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  • What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on May 8, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods , but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing , comparing, evaluating and understanding different aspects of a research problem .

Table of contents

When to do a case study, step 1: select a case, step 2: build a theoretical framework, step 3: collect your data, step 4: describe and analyze the case, other interesting articles.

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation . They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

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Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions , you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

TipIf your research is more practical in nature and aims to simultaneously investigate an issue as you solve it, consider conducting action research instead.

Unlike quantitative or experimental research , a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

Example of an outlying case studyIn the 1960s the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was discovered to have extremely low rates of heart disease compared to the US average. It became an important case study for understanding previously neglected causes of heart disease.

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience or phenomenon.

Example of a representative case studyIn the 1920s, two sociologists used Muncie, Indiana as a case study of a typical American city that supposedly exemplified the changing culture of the US at the time.

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework . This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

There are many different research methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews , observations , and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data.

Example of a mixed methods case studyFor a case study of a wind farm development in a rural area, you could collect quantitative data on employment rates and business revenue, collect qualitative data on local people’s perceptions and experiences, and analyze local and national media coverage of the development.

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

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In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis , with separate sections or chapters for the methods , results and discussion .

Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyze its meanings and implications (for example, by using textual analysis or discourse analysis ).

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

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The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

  • Introduction and overview
  • What is qualitative research?
  • What is qualitative data?
  • Examples of qualitative data
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Mixed methods
  • Qualitative research preparation
  • Theoretical perspective
  • Theoretical framework
  • Literature reviews

Research question

  • Conceptual framework
  • Conceptual vs. theoretical framework

Data collection

  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research

What is a case study?

Applications for case study research, what is a good case study, process of case study design, benefits and limitations of case studies.

  • Ethnographical research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

Case studies

Case studies are essential to qualitative research , offering a lens through which researchers can investigate complex phenomena within their real-life contexts. This chapter explores the concept, purpose, applications, examples, and types of case studies and provides guidance on how to conduct case study research effectively.

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

Whereas quantitative methods look at phenomena at scale, case study research looks at a concept or phenomenon in considerable detail. While analyzing a single case can help understand one perspective regarding the object of research inquiry, analyzing multiple cases can help obtain a more holistic sense of the topic or issue. Let's provide a basic definition of a case study, then explore its characteristics and role in the qualitative research process.

Definition of a case study

A case study in qualitative research is a strategy of inquiry that involves an in-depth investigation of a phenomenon within its real-world context. It provides researchers with the opportunity to acquire an in-depth understanding of intricate details that might not be as apparent or accessible through other methods of research. The specific case or cases being studied can be a single person, group, or organization – demarcating what constitutes a relevant case worth studying depends on the researcher and their research question .

Among qualitative research methods , a case study relies on multiple sources of evidence, such as documents, artifacts, interviews , or observations , to present a complete and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. The objective is to illuminate the readers' understanding of the phenomenon beyond its abstract statistical or theoretical explanations.

Characteristics of case studies

Case studies typically possess a number of distinct characteristics that set them apart from other research methods. These characteristics include a focus on holistic description and explanation, flexibility in the design and data collection methods, reliance on multiple sources of evidence, and emphasis on the context in which the phenomenon occurs.

Furthermore, case studies can often involve a longitudinal examination of the case, meaning they study the case over a period of time. These characteristics allow case studies to yield comprehensive, in-depth, and richly contextualized insights about the phenomenon of interest.

The role of case studies in research

Case studies hold a unique position in the broader landscape of research methods aimed at theory development. They are instrumental when the primary research interest is to gain an intensive, detailed understanding of a phenomenon in its real-life context.

In addition, case studies can serve different purposes within research - they can be used for exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory purposes, depending on the research question and objectives. This flexibility and depth make case studies a valuable tool in the toolkit of qualitative researchers.

Remember, a well-conducted case study can offer a rich, insightful contribution to both academic and practical knowledge through theory development or theory verification, thus enhancing our understanding of complex phenomena in their real-world contexts.

What is the purpose of a case study?

Case study research aims for a more comprehensive understanding of phenomena, requiring various research methods to gather information for qualitative analysis . Ultimately, a case study can allow the researcher to gain insight into a particular object of inquiry and develop a theoretical framework relevant to the research inquiry.

Why use case studies in qualitative research?

Using case studies as a research strategy depends mainly on the nature of the research question and the researcher's access to the data.

Conducting case study research provides a level of detail and contextual richness that other research methods might not offer. They are beneficial when there's a need to understand complex social phenomena within their natural contexts.

The explanatory, exploratory, and descriptive roles of case studies

Case studies can take on various roles depending on the research objectives. They can be exploratory when the research aims to discover new phenomena or define new research questions; they are descriptive when the objective is to depict a phenomenon within its context in a detailed manner; and they can be explanatory if the goal is to understand specific relationships within the studied context. Thus, the versatility of case studies allows researchers to approach their topic from different angles, offering multiple ways to uncover and interpret the data .

The impact of case studies on knowledge development

Case studies play a significant role in knowledge development across various disciplines. Analysis of cases provides an avenue for researchers to explore phenomena within their context based on the collected data.

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

This can result in the production of rich, practical insights that can be instrumental in both theory-building and practice. Case studies allow researchers to delve into the intricacies and complexities of real-life situations, uncovering insights that might otherwise remain hidden.

Types of case studies

In qualitative research , a case study is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the nature of the research question and the specific objectives of the study, researchers might choose to use different types of case studies. These types differ in their focus, methodology, and the level of detail they provide about the phenomenon under investigation.

Understanding these types is crucial for selecting the most appropriate approach for your research project and effectively achieving your research goals. Let's briefly look at the main types of case studies.

Exploratory case studies

Exploratory case studies are typically conducted to develop a theory or framework around an understudied phenomenon. They can also serve as a precursor to a larger-scale research project. Exploratory case studies are useful when a researcher wants to identify the key issues or questions which can spur more extensive study or be used to develop propositions for further research. These case studies are characterized by flexibility, allowing researchers to explore various aspects of a phenomenon as they emerge, which can also form the foundation for subsequent studies.

Descriptive case studies

Descriptive case studies aim to provide a complete and accurate representation of a phenomenon or event within its context. These case studies are often based on an established theoretical framework, which guides how data is collected and analyzed. The researcher is concerned with describing the phenomenon in detail, as it occurs naturally, without trying to influence or manipulate it.

Explanatory case studies

Explanatory case studies are focused on explanation - they seek to clarify how or why certain phenomena occur. Often used in complex, real-life situations, they can be particularly valuable in clarifying causal relationships among concepts and understanding the interplay between different factors within a specific context.

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

Intrinsic, instrumental, and collective case studies

These three categories of case studies focus on the nature and purpose of the study. An intrinsic case study is conducted when a researcher has an inherent interest in the case itself. Instrumental case studies are employed when the case is used to provide insight into a particular issue or phenomenon. A collective case study, on the other hand, involves studying multiple cases simultaneously to investigate some general phenomena.

Each type of case study serves a different purpose and has its own strengths and challenges. The selection of the type should be guided by the research question and objectives, as well as the context and constraints of the research.

The flexibility, depth, and contextual richness offered by case studies make this approach an excellent research method for various fields of study. They enable researchers to investigate real-world phenomena within their specific contexts, capturing nuances that other research methods might miss. Across numerous fields, case studies provide valuable insights into complex issues.

Critical information systems research

Case studies provide a detailed understanding of the role and impact of information systems in different contexts. They offer a platform to explore how information systems are designed, implemented, and used and how they interact with various social, economic, and political factors. Case studies in this field often focus on examining the intricate relationship between technology, organizational processes, and user behavior, helping to uncover insights that can inform better system design and implementation.

Health research

Health research is another field where case studies are highly valuable. They offer a way to explore patient experiences, healthcare delivery processes, and the impact of various interventions in a real-world context.

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

Case studies can provide a deep understanding of a patient's journey, giving insights into the intricacies of disease progression, treatment effects, and the psychosocial aspects of health and illness.

Asthma research studies

Specifically within medical research, studies on asthma often employ case studies to explore the individual and environmental factors that influence asthma development, management, and outcomes. A case study can provide rich, detailed data about individual patients' experiences, from the triggers and symptoms they experience to the effectiveness of various management strategies. This can be crucial for developing patient-centered asthma care approaches.

Other fields

Apart from the fields mentioned, case studies are also extensively used in business and management research, education research, and political sciences, among many others. They provide an opportunity to delve into the intricacies of real-world situations, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of various phenomena.

Case studies, with their depth and contextual focus, offer unique insights across these varied fields. They allow researchers to illuminate the complexities of real-life situations, contributing to both theory and practice.

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Understanding the key elements of case study design is crucial for conducting rigorous and impactful case study research. A well-structured design guides the researcher through the process, ensuring that the study is methodologically sound and its findings are reliable and valid. The main elements of case study design include the research question , propositions, units of analysis, and the logic linking the data to the propositions.

The research question is the foundation of any research study. A good research question guides the direction of the study and informs the selection of the case, the methods of collecting data, and the analysis techniques. A well-formulated research question in case study research is typically clear, focused, and complex enough to merit further detailed examination of the relevant case(s).


Propositions, though not necessary in every case study, provide a direction by stating what we might expect to find in the data collected. They guide how data is collected and analyzed by helping researchers focus on specific aspects of the case. They are particularly important in explanatory case studies, which seek to understand the relationships among concepts within the studied phenomenon.

Units of analysis

The unit of analysis refers to the case, or the main entity or entities that are being analyzed in the study. In case study research, the unit of analysis can be an individual, a group, an organization, a decision, an event, or even a time period. It's crucial to clearly define the unit of analysis, as it shapes the qualitative data analysis process by allowing the researcher to analyze a particular case and synthesize analysis across multiple case studies to draw conclusions.


This refers to the inferential model that allows researchers to draw conclusions from the data. The researcher needs to ensure that there is a clear link between the data, the propositions (if any), and the conclusions drawn. This argumentation is what enables the researcher to make valid and credible inferences about the phenomenon under study.

Understanding and carefully considering these elements in the design phase of a case study can significantly enhance the quality of the research. It can help ensure that the study is methodologically sound and its findings contribute meaningful insights about the case.

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Conducting a case study involves several steps, from defining the research question and selecting the case to collecting and analyzing data . This section outlines these key stages, providing a practical guide on how to conduct case study research.

Defining the research question

The first step in case study research is defining a clear, focused research question. This question should guide the entire research process, from case selection to analysis. It's crucial to ensure that the research question is suitable for a case study approach. Typically, such questions are exploratory or descriptive in nature and focus on understanding a phenomenon within its real-life context.

Selecting and defining the case

The selection of the case should be based on the research question and the objectives of the study. It involves choosing a unique example or a set of examples that provide rich, in-depth data about the phenomenon under investigation. After selecting the case, it's crucial to define it clearly, setting the boundaries of the case, including the time period and the specific context.

Previous research can help guide the case study design. When considering a case study, an example of a case could be taken from previous case study research and used to define cases in a new research inquiry. Considering recently published examples can help understand how to select and define cases effectively.

Developing a detailed case study protocol

A case study protocol outlines the procedures and general rules to be followed during the case study. This includes the data collection methods to be used, the sources of data, and the procedures for analysis. Having a detailed case study protocol ensures consistency and reliability in the study.

The protocol should also consider how to work with the people involved in the research context to grant the research team access to collecting data. As mentioned in previous sections of this guide, establishing rapport is an essential component of qualitative research as it shapes the overall potential for collecting and analyzing data.

Collecting data

Gathering data in case study research often involves multiple sources of evidence, including documents, archival records, interviews, observations, and physical artifacts. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of the case. The process for gathering data should be systematic and carefully documented to ensure the reliability and validity of the study.

Analyzing and interpreting data

The next step is analyzing the data. This involves organizing the data , categorizing it into themes or patterns , and interpreting these patterns to answer the research question. The analysis might also involve comparing the findings with prior research or theoretical propositions.

Writing the case study report

The final step is writing the case study report . This should provide a detailed description of the case, the data, the analysis process, and the findings. The report should be clear, organized, and carefully written to ensure that the reader can understand the case and the conclusions drawn from it.

Each of these steps is crucial in ensuring that the case study research is rigorous, reliable, and provides valuable insights about the case.

The type, depth, and quality of data in your study can significantly influence the validity and utility of the study. In case study research, data is usually collected from multiple sources to provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the case. This section will outline the various methods of collecting data used in case study research and discuss considerations for ensuring the quality of the data.

Interviews are a common method of gathering data in case study research. They can provide rich, in-depth data about the perspectives, experiences, and interpretations of the individuals involved in the case. Interviews can be structured , semi-structured , or unstructured , depending on the research question and the degree of flexibility needed.


Observations involve the researcher observing the case in its natural setting, providing first-hand information about the case and its context. Observations can provide data that might not be revealed in interviews or documents, such as non-verbal cues or contextual information.

Documents and artifacts

Documents and archival records provide a valuable source of data in case study research. They can include reports, letters, memos, meeting minutes, email correspondence, and various public and private documents related to the case.

case studies are useful in research when extensive information is needed on

These records can provide historical context, corroborate evidence from other sources, and offer insights into the case that might not be apparent from interviews or observations.

Physical artifacts refer to any physical evidence related to the case, such as tools, products, or physical environments. These artifacts can provide tangible insights into the case, complementing the data gathered from other sources.

Ensuring the quality of data collection

Determining the quality of data in case study research requires careful planning and execution. It's crucial to ensure that the data is reliable, accurate, and relevant to the research question. This involves selecting appropriate methods of collecting data, properly training interviewers or observers, and systematically recording and storing the data. It also includes considering ethical issues related to collecting and handling data, such as obtaining informed consent and ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of the participants.

Data analysis

Analyzing case study research involves making sense of the rich, detailed data to answer the research question. This process can be challenging due to the volume and complexity of case study data. However, a systematic and rigorous approach to analysis can ensure that the findings are credible and meaningful. This section outlines the main steps and considerations in analyzing data in case study research.

Organizing the data

The first step in the analysis is organizing the data. This involves sorting the data into manageable sections, often according to the data source or the theme. This step can also involve transcribing interviews, digitizing physical artifacts, or organizing observational data.

Categorizing and coding the data

Once the data is organized, the next step is to categorize or code the data. This involves identifying common themes, patterns, or concepts in the data and assigning codes to relevant data segments. Coding can be done manually or with the help of software tools, and in either case, qualitative analysis software can greatly facilitate the entire coding process. Coding helps to reduce the data to a set of themes or categories that can be more easily analyzed.

Identifying patterns and themes

After coding the data, the researcher looks for patterns or themes in the coded data. This involves comparing and contrasting the codes and looking for relationships or patterns among them. The identified patterns and themes should help answer the research question.

Interpreting the data

Once patterns and themes have been identified, the next step is to interpret these findings. This involves explaining what the patterns or themes mean in the context of the research question and the case. This interpretation should be grounded in the data, but it can also involve drawing on theoretical concepts or prior research.

Verification of the data

The last step in the analysis is verification. This involves checking the accuracy and consistency of the analysis process and confirming that the findings are supported by the data. This can involve re-checking the original data, checking the consistency of codes, or seeking feedback from research participants or peers.

Like any research method , case study research has its strengths and limitations. Researchers must be aware of these, as they can influence the design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of case study research can also guide researchers in deciding whether this approach is suitable for their research question . This section outlines some of the key strengths and limitations of case study research.

Benefits include the following:

  • Rich, detailed data: One of the main strengths of case study research is that it can generate rich, detailed data about the case. This can provide a deep understanding of the case and its context, which can be valuable in exploring complex phenomena.
  • Flexibility: Case study research is flexible in terms of design , data collection , and analysis . A sufficient degree of flexibility allows the researcher to adapt the study according to the case and the emerging findings.
  • Real-world context: Case study research involves studying the case in its real-world context, which can provide valuable insights into the interplay between the case and its context.
  • Multiple sources of evidence: Case study research often involves collecting data from multiple sources , which can enhance the robustness and validity of the findings.

On the other hand, researchers should consider the following limitations:

  • Generalizability: A common criticism of case study research is that its findings might not be generalizable to other cases due to the specificity and uniqueness of each case.
  • Time and resource intensive: Case study research can be time and resource intensive due to the depth of the investigation and the amount of collected data.
  • Complexity of analysis: The rich, detailed data generated in case study research can make analyzing the data challenging.
  • Subjectivity: Given the nature of case study research, there may be a higher degree of subjectivity in interpreting the data , so researchers need to reflect on this and transparently convey to audiences how the research was conducted.

Being aware of these strengths and limitations can help researchers design and conduct case study research effectively and interpret and report the findings appropriately.

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Research Method

Home » Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Table of Contents

Case Study Research

A case study is a research method that involves an in-depth examination and analysis of a particular phenomenon or case, such as an individual, organization, community, event, or situation.

It is a qualitative research approach that aims to provide a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the case being studied. Case studies typically involve multiple sources of data, including interviews, observations, documents, and artifacts, which are analyzed using various techniques, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, and grounded theory. The findings of a case study are often used to develop theories, inform policy or practice, or generate new research questions.

Types of Case Study

Types and Methods of Case Study are as follows:

Single-Case Study

A single-case study is an in-depth analysis of a single case. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to understand a specific phenomenon in detail.

For Example , A researcher might conduct a single-case study on a particular individual to understand their experiences with a particular health condition or a specific organization to explore their management practices. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of a single-case study are often used to generate new research questions, develop theories, or inform policy or practice.

Multiple-Case Study

A multiple-case study involves the analysis of several cases that are similar in nature. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to identify similarities and differences between the cases.

For Example, a researcher might conduct a multiple-case study on several companies to explore the factors that contribute to their success or failure. The researcher collects data from each case, compares and contrasts the findings, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as comparative analysis or pattern-matching. The findings of a multiple-case study can be used to develop theories, inform policy or practice, or generate new research questions.

Exploratory Case Study

An exploratory case study is used to explore a new or understudied phenomenon. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to generate hypotheses or theories about the phenomenon.

For Example, a researcher might conduct an exploratory case study on a new technology to understand its potential impact on society. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as grounded theory or content analysis. The findings of an exploratory case study can be used to generate new research questions, develop theories, or inform policy or practice.

Descriptive Case Study

A descriptive case study is used to describe a particular phenomenon in detail. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to provide a comprehensive account of the phenomenon.

For Example, a researcher might conduct a descriptive case study on a particular community to understand its social and economic characteristics. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of a descriptive case study can be used to inform policy or practice or generate new research questions.

Instrumental Case Study

An instrumental case study is used to understand a particular phenomenon that is instrumental in achieving a particular goal. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to understand the role of the phenomenon in achieving the goal.

For Example, a researcher might conduct an instrumental case study on a particular policy to understand its impact on achieving a particular goal, such as reducing poverty. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of an instrumental case study can be used to inform policy or practice or generate new research questions.

Case Study Data Collection Methods

Here are some common data collection methods for case studies:

Interviews involve asking questions to individuals who have knowledge or experience relevant to the case study. Interviews can be structured (where the same questions are asked to all participants) or unstructured (where the interviewer follows up on the responses with further questions). Interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone, or through video conferencing.


Observations involve watching and recording the behavior and activities of individuals or groups relevant to the case study. Observations can be participant (where the researcher actively participates in the activities) or non-participant (where the researcher observes from a distance). Observations can be recorded using notes, audio or video recordings, or photographs.

Documents can be used as a source of information for case studies. Documents can include reports, memos, emails, letters, and other written materials related to the case study. Documents can be collected from the case study participants or from public sources.

Surveys involve asking a set of questions to a sample of individuals relevant to the case study. Surveys can be administered in person, over the phone, through mail or email, or online. Surveys can be used to gather information on attitudes, opinions, or behaviors related to the case study.

Artifacts are physical objects relevant to the case study. Artifacts can include tools, equipment, products, or other objects that provide insights into the case study phenomenon.

How to conduct Case Study Research

Conducting a case study research involves several steps that need to be followed to ensure the quality and rigor of the study. Here are the steps to conduct case study research:

  • Define the research questions: The first step in conducting a case study research is to define the research questions. The research questions should be specific, measurable, and relevant to the case study phenomenon under investigation.
  • Select the case: The next step is to select the case or cases to be studied. The case should be relevant to the research questions and should provide rich and diverse data that can be used to answer the research questions.
  • Collect data: Data can be collected using various methods, such as interviews, observations, documents, surveys, and artifacts. The data collection method should be selected based on the research questions and the nature of the case study phenomenon.
  • Analyze the data: The data collected from the case study should be analyzed using various techniques, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or grounded theory. The analysis should be guided by the research questions and should aim to provide insights and conclusions relevant to the research questions.
  • Draw conclusions: The conclusions drawn from the case study should be based on the data analysis and should be relevant to the research questions. The conclusions should be supported by evidence and should be clearly stated.
  • Validate the findings: The findings of the case study should be validated by reviewing the data and the analysis with participants or other experts in the field. This helps to ensure the validity and reliability of the findings.
  • Write the report: The final step is to write the report of the case study research. The report should provide a clear description of the case study phenomenon, the research questions, the data collection methods, the data analysis, the findings, and the conclusions. The report should be written in a clear and concise manner and should follow the guidelines for academic writing.

