Case study research
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Case Study Research. Dr. Julian Beckton. Introduction. An important approach to research within the qualitative tradition Widely used in social science research. (Not so much in natural sciences, but not unknown .) Defined by interest in the case , not by the methods (Stake, 2000)

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Case Study Research

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Case study research

Case Study Research

Dr. Julian Beckton



  • An important approach to research within the qualitative tradition

  • Widely used in social science research. (Not so much in natural sciences, but not unknown.)

  • Defined by interest in the case, not by the methods (Stake, 2000)

  • Most case studies use interpretive methods, but not exclusively.

What is a case study

What is a case study?

  • Focus on one (sometimes more) distinct incidence of a phenomenon.

  • Detailed, deep examination of that incidence

  • Study of the incidence in context

  • Representation of the case as experienced by those inside it (emic perspective)

  • AND a critical review of the case by the researcher (etic perspective)

3 functions of case study

3 functions of case study

  • Description

  • “I hope to demonstrate here that much of the political and educational rhetoric which surrounds the notion of comprehensiveness in this country ignores or is irrelevant to what actually goes on in schools” (Ball, 1981)

  • Explanation

  • Jane Jacobs in The Death and life of Great American Cities (1961) used the example of New York to explain the importance of parks, pavements, the importance of mixing land use and many other issues

  • Evaluation

  • “The present study was undertaken to look at the practices of some of the remaining one teacher schools, and what might be learned from them (Swidler, 2000)

Designing your case study

Designing your case study

  • Establish your research problem – in particular, consider its questions and propositions

  • Select a case that will answer your research question. Consider if you are trying to confirm or disprove a proposition. (This may need some thought). Consider multiple case studies.

  • Consider your own role – what will your background and professional experience bring to the research?

  • Entry to the field – A critical and complex step in a case study. Who, how, what do you ask in first contact? How will you present yourself?

Over to you

Over to you

  • Take your own research question or topic and spend a few minutes thinking about what sort of case you could study (Even if you don’t propose to do a case study).

  • Then describe your topic and your choice of case to your neighbour. Ask them to criticise your choice of case (what might it answer? What might it not answer? Can you see any ethical issues.

Four perspectives on ethics


  • Utilitarian ethics – greatest possible good to the greatest possible number.

  • Deontological ethics – actions judged by absolute values (e.g. justice, honesty, fairness)

  • Relational ethics – puts people first in that the researchers actions are always aimed at the good of the people in the case.

  • Ecological ethics – considers the larger social system of which the case forms a part.

  • None of these are ideal – what do you think the objections are?

Data collection

Data collection

  • How much of yourself should you reveal to participants, and in the writing of the report?

  • Characteristic of case study data collection is that it is emergent.

  • Summary records of interactions can be very useful.

  • Think “finish to start”.

  • When do you stop collecting data?

    • Exhaustion of sources

    • Saturation of categories

    • Emergence of regularities

    • Overextension

Data analysis

Data analysis

  • Case studies tend to generate a lot of data.

  • Interpretational analysis (by far the most common)

  • Segmenting, categorising, coding, grouping

  • Structural analysis

  • What patterns are inherent in the data? (Very useful in revealing patterns of speech and thus social dynamics)

  • Reflective analysis

  • Relies on intuition and judgement – and on criticism. Sometimes used in team research projects

Validity and reliability

Validity and reliability

  • Postivist criteria

    • Audit trails – You need to be able to show what data you collected, how, how you categorised and coded it, how your codes contribute to your arguments, any notes you made about the process, what you intended to do and did, and how you chose your instruments, and how all these things are linked. At least include a sample in your methodology section.

    • Pattern matching. In an evaluative case study, does what is predict to happen, actually happen?

  • Interpretivist criteria

    • Plausibility, authenticity, credibility, relevance, usefulness, contextual completeness, researcher positioning, reporting style, triangulation/reconciliation, member checking, outlier analysis, longitudinal study, and representativeness

Generalisability debate


  • “Such studies have such a total absence of control as to be of almost no scientific value… Any appearance of absolute knowledge, or intrinsic knowledge about singular, isolated objects is found to be illusory upon analysis…It seems well-nigh unethical at the present time to allow, as theses or dissertations in education case studies of this nature (i.e., involving a single group observed at one time only) (Campbell and Stanley, 1966, p 6-7) (Quoted in Flyvbjerg, 2006)

  • Break into two groups. Group 1 should try and come up with five reasons why you can generalise from case studies, and Group 2 should come up with five reasons why you shouldn’t.

Writing up a case study

Writing up a case study

  • Finalizing your definition

  • Remember you’re interested in the case. So you only use the data that answers your questions.

  • Reflective reporting

  • This is where you tell a story – using literary devices such as using point of view characters, focussing on a key event, reporting a “day in the life” and so on. Possibly risky for a PhD thesis, but done well, can be compelling.

  • Analytic reporting

  • Researcher’s voice subdued, tends to be objective, outside the study – stresses the etic perspective as much as the emic

Pros and cons of case study research

Pros and Cons of Case study research

  • Often highly accessible to general reader

  • Context dependent and thus very “human”

  • Aids comparison with reader’s own situation (emic perspective)

  • Reveals researcher’s perspective (etic)

  • Useful for examining data outliers

  • Not easily generalisable (in the traditional sense at least)

  • Can pose ethical risks to participants

  • Highly labour intensive, and require high level language skills to identify concepts and themes



  • Ball, Stephen, J. (1981) Beachside Comprehensive: A case study of secondary schooling. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Flyvbjerg, Bent (2006) Five misunderstandings about Case_Study Research. Qualitative Inquiry 12 (2) 219-244

  • Gall, Gall & Borg (2003) Educational research. Allyn & Bacon, Boston MA (Chapter 14 provided the outline for this session)

  • Gomm, Hammersley & Foster (eds.) (2000) Case Study Method. Sage, London University Library (300.72 cas)

  • Hammersley, Gomm & Foster, (2000) Case study and theory in Gomm, Hammersley & Foster (eds.) (2000) Case Study Method. Sage, London University Library (300.72 cas)

  • Jacobs, Jane (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Penguin, Harmondsworth UniversityLibrary (307.760973 jac)

  • Stake (2000) Case studies In. Denzin &Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative research (2nd ed.) Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA p 435-454) University Library (300.72 den)

  • Swidler, S. A. (2000) Notes on a country School Tradition: Recitation as an individual strategy. – Journal of Research in Rural Education (29) 517-544

  • Yin, Robert (2009) Case Study Research,: Design and Methods, 4th. Ed. Sage, London University Library (300.72 yin)

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