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Exploratory Research – Types, Methods and Examples

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Exploratory Research

Exploratory Research

Definition:

Exploratory research is a type of research design that is used to investigate a research question when the researcher has limited knowledge or understanding of the topic or phenomenon under study.

The primary objective of exploratory research is to gain insights and gather preliminary information that can help the researcher better define the research problem and develop hypotheses or research questions for further investigation.

Exploratory Research Methods

There are several types of exploratory research, including:

Literature Review

This involves conducting a comprehensive review of existing published research, scholarly articles, and other relevant literature on the research topic or problem. It helps to identify the gaps in the existing knowledge and to develop new research questions or hypotheses.

Pilot Study

A pilot study is a small-scale preliminary study that helps the researcher to test research procedures, instruments, and data collection methods. This type of research can be useful in identifying any potential problems or issues with the research design and refining the research procedures for a larger-scale study.

This involves an in-depth analysis of a particular case or situation to gain insights into the underlying causes, processes, and dynamics of the issue under investigation. It can be used to develop a more comprehensive understanding of a complex problem, and to identify potential research questions or hypotheses.

Focus Groups

Focus groups involve a group discussion that is conducted to gather opinions, attitudes, and perceptions from a small group of individuals about a particular topic. This type of research can be useful in exploring the range of opinions and attitudes towards a topic, identifying common themes or patterns, and generating ideas for further research.

Expert Opinion

This involves consulting with experts or professionals in the field to gain their insights, expertise, and opinions on the research topic. This type of research can be useful in identifying the key issues and concerns related to the topic, and in generating ideas for further research.

Observational Research

Observational research involves gathering data by observing people, events, or phenomena in their natural settings to gain insights into behavior and interactions. This type of research can be useful in identifying patterns of behavior and interactions, and in generating hypotheses or research questions for further investigation.

Open-ended Surveys

Open-ended surveys allow respondents to provide detailed and unrestricted responses to questions, providing valuable insights into their attitudes, opinions, and perceptions. This type of research can be useful in identifying common themes or patterns, and in generating ideas for further research.

Data Analysis Methods

Exploratory Research Data Analysis Methods are as follows:

Content Analysis

This method involves analyzing text or other forms of data to identify common themes, patterns, and trends. It can be useful in identifying patterns in the data and developing hypotheses or research questions. For example, if the researcher is analyzing social media posts related to a particular topic, content analysis can help identify the most frequently used words, hashtags, and topics.

Thematic Analysis

This method involves identifying and analyzing patterns or themes in qualitative data such as interviews or focus groups. The researcher identifies recurring themes or patterns in the data and then categorizes them into different themes. This can be helpful in identifying common patterns or themes in the data and developing hypotheses or research questions. For example, a thematic analysis of interviews with healthcare professionals about patient care may identify themes related to communication, patient satisfaction, and quality of care.

Cluster Analysis

This method involves grouping data points into clusters based on their similarities or differences. It can be useful in identifying patterns in large datasets and grouping similar data points together. For example, if the researcher is analyzing customer data to identify different customer segments, cluster analysis can be used to group similar customers together based on their demographic, purchasing behavior, or preferences.

Network Analysis

This method involves analyzing the relationships and connections between data points. It can be useful in identifying patterns in complex datasets with many interrelated variables. For example, if the researcher is analyzing social network data, network analysis can help identify the most influential users and their connections to other users.

Grounded Theory

This method involves developing a theory or explanation based on the data collected during the exploratory research process. The researcher develops a theory or explanation that is grounded in the data, rather than relying on pre-existing theories or assumptions. This can be helpful in developing new theories or explanations that are supported by the data.