Examples of Case Study

Here are some examples of case study research:

  • The Hawthorne Studies : Conducted between 1924 and 1932, the Hawthorne Studies were a series of case studies conducted by Elton Mayo and his colleagues to examine the impact of work environment on employee productivity. The studies were conducted at the Hawthorne Works plant of the Western Electric Company in Chicago and included interviews, observations, and experiments.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment: Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment was a case study conducted by Philip Zimbardo to examine the psychological effects of power and authority. The study involved simulating a prison environment and assigning participants to the role of guards or prisoners. The study was controversial due to the ethical issues it raised.
  • The Challenger Disaster: The Challenger Disaster was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The study included interviews, observations, and analysis of data to identify the technical, organizational, and cultural factors that contributed to the disaster.
  • The Enron Scandal: The Enron Scandal was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the Enron Corporation’s bankruptcy in 2001. The study included interviews, analysis of financial data, and review of documents to identify the accounting practices, corporate culture, and ethical issues that led to the company’s downfall.
  • The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster : The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the nuclear accident that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. The study included interviews, analysis of data, and review of documents to identify the technical, organizational, and cultural factors that contributed to the disaster.

Application of Case Study

Case studies have a wide range of applications across various fields and industries. Here are some examples:

Business and Management

Case studies are widely used in business and management to examine real-life situations and develop problem-solving skills. Case studies can help students and professionals to develop a deep understanding of business concepts, theories, and best practices.

Case studies are used in healthcare to examine patient care, treatment options, and outcomes. Case studies can help healthcare professionals to develop critical thinking skills, diagnose complex medical conditions, and develop effective treatment plans.

Case studies are used in education to examine teaching and learning practices. Case studies can help educators to develop effective teaching strategies, evaluate student progress, and identify areas for improvement.

Social Sciences

Case studies are widely used in social sciences to examine human behavior, social phenomena, and cultural practices. Case studies can help researchers to develop theories, test hypotheses, and gain insights into complex social issues.

Law and Ethics

Case studies are used in law and ethics to examine legal and ethical dilemmas. Case studies can help lawyers, policymakers, and ethical professionals to develop critical thinking skills, analyze complex cases, and make informed decisions.

Purpose of Case Study

The purpose of a case study is to provide a detailed analysis of a specific phenomenon, issue, or problem in its real-life context. A case study is a qualitative research method that involves the in-depth exploration and analysis of a particular case, which can be an individual, group, organization, event, or community.

The primary purpose of a case study is to generate a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the case, including its history, context, and dynamics. Case studies can help researchers to identify and examine the underlying factors, processes, and mechanisms that contribute to the case and its outcomes. This can help to develop a more accurate and detailed understanding of the case, which can inform future research, practice, or policy.

Case studies can also serve other purposes, including:

  • Illustrating a theory or concept: Case studies can be used to illustrate and explain theoretical concepts and frameworks, providing concrete examples of how they can be applied in real-life situations.
  • Developing hypotheses: Case studies can help to generate hypotheses about the causal relationships between different factors and outcomes, which can be tested through further research.
  • Providing insight into complex issues: Case studies can provide insights into complex and multifaceted issues, which may be difficult to understand through other research methods.
  • Informing practice or policy: Case studies can be used to inform practice or policy by identifying best practices, lessons learned, or areas for improvement.

Advantages of Case Study Research

There are several advantages of case study research, including:

  • In-depth exploration: Case study research allows for a detailed exploration and analysis of a specific phenomenon, issue, or problem in its real-life context. This can provide a comprehensive understanding of the case and its dynamics, which may not be possible through other research methods.
  • Rich data: Case study research can generate rich and detailed data, including qualitative data such as interviews, observations, and documents. This can provide a nuanced understanding of the case and its complexity.
  • Holistic perspective: Case study research allows for a holistic perspective of the case, taking into account the various factors, processes, and mechanisms that contribute to the case and its outcomes. This can help to develop a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the case.
  • Theory development: Case study research can help to develop and refine theories and concepts by providing empirical evidence and concrete examples of how they can be applied in real-life situations.
  • Practical application: Case study research can inform practice or policy by identifying best practices, lessons learned, or areas for improvement.
  • Contextualization: Case study research takes into account the specific context in which the case is situated, which can help to understand how the case is influenced by the social, cultural, and historical factors of its environment.

Limitations of Case Study Research

There are several limitations of case study research, including:

  • Limited generalizability : Case studies are typically focused on a single case or a small number of cases, which limits the generalizability of the findings. The unique characteristics of the case may not be applicable to other contexts or populations, which may limit the external validity of the research.
  • Biased sampling: Case studies may rely on purposive or convenience sampling, which can introduce bias into the sample selection process. This may limit the representativeness of the sample and the generalizability of the findings.
  • Subjectivity: Case studies rely on the interpretation of the researcher, which can introduce subjectivity into the analysis. The researcher’s own biases, assumptions, and perspectives may influence the findings, which may limit the objectivity of the research.
  • Limited control: Case studies are typically conducted in naturalistic settings, which limits the control that the researcher has over the environment and the variables being studied. This may limit the ability to establish causal relationships between variables.
  • Time-consuming: Case studies can be time-consuming to conduct, as they typically involve a detailed exploration and analysis of a specific case. This may limit the feasibility of conducting multiple case studies or conducting case studies in a timely manner.
  • Resource-intensive: Case studies may require significant resources, including time, funding, and expertise. This may limit the ability of researchers to conduct case studies in resource-constrained settings.

About the author

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Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

22 Case Study Research: In-Depth Understanding in Context

Helen Simons, School of Education, University of Southampton

  • Published: 01 July 2014
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This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation. After first noting various contexts in which case studies are commonly used, the chapter focuses on case study research directly Strengths and potential problematic issues are outlined and then key phases of the process. The chapter emphasizes how important it is to design the case, to collect and interpret data in ways that highlight the qualitative, to have an ethical practice that values multiple perspectives and political interests, and to report creatively to facilitate use in policy making and practice. Finally, it explores how to generalize from the single case. Concluding questions center on the need to think more imaginatively about design and the range of methods and forms of reporting requiredto persuade audiences to value qualitative ways of knowing in case study research.


This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation using primarily qualitative methods, as well as documentary sources, contemporaneous or historical. However, this is not the only way in which case study can be conceived. No one has a monopoly on the term. While sharing a focus on the singular in a particular context, case study has a wide variety of uses, not all associated with research. A case study, in common parlance, documents a particular situation or event in detail in a specific sociopolitical context. The particular can be a person, a classroom, an institution, a program, or a policy. Below I identify different ways in which case study is used before focusing on qualitative case study research in particular. However, first I wish to indicate how I came to advocate and practice this form of research. Origins, context, and opportunity often shape the research processes we endorse. It is helpful for the reader, I think, to know how I came to the perspective I hold.

The Beginnings

I first came to appreciate and enjoy the virtues of case study research when I entered the field of curriculum evaluation and research in the 1970s. The dominant research paradigm for educational research at that time was experimental or quasi- experimental, cost-benefit, or systems analysis, and the dominant curriculum model was aims and objectives ( House, 1993 ). The field was dominated, in effect, by a psychometric view of research in which quantitative methods were preeminent. But the innovative projects we were asked to evaluate (predominantly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) were not amenable to such methodologies. The projects were challenging to the status quo of institutions, involved people interpreting the policy and programs, were implemented differently in different contexts and regions, and had many unexpected effects.

We had no choice but to seek other ways to evaluate these complex programs, and case study was the methodology we found ourselves exploring, in order to understand how the projects were being implemented, why they had positive effects in some regions of the country and not others, and what the outcomes meant in different sociopolitical and cultural contexts. What better way to do this than to talk with people to see how they interpreted the “new” curriculum; to watch how teachers and students put it into practice; to document transactions, outcomes, and unexpected consequences; and to interpret all in the specific context of the case ( Simons, 1971 , 1987 , pp. 55–89). From this point on and in further studies, case study in educational research and evaluation came to be a major methodology for understanding complex educational and social programs. It also extended to other practice professions, such as nursing, health, and social care ( Zucker, 2001 ; Greenhalgh & Worrall, 1997 ; Shaw & Gould, 2001 ). For further details of the evolution of the case study approach and qualitative methodologies in evaluation, see House, 1993 , pp. 2–3; Greene, 2000 ; Simons, 2009 , pp. 14–18; Simons & McCormack, 2007 , pp. 292–311).

This was not exactly the beginning of case study, of course. It has a long history in many disciplines ( Simons, 1980; Ragin, 1992; Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2004 ; Platt, 2007 ), many aspects of which form part of case study practice to this day. But its evolution in the context just described was a major move in the contemporary evolution of the logic of evaluative inquiry ( House, 1980 ). It also coincided with movement toward the qualitative in other disciplines, such as sociology and psychology. This was all part of what Denzin & Lincoln (1994) termed “a quiet methodological revolution” (p. ix) in qualitative inquiry that had been evolving over the course of forty years.

There is a further reason why I continue to advocate and practice case study research and evaluation to this day and that is my personal predilection for trying to understand and represent complexity, for puzzling through the ambiguities that exist in many contexts and programs and for presenting and negotiating different values and interests in fair and just ways.

Put more simply, I like interacting with people, listening to their stories, trials and tribulations—giving them a voice in understanding the contexts and projects with which they are involved, and finding ways to share these with a range of audiences. In other words, the move toward case study methodology described here suited my preference for how I learn.

Concepts and Purposes of Case Study

Before exploring case study as it has come to be established in educational research and evaluation over the past forty years, I wish to acknowledge other uses of case study. More often than not, these relate to purpose, and appropriately so in their different contexts, but many do not have a research intention. For a study to count as research, it would need to be a systematic investigation generating evidence that leads to “new” knowledge that is made public and open to scrutiny. There are many ways to conduct research stemming from different traditions and disciplines, but they all, in different ways, involve these characteristics.

Everyday Usage: Stories We Tell

The most common of these uses of case study is the everyday reference to a person, an anecdote or story illustrative of a particular incident, event, or experience of that person. It is often a short, reported account commonly seen in journalism but also in books exploring a phenomenon, such as recovery from serious accidents or tragedies, where the author chooses to illustrate the story or argument with a “lived” example. This is sometimes written by the author and sometimes by the person whose tale it is. “Let me share with you a story,” is a phrase frequently heard

The spirit behind this common usage and its power to connect can be seen in a report by Tim Adams of the London Olympics opening ceremony’s dramatization by Danny Boyle.

It was the point when we suddenly collectively wised up to the idea that what we are about to receive over the next two weeks was not only about “legacy collateral” and “targeted deliverables,” not about G4S failings and traffic lanes and branding opportunities, but about the second-by-second possibilities of human endeavour and spirit and communality, enacted in multiple places and all at the same time. Stories in other words. ( Adams, 2012 )

This was a collective story, of course, not an individual one, but it does convey some of the major characteristics of case study—that richness of detail, time, place, multiple happenings and experiences—that are also manifest in case study research, although carefully evidenced in the latter instance. We can see from this common usage how people have come to associate case study with story. I return to this thread in the reporting section.

Professions Individual Cases

In professional settings, in health and social care, case studies, often called case histories , are used to accurately record a person’s health or social care history and his or her current symptoms, experience, and treatment. These case histories include facts but also judgments and observations about the person’s reaction to situations or medication. Usually these are confidential. Not dissimilar is the detailed documentation of a case in law, often termed a case precedent when referred to in a court case to support an argument being made. However in law there is a difference in that such case precedents are publicly documented.

Case Studies in Teaching

Exemplars of practice.

In education, but also in health and social care training contexts, case studies have long been used as exemplars of practice. These are brief descriptions with some detail of a person or project’s experience in an area of practice. Though frequently reported accounts, they are based on a person’s experience and sometimes on previous research.

Case scenarios

Management studies are a further context in which case studies are often used. Here, the case is more like a scenario outlining a particular problem situation for the management student to resolve. These scenarios may be based on research but frequently are hypothetical situations used to raise issues for discussion and resolution. What distinguishes these case scenarios and the case exemplars in education from case study research is the intention to use them for teaching purposes.

Country Case Studies

Then there are case studies of programs, projects, and even countries, as in international development, where a whole-country study might be termed a case study or, in the context of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where an exploration is conducted of the state of the art of a subject, such as education or environmental science in one or several countries. This may be a contemporaneous study and/or what transpired in a program over a period of time. Such studies often do have a research base but frequently are reported accounts that do not detail the design, methodology, and analysis of the case, as a research case study would do, or report in ways that give readers a vicarious experience of what it was like to be there. Such case studies tend to be more knowledge and information-focused than experiential.

Case Study as History

Closer to a research context is case study as history—what transpired at a certain time in a certain place. This is likely to be supported by documentary evidence but not primary data gathering unless it is an oral history. In education, in the late 1970s, Stenhouse (1978) experimented with a case study archive. Using contemporaneous data gathering, primarily through interviewing, he envisaged this database, which he termed a “case record,” forming an archive from which different individuals,, at some later date, could write a “case study.” This approach uses case study as a documentary source to begin to generate a history of education, as the subtitle of Stenhouse’s 1978 paper indicates “Towards a contemporary history of education.”

Case Study Research

From here on, my focus is on case study research per se, adopting for this purpose the following definition:

Case study is an in-depth exploration from multiple perspectives of the complexity and uniqueness of a particular project, policy, institution or system in a “real-life” context. It is research based, inclusive of different methods and is evidence-led. ( Simons, 2009 , p. 21).

For further related definitions of case study, see Stake (1995) , Merriam (1998), and Chadderton & Torrance (2011) . And for definitions from a slightly different perspective, see Yin (2004) and Thomas (2011a) .

Not Defined by Method or Perspective

The inclusion of different methods in the definition quoted above definition signals that case study research is not defined by methodology or method. What defines case study is its singularity and the concept and boundary of the case. It is theoretically possible to conduct a case study using primarily quantitative data if this is the best way of providing evidence to inform the issues the case is exploring. It is equally possible to conduct case study that is mainly qualitative, to engage people with the experience of the case or to provide a rich portrayal of an event, project, or program.

Or one can design the case using mixed methods. This increases the options for learning from different ways of knowing and is sometimes preferred by stakeholders who believe it provides a firmer basis for informing policy. This is not necessarily the case but is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore. For further discussion of the complexities of mixing methods and the virtue of using qualitative methods and case study in a mixed method design, see Greene (2007) .

Case study research may also be conducted from different standpoints—realist, interpretivist, or constructivist, for example. My perspective falls within a constructivist, interpretivist framework. What interests me is how I and those in the case perceive and interpret what we find and how we construct or co-construct understandings of the case. This not only suits my predilection for how I see the world, but also my preferred phenomenological approach to interviewing and curiosity about people and how they act in social and professional life.

Qualitative Case Study Research

Qualitative case study research shares many characteristics with other forms of qualitative research, such as narrative, oral history, life history, ethnography, in-depth interview, and observational studies that utilize qualitative methods. However, its focus, purpose, and origins, in educational research at least, are a little different.

The focus is clearly the study of the singular. The purpose is to portray an in-depth view of the quality and complexity of social/educational programs or policies as they are implemented in specific sociopolitical contexts. What makes it qualitative is its emphasis on subjective ways of knowing, particularly the experiential, practical, and presentational rather than the propositional ( Heron, 1992 , 1999 ) to comprehend and communicate what transpired in the case.

Characteristic Features and Advantages

Case study research is not method dependent, as noted earlier, nor is it constrained by resources or time. Although it can be conducted over several years, which provides an opportunity to explore the process of change and explain how and why things happened, it can equally be carried out contemporaneously in a few days, weeks, or months. This flexibility is extremely useful in many contexts, particularly when a change in policy or unforeseen issues in the field require modifying the design.

Flexibility extends to reporting. The case can be written up in different lengths and forms to meet different audience needs and to maximize use (see the section on Reporting). Using the natural language of participants and familiar methods (like interview, observation, oral history) also enables participants to engage in the research process, thereby contributing significantly to the generation of knowledge of the case. As I have indicated elsewhere ( Simons, 2009 ), “This is both a political and epistemological point. It signals a potential shift in the power base of who controls knowledge and recognizes the importance of co-constructing perceived reality through the relationships and joint understandings we create in the field” (p. 23).

Possible Disadvantages

If one is an advocate, identifying advantages of a research approach is easier than pointing out its disadvantages, something detractors are quite keen to do anyway! But no approach is perfect, and here are some of the issues that often trouble people about case study research. The “sample of one” is an obvious issue that worries those convinced that only large samples can constitute valid research and especially if this is to inform policy. Understanding complexity in depth may not be a sufficient counterargument, and I suspect there is little point in trying to persuade otherwise For frequently, this perception is one of epistemological and methodological, if not ideological, preference.

However, there are some genuine concerns that many case researchers face: the difficulty of processing a mass of data; of “telling the truth” in contexts where people may be identifiable; personal involvement, when the researcher is the main instrument of data gathering; and writing reports that are data-based, yet readable in style and length. But one issue that concerns advocates and nonadvocates alike is how inferences are drawn from the single case.

Answers to some of these issues are covered in the sections that follow. Whether they convince may again be a question of preference. However, it is worth noting here that I do not think we should seek to justify these concerns in terms identified by other methodologies. Many of them are intrinsic to the nature and strength of qualitative case study research.

Subjectivity, for instance, both of participants and researcher is inevitable, as it is in many other qualitative methodologies. This is often the basis on which we act. Rather than see this as bias or something to counter, it is an intelligence that is essential to understanding and interpreting the experience of participants and stakeholders. Such subjectivity needs to be disciplined, of course, through procedures that examine both the validity of individuals’ representations of “their truth”, and demonstrate how the researcher took a reflexive approach to monitoring how his or her own values and predilections may have unduly influenced the data.

Types of Case Study

There are numerous types of case study, too many to categorize, I think, as there are overlaps between them. However, attempts have been made to do this and, for those who value typologies, I refer them to Bassey (1999) and, for a more extended typology, to Thomas (2011b) . A slightly different approach is taken by Gomm, Hammersley, and Foster (2004) in annotating the different emphases in major texts on case study. What I prefer to do here is to highlight a few familiar types to focus the discussion that follows on the practice of case study research.

Stake (1995) offers a threefold distinction that is helpful when it comes to practice, he says, because it influences the methods we choose to gather data (p. 4). He distinguishes between an intrinsic case study , one that is studied to learn about the particular case itself and an instrumental case study , in which we choose a case to gain insight into a particular issue (i.e., the case is instrumental to understanding something else; p. 3). The collective case study is what its name suggests: an extension of the instrumental to several cases.

Theory-led or theory-generated case study is similarly self-explanatory, the first starting from a specific theory that is tested through the case; the second constructing a theory through interpretation of data generated in the case. In other words, one ends rather than begins with a theory. In qualitative case study research, this is the more familiar route. The theory of the case becomes the argument or story you will tell.

Evaluation case study requires a slightly longer description as this is my context of practice, one which has influenced the way I conduct case study and what I choose to emphasize in this chapter. An evaluation case study has three essential features: to determine the value of the case, to include and balance different interests and values, and to report findings to a range of stakeholders in ways that they can use. The reasons for this may be found in the interlude that follows, which offers a brief characterization of the social and ethical practice of evaluation and why qualitative methods are so important in this practice.

Interlude: Social and Ethical Practice of Evaluation

Evaluation is a social practice that documents, portrays, and seeks to understand the value of a particular project, program, or policy. This can be determined by different evaluation methodologies, of course. But the value of qualitative case study is that it is possible to discern this value without decontextualizing the data. While the focus of the case is usually a project, program, policy, or some unit within, studies of key individuals, what I term case profiles , may be embedded within the overall case. In some instances, these profiles, or even shorter cameos of individuals, may be quite prominent. For it is through the perceptions, interpretations, and interactions of people that we learn how policies and programs are enacted ( Kushner, 2000 , p. 12). The program is still the main focus of analysis, but, in exploring how individuals play out their different roles in the program, we get closer to the actual experience and meaning of the program in practice.

Case study evaluation is often commissioned from an external source (government department or other agency) keen to know the worth of publicly funded programs and policies to inform future decision making. It needs to be responsive to issues or questions identified by stakeholders, who often have different values and interests in the expected outcomes and appreciate different perspectives of the program in action. The context also is often highly politicized, and interests can conflict. The task of the evaluator in such situations becomes one of including and balancing all interests and values in the program fairly and justly.

This is an inherently political process and requires an ethical practice that offers participants some protection over the personal data they give as part of the research and agreed audiences access to the findings, presented in ways they can understand. Negotiating what information becomes public can be quite difficult in singular settings where people are identifiable and intricate or problematic transactions have been documented. The consequences that ensue from making knowledge public that hitherto was private may be considerable for those in the case. It may also be difficult to portray some of the contextual detail that would enhance understanding for readers.

The ethical stance that underpins the case study research and evaluation I conduct stems from a theory of ethics that emphasizes the centrality of relationships in the specific context and the consequences for individuals, while remaining aware of the research imperative to publicly report. It is essentially an independent democratic process based on the concepts of fairness and justice, in which confidentiality, negotiation, and accessibility are key principles ( MacDonald, 1976 ; Simons, 2009 , pp. 96–111; and Simons 2010 ). The principles are translated into specific procedures to guide the collection, validation, and dissemination of data in the field. These include:

engaging participants and stakeholders in identifying issues to explore and sometimes also in interpreting the data;

documenting how different people interpret and value the program;

negotiating what data becomes public respecting both the individual’s “right to privacy” and the public’s “right to know”;

offering participants opportunities to check how their data are used in the context of reporting;

reporting in language and forms accessible to a wide range of audiences;

disseminating to audiences within and beyond the case.

For further discussion of the ethics of democratic case study evaluation and examples of their use in practice, see Simons (2000 , 2006 , 2009 , chapter 6, 2010 ).

Designing Case Study Research

Design issues in case study sometimes take second place to those of data gathering, the more exciting task perhaps in starting research. However, it is critical to consider the design at the outset, even if changes are required in practice due to the reality of what is encountered in the field. In this sense, the design of case study is emergent, rather than preordinate, shaped and reshaped as understanding of the significance of foreshadowed issues emerges and more are discovered.

