Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Making the Case for Cases, Part 1: EPIC Case Studies 101


There’s a new format for EPIC2016: Case Studies. This post (and its companion Part 2) explains what we mean by cases, and what we are launching this format to achieve.

Case studies in some form are not new to EPIC. Each year many presentations – be they full Papers or PechaKuchas – have taken the shape of loose case studies. But giving Case Studies a space of their own, with their own submission criteria, will lead to stronger case studies we believe. It will also encourage people to think more deeply about the relationship between ethnography and business impact, how EPIC can best fulfill its role in describing & documenting this impact, and how we can share it with audiences beyond the EPIC community.

What We Mean by Case Studies

Our vision for case studies is a method for teaching others about how ethnographic methods can be used to solve business, managerial and societal problems. An EPIC case study emphasizes methodology, including an account of how ethnographic methods informed a concrete challenge; as well the final outcomes achieved through such applied research.

There are two types of cases we are seeking for EPIC 2016:

  1. Decision-making cases
  2. Descriptive/analytical cases

Decision-Making Cases

Decision-making cases are the classical Harvard Business School–type cases, in which the reader of the case is provided with a managerial decision-making challenge along with real data (sometimes masked or using pseudonyms) about the market, organization, customers, clients, channels and other players. The reader assesses the case from the point-of-view of a certain persona or actor. These types of cases then end with a question: What should this protagonist do?

These types of cases are used extensively in business schools to teach MBAs, Executive MBAs, executives, masters and undergraduate students. The advantages of case teaching is that they are experiential – which is arguably the most effective method of teaching short of having people do weeks or months of first-hand research. These cases transport students into a messy, challenging decision-making situation and ask them, “What would you do if you were person X?” Then, by discussing options among students and professors, students are able to more deeply understand the challenges and choices involved – as well as the methods, frameworks and tools used to make decisions. Finally, there is often a teaching note that is provided to the professor with suggested discussion questions, frameworks for solving the problem and further considerations arising from the original story. Sometimes, the actual outcome and authors’ analysis of the results are included in the teaching note.

Descriptive/Analytical Cases

Descriptive/analytical cases recount the story of a challenge, the process of addressing the challenge, how and why a certain decision was made and, finally, the outcome and an analysis of the relationship between the story’s process and the outcome. This type of case is what we often see in EPIC presentations, where the authors present a story of their experience using ethnographic methods to solve a problem, challenges along the way and the eventual results of the work.

Different Flavors of the Two Basic Types of Case Studies

Case studies can include successful and unsuccessful engagements. They can showcase best-in-class methods, cutting edge methods, unique combinations of methods, or new attempts at methods that worked – or didn’t work at all. They can show how an organization was changed by the use of ethnographic methods – or how an organization’s institutional structure neutralized any change efforts. They can involve big soaring ideas or seemingly small projects that had a big impact relative to the work.

So What Is an EPIC Case Study?

  • An EPIC case study highlights the use of ethnographic methods in addressing a challenge, problem (or maybe just as an organizational experiment)
  • An EPIC case study provides insights for the readers in how to use ethnographic methods
  • An EPIC case study can tell a story up to the decision-making point (and let the reader reflect upon what he/she would do), or it can tell the whole story and share what the authors learned
  • An EPIC case study can highlight ethnographic methods alone, how they were used in combination with other research methods, or how ethnographic methods made a major contribution (alongside other methods of knowing)
  • An EPIC case study is insightful and fascinating (because ethnographers tell engaging and enlightening stories based on what they learn in context)
  • An EPIC case study works through and around existing models to re-imagine what case studies taking full account of ethnographic theory & data can become – See Part 2 of this post.

Why are EPIC Case Studies a Big Deal?

Case studies are a way for us to share our stories with each other, but just as important, they are a vehicle for informing business people, students, policy makers and others about the value and limits of ethnographic methods. It is worth noting that there is no other collection of people out there creating cases focused on ethnographic methods!

Harvard Business School Publishing (HBSP) publishes Harvard Business School (HBS) cases, but it also offers cases from most of the business schools and consulting firms in the world, such as INSEAD, Kellogg School of Management, Stanford, Ivey, and HEC Montréal. A search on the HBSP website is revealing for what’s available and what’s not available:

Keyword Search Cases Background Notes Articles Book/Chapters
Survey 150 35 257 31
Regression 120 20 8 3
Experiment 84 7 114 38
Big Data 23 4 37 36
Conjoint 14 9 4
Focus Groups 12 5 28 6
Ethnographic 7 1 5 2
Anthropology 1 1
Ethnography 1 2

It’s shocking to see how few resources are available for professors and practitioners regarding ethnographic methods. EPIC’s mission statement is: “EPIC is dedicated to providing practitioners, businesses, and partner organizations with access to the best practical ethnographic expertise from around the world.” We have a lot of work to do! And we’re the group best positioned to do that work!

OK, OK, But How Do I Write an EPIC Case Study?

We’re glad you asked! For now, all you need to do is to identify an interesting potential case study and submit a 500-word proposal for a case study following the criteria and dates posted on the EPIC 2016 Call for Participation!  The deadline for a proposal is February 19, 2016. That’s it!

The case study committee will work with the authors of EPIC2016 selected proposals to guide and offer advice in writing the case studies. Depending on the workload, we will also ask other business school professors and editors to help authors.

Will My EPIC Case Study be Published?

Case studies will be published in the EPIC2016 Proceedings, a peer reviewed, open access journal published and distributed online by Wiley-Blackwell, AnthroSource, and EPIC’s Intelligences (conference presentation videos are available to EPIC members). Our goal is to make EPIC Case Studies widely available for business school professors, students, executives and colleagues, and an EPIC working group is exploring additional opportunities to disseminate and promote them.

I Still Don’t Understand, Exactly, What You Mean by a Case Study

If you would like more detail about the type of case studies we’re seeking to create for EPIC2016 and beyond, here are some publically available resources that explain this genre of case studies:

So Now What?

Submit a Case Study proposal! You can only get published if you submit something! Everyone who has done work using ethnographic methods should be able to submit something, so get going and submit a proposal!

Go to: Making The Case for Cases, Part 2: Pathmaking



Simon Roberts, (Stripe Partners)

Gary Gebhardt, (HEC Montréal)

Mark Bergen, (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies