case and that look even more untenable if they are inapplicable to multiple cases from a small universe.
Yin (1989:23) offers a working formal definition of a case study as: “an empirical inquiry that:
investigates an empirical phenomenon within its real-life context; when
the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which
multiple sources of evidence are used.”
The second of these criteria is of particular interest in the present circumstance. In cases of extreme school violence, the question of the relevant context is both urgent and extremely problematic. Is it the psychopathology of the individual who offends? The borders of the school (and are those merely physical or to be thought of as the social field of school-related activities)? The community in which it occurs (and is that a local neighborhood or an incorporated municipality or county)? The national culture, drenched in violent media and grounded in a history of violence unique among wealthy, “civilized” nations (or subnational cultural traditions, defined by race, ethnicity or region, that tend more to legitimize violence)? With so few cases and the frighteningly suggestive but statistically unverifiable appearance of a recent upward trend, we cannot rule out any of these possibilities at the beginning of an inquiry.
The inquiry at hand, then, is a textbook example of a research situation in which case studies are not merely a default position but the proper tool for the job at hand. The boundaries between these phenomena and their contexts are about as murky as they get. The exploratory functions of the case study method are at the forefront here, and a central task is to probe for the relevant contexts and their interrelationships in these rare and extreme occurrences.
Many well-trained social scientists may be tempted at this point to raise two objections. First, how can even a meticulously researched case study prove the relevance of a factor or process to the occurrence of an outcome? Second, even if some such relationships can be established in a given case, how does one know that they have anything relevant to any other case? Both points, appropriate as they are in dealing with many common research situations, are of limited relevance here.
A case study may not prove beyond all doubt that a certain relationship exists in that particular case, but it is very likely the most trustworthy way to go about it, absent the ability to isolate the relationship in a laboratory, outside and perhaps irrelevant to the real world in which something