History of Case Studies

Long before the scientific community began to formalize the procedures associated with conducting case studies, scientists, philosophers, and physicians were studying phenomena in their natural contexts by making direct observations and later systematically recording them. Although it is difficult to pinpoint how long this method has been used, there are a number of documented cases dating back to the second and third centuries. Galen, a leading physician in Rome in the second century, spent five years as a surgeon to the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. During this time, he made painstaking observations correlating head injuries that the gladiators received with loss of intellectual abilities. In a sense, this was a prelude to the case study of today.

Psychology has been heavily influenced by the natural sciences. Since the natural sciences gave birth to the scientific method—a particular technique for gaining knowledge which includes the testing of hypotheses in ways that can be verified—it is not surprising that psychology adopted a modified version of the scientific method that could be applied to the study of people and other organisms. It soon became apparent, however, that not all situations lend themselves to study by an experiment. Thus, it was important for alternative methodologies to be developed and used. The case study is an outgrowth of this quest to find alternative methods for studying complex phenomena.

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