case studies as a method of data collection

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

case studies as a method of data collection

  • 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 as a method of data collection

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 as a method of data collection

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 as a method of data collection

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 as a method of data collection

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.

case studies as a method of data collection

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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

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.

Argumentation

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

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 as a method of data collection

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.

case studies as a method of data collection

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What Is a Case Study and Why You Should Use Them

Case studies can provide more insights into your business while helping you conduct further research with robust qualitative data analysis to learn more.

If you're in charge of running a company, then you're likely always looking for new ways to run your business more efficiently and increase your customer base while streamlining as many processes as possible.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to determine how to go about implementing the proper program in order to be successful. This is why many business owners opt to conduct a case study, which can help significantly. Whether you've been struggling with brand consistency or some other problem, the right case study can identify why your problem exists as well as provide a way to rectify it.

A case study is a great tool that many businesses aren't even aware exists, and there are marketing experts like Mailchimp who can provide you with step-by-step assistance with implementing a plan with a case study. Many companies discover that not only do they need to start a blog in order to improve business, but they also need to create specific and relevant blog titles.

If your company already has a blog, then optimizing your blog posts may be helpful. Regardless of the obstacles that are preventing you from achieving all your professional goals, a case study can work wonders in helping you reverse this issue.

case studies as a method of data collection

What is a case study?

A case study is a comprehensive report of the results of theory testing or examining emerging themes of a business in real life context. Case studies are also often used in the healthcare industry, conducting health services research with primary research interest around routinely collected healthcare data.

However, for businesses, the purpose of a case study is to help small business owners or company leaders identify the issues and conduct further research into what may be preventing success through information collection, client or customer interviews, and in-depth data analysis.

Knowing the case study definition is crucial for any business owner. By identifying the issues that are hindering a company from achieving all its goals, it's easier to make the necessary corrections to promote success through influenced data collection.

Why are case studies important?

Now that we've answered the questions, "what is a case study?" Why are case studies important? Some of the top reasons why case studies are important include:

 Importance of case studies

  • Understand complex issues: Even after you conduct a significant amount of market research , you might have a difficult time understanding exactly what it means. While you might have the basics down, conducting a case study can help you see how that information is applied. Then, when you see how the information can make a difference in business decisions, it could make it easier to understand complex issues.
  • Collect data: A case study can also help with data tracking . A case study is a data collection method that can help you describe the information that you have available to you. Then, you can present that information in a way the reader can understand.
  • Conduct evaluations: As you learn more about how to write a case study, remember that you can also use a case study to conduct evaluations of a specific situation. A case study is a great way to learn more about complex situations, and you can evaluate how various people responded in that situation. By conducting a case study evaluation, you can learn more about what has worked well, what has not, and what you might want to change in the future.
  • Identify potential solutions: A case study can also help you identify solutions to potential problems. If you have an issue in your business that you are trying to solve, you may be able to take a look at a case study where someone has dealt with a similar situation in the past. For example, you may uncover data bias in a specific solution that you would like to address when you tackle the issue on your own. If you need help solving a difficult problem, a case study may be able to help you.

Remember that you can also use case studies to target your audience . If you want to show your audience that you have a significant level of expertise in a field, you may want to publish some case studies that you have handled in the past. Then, when your audience sees that you have had success in a specific area, they may be more likely to provide you with their business. In essence, case studies can be looked at as the original method of social proof, showcasing exactly how you can help someone solve their problems.

What are the benefits of writing a business case study?

Although writing a case study can seem like a tedious task, there are many benefits to conducting one through an in depth qualitative research process.

Benefits of Case Studies

  • Industry understanding: First of all, a case study can give you an in-depth understanding of your industry through a particular conceptual framework and help you identify hidden problems that are preventing you from transcending into the business world.
  • Develop theories: If you decide to write a business case study, it provides you with an opportunity to develop new theories. You might have a theory about how to solve a specific problem, but you need to write a business case study to see exactly how that theory has unfolded in the past. Then, you can figure out if you want to apply your theory to a similar issue in the future.
  • Evaluate interventions: When you write a business case study that focuses on a specific situation you have been through in the past, you can uncover whether that intervention was truly helpful. This can make it easier to figure out whether you want to use the same intervention in a similar situation in the future.
  • Identify best practices: If you want to stay on top of the best practices in your field, conducting case studies can help by allowing you to identify patterns and trends and develop a new list of best practices that you can follow in the future.
  • Versatility: Writing a case study also provides you with more versatility. If you want to expand your business applications, you need to figure out how you respond to various problems. When you run a business case study, you open the door to new opportunities, new applications, and new techniques that could help you make a difference in your business down the road.
  • Solve problems: Writing a great case study can dramatically improve your chances of reversing your problem and improving your business.
  • These are just a few of the biggest benefits you might experience if you decide to publish your case studies. They can be an effective tool for learning, showcasing your talents, and teaching some of your other employees. If you want to grow your audience , you may want to consider publishing some case studies.

What are the limitations of case studies?

Case studies can be a wonderful tool for any business of any size to use to gain an in-depth understanding of their clients, products, customers, or services, but there are limitations.

One limitation of case studies is the fact that, unless there are other recently published examples, there is nothing to compare them to since, most of the time, you are conducting a single, not multiple, case studies.

Another limitation is the fact that most case studies can lack scientific evidence.

case studies as a method of data collection

Types of case studies

There are specific types of case studies to choose from, and each specific type will yield different results. Some case study types even overlap, which is sometimes more favorable, as they provide even more pertinent data.

Here are overviews of the different types of case studies, each with its own theoretical framework, so you can determine which type would be most effective for helping you meet your goals.

Explanatory case studies

Explanatory case studies are pretty straightforward, as they're not difficult to interpret. This type of case study is best if there aren't many variables involved because explanatory case studies can easily answer questions like "how" and "why" through theory development.

Exploratory case studies

An exploratory case study does exactly what its name implies: it goes into specific detail about the topic at hand in a natural, real-life context with qualitative research.

The benefits of exploratory case studies are limitless, with the main one being that it offers a great deal of flexibility. Having flexibility when writing a case study is important because you can't always predict what obstacles might arise during the qualitative research process.

Collective case studies

Collective case studies require you to study many different individuals in order to obtain usable data.

Case studies that involve an investigation of people will involve many different variables, all of which can't be predicted. Despite this fact, there are many benefits of collective case studies, including the fact that it allows an ongoing analysis of the data collected.

Intrinsic case studies

This type of study differs from the others as it focuses on the inquiry of one specific instance among many possibilities.

Many people prefer these types of case studies because it allows them to learn about the particular instance that they wish to investigate further.

Instrumental case studies

An instrumental case study is similar to an intrinsic one, as it focuses on a particular instance, whether it's a person, organization, or something different.

One thing that differentiates instrumental case studies from intrinsic ones is the fact that instrumental case studies aren't chosen merely because a person is interested in learning about a specific instance.

case studies as a method of data collection

Tips for writing a case study

If you have decided to write case studies for your company, then you may be unsure of where to start or which type to conduct.

However, it doesn't have to be difficult or confusing to begin conducting a case study that will help you identify ways to improve your business.

Here are some helpful tips for writing your case studies:

1. Your case study must be written in the proper format

When writing a case study, the format that you should be similar to this:

Case study format

Administrative summary

The executive summary is an overview of what your report will contain, written in a concise manner while providing real-life context.

Despite the fact that the executive summary should appear at the beginning of your case studies, it shouldn't be written until you've completed the entire report because if you write it before you finish the report, this summary may not be completely accurate.

Key problem statement

In this section of your case study, you will briefly describe the problem that you hope to solve by conducting the study. You will have the opportunity to elaborate on the problem that you're focusing on as you get into the breadth of the report.

Problem exploration

This part of the case study isn't as brief as the other two, and it goes into more detail about the problem at hand. Your problem exploration must include why the identified problem needs to be solved as well as the urgency of solving it.

Additionally, it must include justification for conducting the problem-solving, as the benefits must outweigh the efforts and costs.

Proposed resolution

This case study section will also be lengthier than the first two. It must include how you propose going about rectifying the problem. The "recommended solution" section must also include potential obstacles that you might experience, as well as how these will be managed.

Furthermore, you will need to list alternative solutions and explain the reason the chosen solution is best. Charts can enhance your report and make it easier to read, and provide as much proof to substantiate your claim as possible.

Overview of monetary consideration

An overview of monetary consideration is essential for all case studies, as it will be used to convince all involved parties why your project should be funded. You must successfully convince them that the cost is worth the investment it will require. It's important that you stress the necessity for this particular case study and explain the expected outcome.

Execution timeline

In the execution times of case studies, you explain how long you predict it will take to implement your study. The shorter the time it will take to implement your plan, the more apt it is to be approved. However, be sure to provide a reasonable timeline, taking into consideration any additional time that might be needed due to obstacles.

Always include a conclusion in your case study. This is where you will briefly wrap up your entire proposal, stressing the benefits of completing the data collection and data analysis in order to rectify your problem.

2. Make it clear and comprehensive

You want to write your case studies with as much clarity as possible so that every aspect of the report is understood. Be sure to double-check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and more, as you don't want to submit a poorly-written document.

Not only would a poorly-written case study fail to prove that what you are trying to achieve is important, but it would also increase the chances that your report will be tossed aside and not taken seriously.

3. Don't rush through the process

Writing the perfect case study takes time and patience. Rushing could result in your forgetting to include information that is crucial to your entire study. Don't waste your time creating a study that simply isn't ready. Take the necessary time to perform all the research necessary to write the best case study possible.

Depending on the case study, conducting case study research could mean using qualitative methods, quantitative methods, or both. Qualitative research questions focus on non-numerical data, such as how people feel, their beliefs, their experiences, and so on.

Meanwhile, quantitative research questions focus on numerical or statistical data collection to explain causal links or get an in-depth picture.

It is also important to collect insightful and constructive feedback. This will help you better understand the outcome as well as any changes you need to make to future case studies. Consider using formal and informal ways to collect feedback to ensure that you get a range of opinions and perspectives.

4. Be confident in your theory development

While writing your case study or conducting your formal experimental investigation, you should have confidence in yourself and what you're proposing in your report. If you took the time to gather all the pertinent data collected to complete the report, don't second-guess yourself or doubt your abilities. If you believe your report will be amazing, then it likely will be.

5. Case studies and all qualitative research are long

It's expected that multiple case studies are going to be incredibly boring, and there is no way around this. However, it doesn't mean you can choose your language carefully in order to keep your audience as engaged as possible.

If your audience loses interest in your case study at the beginning, for whatever reason, then this increases the likelihood that your case study will not be funded.

Case study examples

If you want to learn more about how to write a case study, it might be beneficial to take a look at a few case study examples. Below are a few interesting case study examples you may want to take a closer look at.

  • Phineas Gage by John Martin Marlow : One of the most famous case studies comes from the medical field, and it is about the story of Phineas Gage, a man who had a railroad spike driven through his head in 1848. As he was working on a railroad, an explosive charge went off prematurely, sending a railroad rod through his head. Even though he survived this incident, he lost his left eye. However, Phineas Gage was studied extensively over the years because his experiences had a significant, lasting impact on his personality. This served as a case study because his injury showed different parts of the brain have different functions.
  • Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect : This is a tragic case study that discusses the murder of Kitty Genovese, a woman attacked and murdered in Queens, New York City. Shockingly, while numerous neighbors watched the scene, nobody called for help because they assumed someone else would. This case study helped to define the bystander effect, which is when a person fails to intervene during an emergency because other people are around.
  • Henry Molaison and the study of memory : Henry Molaison lost his memory and suffered from debilitating amnesia. He suffered from childhood epilepsy, and medical professionals attempted to remove the part of his brain that was causing his seizures. He had a portion of his brain removed, but it completely took away his ability to hold memories. Even though he went on to live until the age of 82, he was always forced to live in the present moment, as he was completely unable to form new memories.

Case study FAQs

When should you do a case study.

There are several scenarios when conducting a case study can be beneficial. Case studies are often used when there's a "why" or "how" question that needs to be answered. Case studies are also beneficial when trying to understand a complex phenomenon, there's limited research on a topic, or when you're looking for practical solutions to a problem.

How can case study results be used to make business decisions?

You can use the results from a case study to make future business decisions if you find yourself in a similar situation. As you assess the results of a case study, you can identify best practices, evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention, generate new and creative ideas, or get a better understanding of customer needs.

How are case studies different from other research methodologies?

When compared to other research methodologies, such as experimental or qualitative research methodology, a case study does not require a representative sample. For example, if you are performing quantitative research, you have a lot of subjects that expand your sample size. If you are performing experimental research, you may have a random sample in front of you. A case study is usually designed to deliberately focus on unusual situations, which allows it to shed new light on a specific business research problem.

Writing multiple case studies for your business

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the idea of writing a case study and it seems completely foreign, then you aren't alone. Writing a case study for a business is a very big deal, but fortunately, there is help available because an example of a case study doesn't always help.

Mailchimp, a well-known marketing company that provides comprehensive marketing support for all sorts of businesses, can assist you with your case study, or you can review one of their own recently published examples.

Mailchimp can assist you with developing the most effective content strategy to increase your chances of being as successful as possible. Mailchimp's content studio is a great tool that can help your business immensely.

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11 Case research

Case research—also called case study—is a method of intensively studying a phenomenon over time within its natural setting in one or a few sites. Multiple methods of data collection, such as interviews, observations, pre-recorded documents, and secondary data, may be employed and inferences about the phenomenon of interest tend to be rich, detailed, and contextualised. Case research can be employed in a positivist manner for the purpose of theory testing or in an interpretive manner for theory building. This method is more popular in business research than in other social science disciplines.

Case research has several unique strengths over competing research methods such as experiments and survey research. First, case research can be used for either theory building or theory testing, while positivist methods can be used for theory testing only. In interpretive case research, the constructs of interest need not be known in advance, but may emerge from the data as the research progresses. Second, the research questions can be modified during the research process if the original questions are found to be less relevant or salient. This is not possible in any positivist method after the data is collected. Third, case research can help derive richer, more contextualised, and more authentic interpretation of the phenomenon of interest than most other research methods by virtue of its ability to capture a rich array of contextual data. Fourth, the phenomenon of interest can be studied from the perspectives of multiple participants and using multiple levels of analysis (e.g., individual and organisational).

At the same time, case research also has some inherent weaknesses. Because it involves no experimental control, internal validity of inferences remain weak. Of course, this is a common problem for all research methods except experiments. However, as described later, the problem of controls may be addressed in case research using ‘natural controls’. Second, the quality of inferences derived from case research depends heavily on the integrative powers of the researcher. An experienced researcher may see concepts and patterns in case data that a novice researcher may miss. Hence, the findings are sometimes criticised as being subjective. Finally, because the inferences are heavily contextualised, it may be difficult to generalise inferences from case research to other contexts or other organisations.

It is important to recognise that case research is different from case descriptions such as Harvard case studies discussed in business classes. While case descriptions typically describe an organisational problem in rich detail with the goal of stimulating classroom discussion and critical thinking among students, or analysing how well an organisation handled a specific problem, case research is a formal research technique that involves a scientific method to derive explanations of organisational phenomena.

Case research is a difficult research method that requires advanced research skills on the part of the researcher, and is therefore often prone to error. Benbasat, Goldstein and Mead (1987) [1] describe five problems frequently encountered in case research studies. First, many case research studies start without specific research questions, and therefore end up without having any specific answers or insightful inferences. Second, case sites are often chosen based on access and convenience, rather than based on the fit with the research questions, and are therefore cannot adequately address the research questions of interest. Third, researchers often do not validate or triangulate data collected using multiple means, which may lead to biased interpretation based on responses from biased interviewees. Fourth, many studies provide very little details on how data was collected (e.g., what interview questions were used, which documents were examined, the organisational positions of each interviewee, etc.) or analysed, which may raise doubts about the reliability of the inferences. Finally, despite its strength as a longitudinal research method, many case research studies do not follow through a phenomenon in a longitudinal manner, and hence present only a cross-sectional and limited view of organisational processes and phenomena that are temporal in nature.

Key decisions in case research

Several key decisions must be made by a researcher when considering a case research method. First, is this the right method for the research questions being studied? The case research method is particularly appropriate for exploratory studies, for discovering relevant constructs in areas where theory building is in the formative stages, for studies where the experiences of participants and context of actions are critical, and for studies aimed at understanding complex, temporal processes (why and how) rather than factors or causes (what). This method is well-suited for studying complex organisational processes that involve multiple participants and interacting sequences of events, such as organisational change and large-scale technology implementation projects.

Second, what is the appropriate unit of analysis for a case research study? Since case research can simultaneously examine multiple units of analyses, the researcher must decide whether she wishes to study a phenomenon at the individual, group, or organisational level or at multiple levels. For instance, a study of group decision-making or group work may combine individual-level constructs such as individual participation in group activities with group-level constructs, such as group cohesion and group leadership, to derive richer understanding than can be achieved from a single level of analysis.

Third, should the researcher employ a single-case or multiple-case design? The single-case design is more appropriate at the outset of theory generation, if the situation is unique or extreme, if it is revelatory (i.e., the situation was previously inaccessible for scientific investigation), or if it represents a critical or contrary case for testing a well-formulated theory. The multiple-case design is more appropriate for theory testing, for establishing generalisability of inferences, and for developing richer and more nuanced interpretations of a phenomenon. Yin (1984) [2] recommends the use of multiple case sites with replication logic, viewing each case site as similar to one experimental study, and following rules of scientific rigor similar to that used in positivist research.

Fourth, what sites should be chosen for case research? Given the contextualised nature of inferences derived from case research, site selection is a particularly critical issue because selecting the wrong site may lead to the wrong inferences. If the goal of the research is to test theories or examine generalisability of inferences, then dissimilar case sites should be selected to increase variance in observations. For instance, if the goal of the research is to understand the process of technology implementation in firms, a mix of large, mid-sized, and small firms should be selected to examine whether the technology implementation process differs with firm size. Site selection should not be opportunistic or based on convenience, but rather based on the fit with research questions though a process called ‘theoretical sampling’.

Fifth, what techniques of data collection should be used in case research? Although interview (either open-ended/unstructured or focused/structured) is by far the most popular data collection technique for case research, interview data can be supplemented or corroborated with other techniques such as direct observation (e.g., attending executive meetings, briefings, and planning sessions), documentation (e.g., internal reports, presentations, and memoranda, as well as external accounts such as newspaper reports), archival records (e.g., organisational charts, financial records, etc.), and physical artefacts (e.g., devices, outputs, tools). Furthermore, the researcher should triangulate or validate observed data by comparing responses between interviewees.

Conducting case research

Most case research studies tend to be interpretive in nature. Interpretive case research is an inductive technique where evidence collected from one or more case sites is systematically analysed and synthesised to allow concepts and patterns to emerge for the purpose of building new theories or expanding existing ones. Eisenhardt (1989) [3] proposed a ‘roadmap’ for building theories from case research—a slightly modified version of which is described below. For positivist case research, some of the following stages may need to be rearranged or modified, however sampling, data collection, and data analytic techniques should generally remain the same.

Define research questions. Like any other scientific research, case research must also start with defining research questions that are theoretically and practically interesting, and identifying some intuitive expectations about possible answers to those research questions or preliminary constructs to guide initial case design. In positivist case research, the preliminary constructs are based on theory, while no such theories or hypotheses should be considered ex ante in interpretive research. These research questions and constructs may be changed in interpretive case research later on, if needed, but not in positivist case research.

Select case sites. The researcher should use a process of ‘theoretical sampling’—not random sampling—to identify case sites. In this approach, case sites are chosen based on theoretical rather than statistical considerations—for instance, to replicate previous cases, to extend preliminary theories, or to fill theoretical categories or polar types. Care should be taken to ensure that the selected sites fit the nature of research questions, minimise extraneous variance or noise due to firm size, industry effects, and so forth, and maximise variance in the dependent variables of interest. For instance, if the goal of the research is to examine how some firms innovate better than others, the researcher should select firms of similar size within the same industry to reduce industry or size effects, and select some more innovative and some less innovative firms to increase variation in firm innovation. Instead of cold-calling or writing to a potential site, it is better to contact someone at executive level inside each firm who has the authority to approve the project, or someone who can identify a person of authority. During initial conversations, the researcher should describe the nature and purpose of the project, any potential benefits to the case site, how the collected data will be used, the people involved in data collection (other researchers, research assistants, etc.), desired interviewees, and the amount of time, effort, and expense required of the sponsoring organisation. The researcher must also assure confidentiality, privacy, and anonymity of both the firm and the individual respondents.

Create instruments and protocols. Since the primary mode of data collection in case research is interviews, an interview protocol should be designed to guide the interview process. This is essentially a list of questions to be asked. Questions may be open-ended (unstructured) or closed-ended (structured) or a combination of both. The interview protocol must be strictly followed, and the interviewer must not change the order of questions or skip any question during the interview process, although some deviations are allowed to probe further into a respondent’s comments if they are ambiguous or interesting. The interviewer must maintain a neutral tone, and not lead respondents in any specific direction—for example, by agreeing or disagreeing with any response. More detailed interviewing techniques are discussed in the chapter on surveys. In addition, additional sources of data—such as internal documents and memorandums, annual reports, financial statements, newspaper articles, and direct observations—should be sought to supplement and validate interview data.

Select respondents. Select interview respondents at different organisational levels, departments, and positions to obtain divergent perspectives on the phenomenon of interest. A random sampling of interviewees is most preferable, however a snowball sample is acceptable, as long as a diversity of perspectives is represented in the sample. Interviewees must be selected based on their personal involvement with the phenomenon under investigation and their ability and willingness to answer the researcher’s questions accurately and adequately, and not based on convenience or access.

Start data collection . It is usually a good idea to electronically record interviews for future reference. However, such recording must only be done with the interviewee’s consent. Even when interviews are being recorded, the interviewer should take notes to capture important comments or critical observations, behavioural responses (e.g., the respondent’s body language), and the researcher’s personal impressions about the respondent and his/her comments. After each interview is completed, the entire interview should be transcribed verbatim into a text document for analysis.

Conduct within-case data analysis. Data analysis may follow or overlap with data collection. Overlapping data collection and analysis has the advantage of adjusting the data collection process based on themes emerging from data analysis, or to further probe into these themes. Data analysis is done in two stages. In the first stage (within-case analysis), the researcher should examine emergent concepts separately at each case site and patterns between these concepts to generate an initial theory of the problem of interest. The researcher can use interview data subjectively to ‘make sense’ of the research problem in conjunction with using his/her personal observations or experience at the case site. Alternatively, a coding strategy such as Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) [4] grounded theory approach, using techniques such as open coding, axial coding, and selective coding, may be used to derive a chain of evidence and inferences. These techniques are discussed in detail in a later chapter. Homegrown techniques, such as graphical representation of data (e.g., network diagram) or sequence analysis (for longitudinal data) may also be used. Note that there is no predefined way of analysing the various types of case data, and the data analytic techniques can be modified to fit the nature of the research project.

Conduct cross-case analysis. Multi-site case research requires cross-case analysis as the second stage of data analysis. In such analysis, the researcher should look for similar concepts and patterns between different case sites, ignoring contextual differences that may lead to idiosyncratic conclusions. Such patterns may be used for validating the initial theory, or for refining it—by adding or dropping concepts and relationships—to develop a more inclusive and generalisable theory. This analysis may take several forms. For instance, the researcher may select categories (e.g., firm size, industry, etc.) and look for within-group similarities and between-group differences (e.g., high versus low performers, innovators versus laggards). Alternatively, they can compare firms in a pairwise manner listing similarities and differences across pairs of firms.

Build and test hypotheses. Tenative hypotheses are constructed based on emergent concepts and themes that are generalisable across case sites. These hypotheses should be compared iteratively with observed evidence to see if they fit the observed data, and if not, the constructs or relationships should be refined. Also the researcher should compare the emergent constructs and hypotheses with those reported in the prior literature to make a case for their internal validity and generalisability. Conflicting findings must not be rejected, but rather reconciled using creative thinking to generate greater insight into the emergent theory. When further iterations between theory and data yield no new insights or changes in the existing theory, ‘theoretical saturation’ is reached and the theory building process is complete.

Write case research report. In writing the report, the researcher should describe very clearly the detailed process used for sampling, data collection, data analysis, and hypotheses development, so that readers can independently assess the reasonableness, strength, and consistency of the reported inferences. A high level of clarity in research methods is needed to ensure that the findings are not biased by the researcher’s preconceptions.

Interpretive case research exemplar

Perhaps the best way to learn about interpretive case research is to examine an illustrative example. One such example is Eisenhardt’s (1989) [5] study of how executives make decisions in high-velocity environments (HVE). Readers are advised to read the original paper published in Academy of Management Journal before reading the synopsis in this chapter. In this study, Eisenhardt examined how executive teams in some HVE firms make fast decisions, while those in other firms cannot, and whether faster decisions improve or worsen firm performance in such environments. HVE was defined as one where demand, competition, and technology changes so rapidly and discontinuously that the information available is often inaccurate, unavailable or obsolete. The implicit assumptions were thatit is hard to make fast decisions with inadequate information in HVE, and fast decisions may not be efficient and may result in poor firm performance.

Reviewing the prior literature on executive decision-making, Eisenhardt found several patterns, although none of these patterns were specific to high-velocity environments. The literature suggested that in the interest of expediency, firms that make faster decisions obtain input from fewer sources, consider fewer alternatives, make limited analysis, restrict user participation in decision-making, centralise decision-making authority, and have limited internal conflicts. However, Eisenhardt contended that these views may not necessarily explain how decision makers make decisions in high-velocity environments, where decisions must be made quickly and with incomplete information, while maintaining high decision quality.

To examine this phenomenon, Eisenhardt conducted an inductive study of eight firms in the personal computing industry. The personal computing industry was undergoing dramatic changes in technology with the introduction of the UNIX operating system, RISC architecture, and 64KB random access memory in the 1980s, increased competition with the entry of IBM into the personal computing business, and growing customer demand with double-digit demand growth, and therefore fit the profile of the high-velocity environment. This was a multiple case design with replication logic, where each case was expected to confirm or disconfirm inferences from other cases. Case sites were selected based on their access and proximity to the researcher, however, all of these firms operated in the high-velocity personal computing industry in California’s Silicon Valley area. The collocation of firms in the same industry and the same area ruled out any ‘noise’ or variance in dependent variables (decision speed or performance) attributable to industry or geographic differences.

The study employed an embedded design with multiple levels of analysis: decision (comparing multiple strategic decisions within each firm), executive teams (comparing different teams responsible for strategic decisions), and the firm (overall firm performance). Data was collected from five sources:

Initial interviews with Chief Executive Officers . CEOs were asked questions about their firm’s competitive strategy, distinctive competencies, major competitors, performance, and recent/ongoing major strategic decisions. Based on these interviews, several strategic decisions were selected in each firm for further investigation. Four criteria were used to select decisions: the decisions must involve the firm’s strategic positioning, the decisions must have high stakes, the decisions must involve multiple functions, and the decisions must be representative of strategic decision-making process in that firm.

Interviews with divisional heads . Each divisional head was asked sixteen open-ended questions, ranging from their firm’s competitive strategy, functional strategy, top management team members, frequency and nature of interaction with team, typical decision-making processes, how each of the decisions were made, and how long it took them to make those decisions. Interviews lasted between one and a half and two hours, and sometimes extended to four hours. To focus on facts and actual events rather than respondents’ perceptions or interpretations, a ‘courtroom’ style questioning was employed, such as ‘When did this happen?’, ‘What did you do?’, etc. Interviews were conducted by two people, and the data was validated by cross-checking facts and impressions made by the interviewer and notetaker. All interview data was recorded, however notes were also taken during each interview, which ended with the interviewer’s overall impressions. Using a ‘24-hour rule’, detailed field notes were completed within 24 hours of the interview, so that some data or impressions were not lost to recall.

Questionnaires . Executive team members at each firm were asked tocomplete a survey questionnaire that captured quantitative data on the extent of conflict and power distribution in their firm.

Secondary data . Industry reports and internal documents such as demographics of the executive teams responsible for strategic decisions, financial performance of firms, and so forth, were examined.

Personal observation . Lastly, the researcher attended a one-day strategy session and a weekly executive meeting at two firms in her sample.

Data analysis involved a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques. Quantitative data on conflict and power were analysed for patterns across firms/decisions. Qualitative interview data was combined into decision climate profiles, using profile traits (e.g., impatience) mentioned by more than one executive. For within-case analysis, decision stories were created for each strategic decision by combining executive accounts of the key decision events into a timeline. For cross-case analysis, pairs of firms were compared for similarities and differences, categorised along variables of interest such as decision speed and firm performance. Based on these analyses, tentative constructs and propositions were derived inductively from each decision story within firm categories. Each decision case was revisited to confirm the proposed relationships. The inferred propositions were compared with findings from the existing literature to examine differences, and to generate new insights from the case findings. Finally, the validated propositions were synthesised into an inductive theory of strategic decision-making by firms in high-velocity environments.

Inferences derived from this multiple case research contradicted several decision-making patterns expected from the existing literature. First, fast decision-makers in high-velocity environments used more information, and not less information as suggested by the previous literature. However, these decision-makers used more real-time information—an insight not available from prior research—which helped them identify and respond to problems, opportunities, and changing circumstances faster. Second, fast decision-makers examined more—not fewer—alternatives. However, they considered these multiple alternatives in a simultaneous manner, while slower decision-makers examined fewer alternatives in a sequential manner. Third, fast decision-makers did not centralise decision-making or restrict inputs from others as the literature suggested. Rather, these firms used a two-tiered decision process in which experienced counsellors were asked for inputs in the first stage, followed by a rapid comparison and decision selection in the second stage. Fourth, fast decision-makers did not have less conflict—as expected from the literature—but employed better conflict resolution techniques to reduce conflict and improve decision-making speed. Finally, fast decision-makers exhibited superior firm performance by virtue of their built-in cognitive, emotional, and political processes that led to rapid closure of major decisions.

Positivist case research exemplar

Case research can also be used in a positivist manner to test theories or hypotheses. Such studies are rare, but Markus (1983) [6] provides an exemplary illustration in her study of technology implementation at the pseudonymous Golden Triangle Company (GTC). The goal of this study was to understand why a newly implemented financial information system (FIS)—intended to improve the productivity and performance of accountants at GTC—was supported by accountants at GTC’s corporate headquarters, but resisted by divisional accountants at GTC branches. Given the uniqueness of the phenomenon of interest, this was a single-case research study.

To explore the reasons behind user resistance of FIS, Markus posited three alternative explanations:

System-determined theory : The resistance was caused by factors related to an inadequate system, such as its technical deficiencies, poor ergonomic design, or lack of user friendliness.

People-determined theory : The resistance was caused by factors internal to users, such as the accountants’ cognitive styles or personality traits that were incompatible with using the system.

Interaction theory : The resistance was not caused not by factors intrinsic to the system or the people, but by the interaction between the two set of factors. Specifically, interaction theory suggested that the FIS engendered a redistribution of intra-organisational power, and accountants who lost organisational status, relevance, or power as a result of FIS implementation resisted the system while those gaining power favoured it.

In order to test the three theories, Markus predicted alternative outcomes expected from each theoretical explanation and analysed the extent to which those predictions matched with her observations at GTC. For instance, the system-determined theory suggested that since user resistance was caused by an inadequate system, fixing the technical problems of the system would eliminate resistance. The computer running the FIS system was subsequently upgraded with a more powerful operating system, online processing (from initial batch processing, which delayed immediate processing of accounting information), and a simplified software for new account creation by managers. One year after these changes were made, the resistant users were still resisting the system and felt that it should be replaced. Hence, the system-determined theory was rejected.

The people-determined theory predicted that replacing individual resistors or co-opting them with less resistant users would reduce their resistance toward the FIS. Subsequently, GTC started a job rotation and mobility policy, moving accountants in and out of the resistant divisions, but resistance not only persisted, but in some cases increased. In one instance, an accountant who was one of the system’s designers and advocates when he worked for corporate accounting started resisting the system after he was moved to the divisional controller’s office. Failure to realise the predictions of the people-determined theory led to the rejection of this theory.

Finally, the interaction theory predicted that neither changing the system nor the people (i.e., user education or job rotation policies) would reduce resistance until the power imbalance and redistribution from the pre-implementation phase was addressed. Before FIS implementation, divisional accountants at GTC felt that they owned all accounting data related to their divisional operations. They maintained this data in thick, manual ledger books, controlled others’ access to the data, and could reconcile unusual accounting events before releasing those reports. Corporate accountants relied heavily on divisional accountants for access to the divisional data for corporate reporting and consolidation. Because the FIS system automatically collected all data at the source and consolidated it into a single corporate database, it obviated the need for divisional accountants, loosened their control and autonomy over their division’s accounting data, and making their job somewhat irrelevant. Corporate accountants could now query the database and access divisional data directly without going through the divisional accountants, analyse and compare the performance of individual divisions, and report unusual patterns and activities to the executive committee, resulting in further erosion of the divisions’ power. Though Markus did not empirically test this theory, her observations about the redistribution of organisational power, coupled with the rejection of the two alternative theories, led to the justification of interaction theory.

Comparisons with traditional research

Positivist case research, aimed at hypotheses testing, is often criticised by natural science researchers as lacking in controlled observations, controlled deductions, replicability, and generalisability of findings—the traditional principles of positivist research. However, these criticisms can be overcome through appropriate case research designs. For instance, the problem of controlled observations refers to the difficulty of obtaining experimental or statistical control in case research. However, case researchers can compensate for such lack of controls by employing ’natural controls’. This natural control in Markus’ (1983) study was the corporate accountant who was one of the system advocates initially, but started resisting it once he moved to the controlling division. In this instance, the change in his behaviour may be attributed to his new divisional position. However, such natural controls cannot be anticipated in advance, and case researchers may overlook them unless they are proactively looking for such controls. Incidentally, natural controls are also used in natural science disciplines such as astronomy, geology, and human biology—for example, waiting for comets to pass close enough to the earth in order to make inferences about comets and their composition.

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Third, the problem of replicability refers to the difficulty of observing the same phenomenon considering the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy of a given case site. However, using Markus’ three theories as an illustration, a different researcher can test the same theories at a different case site, where three different predictions may emerge based on the idiosyncratic nature of the new case site, and the three resulting predictions may be tested accordingly. In other words, it is possible to replicate the inferences of case research, even if the case research site or context may not be replicable.

Fourth, case research tends to examine unique and non-replicable phenomena that may not be generalised to other settings. Generalisability in natural sciences is established through additional studies. Likewise, additional case studies conducted in different contexts with different predictions can establish generalisability of findings if such findings are observed to be consistent across studies.

Lastly, British philosopher Karl Popper described four requirements of scientific theories: theories should be falsifiable, they should be logically consistent, they should have adequate predictive ability, and they should provide better explanation than rival theories. In case research, the first three requirements can be improved by increasing the degrees of freedom of observed findings—for example, by increasing the number of case sites, the number of alternative predictions, and the number of levels of analysis examined. This was accomplished in Markus’ study by examining the behaviour of multiple groups (divisional accountants and corporate accountants) and providing multiple (three) rival explanations. Popper’s fourth condition was accomplished in this study when one hypothesis was found to match observed evidence better than the two rival hypotheses.

  • Benbasat, I., Goldstein, D. K., & Mead, M. (1987). The case research strategy in studies of information systems. MIS Quarterly , 11(3), 369–386. ↵
  • Yin, R. (1984). Case study research: Design and methods . London: Sage Publications. ↵
  • Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case research. Academy of Management Review , 14(4), 532–550 ↵
  • Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research . New York: Aldine Pub Co. ↵
  • Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Making fast strategic decisions in high-velocity environments. Academy of Management Journal , 32(3), 543–576. ↵
  • Markus, M. L. (1983). Power, politics and MIS implementations. Communications of the ACM , 26(6), 430–444. ↵

Social Science Research: Principles, Methods and Practices (Revised edition) Copyright © 2019 by Anol Bhattacherjee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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case studies as a method of data collection

Designing and Conducting 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.

Flexibility

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

Becker, Bronwyn, Patrick Dawson, Karen Devine, Carla Hannum, Steve Hill, Jon Leydens, Debbie Matuskevich, Carol Traver, & Mike Palmquist. (2005). Case Studies. Writing@CSU . Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=60

Case Study Research Method in Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

On This Page:

Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources using several methods (e.g., observations & interviews).

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.

The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events that are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

The case study is not a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.

Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.

There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

case study

 Famous Case Studies

  • Anna O – One of the most famous case studies, documenting psychoanalyst Josef Breuer’s treatment of “Anna O” (real name Bertha Pappenheim) for hysteria in the late 1800s using early psychoanalytic theory.
  • Little Hans – A child psychoanalysis case study published by Sigmund Freud in 1909 analyzing his five-year-old patient Herbert Graf’s house phobia as related to the Oedipus complex.
  • Bruce/Brenda – Gender identity case of the boy (Bruce) whose botched circumcision led psychologist John Money to advise gender reassignment and raise him as a girl (Brenda) in the 1960s.
  • Genie Wiley – Linguistics/psychological development case of the victim of extreme isolation abuse who was studied in 1970s California for effects of early language deprivation on acquiring speech later in life.
  • Phineas Gage – One of the most famous neuropsychology case studies analyzes personality changes in railroad worker Phineas Gage after an 1848 brain injury involving a tamping iron piercing his skull.

Clinical Case Studies

  • Studying the effectiveness of psychotherapy approaches with an individual patient
  • Assessing and treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD
  • Neuropsychological cases investigating brain injuries or disorders

Child Psychology Case Studies

  • Studying psychological development from birth through adolescence
  • Cases of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD
  • Effects of trauma, abuse, deprivation on development

Types of Case Studies

  • Explanatory case studies : Used to explore causation in order to find underlying principles. Helpful for doing qualitative analysis to explain presumed causal links.
  • Exploratory case studies : Used to explore situations where an intervention being evaluated has no clear set of outcomes. It helps define questions and hypotheses for future research.
  • Descriptive case studies : Describe an intervention or phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurred. It is helpful for illustrating certain topics within an evaluation.
  • Multiple-case studies : Used to explore differences between cases and replicate findings across cases. Helpful for comparing and contrasting specific cases.
  • Intrinsic : Used to gain a better understanding of a particular case. Helpful for capturing the complexity of a single case.
  • Collective : Used to explore a general phenomenon using multiple case studies. Helpful for jointly studying a group of cases in order to inquire into the phenomenon.

Where Do You Find Data for a Case Study?

There are several places to find data for a case study. The key is to gather data from multiple sources to get a complete picture of the case and corroborate facts or findings through triangulation of evidence. Most of this information is likely qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might also collect numerical data.

1. Primary sources

  • Interviews – Interviewing key people related to the case to get their perspectives and insights. The interview is an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
  • Observations – Observing behaviors, interactions, processes, etc., related to the case as they unfold in real-time.
  • Documents & Records – Reviewing private documents, diaries, public records, correspondence, meeting minutes, etc., relevant to the case.

2. Secondary sources

  • News/Media – News coverage of events related to the case study.
  • Academic articles – Journal articles, dissertations etc. that discuss the case.
  • Government reports – Official data and records related to the case context.
  • Books/films – Books, documentaries or films discussing the case.

3. Archival records

Searching historical archives, museum collections and databases to find relevant documents, visual/audio records related to the case history and context.

Public archives like newspapers, organizational records, photographic collections could all include potentially relevant pieces of information to shed light on attitudes, cultural perspectives, common practices and historical contexts related to psychology.

4. Organizational records

Organizational records offer the advantage of often having large datasets collected over time that can reveal or confirm psychological insights.

Of course, privacy and ethical concerns regarding confidential data must be navigated carefully.

However, with proper protocols, organizational records can provide invaluable context and empirical depth to qualitative case studies exploring the intersection of psychology and organizations.

  • Organizational/industrial psychology research : Organizational records like employee surveys, turnover/retention data, policies, incident reports etc. may provide insight into topics like job satisfaction, workplace culture and dynamics, leadership issues, employee behaviors etc.
  • Clinical psychology : Therapists/hospitals may grant access to anonymized medical records to study aspects like assessments, diagnoses, treatment plans etc. This could shed light on clinical practices.
  • School psychology : Studies could utilize anonymized student records like test scores, grades, disciplinary issues, and counseling referrals to study child development, learning barriers, effectiveness of support programs, and more.

How do I Write a Case Study in Psychology?

Follow specified case study guidelines provided by a journal or your psychology tutor. General components of clinical case studies include: background, symptoms, assessments, diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.

1. Introduction

  • Provide background on the case context and why it is of interest, presenting background information like demographics, relevant history, and presenting problem.
  • Compare briefly to similar published cases if applicable. Clearly state the focus/importance of the case.

2. Case Presentation

  • Describe the presenting problem in detail, including symptoms, duration,and impact on daily life.
  • Include client demographics like age and gender, information about social relationships, and mental health history.
  • Describe all physical, emotional, and/or sensory symptoms reported by the client.
  • Use patient quotes to describe the initial complaint verbatim. Follow with full-sentence summaries of relevant history details gathered, including key components that led to a working diagnosis.
  • Summarize clinical exam results, namely orthopedic/neurological tests, imaging, lab tests, etc. Note actual results rather than subjective conclusions. Provide images if clearly reproducible/anonymized.
  • Clearly state the working diagnosis or clinical impression before transitioning to management.

3. Management and Outcome

  • Indicate the total duration of care and number of treatments given over what timeframe. Use specific names/descriptions for any therapies/interventions applied.
  • Present the results of the intervention,including any quantitative or qualitative data collected.
  • For outcomes, utilize visual analog scales for pain, medication usage logs, etc., if possible. Include patient self-reports of improvement/worsening of symptoms. Note the reason for discharge/end of care.

4. Discussion

  • Analyze the case, exploring contributing factors, limitations of the study, and connections to existing research.
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the intervention,considering factors like participant adherence, limitations of the study, and potential alternative explanations for the results.
  • Identify any questions raised in the case analysis and relate insights to established theories and current research if applicable. Avoid definitive claims about physiological explanations.
  • Offer clinical implications, and suggest future research directions.

5. Additional Items

  • Thank specific assistants for writing support only. No patient acknowledgments.
  • References should directly support any key claims or quotes included.
  • Use tables/figures/images only if substantially informative. Include permissions and legends/explanatory notes.
  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.

Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.

The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).

Limitations

  • Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
  • Researchers’ own subjective feelings may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time-consuming and expensive.
  • The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.

Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.

This means that there is a lot of scope for Anna O , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).

This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1895).  Studies on hysteria . Standard Edition 2: London.

Curtiss, S. (1981). Genie: The case of a modern wild child .

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.

Harlow J. M. (1848). Passage of an iron rod through the head.  Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 39 , 389–393.

Harlow, J. M. (1868).  Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head .  Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2  (3), 327-347.

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972).  Man & Woman, Boy & Girl : The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Money, J., & Tucker, P. (1975). Sexual signatures: On being a man or a woman.

Further Information

  • Case Study Approach
  • Case Study Method
  • Enhancing the Quality of Case Studies in Health Services Research
  • “We do things together” A case study of “couplehood” in dementia
  • Using mixed methods for evaluating an integrative approach to cancer care: a case study

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Qualitative Data Collection and Analysis Methods

Qualitative data collection methods in each design or approach.

The Department of Counseling approves five approaches or designs within qualitative methodology.  Each of these designs uses its own kind of data sources.  Table 1 outlines the main primary and secondary sources of data in each design.

  • Primary sources are data from actual participants.
  • Secondary data sources are from others.
  • The researcher's notes describing observations of participants or behaviors in their natural environments. This is the more common usage, and is most common in ethnographic studies.
  • The researcher's notes to self about themes noticed while collecting data, possibly important points in the data, ideas to come back to, and so on.
  • Another related term is memos , although memos in grounded theory tend to be brief or extended essays charting the development of theory, rather than simple notes. Strictly speaking, these notes or memos are not data in themselves, but point to data in another source.

Table 1. The Fit of the Method and the Type of Data

Data Collection in Ethnography

Typically, ethnographers collect data while in the field. Their data collection methods can include:

  • Participant observation.
  • Naturalistic observation.
  • Writing field notes.
  • Conducting unstructured or structured interviews (sometimes audiotaped or videotaped).
  • Reviewing documents, records, photographs, videotapes, maps, genograms, and sociograms.
  • Any accessible and dependable source of information about the behaviors, interactions, customs, values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices of the members of that culture can be a source of data.

It is worth remembering that the time-world of cultural groups is longer than it is for individual persons, and so:

  • Data collection may need to cover a longer time in order to capture the true flavor of the culture.
  • Field research methods need to adapt to the demands of the field; ethnography allows for flexibility in the design of its methods to accommodate the challenges of the field.

However, for both of these reasons—the longer time-world of the culture or group and the occasional need to change data collection methods to meet challenges in the field—Institutional Review Board (IRB) complications can be introduced and must be addressed, further lengthening the time of the ethnographic study.

Data Collection in Case Studies

Case studies always include multiple sources of information because the case includes multiple kinds of issues. For example, a case study of a training program would obtain and analyze information about:

  • The participants.
  • The nature of the organizational issues calling for the training.
  • The kinds of training provided.
  • The outcomes of the program.
  • The background and training of the staff, and so on.

In addition to multiple information sources, every case study provides an in-depth description of the contexts of the case:

  • Its setting (for example, the kind of business structure and office complex set-up where the training program takes place).
  • Its contexts (social contexts, political contexts, affiliations affecting outcomes, and so on).

The setting and context are an intrinsic part of the case.

Consequently, because cases contain many kinds of information and contexts, case studies use many different methods of data collection. These can include the full range of qualitative methods such as: 

  • Open-ended surveys.
  • Interviews.
  • Field observations. Reviews of documents, records, and other materials.
  • Evaluation of audiovisual materials.
  • Descriptions of contexts and collateral materials; and so on.

A well-designed case study does not rely on a single method and source of data because any true case (bounded system) will have many characteristics and it is not known ahead of time which characteristics are important. Determining that is the work of the case study.

Data Collection in Grounded Theory

The dominant methods of data collection in grounded theory research are:

  • Interviews (usually audiotaped).
  • Participant and nonparticipant observations.
  • Conversations. Recorded diaries.
  • Field notes.
  • Descriptions of comparative instances.
  • Personal narratives of experiences.

