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Case study research . Dr Ayaz Afsar. What is a case study?.

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what is a case study
What is a case study?
  • A case study is a specific instance that is frequently designed to illustrate a more general principle it is ‘the study of an instance in action’. The single instance is of a bounded system, for example a child, a clique, a class, a school, a community.
  • It provides a unique example of real people in real situations, enabling readers to understand ideas more clearly than simply by presenting them with abstract theories or principles. Indeed a case study can enable readers to understand how ideas and abstract principles can fit together
  • Case studies can penetrate situations in ways that are not always susceptible to numerical analysis. As Robson (2002: 183) remarks, case studies opt for analytic rather than statistical generalization, that is they develop a theory which can help researchers to understand other similar cases, phenomena or situations.
Case studies can establish cause and effect, indeed one of their strengths is that they observe effects in real contexts, recognizing that context is a powerful determinant of both causes and effects. As Nisbet and Watt (1984: 78) remark, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Sturman (1999: 103) argues that a distinguishing feature of case studies is that human systems have a wholeness or integrity to them rather than being a loose connection of traits, necessitating in-depth investigation. Further, contexts are unique and dynamic, hence case studies investigate and report the complex dynamic and unfolding interactions of events, human relationships and other factors in a unique instance.
key features of a case study
Key features of a case study
  • It is concerned with a rich and vivid description of events relevant to the case.
  • It provides a chronological narrative of events relevant to the case.
  • It blends a description of events with the analysis of them.
  • It focuses on individual actors or groups of actors, and seeks to understand their perceptions of events.
  • It highlights specific events that are relevant to the case.
  • The researcher is integrally involved in the case.
  • An attempt is made to portray the richness of the case in writing up the report.
Case studies are set in temporal, geographical, organizational, institutional and other contexts that enable boundaries to be drawn around the case; they can be defined with reference to characteristics defined by individuals and groups involved; and they can be defined by participants’ roles and functions in the case.
  • Case studies
  • will have temporal characteristics which help to define their nature
  • have geographical parameters allowing for their definition
  • will have boundaries which allow for definition
  • may be defined by an individual in a particular context, at a point in time
  • may be defined by the characteristics of the group
  • may be defined by role or function
  • may be shaped by organizational or institutional arrangements.
what is a case study1
What is a case study?
  • A case study is a specific, holistic, often unique instance that is frequently designed to illustrate a more general principle;
  • The study of an instance in action;
  • The study of an evolving situation;
  • Case studies portray ‘what it is like’ to be in a particular situation;
  • Case studies often include direct observations (participant and non-participant) and interviews.
Case studies strive to portray ‘what it is like’ to be in a particular situation, to catch the close up reality and ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973b) of participants’ lived experiences of, thoughts about and feelings for a situation.
  • They involve looking at a case or phenomenon in its real-life context, usually employing many types of data. They are descriptive and detailed, with a narrow focus, combining subjective and objective data. It is important in case studies for events and situations to be allowed to speak for themselves, rather than to be largely interpreted, evaluated or judged by the researcher. In this respect the case study is akin to the television documentary.
This is not to say that case studies are unsystematic or merely illustrative; case study data are gathered systematically and rigorously. Indeed
  • Nisbet and Watt (1984: 91) specifically counsel case study researchers to avoid:
  • journalism: picking out more striking features of the case, thereby distorting the full account in order to emphasize these more sensational aspects
  • selective reporting: selecting only that evidence which will support a particular conclusion, thereby misrepresenting the whole case
  • an anecdotal style: degenerating into an endless series of low-level banal and tedious illustrations that take over from in-depth, rigorous analysis.
one is reminded of Stake’s (1978) wry comment that ‘our scrapbooks are
  • full of enlargements of enlargements’, alluding to the tendency of some case studies to overemphasize detail to the detriment of seeing the whole picture
  • pomposity: striving to derive or generate profound theories from low-level data, or by wrapping up accounts in high-sounding verbiage
  • blandness: unquestioningly accepting only the respondents’ views, or including only those aspects of the case study on which people agree rather than areas on which they might disagree.

Case studies can make theoretical statements, but, like other forms of research and human sciences, these must be supported by the evidence presented.

  • This requires the nature of generalization in case study to be clarified. Generalization can take various forms, for example:
Case studies can make theoretical statements, but, like other forms of research and human sciences, these must be supported by the evidence presented.