Before entering the field, there are a myriad of planning issues to think about related to stakeholders, participants, and audiences. These include whose values matter, whether to engage them in data gathering and interpretation, the style of reporting appropriate for each, and the ethical guidelines that will underpin data collection and reporting. However, here I emphasize only three: the broad focus of the study, what the case is a case of, and framing questions/issues. These are steps often ignored in an enthusiasm to gather data, resulting in a case study that claims to be research but lacks the basic principles required for generation of valid, public knowledge.

Conceptualize the Topic

First, it is important that the topic of the research is conceptualized in a way that it can be researched (i.e., it is not too wide). This seems an obvious point to make, but failure to think through precisely what it is about your research topic you wish to investigate will have a knock-on effect on the framing of the case, data gathering, and interpretation and may lead, in some instances, to not gathering or analyzing data that actually informs the topic. Further conceptualization or reconceptualization may be necessary as the study proceeds, but it is critical to have a clear focus at the outset.

What Constitutes the Case

Second, I think it is important to decide what would constitute the case (i.e., what it is a case of) and where the boundaries of this lie. This often proves more difficult than first appears. And sometimes, partly because of the semifluid nature of the way the case evolves, it is only possible to finally establish what the case is a case of at the end. Nevertheless, it is useful to identify what the case and its boundaries are at the outset to help focus data collection while maintaining an awareness that these may shift. This is emergent design in action.

In deciding the boundary of the case, there are several factors to bear in mind. Is it bounded by an institution or a unit within an institution, by people within an institution, by region, or by project, program or policy,? If we take a school as an example, the case could be comprised of the principal, teachers, and students, or the boundary could be extended to the cleaners, the caretaker, the receptionist, people who often know a great deal about the subnorms and culture of the institution.

If the case is a policy or particular parameter of a policy, the considerations may be slightly different. People will still be paramount—those who generated the policy and those who implemented it—but there is likely also to be a political culture surrounding the policy that had an influence on the way the policy evolved. Would this be part of the case?

Whatever boundary is chosen, this may change in the course of conducting the study when issues arise that can only be understood by going to another level. What transpires in a classroom, for example, if this is the case, is often partly dependent on the support of the school leadership and culture of the institution and this, in turn, to some extent is dependent on what resources are allocated from the local education administration. Much like a series of Russian dolls, one context inside the other.

Unit of analysis

Thinking about what would constitute the unit of analysis— a classroom, an institution, a program, a region—may help in setting the boundaries of the case, and it will certainly help when it comes to analysis. But this is a slightly different issue from deciding what the case is a case of. Taking a health example, the case may be palliative care support, but the unit of analysis the palliative care ward or wards. If you took the palliative care ward as the unit of analysis this would be as much about how palliative care was exercised in this or that ward than issues about palliative care support in general. In other words, you would need to have specific information and context about how this ward was structured and managed to understand how palliative care was conducted in this particular ward. Here, as in the school example above, you would need to consider which of the many people who populate the ward form part of the case—nurses, interns, or doctors only, or does it extend to patients, cleaners, nurse aides, and medical students?

Framing Questions and Issues

The third most important consideration is how to frame the study, and you are likely to do this once you have selected the site or sites for study. There are at least four approaches. You could start with precise questions, foreshadowed issues ( Smith & Pohland, 1974 ), theories, or a program logic. To some extent, your choice will be dictated by the type of case you have chosen, but also by your personal preference for how to conduct it—in either a structured or open way.

Initial questions give structure; foreshadowed issues more freedom to explore. In qualitative case study, foreshadowed issues are more common, allowing scope for issues to change as the study evolves, guided by participants’ perspectives and events in the field. With this perspective, it is more likely that you will generate a theory of the case toward the end, through your interpretation and analysis.

If you are conducting an instrumental case study, staying close to the questions or foreshadowed issues is necessary to be sure you gain data that will illuminate the central focus of the study. This is critical if you are exploring issues across several cases, although it is possible to do a cross-case analysis from cases that have each followed a different route to discovering significant issues.

Opting to start with a theoretical framework provides a basis for formulating questions and issues, but it can also constrain the study to only those questions/issues that fit the framework. The same is true with using program logic to frame the case. This is an approach frequently adopted in evaluation case study where the evaluator, individually or with stakeholders, examines how the aims and objectives of the program relate to the activities designed to promote it and the outcomes and impacts expected. It provides direction, although it can lead to simply confirming what was anticipated, rather than documenting what transpired in the case.

Whichever approach you choose to frame the case, it is useful to think about the rationale or theory for each question and what methods would best enable you to gain an understanding of them. This will not only start a reflexive process of examining your choices—an important aspect of the process of data gathering and interpretation—it will also aid analysis and interpretation further down the track.

Methodology and Methods

Qualitative case study research, as already noted, appeals to subjective ways of knowing and to a primarily qualitative methodology, that captures experiential understanding ( Stake, 2010 , pp. 56–70). It follows that the main methods of data gathering to access this way of knowing will be qualitative. Interviewing, observation, and document analysis are the primary three, often supported by critical incidents, focus groups, cameos, vignettes, diaries/journals, and photographs. Before gathering any primary data, however, it is useful to search relevant existing sources (written or visual) to learn about the antecedents and context of a project, program, or policy as a backdrop to the case. This can sharpen framing questions, avoid unnecessary data gathering, and shorten the time needed in the field.

Given that there are excellent texts on qualitative methods (see, for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 1994 ; Seale, 1999 ; Silverman, 2000 , 2004 ), I will not discuss all potential relevant methods here, but simply focus on the qualities of the primary methods that are particularly appropriate for case study research.

Primary Qualitative Data Gathering Methods


The most effective style of interviewing in qualitative case study research to gain in-depth data, document multiple perspectives and experiences and explore contested issues is the unstructured interview, active listening and open questioning are paramount, whatever prequestions or foreshadowed issues have been identified. This can include photographs—a useful starting point with certain cultural groups and the less articulate, to encourage them to tell their story through connecting or identifying with something in the image.

The flexibility of unstructured interviewing has three further advantages for understanding participants’ experiences. First, through questioning, probing, listening, and, above all, paying attention to the silences and what they mean, you can get closer to the meaning of participants’ experiences. It is not always what they say.

Second, unstructured interviewing is useful for engaging participants in the process of research. Instead of starting with questions and issues, invite participants to tell their stories or reflect on specific issues, to conduct their own self-evaluative interview, in fact. Not only will they contribute their particular perspective to the case, they will also learn about themselves, thereby making the process of research educative for them as well as for the audiences of the research.

Third, the open-endedness of this style of interviewing has the potential for creating a dialogue between participants and the researcher and between the researcher and the public, if enough of the dialogue is retained in the publication ( Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985 ).


Observations in case study research are likely to be close-up descriptions of events, activities, and incidents that detail what happens in a particular context. They will record time, place, specific incidents, transactions, and dialogue, and note characteristics of the setting and of people in it without preconceived categories or judgment. No description is devoid of some judgment in selection, of course, but, on the whole, the intent is to describe the scene or event “as it is,” providing a rich, textured description to give readers a sense of what it was like to be there or provide a basis for later interpretation.

Take the following excerpt from a study of the West Bromwich Operatic Society. It is the first night of a new production, The Producers , by this amateur operatic society. This brief excerpt is from a much longer observation of the overture to the first evening’s performance, detailing exactly what the production is, where it is, and why there is such a tremendous sense of atmosphere and expectation surrounding the event. Space prevents including the whole observation, but I hope you can get a glimmer of the passion and excitement that precedes the performance:

Birmingham, late November, 2011, early evening.... Bars and restaurants spruce up for the evening’s trade. There is a chill in the air but the party season is just starting....

A few hundred yards away, past streaming traffic on Suffolk Street, Queensway, an audience is gathering at the New Alexandra Theatre. The foyer windows shine in the orange sodium night. Above each one is the rubric: WORLD CLASS THEATRE.

Inside the preparatory rituals are being observed; sweets chosen, interval drinks ordered and programmes bought. People swap news and titbits about the production.... The bubble of anticipation grows as the 5-minute warning sounds. People make their way to the auditorium. There have been so many nights like this in the past 110 years since a man named William Coutts invested £10,000 to build this palace of dreams.... So many fantasies have been played under this arch: melodramas and pantomimes, musicals and variety.... So many audiences, settling down in their tip-up seats, wanting to be transported away from work, from ordinariness and private troubles.... The dimming lights act like a mother’s hush. You could touch the silence. Boinnng! A spongy thump on a bass drum, and the horns pipe up that catchy, irrepressible, tasteless tune and already you’re singing under your breath, ‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany....’ The orchestra is out of sight in the pit. There’s just the velvet curtain to watch as your fingers tap along. What’s waiting behind? Then it starts it to move. Opening night.... It’s opening night! ( Matarasso, 2012 , pp. 1–2)

For another and different example—a narrative observation of an everyday but unique incident that details date, time, place, and experience—see Simons (2009 , p. 60).

Such naturalistic observations are also useful in contexts where we cannot understand what is going on through interviewing alone—in cultures with which we are less familiar or where key actors may not share our language or have difficulty expressing it. Careful description in these situations can help identify key issues, discover the norms and values that exist in the culture, and, if sufficiently detailed, allow others to cross corroborate what significance we draw from these observations. This last point is very important to avoid the danger in observation of ascribing motivations to people and meanings to transactions.

Finally, naturalistic observations are very important in highly politicized environments, often the case in commissioned evaluation case study, where individuals in interview may try to elude the “truth” or press on you that their view is the “right” view of the situation. In these contexts, naturalistic observations not only enable you to document interactions as you perceive them, but they also provide a cross-check on the veracity of information obtained in interviews.

Document analysis

Analysis of documents, as already intimated, is useful for establishing what historical antecedents might exist to provide a springboard for contemporaneous data gathering. In most cases, existing documents are also extremely pertinent for understanding the policy context.

In a national policy case study I conducted on a major curriculum change, the importance of preexisting documentation was brought home to me sharply when certain documentation initially proved elusive to obtain. It was difficult to believe that it did not exist, as the evolution of the innovation involved several parties who had not worked together before. There was bound, I thought, to be minuted meetings sharing progress and documentation of the “new” curriculum. In the absence of some crucial documents, I began to piece together the story through interviewing. Only there were gaps, and certain issues did not make sense.

It was only when I presented two versions of what I discerned had transpired in the development of this initiative in an interim report eighteen months into the study that things started to change. Subsequent to the meeting at which the report was presented, the “missing” documents started to appear. Suddenly found. What lay behind the “missing documents,” something I suspected from what certain individuals did and did not say in interview, was a major difference of view about how the innovation evolved, who was key in the process, and whose voice was more important in the context. Political differences, in other words, that some stakeholders were trying to keep from me. The emergence of the documents enabled me to finally produce an accurate and fair account.

This is an example of the importance of having access to all relevant documents relating to a program or policy in order to study it fairly. The other major way in which document analysis is useful in case study is for understanding the values, explicit and hidden, in policy and program documents and in the organization where the program or policy is implemented. Not to be ignored as documents are photographs, and these, too, can form the basis of a cultural and value analysis of an organization ( Prosser, 2000 ).

Creative artistic approaches

Increasingly, some case study researchers are employing creative approaches associated with the arts as a means of data gathering and analysis. Artistic approaches have often been used in representing findings, but less frequently in data gathering and interpretation ( Simons & McCormack, 2007 ). A major exception is the work of Richardson (1994) , who sees the very process of writing as an interpretative act, and of Cancienne and Snowber (2003) , who argue for movement as method.

The most familiar of these creative and artistic forms are written—narratives and short stories ( Clandinin & Connelly, 2000 ; Richardson, 1994 ; Sparkes, 2002 ), poems or poetic form ( Butler-Kisber, 2010 ; Duke, 2007 ; Richardson, 1997 ; Sparkes & Douglas, 2007 ), cameos of people, or vignettes of situations. These can be written by participants or by the researcher or developed in partnership. They can also be shared with participants to further interpret the data. But photographs also have a long history in qualitative research for presenting and constructing understanding ( Butler-Kisber, 2010 ; Collier, 1967 ; Prosser, 2000 ; Rugang, 2006 ; Walker, 1993 ).

Less common are other visual forms of gathering data, such as “draw and write” ( Sewell, 2011 ), artefacts, drawings, sketches, paintings, and collages, although all forms are now on the increase. For examples of the use of collage in data gathering, see Duke (2007) and Butler-Kisber (2010) , and for charcoal drawing, Elliott (2008) .

In qualitative inquiry broadly, these creative approaches are now quite common. And in the context of arts and health in particular (see, for example, Frank, 1997 ; Liamputtong & Rumbold, 2008 ; Spouse, 2000 ), we can see how artistic approaches illuminate in-depth understanding. However, in case study research to date, I think narrative forms have tended to be most prominent.

Finally, for capturing the quality and essence of peoples’ experience, nothing could be more revealing than a recording of their voices. Video diaries—self-evaluative portrayals by individuals of their perspectives, feelings, or experience of an event or situation—are a most potent way both of gaining understanding and communicating that to others. It is rather more difficult to gain access for observational videos, but they are useful for documentation and have the potential to engage participants and stakeholders in the interpretation.

Getting It All Together

Case study is so often associated with story or with a report of some event or program that it is easy to forget that much analysis and interpretation has gone on before we reach this point. In many case study reports, this process is hidden, leaving the reader with little evidence on which to assess the validity of the findings and having to trust the one who wrote the tale.

This section briefly outlines possibilities, first, for analyzing and interpreting data, and second, for how to communicate the findings to others. However it is useful to think of these together and indeed, at the start, because decisions about how you report may influence how you choose to make sense of the data. Your choice may also vary according to the context of the study—what is expected or acceptable—and your personal predilections, whether you prefer a more rational than intuitive mode of analysis, for example, or a formal or informal style of writing up that includes images, metaphor, narratives, or poetic forms.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

When it comes to making sense of data, I make a distinction between analysis—a formal inductive process that seeks to explain—and interpretation, a more intuitive process that gains understanding and insight from a holistic grasp of data, although these may interact and overlap at different stages.

The process, whichever emphasis you choose, is one of reducing or transforming a large amount of data to themes that can encapsulate the overarching meaning in the data. This involves sorting, refining, and refocusing data until they make sense. It starts at the beginning with preliminary hunches, sometimes called “interpretative asides” or “working hypotheses,” later moving to themes, analytic propositions, or a theory of the case.

There are many ways to conduct this process. Two strategies often employed are concept mapping —a means of representing data visually to explore links between related concepts—and progressive focusing ( Parlett & Hamilton, 1976 ), the gradual reframing of initially identified issues into themes that are then further interpreted to generate findings. Each of these strategies tends to have three stages: initial sense making, identification of themes, and examination of patterns and relationships between them.

If taking a formal analytic approach to the task, the data would likely be broken down into segments or datasets (coded and categorized) and then reordered and explored for themes, patterns, and possible propositions. If adopting a more intuitive process, you might focus on identifying insights through metaphors and images, lateral thinking, or puzzling over paradoxes and ambiguities in the data, after first immersing yourself in the total dataset, reading and re-reading interview scripts, observations and field notes to get a sense of the whole. Trying out different forms of making sense through poetry, vignettes, cameos, narratives, collages, and drawing are further creative ways to interpret data, as are photographs taken in the case arranged to explain or tell the story of the case.

Reporting Case Study Research

Narrative structure and story.

As indicated in the introduction, telling a story is often associated with case study and some think this is what a case study is. In one sense, it is and, given that story is the natural way in which we learn ( Okri, 1997 ), it is a useful framework both for gathering data and for communicating case study findings. Not any story will do however. To count as research, it must be authentic, grounded in data, interpreted and analyzed to convey the meaning of the case.

There are several senses in which story is appropriate in qualitative case study: in capturing stories participants tell, in generating a narrative structure that makes sense of the case (i.e., the story you will tell), and in deciding how you communicate this narrative (i.e., in story form). If you choose a written story form (and advice here can be sought from Harrington (2003) and Caulley (2008) ), it needs to be clearly structured, well written, and contain only the detail that is necessary to give readers the vicarious experience of what it was like in the case. If the story is to be communicated in other ways, through, for example, audio or videotape, or computer or personal interaction, the same applies, substituting visual and interpersonal skill for written.

Matching forms of reporting to audience

The art of reporting is strongly connected to usability, so forms of reporting need to connect to the audiences we hope to inform: how they learn, what kind of evidence they value, and what kind of reporting maximizes the chances they will use the findings to promote policies and programs in the interests of beneficiaries. As Okri (1997) further reminds us, the writer only does half the work; the reader does the other (p. 41).

There may be other considerations as well: how open are commissioners to receiving stories of difficulties, as well as success stories? What might they need to hear beyond what is sought in the technical brief? And through what style of reporting would you try and persuade them? If conducting noncommissioned case study research, the scope for different forms of reporting is wider. In academia, for instance, many institutions these days accept creative and artistic forms of reporting when supported by supervisors and appreciated by examiners.

Styles of Reporting

The most obvious form of reporting is linear, often starting with a short executive summary and a brief description of focus and context, followed by methodology, the case study or thematic analysis, findings, and conclusions or implications. Conclusion-led reporting is similar in terms of its formality, but simply starts the other way around. From the conclusions drawn from the analyzed data, it works backward to tell the story through narrative, verbatim, and observational data of how these conclusions were reached. Both have a strong story line. The intent is analytic and explanatory.

Quite a different approach is to engage the reader in the experience and veracity of the case. Rather like constructing a portrait or editing a documentary film, this involves the sifting, constructing, re-ordering of frames, events and episodes to tell a coherent story primarily through interview excerpts, observations, vignettes, and critical incidents that depict what transpired in the case. Interpretation is indirect through the weaving of the data. The story can start at any point provided the underlying narrative structure is maintained to establish coherence ( House, 1980 , p. 116).

Different again, and from the other end of a continuum, is a highly interpretative account that may use similar ways of presenting data but weaves a story from the outset that is highly interpretative. Engaging metaphor, images, short stories, contradictions, paradoxes, and puzzles, it is invariably interesting to read and can be most persuasive. However, the evidence is less visible and therefore less open to alternative interpretations.

Even more persuasive is a case study that uses artistic forms to communicate the story of the case. Paintings, poetic form, drawings, photography, collage, and movement can all be adopted to report findings, whether the data was acquired using these forms or by other means. The arts-based inquiry movement ( Mullen & Finley, 2003 ) has contributed hugely to the validation and legitimation of artistic and creative ways of representing qualitative research findings. The journal Qualitative Inquiry contains many good examples, but see also Liamputtong & Rumbold (2008) . Such artistic forms of representation may not be for everyone or appropriate in some contexts, but they do have the power to engage an audience and the potential to facilitate use.

Generalization in Case Study Research

One of the potential limitations of case study often proposed is that it is impossible to generalize. This is not so. However, the way in which one generalizes from a case is different from that adopted in traditional forms of social science research that utilize large samples (randomly selected) and statistical procedures and which assume regularities in the social world that allow cause and effect to be determined. In this form of research inferences from data are stated as formal propositions that apply to all in the target population. See Donmoyer (1990) for an argument on the restricted nature of this form of generalization when considering single-case studies.

Making inferences from cases with a qualitative data set arises more from a process of interpretation in context, appealing to tacit and situated understanding for acceptance of their validity. Such inferences are possible where the context and experience of the case is richly described so the reader can recognize and connect with the events and experiences portrayed. There are two ways to examine how to reach these generalized understandings. One is to generalize from the case to other cases of a similar or dissimilar nature. The other is to see what we learn in-depth from the uniqueness of the single case itself.

Generalizing from the Single Case

A common approach to generalization and one most akin to a propositional form is cross-case generalization. In a collective or multi-site case study, each case is explored to see if issues that arise in one case also exist in other cases and what interconnecting themes there are between them. This kind of generalization has a degree of abstraction and potential for theorizing and is often welcomed by commissioners of research concerned that findings from the single case do not provide an adequate or “safe” basis for policy determination.

However, there are four additional ways to generalize from the single case, all of which draw more on tacit knowledge and recognition of context, although in different ways. In naturalistic generalization , first proposed by Stake (1978) , generalization is reached on the basis of recognition of similarities and differences to cases with which we are familiar. To enable such recognition, the case needs to feature rich description; people’s voices; and enough detail of time, place, and context to provide a vicarious experience to help readers discern what is similar and dissimilar to their own context ( Stake, 1978 ).

Situated generalization ( Simons, Kushner, Jones, & James, 2003 ) is close to the concept of naturalistic generalization in relying for its generality on retaining a connectedness with the context in which it first evolved. However, it has an extra dimension in a practice context. This notion of generalization was identified in an evaluation of a research project that engaged teachers in and with research. Here, in addition to the usual validity criteria to establish the warrant for the findings, the generalization was seen as dependable if trust existed between those who conducted the research (teachers, in this example) and those thinking about using it (other teachers). In other words, beyond the technical validity of the research, teachers considered using the findings in their own practice because they had confidence in those who generated them. This is a useful way to think about generalization if we wish research findings to improve professional practice.

The next two concepts of generalization— concept and process generalization —relate more to what you discover in making sense of the case. As you interpret and analyze, you begin to generate a theory of the case that makes sense of the whole. Concepts may be identified that make sense in the one case but have equal significance in other cases of a similar kind, even if the contexts are different.

It is the concept that generalizes, not the specific content or context. This may be similar to the process Donmoyer (2008) identifies of “intellectual generalization” (quoted by Butler-Kisber, 2010 , p. 15) to indicate the cognitive understanding one can gain from qualitative accounts even if settings are quite different.