The participants in a grounded theory study often will be interviewed more than once and asked to reflect on and refine the preliminary conclusions drawn by the researcher.

  • Reinterviewing participants about them, asking for their feedback, or;
  • Interviewing a new round of participants about how well the hypothesized elements of the new theory actually explain their experiences.

The methods of doing these forms of data collection do not differ markedly from similar methods across all qualitative approaches. However, grounded theorists sometimes avoid too much study of the extant literature on their topic before going into the field, in hopes that they will not be biased by previous conjectures and data about the topic. It is their aim to allow the data to teach them and guide their analyses into rich explanations.

Data Collection in Phenomenology

There are two descriptive levels of the empirical phenomenological model that arise from the data collected:

  • Level 1: The original data are comprised of naïve descriptions obtained from participants through open-ended questions and dialogue. Naïve means simply, “in their own words, without reflection.”
  • Level 2: The researcher describes the structures of the experiences based on reflective analysis and interpretation of the research participant’s account or story.

To collect data for these levels of analysis, the primary tool is the in-depth personal interview:

  • Interviews typically are open (meaning, no forced answers), with three main kinds of questions:
  • An opening or initial question .  Usually this is only pre-written question, designed carefully to inquire into the participant’s lived (everyday) experience of the phenomenon under investigation.
  • Follow-up questions are asked to tease out deeper or more detailed elaborations of the earlier answers or to clarify unclear statements or ask about non-verbal gestures.
  • Guiding questions are asked to help the respondents return to the topic of the interview when they stray or digress.
  • The goal of the opening question (and all other questions) is to allow the respondent the maximum freedom to respond from within his or her lived (everyday, non-reflective) experience.

Because the objective is to collect data that are profoundly descriptive (rich in detail) and introspective, these interviews often can be lengthy, sometimes lasting as long as an hour or more.

Sometimes other sources of data are used in phenomenological studies, when those sources are equivalent in some way to the in-depth interview. For example:

  • In a study of the lived experience of grief, poems or other writings by the participants (or other people) about personal grief experiences might be collected in the same way as the in-depth interviews.
  • Audiovisual materials having a direct bearing on the lived experience of grief might be included as data (for example, photos of the participant with the deceased person).

Although other less personal data sources (such as letters, official documents, and news accounts) are seldom used as direct information about the lived experience, the researcher may find in a particular case that these are useful either in illuminating the participant's story itself or in creating a rich and textured background description of the contexts and settings in which the participant experienced the phenomenon.

Data Collection in Generic Qualitative Inquiry

Data collection in this approach typically uses data collection methods that elicit people’s verbal reports on their ideas about things that are outside themselves. However, its focus on real events and issues means it seldom uses unstructured data collection methods (such as open-ended conversational interviewing from phenomenology, participant and nonparticipant field observation from ethnography, and the like).

Instead, generic qualitative inquiry requires:

  • Semi- or fully structured interviews.
  • Qualitative questionnaires.
  • Qualitative surveys.
  • Content- or activity-specific observations, and the like.

The core focus is external and real-world as opposed to internal, psychological, and subjective. (The attitudes and opinions in opinion polling, for example, are valued for their reflection on the external issues.)  Here are some characteristics of generic qualitative data collection:

  • Generic qualitative data collection seeks qualitative information from representative samples of people about:
  • Real-world events.
  • Observable and experienced situations or conditions.
  • Attitudes, opinions, or beliefs about external situations or conditions, or
  • Their experiences.
  • Researchers want less to “go deep” and more to get a broad range of opinions, ideas, or reflections:
  • Occasionally, a small, non-representative but highly informed sample can provide rich information about the topic. For instance, a few experienced nurses can often provide rich, accurate, and helpful information about common patient reactions to certain procedures, because part of a nurse’s role is to observe patients’ experiences and reactions carefully.
  • More often, however, the sampling in this approach aims for larger representation of the population in mind. Although this is not a hard-and-fast rule, generic qualitative data collection typically uses larger samples than other qualitative approaches use because larger samples tend to be more widely representative.
  • As with all qualitative inquiry, if the sample is transparently and fairly representative of the target population or is clearly rich in information about the topic, readers may be persuaded to apply the findings to similar people or situations outside the sample itself.

Most generic qualitative studies rely on the following data collection methods:

  • Semi- or fully structured (pre-written questions) interviews, either oral (the most common method) or written (uncommon). In these qualitative interviews, the questions are structured based on the knowledge of the researcher, although there may be opportunities for “tell me more” kinds of questions. In other words, the data collected in this approach can be obtained from questions based on theoretical constructs in the existing literature, unlike other forms of qualitative data collection.
  • Questionnaires . Usually these are mix-scaled or quantitative items (for example, Likert-type scales asking preferences or degrees of agreement) with opportunities for qualitative comments; this approach requires mixed-method designs. Again, the researcher will build these questionnaires and their items from preknowledge about the topic.
  • Written or oral surveys . The standard opinion or voter poll is a good example, but survey research has its own rather deep literature and can be much more sophisticated that simple opinion or voter surveying. Once again, the items in the survey will be constructed on the basis of previous knowledge about the topic.

This concludes the discussion of qualitative data collection methods.  Please review the Presentation on “Quantitative Data Analysis Methods” in Unit 4, if you have not done so already.

(For a more thorough discussion of data collection, see the guide Qualitative Research Approaches in Psychology and Human Services .)

Consider this quotation from Charmaz (2006), “Simply thinking through how to word open-ended questions averts forcing responses into narrow categories” (p. 18).

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. ISBN: 9780761973522.

Doc. reference: phd_t3_coun_u04s3_h02_qualcoll.html

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Edalat, F.D., Abdi, M.R. (2018). The Case Study: Methods of Data Collection. In: Adaptive Water Management. International Series in Operations Research & Management Science, vol 258. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64143-0_6

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A dataset for measuring the impact of research data and their curation

  • Libby Hemphill   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3793-7281 1 , 2 ,
  • Andrea Thomer 3 ,
  • Sara Lafia 1 ,
  • Lizhou Fan 2 ,
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  • Elizabeth Moss 1  

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  • Research data
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Science funders, publishers, and data archives make decisions about how to responsibly allocate resources to maximize the reuse potential of research data. This paper introduces a dataset developed to measure the impact of archival and data curation decisions on data reuse. The dataset describes 10,605 social science research datasets, their curation histories, and reuse contexts in 94,755 publications that cover 59 years from 1963 to 2022. The dataset was constructed from study-level metadata, citing publications, and curation records available through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan. The dataset includes information about study-level attributes (e.g., PIs, funders, subject terms); usage statistics (e.g., downloads, citations); archiving decisions (e.g., curation activities, data transformations); and bibliometric attributes (e.g., journals, authors) for citing publications. This dataset provides information on factors that contribute to long-term data reuse, which can inform the design of effective evidence-based recommendations to support high-impact research data curation decisions.

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case studies as a method of data collection

Data, measurement and empirical methods in the science of science

case studies as a method of data collection

Interdisciplinarity revisited: evidence for research impact and dynamism

Background & summary.

Recent policy changes in funding agencies and academic journals have increased data sharing among researchers and between researchers and the public. Data sharing advances science and provides the transparency necessary for evaluating, replicating, and verifying results. However, many data-sharing policies do not explain what constitutes an appropriate dataset for archiving or how to determine the value of datasets to secondary users 1 , 2 , 3 . Questions about how to allocate data-sharing resources efficiently and responsibly have gone unanswered 4 , 5 , 6 . For instance, data-sharing policies recognize that not all data should be curated and preserved, but they do not articulate metrics or guidelines for determining what data are most worthy of investment.

Despite the potential for innovation and advancement that data sharing holds, the best strategies to prioritize datasets for preparation and archiving are often unclear. Some datasets are likely to have more downstream potential than others, and data curation policies and workflows should prioritize high-value data instead of being one-size-fits-all. Though prior research in library and information science has shown that the “analytic potential” of a dataset is key to its reuse value 7 , work is needed to implement conceptual data reuse frameworks 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 . In addition, publishers and data archives need guidance to develop metrics and evaluation strategies to assess the impact of datasets.

Several existing resources have been compiled to study the relationship between the reuse of scholarly products, such as datasets (Table  1 ); however, none of these resources include explicit information on how curation processes are applied to data to increase their value, maximize their accessibility, and ensure their long-term preservation. The CCex (Curation Costs Exchange) provides models of curation services along with cost-related datasets shared by contributors but does not make explicit connections between them or include reuse information 15 . Analyses on platforms such as DataCite 16 have focused on metadata completeness and record usage, but have not included related curation-level information. Analyses of GenBank 17 and FigShare 18 , 19 citation networks do not include curation information. Related studies of Github repository reuse 20 and Softcite software citation 21 reveal significant factors that impact the reuse of secondary research products but do not focus on research data. RD-Switchboard 22 and DSKG 23 are scholarly knowledge graphs linking research data to articles, patents, and grants, but largely omit social science research data and do not include curation-level factors. To our knowledge, other studies of curation work in organizations similar to ICPSR – such as GESIS 24 , Dataverse 25 , and DANS 26 – have not made their underlying data available for analysis.

This paper describes a dataset 27 compiled for the MICA project (Measuring the Impact of Curation Actions) led by investigators at ICPSR, a large social science data archive at the University of Michigan. The dataset was originally developed to study the impacts of data curation and archiving on data reuse. The MICA dataset has supported several previous publications investigating the intensity of data curation actions 28 , the relationship between data curation actions and data reuse 29 , and the structures of research communities in a data citation network 30 . Collectively, these studies help explain the return on various types of curatorial investments. The dataset that we introduce in this paper, which we refer to as the MICA dataset, has the potential to address research questions in the areas of science (e.g., knowledge production), library and information science (e.g., scholarly communication), and data archiving (e.g., reproducible workflows).

We constructed the MICA dataset 27 using records available at ICPSR, a large social science data archive at the University of Michigan. Data set creation involved: collecting and enriching metadata for articles indexed in the ICPSR Bibliography of Data-related Literature against the Dimensions AI bibliometric database; gathering usage statistics for studies from ICPSR’s administrative database; processing data curation work logs from ICPSR’s project tracking platform, Jira; and linking data in social science studies and series to citing analysis papers (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

Steps to prepare MICA dataset for analysis - external sources are red, primary internal sources are blue, and internal linked sources are green.

Enrich paper metadata

The ICPSR Bibliography of Data-related Literature is a growing database of literature in which data from ICPSR studies have been used. Its creation was funded by the National Science Foundation (Award 9977984), and for the past 20 years it has been supported by ICPSR membership and multiple US federally-funded and foundation-funded topical archives at ICPSR. The Bibliography was originally launched in the year 2000 to aid in data discovery by providing a searchable database linking publications to the study data used in them. The Bibliography collects the universe of output based on the data shared in each study through, which is made available through each ICPSR study’s webpage. The Bibliography contains both peer-reviewed and grey literature, which provides evidence for measuring the impact of research data. For an item to be included in the ICPSR Bibliography, it must contain an analysis of data archived by ICPSR or contain a discussion or critique of the data collection process, study design, or methodology 31 . The Bibliography is manually curated by a team of librarians and information specialists at ICPSR who enter and validate entries. Some publications are supplied to the Bibliography by data depositors, and some citations are submitted to the Bibliography by authors who abide by ICPSR’s terms of use requiring them to submit citations to works in which they analyzed data retrieved from ICPSR. Most of the Bibliography is populated by Bibliography team members, who create custom queries for ICPSR studies performed across numerous sources, including Google Scholar, ProQuest, SSRN, and others. Each record in the Bibliography is one publication that has used one or more ICPSR studies. The version we used was captured on 2021-11-16 and included 94,755 publications.

To expand the coverage of the ICPSR Bibliography, we searched exhaustively for all ICPSR study names, unique numbers assigned to ICPSR studies, and DOIs 32 using a full-text index available through the Dimensions AI database 33 . We accessed Dimensions through a license agreement with the University of Michigan. ICPSR Bibliography librarians and information specialists manually reviewed and validated new entries that matched one or more search criteria. We then used Dimensions to gather enriched metadata and full-text links for items in the Bibliography with DOIs. We matched 43% of the items in the Bibliography to enriched Dimensions metadata including abstracts, field of research codes, concepts, and authors’ institutional information; we also obtained links to full text for 16% of Bibliography items. Based on licensing agreements, we included Dimensions identifiers and links to full text so that users with valid publisher and database access can construct an enriched publication dataset.

Gather study usage data

ICPSR maintains a relational administrative database, DBInfo, that organizes study-level metadata and information on data reuse across separate tables. Studies at ICPSR consist of one or more files collected at a single time or for a single purpose; studies in which the same variables are observed over time are grouped into series. Each study at ICPSR is assigned a DOI, and its metadata are stored in DBInfo. Study metadata follows the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) Codebook 2.5 standard. DDI elements included in our dataset are title, ICPSR study identification number, DOI, authoring entities, description (abstract), funding agencies, subject terms assigned to the study during curation, and geographic coverage. We also created variables based on DDI elements: total variable count, the presence of survey question text in the metadata, the number of author entities, and whether an author entity was an institution. We gathered metadata for ICPSR’s 10,605 unrestricted public-use studies available as of 2021-11-16 ( https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/pages/membership/or/metadata/oai.html ).

To link study usage data with study-level metadata records, we joined study metadata from DBinfo on study usage information, which included total study downloads (data and documentation), individual data file downloads, and cumulative citations from the ICPSR Bibliography. We also gathered descriptive metadata for each study and its variables, which allowed us to summarize and append recoded fields onto the study-level metadata such as curation level, number and type of principle investigators, total variable count, and binary variables indicating whether the study data were made available for online analysis, whether survey question text was made searchable online, and whether the study variables were indexed for search. These characteristics describe aspects of the discoverability of the data to compare with other characteristics of the study. We used the study and series numbers included in the ICPSR Bibliography as unique identifiers to link papers to metadata and analyze the community structure of dataset co-citations in the ICPSR Bibliography 32 .

Process curation work logs

Researchers deposit data at ICPSR for curation and long-term preservation. Between 2016 and 2020, more than 3,000 research studies were deposited with ICPSR. Since 2017, ICPSR has organized curation work into a central unit that provides varied levels of curation that vary in the intensity and complexity of data enhancement that they provide. While the levels of curation are standardized as to effort (level one = less effort, level three = most effort), the specific curatorial actions undertaken for each dataset vary. The specific curation actions are captured in Jira, a work tracking program, which data curators at ICPSR use to collaborate and communicate their progress through tickets. We obtained access to a corpus of 669 completed Jira tickets corresponding to the curation of 566 unique studies between February 2017 and December 2019 28 .

To process the tickets, we focused only on their work log portions, which contained free text descriptions of work that data curators had performed on a deposited study, along with the curators’ identifiers, and timestamps. To protect the confidentiality of the data curators and the processing steps they performed, we collaborated with ICPSR’s curation unit to propose a classification scheme, which we used to train a Naive Bayes classifier and label curation actions in each work log sentence. The eight curation action labels we proposed 28 were: (1) initial review and planning, (2) data transformation, (3) metadata, (4) documentation, (5) quality checks, (6) communication, (7) other, and (8) non-curation work. We note that these categories of curation work are very specific to the curatorial processes and types of data stored at ICPSR, and may not match the curation activities at other repositories. After applying the classifier to the work log sentences, we obtained summary-level curation actions for a subset of all ICPSR studies (5%), along with the total number of hours spent on data curation for each study, and the proportion of time associated with each action during curation.

Data Records

The MICA dataset 27 connects records for each of ICPSR’s archived research studies to the research publications that use them and related curation activities available for a subset of studies (Fig.  2 ). Each of the three tables published in the dataset is available as a study archived at ICPSR. The data tables are distributed as statistical files available for use in SAS, SPSS, Stata, and R as well as delimited and ASCII text files. The dataset is organized around studies and papers as primary entities. The studies table lists ICPSR studies, their metadata attributes, and usage information; the papers table was constructed using the ICPSR Bibliography and Dimensions database; and the curation logs table summarizes the data curation steps performed on a subset of ICPSR studies.

Studies (“ICPSR_STUDIES”): 10,605 social science research datasets available through ICPSR up to 2021-11-16 with variables for ICPSR study number, digital object identifier, study name, series number, series title, authoring entities, full-text description, release date, funding agency, geographic coverage, subject terms, topical archive, curation level, single principal investigator (PI), institutional PI, the total number of PIs, total variables in data files, question text availability, study variable indexing, level of restriction, total unique users downloading study data files and codebooks, total unique users downloading data only, and total unique papers citing data through November 2021. Studies map to the papers and curation logs table through ICPSR study numbers as “STUDY”. However, not every study in this table will have records in the papers and curation logs tables.

Papers (“ICPSR_PAPERS”): 94,755 publications collected from 2000-08-11 to 2021-11-16 in the ICPSR Bibliography and enriched with metadata from the Dimensions database with variables for paper number, identifier, title, authors, publication venue, item type, publication date, input date, ICPSR series numbers used in the paper, ICPSR study numbers used in the paper, the Dimension identifier, and the Dimensions link to the publication’s full text. Papers map to the studies table through ICPSR study numbers in the “STUDY_NUMS” field. Each record represents a single publication, and because a researcher can use multiple datasets when creating a publication, each record may list multiple studies or series.

Curation logs (“ICPSR_CURATION_LOGS”): 649 curation logs for 563 ICPSR studies (although most studies in the subset had one curation log, some studies were associated with multiple logs, with a maximum of 10) curated between February 2017 and December 2019 with variables for study number, action labels assigned to work description sentences using a classifier trained on ICPSR curation logs, hours of work associated with a single log entry, and total hours of work logged for the curation ticket. Curation logs map to the study and paper tables through ICPSR study numbers as “STUDY”. Each record represents a single logged action, and future users may wish to aggregate actions to the study level before joining tables.

figure 2

Entity-relation diagram.

Technical Validation

We report on the reliability of the dataset’s metadata in the following subsections. To support future reuse of the dataset, curation services provided through ICPSR improved data quality by checking for missing values, adding variable labels, and creating a codebook.

All 10,605 studies available through ICPSR have a DOI and a full-text description summarizing what the study is about, the purpose of the study, the main topics covered, and the questions the PIs attempted to answer when they conducted the study. Personal names (i.e., principal investigators) and organizational names (i.e., funding agencies) are standardized against an authority list maintained by ICPSR; geographic names and subject terms are also standardized and hierarchically indexed in the ICPSR Thesaurus 34 . Many of ICPSR’s studies (63%) are in a series and are distributed through the ICPSR General Archive (56%), a non-topical archive that accepts any social or behavioral science data. While study data have been available through ICPSR since 1962, the earliest digital release date recorded for a study was 1984-03-18, when ICPSR’s database was first employed, and the most recent date is 2021-10-28 when the dataset was collected.

Curation level information was recorded starting in 2017 and is available for 1,125 studies (11%); approximately 80% of studies with assigned curation levels received curation services, equally distributed between Levels 1 (least intensive), 2 (moderately intensive), and 3 (most intensive) (Fig.  3 ). Detailed descriptions of ICPSR’s curation levels are available online 35 . Additional metadata are available for a subset of 421 studies (4%), including information about whether the study has a single PI, an institutional PI, the total number of PIs involved, total variables recorded is available for online analysis, has searchable question text, has variables that are indexed for search, contains one or more restricted files, and whether the study is completely restricted. We provided additional metadata for this subset of ICPSR studies because they were released within the past five years and detailed curation and usage information were available for them. Usage statistics including total downloads and data file downloads are available for this subset of studies as well; citation statistics are available for 8,030 studies (76%). Most ICPSR studies have fewer than 500 users, as indicated by total downloads, or citations (Fig.  4 ).

figure 3

ICPSR study curation levels.

figure 4

ICPSR study usage.

A subset of 43,102 publications (45%) available in the ICPSR Bibliography had a DOI. Author metadata were entered as free text, meaning that variations may exist and require additional normalization and pre-processing prior to analysis. While author information is standardized for each publication, individual names may appear in different sort orders (e.g., “Earls, Felton J.” and “Stephen W. Raudenbush”). Most of the items in the ICPSR Bibliography as of 2021-11-16 were journal articles (59%), reports (14%), conference presentations (9%), or theses (8%) (Fig.  5 ). The number of publications collected in the Bibliography has increased each decade since the inception of ICPSR in 1962 (Fig.  6 ). Most ICPSR studies (76%) have one or more citations in a publication.

figure 5

ICPSR Bibliography citation types.

figure 6

ICPSR citations by decade.

Usage Notes

The dataset consists of three tables that can be joined using the “STUDY” key as shown in Fig.  2 . The “ICPSR_PAPERS” table contains one row per paper with one or more cited studies in the “STUDY_NUMS” column. We manipulated and analyzed the tables as CSV files with the Pandas library 36 in Python and the Tidyverse packages 37 in R.

The present MICA dataset can be used independently to study the relationship between curation decisions and data reuse. Evidence of reuse for specific studies is available in several forms: usage information, including downloads and citation counts; and citation contexts within papers that cite data. Analysis may also be performed on the citation network formed between datasets and papers that use them. Finally, curation actions can be associated with properties of studies and usage histories.

This dataset has several limitations of which users should be aware. First, Jira tickets can only be used to represent the intensiveness of curation for activities undertaken since 2017, when ICPSR started using both Curation Levels and Jira. Studies published before 2017 were all curated, but documentation of the extent of that curation was not standardized and therefore could not be included in these analyses. Second, the measure of publications relies upon the authors’ clarity of data citation and the ICPSR Bibliography staff’s ability to discover citations with varying formality and clarity. Thus, there is always a chance that some secondary-data-citing publications have been left out of the bibliography. Finally, there may be some cases in which a paper in the ICSPSR bibliography did not actually obtain data from ICPSR. For example, PIs have often written about or even distributed their data prior to their archival in ICSPR. Therefore, those publications would not have cited ICPSR but they are still collected in the Bibliography as being directly related to the data that were eventually deposited at ICPSR.

In summary, the MICA dataset contains relationships between two main types of entities – papers and studies – which can be mined. The tables in the MICA dataset have supported network analysis (community structure and clique detection) 30 ; natural language processing (NER for dataset reference detection) 32 ; visualizing citation networks (to search for datasets) 38 ; and regression analysis (on curation decisions and data downloads) 29 . The data are currently being used to develop research metrics and recommendation systems for research data. Given that DOIs are provided for ICPSR studies and articles in the ICPSR Bibliography, the MICA dataset can also be used with other bibliometric databases, including DataCite, Crossref, OpenAlex, and related indexes. Subscription-based services, such as Dimensions AI, are also compatible with the MICA dataset. In some cases, these services provide abstracts or full text for papers from which data citation contexts can be extracted for semantic content analysis.

Code availability

The code 27 used to produce the MICA project dataset is available on GitHub at https://github.com/ICPSR/mica-data-descriptor and through Zenodo with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8432666 . Data manipulation and pre-processing were performed in Python. Data curation for distribution was performed in SPSS.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the ICPSR Bibliography staff, the ICPSR Data Curation Unit, and the ICPSR Data Stewardship Committee for their support of this research. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant 1930645. This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services LG-37-19-0134-19.