This requires the nature of generalization in case study to be clarified. Generalization can take various forms, for example:

Simons (1996) has argued that case study needs to address six paradoxes; it needs to:

  • reject the subject–object dichotomy, regarding all participants equally
  • recognize the contribution that a genuine and creative encounter can make to new forms of understanding education
  • regard different ways of seeing as new ways of knowing
  • approximate the ways of the artist
  • free the mind of traditional analysis
  • embrace these paradoxes, with an overriding interest in people.
types of case studies
Types of case studies
  • There are several types of case study. Yin (1984) identifies three such types in terms of their outcomes: exploratory (as a pilot to other studies or research questions); descriptive (providing narrative accounts); explanatory (testing theories). Exploratory case studies that act as a pilot can be used to generate hypotheses that are tested in larger scale surveys, experiments or other forms of research, e.g. observational.
  • However, Adelman et al. (1980) caution against using case studies solely as preliminaries to other studies, e.g. as pre-experimental or pre-survey; rather, they argue, case studies exist in their own right as a significant and legitimate research method.
Yin’s (1984) classification accords with Merriam (1988) who identifies three types: descriptive (narrative accounts); interpretative (developing conceptual categories inductively in order to examine initial assumptions); evaluative (explaining and judging). Merriam (1988) also categorizes four common domains or kinds of case study:
  • ethnographic, historical, psychological and socio-logical. Sturman (1999: 107), echoing Stenhouse (1985), identifies four kinds of case study: an ethnographic case study – single in-depth study; action research case study; evaluative case study; and educational case study. Stake (1994) identifies three main types of case study: intrinsic case studies (studies that are undertaken in order to understand the particular case in question); instrumental case studies (examining a particular case in order to gain insight into an issue or a theory); collective case studies (groups of individual studies that are undertaken to gain a fuller picture). Because case studies provide fine-grain detail they can also be used to complement other, more coarsely grained – often large-scale – kinds of research.
Robson (2002: 181–2) suggests that there are an individual case study; a set of individual case studies; a social group study; studies of organizations and institutions; studies of events, roles and relationships. All of these, he argues, find expression in the case study method. He adds to these the distinction between a critical case study and an extreme or unique case.
  • The former, he argues, is when your theoretical understanding is such that there is a clear, unambiguous and non-trivial set of circumstances where predicted outcomes will be found. Finding a case which fits, and demonstrating what has been predicted, can give a powerful boost to knowledge and understanding.
strength and weaknesses of case studies
Strength and weaknesses of case studies
  • Case studies have several claimed strengths and weaknesses. These are summarized
  • The results are more easily understood by a wide audience (including non-academics) as they are frequently written in everyday, non-professional language.
  • They are immediately intelligible; they speak for themselves.
  • They catch unique features that may otherwise be lost in larger scale data (e.g. surveys); these unique features might hold the key to understanding the situation.
  • They are strong on reality.
  • They provide insights into other, similar situations and cases, thereby assisting interpretation of other similar cases.
  • They can be undertaken by a single researcher without needing a full research team.
  • They can embrace and build in unanticipated events and uncontrolled variables.
  • Weaknesses
  • The results may not be generalizable except where other readers/researchers see their application.
  • They are not easily open to cross-checking, hence they may be selective, biased, personal and subjective.
  • They are prone to problems of observer bias, despite attempts made to address reflexivity.
elements of case study
Elements of case study
  • Rich, vivid and holistic description (‘thick description’) and portrayal of events, contexts and situations through the eyes of participants (including the researcher);
  • Contexts are temporal, physical, organizational, institutional, interpersonal;
  • Chronological narrative;
  • Combination of description, analysis and interpretation;
  • Focus on actors and participants;
  • Let the data speak for themselves (don’t over-interpret).
types of case study
Types of case study
  • Exploratory (pilot);
  • Descriptive (e.g. narrative);
  • Explanatory.


