Difference Between Case Study and Ethnography

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 EthnographyDifference Between Case Study and Ethnography - Comparison Summary

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.

Main Difference - Case Study vs Ethnography

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.

Difference Between Case Study and Ethnography

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

Difference Between Case Study and Ethnography

Definition 

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.

Focus

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

Ethnography: Ethnography observes cultural phenomenon.

Intent

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.

Conclusion 

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. 

Reference:

  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

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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