The case study approach

The case study approach is based on in-depth investigation of a single country. The aim is to provide a detailed description of the particular institutional setting within which individuals or groups' actions take place in order to improve our understanding of the context in which the investigated relationships may be interpreted. Thus, a researcher interested in the relationship between the age of the youngest child in the family and the likelihood of divorce can seek the relevant information concerning custody law, child support enforcement and the regulation of divorce procedures. This approach does not provide explicit comparisons between countries, but under certain circumstances it is possible to draw implicit conclusions from such studies regarding the way institutions and cultural characteristics affect individuals’ behaviour and destinies. This can be done either by contrasting the unique characteristics of one single country with a more conventional or generalised case [Pap98] [Del98], or by gathering several ‘case studies’ that address the same research question in different institutional settings.

While each case provides a fairly complete study of the issue in a given context, by relating the relationships and outcomes observed in various settings to the different institutional contexts, one can draw conclusions, albeit tentative ones, about the importance of systemic factors to the observed variation at the micro-level (see e.g. [Sha98] [Blo97] [Dre98] [Ore98]). In many cases, one country’s unique characteristics are compared with a group of countries such as the European Union, OECD countries, etc. (see e.g. [Del98] [Pap98]). In other cases, several single-country analyses are presented separately, and similarities and differences are identified (cf. [Kur04] or even modelled [Sha98], chapter 1).

The main advantage of this research strategy is that it provides in-depth examination of national contexts in order to tap cross-country variation, a feature that is impossible when analyses involve many countries [Van02]. It is thus possible to gain detailed information about each country's idiosyncrasies and to provide a careful analysis of institutional arrangements and their historical development. It is also possible to conduct a detailed individual-level analysis within each country to investigate relationships between relevant characteristics, using national data sets and detailed appropriate measurements of variables and indicators.

Despite its potential for providing a rich and comprehensive description of the national contexts, the in-depth case study approach also suffers from drawbacks and limitations. Firstly, this strategy does not permit a direct examination of structural effects on individual behaviour. It is not possible in most cases to account for the specific influence of one institutional arrangement or another. For example, differences in marriage patterns, employment behaviour or education studied in this manner cannot be attributed to one single systemic characteristic but rather to the variety of institutions that characterise the society studied. These tend to be complex entities that involve the interdependence of specific history, culture, and organisation. Secondly, because analyses are often carried out in one country, it is not easy to generalise the outcomes. Lastly, when data from several countries are available, the list may be quite arbitrary, and the choice of countries (or the ‘standard comparison’) may not always be helpful in explaining the ways social institutions and specific policies affect individual consequences.

One way to address the effect of institutional contexts on individual behaviour and outcomes more directly is to purposefully design a comparison between a small numbers of countries. Rosenfled Kalleberg’s [Ros90] comparative study of the United States and Sweden represents such a study design. The main assumption underlying such a strategy is that each of the countries represents a unique context, so that differences in individual behaviour or outcomes could be attributed to the characteristics of that particular country (see for example [Bri01 [Dip00] [Nat95] [Har03] [Ros90] [Coo03]). One advantage of comparing only a few countries is the possibility of obtaining and generating identical indicators and similar variables, a task that becomes more difficult as the number of countries involved increases.

In order to establish a powerful comparison, it would be preferable if the countries differed with regard to features that are of theoretical or practical interest. At the same time, they should also have enough in common to isolate the effects of specific macro-level characteristics on individual behaviour. This is not always easy. Because countries differ on a large number of dimensions, it becomes almost impossible to determine which specific social institutions affect women’s market prospects and behaviour. For example, take a comparison between Sweden and the United States. Sweden has generous maternity and paternity leave policies, fully subsidised day-care facilities for children, a commitment to increased gender equality, a highly regulated labour market and a high level of de-commodification and de-familialisation [Esp99]. The USA is very different on all of these dimensions: the level of de-commodification is low, family policy barely exists and the market is not regulated. Which of these institutional characteristics best explains differences in women’s labour force participation and their work patterns over their life courses? Which explains gender inequality? It is almost impossible to decipher the effect of each of these dimensions, so it is not easy to test the outcomes of specific institutional arrangements. One way that is used to overcome this problem is to choose similar countries which differ on a single dimension (see, for example, Nati’s [Nat95] comparison of women’s part-time employment in the Scandinavian countries; Brinton, Lee and Parish's [Bri01] comparison of women’s employment in South Korea and Taiwan; Cooke [Coo03] on East and West Germany). However, this research frame limits the number of countries that can be included in the analysis to an even greater extent.

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