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The Case Study. Hugh Willmott Research Professor in Organizational Analysis Cardiff Business School Home Page : Outline of Session. The Case Study – Features and Relevance Types of Case Study Issues in Case Study Research

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The case study l.jpg

The Case Study

Hugh Willmott

Research Professor in Organizational Analysis

Cardiff Business School

Home Page :

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Outline of Session

  • The Case Study – Features and Relevance

  • Types of Case Study

  • Issues in Case Study Research

  • The Executive Fix

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What is a Case Study?

  • Study of naturally occurring phenomena but may be retrospective

  • One or a small number of instances of a unit of analysis

    • e.g. industry, organization, department, work group, leader, process (e.g. strategic decision-making)

  • May incorporate quantitative as well as qualitative elements

  • Especially relevant for appreciating process and change over time

  • More or less explicitly informed by theoretical framework to guide data generation and interpretation – deductive / inductive

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Single Case

Might be sufficient to `test’ a theory that is well formulated

Uniqueness of case may be sufficient justification for studying it

Under-researched areas may require opening up through depth provided by single case

Focus and depth

Multiple Case

Possibility of comparisons and contrasts

More diverse materials for generating or testing theory (some parallels with stratified sampling)

Facilitates exploration of different aspects or dimensions of phenomena that are concentrated in particular cases

Diversity and breadth

Single v. Multiple Cases?

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A Model of The Case Study Process

Dotted line is explained on the next slide

Case Study Process. Extract from R.K. Yin (2003), 3rd ed., Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage, p. 50

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The Case Study Process – Feedback Loops

`An important part of [the figure] is the dotted line feedback loop. The loop represents a situation in which an important discovery occurs during the conduct of one of the individual case studies – for example, one of the cases did not in fact suit the original design.

R.K. Yin (2003), 3rd ed, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage, pp 50-51

What other examples of `feedback loops’ can you think of? (see also next slide)

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The Case Study Process – Feedback Loops

  • A second feedback loop (not shown) could represent the situation in which the discovery led to reconsidering one or more of the study’s original theoretical propositions

  • Under either circumstance, consideration of “redesign” should take place before proceeding further. Redesign might involve the selection of alternative cases or changes in the case study (i.e. data collection) protocol

  • Without a redesign you risk being accused of distorting or ignoring the discovery, just to accommodate the original design

  • This condition leads quickly to a further accusation – that you have been selective in reporting your data to suit your preconceived ideas (i.e. the original theoretical propositions) – an Achilles heal of deductivism.

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When is the Case Study Appropriate (1)?

  • When investigating `how’ and `why’ questions rather than `what’ or `how many’ questions

`…”how” and “why” questions are more explanatory and likely to lead to the use of case studies… as the preferred research strategies. This is because such questions deal with operational links needing to be traced over time, rather than mere frequencies or incidence’ (R.K. Yin (2003), 3rd ed., Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage

See next slide re. Yin’s examples of matching research strategy/ methodology to a research issue

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Types of Case Study and Methodologies

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Types/Aspects of Case Study Research and Methodologies

  • Descriptive/ Exploratory

    • thick, rich accounts of under-researched phenomena

      • e.g. executive decision-making

  • Evaluative

    • provide assessment of the outcome of a particular programme or technique

      • e.g. tqm or bpr

  • Explanatory

    • development and/or testing of theories based upon in-depth detailed investigation of topic

      • e.g. presents alternative to idealized and/or simplistic and/or self-serving (such as managerialist) forms of explanation

        • such challenges qualified by recognition of limitations of how data have been generated and analysed

  • See next slide re. Yin’s examples of different types of case study

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Extract from R.K.Yin (2004), 3 and Methodologiesrd ed, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage, p. 4

Example of a Descriptive Case Study

Street Corner Society by William F. Whyte (1943/1955) has for decades been recommended reading in the field of community sociology. The book is a classic example of a descriptive case study.

1. It traces the sequence of interpersonal events over time, describes a subculture that had rarely been the topic of previous study, and discovers key phenomena, such as the career advancement of lower-income youths and their ability (or inability) to break neighborhood ties.

2. The study has been highly regarded despite its being a single-case study, covering one neighborhood ("Cornerville").

3. The value of the book is, paradoxically, its generalizability to issues of individual performance, group structure, and the social structure of neighborhoods. Later investigators have repeatedly found remnants of Cornerville in their work, even though they have studied different neighborhoods and different time periods.

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What is an Explanatory Case Study? and Methodologies

  • According to Yin, an explanatory case study consists of:

  • `an accurate rendition of the facts of the case

  • some consideration of alternative explanations of these facts

  • a conclusion based on a single explanation that appears most congruent with the facts’

  • (R.K. Yin (1981), `The Case Study Crisis: Some Answers’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 26: 58-65 cited in Thomas, 2004, p. 129)

Exercise: What might be problematical about Yin’s formulation?

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Extract from R.K.Yin (2004), 3 and Methodologiesrd ed, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage, p. 4

Example of an Explanatory Case Study – Allison, 1971 (1)

  • Graham Allison's (1971) original study of a single case, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis - in which the U.S.-Soviet Union confrontation could have produced nuclear holocaust - has been a political science best-seller since its publication. The book posits three competing but also complementary theories to explain the crisis-that the United States and Soviet Union performed as

  • rational actors,

  • complex bureaucracies, or

  • politically motivated groups of persons.


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Extract from R.K.Yin (2004), 3 and Methodologiesrd ed, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage, p. 4

Example of an Explanatory Case Study – Allison, 1971 (2)

Allison compares the capacity of (a) - (c) to explain the course of events in the crisis:

  • why the Soviet Union placed offensive (and not merely defensive) missiles in Cuba in the first place;

  • why the United States responded to the missile deployment with a blockade (and not an air strike or invasion - the missiles already were in Cuba!); and

  • why the Soviet Union eventually withdrew the missiles

    The case study shows the explanatory, and not just descriptive or exploratory, functions of single case studies. The lessons from the case study are intended to be generalizable not only to foreign affairs more broadly but also to a whole variety of complex governmental actions. In this way, the arguments of the book, which are even more thoughtfully presented in its second edition (Allison & Zelikow, 1999), forcefully demonstrates how a single-case study can be the basis for significant explanations and generalizations.

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Re. questionnaire design and Methodologies: `it is important to note that questionnaire designers need to be aware that, although they may have a highly reliable measure, it may not necessarily be measuring what it is intended to measure: reliability does not necessarily imply validity…’ J,Gill and P.Johnson (2002), 3rd ed., Research Methods for Managers, London: Sage, p118

Validity Issues

  • Internal Validity (The extent to which a method discloses what it is supposed to disclose)

    • How reliable are the favoured methods of data collection (generation? construction?)?

      • Bias? Unique to case studies?

      • Impossibility of replication? How possible is it outside of, or even within, a carefully controlled experimental situation?

  • External Validity (The extent to which a finding applies (or can be generalized) to persons, objects, settings, or times other than those that were the subject of study)

    • How to generalise? Could be an `outlier’

      • How feasible is generalisation in the social sciences?

      • Should the capacity to generalize be taken as the principal benchmark of relevance and value?

We return to these issues in Week 9

See next slide re. Bryman’s comments on the misunderstanding of the value of case studies

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The `Problem’ of Case Study Generalization (1) and Methodologies

`There are grounds for thinking that the “problem” of case study generalization entails a misunderstanding of the aims of such research. In particular, this misconception arises from a tendency to approach a case study as if it were a sample of one drawn from a wider universe of such cases. There at least two reasons for considering this view to be misguided’

  • The contrast with survey samples is not so clear-cut as case studies normally examine a wide range of people and activities(nb surveys are often based upon local rather than national populations)


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The `Problem’ of Case Study Generalization (2) and Methodologies

  • Issue is better couched in terms of the generalizability of cases to theoretical propositions rather than populations or universes

  • It may be that `extrapolation’ rather than generalization is a more appropriate term to the broader relevance of case study findings and interpretations

    (A. Bryman, 1988, Quality and Quantity in Social Research, London: Routledge, p. 90)

Some have suggested that `Generalization is…(a) word…that should be reserved for surveys only. What can be analysed instead is how the researcher demonstrates that the analysis relates to things beyond the material at hand… extrapolation better captures the typical procedure in qualitative research’

P. Alasuutari (1995), Researching Culture: Qualitative Method and Cultural Studies, London: Sage, p.156-7 cited in D. Silverman (2005), 2nd ed. Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook, London: Sage, p. 136

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Analysing `The Executive Fix’ (1) and Methodologies

The following set of question is adapted from `Research Skills for Management Studies’ (adapted from p. 132) where Alan Thomas proposes an exercise that could be applied to `The Executive Fix’

  • How have the following issues been dealt with by the researcher(s)

  • Justification. Was the research strategy/methodology appropriate to issue being researched? Was the intention to describe, to explain, or both?

  • Ethics. What ethical issues are explicitly raised by the researchers? What unacknowledged ethical issues seem to be raised by the case?

  • Data. What data were obtained? From what sources were they obtained? By what methods?


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Analysing `The Executive Fix’ (2) and Methodologies

  • Analysis. How were the data organized and summarised?

  • Presentation. How coherent and/or convincing an account of the study has been offered? How has the presentation been organized?

  • Improvement. In what ways might the study have been improved re. data generation, data analysis, presentation and use/development of theory?

  • Development. What additional questions to the above might be directed at this (or other case studies).

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Final Thought (1) and MethodologiesConvergence of Qualitative and Quantitative Research?

`There is a growing view that qualitative research ought to be more consciously driven by theoretical concerns, in contrast to the belief (with which qualitative research is more usually associated) that theoretical reflection ought to be delayed until a later stage of the research process. Ironically, the “front loading” of theory in qualitative research brings it much closer to the model of the quantitative research process outlined in Figure 2.1’ (see next slide)

A. Bryman (1988), Quality and Quantity in Social Research, London: Routledge, p. 91

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Final Thought (2) Bryman, 1988:20Dangers of Methodolatry

`In the course of dealing with criticisms [e.g. about internal and external validity] of the case study strategy there has been a tendency to codify procedures for researching cases, so making the approach more explicit and more accessible.

Yin’s Case Study Research: Design and Methods is an influential example of this proceduralizing trend; it provides comprehensive guidance on how to carry out case studies from origination to writing up.

However, as with any elaboration of research methods, it is as well to be aware of the dangers of falling into methodolatry: in research, slavishly following procedures is no substitute for applying imaginative intelligence’

(Thomas, 2004: 1334, emphasis added)

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Additional Recommended Reading Bryman, 1988:20

  • D. Silverman (2005),2nd ed., Doing Qualitative Research, London: Sage, Ch 9

  • R.K. Yin (2003), 3rd ed., Case Study Research: Design and Methods, London: Sage

  • R.E. Stake (1995) The Art of the Case Study, London: Sage

  • R. Stoeker (1991), `Evaluating and Rethinking the Case Study’, Sociological Review, 39: 88-112