Ethnographic Comparative Case Study

Printer Friendly
Publications by NamePublications by DateAuthorsLiterature
A-DE-OP-TU-Zbefore 19951995-1999

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters

Ethnography and case study: a comparative analysis.


Page URL: HTML link: Citations:

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.


Adelman, C., Jenkins, D., & Kemmis, S. (1983). Rethinking case study: Notes from the second Cambridge conference. In Case study: An overview. Case Study Methods 1 (series) Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.

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.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Main Difference – Case Study vs Ethnography

Case studies and ethnographies are two popular detailed, qualitative studies used in the field of social science. Although there are certain similarities between these two methods such as their holistic nature, and the extended time period, there are also some differences between the two. The main difference between case study and ethnography is their focus; ethnography aims to explore cultural phenomenon whereas case studies aim to describe the nature of phenomena through a detailed investigation of individual cases.

This article explains,
1. What is a Case Study
     – Definition, Features, Focus, Data Collection
2. What is Ethnography
     – Definition, Features, Focus, Data Collection
3. What is the difference between Case Study and Ethnography

What is a Case Study

A case study is a detailed investigation of a single event, situation or an individual in order to explore and unearth complex issues. Yin (1984) defines case study as “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used.” Although case studies are always associated with qualitative research, they can also be quantitative in nature. They are often used to explore community-based issued such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, prostitution, and drug addiction.

A successful case study is context-sensitive, holistic, systematic, layered and comprehensive. The process of a case study involves,

  1. Identifying and defining the research questions
  2. Selecting the cases and deciding techniques for data collection and analysis
  3. Collecting data in the field
  4. Evaluating and analysing the data
  5. Preparing the report

Data collection methods in a case study may involve interviews, observations, questionnaires, checklists, analysis of recorded data and opinionnaires. Case studies can also be divided into different categories. Exploratory, descriptive and explanatory case studies are three such categories.

Case studies are preferred by many researchers in the field of social sciences since they offer detailed and in-depth information about a particular phenomenon. However, it is difficult to use the data obtained from a case study to form generalisation since it only focuses on a single event or phenomenon.

Figure 1: Questionnaires are one method of data collection in a case study.

What is an Ethnography

Ethnography is a detailed and in-depth study of everyday life and practice. In other words, it is the systematic study of people and cultures. A researcher who is engaged in ethnography is known as an ethnographer. Ethnographers explore and study culture from an insider’s point of view (emic perspective).

Ethnography traditionally involved focusing on a bounded and a definable race, ethnicity or group of people; for example, study of a particular African tribe. However, modern ethnography also focus on different aspects of the contemporary social life.

Ethnographic research mainly involves field observations, i.e., observations of behaviour in a natural setting. The researchers have to spend a considerable amount of time inside a community in order to make such observations. Information about particular socio-cultural phenomena in a community is typically obtained from the members of that particular community. Participant observation and interviews are two of the main data collection methods in this type of studies. Ethnographic studies take a longer period of time than other types of research since it takes long-term involvement and observation to understand the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of a community.

Figure 2: Observation and participant interviews are main data collection methods in ethnography.

Difference Between Case Study and Ethnography


Case Study: A case study is a detailed investigation of a single event, situation or an individual in order to explore and unearth complex issues.

Ethnography: An ethnography is the detailed and systematic study of people and cultures.


Case Study:Case studies focus on a single event, incident or individual.

Ethnography:Ethnography observes cultural phenomenon.


Case study:Case study intends to uncover the tacit knowledge of culture participants.

Ethnography: Ethnography aims to describe the nature of phenomena through detailed investigations of individual cases.

Data Collection Methods

Case Study: Case studies may use interviews, observations, questionnaires, checklists, analysis of recorded data and opinionnaires.

Ethnography: Ethnographic studies use participant observations and interviews.

Special Requirements

Case Study:The researcher does not have to live in a particular community.

Ethnography:The researcher has to spend a considerable amount time inside that particular community.


Case study and ethnography may have some similarities; however, there is a considerable difference between case study and ethnography as explained above. The main difference between case study and ethnography lies in their intent and focus; case studies intend to uncover the tacit knowledge of culture participants whereas ethnographic studies intend to describe the nature of phenomena through detailed investigations of individual cases. There are also differences between them in terms of data collection and analyis. 


  1. Cohen, Arie. “Ethnography and case study: a comparative analysis.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 7.3 (2003): 283-288.
  2. Yin, Robert. “Case study research. Beverly Hills.” (1984).

Image Courtesy:

  1. “plings_005″ by Plings(CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
  2. “Bronisław Malinowski among Trobriand tribe 3″ By Unknown (maybe Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1885-1939) (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

0 thoughts on “Ethnographic Comparative Case Study

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *