A case study is about a person, group, or situation that has been studied over time. If the case study, for instance, is about a group, it describes the behavior of the group as a whole, not the behavior of each individual in the group.
Case studies can be produced by following a formal research method. These case studies are likely to appear in formal research venues, as journals and professional conferences, rather than popular works. The resulting body of 'case study research' has long had a prominent place in many disciplines and professions, ranging from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and political science to education, clinical science, social work, and administrative science.
In doing case study research, the "case" being studied may be an individual, organization, event, or action, existing in a specific time and place. For instance, clinical science has produced both well-known case studies of individuals and also case studies of clinical practices. However, when "case" is used in an abstract sense, as in a claim, a proposition, or an argument, such a case can be the subject of many research methods, not just case study research.
"Case studies are analyses of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions, or other systems that are studied holistically by one or more method. The case that is the subject of the inquiry will be an instance of a class of phenomena that provides an analytical frame — an object — within which the study is conducted and which the case illuminates and explicates."
One approach sees the case study defined as a research strategy, an empirical inquiry that investigates a phenomenon within its real-life context. Case-study research can mean single and multiple case studies, can include quantitative evidence, relies on multiple sources of evidence, and benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions. As such, case study research should not be confused with qualitative research, as case studies can be based on any mix of quantitative and qualitative data. Similarly, single-subject research might be taken as case studies of a sort, except that the repeated trials in single-subject research permit the use of experimental designs that would not be possible in typical case studies. At the same time, the repeated trials can provide a statistical framework for making inferences from quantitative data.
The case study is sometimes mistaken for the case method used in teaching, but the two are not the same.
Case selection and structure
An average, or typical case, is often not the richest in information. In clarifying lines of history and causation it is more useful to select subjects that offer an interesting, unusual or particularly revealing set of circumstances. A case selection that is based on representativeness will seldom be able to produce these kinds of insights. When selecting a subject for a case study, researchers will therefore use information-oriented sampling, as opposed to random sampling. Outlier cases (that is, those which are extreme, deviant or atypical) reveal more information than the potentially representative case. Alternatively, a case may be selected as a key case, chosen because of the inherent interest of the case or the circumstances surrounding it. Alternatively it may be chosen because of a researchers' in-depth local knowledge; where researchers have this local knowledge they are in a position to "soak and poke" as Fenno puts it, and thereby to offer reasoned lines of explanation based on this rich knowledge of setting and circumstances.
Three types of cases may thus be distinguished for selection:
- Key cases
- Outlier cases
- Local knowledge cases
Whatever the frame of reference for the choice of the subject of the case study (key, outlier, local knowledge), there is a distinction to be made between the subjestorical unity through which the theoretical focus of the study is being viewed. The object is that theoretical focus – the analytical frame. Thus, for example, if a researcher were interested in US resistance to communist expansion as a theoretical focus, then the Korean War might be taken to be the subject, the lens, the case study through which the theoretical focus, the object, could be viewed and explicated.
Beyond decisions about case selection and the subject and object of the study, decisions need to be made about purpose, approach and process in the case study. Thomas thus proposes a typology for the case study wherein purposes are first identified (evaluative or exploratory), then approaches are delineated (theory-testing, theory-building or illustrative), then processes are decided upon, with a principal choice being between whether the study is to be single or multiple, and choices also about whether the study is to be retrospective, snapshot or diachronic, and whether it is nested, parallel or sequential. It is thus possible to take many routes through this typology, with, for example, an exploratory, theory-building, multiple, nested study, or an evaluative, theory-testing, single, retrospective study. The typology thus offers many permutations for case-study structure.
A closely related study in medicine is the case report, which identifies a specific case as treated and/or examined by the authors as presented in a novel form. These are, to a differentiable degree, similar to the case study in that many contain reviews of the relevant literature of the topic discussed in the thorough examination of an array of cases published to fit the criterion of the report being presented. These case reports can be thought of as brief case studies with a principal discussion of the new, presented case at hand that presents a novel interest.
Types of case studies
Don W. Stacks identifies three types of case study as used in public-relations research:
Under the more generalized category of case study exist several subdivisions, each of which is custom selected for use depending upon the goals and/or objectives of the investigator. These types of case study include the following:
- Illustrative case studies. These are primarily descriptive studies. They typically utilize one or two instances of an event to show the existing situation. Illustrative case studies serve primarily to make the unfamiliar familiar and to give readers a common language about the topic in question.
- Exploratory (or pilot) case studies. These are condensed case studies performed before implementing a large scale investigation. Their basic function is to help identify questions and select types of measurement prior to the main investigation. The primary pitfall of this type of study is that initial findings may seem convincing enough to be released prematurely as conclusions.