  • Intrinsic case studies: (to understand the case in question);
  • Instrumental case studies (examining a particular case to gain insight into an issue or theory);
  • Collective case studies (groups of individual studies to gain a fuller picture).
Case studies frequently follow the interpretive tradition of research – seeing the situation through the eyes of participants – rather than the quantitative paradigm, though this need not always be the case. Its sympathy to the interpretive paradigm has rendered case study an object of criticism.
  • Consider, for example, Smith (1991: 375), who argues that not only is the case study method the logically weakest method of knowing but also studying individual cases, careers and communities is a thing of the past, and that attention should be focused on patterns and laws in historical research.
reliability and validity in case study
Reliability and validity in case study
  • Like other research methods, case study has to demonstrate reliability and validity. This can be difficult, for given the uniqueness of situations, they may be, by definition, inconsistent with other case studies or unable to demonstrate this positivist view of reliability. Even though case studies do not have to demonstrate this form of reliability, nevertheless there are important questions to be faced in undertaking case studies, for example
what exactly is a case how are cases identi ed and selected
What exactly is a case?How are cases identified and selected?
  • What kind of case study is this (what is its purpose)?
  • What is reliable evidence?
  • What is objective evidence?
  • What is an appropriate selection to include from the wealth of generated data?
  • What is a fair and accurate account?
  • Under what circumstances is it fair to take an exceptional case?
  • What kind of sampling is most appropriate?
  • To what extent is triangulation required and how will this be addressed?
  • What is the nature of the validation process in case studies?
  • How will the balance be struck between uniqueness and generalization?
  • What is the most appropriate form of writing up and reporting the case study?
  • What ethical issues are exposed in undertaking a case study?
A key issue in case study research is the selection of information. Although it is frequently useful to record typical, representative occurrences, the researcher need not always adhere to criteria of representativeness. It may be that infrequent, unrepresentative but critical incidents or events occur that are crucial to the understanding of the case. For example, a subject might only demonstrate a particular behaviour once, but it is so important as not to be ruled out simply because it occurred once; sometimes a single event might occur which sheds a hugely important insight into a person or situation , it can be a key to understanding a situation.
For example, it may be that a psychological case study might happen upon a single instance of child abuse earlier in an adult’s life, but the effects of this were so profound as to constitute a turning point in understanding that adult. A child might suddenly pass a single comment that indicates complete frustration with or complete fear of a teacher, yet it is too important to overlook. Case studies, in not having to seek frequencies of occurrences, can replace quantity with quality and intensity, separating the significant few from the insignificant many instances of behaviour. Significance rather than frequency is a hallmark of case studies, offering the researcher an insight into the real dynamics of situations and people.
examples of kinds of case study
Examples of kinds of case study
  • Unlike the experimenter who manipulates variables to determine their causal significance or the surveyor who asks standardized questions of large, representative samples of individuals, the case study researcher typically observes the characteristics of an individual unit – a child, a clique, a class, a school or a community.
  • The purpose of such observation is to probe deeply and to analyse intensively the multifarious phenomena that constitute the life cycle of the unit with a view to establishing generalizations about the wider population to which that unit belongs.
Antipathy among researchers towards the statistical – experimental paradigm has created something of a boom industry in case study research. Delinquents (Patrick 1973), dropouts (Parker 1974), drug-users (Young 1971) and schools (King 1979) attest to the wide use of the case study in contemporary social science and educational research. Such wide use is marked by an equally diverse range of techniques employed in the collection and analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data. Whatever the problem or the approach, at the heart of every case study lies a method of observation.
cont examples of kinds of case study
Cont…Examples of kinds of case study
  • a typology of observation studies on the basis of which six examples are selected
  • Acker’s (1990) study is an ethnographic account that is based on several hundred hours of participant observation material, while Boulton’s (1992) work, by contrast, is based on highly structured, non-participant observation conducted over five years. The study by Wild et al. (1992) used participant observation, loosely structured interviews that yielded simple frequency counts. Blease and Cohen’s (1990) study of coping with computers used highly structured observation schedules, undertaken by non-participant observers, with the express intention of obtaining precise, quantitative data on the classroom use of a computer programme. This was part of a longitudinal study in primary classrooms, and yielded typical profiles of individual behaviour and group interaction in students’ usage of the computer programme.
Antonsen’s(1988)) study was of a single child undergoing psychotherapy at a child psychiatric unit, and uses unstructured observation within the artificial setting of a psychiatric clinic and is a record of the therapist’s non-directive approach.
  • Finally Houghton’s (1991) study uses data from structured sets of test materials together with focused interviews with those with whom this international student had contact.
the case study and problems of selection
The case study and problems of selection
  • Among the issues confronting the researcher at the outset of the case study are the problems of selection.
  • The following questions indicate some of the obstacles in this respect:
