The trouble of a medium-n study—and how I got out of it

Building work in Malaysia

Over the last months I have struggled in getting the book (back) on track. With 60 examples of governance innovations of resource efficient and low-carbon buildings and cities from 6 different countries I haven’t given myself an easy task. The main problem is that the 60 examples have so much variety that it is complicated to tell a single narrative, and without a single narrative the book will not be clear to its readers.

Of course, I have myself to blame for this. I didn’t start my VENI funded research project some years ago assuming I would write a book out of it—let alone three. Thus, I embarked on fieldwork in Australia, the Netherlands, the United States, Singapore, India, and Malaysia (and initially Germany and the United Kingdom as well) studying examples of governance innovations to capture variety and to understand this international trend. As a result I now have a broad database of examples, an understanding of how these work in their specific contexts, and a wealth of insights from the over 200 people I have interviewed and the hundreds and hundreds of documents I have studied over the years.

Such rich data is incredible valuable for writing articles. In an article I can focus on a small aspect of a few examples studied and highlight, for example, how governments are involved in these governance innovations and how their roles play out in achieving desired outcomes, how this trend of governance innovations is picked up in Australia (or any of the other countries studied), or how building certification and classification (or any of the other types of innovations) helps to decarbonise the built environment (or doesn’t help all too much). The project as a whole has already resulted in 12 academic journal articles and a range of related publications, and I have ideas for at least another 15 academic journal articles.

But having (ideas for) so many short publications doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy to write a more comprehensive publication. One would think that the existing and future publications are pieces of a puzzle and that I just have to bring them together for a book-length narrative. The problem is, I have come to realise, that they are pieces of different puzzles and there is no point bringing them together. I have tried to do so, and looked at my 60 examples and underlying data from different angles but I couldn’t capture all variety in one single narrative.

The last couple of weeks I was in Singapore for a training on QCA methodology and being away from my office in, now, cold Canberra has done wonders. I have made a number of difficult, but important decisions for the book and have found the single narrative in my data that needs to be told in a book length volume because I cannot tell it in a shorter format. Before heading off to Singapore early June I was already thinking about shaping the book about the idea of a green building leadership delusion—the insight that I see much leadership in terms of a voluntary transition towards more resource efficient and less carbon intensive buildings, but that this leadership does not spill over to the masses—and how to move beyond it.

In Singapore I have further developed this idea, building on the 60 examples, and have decided to leave a large number of the examples (at least 25) out of the book. They are all relevant, but do not add to that larger narrative. This is probably a typical examples of ‘killing your darlings’ as suggested in all those books on academic writing that I discussed in my previous blog post (and yes, I know, this one is way overdue). The remaining set of examples (some 35) are bound together by one key characteristic: They are voluntary programs that incentivise their participants to improve the performance of their current or future buildings, or the way they use them, in return for some gain—this may be money, information, seeing leadership rewarded, and so on. This has helped enormously in narrowing down the focus of the book, which now “simply” is titled ‘Decarbonising the built environment: Opportunities and constraints of voluntary programs for sustainable buildings’.

What strikes me in all this is that I have not yet come across case-study methodology literature that addresses this exact problem of carrying out a medium-n study. There is a vast literature on selecting individual or paired cases (for me: examples of governance innovations) and why it is important to select these carefully—for instance because they are are illustrative, deviant, critical, or even contradictory—but there is, to my best understanding, no literature discussing the complexities of selecting cases in a medium-n study. In hindsight I would have been better off to not have too many deviant, critical, and contradictory cases in my data set.

The main lesson learnt: If I go about and do another medium-n study (and it looks like my DECRA funded research will be one) I have to think carefully about what I wish to achieve with the full set of cases, or at least with clusters of cases in that full set, and not so much about the individual cases in that set. That said, I can likely built on the literature on small-n or single case studies and think in terms of the set (or subsets) of cases being illustrative, deviant, critical, or even contradictory to the literature on good urban governance for urban sustainability and resilience. Some good references for those struggling with related problems are:

  • Bennett, A., & Elman, C. (2006). Qualitative Research: Recent Developments in Case Study Methods. Annual review of political science., 9, 455-476.
  • Della Porta, D. (2008). Comparative analysis: case-oriented versus variable oriented research. In D. Della Porta & M. Keating (Eds.), Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences: a Pluralist Perspective (pp. 198-222). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2004). Five Misunderstandings about case-study research. In C. Seale, G. Gobo, J. F. Gubrium, & D. Silverman (Eds.), Qualitative Research Practice. London: Sage.
  • Gerring, J. (2007). Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levi-Faur, D. (2006). Varieties of Regulatory Capitalism: Getting the Most Out of the Comparative Method. Governance, 19(3), 367-382.
  • Levy, J. (2008). Case Studies: Types, Designs, and Logics of Inference. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 25(1), 1-18.
  • McKeown, T. J. (2004). Case Studies and the Limits of the Quantitative Worldview. In H. E. Brady & D. Collier (Eds.), Rethinking Social Inquiry. Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (pp. 139-167). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.+
  • Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Ragin, C., & Becker, H. S. (1992). What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ragin, C. (2004). Between Complexity and Parsimony: Limited Diversity, Counterfactual Cases, and Comparative Analysis (Vol. Paper 17). Tucson: University of Arizona.
  • Van der Heijden, J. (2014). Selecting cases and inferential types in comparative public policy research. In I. Engeli & C. Rothmayr (Eds.), Comparative Policy Studies: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges (pp. 35-56). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Yin, R. K. (2003). Case Study Research. Design and Methods (3 ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

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