March 08, 2017

Thinking Beyond the Case Study

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Case studies are singular examples that seem to illustrate a phenomenon. Textbooks would be dull without them, and journalists often use interviews to add color to their stories. But case studies can become so alluring, and seem to illustrate interesting patterns so well that they can encourage us to draw conclusions without further investigation.

Take the case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in Queens, New York, in 1964. Her case gained notoriety because there were purportedly dozens of witnesses to the attack who did not call the police. This led researchers to study something they called the bystander effect, positing that the more people who observe an event take place, the less likely they are to take action because they presume that someone else will.

I remember reading about this case in my first psychology class as an undergraduate, and being horrified and intrigued by what happened. How could people ignore the pleas for help of a young woman under attack? The case seemed to highlight a troubling side of human behavior.

I also remember reading about another intriguing case study in that same textbook. After a circumcision accident severely injured a baby boy, doctors decided to reassign the sex of the baby and encouraged the parents to raise the child as a girl. Psychologist John Money published widely about this child, noting that she was a well-adjusted girl and affirming the notion that gender is the result of socialization, and that biology did not matter as much as we might think.

It turns out that neither account was quite right. When Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill began investigating Kitty's murder decades later, he found that the accounts of the witness apathy had been overstated. The Witness, a documentary that details his investigation, features interviews with a few people who witnessed the event, although many of those interviewed by police had passed away or couldn’t be located.

One woman recounts how she heard screams in the middle of the night, woke up, and looked out of her window, but saw nothing. It is likely that other people heard noises, but because she turned a corner after the initial attack, the people in the apartment building across the street may not have actually seen the attack. A man across the street yelled, “get away from her!” Some people recounted that they thought a couple was fighting and had no idea the woman was being stabbed. Another woman claimed that she had called the police.

A neighbor of Kitty’s heard noises and rushed down to help her in the vestibule of their building, where she lay dying. This was not new information: this woman had testified in court as a witness during the assailant’s trial. These stories highlight the confusion about an event taking place in the darkness of the middle of the night. When you look at these facts, this is not really a story about hardened New Yorkers indifferent to the murder of a young woman.

This murder became the case study for “bystander apathy” thanks to a sensationalized news story that captivated the public’s imagination. Social psychologists conducted numerous experiments confirming that during an emergency when many bystanders are present, diffusion of responsibility may prevent some people from taking action.

But that’s not what seemed to happen in the Genovese case. And as her brother Bill details, it has caused their family great pain to think that no one helped their sister when she was killed, and this belief dramatically affected their lives. Knowing that she was with a friend when she passed away gave them a bit of peace, something they shouldn’t have had to wait five decades to learn.

Likewise, the child at the center of the Money experiment did not fare as well as the textbooks recounted. David Reimer, the boy supposedly who was socialized into being a girl, was not happy, nor was David well adjusted. He did not live his life as a girl after his early teens. In addition to claims of sexual abuse in the course of “treatment,” Reimer suffered from depression and committed suicide at age 38. Gender is far more complicated than the initial reports suggests; as transgender people teach us, gender is about more than biology and more than socialization.

What can we learn from these two case studies, which didn’t turn out to represent the concepts that they initially appeared to highlight?

First, social scientists need to continually look for patterns of behavior and continually research subjects that we take for granted as truths.

Second, although case studies might make illustrating concepts easier for students in textbooks, there is the risk that students can presume that social science is based primarily on anecdotal evidence that a case study provides. Textbook authors often repeat the same case studies in a number of texts, cementing the notion that certain stories are evidence of observable patterns, rather than unusual examples.

What other case studies have you read in textbooks that might be seen as unquestionable truths that need more investigation?

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