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Hemphill, L., Thomer, A., Lafia, S. et al. A dataset for measuring the impact of research data and their curation. Sci Data 11 , 442 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-024-03303-2

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case studies as a method of data collection

A woman standing in a server room holding a laptop connected to a series of tall, black servers cabinets.

Published: 5 April 2024 Contributors: Tim Mucci, Cole Stryker

Big data analytics refers to the systematic processing and analysis of large amounts of data and complex data sets, known as big data, to extract valuable insights. Big data analytics allows for the uncovering of trends, patterns and correlations in large amounts of raw data to help analysts make data-informed decisions. This process allows organizations to leverage the exponentially growing data generated from diverse sources, including internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, social media, financial transactions and smart devices to derive actionable intelligence through advanced analytic techniques.

In the early 2000s, advances in software and hardware capabilities made it possible for organizations to collect and handle large amounts of unstructured data. With this explosion of useful data, open-source communities developed big data frameworks to store and process this data. These frameworks are used for distributed storage and processing of large data sets across a network of computers. Along with additional tools and libraries, big data frameworks can be used for:

  • Predictive modeling by incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) and statistical algorithms
  • Statistical analysis for in-depth data exploration and to uncover hidden patterns
  • What-if analysis to simulate different scenarios and explore potential outcomes
  • Processing diverse data sets, including structured, semi-structured and unstructured data from various sources.

Four main data analysis methods  – descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive  – are used to uncover insights and patterns within an organization's data. These methods facilitate a deeper understanding of market trends, customer preferences and other important business metrics.

IBM named a Leader in the 2024 Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for Augmented Data Quality Solutions.

Structured vs unstructured data

What is data management?

The main difference between big data analytics and traditional data analytics is the type of data handled and the tools used to analyze it. Traditional analytics deals with structured data, typically stored in relational databases . This type of database helps ensure that data is well-organized and easy for a computer to understand. Traditional data analytics relies on statistical methods and tools like structured query language (SQL) for querying databases.

Big data analytics involves massive amounts of data in various formats, including structured, semi-structured and unstructured data. The complexity of this data requires more sophisticated analysis techniques. Big data analytics employs advanced techniques like machine learning and data mining to extract information from complex data sets. It often requires distributed processing systems like Hadoop to manage the sheer volume of data.

These are the four methods of data analysis at work within big data:

The "what happened" stage of data analysis. Here, the focus is on summarizing and describing past data to understand its basic characteristics.

The “why it happened” stage. By delving deep into the data, diagnostic analysis identifies the root patterns and trends observed in descriptive analytics.

The “what will happen” stage. It uses historical data, statistical modeling and machine learning to forecast trends.

Describes the “what to do” stage, which goes beyond prediction to provide recommendations for optimizing future actions based on insights derived from all previous.

The following dimensions highlight the core challenges and opportunities inherent in big data analytics.

The sheer volume of data generated today, from social media feeds, IoT devices, transaction records and more, presents a significant challenge. Traditional data storage and processing solutions are often inadequate to handle this scale efficiently. Big data technologies and cloud-based storage solutions enable organizations to store and manage these vast data sets cost-effectively, protecting valuable data from being discarded due to storage limitations.

Data is being produced at unprecedented speeds, from real-time social media updates to high-frequency stock trading records. The velocity at which data flows into organizations requires robust processing capabilities to capture, process and deliver accurate analysis in near real-time. Stream processing frameworks and in-memory data processing are designed to handle these rapid data streams and balance supply with demand.

Today's data comes in many formats, from structured to numeric data in traditional databases to unstructured text, video and images from diverse sources like social media and video surveillance. This variety demans flexible data management systems to handle and integrate disparate data types for comprehensive analysis. NoSQL databases , data lakes and schema -on-read technologies provide the necessary flexibility to accommodate the diverse nature of big data.

Data reliability and accuracy are critical, as decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete data can lead to negative outcomes. Veracity refers to the data's trustworthiness, encompassing data quality, noise and anomaly detection issues. Techniques and tools for data cleaning, validation and verification are integral to ensuring the integrity of big data, enabling organizations to make better decisions based on reliable information.

Big data analytics aims to extract actionable insights that offer tangible value. This involves turning vast data sets into meaningful information that can inform strategic decisions, uncover new opportunities and drive innovation. Advanced analytics, machine learning and AI are key to unlocking the value contained within big data, transforming raw data into strategic assets.

Data professionals, analysts, scientists and statisticians prepare and process data in a data lakehouse, which combines the performance of a data lakehouse with the flexibility of a data lake to clean data and ensure its quality. The process of turning raw data into valuable insights encompasses several key stages:

  • Collect data: The first step involves gathering data, which can be a mix of structured and unstructured forms from myriad sources like cloud, mobile applications and IoT sensors. This step is where organizations adapt their data collection strategies and integrate data from varied sources into central repositories like a data lake, which can automatically assign metadata for better manageability and accessibility.
  • Process data: After being collected, data must be systematically organized, extracted, transformed and then loaded into a storage system to ensure accurate analytical outcomes. Processing involves converting raw data into a format that is usable for analysis, which might involve aggregating data from different sources, converting data types or organizing data into structure formats. Given the exponential growth of available data, this stage can be challenging. Processing strategies may vary between batch processing, which handles large data volumes over extended periods and stream processing, which deals with smaller real-time data batches.
  • Clean data: Regardless of size, data must be cleaned to ensure quality and relevance. Cleaning data involves formatting it correctly, removing duplicates and eliminating irrelevant entries. Clean data prevents the corruption of output and safeguard’s reliability and accuracy.
  • Analyze data: Advanced analytics, such as data mining, predictive analytics, machine learning and deep learning, are employed to sift through the processed and cleaned data. These methods allow users to discover patterns, relationships and trends within the data, providing a solid foundation for informed decision-making.

Under the Analyze umbrella, there are potentially many technologies at work, including data mining, which is used to identify patterns and relationships within large data sets; predictive analytics, which forecasts future trends and opportunities; and deep learning , which mimics human learning patterns to uncover more abstract ideas.

Deep learning uses an artificial neural network with multiple layers to model complex patterns in data. Unlike traditional machine learning algorithms, deep learning learns from images, sound and text without manual help. For big data analytics, this powerful capability means the volume and complexity of data is not an issue.

Natural language processing (NLP) models allow machines to understand, interpret and generate human language. Within big data analytics, NLP extracts insights from massive unstructured text data generated across an organization and beyond.

Structured Data

Structured data refers to highly organized information that is easily searchable and typically stored in relational databases or spreadsheets. It adheres to a rigid schema, meaning each data element is clearly defined and accessible in a fixed field within a record or file. Examples of structured data include:

  • Customer names and addresses in a customer relationship management (CRM) system
  • Transactional data in financial records, such as sales figures and account balances
  • Employee data in human resources databases, including job titles and salaries

Structured data's main advantage is its simplicity for entry, search and analysis, often using straightforward database queries like SQL. However, the rapidly expanding universe of big data means that structured data represents a relatively small portion of the total data available to organizations.

Unstructured Data

Unstructured data lacks a pre-defined data model, making it more difficult to collect, process and analyze. It comprises the majority of data generated today, and includes formats such as:

  • Textual content from documents, emails and social media posts
  • Multimedia content, including images, audio files and videos
  • Data from IoT devices, which can include a mix of sensor data, log files and time-series data

The primary challenge with unstructured data is its complexity and lack of uniformity, requiring more sophisticated methods for indexing, searching and analyzing. NLP, machine learning and advanced analytics platforms are often employed to extract meaningful insights from unstructured data.

Semi-structured data

Semi-structured data occupies the middle ground between structured and unstructured data. While it does not reside in a relational database, it contains tags or other markers to separate semantic elements and enforce hierarchies of records and fields within the data. Examples include:

  • JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) and XML (eXtensible Markup Language) files, which are commonly used for web data interchange
  • Email, where the data has a standardized format (e.g., headers, subject, body) but the content within each section is unstructured
  • NoSQL databases, can store and manage semi-structured data more efficiently than traditional relational databases

Semi-structured data is more flexible than structured data but easier to analyze than unstructured data, providing a balance that is particularly useful in web applications and data integration tasks.

Ensuring data quality and integrity, integrating disparate data sources, protecting data privacy and security and finding the right talent to analyze and interpret data can present challenges to organizations looking to leverage their extensive data volumes. What follows are the benefits organizations can realize once they see success with big data analytics:

Real-time intelligence

One of the standout advantages of big data analytics is the capacity to provide real-time intelligence. Organizations can analyze vast amounts of data as it is generated from myriad sources and in various formats. Real-time insight allows businesses to make quick decisions, respond to market changes instantaneously and identify and act on opportunities as they arise.

Better-informed decisions

With big data analytics, organizations can uncover previously hidden trends, patterns and correlations. A deeper understanding equips leaders and decision-makers with the information needed to strategize effectively, enhancing business decision-making in supply chain management, e-commerce, operations and overall strategic direction.  

Cost savings

Big data analytics drives cost savings by identifying business process efficiencies and optimizations. Organizations can pinpoint wasteful expenditures by analyzing large datasets, streamlining operations and enhancing productivity. Moreover, predictive analytics can forecast future trends, allowing companies to allocate resources more efficiently and avoid costly missteps.

Better customer engagement

Understanding customer needs, behaviors and sentiments is crucial for successful engagement and big data analytics provides the tools to achieve this understanding. Companies gain insights into consumer preferences and tailor their marketing strategies by analyzing customer data.

Optimized risk management strategies

Big data analytics enhances an organization's ability to manage risk by providing the tools to identify, assess and address threats in real time. Predictive analytics can foresee potential dangers before they materialize, allowing companies to devise preemptive strategies.

As organizations across industries seek to leverage data to drive decision-making, improve operational efficiencies and enhance customer experiences, the demand for skilled professionals in big data analytics has surged. Here are some prominent career paths that utilize big data analytics:

Data scientist

Data scientists analyze complex digital data to assist businesses in making decisions. Using their data science training and advanced analytics technologies, including machine learning and predictive modeling, they uncover hidden insights in data.

Data analyst

Data analysts turn data into information and information into insights. They use statistical techniques to analyze and extract meaningful trends from data sets, often to inform business strategy and decisions.

Data engineer

Data engineers prepare, process and manage big data infrastructure and tools. They also develop, maintain, test and evaluate data solutions within organizations, often working with massive datasets to assist in analytics projects.

Machine learning engineer

Machine learning engineers focus on designing and implementing machine learning applications. They develop sophisticated algorithms that learn from and make predictions on data.

Business intelligence analyst

Business intelligence (BI) analysts help businesses make data-driven decisions by analyzing data to produce actionable insights. They often use BI tools to convert data into easy-to-understand reports and visualizations for business stakeholders.

Data visualization specialist

These specialists focus on the visual representation of data. They create data visualizations that help end users understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context.

Data architect

Data architects design, create, deploy and manage an organization's data architecture. They define how data is stored, consumed, integrated and managed by different data entities and IT systems.

IBM and Cloudera have partnered to create an industry-leading, enterprise-grade big data framework distribution plus a variety of cloud services and products — all designed to achieve faster analytics at scale.

IBM Db2 Database on IBM Cloud Pak for Data combines a proven, AI-infused, enterprise-ready data management system with an integrated data and AI platform built on the security-rich, scalable Red Hat OpenShift foundation.

IBM Big Replicate is an enterprise-class data replication software platform that keeps data consistent in a distributed environment, on-premises and in the hybrid cloud, including SQL and NoSQL databases.

A data warehouse is a system that aggregates data from different sources into a single, central, consistent data store to support data analysis, data mining, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Business intelligence gives organizations the ability to get answers they can understand. Instead of using best guesses, they can base decisions on what their business data is telling them — whether it relates to production, supply chain, customers or market trends.

Cloud computing is the on-demand access of physical or virtual servers, data storage, networking capabilities, application development tools, software, AI analytic tools and more—over the internet with pay-per-use pricing. The cloud computing model offers customers flexibility and scalability compared to traditional infrastructure.

Purpose-built data-driven architecture helps support business intelligence across the organization. IBM analytics solutions allow organizations to simplify raw data access, provide end-to-end data management and empower business users with AI-driven self-service analytics to predict outcomes.

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Data Collection Methods | Step-by-Step Guide & Examples

Published on 4 May 2022 by Pritha Bhandari .

Data collection is a systematic process of gathering observations or measurements. Whether you are performing research for business, governmental, or academic purposes, data collection allows you to gain first-hand knowledge and original insights into your research problem .

While methods and aims may differ between fields, the overall process of data collection remains largely the same. Before you begin collecting data, you need to consider:

  • The  aim of the research
  • The type of data that you will collect
  • The methods and procedures you will use to collect, store, and process the data

To collect high-quality data that is relevant to your purposes, follow these four steps.

Table of contents

Step 1: define the aim of your research, step 2: choose your data collection method, step 3: plan your data collection procedures, step 4: collect the data, frequently asked questions about data collection.

Before you start the process of data collection, you need to identify exactly what you want to achieve. You can start by writing a problem statement : what is the practical or scientific issue that you want to address, and why does it matter?

Next, formulate one or more research questions that precisely define what you want to find out. Depending on your research questions, you might need to collect quantitative or qualitative data :

  • Quantitative data is expressed in numbers and graphs and is analysed through statistical methods .
  • Qualitative data is expressed in words and analysed through interpretations and categorisations.

If your aim is to test a hypothesis , measure something precisely, or gain large-scale statistical insights, collect quantitative data. If your aim is to explore ideas, understand experiences, or gain detailed insights into a specific context, collect qualitative data.

If you have several aims, you can use a mixed methods approach that collects both types of data.

  • Your first aim is to assess whether there are significant differences in perceptions of managers across different departments and office locations.
  • Your second aim is to gather meaningful feedback from employees to explore new ideas for how managers can improve.

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Based on the data you want to collect, decide which method is best suited for your research.

  • Experimental research is primarily a quantitative method.
  • Interviews , focus groups , and ethnographies are qualitative methods.
  • Surveys , observations, archival research, and secondary data collection can be quantitative or qualitative methods.

Carefully consider what method you will use to gather data that helps you directly answer your research questions.

When you know which method(s) you are using, you need to plan exactly how you will implement them. What procedures will you follow to make accurate observations or measurements of the variables you are interested in?

For instance, if you’re conducting surveys or interviews, decide what form the questions will take; if you’re conducting an experiment, make decisions about your experimental design .

Operationalisation

Sometimes your variables can be measured directly: for example, you can collect data on the average age of employees simply by asking for dates of birth. However, often you’ll be interested in collecting data on more abstract concepts or variables that can’t be directly observed.

Operationalisation means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations. When planning how you will collect data, you need to translate the conceptual definition of what you want to study into the operational definition of what you will actually measure.

  • You ask managers to rate their own leadership skills on 5-point scales assessing the ability to delegate, decisiveness, and dependability.
  • You ask their direct employees to provide anonymous feedback on the managers regarding the same topics.

You may need to develop a sampling plan to obtain data systematically. This involves defining a population , the group you want to draw conclusions about, and a sample, the group you will actually collect data from.

Your sampling method will determine how you recruit participants or obtain measurements for your study. To decide on a sampling method you will need to consider factors like the required sample size, accessibility of the sample, and time frame of the data collection.

Standardising procedures

If multiple researchers are involved, write a detailed manual to standardise data collection procedures in your study.

This means laying out specific step-by-step instructions so that everyone in your research team collects data in a consistent way – for example, by conducting experiments under the same conditions and using objective criteria to record and categorise observations.

This helps ensure the reliability of your data, and you can also use it to replicate the study in the future.

Creating a data management plan

Before beginning data collection, you should also decide how you will organise and store your data.

  • If you are collecting data from people, you will likely need to anonymise and safeguard the data to prevent leaks of sensitive information (e.g. names or identity numbers).
  • If you are collecting data via interviews or pencil-and-paper formats, you will need to perform transcriptions or data entry in systematic ways to minimise distortion.
  • You can prevent loss of data by having an organisation system that is routinely backed up.

Finally, you can implement your chosen methods to measure or observe the variables you are interested in.

The closed-ended questions ask participants to rate their manager’s leadership skills on scales from 1 to 5. The data produced is numerical and can be statistically analysed for averages and patterns.

To ensure that high-quality data is recorded in a systematic way, here are some best practices:

  • Record all relevant information as and when you obtain data. For example, note down whether or how lab equipment is recalibrated during an experimental study.
  • Double-check manual data entry for errors.
  • If you collect quantitative data, you can assess the reliability and validity to get an indication of your data quality.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organisations.

When conducting research, collecting original data has significant advantages:

  • You can tailor data collection to your specific research aims (e.g., understanding the needs of your consumers or user testing your website).
  • You can control and standardise the process for high reliability and validity (e.g., choosing appropriate measurements and sampling methods ).

However, there are also some drawbacks: data collection can be time-consuming, labour-intensive, and expensive. In some cases, it’s more efficient to use secondary data that has already been collected by someone else, but the data might be less reliable.

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analysing data, while qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth.

Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:

  • Reliability refers to the  consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
  • Validity   refers to the  accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).

If you are doing experimental research , you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.

In mixed methods research , you use both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods to answer your research question .

Operationalisation means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.

For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioural avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.

Before collecting data , it’s important to consider how you will operationalise the variables that you want to measure.

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Myers, Elisabeth, "Virtual Coaching, Self-Directed Learning, and the Implementation of Evidence-Based Practices: A Single Qualitative Case Study" (2024). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects . 5543. https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/doctoral/5543

The purpose of this single instrumental case study was to understand how a virtual coaching program provides opportunities for self-directed learning during the implementation of evidence-based practices for adults at Navigator Coaching. The theory guiding this study was Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory as conceptualizations of self-directed learning described in the literature mirror descriptions of self-determination. The central research question was: How does a virtual coaching program provide opportunities for self-directed learning during the implementation of evidence-based practices? As a single instrumental case, the setting for this study was one virtual life-coaching program in North America. The sample of participants included 12 adults who were currently enrolled in the program for a minimum of 6 months and participated in weekly program activities. Multiple data collection methods were employed to describe and understand the case: observations, audiovisual materials, and individual interviews. Interpretational analysis and a multistep data analysis process including direct interpretation, categorical aggregation, correspondence tables, and interpretive commentaries were utilized to develop the themes and overall synthesis of the case. Opportunities for self-directed learning were provided in weekly live sessions, modules in the program library, and in the Facebook group. Program members utilized instructional opportunities to satisfy their need for autonomy, thus becoming students of self. Participation in a purposeful community that was focused on solutions provided opportunities for program members to satisfy competence and relatedness needs. Program members implemented evidence-based practices and developed skills to create weekly learning plans, which assisted them in becoming agents of their highest selves.

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Original research article, local perspectives on marine ecotourism development in a water-insecure island region: the case of bocas del toro, panama.

case studies as a method of data collection

  • 1 Ocean Nexus, Dalhousie University, Marine Affairs Program, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • 2 Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies, The School for Field Studies, Bocas del Toro, Panama

As a dimension of a blue economy, marine ecotourism should, in theory, not only increase economic viability and environmental sustainability but, most importantly, pursue socially equitable outcomes. In tropical and sub-tropical island regions, where substantial tourism development is often coupled with widespread strains on public infrastructure and services, including water access, there exists a need to better understand the expansion of this industry is felt at the community level; more importantly by individuals who are reliant on these infrastructures and services. Through a case study of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, where water insecurity is becoming acute, we draw on and mobilize stories from local community members, alongside non-participant observations and document collection, to 1) document the experience of some community members with water insecurity and shortages, including how they perceive the roles played by the central government and marine ecotourism sector, and 2) examine how community members feel about how communities feel about policies and investment priorities of the central government regarding water insecurity, including the extent to which they view marine ecotourism development as undermining or promoting local needs. Our results underline the complex nature of marine ecotourism governance and infrastructure development outcomes in a resource-insecure island region, demonstrating that current issues are greatly impacted by historical and social underpinnings of neo-colonialism and systemic racism, misalignments of community vs. government development priorities, and eroded political trust, that shape local experiences with sustainable development and local residents’ perceptions of the ability of marine ecotourism to address issues of water insecurity. Moreover, while our focus is on the marine ecotourism industry, the significance of these findings contributes to a growing body of literature that places local experiences at the forefront of research into the implications of sustainable development in island regions.

Introduction

The marine ecotourism industry is considered to be a dimension of a ‘blue economy’; an ocean-wide sustainable development strategy proposed by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in 2012 to “promote economic growth, social inclusion, and preservation or improvement of livelihoods, while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability” ( World Bank and UN DESA, 2017 , p.1). In theory, marine ecotourism should not only increase economic viability and environmental sustainability but, most importantly, pursue social equity—a “distinctive system of individualized justice” ( Minow, 2021 , p.173). In island regions, where substantial tourism appeal is often coupled with widespread issues of water insecurity ( Cole, 2012 ; Gössling et al., 2012 ; Gossling, 2015 ), this study explores questions regarding the ability of a blue economy strategy, rooted in marine ecotourism, to equitably address both development and well-being in the eyes of those local to island regions. In this paper, we refer exclusively to tropical and sub-tropical islands when discussing ‘islands’ or ‘island regions.’

In island regions, local blue economies are often heavily reliant on the marine tourism industry ( UNWTO, 2023 ). However, as per Leposa (2020) , large volumes of tourists, and the services required to support them (e.g., transportation, accommodation, food and beverage, recreation, etc.), can exacerbate existing issues of local public utility access, often due to infrastructural deficiencies or inherent vulnerabilities to climate change. Important to this study, in particular, is the relationship between the marine ecotourism industry and the availability and management of water resources.

To our knowledge there exist few studies that sit at the intersection of marine ecotourism and water insecurity in island regions specifically; less so those that are guided by, and draw conclusions from, the experiences of those individuals that most closely feel their impacts. As the push for blue economic development continues to grow ( Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2021 ; Pace et al., 2023 ), and water insecurity becomes increasingly prevalent in climate-vulnerable regions ( Winters et al., 2022 ; Crisman and Winters, 2023 ), failing to capture how the two intersect and are felt at the community level could pose risks of conducting research with communities as the ‘subject’ rather than active participants and beneficiaries of the research process ( Israel et al., 2019 ), and/or informing policies that do not capture the nuances of community interests and needs ( Freudenberg and Tsui, 2014 ; Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2019 ).

Marine ecotourism can be described as a “nature-based; environmentally educated; and sustainably managed” ocean tourism industry involving activities such as recreational fishing, snorkelling, whale watching, and SCUBA diving, for example ( Blamey, 2001 , p.6). Modern definitions also include dimensions of local benefits ( Sakellariadou, 2014 ; Das and Chatterjee, 2015 ; Ramos-García et al., 2017 ; Tuwo et al., 2021 ). This can entail increasing market demand for locally produced goods, the use of, and investment in, local facilities and infrastructure, opportunities for local entrepreneurship, and the generation of new revenue streams that remain within a community, for example ( Sakellariadou, 2014 ).

