The case study tradition in American
sociology is full and varied. An influential early study (Lynd &
Lynd 1929) reported on the life of the small town of Muncie, Indiana.
The case study provided fascinating details about the daily life
of the community and has inspired a long series of similar studies.
William Whyte (Whyte 1943) became a participant observer in an Italian
slum neighbourhood in an American city. Sociologists had previously
assumed that such a slum community would not be highly organised.
Whyte showed that it was, although not along the lines dictated
by middle-class values. Festinger et. Al. (1956) penetrated a cult
whose members believed that the earth was doomed to imminent destruction
but that a select few would be saved by aliens in a flying saucer.
He eventually found himself on a hilltop awaiting the event with
members of the cult, and he detailed their reactions when the prophecy
failed. Irving Goffman (1961) spent many months as an observer in
a mental hospital (he worked in the hospital as an aide). His account
of how the organisation of an asylum systematically depersonalises
the patients and may even aggravate their problems has been influential.
Others (Berger 1964; Hodge & Treiman 1968) report on their research
spent in long periods as participant observers with poolroom hustlers,
learning how they “set up” their victims and analysing
their code of ethics. Liebow (1967), a white man, joined a group
of apparently aimless black men “hung out” on street
corners. He was eventually able to win the confidence of the group
and to provide a detailed account of its members’ lives. John
Lofland (1966) participated in a religious cult – the Moonies
– at a time when it only had handful of converts, and he was
later (1977) able to use the knowledge from his case study to analyse
the reasons for the cult’s subsequent rapid growth.
Berger, PL 1964, 'Some general observations on
the problem of work', in PL Berger (ed.), The Human Shape of
Work, Macmillan, New York, pp. 234-67.
Festinger, L, Riecken, HW & Schachter, S 1956,
When prophecy fails, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Goffman, E 1961, Asylums : essays on the social
situation of mental patients and other inmates, Anchor Books,
Garden City, N.Y.
Hodge, RW & Treiman, DJ 1968, 'Class identification
in the United States', American Journal of Sociology, vol.
73, no. 4, pp. 535-47.
Liebow, E 1967, Tally's Corner : A Study of
Negro Streetcorner Men, Little & Brown, Boston.
Lofland, J 1966, Doomsday Cult, 1st edn,
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliff, N.J.
---- 1977, Doomsday Cult, Enlarged Edition
edn, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Lynd, RS & Lynd, HM 1929, Middletown:
A Study in American Culture, Harcourt Brace, New York.
Whyte, WH 1943, Street Corner Society
: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, Chicago Press, Chicago.