The Study of Cases
Franklin H. Giddings
THE ATTRIBUTE or trait, in virtue of which an individual or other unit is assigned to this or that class when we sort things, is an abstraction. We arrive at it by analytical thinking. In the real world it does not exist apart from the person or thing that is sorted, and in whom or in which it is associated with other attributes. No scientific study can prosper when this elemental truth is more than temporarily forgotten, or is too often or too long ignored. Always we must come back from our abstractions and our generalizations to a new scrutiny of concrete aggregates ; to actual human individuals, actual animals and plants, actual inorganic things.
Also, we must keep in mind the fact that every individual or other so-called unit that we can study is in reality an aggregate. It is made up of components, each of which is an aggregate made up of components, and so on back through molecule and atom to electron, which looks to us now like ultima thule, but presumably is not.
Therefore, it seems, everything that we can study is a pluralistic field, and, in strict theory (as has already been remarked) every pluralistic field in the world of actuality which we can actually know is a sample, or a part of a sample, taken from an infinite field.
To say all this in so many words is perhaps to be too scrupulously academic. To students of the older sciences I suspect that it is, but I have reason to think that to students of the sciences of society it ought to be said now and then. The societal field is so extensive and so complicated that it is not easy to keep it all in view. By keeping it all in view I of course do not mean attempting to become proficient in the study of every part of it. That would be out of the question. I mean only attempting to see how every part of the societal field is related to every other part, and every aspect to every other aspect, and therefore to realize the necessity of checking up expert work in one domain by expert work in another. At the moment I am trying to help the scientific student of society to see that there are two elementary and fundamental aspects of his subject matter which he must continuously keep in mind, and never permit to become dissociated in his thinking.
One of these aspects is the distribution of every attribute or trait that he discovers. How widely, for example, is the attribute "blondness" distributed in a population; how widely is the status "foreign born" distributed; how widely is the condition "dependency" distributed ; and so on? This is a statistical aspect.
The other aspect to be kept in mind is, What and how many distinguishable attributes are found in combination, first in any reasonably good sample of a pluralistic field; second, in any given component group or individual or other unit entering into the composition of the sample. For example, what other conditions besides dependency, and what attributes of status, habit or trait may be discovered in the make-up of a dependent family or a dependent individual ?
It is plain that we have here two definitely contrasted procedures. In the one we follow the
( 644) distribution of a particular trait, quality, habit or other phenomenon as far as we can. In the other we ascertain as completely as we can the number and variety of traits, qualities, habits, or what not, combined in a particular instance. The first of these procedures has long been known as the statistical method, which of course it is. The second procedure has almost as long been known as the case method, or the study of cases. It is sometimes called the monographic or intensive method, a name associated with the life work of LePlay. It is also sometimes called the diagnostic method.
The term last named reminds us that at this point we should observe the distinction between case study and case work. In case work the social worker of whatever description is attempting to bring about a reconditioning and improvement in his "case." The nurse coöperating with the physician is attempting to restore her patient to health. The psychiatrist is attempting to bring about an orderly and normal mental functioning. The worker among destitute or degenerate families is attempting to bring about normal relations, activities and status. The neighborhood worker is trying to clean up, stimulate and re-order the neighborhood; the community worker is under-taking to deepen the sense of community responsibility, to make community organization more complete and effective, and to raise the standards of community welfare. Real achievement in any of these fields, it should be unnecessary to argue, is impossible unless effort is directed by knowledge. The "case" must be diagnosed and understood be-fore it can be effectively handled and bettered. This preliminary enterprise is case study.
The range of case study in the societal domain is as wide as human interests, its continuity is as prolonged as human history. The case under investigation may be one human individual only or only an episode in his life; or it might conceivably be a nation or an empire, or an epoch of history. The cases with which social workers are apt to be concerned are individuals, families, neighbor-hoods and communities. The cases in which ethnologists, historians, and statesmen are apt to be interested are non-civilized tribes, culture areas, historical epochs and politically organized populations. Demographers are concerned with the evolution and degeneration of populations in respect of their biological and psychological quality, and of their vitality.
The study of cases in a field as complicated as the societal has naturally enough been more or less unsystematic. Sometimes it has been more pretentious than painstaking, but an the whole it has made headway. It has developed, or rather it is developing, a technique, by no means perfect but distinctly promising. The first rule and principle of it is summarized in the one word "thoroughness." The first task, when taking up the study of a case, is to find out all that can be found out about it, and to scrutinize every seeming fact to make sure of actuality. A careful per-son of good intelligence, who is plodding and conscientious, can become a successful student of cases; a brilliant student who is careless and unmethodical never can. The second rule and principle of case study is that as rapidly and as widely as possible comparisons must be made of case with case. There is always a presumption that a case is, to a certain extent, unique ; that nothing exactly like it is to be found elsewhere or has ever appeared before, and it is of the first importance that its exact variation from every-thing else should be determined; but there is also a presumption that in many respects it is like other cases. If it is, a certain norm, or "usual" complex of factors can be ascertained. To de-scribe it accurately is essential. Quantitative data may be discovered. It may be found that in certain numerical features a case is average, below average, or above average. The measure should be determined.
The greater part of social work must necessarily proceed with reference to norms of one or another kind. The case that is to be bettered in any way is presumably one that in various particulars is below normal, average or standard. If it were not known or suspected to be so it would probably not receive attention as one calling for the effort of the social worker, and there would be no particular point in trying to help it. Therefore, plainly enough, it is the duty of the diagnostician to determine with as much exactness as possible what the norm, average or standard for this class of cases is.