Unlike traditional mass tourism models, marine ecotourism adopts aspects of environmental conservation and promotes community involvement. However, when these tenets are not upheld, due to a variety of reasons (e.g., poor management, lack of community involvement, limited enforcement regimes, etc.), the industry can promote unsustainable practices on all fronts—economic, social, and environmental ( Hoyman and McCall, 2013 ; Rahman et al., 2022 ; Zeng et al., 2022 ). As such, recent scholarship has called for a re-prioritization of social sustainability within blue economic development ( Pascual et al., 2014 ; Bennett et al., 2019 ; Leposa, 2020 ; Nugraheni et al., 2020 ; Osterblum et al., 2020 ; Campbell et al., 2021 ; Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2021 ), with concerns raised regarding the implication of developing marine industries in areas where there is significant need to consume and manage resources sustainably.

The United Nations (UN) refers to water security as the ability of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities and quality of water for the support of livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development ( UN Water, 2013 ). In this sense, water in security is the condition in which at least one of the above variables (i.e., quantity, quality, or accessibility) is not met, threatening human well-being. While many island regions have some degree of established water infrastructure, the coincidence of ‘dry season’ and peak tourist landings can perpetuate regional instabilities in water security, where local residents compete for this essential yet scarce resource; both with tourists and between communities ( Gheuens et al., 2019 ).

In this study, we draw on and mobilize stories of local residents in a heavily touristed island to better understand how the relationship between marine ecotourism and water insecurity manifests at the community level. We explore the case of Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago (henceforth referred to as ‘Bocas del Toro’ or ‘the archipelago’), where substantial tourism appeal and infrastructural issues coexist, as a microcosm of the paradox of pursuing a marine ecotourism-based blue economy in a water insecure island region. Through integrating non-participant observations and collected documents with a series of semi-structured interview responses we aim to 1) document the experience of some community members with water insecurity and shortages, including how they perceive the roles played by the central government and marine ecotourism sector, and 2) examine whether community members feel as though water insecurity and shortages have influenced policies and economic investment and the extent to which marine ecotourism development may undermine or promote changes.

Our results underline the dynamic and complex nature of marine ecotourism governance and infrastructure development outcomes in a resource-insecure island region, highlighting the historical, political, and social underpinnings that shape perceptions of, and poor experiences with, blue economic. While our focus is on the marine ecotourism industry, the significance of these findings contributes to a growing body of literature that places local experiences at the forefront of research into the implications of sustainable development in island regions.

Island development and marine ecotourism

Although often associated with ‘paradise’ ( Baldacchino, 2012 ), island nations are considered, by the UN, to be some of the world’s ‘least developed’ nations (UN, n.d.), with island regions often referred to as ‘vulnerable,’ given their narrow resource bases, remoteness, and susceptibility to natural hazards and external economic shocks ( Baldacchino, 2012 ; Belmar et al., 2016 ; Lucas et al., 2017 ; Nunn and Kumar, 2017 ). That said, it is important to note that this explicitly reflects the barriers that may limit attempts to garner increased economic prosperity and/or development capacity rather than island societies as a whole.

As described by ( Grydehøj et al., 2021 , p.4), in reflecting upon Hau’ofa (1994) , the modern development and governance of island resources is also often heavily steeped in colonialism, where Western standards for ‘successful’ development are far too narrow in their economic, geographic, and cultural views. Dating back to the 15th century, island states have faced oppression from the United States, France, Spain, England, and the Netherlands ( Keegan and Diamond, 1987 ; Leposa, 2020 ). While there remain proponents of some aspects of the colonial legacy ( Feyrer and Sacerdote, 2009 ), Kay (2010) maintains that colonialism, in Latin America specifically, has led to harmful endo -colonial relations that sit at the root of present-day developmental inequities. In the Caribbean, Sealy (2018) notes that colonization has not only impacted the regional ethnic makeup, but that the perpetuation of globalization as a neo-colonial structure has created a larger dependence on investments from the Global North. Overall, there exists a small body of literature that discusses the role of the blue economy in perpetuating or combating neo-colonialism. However, scholarship surrounding the colonization of islands maintains that neo-colonialism can propagate harmful outcomes of sustainable development projects such as marine ecotourism ( Heim, 2017 ; Durokifa and Ijeoma, 2018 ; Grydehøj et al., 2021 ).

Typically, ‘tourism intensive’ island regions derive a substantial proportion of their economic development from the marine ecotourism industry ( Adamiak and Szyda, 2022 ). McElroy (2006) refers to tourist-driven island economies as SITES (‘Small Island Tourist Economies’), describing the expansion of tourism as a prominent development strategy for small economies, where there exist large dependencies on the industry. While, marine ecotourism can lead to a host of benefits, research in the island context specifically, more often notes the potential consequences of such development in destinations considered to be on the ‘global periphery’ ( Dodds and Graci, 2012 ). For example, while ecotourism may produce local job opportunities, Das and Chatterjee (2015) posit that community members are more often placed in low-skill and/or low-pay roles. Moreover, Harrison and Prasad (2011) found that in Fiji, for example, there exist high levels of benefit leakages to foreign investors. In Bocas del Toro, specifically ( Scott et al., 2024 , p.2), explain that tourism-related development can lead to inequitable impacts through the promotion of real estate ventures in culturally significant areas, like mangroves, where investors may view the local environment as “obstacles to achieving ‘paradise.’”

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, Bocas del Toro is one of the country’s top ecotourism destinations. It consists of approximately nine islands and 200 islets and is home to a population of approximately 22,500 across the larger Bocas del Toro district ( INEC, 2021 ). Attributable to a history of colonialism, the construction of the Panama Canal, and the cultivation of a plantation economy, among other reasons, the region is also home to a variety of distinct racial and cultural groups including Ngäbe peoples (those indigenous to present-day Panama and Costa Rica), Panamanians, Afro-Antilleans, and Chinese individuals, for example ( Guerrón-Montero, 2006 ; Carse, 2014 ; Suman and Spalding, 2018 ). Moreover, Bocas del Toro’s most developed islands have become increasingly inhabited by lifestyle migrants—relatively affluent individuals with the capacity to move to destinations, typically in the Global South, with warmer climates, a lower cost of living, and a seemingly higher quality of life—from the United States ( Benson, 2013 ; Spalding, 2013 ).

Although not formally considered an autonomous state, Bocas del Toro displays many of the hallmark characteristics of a SIDS as per the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States ( UN-OHRLLS, 2022 ). It is home to both a distinct societal makeup and unique marine ecosystems ( Seemann et al., 2014 ; Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ), and faces documented issues of infrastructural development and geographic isolation from larger global markets ( Tilmans et al., 2014 ; Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ).

Bocas del Toro’s economy is predominantly supported by the tourism industry; across the larger Bocas del Toro province, tourism makes up 95% of all economic activity, greatly exceeding the national average ( Klytchnikova and Dorosh, 2013 ). The most lucrative form of tourism is referred to by the Autoridad de Turismo de Panama (Tourism Authority of Panama; ATP) as ‘island ecotourism’ ( ATP, 2020 ), with the most popular destinations being Starfish Beach, Red Frog Beach, and Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park ( Camarca de Turismo de Bocas del Toro, 2022 ). While the ATP does not explicitly refer to ‘marine ecotourism’ in their reporting, for the purposes of this study, ‘island ecotourism’ and ‘marine ecotourism’ will be considered synonymous, as their accepted definitions align greatly.

Common marine ecotourism-based businesses in the region include boat tours and taxis, restaurants, hostels, and gift shops, with much of the region’s tourism development concentrated in Bocas Town, Isla Colón, where an average of 150,000 tourists visited annually pre-COVID-19 pandemic ( Gray et al., 2015 ). Strikingly, although Bocas del Toro now sees approximately 225,000 tourists per year, the Bocas del Toro province remains one of the poorest in the nation ( CECOMRO, 2018 ; ATP, 2020 ).

Moreover, to appreciate the nuances of Bocas del Toro’s current socioeconomic landscape, one must also understand its economic history, which is closely tied to colonial resource extraction. In the early 20 th century, the construction of the Panama Canal and the establishment of the U.S. Canal Zone cemented the United States as a major player in the Panamanian economy. In Bocas del Toro, specifically, this presence was predominantly felt through the establishment of the United Fruit Company (UFC), an American-owned corporation trading in Latin American-grown fruit, namely bananas ( Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ). Typically supporting the UFC’s operations were Afro-Caribbean and Ngäbe workers, as well as labour migrants from China and Italy ( Spalding, 2011 ). This created harmful shifts in power, as Black and Indigenous individuals were often exploited and marginalized through the imposition of a globally capitalistic system ( Amin, 1978 ). While small-scale operations remain (now Chiquita Brands International), the UFC’s presence in the archipelago declined greatly by 1990 due to war, crop diseases, and labour losses (as a result of poor pay and working conditions) ( Guerrón-Montero, 2006 ), making way for a burgeoning tourism industry by the 2000s, as many large-scale housing developments were left vacant and global interest in the region increased following the 1991 earthquake.

Today, the archipelago’s socioeconomic and environmental systems are inextricably linked to the marine ecotourism industry, attracting individuals looking to experience its vibrant culture, beautiful beaches, and ocean life ( Klytchnikova and Dorosh, 2013 ; Spalding et al., 2015 ; Lucas, 2019 ; ATP, 2020 ; Mach and Vahradian, 2021 ; Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ; Bocas del Toro Tourism, 2023 ). That said, tourism infrastructure across Bocas del Toro has been deemed ‘suboptimal’ by the ATP, specifically as it pertains to the limitation of physical space and the overload of basic services, such as water provisioning ( ATP, 2020 ). Critical to this study, Bocas del Toro is also home to widespread issues of water insecurity; the majority of households across archipelago do not have access to running water supplied by the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (Institute of Aquaducts and Sewers; IDAAN), with 23% of the population instead turning to bottled water or drinking unfiltered rainwater respectively ( CNA, 2016 ) ( Figure 1 ). In fact, just 1.9% of the total residences connected to IDAAN’s services reside in the Bocas del Toro province ( IDAAN, 2022 ). As such, water insecurity is among the region’s most precarious issues.

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Figure 1 Regional water insecurity across the Bocas del Toro Archipelago represented by the percentage of households in each census region without access to running water. The population density of each region in relation to the archipelago’s total population is also represented. Uncoloured areas represent regions outside of the archipelago or those not captured by the Panamanian Census. Created using the 2010 Panamanian Census Data, accessed from the STRI GIS Data Portal (2019) .

In this study we employ a multi-method approach—the combining of two or more methods to expand one’s research base when investigating a research question or phenomenon ( Roller and Lavrakas, 2015 )—that is firmly rooted in local experiences and perceptions. This includes the use of semi-structured interviews, non-participant observation, and document collection. While our approach pulls from that of political ecology, we do not attempt to formally mobilize methods typically used in such studies (e.g., Cole, 2012 ), but rather utilize participant responses to deduce the governance processes, historical events, etc., that frame their experiences with marine ecotourism and water insecurity. It should be noted that the data collection period in Bocas del Toro (May 25 th , 2023 to June 27 th , 2023) also coincided with a water shortage; declared an environmental emergency on June 9 th , 2023.

Semi-structured interviews

A member of our research team travelled to Bocas del Toro from May 25 th , 2023 to June 9 th , 2023 to conduct semi-structured interviews; asking participants open-ended questions to elicit information regarding one’s research topic ( Adeoye-Olatunde and Olenik, 2021 ). During this time, a total of 16 individuals, including members of the Bocas del Toro Chamber of Tourism, property owners, business owners, tour guides, labourers, and concerned citizens, were interviewed. Participants in this process—those older than 18 years of age and who have lived in the region for over 5 years—were identified through a purposive snowball method ( Weiss, 1994 ), beginning with contacts provided by a local informant.

Topics discussed (i.e., water shortages, infrastructure, economic and tourism development, and overall welfare) were drawn from a pre-determined interview guide developed through preliminary document collection and with guidance from researchers in the region (see Supplementary Table 3 ). While the guide was used to facilitate conversation, it adapted as more information was provided and new events occurred (i.e., the onset of an environmental emergency during the interview period). Interviews lasted an average of one hour and, depending on the participant’s level of comfort, were conducted in both English and Spanish (with an interpreter translating responses). Due to participant location and the accessibility of each island, interviews took place across three of Bocas del Toro’s nine main islands—Isla Colón, Isla Carenero, and Isla San Cristóbal ( Table 1 ).

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Table 1 Socioeconomic and geographic description of interview locations/study sites.

Non-participant observation

To support responses collected during interviews, non-participant observation—observing and documenting an event without actively participating in activities ( Becker and Geer, 1957 )—was used to explore how ecotourist attractions function across the archipelago and further understand how communities respond to, and navigate, water shortages. Observed events were identified through community contacts established during the interview period as well as local WhatsApp groups; typically used to share important information across the region. They included waiting in line at public wells, visiting an ecotourist attraction, observing protests regarding water access, and attending a public meeting with IDAAN (further event details available in Supplementary Table 4 ). The average observation process lasted approximately one hour and involved taking notes regarding what did and did not occur, what demographic of individuals were present, and the overall tone of those present.

Document collection

Given that this is the first study to investigate topics of marine ecotourism and water insecurity in Bocas del Toro, supplementary grey literature was sought out to provide wider context and breadth to the study. Documents were found by searching for qualitative phrases related to drought, water, and tourism in Bocas del Toro in Google and the Bocas Breeze Newspaper database. Documents collected include government policies, local news articles, and regional reports.

The analysis of the data was guided by an inductive, constant comparative approach, as per Hodkinson (2008) and Glaser (1965) , whereby we sought to increase our understanding of potential underlying theories and identify emergent themes through a constant back-and-forth engagement with the data. In practice, this first involved transcribing and digitizing interview responses and observation notes. The data was then coded categorically (e.g., the codes ‘GOV-TOURISM’ and ‘GOV-WATER’ were utilized whenever a participant described how they felt about and experienced tourism and water governance respectively), and supplemental documents were reviewed to compare and contrast with interview and observational data.

In an effort to mirror the anecdotal nature of the data collected, here we weave together interview responses, observational notes, and document insights to describe how the economic development of Bocas del Toro, governance processes, experiences with water shortages, and future development in the region, shape local experiences with, and perceptions of, marine ecotourism and water insecurity. Figure 2 demonstrates a timeline of events and governance developments described by participants, as well as relevant events to contextualize the case.

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Figure 2 Timeline of events and developments regarding ecotourism and water security in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The timeline presented is not exhaustive of all related moments in history, but rather those relevant to this particular study. Entries on the left of the timeline represent historical events, while those on the left represent policies and plans. ATP refers to the Tourism Authority of Panama; IDAAN refers to the Institute of Aquaducts and Sewers.

Beaches as the new bananas–shifting to a tourism-based economy

With increased neoliberal capital interest, government incentives to purchase land for tourism, and an abundance of global interest, tourism in Bocas del Toro effectively ‘exploded’ by the year 2000, signifying, as put by Pleasant and Spalding (2021) , a shift from a banana-based export economy created by the UFC to a tourism-centric economy based on the region’s beaches and biodiversity. Despite this shift, the UFC’s presence in Bocas del Toro remains prominent, as it had become integrated into the region’s social and infrastructural fabric (e.g., the creation of communication networks, railway systems, power plants, medical facilities, and housing developments) (United Fruit Historical Society, n.d.). Furthermore, when asked about the UFC in Bocas del Toro, participants described how a dependency on a singular industry and foreign entity resulted in harmful losses of traditional livelihoods, such as fishing and agriculture—”we used to be farmers who could feed ourselves, now we’ve lost this completely,” said one property owner.

Among those participants directly employed by the tourism industry, all spoke positively about the renewed economic benefit it brings. As one tour operator put it, “the money is in tourism, the experiences.” Of those participants situated outside of the industry, a majority also acknowledged that marine ecotourism does play a major role in supporting the local economy— “tourism is good,” noted a construction worker we spoke with, “yeah it’s good because it makes work and brings in money to us when it’s done right.”

That said, there remains great skepticism across all participants surrounding the industry’s future in Bocas del Toro:

“I used to fully believe that tourism was the key to successful cities with no opportunities.

But then we have fragile societies like we have in Latin America, and there’s not a strong

government that actually tries to implement human development. It is not taking us to the

right place,” said a member of the Bocas del Toro Chamber of Tourism.

When asked what she believes to be the largest development project in the community, one business owner responded:

“Tourists. But it grew alone. It grows alone … It’s incredible. Bocas [del Toro] has been developed in many ways, but not in basic things. It keeps growing, growing, growing, and I don’t see [public utilities] growing with it.”

Navigating an era of sustainable development – tourism and water governance

In contextualizing participant responses, we offer a brief exploration of relevant actors, plans, and policies as they pertain to marine ecotourism and water governance in Bocas del Toro. The overarching development of Panama’s marine sector is directed by the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment; MiAMBIENTE), and the UN Development Programme via the Política Nacional de Océanos de Panamá ( National Ocean Policy of Panama; NOP). Ratified in 2022, the goal of the NOP is to pursue a ‘Blue Panama,’ where “marine and coastal resources are protected, conserved, valued, and used sustainably, positively impacting the quality of life of citizens in an inclusive and participatory manner” ( MiAMBIENTE, 2022 , p.13). To do so, blue economic development, internally defined as the “sustainable use of marine and coastal resources…, approaching marine-coastal activities under the prism of balance between the three social, economic and environmental dimensions,” is prioritized as one of 4 strategic axes ( MiAMBIENTE, 2022 , p.21). Central to this, under Goal M. 27, is the “promotion of sustainable tourism development linked to the oceans” ( MiAMBIENTE, 2022 , p.21), where the NOP yields much of the responsibility around this directive to the ATP.

Since 2008, the ATP has been responsible for “the development, promotion, and regulation of tourism as an activity”; maintaining tourist resources, protecting the ecological balance of the land, and respecting the customs of its inhabitants ( Decreto Ley No.4, 2008 , p.1). When asked about their feelings towards the ATP, virtually all participants expressed concern regarding tourism governance in Bocas del Toro, and its ability to “make things happen.” According to one individual, tourism in Bocas del Toro is “governed by people who don’t have morals, they are just selfish. If it doesn’t make them money, they don’t do it.” At the community level, tourism in Bocas del Toro is monitored by the Cámara Turismo Bocas del Toro (Bocas del Toro Chamber of Tourism), a non-profit community organization that works to organize the local tourism sector and protect its longevity ( CTB, 2023 ). Nonetheless, the Chamber of Tourism is not afforded government funds or jurisdiction to carry out and/or enforce such endeavours and does not play a large role in high-level decision-making regarding tourism in the archipelago ( ATP, 2020 ). According to a member of the Chamber of Tourism, this creates issues surrounding community input, whereby the community is neither adequately consulted nor are their ideas accurately integrated into development plans:

“We are a private sector, but we have no say or worth in the final decision. [The ATP] says: ‘We met with the Chamber of Tourism and the chamber is approving [the development]’. But later, when we come and tell you all the things wrong with the plan, they say ‘Oh no, you came up with this idea, the Chamber approved it’…We don’t want that; we don’t need that. We need real things.”

At large, plans for tourism development in Bocas del Toro are organized under the Plan Maestro de Desarrollo Turístico Sostenible 2020-2050 (Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development 2020-2050; MPSTD), with goals to promote Panamanian tourism, improve global competitiveness, decentralize tourism operations, and develop state tourism policies ( ATP, 2020 ). In Bocas del Toro, the MPSTD’s Action Plan includes a total of 19 actions and 75 projects. Of this, 6 projects fall under Action 2.4.4. Improvement of Basic Infrastructures, including a project to, in tandem with IDAAN, “improve the drinking water supply system on Isla Colón” by 2022 ( ATP, 2020 , p.316). Despite this, participants were wary as to whether these plans would ever “hit the ground,” as put by one individual. “The [MPSTD] is a plan,” said a member of the Chamber of Tourism, “but if you do nothing to implement it, it’s not going to change. I haven’t seen any real action.” “You don’t need the government. The government is not going to do it. Because the government has no brain to think,” expressed another member of the community.

The implementation of these projects is largely overseen by IDAAN, with more specific water infrastructure improvement plans for Bocas del Toro listed in Panama’s Plan Nacional de Seguridad Hídrica 2015-2050 (National Plan for Water Security 2015-2050; NPWS). The NPWS serves as a roadmap for ensuring that “every person in [Panama] has sustained access to quality water and basic sanitation,” with a focus on “eliminating inequalities of access in an inclusive and equitable manner” ( CNA, 2016 , p.65). In pursuit of this, the NPSW budgets 3.3 billion USD to address issues of drinking water in Isla Colón exclusively, including improvements to catchments and sewage systems ( CNA, 2016 ). However, while the NPSW projects that all individuals in the Bocas del Toro province will have access to drinking water by 2025, as will be described in subsequent sections, participants note that, as of 2023, they are skeptical as to whether this goal will ever be reached. As one business owner put it, “it’s only plans plans. But when you go to practice? No, nothing happens.”

Accessing water in Bocas del Toro – a myriad of methods

Very limited formal documentation on water infrastructure and distribution processes in Bocas del Toro is publicly available; as put by one participant, “nobody really knows exactly how the water works [in Bocas del Toro].” Despite this, with insights from community members, we attempt here to establish a clearer picture of water distribution across the study sites ( Figure 3 ), highlighting the intensity of water insecurity in Bocas del Toro and inform how marine ecotourism might impact water access.

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Figure 3 Maps of approximate locations of examples of water infrastructure across Isla Colón/Isla Carenero (A) , and Isla San Cristóbal (B) as described by participants. Image 1—a newly constructed water reserve tank. Image 2—a typical public well in Isla Colón. Image 3—Big Creek Reservoir. Image 4—IDAAN water processing station. Image 5—a typical rain catchment system in Isla Colón. Image 6—a water tanker deployed during water shortages. Image 7—water line that connects Isla Colón and Isla Carenero. Image 8—a typical rain catchment system in Isla Carenero. Image 9—water catchment station in Isla San Cristóbal. Image 10—underground pipe system in Isla San Cristóbal. Images 1-3 and 5-10 were taken by Abigael Kim. Image 4 is reprinted from the IDAAN Water Treatment Plant Database ( https://sig-idaan.hub.arcgis.com/apps/0a722564d72f421798b33b902ebef781/explore ).

Residents of Isla Colón typically access water through IDAAN’s public distribution system, and/or via public or private wells. IDAAN services over 9,000 individuals across the southern region of Isla Colón through an underground pipe system powered by gravity and a select number of pumps. While it is widely understood this water, supplied by a local reservoir (‘Big Creek’) ( Figure 3 , Point 3), is filtered at a nearby plant ( Figure 3 , Point 4), the efficacy of this process remains highly debated ( Corea, 2016 ; Telemetro, 2022 ; Albaez, 2023 ; Godoy, 2023 ; Ortiz, 2023 ). When asked whether she would drink water from her tap, one shop owner responded, “I’m not gonna do that,” while her partner added that the water is often “yellow or brown” in colour. This system is also subject to the impacts of ‘dry season’ in the Caribbean (October to April), when services are often limited by IDAAN to two hours in the morning and evening. Regions of the island not serviced by IDAAN rely on rainwater collection ( Figure 3 , Point 5) or the use of public or private wells ( Figure 3 , Point 2). As of today, there exist eight IDAAN wells in Isla Colón, with only four in constant operation, while private wells on the island are typically located in regions populated by lifestyle migrants and affluent families. That said, virtually all wells across the archipelago require electricity, of which the local supply is highly unpredictable.

In Isla Carenero, those residing along the island’s perimeter typically rely on underwater pipes that distribute water sourced from IDAAN’s system in Isla Colón ( Figure 3 , Point 7). That said, participants noted that this process is unreliable, as there is often not enough water pressure from Big Creek to reach the shores of Isla Carenero. According to a local restaurant owner, “[Isla] Carenero has huge water problems. When there is no water there, [they] struggle the most.” Participants from Isla Carenero also noted that it is common to utilize rain collection systems ( Figure 3 , Point 8) or to travel to Isla Colón to purchase jugs of water. Furthermore, many restaurants and tourist operations on the island utilize private wells to service their patrons, while lifestyle migrants are also known to have access to private wells.

Isla Colón and Isla Carenero are the only islands (out of nine that are inhabited) to have direct access to IDAAN’s services. Other islands, like Isla San Cristóbal, rely on community-led initiatives or the purchasing of water jugs from Isla Colón. As described by a local tour guide, approximately 600 individuals on Isla San Cristóbal access water via a natural catchment system and man-made storage and distribution point developed through a fundraising project by local and international organizations ( Figure 3 , Point 9). The storage point collects water from the island’s northern mountain region, filters it for solids, and distributes it to the community via gravity and underground pipes ( Figure 3 , Point 10). According to a local tour guide, this process is quite reliable; during times of drought, residents of other islands have looked to him for water.

Frustrations run high – a history of water shortages

Bocas del Toro has faced (documented) water shortages in 2016, 2017, 2019, 2022, and 2023. One restaurant owner noted that, while “water has always been an issue in [Bocas del Toro],” the problem “has never been this bad.” Following a prolonged period of drought and water restrictions, as well as pressure from MiAMBIENTE, a State of Environmental Emergency was declared by the Cabinet of Panama in both 2022 (November 8 th ) and 2023 (May 30 th ) ( Resolución de Gabinete No. 127, 2022 ; Resolución de Gabinete No. 48, 2023 ). Doing so authorizes IDAAN to enact the region’s ‘Contingency Plan’, involving the assignment of water trucks to distribute potable water to affected businesses and residences on Isla Colón and Isla Carenero, the increase of water conduction line diameters, the activation of additional wells, and the increase of regional technical support ( IDAAN, n.d. ).

During this type of Environmental Emergency, those without private well access typically purchase water jugs from local shops, fill their household tanks at public wells, or fill up smaller jugs from IDAAN trucks ( Figure 3 , Point 6). However, participants mentioned that such alternative methods are not sufficient, leaving many without water for days on end. One souvenir vendor, for example, mentioned that she had not been able to shower in “over 8 days.” Moreover, as lines for local wells grow, business owners mentioned that these trucks are extremely challenging to access, having to “choose between running [their] shops and getting water.”

Overall, aside from climate change as a catalyst, there is no largely agreed-upon answer or government consensus as to why water management and infrastructure are so precarious or why Bocas del Toro feels droughts so intensely. However, participants speculated that they have something to do with the coinciding of ‘dry season’ and tourist season in the fall. As mentioned in the Bocas Breeze Newspaper in response to the 2016 shortage:

“In recent years, sometimes it doesn’t rain for a while or excited tourists flood the island in

record numbers and when you turn the faucet, you are met with the depressing sound of a

‘drip, drip, (silence)…’ Maybe you left your toilet running and your tank has gone empty, or

perhaps the town reservoir has gone dry” (2016).

Undoubtedly at the center of these frustrations is IDAAN, more specifically as it pertains to the uneven distribution of water and lack of government accountability. According to IDAAN, water trucks are to deliver water to both city centres and residential areas. However, almost all participants mentioned that this system is not well executed, citing disparities in where water was being delivered during the 2023 shortage. “Unfortunately, there is a bad distribution of the water and trucks,” one tour operator said, “they don’t have a good plan for giving out the water, so they pass me by.” More specifically, many participants mentioned that hotels are often prioritized, and speculated that truck drivers were being paid a premium by these establishments to visit them first. “A government truck should be for the community,” said one community member, “but it doesn’t happen in Panama.”

Participants also expressed frustration with IDAAN’s accountability during these shortages. “I don’t look to the government for water,” said one individual, “I pray to God.” During the 2023 shortage, in particular, many community members were left with unanswered questions, as the regional IDAAN phone line for Bocas del Toro was disconnected, and public meetings with IDAAN were continuously cancelled. As was seen on multiple occasions during the 2023 shortage, such feelings often led to public displays of frustration, in the form of road blockades and protests; “we don’t just wait for water, we have to block the streets for water,” said one shop owner.

In June 2023, after over a month without reliable access to running water, IDAAN announced the connection of two additional wells to supplement Big Creek while precipitation levels remained low ( Ortiz, 2023 ). Despite these developments, residents of both Isla Colón and Isla Carenero still face water insecurity at large, with water remaining a contentious issue across the archipelago.

A potential paradox? – Future plans for water infrastructure and marine ecotourism

Looking towards 2050, Bocas del Toro is the topic of numerous development projects in both marine ecotourism and water infrastructure. However, participants expressed disappointment about the priorities of the central government’s plans and were skeptical of their potential outcomes.

In 2022, under the NPSW, IDAAN announced a 10 million USD investment in the “study, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of improvements to the components of the aqueduct in Isla Colón” ( Ortiz, 2023 , p.1). According to Albaez (2023) , this includes a 3-Phase Plan to develop a more reliable 24-hour public, potable water supply system:

● Phase 1—Well drilling/maintenance and construction of a water storage tank with a 700,000-gallon capacity.

● Phase 2—Construction of well-housing units and pumping equipment.

● Phase 3—Construction of supplementary desalinization plant and improvements to water treatment plant and dispensers.

Despite reports that 60% of the project has been completed as of May 2023 ( Ortiz, 2023 ), including the totality of Phase 1 and the maintenance of public well systems from Phase 2, none of the participants indicated that they had seen improvements in their water supply, but instead questioned the efficacy of IDAAN’s projects. For example, one participant referred to the early release of 5 million USD of the 3-Phase Plan investment during the 2022 shortage to rapidly increase water infrastructure quality and capacity ( Resolución de Gabinete No. 127, 2022 ), of which they had yet to see the effects of:

“They would come around and promise us that they would solve the problem, and it never

happened … They released 5 million dollars. Where does it go? It’s like ice in the sun, nobody knows where it goes … A week after they got the money the water came like lemonade, and we got it once a day”.

All participants were critical of where the Government of Panama’s plans for the development of water infrastructure sit on the list of priorities, as compared to tourism. Those directly employed by the tourism industry made note of the Urban Development of Cities with a Tourist Vocation Plan; a 6-year 100 million USD loan (2019-2023) for the development of tourism infrastructure, management, and governance, including that of public utilities in Isla Colón ( Inter-American Development Bank , n.d.). However, when asked whether they had seen any benefits from this investment, all pointed to the development of more hotels, attractions, and restaurants rather than improvements to existing infrastructure. “When I see that [investment] here, it’s in building hotels,” mentioned one property owner, “but they’re not building up the community with it, you know? ‘Why is that?’ I ask all the time”. Another participant mentioned that “[Bocas del Toro] is so marketed as a tourism place that there is nothing else [the government] does. We have culture and needs but they don’t see.”

While not explicitly discussed with participants, an important development in this case came in July of 2023, when Panama signed on to the UN’s Water Capacity Development Initiative (CDI) for SDG 6; the first country in the world to do so. The CDI serves as a vehicle for inter-agency cooperation on capacity development related to freshwater, sanitation, and hygiene ( UN Water, 2021 , p.1). Its goal is to enable the UN system, and its partners, to coordinate support for participating countries based on their unique needs. While it is too early to predict the efficacy of this initiative, it does indeed promote “national-level ownership” and capacity building, rather than a “simple transfer of mechanisms” ( UN Water, 2021 , p.1). As Panama continues to pursue a blue economy rooted in marine ecotourism as well as improved water security, questions remain as to whether there is indeed a balance to be struck between the two; one that aligns government aspirations for development with the realities and needs of those living in Bocas del Toro.

Contextualized around the potential paradox of developing a blue economy in a resource-insecure island region, this study examines how the relationship between marine ecotourism and water insecurity, in particular, manifests at the community level through a case study of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Guided by local experiences and perceptions, our findings highlight the role that socio-historical shifts, central plans and policies, and ongoing crises play in shaping the realities of local residents and their attitudes toward sustainable development and the government as a whole. In this section, we situate key findings within the literature, teasing out applicable lessons learned, making inquiries into the reasoning behind our results, and contemplating areas for future research.

The role of colonialism and race in marine ecotourism and water governance

Our results further perpetuate the widely accepted notion that issues of island development and resource governance must be considered within the context of colonization and systemic racism. In particular, studies in the ‘island tourism’ field (e.g., Cywiński (2015) ; Guerrón-Montero (2006) ; Grydehøj et al. (2021) ) would describe the lasting impacts of losses in traditional livelihoods at the hands of the UFC, and its role in directing Bocas del Toro’s economic development, as a function of neo -colonialism. Along this vein, Grimwood et al ( Grimwood et al., 2019 , p.1) posit that the production and consumption of tourism have the propensity to “(re)inscribe colonizing structures, systems, and narratives across time and space,” while ( Eyisi et al., 2024 , p.154) note that the pace and manner of tourism development is often an artifact of “tourists from colonizers becoming the source market for the colonized”. For example, a study of wildlife tourism by ( Mach et al., 2023 , p.1474) found that wildlife tourism boat guides learned what tourists (many being from Europe and North America) “wanted to see and seemed to enjoy most (e.g. pretty beaches and charismatic wildlife) and itineraries evolved accordingly,” often changing the actual names of destination, commonly used between locals to simple English, in order attract more tourists (e.g., ‘Sloth Island’).

A discussion of colonialism in this context, that being inherently racially formed, also brings us to the role of systemic racism. While the Panamanian government has enacted laws surrounding racial discrimination, in an effort to reconcile past and present harms [e.g., the dispossession of Afro-Caribbean farming communities ( Chapman, 2014 ), infringements upon Ngäbe land rights ( Finley-Brook and Thomas, 2010 ), and the attempted assimilation of Afro-Caribbean identity into mestizo society ( Corinealdi, 2022 )], Afro-Panamanians and Ngäbe individuals still make up some of the poorest groups in the nation, often residing in some of the least invested-in regions, with limited access to social services, water included ( INEC, 2021 ). While drawing a causal relationship between race and water insecurity is not within the scope of this research, the 2020 UN World Water Report does explicitly relate water insecurity and intersectionality, especially regarding race and class ( UN Water, 2020 ). Peer-reviewed studies on this issue, however, overwhelmingly exist in the North American context (e.g., Deitz and Meehan, 2019 ; Dickin and Gabrielsson, 2023 ; Harrington et al., 2023 ; Méndez-Barrientos et al., 2023 ; Workman and Shah, 2023 ). For example, a spatial analysis of water insecurity across the United States by Deitz and Meehan (2019) found that deficiencies in household water infrastructure are concentrated in regions typically inhabited by racialized groups. Specific to Bocas del Toro, our research highlights disparities in access to water between social and racial groups, as determined by foreign and ethno-racial status. For example, participants note that, during water shortages, wealthier lifestyle migrants and hotel operators have the financial capital to purchase water and/or pay truck drivers to deliver it.

The government-community disconnect

Central to this case is an evident disconnect between the Government of Panama’s aspirations for marine ecotourism development in Bocas del Toro and the needs of those living in the region, with many participants believing the government to be prioritizing marine ecotourism development over plans to improve water infrastructure. While a more intensive study, one which highlights the interconnectedness of climate change impacts and water management within larger government policies, is required to support this notion, our findings suggest that local realities may perpetuate the narrative that the government is ‘leaving behind’ social sustainability in pursuit of a viable marine ecotourism industry. In the Caribbean context, Peterson ( Peterson, 2020 , p.20) argues that “growth, rather than development, remains the overriding focus,” whereby “the quality of life for residents and, in turn, the quality of experience for visitors have not always met the various principles of sustainable tourism.” Furthermore, Srivastava and Mehta (2023) and Scott et al. (2024) propose that this outcome can indeed be “further exacerbated by neoliberal development policies and the notion of [Bocas del Toro] as a ‘resource frontier.’

As found by Wortman et al. (2016) ’s examination of local opinions on foreign tourism investment in Mauritius, our results suggest that the sheer profitability of the marine ecotourism sector may incentivize governments to continue to pursue its growth in terms of investment and future planning. They describe the tourism industry as “a variant of outward-oriented development strategies,” where the services required to host a successful industry may eclipse the services required by the local population. This is of extreme relevance in island regions, where tourism is a major contributor to national economies, motivating governments to continue to pursue ‘tourism-led growth,’ as put by Lee and Chien (2008) , and attracting increasing amounts of foreign direct investment ( Tecel et al., 2020 ; Broner et al., 2023 ).

If Bocas del Toro’s marine ecotourism sector continues to grow without the development of essential infrastructure alongside it, the region may indeed hit the point of ‘over-tourism’, where the arrival of excessive numbers of tourists at a destination imposes negative impacts on local communities ( Dioko, 2017 ). Peterson (2023) notes that over-tourism, in the Caribbean specifically, is often an artifact of “neo-liberal outward-oriented tourism policy., largely based on private and political interests to the exclusion of societal values and community interests.” Notably, reaching this point may, in fact, incentivize governing bodies to prioritize the development of public utility infrastructure to ensure that marine ecotourism remains an economically viable industry.

The importance of trust

The prevalence of mistrust in the Government of Panama expressed by participants can be described as a lack of ‘political trust’; trust in institutions and governance actors stemming from group membership, government policies, and/or general political support or satisfaction ( Bauer and Freitag, 2016 ). Our results demonstrate that local perceptions of corruption can mold residents’ opinions of marine ecotourism development, and its ability to act on issues of water insecurity. While we are not aware of any studies that explore the role of government corruption in affecting local perceptions of sustainable development, more broadly, Karst and Nepal (2022) note that a lack of established trust between communities and actors that oversee ecotourism development can lead to an array of management challenges and stakeholder conflicts.

Political trust is also often tied to the ability of actors to deliver quality public services and respond to citizen demands ( Murtin et al., 2018 ). In this study, participant responses indicate skepticism regarding the effectiveness and accountability of government actors and policies. As described by Fragkou and McEvoy (2016) , in an investigation of community attitudes surrounding water scarcity in Latin America, traumatic and frequent experiences with water scarcity can foster concerns regarding political accountability, further erode trust in utility providers, and perpetuate poor opinions of future developments that could potentially improve water access, like desalinization plants. Enqvist and Ziervogel (2019) also found that when compounded with historically tense relationships between communities and policymakers, the mishandling of water shortages can signal to local residents that government action is ineffective and subsequently untrustworthy. Eyisi et al. (2024) review of tourism in Nigeria also found that negative opinions of tourism development can be tied to a history of unfulfilled government promises. In the case of Bocas del Toro, participants often pointed out a lack of follow-through on the MPSTD. Nilsen et al. (2023) describe what it means to be a ‘periphery’ region on an intra -national scale, where the development of rural or isolated regions may fall victim to an ‘urban bias’ ( Lipton, 1977 ). We witness this in Bocas del Toro as participants note that management schemes from the national level often overlook their interests as compared to more urbanized provinces closer to the core of Panama City.

Study limitations and future research avenues

While we believe the stories and perceptions shared with us to be of the utmost value to understanding our research questions, we acknowledge that our results represent the experiences of 16 individuals across the archipelago. Although a smaller sample size can enhance the validity of an in-depth inquiry ( Crouch and McKenzie, 2006 ), a larger sample size can better account for diversity within and between stakeholder groups ( Boddy, 2016 ). As the pool of research in this field begins to expand, we recommend that not only do future studies adequately account for community experiences and perceptions, but that they aim to include a variety of stake- and rights-holders, determining sample size as a “matter of judgment and experience … evaluating the quality of the information collected against the uses to which it will be put,” as per Sandelowski ( Sandelowski, 1995 , p.179).

This research begins to fill knowledge gaps in the literature surrounding marine ecotourism development and access to water in island regions. To ensure that community realities and interests do not effectively ‘fall through the cracks,’ there exists a need to pursue community-centric research on the impact of a blue economic agenda on a variety of essential public utilities and human needs (e.g., electricity, food, housing). Furthermore, valuable insights can be drawn from studies that compare and contrast, in-depth, cases across island regions to better understand the norms of the community impacts of blue economic development in resource-scarce societies. Concerning Bocas del Toro specifically, there is a great need for continued research into all areas of marine ecotourism development and the equitable distribution of resources (both in relation to one another and independently), as ours is one of a handful of studies within the region (e.g., Spalding, 2013 ; Spalding et al., 2015 ; Spalding, 2017 ; Mach and Vahradian, 2021 ; Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ; Mach et al., 2023 ; Sandelowski, 1995 ; Pigram, 2000 ; McElroy, 2006 ; Pascual et al., 2014 ; Sakellariadou, 2014 ; Roller and Lavrakas, 2015 ; Pierskalla, 2016 ; Nunn and Kumar, 2017 ; Ramos-García et al., 2017 ; Murtin et al., 2018 ; Nugraheni et al., 2020 ; Osterblum et al., 2020 ; Peterson, 2020 ; Phelan et al., 2020 ; Mach and Vahradian, 2021 ; Minow, 2021 ; Pleasant and Spalding, 2021 ; Ministerio de Ambiente de Panamá, 2022 ; Rahman et al., 2022 ; Resolución de Gabinete No. 127, 2022 ; Méndez-Barrientos et al., 2023 ; Nilsen et al., 2023 ; Ortiz, 2023 ; Pace et al., 2023 ; Resolución de Gabinete No. 48, 2023 ; Scott et al., 2024 ).

In this study, we mobilize local experiences with marine ecotourism and water insecurity to better understand how the relationship between the two manifests at the community level. Our results highlight issues, of colonialism and systemic racism, misalignments of development priorities, and eroded trust, that shape local experiences with sustainable development, and residents’ perceptions of the ability of marine ecotourism to address issues of water insecurity.

Moving forward, as the Government of Panama pursues a ‘Blue Panama,’ and the global community continues to adopt the blue economy as a framework for sustainable ocean development, there exists a need to re-center and internalize social sustainability, primarily issues of equity, as the leading goal of blue economic development. More specifically, in order to adhere to the original intent of a blue economy, this must not only include the prioritization of social equity throughout marine ecotourism and water governance, but also address the issues that underpin such misalignments, as found in this study. This can include an approach that focuses on the power disparities between groups through a socio-historical lens. Singh et al. (2023) refer to this as an ‘anti-inequity’ approach, whereby it is critical to investigate and understand the processes that perpetuate inequities in, in this case, water security.

Overall, this research has demonstrated that the ‘balance’ between community well-being and development in the pursuit of a blue economy in island regions is a matter far greater than ‘growth,’ ‘infrastructure,’ or ‘development’. There exist important historical and social underpinnings that define the relationship between decision-makers and the communities in which they make decisions for, who proves to benefit from a blue economy, and perceptions of sustainable development as a whole. Ultimately, marine ecotourism cannot be considered part of a blue economy strategy if it does not prioritize social equity. As such it is pivotal that future research within this field understand how relevant plans and policies may manifest at the community level, directly from those communities that may face existing barriers to social well-being and sustainability.

Data availability statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/ Supplementary Material . Further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Ethics statement

The studies involving humans were approved by Marine Affairs Program Ethics Review Standing Committee, Dalhousie University. The studies were conducted in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. The participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author contributions

AK: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing. CS: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Project administration, Resources, Supervision, Writing – review & editing. WS: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Project administration, Resources, Supervision, Writing – review & editing.

The author(s) declare financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. This study was funded by the Nippon Foundation, Ocean Nexus.

Acknowledgments

We sincerely thank the communities and participants of Bocas del Toro for allowing, actively participating in, and supporting the data collection for this study. We also thank the staff of The School for Field Studies, Panama, for hosting us during our time in the field, as well as Laura Bruce and Sydney Rubinstein for their support as interpreters. Commentary and edits on the original manuscript were also provided by Ricardo de Ycaza (Oregon State University). We are grateful for the time and input from the reviewers of this paper, which have greatly improved the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Supplementary material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2024.1377053/full#supplementary-material

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Keywords: marine ecotourism, water security, blue economy, island systems, Bocas del Toro, sustainable development

Citation: Kim A, Scott CP and Swartz W (2024) Local perspectives on marine ecotourism development in a water-insecure island region: the case of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Front. Mar. Sci. 11:1377053. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2024.1377053

Received: 26 January 2024; Accepted: 02 May 2024; Published: 17 May 2024.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2024 Kim, Scott and Swartz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Abigael Kim, [email protected]

† These authors have contributed equally to this work

This article is part of the Research Topic

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  • Arshad Hussain 13 &
  • Ahmed K. Al-Sadi 1  

BMC Nursing volume  23 , Article number:  337 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

Emergency department (ED) nurses are exposed to the risk of secondary traumatic stress (STS), which poses a threat not only to nurses’ health and psychological well-being but also adversely affects the execution of their professional duties. The quality and outcome of their nursing services are negatively affected by STS.

The purpose of this study is to comprehensively investigate the prevalence and intensity of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) among Emergency Department (ED) nurses. It aims to identify and analyze the socio-demographic, occupational, and psychological factors that influence the severity and variation of STS experienced by these nurses.

The study utilized a sequential explanatory mixed methods approach, including two phases. Phase 1 employed a cross-sectional study design, utilizing a convenience sample of 181 nurses to explore the levels of STS and the factors associated with it. Following this, Phase 2 was structured as a qualitative descriptive study, which involved conducting semi-structured interviews with a purposefully selected group of ten ED nurses. Data collection took place at three major hospitals in Saudi Arabia during the period from January to June 2022.

A total of 181 participants were included in the study. The mean STSS score reported by the nurses was 51 (SD = 13.23) out of the maximum possible score of 85, indicating severe STS among ED nurses. Factors associated with an increase in the levels of STS among ED nurses included being female, older in age, married, possessing higher education and experience, having a positive relationship with colleagues, receiving organisational support, and dealing with a higher number of trauma cases. Several themes emerged from the qualitative interviews including: ED Characteristics: Dual Impact on STS, Emotional Resonance and Vulnerability, Personal Life Stressors, The Ability to Cope, and Social Support.

Conclusion and implications for practice

Future strategies and interventions targeting STS should be prioritized to effectively manage its impact on ED nurses. It is crucial to develop targeted interventions that address the specific factors contributing to STS, as identified in this study. Additionally, these findings aim to enhance awareness among nursing administrators, managers, and supervisors about the critical factors associated with STS. This awareness is essential for accurately assessing and developing interventions that mitigate STS among nursing staff.