Applications of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research has many practical applications across various fields. Here are a few examples:

  • Marketing Research : In marketing research, exploratory research can be used to identify consumer needs, preferences, and behavior. It can also help businesses understand market trends and identify new market opportunities.
  • Product Development: In product development, exploratory research can be used to identify customer needs and preferences, as well as potential design flaws or issues. This can help companies improve their product offerings and develop new products that better meet customer needs.
  • Social Science Research: In social science research, exploratory research can be used to identify new areas of study, as well as develop new theories and hypotheses. It can also be used to identify potential research methods and approaches.
  • Healthcare Research : In healthcare research, exploratory research can be used to identify new treatments, therapies, and interventions. It can also be used to identify potential risk factors or causes of health problems.
  • Education Research: In education research, exploratory research can be used to identify new teaching methods and approaches, as well as identify potential areas of study for further research. It can also be used to identify potential barriers to learning or achievement.

Examples of Exploratory Research

Here are some more examples of exploratory research from different fields:

  • Social Science : A researcher wants to study the experience of being a refugee, but there is limited existing research on this topic. The researcher conducts exploratory research by conducting in-depth interviews with refugees to better understand their experiences, challenges, and needs.
  • Healthcare : A medical researcher wants to identify potential risk factors for a rare disease but there is limited information available. The researcher conducts exploratory research by reviewing medical records and interviewing patients and their families to identify potential risk factors.
  • Education : A teacher wants to develop a new teaching method to improve student engagement, but there is limited information on effective teaching methods. The teacher conducts exploratory research by reviewing existing literature and interviewing other teachers to identify potential approaches.
  • Technology : A software developer wants to develop a new app, but is unsure about the features that users would find most useful. The developer conducts exploratory research by conducting surveys and focus groups to identify user preferences and needs.
  • Environmental Science : An environmental scientist wants to study the impact of a new industrial plant on the surrounding environment, but there is limited existing research. The scientist conducts exploratory research by collecting and analyzing soil and water samples, and conducting interviews with residents to better understand the impact of the plant on the environment and the community.

How to Conduct Exploratory Research

Here are the general steps to conduct exploratory research:

  • Define the research problem: Identify the research problem or question that you want to explore. Be clear about the objective and scope of the research.
  • Review existing literature: Conduct a review of existing literature and research on the topic to identify what is already known and where gaps in knowledge exist.
  • Determine the research design : Decide on the appropriate research design, which will depend on the nature of the research problem and the available resources. Common exploratory research designs include case studies, focus groups, interviews, and surveys.
  • Collect data: Collect data using the chosen research design. This may involve conducting interviews, surveys, or observations, or collecting data from existing sources such as archives or databases.
  • Analyze data: Analyze the data collected using appropriate qualitative or quantitative techniques. This may include coding and categorizing qualitative data, or running descriptive statistics on quantitative data.
  • I nterpret and report findings: Interpret the findings of the analysis and report them in a way that is clear and understandable. The report should summarize the findings, discuss their implications, and make recommendations for further research or action.
  • Iterate : If necessary, refine the research question and repeat the process of data collection and analysis to further explore the topic.

When to use Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is appropriate in situations where there is limited existing knowledge or understanding of a topic, and where the goal is to generate insights and ideas that can guide further research. Here are some specific situations where exploratory research may be particularly useful:

  • New product development: When developing a new product, exploratory research can be used to identify consumer needs and preferences, as well as potential design flaws or issues.
  • Emerging technologies: When exploring emerging technologies, exploratory research can be used to identify potential uses and applications, as well as potential challenges or limitations.
  • Developing research hypotheses: When developing research hypotheses, exploratory research can be used to identify potential relationships or patterns that can be further explored through more rigorous research methods.
  • Understanding complex phenomena: When trying to understand complex phenomena, such as human behavior or societal trends, exploratory research can be used to identify underlying patterns or factors that may be influencing the phenomenon.
  • Developing research methods : When developing new research methods, exploratory research can be used to identify potential issues or limitations with existing methods, and to develop new methods that better capture the phenomena of interest.

Purpose of Exploratory Research

The purpose of exploratory research is to gain insights and understanding of a research problem or question where there is limited existing knowledge or understanding. The objective is to explore and generate ideas that can guide further research, rather than to test specific hypotheses or make definitive conclusions.

Exploratory research can be used to:

  • Identify new research questions: Exploratory research can help to identify new research questions and areas of inquiry, by providing initial insights and understanding of a topic.
  • Develop hypotheses: Exploratory research can help to develop hypotheses and testable propositions that can be further explored through more rigorous research methods.
  • Identify patterns and trends : Exploratory research can help to identify patterns and trends in data, which can be used to guide further research or decision-making.
  • Understand complex phenomena: Exploratory research can help to provide a deeper understanding of complex phenomena, such as human behavior or societal trends, by identifying underlying patterns or factors that may be influencing the phenomena.
  • Generate ideas: Exploratory research can help to generate new ideas and insights that can be used to guide further research, innovation, or decision-making.

Characteristics of Exploratory Research

The following are the main characteristics of exploratory research:

  • Flexible and open-ended : Exploratory research is characterized by its flexible and open-ended nature, which allows researchers to explore a wide range of ideas and perspectives without being constrained by specific research questions or hypotheses.
  • Qualitative in nature : Exploratory research typically relies on qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, or observation, to gather rich and detailed data on the research problem.
  • Limited scope: Exploratory research is generally limited in scope, focusing on a specific research problem or question, rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive analysis of a broader phenomenon.
  • Preliminary in nature : Exploratory research is preliminary in nature, providing initial insights and understanding of a research problem, rather than testing specific hypotheses or making definitive conclusions.
  • I terative process : Exploratory research is often an iterative process, where the research design and methods may be refined and adjusted as new insights and understanding are gained.
  • I nductive approach : Exploratory research typically takes an inductive approach to data analysis, seeking to identify patterns and relationships in the data that can guide further research or hypothesis development.

Advantages of Exploratory Research

The following are some advantages of exploratory research:

  • Provides initial insights: Exploratory research is useful for providing initial insights and understanding of a research problem or question where there is limited existing knowledge or understanding. It can help to identify patterns, relationships, and potential hypotheses that can guide further research.
  • Flexible and adaptable : Exploratory research is flexible and adaptable, allowing researchers to adjust their methods and approach as they gain new insights and understanding of the research problem.
  • Qualitative methods : Exploratory research typically relies on qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, and observation, which can provide rich and detailed data that is useful for gaining insights into complex phenomena.
  • Cost-effective : Exploratory research is often less costly than other research methods, such as large-scale surveys or experiments. It is typically conducted on a smaller scale, using fewer resources and participants.
  • Useful for hypothesis generation : Exploratory research can be useful for generating hypotheses and testable propositions that can be further explored through more rigorous research methods.
  • Provides a foundation for further research: Exploratory research can provide a foundation for further research by identifying potential research questions and areas of inquiry, as well as providing initial insights and understanding of the research problem.

Limitations of Exploratory Research

The following are some limitations of exploratory research:

  • Limited generalizability: Exploratory research is typically conducted on a small scale and uses non-random sampling techniques, which limits the generalizability of the findings to a broader population.
  • Subjective nature: Exploratory research relies on qualitative methods and is therefore subject to researcher bias and interpretation. The findings may be influenced by the researcher’s own perceptions, beliefs, and assumptions.
  • Lack of rigor: Exploratory research is often less rigorous than other research methods, such as experimental research, which can limit the validity and reliability of the findings.
  • Limited ability to test hypotheses: Exploratory research is not designed to test specific hypotheses, but rather to generate initial insights and understanding of a research problem. It may not be suitable for testing well-defined research questions or hypotheses.
  • Time-consuming : Exploratory research can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, particularly if the researcher needs to gather data from multiple sources or conduct multiple rounds of data collection.
  • Difficulty in interpretation: The open-ended nature of exploratory research can make it difficult to interpret the findings, particularly if the researcher is unable to identify clear patterns or relationships in the data.

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case study method in exploratory research

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

case study method in exploratory research

  • 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 study method in exploratory research

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 study method in exploratory research

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 study method in exploratory research

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 study method in exploratory research

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 study method in exploratory research

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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 study method in exploratory research

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 study method in exploratory research

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  • First Online: 27 October 2022

Cite this chapter

case study method in exploratory research

  • R. M. Channaveer 4 &
  • Rajendra Baikady 5  

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This chapter reviews the strengths and limitations of case study as a research method in social sciences. It provides an account of an evidence base to justify why a case study is best suitable for some research questions and why not for some other research questions. Case study designing around the research context, defining the structure and modality, conducting the study, collecting the data through triangulation mode, analysing the data, and interpreting the data and theory building at the end give a holistic view of it. In addition, the chapter also focuses on the types of case study and when and where to use case study as a research method in social science research.

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case study method in exploratory research

Case Study Research

case study method in exploratory research

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Channaveer, R.M., Baikady, R. (2022). Case Study. In: Islam, M.R., Khan, N.A., Baikady, R. (eds) Principles of Social Research Methodology. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-5441-2_21

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  • Exploratory Research | Definition, Guide, & Examples

Exploratory Research | Definition, Guide, & Examples

Published on 6 May 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on 20 January 2023.

Exploratory research is a methodology approach that investigates topics and research questions that have not previously been studied in depth.

Exploratory research is often qualitative in nature. However, a study with a large sample conducted in an exploratory manner can be quantitative as well. It is also often referred to as interpretive research or a grounded theory approach due to its flexible and open-ended nature.

Table of contents

When to use exploratory research, exploratory research questions, exploratory research data collection, step-by-step example of exploratory research, exploratory vs explanatory research, advantages and disadvantages of exploratory research, frequently asked questions about exploratory research.

Exploratory research is often used when the issue you’re studying is new or when the data collection process is challenging for some reason.

You can use this type of research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.

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Exploratory research questions are designed to help you understand more about a particular topic of interest. They can help you connect ideas to understand the groundwork of your analysis without adding any preconceived notions or assumptions yet.

Here are some examples:

  • What effect does using a digital notebook have on the attention span of primary schoolers?
  • What factors influence mental health in undergraduates?
  • What outcomes are associated with an authoritative parenting style?
  • In what ways does the presence of a non-native accent affect intelligibility?
  • How can the use of a grocery delivery service reduce food waste in single-person households?

Collecting information on a previously unexplored topic can be challenging. Exploratory research can help you narrow down your topic and formulate a clear hypothesis , as well as giving you the ‘lay of the land’ on your topic.

Data collection using exploratory research is often divided into primary and secondary research methods, with data analysis following the same model.

Primary research

In primary research, your data is collected directly from primary sources : your participants. There is a variety of ways to collect primary data.

Some examples include:

  • Survey methodology: Sending a survey out to the student body asking them if they would eat vegan meals
  • Focus groups: Compiling groups of 8–10 students and discussing what they think of vegan options for dining hall food
  • Interviews: Interviewing students entering and exiting the dining hall, asking if they would eat vegan meals

Secondary research

In secondary research, your data is collected from preexisting primary research, such as experiments or surveys.

Some other examples include:

  • Case studies : Health of an all-vegan diet
  • Literature reviews : Preexisting research about students’ eating habits and how they have changed over time
  • Online polls, surveys, blog posts, or interviews; social media: Have other universities done something similar?

For some subjects, it’s possible to use large- n government data, such as the decennial census or yearly American Community Survey (ACS) open-source data.

How you proceed with your exploratory research design depends on the research method you choose to collect your data. In most cases, you will follow five steps.

We’ll walk you through the steps using the following example.

Therefore, you would like to focus on improving intelligibility instead of reducing the learner’s accent.

Step 1: Identify your problem

The first step in conducting exploratory research is identifying what the problem is and whether this type of research is the right avenue for you to pursue. Remember that exploratory research is most advantageous when you are investigating a previously unexplored problem.

Step 2: Hypothesise a solution

The next step is to come up with a solution to the problem you’re investigating. Formulate a hypothetical statement to guide your research.