- Cumulative case studies. These serve to aggregate information from several sites collected at different times. The idea behind these studies is the collection of past studies will allow for greater generalization without additional cost or time being expended on new, possibly repetitive studies.
- Critical instance case studies. These examine one or more sites for either the purpose of examining a situation of unique interest with little to no interest in generalization, or to call into question or challenge a highly generalized or universal assertion. This method is useful for answering cause and effect questions.
Generalizing from case studies
A critical case is defined as having strategic importance in relation to the general problem. A critical case allows the following type of generalization: "If it is valid for this case, it is valid for all (or many) cases." In its negative form, the generalization would run: "If it is not valid for this case, then it is not valid for any (or valid for only few) cases."
The case study is effective for generalizing using the type of test that Karl Popper called falsification, which forms part of critical reflexivity. Falsification offers one of the most rigorous tests to which a scientific proposition can be subjected: if just one observation does not fit with the proposition it is considered not valid generally and must therefore be either revised or rejected. Popper himself used the now famous example: "All swans are white", and proposed that just one observation of a single black swan would falsify this proposition and in this way have general significance and stimulate further investigations and theory-building. The case study is well suited for identifying "black swans" because of its in-depth approach: what appears to be "white" often turns out on closer examination to be "black".
Galileo Galilei built his rejection of Aristotle's law of gravity on a case study selected by information-oriented sampling and not by random sampling. The rejection consisted primarily of a conceptual experiment and later on of a practical one. These experiments, with the benefit of hindsight, are self-evident. Nevertheless, Aristotle's incorrect view of gravity had dominated scientific inquiry for nearly two thousand years before it was falsified. In his experimental thinking, Galileo reasoned as follows: if two objects with the same weight are released from the same height at the same time, they will hit the ground simultaneously, having fallen at the same speed. If the two objects are then stuck together into one, this object will have double the weight and will according to the Aristotelian view therefore fall faster than the two individual objects. This conclusion seemed contradictory to Galileo.
It is generally believed that the case-study method was first introduced into social science by Frederic Le Play in 1829 as a handmaiden to statistics in his studies of family budgets.
Other roots stem from the early 20th century, when case studies began taking place in the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. In all these disciplines, case studies were an occasion for creating new theory, as in the Grounded Theory work of sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.
The popularity of case studies in testing theory or hypotheses has developed only in recent decades. One of the areas in which case studies have been gaining popularity is education and in particular educational evaluation.
Case studies have also been used as a teaching method and as part of professional development, especially in business and legal education. The problem-based learning (PBL) movement is such an example. When used in (non-business) education and professional development, case studies are often referred to as critical incidents.
Ethnography is an example of a type of case study, commonly found in communication case studies. Ethnography is the description, interpretation, and analysis of a culture or social group, through field research in the natural environment of the group being studied. The main method of ethnographic research is through observation where the researcher observes the participants over an extended period of time within the participants own environment.
Using case studies in research differs from their use in teaching (this article is "about the method of doing research"; for the teaching method, see case method and casebook method). At the same time, many people's first exposure to case studies occurred in the classroom, and teaching case studies have been a highly popular pedagogical format in many fields — ranging from business education to science education.
The Harvard Business School has possibly been the most prominent developer and user of teaching case studies. Business school faculty generally develop case studies with particular learning objectives in mind, and the classroom experiences may lead to refinement prior to publication. Additional relevant documentation (such as financial statements, time-lines, and short biographies, often referred to in the case study as "exhibits"), multimedia supplements (such as video-recordings of interviews with the case protagonist), and a carefully crafted teaching note often accompany the case studies. Similarly, teaching case studies have become increasingly popular in science education. The National Center for Case Studies in Teaching Science has made a growing body of case studies available for classroom use, for university as well as secondary school coursework. A new generation of scholars and educators have recently started to call for a more embodied engagement with case studies, using dramaturgy, creative techniques, and emotional involvement, too.
Nevertheless, the principles in doing case study research contrast strongly with those in doing case studies for teaching. The teaching case studies need not adhere strictly to the use of evidence, as they can be manipulated to satisfy pedagogical needs. The generalizations from teaching case studies also may relate to pedagogical issues rather than the substance of the case being studied. Unfortunately, the contrast between the two types of case studies have not always been appreciated. For this reason, many people have had poor impressions of the validity and generalizability of case study research.
Case studies are commonly used in case competitions and interviews for consulting firms such as McKinsey & Company, CEB Inc. and the Boston Consulting Group, in which candidates are asked to develop the best solution for a case in an allotted time frame.
- Anecdotal evidence
- Casebook method
- Case method
- Case study in psychology
- Case competition
- Case report
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