The case theory

In 1989 Kathleen Eisenhardt, a non-tenured assistant professor at Stanford University, published a paper that would lay the foundation for decades of management research. Entitled “Build theories from research casesthe paper outlined an eight-step process for turning in-depth case studies of a small number of companies into concrete theories about organizations that could be tested and studied.

His approach, known as the “Eisenhardt method”, proved controversial. Many scholars are skeptical that looking for case studies can produce universal theories simply by analyzing a handful of companies. Others quibble with the specific strategies suggested by Eisenhardt, or bristle at what they see as a model too rigid to do research. Dozen of papers and book chapters were written criticizing the method, and Eisenhardt wrote several follow up items to defend and revise its approach.

Let’s study the case.

By the numbers

4-10: Number of cases that Eisenhardt recommends studying to develop a theory (although this is not a hard and fast rule)

6: It took Eisenhardt weeks to write “Building Theories From Case Studies”

“Virtually zero”: Revisions Eisenhardt says she got criticism at the Management Academy Review on its original paper

100+: Papers that Eisenhardt published in research and business journals, many of which are based on the method she proposed

70,000 and over: Articles that cite “Building theories from case studies”

Singye Wangchuk/Bhutan Travel Society

What is the Eisenhardt method?

Eisenhardt recommends eight steps for developing theories from case studies:

  1. Begin. Choose a focused research question and define the concepts (eg, conflict, power) you want to study.
  1. Selection of cases. Choose cases that are similar enough to control for all external variables, but that have one key difference you want to study (for example, eight mid-size tech companies in San Francisco that recently replaced their CEOs, four of which are highly successful, and four fail).
  1. Creation of instruments and protocols. Combine multiple sources of data (e.g. interviews, observations, surveys) and make sure there are multiple researchers on your team so you get plenty of complementary perspectives to help build your theory.
  1. Entrance to the field. Analyze your data even as you collect it. If you start to notice the emergence of an interesting new phenomenon, feel free to change your data collection methods or add new cases to study it more closely.
  1. Data analysis. Combine “within-case” analysis, where you describe what happened in a single case in great detail, with “between-case” analysis, where you look for similarities or differences between cases, to find patterns in the data.
  1. Formulation of hypotheses. As you begin to develop a hypothesis, check how well it fits the data in each individual case and in all of your cases as a group. Keep tweaking your hypothesis to get a better fit and constantly check your evolving theory against the data.
  1. Wrap literature. Compare your emerging theory to any existing research on the topic and incorporate conflicting research to revise and strengthen your own theory.
  1. Reaching closure. Stop adding cases and stop revising your theory when you start noticing that each new case or revision brings minimal improvements.

Timothy Clary

Which of these topics has NOT been studied using the Eisenhardt method?

A. Product Marketing in the Keyboard Synthesizer Industry

B. Flavor Design in the Hard Seltzer Water Industry

C. Innovation in the civilian drone market

D. Hiveminds among the soldiers on the flight decks of aircraft carriers

Find the answer below!

Kathleen Eisenhardt: mother of the method

Kathleen Eisenhardt developed her theory building method out of necessity. In 1988, when she co-authored her first case study papers, “there were few published qualitative studies and almost no guidance on how to perform theory-building research”. she wrote in 2021. To make matters worse, quantitative researchers – the champions of “hard” science, which rely on numerical data and mathematical models – have looked down on case studies and other forms of qualitative research, which rely on descriptive data from interviews, observations, etc. , as “narration.” To Eisenhardt, instead, they revealed insights that would get lost in statistical analysis.

So, in 1989, Eisenhardt wrote “the paper I wish I could have read before I started building a theory from cases.” His method underline the importance of sticking to the data and encouraged researchers to develop testable theories in an effort to appeal to the quantitative research community. Posted in the Management Academy Reviewit’s fast has become a manual for other researchers wishing to publish case studies in management journals.