Roughly, it usually is determined by case observers and monographists by mere observational comparison. The norms arrived at are approximations only. But such studies are year by year becoming more precise, which means that statistical methods are being more and more employed and perfected. They are even being introduced
( 645) with success into ethnological studies and into studies of legislation. In demographic studies they are, of course, highly developed, and invariably are employed, as they are also at the other end of the case range, namely, in strictly scientific physiological and psychiatric studies of individuals. It is in the middle range, namely in studies of families, neighborhoods and communities that exact methods are least developed and in which, it is to be hoped, they will presently receive more attention.
The circumstance that students of social work cases are largely occupied with subnormal and abnormal phenomena creates an intellectual danger which calls for mention. Unless these investigators are constantly on guard their thinking gets "off side." They see humanity and the societal order in deceptive colours, inaccurate pro-portions and distorted perspectives. Now and then they acquire unfortunate "hunches." To correct these errors and to avoid bias social workers and students of social work cases need to keep in touch with researches that are being carried on in the study of normal social and societal evolution, and to familiarize themselves with attested results. There has been much discussion of the value (or lack of value) of historical and systematic sociology for investigators in the fields of deficiency, delinquency, and dependency, and of neighborhood conditions. Teachers and social workers have been interviewed and their opinions have been collated. The net result has been an expression of doubt, running into dogmatic denial, of the "practical" value of sociology. If I may he permitted to express an individual reaction to this attitude, it is that the unbelievers have missed the point. I do not recall instances in which the writers of replies to questionnaires have pointed out what I believe to he the most substantial and important service of sociology to social workers. It cannot give them rules of technique; those must be developed out of trial and error experimenting. But sociology can give them, and should give them, poise and balance, a comprehensive view, a sense of relative values, an apprehension of proportions and of probabilities. Attentive study of the trend and sweep of societal evolution from primal folkways through barbarisms and historic civilizations, to the comprehensiveness and complexity of our existing societal order cannot fail to nurture the saving grace and the sanity of common sense.
One further aspect of case phenomena is significant, and an increasing recognition of it will greatly facilitate fruitful case study. Any case whatsoever is either fortuitious or historical. The fortuitious case is accidental or occasional. It "just happens," once, or now and then. Often it is generative. That is to say, at the moment when it comes under observation the complicated phenomena which it presents are arising and beginning an evolution which may go on indefinitely. The historical case already when we encounter it "has a past."
Study of the historical case may or may not reveal origins; the data may have been lost. The generative case illuminates as nothing else can the beginnings of things, the process of causation. Generative cases are every day, every hour arising in human society, and to this fact we owe the possibility that one of these days we shall begin really to understand the nature of our societal activities and relationships; but if we were to study these only we should go far astray in our attempts to understand what processes have in them real promise of continuity and contribution to human well-being. To get knowledge of this latter sort we must learn also, as the historians have learned, how to study with scientific care and precision the historical case,
In point of logic scientific method in history is only an application of those procedures of scrutiny which all sciences avail themselves of to determine fact, and which in earlier pages I have described, but it is an application of them to one class of facts in particular, and it has become highly detailed and technical.
The facts with which history has particularly to do are facts of record, and these are indispensable not only for history in the narrower meaning of the word but also in every domain of science and art, since an observation once made exists thenceforth only as recorded. There-fore, in the systematic accumulation and comparison of observations in any field of scientific study, it is necessary to use or to rely upon the technical procedures of historical criticism.
These procedures comprise, first the discrimination of all secondary sources (including ab-
( 646) -stracts and paraphrases) from primary sources; second, the discrimination of copies (including both variants and exact transcripts) from originals ; third, the analysis of originals into components or elements, any of which may have an alluring history; and fourth, the scrutiny of testimonies recorded.
The critical study of records, documentary and other, variously known as archaeology, paleography and epigraphy, proceeds through the systematic comparison of record with record, or group of records with other groups, in which all perceived differences and resemblances are noted.
Upon human testimony all our inferences and conclusions from narrative and statistical data ultimately rest. When we have discovered that historical or statistical documents are genuine as records, we still have to inquire whether the story they tell is credible.
The scientific sifting of testimony, proceeds by observing resemblances and differences among witnesses, and by grouping or grading them with reference to specific qualifications. Only those witnesses are competent :
I. Whose position in time and space is, or has been such with reference to the alleged fact, that they can or could have seen or heard it. This throws out hearsay, or secondary testimony, as of secondary value.
2. Who (a) have no motive to falsify, and who (b) are not liars by habit.
3. Who are intellectually competent to observe or to hear and to report accurately; (a) sane and not feeble minded, (b) not under hypnotic control, (c) not under the control of an overmastering passion or interest, and (d) not under the control of a mastering idea or suggestion.
Until recently the challenging and sifting of testimony has been more meticulously, and, now and then, more expertly conducted in courts of justice than elsewhere. Cross examination chiefly has been relied on, and historians have lamented their inability to put dead witnesses on the stand, and to exclude irrelevant and misleading allegations by application of standardized rules. Experimental researches of psychology have now shown that legal procedures and safeguardings are far from satisfactory. Occurrences of which the observers have had no previous intimation have been enacted in the presence of exceptionally competent witnesses, in one instance a congress of psychologists. Their written reports of doings and sayings have been compared with one another and with the unbiased testimony of cinema and dictaphone. The revelations of human fallibility have been disconcerting. When truth is what we want, the eye witness must be checked up by circumstantial evidence, as that in turn, must be checked by the eye witness.