Peer Review reports

Nurses play a pivotal role in delivering healthcare services, often serving as the primary the primary and main point of contact between patients and healthcare providers [ 1 , 2 ]. They spend most of their working time directly relating to and interacting with patients. It is crucial to ensure that the nurses’ welfare is supported to enhance their professional development, quality of work, and output levels. Emergency Department (ED) nurses, in particular, work in highly demanding environments [ 3 ], where the intensity of work and the level of effort and empathy required are significantly higher. In this unit, the nurses work with patients who are, in most instances, unable to execute their basic hygienic needs and duties [ 4 ]. Frequently, ED nurses provide care for patients who have experienced traumatic events, such as accidents and injuries, and wounded and haemorrhaging victims. A majority of ED patients are traumatised by their experiences and often share this with ED nurses. As such, on a regular basis, ED nurses work and serve patients with trauma, which exposes them to the risk of trauma [ 5 , 6 ]. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) has broadened the definition of trauma to include indirect exposure to trauma—hearing about, witnessing, and learning about trauma—through indirect means [ 7 , 8 ]. Thus, trauma refers not only to direct trauma from an assault but also to secondary exposure to trauma. The re-conceptualisation of trauma leads to the recognition of secondary traumatic stress (STS) as a form of traumatic stress in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. PTSD is a mental health problem that occurs in people after they encounter a life-threatening experience [ 8 , 9 ]. With both PTSD and STS characterized by symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, and arousal [ 7 ]. In the period preceding DSM-5, individuals were only diagnosed with PTSD after prolonged exposure to trauma, which limited the number of people diagnosed. Many were incorrectly diagnosed as not having PTSD. The most prevalent risk of trauma exposure for ED nurses is STS [ 7 , 8 ]. STS is the result of stress caused by indirect trauma exposure. This stress dimension is acquired secondarily. The primary stress is experienced by patients who have been exposed to a traumatic event. In turn, the secondary level of stress affects the nurses who care for these patients. Nurses have a responsibility to engage patients while offering care. This includes taking their medical histories and understanding the context and nature of their injuries and accidents. Consequently, they often gather information on patients’ traumatic experiences. This exposure to patients’ traumatic stories and histories can lead to nurses experiencing STS. Understanding the level and exposure of nurses to STS is critical as its prevalence affects their psychosocial wellness and quality performance [ 10 , 11 ].

In understanding the prevalence of STS among nurses, studies have demonstrated a correlation between the nurses’ socio-demographic factors and their STS levels. However, these factors are inherently contextual. ED nurses encounter a variety of socio-demographic factors across different regions and countries [ 12 , 13 ]. Therefore, findings the relationship between socio-demographic factors and STS levels depend on variables such as health policies, cultural influences, and professional expectations within each country and region [ 12 , 13 ]. Thus, findings are formulated by analyzing dataspecific to each region and country. Unfortunately, preliminary literature analysis in the Saudi context demonstrated limited data on social factors and job satisfaction among Saudi Arabian nurses [ 6 ]. This gap in the literature guided the study’s focus on primary data collection within the Saudi Arabian context. The study was developed based on the KSA public sector healthcare industry context. Thus, the focus was on nurses working in the public healthcare industry. This focus was chosen because the public healthcare sector constitutes over two-thirds of the KSA healthcare industry. An evaluation of the KSA context indicates high exposure to STS among its nurses.

The level of STS in the Middle East is higher than in the global average. For example, studies by Kinker, Arfken and Morreale [ 14 ] and Shalabi et al. [ 15 ] which used the STSS tool, have shown that nurses in the Middle East experience greater exposure to STS compared to their counterparts in Western Europe and globally. In the Middle East, cultural perceptions often view stress, depression, and all forms of mental illness as a curse and socially unacceptable. As a result, individuals facing such challenges are often ostracized, viewed as insane, and considered unfit for society. This stigma significantly increases the likelihood of individuals not seeking help, treatment, and care when they are exposed to STS. Furthermore, seeking psychiatric assistance or counselling for traumatic experiences is frequently seen as an admission of mental instability, thus discouraging many from seeking such help [ 16 ]. This distinct cultural context makes the Middle East an especially relevant location for a study aimed at examining the impact of these perceptions on STS levels and exposure factors.

The strategic aim and contribution of the study is to help evaluate the cause of the relatively high STS among nurses in KSA. Specifically, the study aims to determine if the contributing factors and the extent of exposure to STS in KSA are consistent with those identified in the global literature. This provides a foundational basis for developing effective strategies to overcome and mitigate STS among nurses in KSA. By understanding these factors, employees and organizations can devise strategic and practical solutions to alleviate STS and reduce exposure among public sector nurses in KSA. Organizations will benefit from having more positive, committed, and productive employees, while also reducing costs associated with stress-related issues [ 17 ].

Justification for conducting a mixed methods approach

The Mixed Methods Approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex relationship between socio-demographic and work-related factors and STS. Quantitative methods can identify and measure the extent of these relationships through statistical analysis, while qualitative methods can provide deeper insights into the experiences and perceptions of ED nurses regarding STS. Qualitative findings can also validate the results obtained from quantitative methods. Given the cultural context of Saudi Arabia, qualitative methods can explore cultural factors that might influence STS. These insights are crucial for tailoring interventions and policies effectively.

Based on the identified literature gap, this study aimed to comprehensively assess the prevalence and intensity of STS among nurses working in the ED. Additionally, the study aims to identify and analyze the specific socio-demographic, occupational, and psychological factors that contribute to the variation in STS levels among these nurses.

Materials and design

Research design.

The research utilized a mixed methods sequential explanatory approach, commencing with a quantitative phase followed by a qualitative phase [ 18 ]. Phase 1: used a cross-sectional design to measure the prevalence of STS among ED nurses and the nature and extent of the relationship between ED nurses’ STS levels and their socio-demographic and work-related variables [ 19 ]. Phase 2 involved a qualitative descriptive approach, which included conducting several semi-structured interviews. These interviews were designed to enhance the understanding of the Phase 1 findings by providing a context in which the quantitative data can be better interpreted [ 18 ]. Qualitative interviews helped in gaining deeper insights into the lived experiences of individuals dealing with traumatic stress and in exploring the various factors that impact the levels of stress among nurses. Both qualitative and quantitative data were gathered and subsequently integrated to offer a comprehensive understanding of the experience of STS and how various predictors contributed to an increase in its levels.

Setting and participants

This study was conducted from January to June 2022. Phase 1 of the study used a convenience sample of ED nurses recruited from three selected governmental hospitals in Saudi Arabia: Hail General Hospital, King Khalid Hospital, and King Salman Specialist Hospital. A sample size of 181 ED nurses was determined using OpenEpi web-based calculator, Version 3.01 ( www.openepi.com ) based on the following criteria: 95% confidence level, 5% absolute precision and a population size of 340. The inclusion criterion was that the participant must be currently a registered nurse who provides direct patient care in an ED in the targeted hospitals and agreed to participate in the study. Moreover, nurses who had more than one year of experience in the ED were included. Trainees were excluded from the study.

In Phase 2 of the study, we interviewed a purposeful sample of 10 nurses who had both higher and lower scores on the STSS. Choosing nurses with varying stress scores helped understand factors contributing to higher or lower STS levels, leading to more precise research outcomes relevant to the context. Interviews were carried out until data saturation was reached, where no additional themes or subthemes were found by the participants [ 20 ]. When the terms and processes started to repeat, it indicates that a sufficient amount of data has been collected [ 21 ]. Each interview lasted for approximately 30 to 60 min.

Data collection

Questionnaires.

The questionnaire has two sections which include collecting participants’ socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, education, experience, dependents, and income. It also gathered information on factors like career rank, shift work, weekly hours, spirituality, personal trauma history, trauma caseload, organizational support, and colleague relationships.

The second section of the questionnaire assessed STS using the English validated version of the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) developed by Bride et al. [ 22 ]. Since English is the official language among nurses in the intended settings, this tool was chosen. The STSS is a well-established tool with proven reliability, characterized by the Cronbach’s alpha value of 0.89 [ 23 ]. The tool includes a total of 17 different questions that measure stress using five-point, self-rating scales with responses ranging from 1 to 5, with 1 = never and 5 = very often. The questions are clustered into the three elements of STS: (i) intrusion (questions 2, 3, 6, 10, and 13), (ii) arousal (questions 4, 8, 11, 15, and 16), and (iii) avoidance (questions 1, 5, 7, 9, 12, 14, and 17) [ 24 , 25 ]. In its assessment of stress levels, the questionnaire focuses on the respondents’ experiences in the last seven days. The scores range between 17 and 85, with the higher scores indicating higher levels of STS. The STSS scores have the following interpretation: <28 indicating little or no STS, 28–37 indicating mild STS, 38–43 indicating moderate STS, 44–48 indicating high STS, and 49 and above indicating severe STS [ 24 , 26 ].

The responses were collected online via Google forms, as the study questionnaire was published online, and the respondents accessed it through a URL link that was shared with them. The questionnaire was distributed by ED directors to the nurses who met the inclusion criteria. Moreover, the questionnaire had an attached consent with a brief clarification of the study purposes and a number to contact in case of any questions. The questionnaire included an empty field where participants could indicate wish to be contacted and their preferred method of communication if they wanted to participate in the second phase of the study. The data were collected in the period between January and June 2022, thereby providing the respondents with sufficient enough time to respond to the questionnaire in the midst of their busy and tight working schedules. A reminder to complete the questionnaire was sent three weeks after the first attempt to increase response rates.

In-depth semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with a purposeful sample of nurses who had participated in Phase 1. The researcher used SPSS to identify and recruit nurses with the highest and lowest scores on the STSS. If these nurses did not provide their contact information or express interest in participating in the first phase, the researcher would then proceed to recruit participants with the next highest and lowest scores on the STSS.

Participants were contacted and given an information sheet that detailed the purpose and nature of the interviews, along with the consent process. Subsequently, the researcher and study participants convened at a mutually agreed-upon private venue for the interview sessions, involving only the researcher and the participant, while some interviews were conducted over the telephone as per the participants’ preferences.

The interview guide (Supplementary 1 ) was created and developed by the researchers following the initial analysis of Phase 1 and a review of relevant literature. The guide was used to capture the experiences of nurses in relation to STS while they cared for patients admitted to the ED. The following questions were asked: Can you describe a specific incident or situation in your nursing practice that you found particularly stressful or emotionally challenging? What factors or things could exacerbate or alleviate the traumatic stress that you experience? Are there any specific factors or aspects of your work environment that you believe contribute to higher or lower levels of STS (explain)? What do you think could be done to improve the well-being and mental health of nurses who frequently encounter STS? Can you recall a moment when you felt overwhelmed by STS? How did you handle it, and what support did you seek or receive? How do you manage or deal with STS in your professional capacity? The interviewer proceeded to ask further open-ended questions that were customized based on each participant’s specific responses and experiences.

The interview notes incorporated observations of participants’ body language and emotions which were also used during subsequent data analysis. Interviews were recorded using audio in a quiet and comfortable room that allowed individuals to freely express themselves without disturbances.

Ethical considerations

Ethical approval.

for the study was obtained from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), represented by the Health Cluster in Hail city (registered with the King Abdullah City for Science and Technology (KACST) in the KSA, under the registration number H-08-L-074, with approval reference H-2022-20. All the participants in this study were informed about the purpose of the study and its advantages before being asked to fill out the questionnaire. In addition, autonomy to participate in the study was guaranteed, and all information was kept confidential and used only for the purpose of scientific research. Anonymity was assured by using anonymous surveys that cannot be traced back to the respondent. The survey contained no personally identifiable information such as name or contact information. All responses were gathered and combined together and summarized in the report to further protect participants anonymity.

Data analysis

Phase 1: a cross sectional study.

The analysis approach included the use of a statistical analysis process. The study’s analysis process relied on the use of SPSS (version 26) software. In the analysis process, the findings were categorised into two main levels: the descriptive and the inferential statistics analysis. First, the descriptive analysis process enabled the analysis of the study sample–based demographics. The socio-demographic variables of the ED nurses were analyzed descriptively with the use of frequency and percentages to indicate the representation of the different population segments. Furthermore, the prevalence of the STSS variables and the presence of PTSD among the ED nurses were both descriptively analysed through the use of mean and standard deviation variables. Additionally, the study checked for the normality of the distributions using the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test and illustrated that p value greater than 0.05 indicates normal distribution of the data. Therefore, parametric statistics tests were used in this study.

Then, an independent-samples Student’s t-test was utilized to test the relationship between the STSS scores and the two categorical variables while one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to test the relationship between the STSS scores and three or more categorical variables. The obtained findings were presented in tables to ease the understanding and interpretation for readers. Factors that appear to have a statistically significant association with STSS scores were then analysed to identify the independent factors of ED nurses’ STSS using multiple linear regression. A p-value of ˂0.05 was considered statistically significant.

Phase 2: qualitative descriptive design

Thematic analysis was employed to analyze the interviews [ 27 ]. Coding was managed using NVivo qualitative data analysis software Version 12 [ 28 ]. In our qualitative analysis, we employed a structured three-phase approach: data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing/verification [ 29 ]. . Initially, the research team conducted a detailed review of all interview transcripts, applying line-by-line coding to highlight significant phrases and identify emerging patterns. This process was enhanced by independent coding by two team members, ensuring data reliability through consensus on code assignment. During the data display phase, we organized the coded data using matrices and diagrams, which facilitated the examination of relationships and the comparison of themes across the dataset. This visual organization helped refine codes into more focused categories. In the final phase, we synthesized the data to draw meaningful conclusions, ensuring our interpretations were grounded in the participants’ experiences. Member checking was employed to validate our findings, further bolstering the credibility of our analysis. To ensure interpretative accuracy, maintain reliability, and bolster rigor, the findings were methodically discussed and validated with colleagues at every stage of the research process [ 30 ].

The Good Reporting of a Mixed Methods Study (GRAMMS) guidelines were utilized to improve the quality and transparency of the study [ 31 ]. Interviews were transcribed and independently coded by three team members (BA, FK, and FA) for dependability and confirmability. Emerging codes and themes were collectively discussed and agreed upon [ 32 ]. Member verification was carried out throughout the interview process.

Quantitative results

Demographic findings and sample validity.

A total of 181 nurses completed the questionnaire. The first findings analyzed in the study focused on the sample demographic variables as illustrated in Table  1 . Overall, 50.8% ( n  = 92) of the total participants identified themselves as being female, with 49.2% ( n  = 89) as being male. The average age of these participants was 29.9 years, ranging between 20 and 46. The majority, at 80.1% ( n  = 145), were identified as Arabs. In terms ofmarital status, 56.4% ( n  = 102) were unmarried, while 43.6% ( n  = 79) were married. Professionally, 26% had a diploma education level, while 58% and 16% Held at least a bachelor and master’s degree qualification, respectively. On earnings, the majority earn between 5000 and 10,000 Saudi Riyal (SAR) at 37%, with only 16.6% reporting to earn more than 15,000 SAR monthly income salary.

STSS scoring among participants

This study analysed the level of STS among ED nurses. The analysis relied on the scores derived from participants’ responses to 17 questions. According to STSS, the mean STS score reported by the nurses was 51.0 (SD = 13.2) out of a possible score of 85, thereby indicating severe STS among the ED nurses. A small proportion of participants (5%) reported experiencing Little to no, or moderate STS, whereas 11.6% indicated mild STS. The majority of participants disclosed experiencing high and severe levels of STS, with 27.6% reporting high levels and 50.8% reporting severe levels. Figure  1 displays the distribution of STS levels among ED nurses.

figure 1

Levels of STS reported by ED nurses

Scoring of STSS subscales: intrusion, arousal, and avoidance variables

The STSS scoring examined the respective scores of the three elements of STS, namely intrusion, arousal, and avoidance. Table  2 outlines the average mean for the three elements of STSS and for the total score of STSS of the respondents in the study. For the three different STSS subscales, the analysis established that out of the highest possible score of 35, avoidance symptoms had the highest score of 20.62 (SD = 5.87), followed by the intrusion with a mean score of15.57 (SD = 3.97), and arousal with a mean score of 14.80 (SD = 4.38).

STS symptoms as reported by ED nurses

The most frequently reported avoidance symptoms included a perceived foreshortened future (76%), followed by diminished activity level (75%), avoidance of clients (68%), and inability to recall client information (62%) respectively. The remaining avoidance symptoms were reported less frequently, including emotional numbing (51%); avoidance of people, places, and things (53%), and detachment from others (56%). Among intrusion symptoms, the most commonly reported symptoms were cued psychological distress (79%), disturbing dreams about clients (69%), and sense of reliving clients’ trauma (63%) while the remaining intrusion symptoms were reported less frequently. Regarding arousal symptoms, the majority of ED nurses indicated experiencing difficulty sleeping (76%), hypervigilance (71%) and irritability (70%). Table  3 illustrates the prevalence of STS symptoms among ED nurses.

Relationship between emergency nurses’ demographics and STSS scores

Table  4 illustrates the relationship between the ED nurses’ sociodemographic characteristics and their overall STSS scores. Significant relationship were observed between the STSS scores and the variables of age, gender, years of experience, marital status, and educational level, with p-values of 0.010, 0.001, 0.001, 0.008, and 0.003, respectively. Conversely, no significant association was found between the STSS scores and the variables of ethnicity, number of dependents, and monthly income.

Relationship between emergency nurses’ work-related items and STSS scores

Table  5 shows that there were a significant relationships between the STSS scores and the variables of Trauma Case Load, ED nurses’ organisational Support, and their relationship with colleagues with p-value of 0.001, 0.027 and 0.026, respectively. However, no significant relationship was found between the STSS scores and other item.

Independent factors of secondary traumatic stress among ED nurses

Multiple linear regression shows that gender ( p  = 0.001), years of experience ( p  = 0.005), marital status ( p  = 0.013), and trauma case load ( p  = 0.007) were the independent factors of the STSS among ED nurses, see Table  6 .

Qualitative results

Sociodemographic characteristics of nurses participated in qualitative phase.

In a sample of 10 nurses included in the interviews, the mean age was 31.7 years, with an average professional experience of 9.5 years. The educational backgrounds among the nurses are diverse, with 6 holding Bachelor’s degrees, 3 possessing Diplomas, and 1 having a Master’s degree. The group was predominantly female, consisting of 8 females and 2 males. Regarding marital status, the distribution was mixed: 6 were married, 3 were single, and 1 was divorced. Among participants, five reported experiencing high levels of STS, while the other five reported low levels of stress. This diversity provided a more comprehensive understanding of the STS experience and the various factors influencing its manifestation (Table  7 ).

Findings of the interviews

Five themes emerged from the qualitative interviews: ED Characteristics: Dual Impact on STS, Emotional Resonance and Vulnerability, Personal Life Stressors, The ability to cope and Social support.

Theme 1: ED characteristics: dual impact on STS

Some nurses reported that working in the ED made them experience fewer physiological and psychological problems when providing care to patients, especially those nearing death. The nurses indicated that since their transfer to the ED, they haven’t had to establish close bonds with patients, as they care for them for a short time. In contrast, participants reported that departments like the dialysis unit, where patients need ongoing treatment over extended periods, require nurses to engage in more prolonged relationships with their patients. This dynamic presents unique emotional challenges, as observed in other specialized units like the isolation ward, highlighting the diverse impacts of different nursing environments on healthcare professionals’ well-being.

“I developed a strong connection with a patient when I was working in the ward, and I was profoundly impacted by their death. Now, in the ER, I am unable to establish relationships with patients, regardless of my desire to do so.” (Nurse 6). “I used to work in the isolation sections and built long-lasting relationships with many patients who stayed there. I was deeply affected if something happened to them. Now I feel less attached to the patients since transferring to the ER’’ (Nurse 8). “I know a colleague who works in the dialysis unit and cries every time a patient dies. Even though he is not typically sensitive, he finds it difficult to cope with these losses.” (Nurse 9).

On the other hand, some nurses find it challenging to detach emotionally from their work, highlighting the intricate nature of nursing care where emotional bonds are fundamental to the profession. This sentiment is encapsulated in the words of one nurse:

“I have encountered several shocking events that continue to weigh heavily on me. My colleagues advise professional detachment; however, I cannot comply because I believe that our emotions as nurses are essential to delivering true care” (Nurse 3). “We will continue to experience stress, and it’s unlikely and challenging to completely separate our emotions from our work as nurses.” (Nurse 4).

Responses from new nurses revealed a common struggle with distressing experiences at work. One nurse shared their difficulty in staying emotionally detached, as advised by her nurse’s colleagues, because she felt that connecting emotionally is crucial for providing proper care.

Additionally, some nurses have reported being more profoundly impacted by traumatic situations due to feelings of guilt and hopelessness. These emotions stem from the perceived low quality of care they are able to provide, which is linked to the excessive burdens and demands characteristic of ED environments

“Occasionally, I feel distressed by the thought that I could have provided more care to certain patients if I had not been so overwhelmed with other responsibilities.” (Nurse 2).

Another nurse described the challenging nature of work in the ED, particularly for those handling critical and life-threatening situations. She mentioned the difficulty of dealing with high-pressure scenarios such as resuscitations and witnessing patient deaths.

“Handling cases like resuscitations and witnessing deaths in daily bases has been tough. It’s these kinds of intense, acute events that really stick in my mind” (Nurse 5).

Theme 2: emotional resonance and vulnerability in nursing

The emotional resonance and vulnerability experienced by nurses significantly shape their professional practice and the care they provide to patients. This theme encompasses the profound impact of personal experiences, such as parenthood, and inherent personality traits, like anxiety, on nurses’ interactions with patients and their well-being. Nurses report an intensified emotional connection with patients that mirrors their own life experiences, such as the empathy felt by parent-nurses towards pediatric patients or the poignant reminder of lost loved ones when caring for elderly patients.

“In every child that comes into the ER, I see the image of my own child. Sometimes, I choose not to work with these young patients and instead ask my colleagues to take over their care.” (Nurse 1).

Another nurse also feels a strong connection to senior patients, reminiscent of her late father. She experiences a deep emotional bond with these patients says:

“Each senior man with a white beard who arrives in the ED holds a special place in my heart, reminding me of my father who has passed away—may he rest in peace. When something happens to them, it makes my heart melt with grief, and it feels as if I am experiencing the loss of my father all over again,” (Nurse 2).

Additionally, certain personality traits, such as a tendency towards anxiety, can increase vulnerability to STS. Nurses with these traits may be more prone to internalizing and reflecting on the traumatic experiences of others.

“I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. Lately, I catch myself thinking and dreaming about my patients’ struggles even after my shift is over.” (Nurse 4). “Everything I see in the hospital reflects on me at home. When my children fall ill, I live in terror that something will happen to them like what happened to a patient I saw in the hospital. There was a child who developed a fever, then had seizures and complications that might impair them for life, even though they were a normal child before. I have become obsessed and fearful that something similar will happen to my children. My husband gets upset about my excessive concern for our children, even in minor cases.” (Nurse 3).

The stress of working in high-pressure environments like the ER, compounded by the emotional intensity of caring for pediatric patients, can lead parent-nurses to become overly vigilant or anxious about their own children’s well-being, even in minor situations. This excessive concern, a possible manifestation of STS, can strain family relationships, as illustrated by instances where a spouse, such as a husband, becomes upset over what is perceived as unnecessary worry. This quotation indicates that the stress from work can spill over into their personal life, leading to a cycle where the stress from one domain exacerbates the challenges in the other.

Theme 3: personal life stressors

External stressors in one’s personal life, such as family issues, health problems, financial challenges, or other personal difficulties, can compound the stress experienced at work. When personal resources are already strained, the additional burden of STS can be even more impactful.

“Dealing with my own family problems and money issues at home makes the stress from my job even harder to handle.” (Nurse 4). ” I am currently facing a significant emotional exhaustion and find myself unable to manage additional stressors. Following my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis, I am grappling with persistent feelings of fear and uncertainty about the future on a daily basis.” (Nurse 5).

Theme 4: the ability to cope

Some nurses effectively manage their emotions during patient care, employing strategies to maintain a professional demeanor in emotionally charged and potentially stressful situations, such as when delivering distressing news to families about the loss of a loved one, a diagnosis, or a tragic accident

“I requested the doctor to be the one to convey the difficult news to the patient’s family because I find it emotionally challenging. It was particularly distressing for me when one of my patients tragically lost both of their legs in a car accident, and I felt unable to communicate this heart-breaking situation to their family’’ (Nurse 10). ‘’Now, after all these years, I have developed a thick skin that shields me from the intrusion of sadness into my body” (Nurse 9).

The quotation underscores how certain nurses cultivate resilience over time to handle stressors, aptly described as “developing a thick skin.” This phrase metaphorically signifies the establishment of emotional boundaries or wall, enabling nurses to fulfil their responsibilities without permitting emotional distress, stemming from continuous exposure to traumatic situations, to affect them deeply.

Theme 5: social support

Some nurses reported that they have a strong support network within the workplace, which helps nurses cope with STS.

“One of my colleagues experienced a deeply distressing event when her brother passed away in room number 3. As a result, she has developed severe symptoms of distress whenever she is required to enter that room. Since then, we have rallied together as a team to provide her with emotional support and assistance in managing her difficulty. Additionally, we have volunteered to handle her assignments if they happen to be in that room.” (Nurse 10).

The influence of social support was clearly evident, as some nurses, who preferred to avoid working with children after becoming parents themselves, received support from their colleagues by taking those assignments from them. Additionally, a nurse who had faced a traumatic incident in a particular emergency room was supported by the supervisory team, which accommodated her by scheduling shifts in a different room. Others received assistance from doctors in communicating sensitive news to patients or their families, which are measures aimed at reducing STS. These varied forms of support play a crucial role in alleviating the impact of STS among nursing staff in ED.

Synthesis and integration

In our study’s quantitative phase, we observed significant variations in stress scores among nurses. Qualitative interviews revealed that this variation is partly due to the unique dynamics of the ED. Some nurses experienced less stress, attributing it to the brief and less emotionally involved nature of patient care in the fast-paced ED environment. In contrast, others reported higher stress levels, particularly those in critical care roles within the ED, who face high-pressure situations like resuscitations and patient deaths. These findings highlight the complexity of stress factors in emergency medical settings.

In the quantitative phase, we observed a correlation between relationships with colleagues, organizational support, and heightened levels of STS among ED nurses. The qualitative insights revealed that this relationship is multifaceted. Nurses frequently relied on their colleagues for emotional and practical support in managing the high-stress environment of the ED. This involvement included nurses sharing patient care responsibilities to alleviate individual stress burdens and actively seeking advice on strategies, like maintaining professional detachment to lessen emotional involvement with patients. Additionally, nurses often sought the assistance of doctors in communicating sensitive information or ‘breaking news’ to patients and their families, as a means to manage the emotional impact of such interactions. This collaborative approach within the healthcare team plays a crucial role in the overall management of STS in the demanding environment of the ED, highlighting the need for comprehensive support systems within healthcare settings.

Quantitatively, the higher incidence of STS among married nurses could be attributed to the additional responsibilities and pressures that often come with marital and familial commitments. This observation aligns with the qualitative accounts where nurses reported that external stressors in their personal lives, such as family issues and health problems, exacerbate the stress experienced at work. It is also reasonable to infer that many married nurses are also parents, and this role can significantly influence their emotional and psychological responses, especially in their professional interactions involving children. Parenthood inherently brings a deeper empathy and sensitivity towards children, which could intensify the emotional experiences of nurses when caring for pediatric patients or dealing with pediatric emergencies. Given the higher number of children presenting to these settings, adds an important dimension to the stress experienced by nurses, especially those who are parents. Healthcare institutions should be mindful of these dynamics and consider flexible work arrangements, comprehensive mental health support, and resources that address both work-related and personal stressors.

In the initial phase of our study, examining the relationship between the number of children and STS among nurses did not reveal a significant correlation. However, being a parent was reported to be related to higher STS. Subsequent qualitative insights indicated a notable trend: nurses who are parents, especially mothers, experienced an enhanced emotional impact when caring for pediatric patients. This underscoring the complex interplay between personal and professional roles in healthcare settings.

We noticed that the avoidance score was high when measuring STS, aligning with qualitative findings that reported the common coping strategy among nurses is the avoidance of stressors to preserve emotional stability. For instance, several nurses, particularly after becoming parents, chose to avoid working with pediatric patients. Additionally, a nurse who experienced a traumatic event in a specific area received support from the supervisory team, who responded by reassigning her to different areas. Furthermore, some nurses were assisted by doctors in delivering sensitive news to patients and their families, thus mitigating the potential trauma. This pattern of avoidance as a coping mechanism underscores the need for comprehensive strategies to address the complex emotional challenges faced by nursing staff in various healthcare settings. The increased caseload leading to heightened STS aligns with qualitative findings that reported high caseloads often result in limited time and resources for each patient. Nurses may feel that they are not providing the level of care they aspire to, which can lead to feelings of guilt and hopelessness. This emotional response is particularly pronounced in cases with poor outcomes, despite the nurse’s best efforts.

The integration of quantitative and qualitative findings in this study provides a multifaceted analysis of the experience of STS and how its levels are influenced by several factors. From the findings of this study, it is evident that the STSS prevalence levels among ED nurses in Saudi Arabia are high—95% of ED nurses experience STS with different severity. This is in accordance with Ratrout [ 11 ], who reported an approximately similar prevalence of STS (94%) among ED nurses. In this study, more than half of ED nurses experienced high to severe levels of STS, with the majority of them reporting at least one symptom of STS. The obtained findings are similar to those of previous studies [ 10 , 11 , 33 ]. A critical analysis of the existing literature indicates that there is a prevailing high exposure to and risk of STS and PTSD among ED nurses. This can be explained by the nature of the nurses’ jobs and responsibilities [ 34 ]. The ED is mandated to care for emergency situations, such as injuries caused to accident victims, unexpected death, and violence [ 35 ]. In particular, their constant interaction with new death experiences of patients in the ED with significant injuries and pain, and even the loss of patients to death under their care, is a possible trigger for developing STS [ 36 ]. This exposure necessitates the implementation of targeted support systems and resilience-building programs within healthcare settings.

Our findings indicate that some nurses in the ED experienced lower levels of STS due to a diminished attachment to patients, attributing this to the transient and less emotionally involved nature of patient care inherent in the fast-paced ED environment. This detachment is partly due to the high acuity and urgency of cases encountered in the ED, where the primary focus is on providing immediate care. Patients often do not stay in the ED for extended periods; they are either quickly transferred to other departments for further treatment or discharged. This dynamic environment, characterized by brief interactions and the rapid turnover of patients, limits nurses’ ability to establish the kind of long-term relationships that might develop in less acute settings, such as long-term care units. Conversely, our study also revealed that certain nurses, particularly those involved in critical care roles within the ED, reported experiencing higher levels of stress. This increase in stress is attributed to the high-pressure situations they frequently face, such as performing resuscitations and managing patient deaths. These findings illuminate the varied impact of the ED work environment on nurses’ experiences of stress and emotional involvement with patients. This highlights the need for tailored interventions and support strategies in the ER, acknowledging both the challenges and potential positive aspects of this unique setting. Such targeted support is essential for effectively helping nurses manage STS.

In this study, it was evident that ED nurses suffer considerably from stress avoidance, intrusion, and arousal symptoms (rated as moderate and above) when measured through the lens of STS which was constant with a study conducted in Greek and reported similar findings [ 33 ]. Among the three subscales, avoidance scored the highest. This result was clearly evident in the avoidance behaviors that nurses utilize to cope with STS, as observed in the qualitative phase of the study. This aligns with the findings of Qian [ 37 ], who reported similar observations. The findings suggest that healthcare institutions should invest in targeted training programs that focus on emotional resilience and stress management. This training could help nurses develop healthier coping mechanisms beyond avoidance.

The results showed that the most reported symptoms were psychological stress, difficulty sleeping, foreshortened future, diminished activity level, hypervigilance, and irritability, respectively. These symptoms were also reported in Ireland by Duffy et al. [ 38 ] and in USA by Dominguez-Gomez and Rutledge [ 39 ]. Nurse managers and organisations should create effective strategies to reduce and manage such symptoms and prevent their consequences.

Being female nurses was associated with increasing the levels of STS. This finding was similar to Civljak et al. [ 40 ] Ramatsipele [ 41 ] and Dominguez-Gomez and Rutledge’s [ 39 ] and contrasted with those of Mary Pappiya [ 42 ]. Although these studies were conducted in USA, the variation between them might be related to the variation in the criteria used to measure STS [ 11 ]. The existing literature reported that female nurses are more prone to stress because of the multi-role and responsibilities associated with being a wife or mother [ 43 ]. In addition, female nurses in Saudi Arabia expose to night working shift that consider difficult and, culturally unacceptable and provide more stressful situation for them [ 44 , 45 ]. Given that the nursing workforce comprises mostly female, gender-specific interventions to reduce STS is required. Therefore, our findings suggested that married nurses may be more likely to demonstrate higher levels of STS, which was consistent with the results of Lee et al. [ 46 ] and contrasted with those of Ramatsipele [ 41 ]. A popular explanation is that the higher stress can be a consequence of the role of married nurses, which involves complex and multiple responsibilities to fulfil, such as being a parents, husband/wife, housekeeper, and employee, which might increase the level of perceived stress among them [ 47 , 48 ]. Contrary, it has been reported by Jiang et al., that being married and having a stable partner could be a source of support to reduce stress [ 49 ]. However, Robles stated that being married is not an advantage if the quality of marriage is low [ 50 ].

Further, this study revealed that the levels of STS are lower in cases where nurses have a higher number of years of experience. According to Labrague [ 51 ], nurses with lower number of years of experience had significantly higher stress due to the fear of medical errors, lack of assessment skills, and fear of occupational injuries [ 51 ]. Experienced nurses deliver higher-quality care and possess the ability to adapt to uncertain, everyday situations in dynamic environments like the ED and its various challenges. These seasoned nurses can cope effectively with stress and offer social support to both their vulnerable colleagues and new nurses who are still learning to confront STS. Further research on experienced nurses’ strategies underscores the importance of structured mentorship programs to facilitate knowledge transfer and stress management, enhancing workplace support and efficiency.

The current study revealed that an increased trauma caseload significantly increases STS. Several studies have found a significant positive association between STS and the number of trauma cases admitted to the ED [ 52 , 53 ]. According to McCann and Pearlman, hearing or learning about a traumatic event can induce STS [ 54 ]. In addition, reinforcement of nurses with coping strategies should be planned to help them to improve mental wellbeing, decreases stress and improve their resilience [ 55 ]. So that, psychological support and assistance from the healthcare providers should be provided for nurses to improve their working conditions [ 56 ]. Administrators and policymakers should encourage reasonable client caseloads, which is important to reduce STSS among ED nurses [ 57 ].

This study also found that the experience of STS among nurses of different races and ethnicities differs significantly, although it was not significant after we performed the regression analysis. Cultural differences, traditions, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors can influence the level of reported stress among nurses. According to Aldwin, the cultural context shapes the types of stressors that an individual is likely to experience and the manner in which these stressors are perceived, understood, and dealt with [ 58 ].

Although extant literature has reported that work-related factors—such as weekly working hours, career rank, salary, shift work, and organisational support—played a significant role in the prevention or occurrence of STS among professionals [ 38 ], our findings show no such influences. To conclude, STSS may have a few limitations. One limitation of the study was the inability to contact certain eligible participants for the interview phase, as they did not provide their contact details in the online survey during the initial quantitative phase. We interviewed a purposeful sample of ED nurses with varying STSS scores. If a nurse was not interested in participating in the subsequent phase or had not provided contact information, we recruited those with the next highest or lowest scores, which might not have been the ideal choice for the study’s purpose. Another limitation is that during the interviews, it was noted that some nurses held misconceptions about STS, frequently focusing on the general stress and challenges of working in the ED instead. In these instances, the researcher provided clarification on the concept of STS and guided the participants back to the central topic of the interview. The researcher clarified the concept of STS and steered the participants back to the intended focus of the interview. An additional limitation of our study is the subjective nature of certain data points, such as trauma case load, organizational support, and history of trauma. These variables depend on participants’ experiences and may introduce bias into the study results. However, we mitigated this by quantifying these data using standard scales, which enhanced the reliability, comparability, and objectivity of our data analysis.

In summary, the study has demonstrated an insight into the nature of STS and its impact on nursing professionals. These messages underscore the complex dynamics of STS in healthcare settings and offer guidance for addressing this pervasive issue. Firstly, the study reveals the high prevalence of STS among ED nurses, with a significant portion experiencing severe levels of stress. This underscores the emotionally taxing environment of emergency care and the urgent need for targeted interventions to support the mental health and well-being of these essential healthcare workers. Secondly, the study identifies key demographic and occupational factors associated with higher levels of STS, including gender, marital status, years of experience, and trauma caseload. These insights can inform targeted interventions, such as providing additional support for female nurses, those with greater familial responsibilities, or staff handling a high volume of trauma cases. Thirdly, the research highlights the dual impact of the ED environment on STS, showing how the fast-paced, high-pressure setting can both mitigate and exacerbate stress levels. Nurses in the ED may experience reduced emotional attachment due to brief patient interactions, potentially lowering STS. Conversely, the critical nature of care in the ED, involving life-threatening situations and patient deaths, significantly heightens the risk of STS. This dichotomy emphasizes the need for nuanced support strategies that address the unique challenges of the ED setting. Moreover, the study points to the profound influence of personal factors, such as family-linked empathy and personal vulnerabilities, on nurses’ experiences of STS. Nurses who are parents or have strong personal connections to their patients may find these emotional bonds intensifying their stress. This finding suggests the importance of considering individual nurse’s backgrounds and personal lives when developing support and intervention programs. Additionally, the investigation into coping mechanisms and social support systems within the workplace reveals their critical role in mitigating STS. Strategies that promote professional detachment while fostering a supportive team environment can help nurses manage the emotional demands of their work more effectively.

In conclusion, the study offers vital perspectives on the challenges ED nurses face regarding STS. Healthcare institutions should implement regular training on stress recognition and coping strategies, establish peer support programs, and provide accessible professional mental health support. Policies on workload management are essential to prevent nurse overload and ensure periodic rotations to less intense environments. Enhancing the work environment with quiet spaces for breaks and ergonomic improvements can also reduce stress. Additionally, leadership training should focus on supportive practices that foster a positive work culture, complemented by systems for regular mental health assessments and resilience-building programs to equip nurses with tools to manage and mitigate the impacts of STS effectively.

Data availability

The datasets used and/or during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

Emergency department

  • Secondary traumatic stress

Secondary traumatic stress scale

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Institutional Review Board

The Good Reporting of a Mixed Methods Study

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Acknowledgements

The authors express our appreciation to the Research Deanship at the University of Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, for funding this project, identified by project number RG-20 204.

This research has been funded by research Deanship at University of Ha’il Saudi Arabia through project number RG-20 204.

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Conceptualisation, B.A., N.A., SA and M.A.; methodology, B.A., N.A., N.M., F.A., F.K., V.B., SA, A.A, SKA, NKA, Am. A and M.A; software, N.A., V.B., and M.A.; validation, N.A., V.B., and M.A.; formal analysis, B.A., N.A., AKA, V.B., SA and M.A.; investigation, B.A., N.A., and M.A; writing—original draft preparation, B.A., N.A., SA and M.A.; writing—review and editing, B.A., N.A., N.M., F.A., F.K., V.B., A.A., SA, SKA, NKA, M.An, A.H, AKA, Am. A and M.A; visualisation, B.A; supervision, B.A. and SABA: Bushra AlshammariNA: Nada F AlanaziFK: Fatmah KreediFA: Farhan AlshammariSA: Sameer A. AlkubatiAA: Awatif AlrasheedayNM: Norah MadkhaliAm. A: Ammar AlsharaVB: Venkat BakthavatchaalamMA: Mahmoud Al-MasaeedSKA: Sabah Kaied AlshammariNKA: Nwair Kaied AlshammariM.An: Mukhtar AnsariAH: Arshad HussainAKA: Ahmed K. Alsadi.

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Alshammari, B., Alanazi, N.F., Kreedi, F. et al. Exposure to secondary traumatic stress and its related factors among emergency nurses in Saudi Arabia: a mixed method study. BMC Nurs 23 , 337 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12912-024-02018-4

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    the case study method favors the collection of data in natural settings, compared with relying on "derived" data (Bromley, 1986, p. 23)—for example, responses to a researcher's instruments in an experiment or responses to questionnaires in a survey.

  7. Case Study Methods and Examples

    The purpose of case study research is twofold: (1) to provide descriptive information and (2) to suggest theoretical relevance. Rich description enables an in-depth or sharpened understanding of the case. It is unique given one characteristic: case studies draw from more than one data source. Case studies are inherently multimodal or mixed ...

  8. Case Study Method: A Step-by-Step Guide for Business Researchers

    The case study method involves a range of empirical material collection tools in order to answer the research questions with maximum breadth. Semistructured interviews can be conducted along with meeting observations and documents collection. Collecting empirical material from multiple sources allows triangulation .

  9. Case Study: Definition, Types, Examples & More

    A case study is a data collection method that can help you describe the information that you have available to you. Then, you can present that information in a way the reader can understand. Conduct evaluations: As you learn more about how to write a case study, remember that you can also use a case study to conduct evaluations of a specific ...

  10. Case research

    Case research. Case research—also called case study—is a method of intensively studying a phenomenon over time within its natural setting in one or a few sites. Multiple methods of data collection, such as interviews, observations, pre-recorded documents, and secondary data, may be employed and inferences about the phenomenon of interest ...

  11. Guide: Designing and Conducting Case Studies

    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. ... Case Study Methods. Newbury Park: Sage.. "In a most economical fashion, Hamel provides a practical guide for producing theoretically sharp and ...

  12. Data Collection

    Data collection is a systematic process of gathering observations or measurements. Whether you are performing research for business, governmental or academic purposes, data collection allows you to gain first-hand knowledge and original insights into your research problem. While methods and aims may differ between fields, the overall process of ...

  13. Planning Qualitative Research: Design and Decision Making for New

    The case study method is particularly useful for researching educational interventions because it provides a rich description of all the interrelated factors. ... Much like case studies, data collection may include a variety of types of sources such as participant observation, interviews, documents, artifacts, and immersion in the cultural ...

  14. Collecting data through case studies

    The article describes the decisions that need to be made in planning case study research and then presents examples of how case studies can be used in several performance technology applications. The advantages and disadvantages of case studies as a data collection method are discussed and guidelines for their use are given.

  15. Case Study Research Method in Psychology

    The case study is not a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies. Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

  16. Collecting data through case studies

    The article describes the decisions that need to be made in planning case study research and then presents examples of how case studies can be used in several performance technology applications. The advantages and disadvantages of case studies as a data collection method are discussed and guidelines for their use are given.

  17. Qualitative Data Collection and Analysis Methods

    The setting and context are an intrinsic part of the case. Consequently, because cases contain many kinds of information and contexts, case studies use many different methods of data collection. These can include the full range of qualitative methods such as: Open-ended surveys. Interviews.

  18. Data Collection Methods and Tools for Research; A Step-by-Step Guide to

    the other hand, although a suitable data collection method helps to plan good research, it cannot necessarily guarantee the overall success of the research project (Olsen, 2012). II. TYPES OF DATA Before selecting a data collection method, the type of data that is required for the study should be determined (Kabir, 2016).

  19. The Case Study: Methods of Data Collection

    The case study involved TPWW Company and its consumers and semi-structured interview were selected to collect the primary data throughout the water industry professionals, and members of the public in Greater Tehran . Table 6.2 illustrates the linkages between the research objectives and the data collection methods.

  20. Data Collection

    Case studies involve in-depth analysis of a single individual, organization, or event. Case studies are used to gain detailed information about a specific phenomenon. ... Determine the data collection method: Once you have identified the data sources, you need to determine the data collection method. This could be through online surveys, phone ...

  21. A dataset for measuring the impact of research data and their ...

    Data, measurement and empirical methods in the science of science ... a discussion or critique of the data collection process, study ... social science data archives: Four case studies of long ...

  22. What is Big Data Analytics?

    What is big data analytics? Big data analytics refers to the systematic processing and analysis of large amounts of data and complex data sets, known as big data, to extract valuable insights. Big data analytics allows for the uncovering of trends, patterns and correlations in large amounts of raw data to help analysts make data-informed decisions.

  23. Data Collection Methods

    To decide on a sampling method you will need to consider factors like the required sample size, accessibility of the sample, and time frame of the data collection. Standardising procedures. If multiple researchers are involved, write a detailed manual to standardise data collection procedures in your study.

  24. Virtual Coaching, Self-Directed Learning, and the Implementation of

    Multiple data collection methods were employed to describe and understand the case: observations, audiovisual materials, and individual interviews. ... The purpose of this single instrumental case study was to understand how a virtual coaching program provides opportunities for self-directed learning during the implementation of evidence-based ...

  25. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

    a phenomenon in its real-life context. In a case study research, multiple methods of data collection are used, as it involves an in-depth study of a phenomenon. It must be noted, as highlighted by Yin (2009), a case study is not a method of data collection, rather is a research strategy or design to study a social unit.

  26. Methods for Legionnaires' Disease Surveillance

    Data collection methods. Public health officials should maintain an internal system for tracking and reviewing cases of legionellosis. They should use that system to identify epidemiologic links to identify outbreaks for timely investigation. ... Data definitions. Case classifications and exposure categories are important for surveillance ...

  27. Frontiers

    Methods. In this study we employ a multi-method approach—the combining of two or more methods to expand one's research base when investigating a research question or phenomenon (Roller and Lavrakas, 2015)—that is firmly rooted in local experiences and perceptions.This includes the use of semi-structured interviews, non-participant observation, and document collection.

  28. Full article: Evaluation of land suitability areas for irrigation using

    The study aimed to assess the land suitability for irrigation in the case of the Zenti River Catchment, Ethiopia. To achieve the objectives, soil properties, land use/cover, slope, and proximity to a perennial river were used. ... Methods of data collection and sources. To achieve the goals of the study, a variety of input data were acquired ...

  29. Exposure to secondary traumatic stress and its related factors among

    Following this, Phase 2 was structured as a qualitative descriptive study, which involved conducting semi-structured interviews with a purposefully selected group of ten ED nurses. Data collection took place at three major hospitals in Saudi Arabia during the period from January to June 2022. A total of 181 participants were included in the study.

  30. Land

    Using the Jiayuan Sanli Community in Beijing as a case study, this paper demonstrates the feasibility of the proposed system. ... However, the current POE system for CGSs faces challenges, such as limited data collection methods, incomplete indicator systems, and excessive manual involvement. To address these limitations in data collection ...