reflection.  Albeit, still a fairly passive reflexivity but the insight may bring about change to future diary entries, and posting this on the web or discussing with my supervisor offers an active challenging alternative to my thinking and practice!


By day three (after some stressful long days) I found had no energy to write up my thoughts, or excuses crept in like no time because of a family outing, etc…  So my first attempt, only two days of diary entries, a few meeting notes and transcripts!   As I write this though, there are solutions, like perhaps using a podcast alternative to typing up – just press record and speak.


Thinking of ethnography I wonder – IS identity, or identity construction a valid focus of inquiry into an organizational culture?


So where am I at with these two research possibilities, can I innovate, or can I crisscross and walk around the research methods hypermarket with my trolly taking only the tools and techniques I like best, and that suit the nature and context of my research?  Truth – I have no idea.  Time to float that question of my new supervisor!!


Love to get your comments on whether I’m getting closer to understand the differences and similarities between these great research methods.


PS. I also want to really thank my wonderful wife Alexandra for putting up with me, and all my really cool friends out there – you know who you are: Rula, Richard, Ron, Deanya, Suba, Paul K, and Tony for all your fantastic support.


Without you I would not be where I am today – now registered, and on my way!



Alvesson, M., 2003. Methodology for close up studies – struggling with closeness and closure. Higher Education, 46, pp.167-193.


Stake, R.E., (2005). Qualitative Case Studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln, eds. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 443-466.


Tellis, W., (1997) Introduction to Case Study. The Qualitative Report, 3(2).


Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing.


Rosen, M., (1991) Coming To Terms With the Field: Understanding and Doing Organizational Ethnography. Journal of Management Studies, 28(1), pp.1-24. Available at: http://doi.wileycom/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1991.tb00268.x.




  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: