Guest post #3, Prof Rachel Thomson: Case histories in QLR

rachelthomsonRachel Thomson, Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies at the University of Sussex, writes our third guest post. Rachel is also one of the directors of the Sussex Humanities Lab. She has been involved in several qualitative longitudinal studies and has co-edited two special issues of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology on the topic in 2003 (6:3) and 2015 (18:3). She blogs at and

In this post Rachel explores case histories in QLR. We too have been contemplating different understandings of ‘the case’ and Rachel’s post has encouraged us to re-think what we consider to constitute a case and how we might go about analysing cases across an archived dataset that comprises six QLR studies. We found her thoughts on the fluidity of cases and practices of casing very insightful. Rachel and colleagues will be running a two-day training course on Case Histories in Qualitative Longitudinal Research’ at the University of Sussex on 6-7th October 2016. We welcome your comments and ideas. 

Case histories in qualitative longitudinal research – some thoughts

Questions of scale

Qualitative longitudinal research can play around with our ideas of scale. A study can seem to be ‘small’, following 6 cases for example, yet at the same time can be ’big’, or perhaps a better word is ‘deep’ in collecting many instances of data for that case over an extended or just intensive period of time. Discussing this point Lyne Yates (2003) makes a case for QLR having a different kind of ‘warrant’ – or relationship with validity –moving us away from ideas of cases as being ‘representative’ in an abstract way –be that they are typical or that they may provide insight into a wider population through the operations of probability sampling. By following just cases over a period of 10 years (as we have in an ongoing study) we are able to understand relationships, sequences, consequences and antecedents in a concrete way- exploring the relationship between what we say and do, and between what we want and what we get – as researchers and as participants. More recently Liz Stanley has challenged the qualitative quantitative distinction on her work using collections of letters showing that in an era of digital data qualitative material and quantity and quantification are not mutually exclusive (Stanley 2015). Rather we might think of scale in terms of a zooming in and zooming out of perspective, and the potential to combine the affordances of the microscope and macroscope. Debates about scale within QLR parallel debates about scale within ‘big data’ and the kinds of digital tools that can be used to explore patterns, to zoom in for the close-up and to zoom out for the landscape or the map.

From cases to casing

QLR can be designed in different ways in order to reveal different kinds of cases. At the most basic level we might think of the case as a unit of analysis that we follow over time. So for example in our project Making Modern Mothers, the unit of analysis was women about to have their first baby. Yet cases are not stable, especially when pregnant and in this study we expanded our case to include significant others (especially grandmothers) and children when they were born. These children are now the focus of a follow-on project that explores digital childhoods, yet the backstory of the family is a vital part of the case and family members play a key part in narrating the case of the child who is the focus and who as we watch moves from being a ‘case’ of a child into a teenager and an adult. Analytically we can also think of the case in other ways, for example thinking about all of the urban families together and considering their affinities and their difference from the rural families. We might also think of the case of social class, or cutting the data set in the opposite direction, from the diachronic to the synchronic, considering how the families responded to a key external event such as the ‘credit crunch’ that turned into the extended period of austerity through which we continue to live. Rather than thinking of cases as stable and defined simply through existence we might follow Charles Ragin (1992) to think about practices of ‘casing’ in social enquiry, a flexible analytic practice that pays due respect to the complexity of the social realm and which in linking ideas and evidence had the potential for the testing and emergence of theory.

The case history and the archive

The ‘case’ itself is an object and genre with a history linked to practices of natural history, collecting, sorting and narrating and reflections. Butterflies were collected and displayed in a case long ago in a way that has parallels with the ways that doctors and lawyers began to conceptualise case histories and case law. A special issue ‘On the case’ of the journal Critical Inquiry helps us as social scientists understand our practices in historical and cultural context as well as helping us see the kinds of spillages that echoes that may travel between medical, legal, scientific and literary uses (Berlant 2007).There is no definitive way of constructing or telling a case, yet we may find ourselves being drawn into particular tropes taking up associated forms of authority. When telling the story of an individual over time it may be hard to escape the perspective of the doctor or the social worker who is able to see and describe underlying causes or pathologies. Perhaps we need to deliberately disrupt these well-worn narrative tendencies by reading materials against the grain, changing the direction of our analysis, or moving between individual and collective or conceptual cases self-consciously in order to find new perspectives.

In earlier work I suggested that we might make use of the notion of the archive more fully in our work learning from the critical work that has been done of reading the archive (Thomson 2007, McLeod & Thomson 2009, Thomson 2011). If we think of our data sets as archives, which can be organised into all sort of cases (individuals, institutional, geographical, temporal), we can also think about the kinds of stories that can be told from the archive, putting material together in a particular way will enable a particular history. Yet this is not definitive or exclusive. That material could be told in different ways by different analysts without taking away from the ‘validity’ of the material itself. Digital information systems allow individuals to build their own archives, copying and linking data from public collections and potentially making their own archives available to others. Sociological data sets are also made available to and interrogated by secondary analysts and there is a compelling case for social scientists to build on the lessons of historical and literary scholars about archival methodologies and epistemologies as well as understanding the new methodologies of the digital humanities. Having my data used by secondary analysts encourages me to believe that the potentials of this area are just beginning to be explored by sociologists – see for example

An event

The more I think about the case, case studies and case histories, the more I feel that they lie on the emergent boundaries of new kinds of sociology – even though the case study is associated with the very birth of the discipline and the Chicago School. On October 6th and 7th my Australian colleague Professor Julie McLeod and I will be teaching a 2 day advance methods course for the NCRM, based in the Mass observation Archive at the University of Sussex . The course responds to the request for more focus on methods of analysing QLR data among the participants at our 2015 course ‘Affective methods: capturing everyday temporalities with QLR’. In this course we will be exploring what it might mean to make a case from data archives, both those we generate from primary research, those we find in archives, and those we construct from a range of heterogeneous sources. The course will explore methodologies of the boundaries of history and sociology and between scientific and humanities paradigms. Please join us.


Berlant, L. (2007) ‘On the case’ Critical Inquiry: special issue 33 (4)

McLeod, J. & Thomson (2009) Researching Social Change: qualitative approaches, Sage.

Ragin, C. (1992) ‘”Casing” and the process of social inquiry’ in Ragin & Becker (eds) What is a case: exploring the foundations of social inquiry, Cambridge University Press.

Stanley, L. (2015) ‘Operationalizing a QLR project on social change and whiteness in South Africa, 1770s – 1970s” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 18:3, 251-65.

Thomson, R. (2007) ‘The qualitative longitudinal case history: practical, methodological and ethical reflections’ Social Policy and Society, 6(4): 571-582.

Thomson, R. (2011) Unfolding lives. Youth, gender and change. Policy Press

Thomson, R., Hadfield, L., Kehily, M.J. and Sharpe, S. (2010) ‘Family fortunes: an intergenerational perspective on recession’ 21st Century Society 5 (2): 149-157

Thomson, R Thomson, R. (2014) Generational research: Between historical and sociological imaginations, International Journal of Social Research Methods, 17 (2) 147-156

Yates, L.(2003) ‘Interpretative claims and methodological warrant in small number qualitative longitudinal research’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 6 (3): 223-32.



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