In-depth empirical case studies

What are in-depth case studies?

Case studies allow for in-depth analysis of a particular instance belonging to a category of phenomena. For example, origin of a national policy of fishing areas under collective use rights is an instance of emergence of fisheries policy innovation. Case studies offer a detailed picture of the variables that are involved in the instance under analysis, how they influence each other and under which conditions. These aspects can be approached through qualitative or quantitative tools, or a combination of both (e.g. process tracing, discourse analysis, statistical analysis, etc.). Learning from case studies allows for understanding the category of phenomenon to which it belongs in various ways. It provides a means to test hypothesis on causal mechanisms, to develop new hypothesis, and allows for grasping causal complexity. Additionally, case studies can be compared, so patterns across cases can be identified and the category of phenomena better understood.

What do we use them for? 

In-depth case studies are particularly suited for studying complex social-ecological phenomena (like traps or transformations). Firstly, single case approaches can better account for complex interaction effects which can get lost in large-N studies. Secondly, they allow us to explore causal mechanisms that lead to a phenomenon in question along with the conditions under which the mechanism operates. The attention to causality, complexity and scope conditions for causal mechanisms makes case studies a suitable approach in contributing towards development of middle-range theories of SES change.

In our research we often use case studies as a starting point for further exploration of SE phenomenon through modeling. In combination with theories, case studies help us inform models of SES to validate our explanations. However combining case studies with modeling is often an iterative process, where new insights generated by models lead us to new questions that can be addressed in the in-depth empirical investigation.

In-depth case studies in our research:

EU Common Fisheries Policy reform

Our investigation of the relationship between social-ecological and policy processes uses a case study of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to look at how non-state actor participation can influence policy dynamics. Applying process-tracing in combination with interviews and document analysis we develop a causal mechanism through which non-state actors (or interest groups) have managed to influence the 2013 CFP reform. We further use the insights produced by the case study (such as importance of coalition-building and its dependence of political context) along with the causal mechanism of interest group influence to inform an agent-based model of the relationship between policy and social-ecological change (PoliSEA).

Chile loco fishery

This project aimed to understand how researchers can contribute to social-ecological transformations. We picked​ a case that had already been thoroughly studied: the benthic fisheries policy that took place in Chile after the dictatorship. The policy shifted from an open access regime to management areas granting user rights to associations of fishers. In order to track cause-consequence relations between events we used a combined approach. We based our categories on realist social theory that appointed us to reconstructing the history of emergence of agency, structure and ideas; for operationalizing this principle we used the social-ecological action situation (SE-AS) tool – developed in our own team – which tracks specific emergent outcomes from interaction between specific agents. Data obtained from secondary sources was complemented by long distance interviews with key stakeholders.

Pamir small-holder farming

In the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, culture and nature have coevolved in deeply intertwined ways. These so-called ‘biocultural’ landscapes are also characterized by persistent poverty, which is the phenomenon that we study in this case. Our research seeks to understand what are development pathways that can unlock the vicious cycle of poverty and degradation, but do not erode the rich biocultural diversity of the Pamirs. Research methods include participant observation (harvesting, cooking and celebrating food), ethnographic methods, and interviews with farmers and development practitioners. The place-based case study methods in this case have been used to inform a dynamical systems model of poverty traps, which theorizes different effects of various development intervention styles.