Using case studies to influence (evidence-based) policy and decision-making on the environment

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How can we formulate and justify case studies to maximise their influence on policy and decision-making about the environment?

This question came out of an interesting discussion on the role of case studies in policy-making at an Environment and Sustainability Geography Research Group meeting (@ExeterGeography @UniofExeter) I attended in March 2021. The discussion occurred after a stimulating presentation on climate change adaption and flood risk by Tara Quinn (@Tara__Quinn).

After the talk, I was reflecting on the nature and importance of case studies. Although case studies do not have the statistical power of large-scale quantitative research, they can still influence policy and decision-making at the highest level. (And as was pointed out in this discussion, so can anecdotal evidence, even in our ‘evidence-based’ policy making environment, but let’s leave that one aside for now).

So why are case studies important and what are the reasons for their ability to influence policy? For me, it is their story-telling and sense-making power, the way they often combine quantitative and qualitative data in an understandable way, and because they allow us to comprehend an issue embedded in its context (which, after all, is how we experience things in our everyday lives).

Case studies can be done in a range of ways (and there are numerous how-to guides available). But what made me reflect on the previous discussion is remembering that some methods highlight the use of a critical or telling’ case – the case that clearly and effectively demonstrates the argument being made.

Case studies have been criticised as not being suitable to use to generalise to the world beyond the case, as compared with well-conducted quantitative research (and therefore some argue they are somehow inferior to quantitative research; or even that they are not ‘scientific’, but purely opinion). But I think it is more useful to look at case studies through a different lens – in some cases broader generalisation can be made from a single or small number of cases if they are carefully selected. Or put another way, case studies use analytical generalisation, rather than statistical generalisation – showing that where the relevant conditions are met elsewhere the same phenomenon is likely to be found as in the single case (e.g. see this article on five misunderstandings about case study research).

However, even in some instances where the ‘gold standard’ of statistical generalisation can be made, the analysis may lack enough knowledge about context for it to be transferable or ‘relatable’ to a different situation. In some examples, interventions can fail because they do not take context or individual and group agency sufficiently into account.

Recent instances of the use of ‘telling’ cases in case studies can be found in the field of education and also in economic methods, but there are also dissenting voices – e.g. arguing that the ‘telling’ case is a methodological myth. However, case studies in general are also widely used in environmental work (see e.g. the The European Association of National Metrology Institutes (EURAMET), or this journal from the University of California).

Of course, case studies still have to satisfy the standards of academic rigour, i.e., their findings need to be valid and reliable – and they need to offer plausible and convincing explanations. But even if the jury may still be out on the ‘telling’ case study, that doesn’t diminish the explanatory and persuasive power of well-formulated case studies in general, especially those that integrate both qualitative and quantitative data.

Many environmental issues (such as climate change adaptation) are complex (or ‘wicked’) problems – they are not easy to solve, often requiring interdisciplinary input and thinking outside the box to find solutions. They require an understanding of the messy real world issues around what the barriers are, the different groups and organisations involved, and how policies and implementation play out – including their effects. Case studies are eminently suited to these types of problems. They are therefore an important tool in our toolbox for influencing policy and decision-making and for generating real positive impacts on our environments.

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