The same is true for generalization of a process. It is possible to identify a significant process in one case (or several cases) that is transferable to other contexts, irrespective of the precise content and contexts of those other cases. An example here is the collaborative model for sustainable school self-evaluation I identified in researching school self-evaluation in a number of schools and countries ( Simons, 2002 ). Schools that successfully sustained school self-evaluation had an infrastructure that was collaborative at all stages of the evaluation process from design to conduct of the study, to analyzing the results and to reporting the findings. This ensured that the whole school was involved and that results were discussed and built into the ongoing development of school policies and practice. In other cases, different processes may be discovered that have applicability in a range of contexts. As with concept generalization, it is the process that generalizes not the substantive content or specific context.


The forms of generalization discussed above are useful when we have to justify case study in a research or policy context. But the overarching justification for how we learn from case study is particularization —a rich portrayal of insights and understandings interpreted in the particular context. Several authors have made this point ( Stake, 1995 ; Flyvberg, 2006 ; Simons 2009 ). Stake puts it most sharply when he observes that “The real business of case study is particularization, not generalization” (p. 8), referring here to the main reason for studying the singular, which is to understand the uniqueness of the case itself.

My perspective (explored further in Simons, 1996 ; Simons, 2009 , p. 239; Simons & McCormack, 2007 ) is similar in that I believe the “real” strength of case study lies in the insights we gain from in-depth study of the particular. But I also argue for the universality of such insights—if we get it “right.” By which I mean that if we are able to capture and report the uniqueness, the essence, of the case in all its particularity and present this in a way we can all recognize, we will discover something of universal significance. This is something of a paradox. The more you learn in depth about the particularity of one person, situation, or context, the more likely you are to discover something universal. This process of reaching understanding has support both from the way in which many discoveries are made in science and in how we learn from artists, poets, and novelists, who reach us by communicating a recognizable truth about individuals, human relationships, and/or social contexts.

This concept of particularization is far from new, as the quotation from a preface to a book written in 1908 attests. Stephen Reynolds, the author of A Poor Man’s House , notes that the substance of the book was first recorded in a journal, kept for purposes of fiction, and in letters to one of his friends, but fiction proved an inappropriate medium. He felt that the life and the people were so much better than anything he could invent. The book therefore consists of the journal and letters drawn together to present a picture of a typical poor man’s house and life, much as we might draw together a range of data to present a case study. It is not the substance of the book that concerns us here but the methodological relevance to case study research. Reynolds notes that the conclusions expressed are tentative and possibly go beyond this man’s life, so he thought some explanation of the way he arrived at them was needed:

Educated people usually deal with the poor man’s life deductively; they reason from the general to the particular; and, starting with a theory, religious, philanthropic, political, or what not, they seek, and too easily find, among the millions of poor, specimens—very frequently abnormal—to illustrate their theories. With anything but human beings, that is an excellent method. Human beings, unfortunately, have individualities. They do what, theoretically, they ought not to do, and leave undone those things they ought to do. They are even said to possess souls—untrustworthy things beyond the reach of sociologists. The inductive method—reasoning from the particular to the general... should at least help to counterbalance the psychological superficiality of the deductive method. ( Reynolds, 1908 : preface) 1

Slightly overstated perhaps, but the point is well made. In our search for general laws, we not only lose sight of the uniqueness and humanity of individuals, but reduce them in the process, failing to present their experience in any “real” sense. What is astonishing about the quotation is that it was written over a century ago and yet many still argue today that you cannot generalize from the particular.

Going even further back, in 1798, Blake proclaimed that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” In research, we may not wish to make such a strong distinction: these processes both have their uses in different kinds of research. But there is a major point here for the study of the particular that Wilson (2008) notes in commenting on Blake’s perception when he says: “Favouring the abstract over the concrete, one ‘sees all things only thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern”’ (referring here to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [1793]; in Wilson, 2008 , p. 62). The danger Wilson is pointing to here is that abstraction relies heavily on what we know from our past understanding of things, and this may prevent us experiencing a concrete event directly or “apprehend[ing] a particular moment” ( Wilson, 2008 , p. 63).

Blake had a different mission, of course, than case researchers, and he was not himself free from abstractions, as Wilson points out, although he fought hard “to break through mental barriers to something unique and living” ( Wilson, 2008 , p. 65). It is this search for the “unique and living” and experiencing the “isness” of the particular that we should take from the Blake example to remind ourselves of the possibility of discovering something “new,” beyond our current understanding of the way things are.

Focusing on particularization does not diminish the usefulness of case study research for policy makers or practitioners. Grounded in recognizable experience, the potential is there to reach a range of audiences and to facilitate use of the findings. It may be more difficult for those who seek formal generalizations that seem to offer a safe basis for policy making to accept case study reports. However, particular stories often hold the key to why policies have or have not worked well in the past. It is not necessary to present long cases—a criticism frequently levelled—to demonstrate the story of the case. Such case stories can be most insightful for policy makers who, like many of us in everyday life, often draw inferences from a single instance or case, whatever the formal evidence presented. “I am reminded of the story of....”

The case for studying the particular to inform practice in professional contexts needs less persuasion because practitioners can recognize the content and context quite readily and make the inference to their own particular context ( Simons et al., 2003 ). In both sets of circumstances—policy and practice—it is more a question of whether the readers of our case research accept the validity of findings determined in this way, how they choose to learn, and our skill in telling the case study story.

Conclusion and Future Directions

In this chapter, I have presented an argument for case study research, making the case, in particular, for using qualitative methods to highlight what it is that qualitative case study research can bring to the study of social and educational programs. I outlined the various ways in which case study is commonly used before focusing directly on case study as a major mode of research inquiry, noting characteristics it shares with other qualitative methodologies, as well as itsdifference and the difficulties it is sometimes perceived to have. The chapter emphasizes the importance of thinking through what the case is, to be sure that the issues explored and the data generated do illuminate this case and not any other.

But there is still more to be done. In particular, I think we need to be more adventurous in how we craft and report the case. I suspect we may have been too cautious in the past in how we justified case study research, borrowing concepts from other disciplines and forms of educational research. More than 40 years on, it is time to take a greater risk—in demonstrating the intrinsic nature of case study and what it can offer to our understanding of human and social situations.

I have already drawn attention to the need to design the case, although this could be developed further to accentuate the uniqueness of the particular case. One way to do this is to feature individuals more in the design itself, not only to explore programs and policies through perspectives of key actors or groups and transactions between them, which to some extent happens already, but also to get them to characterize what makes the context unique. This is the reversal of many a design framework that starts with the logic of a program and takes forward the argument for personal evaluation ( Kushner, 2000 ), noted in the interlude on evaluation. Apart from this attention to design, there are three other issues I think we need to explore further: the warrant for creative methods in case study, more imaginative reporting; and how we learn from a study of the singular.

Warrant for More Creative Methods in Case Study Research

The promise that creative methods have for eliciting in-depth understanding and capturing the unusual, the idiosyncratic, the uniqueness of the case, was mentioned in the methods section. Yet, in case study research, particularly in program and policy contexts, we have few good examples of the use of artistic approaches for eliciting and interpreting data, although more, as acknowledged later, for presenting it. This may be because case study research is often conducted in academic or policy environments, where propositional ways of knowing are more valued.

Using creative and artistic forms in generating and interpreting case study data offers a form of evidence that acknowledges experiential understanding in illuminating the uniqueness of the case. The question is how to establish the warrant for this way of knowing and persuade others of its virtue. The answer is simple. By demonstrating the use of these methods in action, by arguing for a different form of validity that matches the intrinsic nature of the method, and, above all, by good examples.

Representing Findings to Engage Audiences in Learning

In evaluative and research policy contexts, where case study is often the main mode of inquiry or part of a broader study, case study reports often take a formal structure or sometimes, where the context is receptive, a portrayal or interpretative form. But, too often, the qualitative is an add-on to a story told by other means or reduced to issues in which the people who gave rise to the data are no longer seen. However, there are many ways to put them center stage.

Tell good stories and tell them well. Or, let key actors tell their own stories. Explore the different ways technology can help. Make video clips that demonstrate events in context, illustrate interactions between people, give voice to participants—show the reality of the program, in other words. Use graphics to summarize key issues and interactive, cartoon technology, as seen on some TED presentations, to summarize and visually show the complexity of the case. Video diaries were mentioned in the methods section: seeing individuals tell their tales directly is a powerful way of communicating, unhindered by “our” sense making. Tell photo stories. Let the photos convey the narrative, but make sure the structure of the narrative is evident to ensure coherence. These are just the beginnings. Those skilled in information technology could no doubt stretch our imagination further.

One problem and a further question concerns our audiences. Will they accept these modes of communication? Maybe not, in some contexts. However, there are three points I wish to leave you with. First, do not presume that they won’t. If people are fully present in the story and the complexity is not diminished, those reading, watching, or hearing about the case will get the message. If you are worried about how commissioners might respond, remember that they are no different from any other stakeholder or participant when it comes to how they learn from human experience. Witness the reference to Okri (1997) earlier about how we learn.

Second, when you detect that the context requires a more formal presentation of findings, respond according to expectation but also include elements of other forms of presentation. Nudge a little in the direction of creativity. Third, simply take a chance, that risk I spoke about earlier. Challenge the status quo. Find situations and contexts where you can fully represent the qualitative nature of the experience in the cases you study with creative forms of interpretation and representation. And let the audience decide.

Learning from a Study of the Singular

Finally, to return to the issue of “generalization” in case study that worries some audiences. I pointed out in the generalization section several ways in which it is possible to generalize from case study research, not in a formal propositional sense or from a case to a population, but by retaining a connection with the context in which the generalization first arose—that is, to realize in-depth understanding in context in different circumstances and situations. However, I also emphasized that, in many instances, it is particularization from which we learn. That is the point of the singular case study, and it is an art to perceive and craft the case in ways that we can.


Parts of this chapter build on ideas first explored in Simons, 2009 .

I am grateful to Bob Williams for pointing out the relevance of this quotation from Reynolds to remind us that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that we sometimes continue to engage endlessly in debates that have been well rehearsed before.

Adams, T. ( 2012 ) ‘ Olympics 2012: Team GB falters but London shines bright on opening day ’, Observer, 29.07.12.

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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Analyzing a Scholarly Journal Article
  • Group Presentations
  • Dealing with Nervousness
  • Using Visual Aids
  • Grading Someone Else's Paper
  • Types of Structured Group Activities
  • Group Project Survival Skills
  • Leading a Class Discussion
  • Multiple Book Review Essay
  • Reviewing Collected Works
  • Writing a Case Analysis Paper
  • Writing a Case Study
  • About Informed Consent
  • Writing Field Notes
  • Writing a Policy Memo
  • Writing a Reflective Paper
  • Writing a Research Proposal
  • Generative AI and Writing
  • Acknowledgments

A case study research paper examines a person, place, event, condition, phenomenon, or other type of subject of analysis in order to extrapolate  key themes and results that help predict future trends, illuminate previously hidden issues that can be applied to practice, and/or provide a means for understanding an important research problem with greater clarity. A case study research paper usually examines a single subject of analysis, but case study papers can also be designed as a comparative investigation that shows relationships between two or more subjects. The methods used to study a case can rest within a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-method investigative paradigm.

Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010 ; “What is a Case Study?” In Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London: SAGE, 2010.

How to Approach Writing a Case Study Research Paper

General information about how to choose a topic to investigate can be found under the " Choosing a Research Problem " tab in the Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper writing guide. Review this page because it may help you identify a subject of analysis that can be investigated using a case study design.

However, identifying a case to investigate involves more than choosing the research problem . A case study encompasses a problem contextualized around the application of in-depth analysis, interpretation, and discussion, often resulting in specific recommendations for action or for improving existing conditions. As Seawright and Gerring note, practical considerations such as time and access to information can influence case selection, but these issues should not be the sole factors used in describing the methodological justification for identifying a particular case to study. Given this, selecting a case includes considering the following:

  • The case represents an unusual or atypical example of a research problem that requires more in-depth analysis? Cases often represent a topic that rests on the fringes of prior investigations because the case may provide new ways of understanding the research problem. For example, if the research problem is to identify strategies to improve policies that support girl's access to secondary education in predominantly Muslim nations, you could consider using Azerbaijan as a case study rather than selecting a more obvious nation in the Middle East. Doing so may reveal important new insights into recommending how governments in other predominantly Muslim nations can formulate policies that support improved access to education for girls.
  • The case provides important insight or illuminate a previously hidden problem? In-depth analysis of a case can be based on the hypothesis that the case study will reveal trends or issues that have not been exposed in prior research or will reveal new and important implications for practice. For example, anecdotal evidence may suggest drug use among homeless veterans is related to their patterns of travel throughout the day. Assuming prior studies have not looked at individual travel choices as a way to study access to illicit drug use, a case study that observes a homeless veteran could reveal how issues of personal mobility choices facilitate regular access to illicit drugs. Note that it is important to conduct a thorough literature review to ensure that your assumption about the need to reveal new insights or previously hidden problems is valid and evidence-based.
  • The case challenges and offers a counter-point to prevailing assumptions? Over time, research on any given topic can fall into a trap of developing assumptions based on outdated studies that are still applied to new or changing conditions or the idea that something should simply be accepted as "common sense," even though the issue has not been thoroughly tested in current practice. A case study analysis may offer an opportunity to gather evidence that challenges prevailing assumptions about a research problem and provide a new set of recommendations applied to practice that have not been tested previously. For example, perhaps there has been a long practice among scholars to apply a particular theory in explaining the relationship between two subjects of analysis. Your case could challenge this assumption by applying an innovative theoretical framework [perhaps borrowed from another discipline] to explore whether this approach offers new ways of understanding the research problem. Taking a contrarian stance is one of the most important ways that new knowledge and understanding develops from existing literature.
  • The case provides an opportunity to pursue action leading to the resolution of a problem? Another way to think about choosing a case to study is to consider how the results from investigating a particular case may result in findings that reveal ways in which to resolve an existing or emerging problem. For example, studying the case of an unforeseen incident, such as a fatal accident at a railroad crossing, can reveal hidden issues that could be applied to preventative measures that contribute to reducing the chance of accidents in the future. In this example, a case study investigating the accident could lead to a better understanding of where to strategically locate additional signals at other railroad crossings so as to better warn drivers of an approaching train, particularly when visibility is hindered by heavy rain, fog, or at night.
  • The case offers a new direction in future research? A case study can be used as a tool for an exploratory investigation that highlights the need for further research about the problem. A case can be used when there are few studies that help predict an outcome or that establish a clear understanding about how best to proceed in addressing a problem. For example, after conducting a thorough literature review [very important!], you discover that little research exists showing the ways in which women contribute to promoting water conservation in rural communities of east central Africa. A case study of how women contribute to saving water in a rural village of Uganda can lay the foundation for understanding the need for more thorough research that documents how women in their roles as cooks and family caregivers think about water as a valuable resource within their community. This example of a case study could also point to the need for scholars to build new theoretical frameworks around the topic [e.g., applying feminist theories of work and family to the issue of water conservation].

Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. “Building Theories from Case Study Research.” Academy of Management Review 14 (October 1989): 532-550; Emmel, Nick. Sampling and Choosing Cases in Qualitative Research: A Realist Approach . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013; Gerring, John. “What Is a Case Study and What Is It Good for?” American Political Science Review 98 (May 2004): 341-354; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Seawright, Jason and John Gerring. "Case Selection Techniques in Case Study Research." Political Research Quarterly 61 (June 2008): 294-308.

Structure and Writing Style

The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In applied social sciences disciplines [e.g., education, social work, public administration, etc.], case studies may also be used to reveal best practices, highlight key programs, or investigate interesting aspects of professional work.

In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.

I.  Introduction

As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study . The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:

  • What is being studied? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis [the case] you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
  • Why is this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
  • What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
  • How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.

Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.

II.  Literature Review

The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and  enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address . This includes synthesizing studies that help to:

  • Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated . This would involve summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
  • Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable . Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to investigate the research problem and the underlying research questions.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study . If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your use of a case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies . This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research . Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
  • Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill . Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!] . Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in relation to explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.

III.  Method

In this section, you explain why you selected a particular case [i.e., subject of analysis] and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that constitutes your case study.

If your subject of analysis is an incident or event . In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be a rare or critical event or it can focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: a) when did it take place; b) what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; and, c) what were the consequences of the event in relation to the research problem.

If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experiences they have had that provide an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of their experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using them as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem [e.g., why is one politician in a particular local election used to show an increase in voter turnout from any other candidate running in the election]. Note that these issues apply to a specific group of people used as a case study unit of analysis [e.g., a classroom of students].

If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, historical, cultural, economic, political], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, explain why you are studying Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?]. If applicable, describe what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [e.g., prior research suggests Echo Park has more homeless veterans].

If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut off? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.

NOTE:   The choice of the case or set of cases to study cannot appear random. Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should clearly support investigation of the research problem and linked to key findings from your literature review. Be sure to cite any studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for examining the problem.

IV.  Discussion

The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your analysis of the case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is common to combine a description of the results with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:

Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.

Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.

Relate the Findings to Similar Studies No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.

Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings Remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations revealed by the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research if that is how the findings can be interpreted from your case.

Acknowledge the Study's Limitations You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here .

Suggest Areas for Further Research Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.

V.  Conclusion

As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and any need for further research.

The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1) reiterate the main argument supported by the findings from your case study; 2) state clearly the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.

Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:

  • If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
  • If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
  • Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.

Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in or the preferences of your professor, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented as it applies to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.

Problems to Avoid

Overgeneralization One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were engaged with social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.

Failure to Document Limitations No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study , you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood more in terms of managing access rather than preserving access to a scarce resource.

Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis that leave the reader questioning the results.

Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Gerring, John. Case Study Research: Principles and Practices . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education . Rev. ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998; Miller, Lisa L. “The Use of Case Studies in Law and Social Science Research.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 14 (2018): TBD; Mills, Albert J., Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Putney, LeAnn Grogan. "Case Study." In Encyclopedia of Research Design , Neil J. Salkind, editor. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010), pp. 116-120; Simons, Helen. Case Study Research in Practice . London: SAGE Publications, 2009;  Kratochwill,  Thomas R. and Joel R. Levin, editors. Single-Case Research Design and Analysis: New Development for Psychology and Education .  Hilldsale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992; Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London : SAGE, 2010; Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods . 6th edition. Los Angeles, CA, SAGE Publications, 2014; Walo, Maree, Adrian Bull, and Helen Breen. “Achieving Economic Benefits at Local Events: A Case Study of a Local Sports Event.” Festival Management and Event Tourism 4 (1996): 95-106.

Writing Tip

At Least Five Misconceptions about Case Study Research

Social science case studies are often perceived as limited in their ability to create new knowledge because they are not randomly selected and findings cannot be generalized to larger populations. Flyvbjerg examines five misunderstandings about case study research and systematically "corrects" each one. To quote, these are:

Misunderstanding 1 :  General, theoretical [context-independent] knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical [context-dependent] knowledge. Misunderstanding 2 :  One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development. Misunderstanding 3 :  The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building. Misunderstanding 4 :  The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Misunderstanding 5 :  It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies [p. 221].

While writing your paper, think introspectively about how you addressed these misconceptions because to do so can help you strengthen the validity and reliability of your research by clarifying issues of case selection, the testing and challenging of existing assumptions, the interpretation of key findings, and the summation of case outcomes. Think of a case study research paper as a complete, in-depth narrative about the specific properties and key characteristics of your subject of analysis applied to the research problem.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12 (April 2006): 219-245.

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What is a case study?

A case study is a type of research method. In case studies, the unit of analysis is a case . The case typically provides a detailed account of a situation that usually focuses on a conflict or complexity that one might encounter in the workplace.

  • Case studies help explain the process by which a unit (a person, department, business, organization, industry, country, etc.) deals with the issue or problem confronting it, and offers possible solutions that can be applied to other units facing similar situations.
  • The information presented in case studies is usually qualitative in nature - gathered through methods such as interview, observation, and document collection.
  • There are different types of case study, including  intrinsic, instrumental, naturalistic,  and  pragmatic.

This research guide will assist you in finding individual case studies, as well as providing information on designing case studies. If you need assistance locating information, please Ask a Librarian .

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Case Studies

This guide examines case studies, a form of qualitative descriptive research that is used to look at individuals, a small group of participants, or a group as a whole. Researchers collect data about participants using participant and direct observations, interviews, protocols, tests, examinations of records, and collections of writing samples. Starting with a definition of the case study, the guide moves to a brief history of this research method. Using several well documented case studies, the guide then looks at applications and methods including data collection and analysis. A discussion of ways to handle validity, reliability, and generalizability follows, with special attention to case studies as they are applied to composition studies. Finally, this guide examines the strengths and weaknesses of case studies.

Definition and Overview

Case study refers to the collection and presentation of detailed information about a particular participant or small group, frequently including the accounts of subjects themselves. A form of qualitative descriptive research, the case study looks intensely at an individual or small participant pool, drawing conclusions only about that participant or group and only in that specific context. Researchers do not focus on the discovery of a universal, generalizable truth, nor do they typically look for cause-effect relationships; instead, emphasis is placed on exploration and description.

Case studies typically examine the interplay of all variables in order to provide as complete an understanding of an event or situation as possible. This type of comprehensive understanding is arrived at through a process known as thick description, which involves an in-depth description of the entity being evaluated, the circumstances under which it is used, the characteristics of the people involved in it, and the nature of the community in which it is located. Thick description also involves interpreting the meaning of demographic and descriptive data such as cultural norms and mores, community values, ingrained attitudes, and motives.

Unlike quantitative methods of research, like the survey, which focus on the questions of who, what, where, how much, and how many, and archival analysis, which often situates the participant in some form of historical context, case studies are the preferred strategy when how or why questions are asked. Likewise, they are the preferred method when the researcher has little control over the events, and when there is a contemporary focus within a real life context. In addition, unlike more specifically directed experiments, case studies require a problem that seeks a holistic understanding of the event or situation in question using inductive logic--reasoning from specific to more general terms.

