Case Studies, Counterfactuals, and Causal Explanations

100 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2003

See all articles by Gregory Mitchell

Gregory Mitchell

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: August 2003


This article critically examines the use of single-observation case studies to develop causal explanations for significant legal events, detailing the evidential and inferential problems inherent in this methodology. Most significant among these problems is that focus on a single case necessitates the use of counterfactual thought experiments to test causal hypotheses. The pitfalls of such thought experiments are illustrated through discussion of recent attempts to explain the collapse of Enron Corporation using this approach. Application of a set of normative criteria to the products of these Enron thought experiments reveals the suspect nature of causal explanations and policy prescriptions drawn from single-observation case studies.

Keywords: case study method, counterfactual reasoning, thought experiment, empirical legal research

Suggested Citation

Mitchell, Gregory, Case Studies, Counterfactuals, and Causal Explanations (August 2003). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 84, Available at SSRN: or

Gregory Mitchell (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-243-4088 (Phone)

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