Substantive Theory

Clem Adelman. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. Editor: Albert J Mills, Gabrielle Durepos, Elden Wiebe. Sage Publications, 2010.

A substantive theory may be constructed within the process of identifying differences and similarities of contextualized instances, and patterns, across and within case studies focused on a similar theme. The content of substantive theory is mainly descriptive, focused on the essence, or substance, of the numerous case instances in a parsimonious relational structure.

Conceptual Overview and Discussion

In the construction of substantive theory the theorizer seeks to enhance understanding by identifying similarities and differences of contextualized instances across and within case studies focused on a similar theme. For the most part the instances include an element of intentionality. Suppose a researcher has collected many case studies on a common theme, say, unemployment or public housing or school principals. He reads these and notes instances and patterns of similarity and difference as well as instances that seem to relate only and specifically to a particular case study. This goes beyond a review of the literature because the researcher is seeking elucidation of problems and questions in pursuit of an idea about how things have come to be like they appear or seem to appear. A record is kept in which the researcher names the instances in context, similarities, differences, and those that fall into the category “don’t know but of note.” The record is revised as more cases are found. This method may be called analytic induction. All along the way, and certainly when the instances in context have been sorted and re-sorted, eliminated, or placed elsewhere, then new questions arise, often about relevance. The process of sorting nears the point when the researcher has to advance an understanding of what all the case analysis means in relation to the original problem or problems. This process occurs all along the way, not just when a deadline has been reached. The key question for the researcher at this point is: What is the essence or the substance of my analysis? Can I say that I have a defensible account of why the analysis has led to a collection of data patterns that do not occur elsewhere? What have I learned about the intentionality of the action within and across the cases? The analysis of the instances and patterns extends the description to become more inclusive of more instances and even categories of instance. Each descriptor is given a name or code. In arriving at the analytical category the researcher has made many rejections, inclusions, and inferences. The whole now has to be related in a coherent and cohesive way, because it is integral to seeking understanding. The whole of what will be called a substantive theory is a refining of data to categories of the many instances analyzed.


The process of substantive theory formation in case study is clearly stated in the work of Louis M. Smith and William Geoffrey, Howard S. Becker, and Robert E. Stake. Smith and Geoffrey construct theory from small, clearly defined instances and build these into substantive theory within the case. Becker uses more expansive instances across and within a few cases, and Stake seeks to provide routines for understanding through the analysis of a large number of instances across many cases. Substantive theory may be one of the outcomes of grounded theorizing.

When seeking a wider understanding of a complex case or across cases the researcher may pursue the process of constructing a substantive theory. This attempt may discover the essence of the instances and their categorical relationships. If the researcher offers a substantive theory then it would be seen as such only if a wider readership attests to its enhancing of understanding.

Anselm Strauss provides an account of how he derived the formal theory of awareness contexts from substantive theories across themes. Strauss raises hypotheses and seeks to refute them by deduction using the substantive theories as data.

Critical Summary

For public debate, the process of arriving at substantive theory should be made explicit. The reader should evaluate the claims to substantive theory made by researchers. Some researchers go further in that they claim to have arrived at a formal theory from the elucidation of substantive theories. Formal theory is considered explanatory and causal and thus is different from the description and understanding of substantive theory.