[We’re pleased to welcome author Yiannis Gabriel of the University of Bath, UK. Gabriel recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “Case Studies as Narratives: Reflections Prompted by the Case of Victor, the Wild Child of Aveyron,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Gabriel reflects on the inspiration for conducting this research:]
What motivated you to pursue this research? The accidental discovery of a book on Victor, the wolf-child found in the French region of Aveyron in 1798, prompted me to revisit the question of what makes us human, what constitutes a meaningful and fascinating case study and how case studies can be used as part of teaching and research agendas. This essay examines what attracts scientific interest to particular case study, whether that of a single unusual individual like Victor, a particular organization or a particular event, like the VW emissions scandal or the Brexit referendum, and discusses some of the strengths and limitations of the cases we use as researchers and also as teachers. I reflect on the similarities and differences between case studies and stories, arguing that they are governed by different rules of narration and different narrative contracts between authors and audiences. Both case studies and stories are capable of yielding considerable insights within the framework of a narrative methodology; in the hands of skilled instructors, they can be powerful instruments for disseminating knowledge.
The essay examines how an aberrant of atypical case, like that case of Victor, can lead us to generalizations about the typical and asks what exactly constitutes a case? It probes the etymology of the word case that indicates a singularity, an individual occurrence, an event or a phenomenon. But a case can also be a container, a box, a briefcase, a suitcase. Like a briefcase, a case-study contains material that may or may not have value. Discovering such a case immediately announces a mystery – what does it contain, who does it belong to, what does it reveal? The value of a case study, like the value of the contents of a briefcase, rely on the ability of a subject to recognize them. An innocent eye may be mistaken in discarding a case as junk when in fact its content is priceless material and may be exploited for historical or other research or indeed for financial or business gain. Recognizing the value of a case requires a particular skill which not all researchers possess – many will miss the deeper significance or value of a particular case until somebody proves capable of unearthing it. Recognizing the value of a case is akin to recognize the potential uses of any empirical material including statistical materials, historical documents or even random observations.
What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings? The most challenging part was the realization that the obscure case of Victor continues to be alive today. The case has not ended and there are meaningful questions whether Victor was indeed abandoned at birth by his parents (like other legendary feral children), or whether he was abandoned much later in life on account of some congenital condition, whether he was a noble savage or indeed a child-martyr. This led me to argue that case studies do not have clear-cut beginnings and ends and can be reopened whenever a new interpretation or new clues emerge, much like police or psychiatric cases.
In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field? Many scholars are turning to qualitative research methods in the social sciences, using cases studies as core elements of their research. While there are a few standard reference points for the use of case studies (including vignettes, illustrations etc.) I believe that there is a dearth of critical reflection on the meaning of a case, its relevance and lessons. For example, the choice of particular cases may be dictated by a researcher’s esoteric interests or by a political agenda. To what extent can such cases be used as the basis for theoretical generalizations? Often a case is treated as a story. But in telling a story, a narrator can alter significant details, omit, exaggerate or improvise for effect. Are the same narrative distortions acceptable in the researcher who uses a case? What constitutes an ‘irrelevant’ detail and what detail offers crucial keys to a case’s deeper significance and meaning?