The Single Case Study: Understanding the Life History of a Tuskegee Syphilis Study Descendant


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

Drawing on case study research with a single descendant of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Washington, 2006), this case describes the iterative nature of developing a research project and analyzes the pros and cons of conducting case study research. The case also highlights practicalities of conducting research, including seeking consultation from other scholars, locating study respondents for follow-up interviews, and handling respondents’ emotional reactions during interviews. The case argues that although making causal claims from a single subject is imprudent, the empirical findings gleaned from a single case may be better characterized as a structural anecdote or a story that illuminates socially patterned phenomena. In this case, the respondent’s family history illuminates the socially patterned nature of racial discrimination in the US healthcare system that began with her great-grandfather’s involvement in the Tuskegee Study, continued with her grandfather being refused treatment in White hospitals in Alabama in the Jim Crow era, and culminated with her contemporary mistrust of predominantly White healthcare institutions. Although this is a single case, it exemplifies the concepts of mistrust and historical trauma that are often amorphous and hard to grasp. By illustrating these concepts, the case highlights the importance of using theoretical constructs to facilitate empirical study.

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