Cases and biographies: An essay on routinization and the nature of comparison

Carol A Heimer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Routines, protocols, and organization charts focus attention, structure cognition, and shape decision making. Participants in organizations, legal systems, and markets compare cases, deciding which protocol governs the treatment of each case in a stream. But situations vary in the extent to which thought and action are effectively governed by routines and standard operating procedures. In less structured or more chaotic situations, biography is an alternative form of analysis that shapes cognition and helps people make sense of otherwise uninterpretable events. Biography and narrative do their work by constructing the causal unity of objects over time rather than by constructing causation from a comparison across similar cases. Using examples such as critically ill infants, animals, heirlooms, the penalty phase of capital trials, juvenile justice, the lower criminal courts, religious relics, and cloth, the paper compares case and biographical analysis in organizations, legal settings, and markets, asking how these different ways of thinking come about and what follows from them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-76
Number of pages30
JournalAnnual Review of Sociology
StatePublished - Jan 1 2001


  • Cognition
  • Institutions
  • Law
  • Markets
  • Organizations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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