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So you’re doing a Case Study…

When Cases are not being limited to physical persons or places, the implications of the theoretical underpinnings on such a methodological choice in the project rarely shine through as well as they do in Hetherington (2013)’s article Complexity Thinking and Methodology: The Potential of ‘Complex Case Study’ for Educational Research. In it, she examines what the notion of Case Study implies in her research and goes the additional step explaining how that translates through her theoretical lens.

Now, you may have a different theoretical framework you are working from, but I admire the process that she uses to clearly delineate what the choices she has made in her project mean in terms of analysis and discussion. I feel this is something that is lacking in qualitative research in language education. It’s almost as if we forget that research is inextricably tied to questions of philosophy, epistemology and ontology. Not only in the qualitative areas, quantitative as well, but quantitative research generally has built agreed-upon models that determine the worldview that is used to examine the data, and these are rarely called into question (although this seems to be changing with the emergence of Big Data and Mixed Methods approaches). In qualitative research, the ‘agreed-upon’ worldview is much blurrier given the fact that it can be redefined by each researcher and each context.

Nonetheless, expliciting worldview and the implications they have on qualitative research projects is the foundation of qualitative work in my book, and I feel more clarity on this issue would promote greater discussions among academia in language education. As Hetherington’s argues,

“it is important to consider the particular implications of this theoretical perspective on methodology. Methodology is the link between ontology, epistemology and theory informing the research, and the practice of conducting that research. As McCall puts it, “ideally, a methodology is a coherent set of ideas about the philosophy, methods and data that underlie the research process and production of knowledge” (McCall, 2005 p. 1774).” (Hetherington, 2013, p. 72).

So how does she do this? In her case, Hetherington explains that “Any discussion of a complexity-informed methodology will therefore need to be coherent and theoretically well-grounded, with a clear link between the methods and data, the complexity theoretical perspective informing the work, and the epistemological positioning of the complexity frame.” (Hetherington, 2013, p. 72). Hetherington shows that, using a Complexity Theory (CT) framework, key concepts such as dynamism, fluidity, transformation and emergence simply did not fit anymore, as it would in the traditional sense of Case = Person. So what are the implications of a CT worldview on causality, case boundaries and researcher positionality as it pertains to a complexivist approach to case studies?

The importance of change and time in CT in performing the analysis make a strong argument for the use of Case Studies in longitudinal studies. Let’s look at the arguments Hetherington brings forward for each of these aspects of Case Study methodology:

CAUSALITY: Causality is not linear in Case Study methodology. It can be constructed by comparative analysis of different cases, or, to highlight the unpredictability of cases and the multiplicity of pathways that can be chosen at any given time. Hetherington proposes in-depth a narrative inquiry into different elements of the system to understand how these elements interact and evolve. To examine dynamic nature of narratives and evolutions within a system, she uses “bricolage” (Kincheloe and Berry, 2004), and “method assembly” (Law, 2004). This allows for open-mindedness when looking through data, and to reflect on it from different viewpoints.

CASE-BOUNDARIES: By redefining ‘case’ to mean any system, not particularly a person, the investigation can become layered, even including (rather than being limited to) a particular person’s point of view (answers idea of multiplicity and nestedness of interacting systems this way). The ‘case’ can also emerge from the data and become a focal point (strange attractor - Morrison, 2008, p. 28), such as the ‘case’ of ‘implementing a new curriculum in a given school’ for Hetherington. Within this ‘case’, Hetherington can observe which elements (i.e., people, programs, friendships, etc.) emerge in this system. What is more, she creates a ‘case map’ to show overall organisation of system and the interrelationships in the system (Hetherington, 2013, p. 80), which I love because it demonstrates the power of modelling in qualitative research, and here it operates at the analytical level. She uses this ‘case map’ in her analysis to re-examine the data according to the relational ties, or strong influencers tied to a particular element.

Example of Case Map, taken from Hetherington, L. (2013). Complexity Thinking and Methodology: The Potential of'Complex Case Study'for Educational Research. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 10(1/2).

RESEARCHER POSITIONALITY: Hetherington argues for the researcher becoming an inherent part of the case under study in her project. The researcher’s epistemic and theoretical position will colour the lens through which she examines data anyways. In particular, Hetherington points out that the research should keep in mind how her intervention reduces or produces complexity, key concepts in the CT framework that she is working with. Here it would seem crucial for us to consider how our positionality in the research might affect key ideas from the theoretical framework that we are working with, a sort of meta-exercise on ourselves and the data.

Overall, I appreciate the fact that the implications of the theoretical framework Hetherington has opted to go for are discussed explicitly in her methodology. One would assume, they will also be discussed at length in the findings as well, as they will determine the way that the data can be examined and presented.

I am curious to hear about how your Theoretical Framework plays out in your Methodological and Analytical process. I find this to be one of the most challenging parts of the research: merging the theoretical worldview with the practical processes I will apply to the data. More to come I hope.


Hetherington, L. (2013). Complexity Thinking and Methodology: The Potential of'Complex Case Study'for Educational Research. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 10(1/2).

Kincheloe, J., & Berry, K. (2004). Rigour and complexity in educational research: Conceptualizing the

bricolage. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,

30(3), 1771-1800.

Morrison, K. (2008). Educational philosophy and the challenge of complexity theory. Educational

Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 19-34.

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