In scholarly circles, case studies are frequently discussed within the context of qualitative research and naturalistic inquiry. Case studies are often referred to interchangeably with ethnography, field study, and participant observation. The underlying philosophical assumptions in the case are similar to these types of qualitative research because each takes place in a natural setting (such as a classroom, neighborhood, or private home), and strives for a more holistic interpretation of the event or situation under study.

Unlike more statistically-based studies which search for quantifiable data, the goal of a case study is to offer new variables and questions for further research. F.H. Giddings, a sociologist in the early part of the century, compares statistical methods to the case study on the basis that the former are concerned with the distribution of a particular trait, or a small number of traits, in a population, whereas the case study is concerned with the whole variety of traits to be found in a particular instance" (Hammersley 95).

Case studies are not a new form of research; naturalistic inquiry was the primary research tool until the development of the scientific method. The fields of sociology and anthropology are credited with the primary shaping of the concept as we know it today. However, case study research has drawn from a number of other areas as well: the clinical methods of doctors; the casework technique being developed by social workers; the methods of historians and anthropologists, plus the qualitative descriptions provided by quantitative researchers like LePlay; and, in the case of Robert Park, the techniques of newspaper reporters and novelists.

Park was an ex-newspaper reporter and editor who became very influential in developing sociological case studies at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. As a newspaper professional he coined the term "scientific" or "depth" reporting: the description of local events in a way that pointed to major social trends. Park viewed the sociologist as "merely a more accurate, responsible, and scientific reporter." Park stressed the variety and value of human experience. He believed that sociology sought to arrive at natural, but fluid, laws and generalizations in regard to human nature and society. These laws weren't static laws of the kind sought by many positivists and natural law theorists, but rather, they were laws of becoming--with a constant possibility of change. Park encouraged students to get out of the library, to quit looking at papers and books, and to view the constant experiment of human experience. He writes, "Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short, gentlemen [sic], go get the seats of your pants dirty in real research."

But over the years, case studies have drawn their share of criticism. In fact, the method had its detractors from the start. In the 1920s, the debate between pro-qualitative and pro-quantitative became quite heated. Case studies, when compared to statistics, were considered by many to be unscientific. From the 1930's on, the rise of positivism had a growing influence on quantitative methods in sociology. People wanted static, generalizable laws in science. The sociological positivists were looking for stable laws of social phenomena. They criticized case study research because it failed to provide evidence of inter subjective agreement. Also, they condemned it because of the few number of cases studied and that the under-standardized character of their descriptions made generalization impossible. By the 1950s, quantitative methods, in the form of survey research, had become the dominant sociological approach and case study had become a minority practice.

Educational Applications

The 1950's marked the dawning of a new era in case study research, namely that of the utilization of the case study as a teaching method. "Instituted at Harvard Business School in the 1950s as a primary method of teaching, cases have since been used in classrooms and lecture halls alike, either as part of a course of study or as the main focus of the course to which other teaching material is added" (Armisted 1984). The basic purpose of instituting the case method as a teaching strategy was "to transfer much of the responsibility for learning from the teacher on to the student, whose role, as a result, shifts away from passive absorption toward active construction" (Boehrer 1990). Through careful examination and discussion of various cases, "students learn to identify actual problems, to recognize key players and their agendas, and to become aware of those aspects of the situation that contribute to the problem" (Merseth 1991). In addition, students are encouraged to "generate their own analysis of the problems under consideration, to develop their own solutions, and to practically apply their own knowledge of theory to these problems" (Boyce 1993). Along the way, students also develop "the power to analyze and to master a tangled circumstance by identifying and delineating important factors; the ability to utilize ideas, to test them against facts, and to throw them into fresh combinations" (Merseth 1991).

In addition to the practical application and testing of scholarly knowledge, case discussions can also help students prepare for real-world problems, situations and crises by providing an approximation of various professional environments (i.e. classroom, board room, courtroom, or hospital). Thus, through the examination of specific cases, students are given the opportunity to work out their own professional issues through the trials, tribulations, experiences, and research findings of others. An obvious advantage to this mode of instruction is that it allows students the exposure to settings and contexts that they might not otherwise experience. For example, a student interested in studying the effects of poverty on minority secondary student's grade point averages and S.A.T. scores could access and analyze information from schools as geographically diverse as Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, and New Mexico without ever having to leave the classroom.

The case study method also incorporates the idea that students can learn from one another "by engaging with each other and with each other's ideas, by asserting something and then having it questioned, challenged and thrown back at them so that they can reflect on what they hear, and then refine what they say" (Boehrer 1990). In summary, students can direct their own learning by formulating questions and taking responsibility for the study.

Types and Design Concerns

Researchers use multiple methods and approaches to conduct case studies.

Types of Case Studies

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 what a situation is like. 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 generalizability, or to call into question or challenge a highly generalized or universal assertion. This method is useful for answering cause and effect questions.

Identifying a Theoretical Perspective

Much of the case study's design is inherently determined for researchers, depending on the field from which they are working. In composition studies, researchers are typically working from a qualitative, descriptive standpoint. In contrast, physicists will approach their research from a more quantitative perspective. Still, in designing the study, researchers need to make explicit the questions to be explored and the theoretical perspective from which they will approach the case. The three most commonly adopted theories are listed below:

Individual Theories These focus primarily on the individual development, cognitive behavior, personality, learning and disability, and interpersonal interactions of a particular subject.

Organizational Theories These focus on bureaucracies, institutions, organizational structure and functions, or excellence in organizational performance.

Social Theories These focus on urban development, group behavior, cultural institutions, or marketplace functions.

Two examples of case studies are used consistently throughout this chapter. The first, a study produced by Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988), looks at a first year graduate student's initiation into an academic writing program. The study uses participant-observer and linguistic data collecting techniques to assess the student's knowledge of appropriate discourse conventions. Using the pseudonym Nate to refer to the subject, the study sought to illuminate the particular experience rather than to generalize about the experience of fledgling academic writers collectively.

For example, in Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman's (1988) study we are told that the researchers are interested in disciplinary communities. In the first paragraph, they ask what constitutes membership in a disciplinary community and how achieving membership might affect a writer's understanding and production of texts. In the third paragraph they state that researchers must negotiate their claims "within the context of his sub specialty's accepted knowledge and methodology." In the next paragraph they ask, "How is literacy acquired? What is the process through which novices gain community membership? And what factors either aid or hinder students learning the requisite linguistic behaviors?" This introductory section ends with a paragraph in which the study's authors claim that during the course of the study, the subject, Nate, successfully makes the transition from "skilled novice" to become an initiated member of the academic discourse community and that his texts exhibit linguistic changes which indicate this transition. In the next section the authors make explicit the sociolinguistic theoretical and methodological assumptions on which the study is based (1988). Thus the reader has a good understanding of the authors' theoretical background and purpose in conducting the study even before it is explicitly stated on the fourth page of the study. "Our purpose was to examine the effects of the educational context on one graduate student's production of texts as he wrote in different courses and for different faculty members over the academic year 1984-85." The goal of the study then, was to explore the idea that writers must be initiated into a writing community, and that this initiation will change the way one writes.

The second example is Janet Emig's (1971) study of the composing process of a group of twelfth graders. In this study, Emig seeks to answer the question of what happens to the self as a result educational stimuli in terms of academic writing. The case study used methods such as protocol analysis, tape-recorded interviews, and discourse analysis.

In the case of Janet Emig's (1971) study of the composing process of eight twelfth graders, four specific hypotheses were made:

  • Twelfth grade writers engage in two modes of composing: reflexive and extensive.
  • These differences can be ascertained and characterized through having the writers compose aloud their composition process.
  • A set of implied stylistic principles governs the writing process.
  • For twelfth grade writers, extensive writing occurs chiefly as a school-sponsored activity, or reflexive, as a self-sponsored activity.

In this study, the chief distinction is between the two dominant modes of composing among older, secondary school students. The distinctions are:

  • The reflexive mode, which focuses on the writer's thoughts and feelings.
  • The extensive mode, which focuses on conveying a message.

Emig also outlines the specific questions which guided the research in the opening pages of her Review of Literature , preceding the report.

Designing a Case Study

After considering the different sub categories of case study and identifying a theoretical perspective, researchers can begin to design their study. Research design is the string of logic that ultimately links the data to be collected and the conclusions to be drawn to the initial questions of the study. Typically, research designs deal with at least four problems:

  • What questions to study
  • What data are relevant
  • What data to collect
  • How to analyze that data

In other words, a research design is basically a blueprint for getting from the beginning to the end of a study. The beginning is an initial set of questions to be answered, and the end is some set of conclusions about those questions.

Because case studies are conducted on topics as diverse as Anglo-Saxon Literature (Thrane 1986) and AIDS prevention (Van Vugt 1994), it is virtually impossible to outline any strict or universal method or design for conducting the case study. However, Robert K. Yin (1993) does offer five basic components of a research design:

  • A study's questions.
  • A study's propositions (if any).
  • A study's units of analysis.
  • The logic that links the data to the propositions.
  • The criteria for interpreting the findings.

In addition to these five basic components, Yin also stresses the importance of clearly articulating one's theoretical perspective, determining the goals of the study, selecting one's subject(s), selecting the appropriate method(s) of collecting data, and providing some considerations to the composition of the final report.

Conducting Case Studies

To obtain as complete a picture of the participant as possible, case study researchers can employ a variety of approaches and methods. These approaches, methods, and related issues are discussed in depth in this section.

Method: Single or Multi-modal?

To obtain as complete a picture of the participant as possible, case study researchers can employ a variety of methods. Some common methods include interviews , protocol analyses, field studies, and participant-observations. Emig (1971) chose to use several methods of data collection. Her sources included conversations with the students, protocol analysis, discrete observations of actual composition, writing samples from each student, and school records (Lauer and Asher 1988).

Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988) collected data by observing classrooms, conducting faculty and student interviews, collecting self reports from the subject, and by looking at the subject's written work.

A study that was criticized for using a single method model was done by Flower and Hayes (1984). In this study that explores the ways in which writers use different forms of knowing to create space, the authors used only protocol analysis to gather data. The study came under heavy fire because of their decision to use only one method.

Participant Selection

Case studies can use one participant, or a small group of participants. However, it is important that the participant pool remain relatively small. The participants can represent a diverse cross section of society, but this isn't necessary.

For example, the Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988) study looked at just one participant, Nate. By contrast, in Janet Emig's (1971) study of the composition process of twelfth graders, eight participants were selected representing a diverse cross section of the community, with volunteers from an all-white upper-middle-class suburban school, an all-black inner-city school, a racially mixed lower-middle-class school, an economically and racially mixed school, and a university school.

Often, a brief "case history" is done on the participants of the study in order to provide researchers with a clearer understanding of their participants, as well as some insight as to how their own personal histories might affect the outcome of the study. For instance, in Emig's study, the investigator had access to the school records of five of the participants, and to standardized test scores for the remaining three. Also made available to the researcher was the information that three of the eight students were selected as NCTE Achievement Award winners. These personal histories can be useful in later stages of the study when data are being analyzed and conclusions drawn.

Data Collection

There are six types of data collected in case studies:

  • Archival records.
  • Interviews.
  • Direct observation.
  • Participant observation.

In the field of composition research, these six sources might be:

  • A writer's drafts.
  • School records of student writers.
  • Transcripts of interviews with a writer.
  • Transcripts of conversations between writers (and protocols).
  • Videotapes and notes from direct field observations.
  • Hard copies of a writer's work on computer.

Depending on whether researchers have chosen to use a single or multi-modal approach for the case study, they may choose to collect data from one or any combination of these sources.

Protocols, that is, transcriptions of participants talking aloud about what they are doing as they do it, have been particularly common in composition case studies. For example, in Emig's (1971) study, the students were asked, in four different sessions, to give oral autobiographies of their writing experiences and to compose aloud three themes in the presence of a tape recorder and the investigator.

In some studies, only one method of data collection is conducted. For example, the Flower and Hayes (1981) report on the cognitive process theory of writing depends on protocol analysis alone. However, using multiple sources of evidence to increase the reliability and validity of the data can be advantageous.

Case studies are likely to be much more convincing and accurate if they are based on several different sources of information, following a corroborating mode. This conclusion is echoed among many composition researchers. For example, in her study of predrafting processes of high and low-apprehensive writers, Cynthia Selfe (1985) argues that because "methods of indirect observation provide only an incomplete reflection of the complex set of processes involved in composing, a combination of several such methods should be used to gather data in any one study." Thus, in this study, Selfe collected her data from protocols, observations of students role playing their writing processes, audio taped interviews with the students, and videotaped observations of the students in the process of composing.

It can be said then, that cross checking data from multiple sources can help provide a multidimensional profile of composing activities in a particular setting. Sharan Merriam (1985) suggests "checking, verifying, testing, probing, and confirming collected data as you go, arguing that this process will follow in a funnel-like design resulting in less data gathering in later phases of the study along with a congruent increase in analysis checking, verifying, and confirming."

It is important to note that in case studies, as in any qualitative descriptive research, while researchers begin their studies with one or several questions driving the inquiry (which influence the key factors the researcher will be looking for during data collection), a researcher may find new key factors emerging during data collection. These might be unexpected patterns or linguistic features which become evident only during the course of the research. While not bearing directly on the researcher's guiding questions, these variables may become the basis for new questions asked at the end of the report, thus linking to the possibility of further research.

Data Analysis

As the information is collected, researchers strive to make sense of their data. Generally, researchers interpret their data in one of two ways: holistically or through coding. Holistic analysis does not attempt to break the evidence into parts, but rather to draw conclusions based on the text as a whole. Flower and Hayes (1981), for example, make inferences from entire sections of their students' protocols, rather than searching through the transcripts to look for isolatable characteristics.

However, composition researchers commonly interpret their data by coding, that is by systematically searching data to identify and/or categorize specific observable actions or characteristics. These observable actions then become the key variables in the study. Sharan Merriam (1988) suggests seven analytic frameworks for the organization and presentation of data:

  • The role of participants.
  • The network analysis of formal and informal exchanges among groups.
  • Historical.
  • Thematical.
  • Ritual and symbolism.
  • Critical incidents that challenge or reinforce fundamental beliefs, practices, and values.

There are two purposes of these frameworks: to look for patterns among the data and to look for patterns that give meaning to the case study.

As stated above, while most researchers begin their case studies expecting to look for particular observable characteristics, it is not unusual for key variables to emerge during data collection. Typical variables coded in case studies of writers include pauses writers make in the production of a text, the use of specific linguistic units (such as nouns or verbs), and writing processes (planning, drafting, revising, and editing). In the Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988) study, for example, researchers coded the participant's texts for use of connectives, discourse demonstratives, average sentence length, off-register words, use of the first person pronoun, and the ratio of definite articles to indefinite articles.

Since coding is inherently subjective, more than one coder is usually employed. In the Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988) study, for example, three rhetoricians were employed to code the participant's texts for off-register phrases. The researchers established the agreement among the coders before concluding that the participant used fewer off-register words as the graduate program progressed.

Composing the Case Study Report

In the many forms it can take, "a case study is generically a story; it presents the concrete narrative detail of actual, or at least realistic events, it has a plot, exposition, characters, and sometimes even dialogue" (Boehrer 1990). Generally, case study reports are extensively descriptive, with "the most problematic issue often referred to as being the determination of the right combination of description and analysis" (1990). Typically, authors address each step of the research process, and attempt to give the reader as much context as possible for the decisions made in the research design and for the conclusions drawn.

This contextualization usually includes a detailed explanation of the researchers' theoretical positions, of how those theories drove the inquiry or led to the guiding research questions, of the participants' backgrounds, of the processes of data collection, of the training and limitations of the coders, along with a strong attempt to make connections between the data and the conclusions evident.

Although the Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1988) study does not, case study reports often include the reactions of the participants to the study or to the researchers' conclusions. Because case studies tend to be exploratory, most end with implications for further study. Here researchers may identify significant variables that emerged during the research and suggest studies related to these, or the authors may suggest further general questions that their case study generated.

For example, Emig's (1971) study concludes with a section dedicated solely to the topic of implications for further research, in which she suggests several means by which this particular study could have been improved, as well as questions and ideas raised by this study which other researchers might like to address, such as: is there a correlation between a certain personality and a certain composing process profile (e.g. is there a positive correlation between ego strength and persistence in revising)?

Also included in Emig's study is a section dedicated to implications for teaching, which outlines the pedagogical ramifications of the study's findings for teachers currently involved in high school writing programs.

Sharan Merriam (1985) also offers several suggestions for alternative presentations of data:

  • Prepare specialized condensations for appropriate groups.
  • Replace narrative sections with a series of answers to open-ended questions.
  • Present "skimmer's" summaries at beginning of each section.
  • Incorporate headlines that encapsulate information from text.
  • Prepare analytic summaries with supporting data appendixes.
  • Present data in colorful and/or unique graphic representations.

Issues of Validity and Reliability

Once key variables have been identified, they can be analyzed. Reliability becomes a key concern at this stage, and many case study researchers go to great lengths to ensure that their interpretations of the data will be both reliable and valid. Because issues of validity and reliability are an important part of any study in the social sciences, it is important to identify some ways of dealing with results.

Multi-modal case study researchers often balance the results of their coding with data from interviews or writer's reflections upon their own work. Consequently, the researchers' conclusions become highly contextualized. For example, in a case study which looked at the time spent in different stages of the writing process, Berkenkotter concluded that her participant, Donald Murray, spent more time planning his essays than in other writing stages. The report of this case study is followed by Murray's reply, wherein he agrees with some of Berkenkotter's conclusions and disagrees with others.

As is the case with other research methodologies, issues of external validity, construct validity, and reliability need to be carefully considered.

Commentary on Case Studies

Researchers often debate the relative merits of particular methods, among them case study. In this section, we comment on two key issues. To read the commentaries, choose any of the items below:

Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies

Most case study advocates point out that case studies produce much more detailed information than what is available through a statistical analysis. Advocates will also hold that while statistical methods might be able to deal with situations where behavior is homogeneous and routine, case studies are needed to deal with creativity, innovation, and context. Detractors argue that case studies are difficult to generalize because of inherent subjectivity and because they are based on qualitative subjective data, generalizable only to a particular context.


The case study approach is a comparatively flexible method of scientific research. Because its project designs seem to emphasize exploration rather than prescription or prediction, researchers are comparatively freer to discover and address issues as they arise in their experiments. In addition, the looser format of case studies allows researchers to begin with broad questions and narrow their focus as their experiment progresses rather than attempt to predict every possible outcome before the experiment is conducted.

Emphasis on Context

By seeking to understand as much as possible about a single subject or small group of subjects, case studies specialize in "deep data," or "thick description"--information based on particular contexts that can give research results a more human face. This emphasis can help bridge the gap between abstract research and concrete practice by allowing researchers to compare their firsthand observations with the quantitative results obtained through other methods of research.

Inherent Subjectivity

"The case study has long been stereotyped as the weak sibling among social science methods," and is often criticized as being too subjective and even pseudo-scientific. Likewise, "investigators who do case studies are often regarded as having deviated from their academic disciplines, and their investigations as having insufficient precision (that is, quantification), objectivity and rigor" (Yin 1989). Opponents cite opportunities for subjectivity in the implementation, presentation, and evaluation of case study research. The approach relies on personal interpretation of data and inferences. Results may not be generalizable, are difficult to test for validity, and rarely offer a problem-solving prescription. Simply put, relying on one or a few subjects as a basis for cognitive extrapolations runs the risk of inferring too much from what might be circumstance.

High Investment

Case studies can involve learning more about the subjects being tested than most researchers would care to know--their educational background, emotional background, perceptions of themselves and their surroundings, their likes, dislikes, and so on. Because of its emphasis on "deep data," the case study is out of reach for many large-scale research projects which look at a subject pool in the tens of thousands. A budget request of $10,000 to examine 200 subjects sounds more efficient than a similar request to examine four subjects.

Ethical Considerations

Researchers conducting case studies should consider certain ethical issues. For example, many educational case studies are often financed by people who have, either directly or indirectly, power over both those being studied and those conducting the investigation (1985). This conflict of interests can hinder the credibility of the study.

The personal integrity, sensitivity, and possible prejudices and/or biases of the investigators need to be taken into consideration as well. Personal biases can creep into how the research is conducted, alternative research methods used, and the preparation of surveys and questionnaires.

A common complaint in case study research is that investigators change direction during the course of the study unaware that their original research design was inadequate for the revised investigation. Thus, the researchers leave unknown gaps and biases in the study. To avoid this, researchers should report preliminary findings so that the likelihood of bias will be reduced.

Concerns about Reliability, Validity, and Generalizability

Merriam (1985) offers several suggestions for how case study researchers might actively combat the popular attacks on the validity, reliability, and generalizability of case studies:

  • Prolong the Processes of Data Gathering on Site: This will help to insure the accuracy of the findings by providing the researcher with more concrete information upon which to formulate interpretations.
  • Employ the Process of "Triangulation": Use a variety of data sources as opposed to relying solely upon one avenue of observation. One example of such a data check would be what McClintock, Brannon, and Maynard (1985) refer to as a "case cluster method," that is, when a single unit within a larger case is randomly sampled, and that data treated quantitatively." For instance, in Emig's (1971) study, the case cluster method was employed, singling out the productivity of a single student named Lynn. This cluster profile included an advanced case history of the subject, specific examination and analysis of individual compositions and protocols, and extensive interview sessions. The seven remaining students were then compared with the case of Lynn, to ascertain if there are any shared, or unique dimensions to the composing process engaged in by these eight students.
  • Conduct Member Checks: Initiate and maintain an active corroboration on the interpretation of data between the researcher and those who provided the data. In other words, talk to your subjects.
  • Collect Referential Materials: Complement the file of materials from the actual site with additional document support. For example, Emig (1971) supports her initial propositions with historical accounts by writers such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. Emig also cites examples of theoretical research done with regards to the creative process, as well as examples of empirical research dealing with the writing of adolescents. Specific attention is then given to the four stages description of the composing process delineated by Helmoltz, Wallas, and Cowley, as it serves as the focal point in this study.
  • Engage in Peer Consultation: Prior to composing the final draft of the report, researchers should consult with colleagues in order to establish validity through pooled judgment.

