Recipe for a Good Single Case Theoretical Paper

There are several different kinds of “standard” soc journal articles. There are big N regressions on established survey data, there are pure theory articles, there are small N comparisons, and there are “medium N” qualitative interview-based papers, and so on. One of the genres I often find myself writing – and reading – are single case (often historical) papers that aim to make broad theoretical claims. When these papers work, I think they make four interrelated claims. These claims also apply to other sorts of papers, but perhaps in different amounts. So, without further ado, here’s my four-part recipe for a good single case theoretical paper:

  • 1. Theoretical puzzle: What literature are you identifying a problem in (and thus trying to contribute to)? What’s the problem?
  • 2. Theoretical solution: What new idea or other existing literature are you drawing on to solve the theoretical puzzle?
  • 3. Empirical puzzle: What empirical case can help us resolve the theoretical problem (by showing off the theoretical puzzle in a particular site)?
  • 4. Empirical operationalization: How does the theoretical solution solve the empirical puzzle in this case?
  • These four ingredients draw heavily from Abbott’s classic chapter on “Puzzles,” as well as Murray Davis’s excellent article, “That’s interesting!” I think they capture what makes for a really compelling single case story, especially when authors try to use cases that are somewhat obscure, or just not immediately exciting to most sociologists. In order to sell the case, the author has to use it as an empirical puzzle that illuminates a theoretical puzzle we already care about. What do you think?

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