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Lurching Toward Theory: The Case of Case Study Research in Conflict Mediation

Kenneth Kressel

Abstract


William Stiles (2009) makes a cogent argument for the value of case study methods for building practice relevant theory in psychotherapy. My use of case study methods in the domain of conflict mediation, an area of professional practice in which more traditional empirical methods have largely failed to answer questions of most interest to practitioners, well illustrates many of Stiles’ points. Although mediation has more delimited objectives than psychotherapy and is practiced by many individuals with little if any mental health training, its practitioners face the same challenge of exerting influence in situations of considerable tension, ambivalence, and unpredictability. Stiles’ argument for the case study as a theory building device resonates most strongly with my own experience in three major ways: (1) The value of the case study for connecting theory to practice; (2) the capacity of the case study to capitalize on problematic or unique experiences; and (3) the ability of case studies to generate the kind of rich observations that allow theories to be productively modified and adapted.  I illustrate these points by describing my gradual movement towards a theory of expert mediation practice in a series of case study investigations in three diverse domains: divorce mediation in a family court; the management of conflict in a university medical center; and the mediation of conflict among scientists by ombudsmen-mediators at The National Institutes of Health.     

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