Although little can be done to combat challenges concerning the generalizability of case studies, "most writers suggest that qualitative research should be judged as credible and confirmable as opposed to valid and reliable" (Merriam 1985). Likewise, it has been argued that "rather than transplanting statistical, quantitative notions of generalizability and thus finding qualitative research inadequate, it makes more sense to develop an understanding of generalization that is congruent with the basic characteristics of qualitative inquiry" (1985). After all, criticizing the case study method for being ungeneralizable is comparable to criticizing a washing machine for not being able to tell the correct time. In other words, it is unjust to criticize a method for not being able to do something which it was never originally designed to do in the first place.

Annotated Bibliography

Armisted, C. (1984). How Useful are Case Studies. Training and Development Journal, 38 (2), 75-77.

This article looks at eight types of case studies, offers pros and cons of using case studies in the classroom, and gives suggestions for successfully writing and using case studies.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1997). Beyond Methods: Components of Second Language Teacher Education . New York: McGraw-Hill.

A compilation of various research essays which address issues of language teacher education. Essays included are: "Non-native reading research and theory" by Lee, "The case for Psycholinguistics" by VanPatten, and "Assessment and Second Language Teaching" by Gradman and Reed.

Bartlett, L. (1989). A Question of Good Judgment; Interpretation Theory and Qualitative Enquiry Address. 70th Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Francisco.

Bartlett selected "quasi-historical" methodology, which focuses on the "truth" found in case records, as one that will provide "good judgments" in educational inquiry. He argues that although the method is not comprehensive, it can try to connect theory with practice.

Baydere, S. et. al. (1993). Multimedia conferencing as a tool for collaborative writing: a case study in Computer Supported Collaborative Writing. New York: Springer-Verlag.

The case study by Baydere et. al. is just one of the many essays in this book found in the series "Computer Supported Cooperative Work." Denley, Witefield and May explore similar issues in their essay, "A case study in task analysis for the design of a collaborative document production system."

Berkenkotter, C., Huckin, T., N., & Ackerman J. (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

The authors focused on how the writing of their subject, Nate or Ackerman, changed as he became more acquainted or familiar with his field's discourse community.

Berninger, V., W., and Gans, B., M. (1986). Language Profiles in Nonspeaking Individuals of Normal Intelligence with Severe Cerebral Palsy. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 2, 45-50.

Argues that generalizations about language abilities in patients with severe cerebral palsy (CP) should be avoided. Standardized tests of different levels of processing oral language, of processing written language, and of producing written language were administered to 3 male participants (aged 9, 16, and 40 yrs).

Bockman, J., R., and Couture, B. (1984). The Case Method in Technical Communication: Theory and Models. Texas: Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.

Examines the study and teaching of technical writing, communication of technical information, and the case method in terms of those applications.

Boehrer, J. (1990). Teaching With Cases: Learning to Question. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 42 41-57.

This article discusses the origins of the case method, looks at the question of what is a case, gives ideas about learning in case teaching, the purposes it can serve in the classroom, the ground rules for the case discussion, including the role of the question, and new directions for case teaching.

Bowman, W. R. (1993). Evaluating JTPA Programs for Economically Disadvantaged Adults: A Case Study of Utah and General Findings . Washington: National Commission for Employment Policy.

"To encourage state-level evaluations of JTPA, the Commission and the State of Utah co-sponsored this report on the effectiveness of JTPA Title II programs for adults in Utah. The technique used is non-experimental and the comparison group was selected from registrants with Utah's Employment Security. In a step-by-step approach, the report documents how non-experimental techniques can be applied and several specific technical issues can be addressed."

Boyce, A. (1993) The Case Study Approach for Pedagogists. Annual Meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. (Address). Washington DC.

This paper addresses how case studies 1) bridge the gap between teaching theory and application, 2) enable students to analyze problems and develop solutions for situations that will be encountered in the real world of teaching, and 3) helps students to evaluate the feasibility of alternatives and to understand the ramifications of a particular course of action.

Carson, J. (1993) The Case Study: Ideal Home of WAC Quantitative and Qualitative Data. Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. (Address). San Diego.

"Increasingly, one of the most pressing questions for WAC advocates is how to keep [WAC] programs going in the face of numerous difficulties. Case histories offer the best chance for fashioning rhetorical arguments to keep WAC programs going because they offer the opportunity to provide a coherent narrative that contextualizes all documents and data, including what is generally considered scientific data. A case study of the WAC program, . . . at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh demonstrates the advantages of this research method. Such studies are ideal homes for both naturalistic and positivistic data as well as both quantitative and qualitative information."

---. (1991). A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing. College Composition and Communication. 32. 365-87.

No abstract available.

Cromer, R. (1994) A Case Study of Dissociations Between Language and Cognition. Constraints on Language Acquisition: Studies of Atypical Children . Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 141-153.

Crossley, M. (1983) Case Study in Comparative and International Education: An Approach to Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Conference of the Australian Comparative and International Education Society. Hamilton, NZ.

Case study research, as presented here, helps bridge the theory-practice gap in comparative and international research studies of education because it focuses on the practical, day-to-day context rather than on the national arena. The paper asserts that the case study method can be valuable at all levels of research, formation, and verification of theories in education.

Daillak, R., H., and Alkin, M., C. (1982). Qualitative Studies in Context: Reflections on the CSE Studies of Evaluation Use . California: EDRS

The report shows how the Center of the Study of Evaluation (CSE) applied qualitative techniques to a study of evaluation information use in local, Los Angeles schools. It critiques the effectiveness and the limitations of using case study, evaluation, field study, and user interview survey methodologies.

Davey, L. (1991). The Application of Case Study Evaluations. ERIC/TM Digest.

This article examines six types of case studies, the type of evaluation questions that can be answered, the functions served, some design features, and some pitfalls of the method.

Deutch, C. E. (1996). A course in research ethics for graduate students. College Teaching, 44, 2, 56-60.

This article describes a one-credit discussion course in research ethics for graduate students in biology. Case studies are focused on within the four parts of the course: 1) major issues, 2 )practical issues in scholarly work, 3) ownership of research results, and 4) training and personal decisions.

DeVoss, G. (1981). Ethics in Fieldwork Research. RIE 27p. (ERIC)

This article examines four of the ethical problems that can happen when conducting case study research: acquiring permission to do research, knowing when to stop digging, the pitfalls of doing collaborative research, and preserving the integrity of the participants.

Driscoll, A. (1985). Case Study of a Research Intervention: the University of Utah’s Collaborative Approach . San Francisco: Far West Library for Educational Research Development.

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, Denver, CO, March 1985. Offers information of in-service training, specifically case studies application.

Ellram, L. M. (1996). The Use of the Case Study Method in Logistics Research. Journal of Business Logistics, 17, 2, 93.

This article discusses the increased use of case study in business research, and the lack of understanding of when and how to use case study methodology in business.

Emig, J. (1971) The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders . Urbana: NTCE.

This case study uses observation, tape recordings, writing samples, and school records to show that writing in reflexive and extensive situations caused different lengths of discourse and different clusterings of the components of the writing process.

Feagin, J. R. (1991). A Case For the Case Study . Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

This book discusses the nature, characteristics, and basic methodological issues of the case study as a research method.

Feldman, H., Holland, A., & Keefe, K. (1989) Language Abilities after Left Hemisphere Brain Injury: A Case Study of Twins. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 9, 32-47.

"Describes the language abilities of 2 twin pairs in which 1 twin (the experimental) suffered brain injury to the left cerebral hemisphere around the time of birth and1 twin (the control) did not. One pair of twins was initially assessed at age 23 mo. and the other at about 30 mo.; they were subsequently evaluated in their homes 3 times at about 6-mo intervals."

Fidel, R. (1984). The Case Study Method: A Case Study. Library and Information Science Research, 6.

The article describes the use of case study methodology to systematically develop a model of online searching behavior in which study design is flexible, subject manner determines data gathering and analyses, and procedures adapt to the study's progressive change.

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1984). Images, Plans and Prose: The Representation of Meaning in Writing. Written Communication, 1, 120-160.

Explores the ways in which writers actually use different forms of knowing to create prose.

Frey, L. R. (1992). Interpreting Communication Research: A Case Study Approach Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

The book discusses research methodologies in the Communication field. It focuses on how case studies bridge the gap between communication research, theory, and practice.

Gilbert, V. K. (1981). The Case Study as a Research Methodology: Difficulties and Advantages of Integrating the Positivistic, Phenomenological and Grounded Theory Approaches . The Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association for the Study of Educational Administration. (Address) Halifax, NS, Can.

This study on an innovative secondary school in England shows how a "low-profile" participant-observer case study was crucial to the initial observation, the testing of hypotheses, the interpretive approach, and the grounded theory.

Gilgun, J. F. (1994). A Case for Case Studies in Social Work Research. Social Work, 39, 4, 371-381.

This article defines case study research, presents guidelines for evaluation of case studies, and shows the relevance of case studies to social work research. It also looks at issues such as evaluation and interpretations of case studies.

Glennan, S. L., Sharp-Bittner, M. A. & Tullos, D. C. (1991). Augmentative and Alternative Communication Training with a Nonspeaking Adult: Lessons from MH. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 7, 240-7.

"A response-guided case study documented changes in a nonspeaking 36-yr-old man's ability to communicate using 3 trained augmentative communication modes. . . . Data were collected in videotaped interaction sessions between the nonspeaking adult and a series of adult speaking."

Graves, D. (1981). An Examination of the Writing Processes of Seven Year Old Children. Research in the Teaching of English, 15, 113-134.

Hamel, J. (1993). Case Study Methods . Newbury Park: Sage. .

"In a most economical fashion, Hamel provides a practical guide for producing theoretically sharp and empirically sound sociological case studies. A central idea put forth by Hamel is that case studies must "locate the global in the local" thus making the careful selection of the research site the most critical decision in the analytic process."

Karthigesu, R. (1986, July). Television as a Tool for Nation-Building in the Third World: A Post-Colonial Pattern, Using Malaysia as a Case-Study. International Television Studies Conference. (Address). London, 10-12.

"The extent to which Television Malaysia, as a national mass media organization, has been able to play a role in nation building in the post-colonial period is . . . studied in two parts: how the choice of a model of nation building determines the character of the organization; and how the character of the organization influences the output of the organization."

Kenny, R. (1984). Making the Case for the Case Study. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 16, (1), 37-51.

The article looks at how and why the case study is justified as a viable and valuable approach to educational research and program evaluation.

Knirk, F. (1991). Case Materials: Research and Practice. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 4 (1 ), 73-81.

The article addresses the effectiveness of case studies, subject areas where case studies are commonly used, recent examples of their use, and case study design considerations.

Klos, D. (1976). Students as Case Writers. Teaching of Psychology, 3.2, 63-66.

This article reviews a course in which students gather data for an original case study of another person. The task requires the students to design the study, collect the data, write the narrative, and interpret the findings.

Leftwich, A. (1981). The Politics of Case Study: Problems of Innovation in University Education. Higher Education Review, 13.2, 38-64.

The article discusses the use of case studies as a teaching method. Emphasis is on the instructional materials, interdisciplinarity, and the complex relationships within the university that help or hinder the method.

Mabrito, M. (1991, Oct.). Electronic Mail as a Vehicle for Peer Response: Conversations of High and Low Apprehensive Writers. Written Communication, 509-32.

McCarthy, S., J. (1955). The Influence of Classroom Discourse on Student Texts: The Case of Ella . East Lansing: Institute for Research on Teaching.

A look at how students of color become marginalized within traditional classroom discourse. The essay follows the struggles of one black student: Ella.

Matsuhashi, A., ed. (1987). Writing in Real Time: Modeling Production Processes Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Investigates how writers plan to produce discourse for different purposes to report, to generalize, and to persuade, as well as how writers plan for sentence level units of language. To learn about planning, an observational measure of pause time was used" (ERIC).

Merriam, S. B. (1985). The Case Study in Educational Research: A Review of Selected Literature. Journal of Educational Thought, 19.3, 204-17.

The article examines the characteristics of, philosophical assumptions underlying the case study, the mechanics of conducting a case study, and the concerns about the reliability, validity, and generalizability of the method.

---. (1988). Case Study Research in Education: A Qualitative Approach San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Merry, S. E., & Milner, N. eds. (1993). The Possibility of Popular Justice: A Case Study of Community Mediation in the United States . Ann Arbor: U of Michigan.

". . . this volume presents a case study of one experiment in popular justice, the San Francisco Community Boards. This program has made an explicit claim to create an alternative justice, or new justice, in the midst of a society ordered by state law. The contributors to this volume explore the history and experience of the program and compare it to other versions of popular justice in the United States, Europe, and the Third World."

Merseth, K. K. (1991). The Case for Cases in Teacher Education. RIE. 42p. (ERIC).

This monograph argues that the case method of instruction offers unique potential for revitalizing the field of teacher education.

Michaels, S. (1987). Text and Context: A New Approach to the Study of Classroom Writing. Discourse Processes, 10, 321-346.

"This paper argues for and illustrates an approach to the study of writing that integrates ethnographic analysis of classroom interaction with linguistic analysis of written texts and teacher/student conversational exchanges. The approach is illustrated through a case study of writing in a single sixth grade classroom during a single writing assignment."

Milburn, G. (1995). Deciphering a Code or Unraveling a Riddle: A Case Study in the Application of a Humanistic Metaphor to the Reporting of Social Studies Teaching. Theory and Research in Education, 13.

This citation serves as an example of how case studies document learning procedures in a senior-level economics course.

Milley, J. E. (1979). An Investigation of Case Study as an Approach to Program Evaluation. 19th Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research. (Address). San Diego.

The case study method merged a narrative report focusing on the evaluator as participant-observer with document review, interview, content analysis, attitude questionnaire survey, and sociogram analysis. Milley argues that case study program evaluation has great potential for widespread use.

Minnis, J. R. (1985, Sept.). Ethnography, Case Study, Grounded Theory, and Distance Education Research. Distance Education, 6.2.

This article describes and defines the strengths and weaknesses of ethnography, case study, and grounded theory.

Nunan, D. (1992). Collaborative language learning and teaching . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Included in this series of essays is Peter Sturman’s "Team Teaching: a case study from Japan" and David Nunan’s own "Toward a collaborative approach to curriculum development: a case study."

Nystrand, M., ed. (1982). What Writers Know: The Language, Process, and Structure of Written Discourse . New York: Academic Press.

Owenby, P. H. (1992). Making Case Studies Come Alive. Training, 29, (1), 43-46. (ERIC)

This article provides tips for writing more effective case studies.

---. (1981). Pausing and Planning: The Tempo of Writer Discourse Production. Research in the Teaching of English, 15 (2),113-34.

Perl, S. (1979). The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers. Research in the Teaching of English, 13, 317-336.

"Summarizes a study of five unskilled college writers, focusing especially on one of the five, and discusses the findings in light of current pedagogical practice and research design."

Pilcher J. and A. Coffey. eds. (1996). Gender and Qualitative Research . Brookfield: Aldershot, Hants, England.

This book provides a series of essays which look at gender identity research, qualitative research and applications of case study to questions of gendered pedagogy.

Pirie, B. S. (1993). The Case of Morty: A Four Year Study. Gifted Education International, 9 (2), 105-109.

This case study describes a boy from kindergarten through third grade with above average intelligence but difficulty in learning to read, write, and spell.

Popkewitz, T. (1993). Changing Patterns of Power: Social Regulation and Teacher Education Reform. Albany: SUNY Press.

Popkewitz edits this series of essays that address case studies on educational change and the training of teachers. The essays vary in terms of discipline and scope. Also, several authors include case studies of educational practices in countries other than the United States.

---. (1984). The Predrafting Processes of Four High- and Four Low Apprehensive Writers. Research in the Teaching of English, 18, (1), 45-64.

Rasmussen, P. (1985, March) A Case Study on the Evaluation of Research at the Technical University of Denmark. International Journal of Institutional Management in Higher Education, 9 (1).

This is an example of a case study methodology used to evaluate the chemistry and chemical engineering departments at the University of Denmark.

Roth, K. J. (1986). Curriculum Materials, Teacher Talk, and Student Learning: Case Studies in Fifth-Grade Science Teaching . East Lansing: Institute for Research on Teaching.

Roth offers case studies on elementary teachers, elementary school teaching, science studies and teaching, and verbal learning.

Selfe, C. L. (1985). An Apprehensive Writer Composes. When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing-Process Problems . (pp. 83-95). Ed. Mike Rose. NMY: Guilford.

Smith-Lewis, M., R. and Ford, A. (1987). A User's Perspective on Augmentative Communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 3, 12-7.

"During a series of in-depth interviews, a 25-yr-old woman with cerebral palsy who utilized augmentative communication reflected on the effectiveness of the devices designed for her during her school career."

St. Pierre, R., G. (1980, April). Follow Through: A Case Study in Metaevaluation Research . 64th Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. (Address).

The three approaches to metaevaluation are evaluation of primary evaluations, integrative meta-analysis with combined primary evaluation results, and re-analysis of the raw data from a primary evaluation.

Stahler, T., M. (1996, Feb.) Early Field Experiences: A Model That Worked. ERIC.

"This case study of a field and theory class examines a model designed to provide meaningful field experiences for preservice teachers while remaining consistent with the instructor's beliefs about the role of teacher education in preparing teachers for the classroom."

Stake, R. E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

This book examines case study research in education and case study methodology.

Stiegelbauer, S. (1984) Community, Context, and Co-curriculum: Situational Factors Influencing School Improvements in a Study of High Schools. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Discussion of several case studies: one looking at high school environments, another examining educational innovations.

Stolovitch, H. (1990). Case Study Method. Performance And Instruction, 29, (9), 35-37.

This article describes the case study method as a form of simulation and presents guidelines for their use in professional training situations.

Thaller, E. (1994). Bibliography for the Case Method: Using Case Studies in Teacher Education. RIE. 37 p.

This bibliography presents approximately 450 citations on the use of case studies in teacher education from 1921-1993.

Thrane, T. (1986). On Delimiting the Senses of Near-Synonyms in Historical Semantics: A Case Study of Adjectives of 'Moral Sufficiency' in the Old English Andreas. Linguistics Across Historical and Geographical Boundaries: In Honor of Jacek Fisiak on the Occasion of his Fiftieth Birthday . Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

United Nations. (1975). Food and Agriculture Organization. Report on the FAO/UNFPA Seminar on Methodology, Research and Country: Case Studies on Population, Employment and Productivity . Rome: United Nations.

This example case study shows how the methodology can be used in a demographic and psychographic evaluation. At the same time, it discusses the formation and instigation of the case study methodology itself.

Van Vugt, J. P., ed. (1994). Aids Prevention and Services: Community Based Research . Westport: Bergin and Garvey.

"This volume has been five years in the making. In the process, some of the policy applications called for have met with limited success, such as free needle exchange programs in a limited number of American cities, providing condoms to prison inmates, and advertisements that depict same-sex couples. Rather than dating our chapters that deal with such subjects, such policy applications are verifications of the type of research demonstrated here. Furthermore, they indicate the critical need to continue community based research in the various communities threatened by acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) . . . "

Welch, W., ed. (1981, May). Case Study Methodology in Educational Evaluation. Proceedings of the Minnesota Evaluation Conference. Minnesota. (Address).

The four papers in these proceedings provide a comprehensive picture of the rationale, methodology, strengths, and limitations of case studies.

Williams, G. (1987). The Case Method: An Approach to Teaching and Learning in Educational Administration. RIE, 31p.

This paper examines the viability of the case method as a teaching and learning strategy in instructional systems geared toward the training of personnel of the administration of various aspects of educational systems.

Yin, R. K. (1993). Advancing Rigorous Methodologies: A Review of 'Towards Rigor in Reviews of Multivocal Literatures.' Review of Educational Research, 61, (3).

"R. T. Ogawa and B. Malen's article does not meet its own recommended standards for rigorous testing and presentation of its own conclusions. Use of the exploratory case study to analyze multivocal literatures is not supported, and the claim of grounded theory to analyze multivocal literatures may be stronger."

---. (1989). Case Study Research: Design and Methods. London: Sage Publications Inc.

This book discusses in great detail, the entire design process of the case study, including entire chapters on collecting evidence, analyzing evidence, composing the case study report, and designing single and multiple case studies.

Related Links

Consider the following list of related Web sites for more information on the topic of case study research. Note: although many of the links cover the general category of qualitative research, all have sections that address issues of case studies.

  • Sage Publications on Qualitative Methodology: Search here for a comprehensive list of new books being published about "Qualitative Methodology" http://www.sagepub.co.uk/
  • The International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education: An on-line journal "to enhance the theory and practice of qualitative research in education." On-line submissions are welcome. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/tf/09518398.html
  • Qualitative Research Resources on the Internet: From syllabi to home pages to bibliographies. All links relate somehow to qualitative research. http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/qualres.html

Citation Information

Bronwyn Becker, Patrick Dawson, Karen Devine, Carla Hannum, Steve Hill, Jon Leydens, Debbie Matuskevich, Carol Traver, and Mike Palmquist. (1994-2024). Case Studies. The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/writing/guides/.

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  • How it works

A Quick Guide to Case Study with Examples

Published by Alvin Nicolas at August 14th, 2021 , Revised On August 29, 2023

A case study is a documented history and detailed analysis of a situation concerning organisations, industries, and markets.

