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How to... undertake case study research

Options:     Print Version - How to...  undertake case study research, part 1 Print view

Article Sections

  1. What is case study research?
  2. Design issues
  3. Data collection
  4. Data analysis
  5. References

By Margaret Adolphus

What is case study research?

Case study research, in which the subject of the research is studied within its social, political, organizational, or economic context, is one of the commonest approaches across the social and management sciences.

Many authors cite Yin, who describes case study research as:

" ... an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident" (Yin, 2009, location no. 638-650).

In other words, the subject of the research is comprehensively studied as an example of a real live phenomenon, within the context in which it happens.

Another definition is given by Dul and Hak:

"A case study is a study in which a) one case (single case study) or a small number of cases (comparative case study) in their real life context are selected, and b) scores obtained from these cases are analysed in a qualitative manner" (Dul and Hak, 2007, p. 4).

How and when is the case study method used?

According to Yin (2006), case study research is best applied when the research addresses descriptive or explanatory questions: i.e. what happened, how, and why?

It is also good for describing a situation or phenomenon occurring in the present, where in-depth description is useful and where the researcher does not need to manipulate events.

Yin (2003) identifies three types of case studies:

  1. Exploratory: the case study is used to define questions and hypotheses – or to test out a research procedure – for a further piece of research, such as a large-scale survey.
  2. Descriptive: the case study is used to describe a particular phenomenon within its context. It can be used to expand on a particular theme unearthed by a survey.
  3. Explanatory: the case study explores cause-effect relationships, and/or how events happen.

Only the third of these approaches can stand up as a method in its own right, and not as an ancillary to other quantitative approaches such as surveys or field experiments.

Advantages of the case study as a research method

Case studies are "real" – they offer a chance to get a snapshot of real life: a rich and thick picture. As such, they are most appropriate for dealing with a subject that is context dependent, complex, unusual, or where there is some ambiguity.

In direct contrast to positivist approaches, which seek to generalize, the case study offers particularity: i.e. the opportunity for a holistic approach without the distraction of too many variables (Gummesson, 2007).

While it offers depth and specificity, case study research also offers breadth and diversity in terms of methods of data collection and analytical techniques. For example, one case study can incorporate surveys, interviews, direct observation, and archival research. This offers the possibility of several different layers of analysis which can reveal several different perspectives, with the added benefit of triangulation of the results.

According to Woodside (2010, pp. 2-3) the usefulness of case study research lies in the fact that it encourages research methods that help measure thinking over an ongoing period, for example by multiple interviews.

It can also be a useful method when the unit of analysis, or the subject under consideration, is a collective entity such as an organization or a community.

Disadvantages of the case study as a research method

The most common objection to case study research is that it is insufficiently rigorous. Quite often this criticism relates not to the method as such, but to the way case studies are presented: the author does not leave a clear audit trail detailing his or her research and explaining the conclusions.

Case studies are often seen as a "bolt-on" to a major research project, defining research questions or throwing further light on an issue that has been revealed by a survey. That explanatory research can offer an understanding of a phenomenon is viewed with scepticism by some, on the grounds that a single case study cannot yield a sufficient volume of evidence on which to generalize.

What are the skills needed in case study research?

Case study research is neither a quick nor a soft option. It requires considerable skill on the part of the researcher, who needs to be adept at identifying and analysing data from a number of different sources.

It also requires a skill common to all qualitative researchers: the ability to interpret as well as analyse, to see through spin, and if necessary, check information with another source.