  • How do you get from the initial idea to the working design (from the idea to a specification, to usable data)?
  • What do you lose in the process?
  • What unwanted concerns do you take on board as a result?
  • How do you find a site which provides the best location for the design?
  • How do you locate, identify and approach key informants?
  • How they see you creates a context within which you see them. How can you handle such social complexities?
  • How do you record evidence? When? How much?
  • How do you file and categorize it?
  • How much time do you give to thinking and reflecting about what you are doing?
  • At what points do you show your subject what you are doing?
  • At what points do you give them control over who sees what?
  • Who sees the reports first?
planning a case study
Planning a case study
  • In planning a case study there are several issues that researchers may find useful to consider (e.g. Adelman et al. 1980)
  • The particular circumstances of the case, including: the possible disruption to individual participants that participation might entail; negotiating access to people; negotiating ownership of the data; negotiating release of the data.
  • The conduct of the study, including: the use of primary and secondary sources; the opportunities to check data; triangulation (including peer examination of the findings, respondent validation and reflexivity); data collection methods – in the interpretive paradigm, case studies tend to use certain data collection methods, e.g. semi-structured and open interviews, observation, narrative accounts and documents, diaries, maybe also tests, rather than other methods, e.g. surveys, experiments.
Nisbet and Watt (1984) suggest that in conducting interviews, it may be wiser to interview senior people later rather than earlier so that the most effective use of discussion time can be made, the interviewer having been put into the picture fully before the interview.
  • Finally, the conduct of research involves data analysis, theory generation where appropriate, and writing the report. Nisbet and Watt (1984) suggest that it is important to separate conclusions from the evidence, with the essential evidence included in the main text, and to balance illustration with analysis and generalization.
At one pole we have unstructured, typically qualitative data, while at the other we have structured, typically quantitative data. Researchers using case study approaches will need to decide which methods of data collection, which type of data and techniques of analysis to employ.
writing up a case study
Writing up a case study
  • The writing up of a case study abides by the twin notions of ‘fitness for purpose’ and ‘fitness for audience’. Robson (2002: 512–13) suggests six forms of organizing the writing-up of a case study:
  • In the suspense structure the author presents the main findings (e.g. an executive summary) in the opening part of the report and then devotes the remainder of the report to providing evidence, analysis, explanations, justifications (e.g. for what is selected in or out, what conclusions are drawn, what alternative explanations are rejected), and argument that leads to the overall picture or conclusion.
In the narrative report a prose account is provided, interspersed with relevant figures, tables, emergent issues, analysis and conclusion.
  • In the comparative structure the same case is examined through two or more lenses (e.g. explanatory, descriptive, theoretical) in order either to provide a rich, all-round account of the case, or to enable the reader to have sufficient information from which to judge which of the explanations, descriptions or theories best fit(s) the data.
In the chronological structure a simple sequence or chronology is used as the organizational principle, thereby enabling not only cause and effect to be addressed, but also possessing the strength of an ongoing story. Adding to Robson’s (2002) comments, the chronology can be sectionalized as appropriate (e.g. key events or key time frames), and intersperse commentaries on, interpretations of and explanations for, and summaries of emerging issues as events unfold (e.g. akin to ‘memoing’ in ethnographic research).
  • The chronology becomes an organizing principle, but different kinds of contents are included at each stage of the chronological sequence.
  • In the theory-generating structure, the structure follows a set of theoretical constructs or a case that is being made. Here, Robson (2002) suggests, each succeeding section of the case study contributes to, or constitutes, an element of a developing ‘theoretical formulation’, providing a link in the chain of argument, leading eventually to the overall theoretical formulation
In the unsequenced structures the sequence, e.g. chronological, issue-based, event-based, theory based, is unimportant.
  • Some case studies are of a single situation – a single child, a single social group, a single class, a single school. Here any of the above six approaches may be appropriate.
  • Some case studies require an unfolding of events, some case studies operate under a ‘snapshot’ approach (e.g. of several schools, or classes, or groups at a particular point in time). In the former it may be important to preserve the chronology, whereas in the latter such a chronology may be irrelevant. Some case studies are divided into two main parts: the data reporting and then the analysis/interpretation/explanation.
  • The different strategies illustrated in six examples of case studies in a variety of educational settings suggest that participant observation is best thought of as a generic term that describes a methodological approach rather than one specific method.
  • What the examples have shown is that the representativeness of a particular sample often relates to the observational strategy open to the researcher. Generally speaking, the larger the sample, the more representative it is, and the more likely that the observer’s role is of a participant nature.
further reading
Further reading

Bassey M [1999] Case study research in educational settings. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Burton, D and Bartlett, S (2004) Practitioner research for teachers. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Graham B [2000] Case Study research methods. London: Continuum.

Yin R (2003). Case study research: design and methods [3rd ed] London: Sage Publishing.