A case study:

  • Focuses on discovering new facts of the situation under observation.
  • Includes data collection from multiple sources over time.
  • Widely used in social sciences to study the underlying information, organisation, community, or event.
  • It does not provide any solution to the problem .

When to Use Case Study? 

You can use a case study in your research when:

  • The focus of your study is to find answers to how and why questions .
  • You don’t have enough time to conduct extensive research; case studies are convenient for completing your project successfully.
  • You want to analyse real-world problems in-depth, then you can use the method of the case study.

You can consider a single case to gain in-depth knowledge about the subject, or you can choose multiple cases to know about various aspects of your  research problem .

What are the Aims of the Case Study?

  • The case study aims at identifying weak areas that can be improved.
  • This method is often used for idiographic research (focuses on individual cases or events).
  • Another aim of the case study is nomothetic research (aims to discover new theories through data analysis of multiple cases).

Types of Case Studies

There are different types of case studies that can be categorised based on the purpose of the investigation.

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How to Conduct a Case Study?

  • Select the Case to Investigate
  • Formulate the Research Question
  • Review of Literature
  • Choose the Precise Case to Use in your Study
  • Select Data Collection and Analysis Techniques
  • Collect the Data
  • Analyse the Data
  • Prepare the Report

Step1: Select the Case to Investigate

The first step is to select a case to conduct your investigation. You should remember the following points.

  • Make sure that you perform the study in the available timeframe.
  • There should not be too much information available about the organisation.
  • You should be able to get access to the organisation.
  • There should be enough information available about the subject to conduct further research.

Step2: Formulate the Research Question

It’s necessary to  formulate a research question  to proceed with your case study. Most of the research questions begin with  how, why, what, or what can . 

You can also use a research statement instead of a research question to conduct your research which can be conditional or non-conditional. 

Step 3: Review of Literature

Once you formulate your research statement or question, you need to extensively  review the documentation about the existing discoveries related to your research question or statement.

Step 4: Choose the Precise Case to Use in your Study

You need to select a specific case or multiple cases related to your research. It would help if you treated each case individually while using multiple cases. The outcomes of each case can be used as contributors to the outcomes of the entire study.  You can select the following cases. 

  • Representing various geographic regions
  • Cases with various size parameters
  • Explaining the existing theories or assumptions
  • Leading to discoveries
  • Providing a base for future research.

Step 5: Select Data Collection and Analysis Techniques

You can choose both  qualitative or quantitative approaches  for  collecting the data . You can use  interviews ,  surveys , artifacts, documentation, newspapers, and photographs, etc. To avoid biased observation, you can triangulate  your research to provide different views of your case. Even if you are focusing on a single case, you need to observe various case angles. It would help if you constructed validity, internal and external validity, as well as reliability.

Example: Identifying the impacts of contaminated water on people’s health and the factors responsible for it. You need to gather the data using qualitative and quantitative approaches to understand the case in such cases.

Construct validity:  You should select the most suitable measurement tool for your research. 

Internal validity:   You should use various methodological tools to  triangulate  the data. Try different methods to study the same hypothesis.

External validity:  You need to effectively apply the data beyond the case’s circumstances to more general issues.

Reliability:   You need to be confident enough to formulate the new direction for future studies based on your findings.

Also Read:  Reliability and Validity

Step 6: Collect the Data

Beware of the following when collecting data:

  • Information should be gathered systematically, and the collected evidence from various sources should contribute to your research objectives.
  • Don’t collect your data randomly.
  • Recheck your research questions to avoid mistakes.
  • You should save the collected data in any popular format for clear understanding.
  • While making any changes to collecting information, make sure to record the changes in a document.
  • You should maintain a case diary and note your opinions and thoughts evolved throughout the study.

Step 7: Analyse the Data

The research data identifies the relationship between the objects of study and the research questions or statements. You need to reconfirm the collected information and tabulate it correctly for better understanding. 

Step 8: Prepare the Report

It’s essential to prepare a report for your case study. You can write your case study in the form of a scientific paper or thesis discussing its detail with supporting evidence. 

A case study can be represented by incorporating  quotations,  stories, anecdotes,  interview transcripts , etc., with empirical data in the result section. 

You can also write it in narrative styles using  textual analysis  or   discourse analysis . Your report should also include evidence from published literature, and you can put it in the discussion section.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Study

Frequently asked questions, what is the case study.

A case study is a research method where a specific instance, event, or situation is deeply examined to gain insights into real-world complexities. It involves detailed analysis of context, data, and variables to understand patterns, causes, and effects, often used in various disciplines for in-depth exploration.

You May Also Like

Content analysis is used to identify specific words, patterns, concepts, themes, phrases, or sentences within the content in the recorded communication.

In correlational research, a researcher measures the relationship between two or more variables or sets of scores without having control over the variables.

A survey includes questions relevant to the research topic. The participants are selected, and the questionnaire is distributed to collect the data.



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Participant Selection and Access in Case Study Research

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Case study research requires researchers to purposefully select information-rich cases, as they will allow researchers an in-depth understanding of relevant and critical issues under investigation (Patton in Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Sage, Newbury Park, 1990 , Qual Soc Work 1(3):261–283, 2002 ). To gain such insights, purposive sampling is generally believed to contribute to the richness in the range of data collected and help increase the possibilities of uncovering multiple realities (Guba and Lincoln in Handb Qual Res 2(163–194):105, 1994 ). However, dealing with research participants in the case study approach also poses great challenges for novice researchers, as humans can be a difficult factor to control among the variables in research.

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Qualitative Methods in Implementation Research: An Introduction

Alison b. hamilton.

a Center for the Study of Healthcare Innovation, Implementation & Policy, VA Greater Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA

b Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA

Erin P. Finley

c South Texas Veterans Health Care System, San Antonio, TX

d UT Health San Antonio, San Antonio, TX

Qualitative methods are a valuable tool in implementation research because they help to answer complex questions such as how and why efforts to implement best practices may succeed or fail, and how patients and providers experience and make decisions in care. This article orients the novice implementation scientist to fundamentals of qualitative methods and their application in implementation research, describing: 1) implementation-related questions that can be addressed by qualitative methods; 2) qualitative methods commonly used in implementation research; 3) basic sampling and data collection procedures; and 4) recommended practices for data analysis and ensuring rigor. To illustrate qualitative methods decision-making, a case example is provided of a study examining implementation of a primary care-based collaborative care management model for women Veterans with anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

1. What are qualitative methods?

Qualitative research broadly refers to a category of research approaches that produce findings without reliance on quantitative measurement or statistical analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In the clinical context, these studies “help us understand why promising clinical interventions do not always work in the real world, how patients experience care, and how practitioners think. They also explore and explain the complex relations between the healthcare system and the outside world....” ( Greenhalgh et al., 2016 ). Qualitative methods commonly include individual and focus group interviews, participant observation, ethnography, and a variety of other approaches. Traditionally, qualitative methods have been used across a variety of disciplines to describe how things are; as with, for example, participant observation in early cultural anthropology, which documented the beliefs and practices of specific cultural groups. Although still perhaps most common in the social sciences, qualitative methods are increasingly recognized for their utility in clinical and health research generally, with a recent call for “[t]rialists and other stakeholders…to recognize the benefits of using qualitative methods in surgical, device and drug trials” ( Clement et al., 2018 ).

Qualitative methods are an integral component of implementation research—i.e., “the scientific study of the use of strategies to adopt and integrate evidence-based health interventions into clinical and community settings to improve individual outcomes and benefit population health ” (National Institutes of Health PAR 19–274cae)—to the extent that the National Cancer Institute recently commissioned an expert group of social scientists to develop a White Paper on Qualitative Research in Implementation Science ( QualRIS, 2019 ), intended primarily for an implementation science audience with some knowledge of qualitative methods. To complement the QualRIS effort, this paper orients the novice implementation scientist to fundamentals of qualitative methods and their application in implementation research, addressing: 1) implementation-related questions that can be addressed by qualitative methods ( section 2.1 ); 2) qualitative methods commonly used in implementation research ( section 3 ); 3) basic sampling and data collection procedures ( sections 3.1 – 3.4 ); and 4) use of inductive and deductive approaches in qualitative analysis, including guidelines for ensuring rigor, validity and reliability of data ( section 4 ). These fundamentals will be illustrated via a case study of collaborative care for women Veterans ( Hamilton et al., 2017b ), presented below.

2. Why are qualitative methods critical to implementation science?

To answer this question, we will first share a slice of a real-world implementation effort currently underway. Depression is the second most prevalent health condition among women Veteran users of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare, next to hypertension ( Frayne et al., 2018 ). Among women Veterans aged 18–44, depression is the most prevalent health condition (28%), with anxiety (23%) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; 22%) also among the top five health conditions ( Frayne et al., 2018 ). Depression and anxiety are substantially more prevalent among women Veterans than men ( Maguen et al., 2010 ). The VA healthcare organization grapples with how to appropriately connect women to mental health (MH) providers who understand their distinctive MH needs, and to support their navigation of often fragmented MH care options offered across VA primary care (PC) and MH settings. Depending on the VA site, women’s access to MH care is variable. Women may have access to integrated MH care in general PC clinics or in a separate portion of a general PC clinic set aside for women. Others may receive care in stand-alone women-only clinics. Such highly variable models of MH care delivery in PC and MH make it difficult to engage women in services in a timely manner, and to support their retention in care.

Collaborative care models have a strong evidence base for enhancing patient engagement and retention in PC-based MH care for depression ( Gilbody et al., 2006 ; Thota et al., 2012 ), and the VA has extended application of collaborative care to many other mild to moderate conditions, including anxiety disorders and alcohol misuse. The VA’s approach to integrated MH involves collaborative care with two components: co-located MH professionals who are integral components of the PC team and MH care management ( VHA Handbook. 1160.01, 2008 ). While co-location has been achieved at many sites, implementation of care management (i.e., “a set of activities intended to improve patient care and reduce the need for medical services by enhancing coordination of care, eliminate duplication, and helping patients and caregivers more effectively manage health conditions”; Goodell et al., 2009 ) has been limited, especially in stand-alone women’s clinics. Many have suggested moving toward blended models with local tailoring ( VA Office of Patient Care Services, 2013 ). Toward this end, we have used an implementation strategy, Replicating Effective Programs (REP), to implement a tailored “Collaborative Care for Women Veterans” (CCWV; Hamilton et al., 2017b ) intervention that encourages local blending of elements from VA-approved models with a PC-friendly evidence-based, computer-assisted cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) platform for anxiety, depression, and PTSD ( Roy-Byrne et al., 2010 ).

While we have several clinical outcomes of interest in this study, they are secondary to implementation outcomes of feasibility, acceptability, adoption, appropriateness, penetration, and sustainability ( Proctor et al., 2011 ). Why are they secondary? Because we know that both collaborative care and the CBT platform we are offering work. What we do not know includes: how to make a gender-tailored collaborative care model “fit” into different PC configurations; how to engage women in this model; why some women will engage and others will not; how to foster buy-in among local stakeholders for a gender-specific model of care; how to encourage clinicians to refer women to CCWV; why some providers refer to CCWV while others do not, and so forth. Qualitative methods are essential in implementation because they provide a rigorous and efficient way to answer these kinds of “how” and “why” questions, and we need the answers in order to know how (and whether) to proceed with spreading this gender-tailored care model .

As Bauer and Kirchner note in the Introduction to this Special Issue [cite], the central tasks of implementation science require identifying barriers and facilitators to uptake of clinical innovations and developing strategies to overcome barriers and leverage facilitators toward establishing routine use of best practices in clinical care. Moreover, as described in this issue’s contribution from Damschroder [cite], implementation research is driven by theoretical and conceptual models that help in planning for, making sense of, and predicting change in use of innovations. Qualitative research is therefore a critical approach to discovering and documenting: the context(s) in which implementation occurs; the environment(s) where implementation occurs; the process that occurs during implementation; the effectiveness of implementation strategies (i.e., “methods or techniques used to enhance the adoption, implementation, and sustainability of a clinical practice or program”; Curran et al., 2012 ); and the relationship(s) between theorized and actual changes.

Qualitative methods add value to implementation science by helping to describe what is happening and why. Qualitative methods in implementation research are also increasingly oriented toward supporting practice and problem-solving [cite Elwy formative evaluation paper, this issue]. Mixed methods designs combining qualitative and quantitative approaches are also used commonly in implementation science, as both qualitative and quantitative findings can be integrated in order to generate “unique insights into multifaceted phenomena related to health care quality, access, and delivery” ( Fetters et al., 2013 ; see also Aarons et al., 2012 ; Robins et al., 2008 ). Thus qualitative methods can be used to fulfill a variety of functions in implementation and implementation research.

2.1. What types of questions can qualitative methods address in implementation science?

Given that implementation research aims to support the uptake of evidence-supported practices in clinical care, recommended outcomes emphasize how an innovation is perceived—e.g., its feasibility, acceptability, and appropriateness—as well as practical elements of evaluating its spread ( Proctor et al., 2011 ). In Table 1 , we outline our implementation outcomes and how they align with research questions of interest in the CCWV study, using a tabular approach common in implementation science.

Implementation Outcomes and Questions

Qualitative methods are invaluable in addressing the hows and whys of implementation, and are well-suited to both relatively straightforward and more nuanced aims, such as: discerning how effectively an intervention is adopted at each site (e.g., Hamilton et al., 2013); revealing organizational and interpersonal dynamics affecting the intervention (e.g., Harvey et al., 2018 ); explaining practice change (e.g., Lessard et al., 2016 ); discerning barriers and facilitators to uptake of the intervention (e.g., Gleacher et al., 2016 ); identifying what strategies are being used to foster organizational change, how successful they are perceived to be, and how they make a difference (e.g., Bokhour et al., 2018 ); and identifying contextual elements and provider perceptions that affect implementation and sustainability (e.g., Aarons et al., 2016 ). Not all of these questions can feasibly be asked in every study, and some questions are more salient during the course of implementation. For example, one might examine feasibility early in a study to ensure that adequate consideration is given to local barriers and facilitators before a new evidence-based practice is put into place. It can also be important to evaluate anticipated sustainability early in a study in order to identify foreseeable problems to maintaining an intervention over time and to plan for solutions once funding for initial implementation support (e.g., training from intervention purveyors [or training from an outside team]) has ended.

3. What qualitative methods are most commonly used in implementation research?

As in any form of research, the appropriate study design and methods are dependent on the research questions. For the kinds of research questions outlined above, talking with people—in one-on-one interviews, small groups, or focus groups—is likely to be the most robust way to understand what they think about a new innovation and efforts to implement. However, a variety of other strategies based in observation or analysis of texts or other media may also have value, as discussed further below. Table 2 lays out a basic checklist of elements to consider in designing a rigorous plan for qualitative implementation research. There are many excellent books and articles devoted to the use of qualitative methods (see, e.g., Denzin and Lincoln, 2011 ; Patton, 1990 ). Here, we will briefly share some general tips for conducting qualitative research in the context of implementation.

Key Elements of Rigorous Qualitative Implementation Research

Often in research there is a tension between rigor and feasibility, and this may be particularly true for implementation research, in which timelines are typically rapid and there are frequently multiple “moving parts” that need to be understood. Feasibility is strongly linked to resources such as time, funding (e.g., the scale and scope of your study), and team members, as well as to intended products. If the research plan calls for conducting interviews, therefore, it may be necessary to take a targeted approach to interviewing by narrowing sample size and composition, as well as number and type of interview questions asked, and data analysis techniques.

3.1. Individual interviews and sampling considerations

Briefly, with regard to individual qualitative interviews, implementation scientists typically focus on talking with individuals commonly referred to as “key stakeholders.” These are individuals who play a role in or are otherwise impacted by the implementation effort. This does not necessarily mean that they will be directly involved in the research, but they may have role(s) that touch the research. For example, in the CCWV study, key stakeholders include not only PC and MH providers, site staff, and patients, but also administrators of clinics, facilities, medical centers, and healthcare regions. These type of stakeholders are referred to as “multilevel” stakeholders, i.e., individuals at multiple levels of an organization who may have some decision-making authority and/or unique perspectives on what you are trying to achieve ( Hamilton et al., 2017a ; Kirchner et al., 2012 ). By interviewing multilevel stakeholders, the team obtains valuable vantage points on the research questions noted in Section 2.1 .

Typical sample sizes for a medical facility in which one is conducting implementation research range between 5–10 individuals in key roles at each site, for individual interviews. This is consistent with the recommendation of Guest et al. (2006) , who found that, with a narrow research scope and a relatively homogenous target audience, a sample size of 6–12 is usually adequate to reach “saturation,” i.e., the juncture in data collection at which new insights are not being gleaned from interviews (though notably, many argue that saturation is a concept more appropriately applied to data analysis rather than sampling; see, e.g., Nelson 2017 ). Malterud et al., (2016) propose a useful concept of “information power” with regard to sampling: the more information the sample holds, relevant for the actual study, the lower number of participants needed. There are often more individuals available to interview in these settings, but the key is to identify those most critical to your implementation research effort. This is referred to as purposive or purposeful sampling, i.e., identifying individuals whose perspectives will help to inform and guide research ( Palinkas et al., 2015 ). In some cases, initial participants suggest additional key stakeholders who may not have been known at the outset of the study; this is referred to as respondent-driven or snowball sampling, wherein key stakeholders are asked (usually at the end of an interview) if they know of anyone else in the local, system, or national context who should be asked for an interview. With qualitative implementation research, however, depth of information across a smaller sample of key stakeholders is preferable to more superficial information across a larger sample of individuals, some of whom may be tangential to the implementation effort.

3.2. Focus group interviews and sampling considerations

Focus group interviewing—a qualitative method emphasizing group interaction ( Morgan 1996 )—is common in implementation studies and can be effective for gathering rich information about settings (such as normative care practices or workflow), experiences with health services and care models as well as perspectives on interventions and implementation strategies (e.g., Huntink et al., 2014 ). Focus groups can also be an important way to engage stakeholders and invite their input on issues related to implementation (e.g., Burns et al., 2018 ), and to better understand the environment of care and contextual factors that may impact implementation. As Robins et al. (2008) point out, however, focus groups are not appropriate for “gaining an in-depth understanding of treatment processes” or “exploring sensitive topics,” particularly if there is likely to be meaningful variation in participants’ views, needs, or practices. Focus groups are not a quick and easy method to obtain information from a larger sample; they are challenging and time-consuming. Moreover, the unit of analysis with a focus group is the group (typically comprised of five to eight individuals; see Krueger and Casey 2014 ), not the individual. In other words, in a study with eight focus groups with six individuals in each, the sample size is eight, not 48. Therefore, one focus group is rarely, if ever, sufficient, because focus groups are idiosyncratic; one cannot predict how a group of people will interact. Typically, 4–6 focus groups will prove adequate, depending on the diversity of participants ( Guest et al., 2017 ). If the study is comparative in nature, involving different groups or categories of people (e.g., patients who selected different treatment options), more groups are needed to achieve a sufficient sample size for comparison purposes. It is also important to carefully consider focus group composition: mixing individuals at different levels of an organizational hierarchy, for example, should generally be avoided as discussion could be hampered by power differentials. Furthermore, focus groups can be quite difficult to arrange (particularly in busy healthcare settings) and to moderate ( Kitzinger 1995 ), requiring both strong interviewing and observational skills, as well as the ability to control and guide discussion ( McDonald, 1993 ). The selection of focus group methodology should be closely tied to a research question that is best answered by an approach that centers on group discussion.

3.3. Interview data collection instruments

Both individual and focus group interviews require interview guides. Typically in implementation research, these guides are semi-structured, meaning that the questions are specified but can be asked in a conversational style and do not necessarily need to be asked in the exact order in which they appear in the guide. Due to the rapid nature of implementation research, interview guides are generally targeted and focused on questions that participants will likely be able to answer due to their expertise and role within the healthcare system. Interview questions should be inviting (interesting for the participant), accessible (familiar, not opaque or multivalent), and analyzable (useful in meeting your project goals and answering your research questions) ( Maietta & Hamilton, 2018 ). They should also be geared toward the time available for the interview. Often in implementation research, interview questions are shaped by the conceptual framework driving the study ( Damschroder et al., 2017 ). Tables can be helpful in preparing guides by aligning interview questions with framework constructs or domains. In our experience, interview guides for individual interviews work best with approximately 6–8 primary questions, and guides for focus group interviews with roughly 4–6 primary questions depending on the estimated length of the group. Prioritizing questions—putting the most important toward the beginning, and putting optional questions toward the end—can help to ensure that at least a subset of questions is consistently asked across the sample. This is especially important when multiple interviewers, often with different disciplinary backgrounds, are in the field; they need to know which questions should be prioritized. Questions should always be tested before launching into intensive data collection efforts. Testing should occur internally in the team, with mock interviewing, to ensure that interviewers are consistent in how they are asking questions and soliciting information from participants. If possible, pilot testing the guide with individuals who are knowledgeable about the topic can also be helpful.

A thorough discussion of how to prepare guides and conduct individual and focus group interviews is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that the opening of any interview sets the tone and has a significant impact on the data that will be collected. The main goal at the beginning of an interview, even over the phone, is to establish rapport and put your participant(s) at ease. This can be facilitated by adopting a “learner role” posture ( Lofland & Lofland 1995 ), and starting the interview with what Spradley (1979) coined the “grand tour” question, which gets participants talking about something they should know well, but in a focused way. For example, in our CCWV study, we ask an opening question at pre-implementation such as, “Can you please give me the lay of the land of how women get their mental health care at this facility?” This type of question elicits a “verbal tour” that then gives the interviewer several different strands of inquiry to follow, depending on the participant’s response. This type of question also works well in focus groups, for example, asking a group of patients, “Can we start by talking about what brought you to this facility for your health care?” Across several implementation studies, we have also found it useful to ask a closing question that encourages the participant to imagine the ideal; we call this the “queen/king for a day” question ( Brunner et al., 2019 ), such as, “If resources weren’t an issue and you were in charge, what would be your ideal approach to delivering women’s health care?” We have also found it to be beneficial to ask toward the end, “Is there anything you thought we would be discussing that we haven’t touched on?”

