Extreme case studies- help or hindrance?

14 Oct

This entry was actually inspired by a blog I read last week however I can’t really remember whose it was just that it was interesting to read so I thought I’d give my opinion on a similar topic this week. In psychology we aim to be able to develop all-encompassing theories that can be generalised to wider society however what should we do when a single case study comes along that could give very interesting data do we ignore it in order to focus on larger society or do we investigate with the possibility that none of it can be generalised?
One of my favourite case studies during A Level was the case of Genie, a girl found to have suffered from extreme isolation during her first 13years of life. She had been kept alone in a room tied to a potty chair where she was left all day. As a result she was practically mute when discovered by the authorities and hadn’t deeloped properly mentally or physically (she was well known for a bird like walk).After she had been taught and studied for some years by psychologists and linguists alike she did manage to develop some speech mechanisms and did improve. I found this totally fascinating and saw the evidence as being truly groundbreaking as it went against everything that I had ben taught about development so far ie: despite the critial period being over some basic skills were still learnt. Genie however was an exception to how most people are brought up therefore some would say that what was learnt from her can’t be used to explain general upbringing and development. And they would be right, however my question is can it be used for some other purpose in psychology and if it is then is it methodologically sound?

The information gathered from studying Genie and similar cases have been used to support the privation/deprivation debate. In this view then the case was helpful to the advancement of psychology and the field benefitted from it. However because case studies often rely heavily on interpretion of data by the psychologist are they really reliable? Take for example Money’s case of Bruce/Brenda. In 1965 after a botched circumcision a baby boy was left without a penis. At the same time Money had just developed a theory about gender asignement whereby he believed that gender wasn’t set and that a child could be taught to be a certain gender. The baby boy called Bruce went through a operation to correct his sex so he could be brought up as a girl under Money’s advice (Brenda). In Money’s case study he claimed that the child was successfully socialised as a girl and used the case study to prove his theory which resulted in his theory being widley adopted at the time as correct. However in 1997 it was revealed by Sigamudson and Diamond (other researchers that had worked on the case) that in fact Bruce/Brenda had displayed boyish tendencies in childhood and at the age of 14, after being told of the gender change, adopted a male identity. Thus disproving Money’s whole theory. In this case not only has a theory been adopted as true that is, from this evidence. seemingly not true but also one man’s life has been completley runied. In cases like this is the use mof case studies something that should be used in psychology?

If you are interested in any of the case studies mentioned in this blog the links are below. For the most info on Money’s case study click on the jhu link as it leads to the university that conducted the experiment’s page.





4 Responses to “Extreme case studies- help or hindrance?”

  1. rebeccag92 October 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    I found this blog really interesting as for me I’m far more fascinated by individual case studies than I am large scale experiments (generally).
    I think case studies provide a far greater depth of knowledge than large scale experiments as their is generally more intimate interaction and the observations are organic; observers are not watching for behaviours they expect to see, as in field studies for example. However as you rightly say information gained from case studies cannot be easily generalised to the wider poplulation whereas results from controlled experiments (debatably) can. So does quantity and generalisabilty of data outweigh depth and validity? I also believe cases like that of Genie and the child in Money’s study did revolutionize fields of psychology and offer huge input to the nature vs nurture and deprivation vs privaton, they also offered hope and optimisim to a field which had been rather deterministic and pessimistic till then; believing that once a child is beyond the critical period in their development there is nothing more that can be done. And then Genie’s discovery provided a new argument for the debat that said this wasn’t true. Although such case studies are incredibly valuable can we really wait for them? Cases like this are rare and should we put experiments on hold to wait for them, anticipating that if/when they are discovered conclusions from research will be proven wrong? As in the cases of Genie and the child from Money’s study.

  2. sigmafreud October 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    I find the subject of “extreme” case studies incredibly interesting, especially the case study of “Genie”. Of course, the benefits of such rare cases are debatable. There will always be the argument of generalisation, and the extent to which the results can be applied to the general population. Naturally, in the case of “Genie” such generalisation would be impossible, as would application to children who have suffered similarly in childhood. You state that “despite the critial period being over some basic skills were still learnt” which suggests even among abused children, “Genie” was unique, and able to disagree with common assumptions.
    This brings me onto my next point. Regardless of its criticisms, case studies are useful in broadening the field of Psychological research. If enough children, like “Genie” were discovered, it is possible that theories and hypotheses could be developed, the subject would advance. On the other hand, if this was never the case, the case study sheds new light onto the effect of deprivation and development in children.

  3. native86 October 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    I think that the Bruce/Brenda experiment was something of an extraordinary incident in terms of psychological research. Money’s actions were highly unethical and extremely bias. The findings from the experiment though did provide valuable insight into the nature nurture debate, highlighting how important information can be from in-depth case studies. Information obtained from case studies may not be easily generalised, but Davison et al (2004) explain how case studies may not necessarily provide evidence to confirm a particular hypotheses, they do however provide valuable insight into complex situations that allows for the formulation of hypotheses.

  4. kaydem October 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Wow i hadnt heard about those case studies before, really interesting post.
    Even though there are major ethical issues with the bruce/brenda case study, the fact that money’s theory was disproved and falsified, i would say is helpful. It gives us more insight into gender and allows us to believe gender is an inbuilt, innate concept. Without the case study those findings would not have been established 🙂

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