Eisenhardt herself built a career at the Stanford Graduate School of Business conducting case studies of Silicon Valley tech companies and developing management theories in what she calls “high speedwhere demand, competitors, technology and regulation are changing rapidly. “I am what I study”, 75-year-old Eisenhardt Told a group of University of Washington students in 2020. “I drive a sports car. I like things fast.

Brief history

1848: An accidental explosion drives an iron spike through the skull of railroad foreman Phineas Gage. His doctor records how the resulting brain trauma completely changes Gage’s personality, which becomes one of the most famous psychological case studies of all time.

1855: French sociologist Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play becomes the first field investigator after living with a series of working-class families to observe the impacts of industrialization.

1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The interpretation of dreamsin which he uses multiple case studies of his Viennese patients to develop his theory of the unconscious.

1967: Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss publish Grounded theoryan influential book that sought to legitimize qualitative research.

1984: Sociologist Robert Yin publishes the first of six editions of his book Case Study Research: Design and Methods defend the value of case studies and suggest a more rigorous approach to carrying them out.

1989: Our (paper) star was born! Eisenhardt publishes “Building Theories from Case Study Research”.

2011: Economist Ann Langley and management researcher Chahrazad Abdallah coined the phrase “the Eisenhardt method” in an article examining the most commonly used approaches to case study research.

2021: After three decades of defending and revising his theory-building strategy in academic journals, Eisenhardt updates his method in an article titled “What is the Eisenhardt Method, Really?”


“The principle ‘Let’s get to something we can count!’ does not always formulate the best research strategy; “Now let’s see, what do we have here?” might point to a more promising program.

—The philosopher Abraham Kaplan defending the value of qualitative research in his 1964 book Conducting the survey: methodology for the behavioral sciences

Characteristics of Midge Aylward/Keystone

The Eisenhardt method revisited

Last year, Eisenhardt published “What is the Eisenhardt method, really?”, a paper re-examining his theory-building approach after 32 years of debate and development. Eisenhardt, then a tenured professor at Stanford University, mostly stuck to her original paper, but pushed back on some of the ways she says it has been misinterpreted and misapplied over the years.

His biggest qualm is with those who see the method as a “rigid model” defined by superficial boxes that researchers must check. The method, Eisenhardt insisted, does not require anyone to use a specific number of cases or a specific type of data. And there is no need for researchers to study the performance of management teams, even though that is how Eisenhardt uses it herself. “Admittedly,” she wrote, “it can be difficult to discern from the outside what is method vs. what reviewers want vs. what research choices are.”

Instead, Eisenhardt wrote, his method is a flexible set of strategies that case study researchers can use to develop compelling theories. The only point she insists on firmly is that a good theory “balances parsimony (no complicated spaghetti diagrams), precision (captures the essential characteristics of the phenomenon) and generalizability (relevant beyond the immediate framework) , is logically consistent… and is (hopefully) surprising!

Fun fact!

Academic debates about the Eisenhardt method sometimes turn into arguments about the nature of the universe. Reviews question of Eisenhardt”positivist” assumption that reality is objective and researchers should try to discover universal truths about the world.


Look at this!

This is the end result of the Eisenhardt Method: After studying the executives of successful and unsuccessful technology companies, Eisenhardt exposes his theory that the ideal management team has three to five members, each from a different professional discipline, and of varying ages and backgrounds.


Are you, like Kathleen Eisenhardt, what you study?

Let us know!

💬 Let’s talk about it!

In last week’s immortality poll, the search for the eternal fountain of youth wasn’t very popular, but for the 20% of you who are ready to go on an adventure, send us a postcard when you are there!

🐦 Tweet that!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we be obsessed with next?

Today’s email was written by Nicholas Rivero (the Rivero method would emphasize taking frequent breaks for snacks), edited by Susan Howson (Howson’s method would also point this out), and produced by Morgan Haefner (the Haefner method is the same, just with coffee).

The correct answer to the pop quiz is B., Flavor Design in the Hard Seltzer Water Industry. Unfortunately, this has not been studied, but it should be!


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