3.4. Other qualitative methods

In addition to individual and focus group interviewing, other qualitative methods include, but are not limited to, observation and archival analysis. Although these methods are less common than interviewing in implementation and evaluation research, they may be of particular value for several reasons. Behavior change is central to implementation, as introducing a new evidence-based practice typically requires adding, removing, or replacing actions that occur as part of clinical care. It is a truism of behavioral research that people do not always do what they think they do or say they do, and observation can be critical in identifying the gap between reported and actual practice. Observation may also reveal features of the context or interpersonal dynamics that are taken for granted (perhaps even unseen) by participants, or not seen as socially desirable to discuss. Examination of archival or other textual analysis can be critical in understanding the history, policy context, or operationalization of a particular initiative (e.g., Regan et al., 2017 ). Illustrating how these methods can be integrated, Murdoch (2016) observed how nurses used and adapted recommended phone scripts in implementation of a telephone-based triage intervention, and examined how nurses’ practice varied from written protocols. Along these lines, some qualitative methodologists, and anthropologists in particular, have begun embracing ethnographic approaches in implementation (e.g., Bunce et al., 2014 ; Greenhalgh & Swinglehurst, 2011 ; Morgan-Trimmer & Wood, 2016 ; Thirsk & Clark, 2017 ). Ethnography is characterized by “close engagement with a social group over time” and typically makes use of multiple methods, e.g., observation and interviews, to ensure triangulation (mixing) of data sources ( Finley et al., 2018 ). Because implementation often requires long-term engagement with stakeholders in order to achieve changes in practices or processes, and because multiple methods may be required to adequately understand the kind of complex questions outlined above, ethnography can be highly compatible with the activities and goals of implementation research.

Along similar lines, implementation research has also increasingly using qualitative methods such as fieldnotes (e.g., Ilott et al., 2016 ), periodic reflections ( Finley et al., 2018 ), and diaries or other annotated logs of observed processes during implementation (e.g., Cohen et al., 2008 ; Bunger et al., 2017 ; Rabin et al., 2018 ). For example, in our CCWV study, a senior research team member holds lightly structured discussions with key team members (investigators, local site key personnel) on a periodic (roughly monthly) basis to check in on and document implementation processes, intervention adaptation and tailoring, and any relevant local, regional, and national contextual shifts ( Finley et al., 2018 ). All of these approaches benefit from occurring either at regular intervals (e.g., monthly or quarterly) or alongside regular events (e.g., intervention trainings) in order to observe and record implementation as it is occurring. Fieldnotes taken during training sessions might describe how the training was received by participants, what kinds of questions they asked, and whether suggestions for changes were made. Similar, logs can be kept by the implementation team to describe why and how adaptations were made to the intervention, e.g., to make it better fit with the existing staffing and workflow. The periodicity of these approaches is well-suited to implementation precisely because it is often unpredictable and requires flexibility, tenacity, and iteration, all of which may be difficult to capture if data collection is only occurring at long intervals, e.g., immediately pre- and post-implementation. Furthermore, these more narrative approaches provide opportunities for attending to reflexivity, which entails acknowledging limits to claims of knowledge, and characterizing the position of the researcher in relation to the participants (see Marcus, 1998 ), an underemphasized yet important dimension of implementation science.

4.0. How are qualitative data analyzed?

The topic of qualitative data analysis has an extensive history and many varying philosophical and epistemological strands. Even so, there are a few features of analyzing qualitative data in the context of implementation research that we have found noteworthy, particularly the need for efficiency and applicability. Qualitative data are often used to inform the process of implementation, which means that at least preliminary results need to be turned around quickly. Rapid qualitative analysis can be a fruitful strategy for achieving this ( Hamilton 2013 ; Taylor et al., 2018 ). In one study of supported employment for Veterans with serious mental illness, Hamilton et al. (2013) conducted pre-implementation interviews to inform the selection and tailoring of implementation strategies; interviews were summarized using a structured template aligned with the interview guide ( Hamilton 2013 ), and matrices were developed to be able to review at-a-glance the key information gleaned from the interviews ( Averill 2002 ). Site profiles were generated from the summaries and matrices, with highlights specific to the particular needs of each site. Interview summaries can serve as a resource not only to guide next steps in implementation, but also to inform subsequent waves of data collection, and to prepare for in-depth analysis, e.g., to draft a codebook. Rapid analysis requires a high level of organization and teamwork, and involves potential trade-offs in pausing more interpretive phases and types of analysis, which may come later in an implementation study after more immediate needs for preliminary results are met.

Similar to qualitative data collection in implementation research (see 3.3 ), qualitative analysis is typically driven or at least informed to some extent by the stud y’s conceptual or theoretical framework. This is considered a more deductive approach, representing the “top-down” end of the analytic spectrum, and framework constructs may be used to categorize segments of narrative data, e.g., to identify descriptions of external context factors that affect implementation (Hamilton et al., 2018). This approach has been used with frameworks such as Normalisation Process Theory ( Pope et al., 2013 ), Theoretical Domains Framework ( Atkins et al., 2017 ; Lawton et al., 2016 ), as well as with the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR; Damschroder et al., 2017 ; Damschroder & Lowery 2013 ; Keith et al., 2017 ), which offers CFIR-guided tools for data collection and analysis. An important consideration in using a top-down or framework-driven analytic approach is to remain open to findings that may not fit into the pre-set domains or constructs, reflecting the more inductive or emergent side of the analytic spectrum. Inductive and deductive need not be mutually exclusive approaches; they can be combined in “hybrid” fashion ( Fereday & Muir-Cochrane 2006 ) or each can be used at different times and for different purposes during the course of analysis.

In the context of implementation research, which tends to be highly dynamic, it is essential to maintain methodologic rigor ( QualRIS 2019 ). Techniques such as calculating interrater or intercoder reliability can be helpful to ensure reliability and validity of analyses, but are only appropriate under specific conditions, i.e., when “all participants are asked the same questions, in the same order” ( Morse 1997 ), and when the analysis team is taking a highly formalized approach to coding data. To ensure rigor, several strategies can be used during the course of data collection and analysis, including prolonged engagement, persistent observation, member checking, triangulation, and thick, rich description (see Morse 2015 ; Morse et al., 2002 for details about these strategies).

The goal of any qualitative analysis is to produce work that is of value to the study and study team, multilevel stakeholders, and the broader scientific community. This work can take many directions beyond traditional academic products such as publications and presentations, especially in implementation research where products such as implementation guidelines, recommendations and toolkits are a common mode of supporting sustained and future spread of a given innovation ( QualRIS 2019 ). In the CCWV study, for example, we are generating “playbooks” and “playbytes” (mini-playbooks focused on disseminating targeted information) to aid sites in implementing the care management model. Products featuring the qualitative data as the “star” ( Chenail 1995 ) will orient team members and audiences, illuminating often complex processes and dynamics, and providing compelling, memorable examples from which to learn.

5.0. Conclusion

In this paper we have provided an introduction to the application of qualitative methods in implementation research. Designed to answer primarily how and why questions, qualitative methods are integral to investigating what happens in implementation, and what “surrounds” and interacts with implementation processes. As Kitson et al. (1998) noted two decades ago, “For implementation to be successful, there needs to be a clear understanding of the nature of evidence being used, the quality of context in terms of its ability to cope with change, and type of facilitation needed to ensure a successful change process.” The sophistication with which we address these phenomena in implementation has grown exponentially since that time, with a plethora of frameworks, models, measures, protocols, and empirical findings available to guide scientists and practitioners [cite papers in special issue]. Study methods and designs have become increasingly refined, with most implementation studies now utilizing mixed methods designs (i.e., designs that incorporate both quantitative and qualitative methods) ( Mazzucca et al., 2018 ); excellent guidance is available on these designs (see, e.g., Aarons et al., 2011; Green et al., 2015 ; Hoagwood et al., 2015 ; Palinkas et al., 2011 ; Palinkas 2014 ; Palinkas et al., 2019 ).

Qualitative methods have a central place in the implementation research endeavor. Although efforts to expand and innovate with these methods are underway—with, for example, greater emphasis on ethnography and use of analytic techniques such as qualitative comparative analysis—their application tends to be pragmatic, and the findings they reveal can be an efficient, even transformative, way of increasing knowledge and strengthening capacity for implementation in real-world settings.

  • Qualitative methods are critical to implementation research.
  • Qualitative methods address the hows and whys of implementation.
  • Interviews and observation are key methods in implementation research.
  • Data collection and analysis are typically driven by an implementation framework.
  • Rapid turn-around of qualitative findings supports implementation and evaluation.


Funding: This work was supported by the VA Quality Enhancement Research Initiative [QUE 15–272], VA Health Services Research & Development [HSR&D; SDR 10–012], and National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [U01HL142109].

The authors grateful acknowledge historical contributions to this work by Drs. Barbara Bokhour, Geoffrey Curran, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, Ray Maietta, Shannon Mitchell, Sarah Ono, Heather Reisinger, Samantha Solimeo, Cathleen Willging, Susan Zickmund, and all members of the NCI QualRIS working group. We would like to thank Annie Sumberg, MPH, for technical support.

Portions of this paper have been presented at Addiction Health Services Research, AcademyHealth, and Society for General Internal Medicine annual meetings; at the annual ResearchTalk Qualitative Research Summer Intensive; and on numerous VA HSR&D national cyberseminars.

Publisher's Disclaimer: This is a PDF file of an unedited manuscript that has been accepted for publication. As a service to our customers we are providing this early version of the manuscript. The manuscript will undergo copyediting, typesetting, and review of the resulting proof before it is published in its final citable form. Please note that during the production process errors may be discovered which could affect the content, and all legal disclaimers that apply to the journal pertain.

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College of Nursing

Driving change: a case study of a dnp leader in residence program in a gerontological center of excellence.

View as pdf A later version of this article appeared in Nurse Leader , Volume 21, Issue 6 , December 2023 . 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) published the Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Practice Nursing in 2004 identifying the essential curriculum needed for preparing advanced practice nurse leaders to effectively assess organizations, identify systemic issues, and facilitate organizational changes. 1 In 2021, AACN updated the curriculum by issuing The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education to guide the development of competency-based education for nursing students. 1 In addition to AACN’s competency-based approach to curriculum, in 2015 the American Organization of Nurse Leaders (AONL) released Nurse Leader Core Competencies (updated in 2023) to help provide a competency based model to follow in developing nurse leaders. 2

Despite AACN and AONL competency-based curriculum and model, it is still common for nurse leaders to be promoted to management positions based solely on their work experience or exceptional clinical skills, rather than demonstration of management and leadership competencies. 3 The importance of identifying, training, and assessing executive leaders through formal leadership development programs, within supportive organizational cultures has been discussed by national leaders. As well as the need for nurturing emerging leaders through fostering interprofessional collaboration, mentorship, and continuous development of leadership skills has been identified. 4 As Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) nurse leaders assume executive roles within healthcare organizations, they play a vital role within complex systems. Demonstration of leadership competence and participation in formal leadership development programs has become imperative for their success. However, models of competency-based executive leadership development programs can be hard to find, particularly programs outside of health care systems.

The implementation of a DNP Leader in Residence program, such as the one designed for The Barbara and Richard Csomay Center for Gerontological Excellence, addresses many of the challenges facing new DNP leaders and ensures mastery of executive leadership competencies and readiness to practice through exposure to varied experiences and close mentoring. The Csomay Center , based at The University of Iowa, was established in 2000 as one of the five original Hartford Centers of Geriatric Nursing Excellence in the country. Later funding by the Csomay family established an endowment that supports the Center's ongoing work. The current Csomay Center strategic plan and mission aims to develop future healthcare leaders while promoting optimal aging and quality of life for older adults. The Csomay Center Director created the innovative DNP Leader in Residence program to foster the growth of future nurse leaders in non-healthcare systems. The purpose of this paper is to present a case study of the development and implementation of the Leader in Residence program, followed by suggested evaluation strategies, and discussion of future innovation of leadership opportunities in non-traditional health care settings.

Development of the DNP Leader in Residence Program

The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle has garnered substantial recognition as a valuable tool for fostering development and driving improvement initiatives. 5 The PDSA cycle can function as an independent methodology and as an integral component of broader quality enhancement approaches with notable efficacy in its ability to facilitate the rapid creation, testing, and evaluation of transformative interventions within healthcare. 6 Consequently, the PDSA cycle model was deemed fitting to guide the development and implementation of the DNP Leader in Residence Program at the Csomay Center.

PDSA Cycle: Plan

Existing resources. The DNP Health Systems: Administration/Executive Leadership Program offered by the University of Iowa is comprised of comprehensive nursing administration and leadership curriculum, led by distinguished faculty composed of national leaders in the realms of innovation, health policy, leadership, clinical education, and evidence-based practice. The curriculum is designed to cultivate the next generation of nursing executive leaders, with emphasis on personalized career planning and tailored practicum placements. The DNP Health Systems: Administration/Executive Leadership curriculum includes a range of courses focused on leadership and management with diverse topics such as policy an law, infrastructure and informatics, finance and economics, marketing and communication, quality and safety, evidence-based practice, and social determinants of health. The curriculum is complemented by an extensive practicum component and culminates in a DNP project with additional hours of practicum.

New program. The DNP Leader in Residence program at the Csomay Center is designed to encompass communication and relationship building, systems thinking, change management, transformation and innovation, knowledge of clinical principles in the community, professionalism, and business skills including financial, strategic, and human resource management. The program fully immerses students in the objectives of the DNP Health Systems: Administration/Executive Leadership curriculum and enables them to progressively demonstrate competencies outlined by AONL. The Leader in Residence program also includes career development coaching, reflective practice, and personal and professional accountability. The program is integrated throughout the entire duration of the Leader in Residence’s coursework, fulfilling the required practicum hours for both the DNP coursework and DNP project.

The DNP Leader in Residence program begins with the first semester of practicum being focused on completing an onboarding process to the Center including understanding the center's strategic plan, mission, vision, and history. Onboarding for the Leader in Residence provides access to all relevant Center information and resources and integration into the leadership team, community partnerships, and other University of Iowa College of Nursing Centers associated with the Csomay Center. During this first semester, observation and identification of the Csomay Center Director's various roles including being a leader, manager, innovator, socializer, and mentor is facilitated. In collaboration with the Center Director (a faculty position) and Center Coordinator (a staff position), specific competencies to be measured and mastered along with learning opportunities desired throughout the program are established to ensure a well-planned and thorough immersion experience.

Following the initial semester of practicum, the Leader in Residence has weekly check-ins with the Center Director and Center Coordinator to continue to identify learning opportunities and progression through executive leadership competencies to enrich the experience. The Leader in Residence also undertakes an administrative project for the Center this semester, while concurrently continuing observations of the Center Director's activities in local, regional, and national executive leadership settings. The student has ongoing participation and advancement in executive leadership roles and activities throughout the practicum, creating a well-prepared future nurse executive leader.

After completing practicum hours related to the Health Systems: Administration/Executive Leadership coursework, the Leader in Residence engages in dedicated residency hours to continue to experience domains within nursing leadership competencies like communication, professionalism, and relationship building. During residency hours, time is spent with the completion of a small quality improvement project for the Csomay Center, along with any other administrative projects identified by the Center Director and Center Coordinator. The Leader in Residence is fully integrated into the Csomay Center's Leadership Team during this phase, assisting the Center Coordinator in creating agendas and leading meetings. Additional participation includes active involvement in community engagement activities and presenting at or attending a national conference as a representative of the Csomay Center. The Leader in Residence must mentor a master’s in nursing student during the final year of the DNP Residency.

Implementation of the DNP Leader in Residence Program

PDSA Cycle: Do

Immersive experience. In this case study, the DNP Leader in Residence was fully immersed in a wide range of center activities, providing valuable opportunities to engage in administrative projects and observe executive leadership roles and skills during practicum hours spent at the Csomay Center. Throughout the program, the Leader in Residence observed and learned from multidisciplinary leaders at the national, regional, and university levels who engaged with the Center. By shadowing the Csomay Center Director, the Leader in Residence had the opportunity to observe executive leadership objectives such as fostering innovation, facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration, and nurturing meaningful relationships. The immersive experience within the center’s activities also allowed the Leader in Residence to gain a deep understanding of crucial facets such as philanthropy and community engagement. Active involvement in administrative processes such as strategic planning, budgeting, human resources management, and the development of standard operating procedures provided valuable exposure to strategies that are needed to be an effective nurse leader in the future.

Active participation. The DNP Leader in Residence also played a key role in advancing specific actions outlined in the center's strategic plan during the program including: 1) the creation of a membership structure for the Csomay Center and 2) successfully completing a state Board of Regents application for official recognition as a distinguished center. The Csomay Center sponsored membership for the Leader in Residence in the Midwest Nurse Research Society (MNRS), which opened doors to attend the annual MNRS conference and engage with regional nursing leadership, while fostering socialization, promotion of the Csomay Center and Leader in Residence program, and observation of current nursing research. Furthermore, the Leader in Residence participated in the strategic planning committee and engagement subcommittee for MNRS, collaborating directly with the MNRS president. Additional active participation by the Leader in Residence included attendance in planning sessions and completion of the annual report for GeriatricPain.org , an initiative falling under the umbrella of the Csomay Center. Finally, the Leader in Residence was involved in archiving research and curriculum for distinguished nursing leader and researcher, Dr. Kitty Buckwalter, for the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, the University of Pennsylvania Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, and the University of Iowa library archives.

Suggested Evaluation Strategies of the DNP Leader in Residence Program

PDSA Cycle: Study

Assessment and benchmarking. To effectively assess the outcomes and success of the DNP Leader in Residence Program, a comprehensive evaluation framework should be used throughout the program. Key measures should include the collection and review of executive leadership opportunities experienced, leadership roles observed, and competencies mastered. The Leader in Residence is responsible for maintaining detailed logs of their participation in center activities and initiatives on a semester basis. These logs serve to track the progression of mastery of AONL competencies by benchmarking activities and identifying areas for future growth for the Leader in Residence.

Evaluation. In addition to assessment and benchmarking, evaluations need to be completed by Csomay Center stakeholders (leadership, staff, and community partners involved) and the individual Leader in Residence both during and upon completion of the program. Feedback from stakeholders will identify the contributions made by the Leader in Residence and provide valuable insights into their growth. Self-reflection on experiences by the individual Leader in Residence throughout the program will serve as an important measure of personal successes and identify gaps in the program. Factors such as career advancement during the program, application of curriculum objectives in the workplace, and prospects for future career progression for the Leader in Residence should be considered as additional indicators of the success of the program.

The evaluation should also encompass a thorough review of the opportunities experienced during the residency, with the aim of identifying areas for potential expansion and enrichment of the DNP Leader in Residence program. By carefully examining the logs, reflecting on the acquired executive leadership competencies, and studying stakeholder evaluations, additional experiences and opportunities can be identified to further enhance the program's efficacy. The evaluation process should be utilized to identify specific executive leadership competencies that require further immersion and exploration throughout the program.

Future Innovation of DNP Leader in Residence Programs in Non-traditional Healthcare Settings

PDSA Cycle: Act

As subsequent residents complete the program and their experiences are thoroughly evaluated, it is essential to identify new opportunities for DNP Leader in Residence programs to be implemented in other non-health care system settings. When feasible, expansion into clinical healthcare settings, including long-term care and acute care environments, should be pursued. By leveraging the insights gained from previous Leaders in Residence and their respective experiences, the program can be refined to better align with desired outcomes and competencies. These expansions will broaden the scope and impact of the program and provide a wider array of experiences and challenges for future Leaders in Residency to navigate, enriching their development as dynamic nurse executive leaders within diverse healthcare landscapes.

This case study presented a comprehensive overview of the development and implementation of the DNP Leader in Residence program developed by the Barbara and Richard Csomay Center for Gerontological Excellence. The Leader in Residence program provided a transformative experience by integrating key curriculum objectives, competency-based learning, and mentorship by esteemed nursing leaders and researchers through successful integration into the Center. With ongoing innovation and application of the PDSA cycle, the DNP Leader in Residence program presented in this case study holds immense potential to help better prepare 21 st century nurse leaders capable of driving positive change within complex healthcare systems.


         The author would like to express gratitude to the Barbara and Richard Csomay Center for Gerontological Excellence for the fostering environment to provide an immersion experience and the ongoing support for development of the DNP Leader in Residence program. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The essentials: core competencies for professional nursing education. https://www.aacnnursing.org/Portals/42/AcademicNursing/pdf/Essentials-2021.pdf . Accessed June 26, 2023.
  • American Organization for Nursing Leadership. Nurse leader core competencies. https://www.aonl.org/resources/nurse-leader-competencies . Accessed July 10, 2023.
  • Warshawsky, N, Cramer, E. Describing nurse manager role preparation and competency: findings from a national study. J Nurs Adm . 2019;49(5):249-255. DOI:  10.1097/NNA.0000000000000746
  • Van Diggel, C, Burgess, A, Roberts, C, Mellis, C. Leadership in healthcare education. BMC Med. Educ . 2020;20(465). doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-02288-x
  • Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Plan-do-study-act (PDSA) worksheet. https://www.ihi.org/resources/Pages/Tools/PlanDoStudyActWorksheet.aspx . Accessed July 4, 2023.
  • Taylor, M, McNicolas, C, Nicolay, C, Darzi, A, Bell, D, Reed, J. Systemic review of the application of the plan-do-study-act method to improve quality in healthcare. BMJ Quality & Safety. 2014:23:290-298. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2013-002703

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