Step 3. Design your methodology

Next, conceptualise your data collection and data analysis methods and write them up in a research design.

Step 4: Collect and analyse data

Next, you proceed with collecting and analysing your data so you can determine whether your preliminary results are in line with your hypothesis.

In most types of research, you should formulate your hypotheses a priori and refrain from changing them due to the increased risk of Type I errors and data integrity issues. However, in exploratory research, you are allowed to change your hypothesis based on your findings, since you are exploring a previously unexplained phenomenon that could have many explanations.

Step 5: Avenues for future research

Decide if you would like to continue studying your topic. If so, it is likely that you will need to change to another type of research. As exploratory research is often qualitative in nature, you may need to conduct quantitative research with a larger sample size to achieve more generalisable results.

It can be easy to confuse exploratory research with explanatory research. To understand the relationship, it can help to remember that exploratory research lays the groundwork for later explanatory research.

Exploratory research investigates research questions that have not been studied in depth. The preliminary results often lay the groundwork for future analysis.

Explanatory research questions tend to start with ‘why’ or ‘how’, and the goal is to explain why or how a previously studied phenomenon takes place.

Exploratory vs explanatory research

Like any other research design , exploratory research has its trade-offs: it provides a unique set of benefits but also comes with downsides.

  • It can be very helpful in narrowing down a challenging or nebulous problem that has not been previously studied.
  • It can serve as a great guide for future research, whether your own or another researcher’s. With new and challenging research problems, adding to the body of research in the early stages can be very fulfilling.
  • It is very flexible, cost-effective, and open-ended. You are free to proceed however you think is best.

Disadvantages

  • It usually lacks conclusive results, and results can be biased or subjective due to a lack of preexisting knowledge on your topic.
  • It’s typically not externally valid and generalisable, and it suffers from many of the challenges of qualitative research .
  • Since you are not operating within an existing research paradigm, this type of research can be very labour-intensive.

Exploratory research is a methodology approach that explores research questions that have not previously been studied in depth. It is often used when the issue you’re studying is new, or the data collection process is challenging in some way.

You can use exploratory research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.

Exploratory research explores the main aspects of a new or barely researched question.

Explanatory research explains the causes and effects of an already widely researched question.

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.

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Methodology or method? A critical review of qualitative case study reports

Despite on-going debate about credibility, and reported limitations in comparison to other approaches, case study is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers. We critically analysed the methodological descriptions of published case studies. Three high-impact qualitative methods journals were searched to locate case studies published in the past 5 years; 34 were selected for analysis. Articles were categorized as health and health services ( n= 12), social sciences and anthropology ( n= 7), or methods ( n= 15) case studies. The articles were reviewed using an adapted version of established criteria to determine whether adequate methodological justification was present, and if study aims, methods, and reported findings were consistent with a qualitative case study approach. Findings were grouped into five themes outlining key methodological issues: case study methodology or method, case of something particular and case selection, contextually bound case study, researcher and case interactions and triangulation, and study design inconsistent with methodology reported. Improved reporting of case studies by qualitative researchers will advance the methodology for the benefit of researchers and practitioners.

Case study research is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers (Thomas, 2011 ). Several prominent authors have contributed to methodological developments, which has increased the popularity of case study approaches across disciplines (Creswell, 2013b ; Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Ragin & Becker, 1992 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Current qualitative case study approaches are shaped by paradigm, study design, and selection of methods, and, as a result, case studies in the published literature vary. Differences between published case studies can make it difficult for researchers to define and understand case study as a methodology.

Experienced qualitative researchers have identified case study research as a stand-alone qualitative approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ). Case study research has a level of flexibility that is not readily offered by other qualitative approaches such as grounded theory or phenomenology. Case studies are designed to suit the case and research question and published case studies demonstrate wide diversity in study design. There are two popular case study approaches in qualitative research. The first, proposed by Stake ( 1995 ) and Merriam ( 2009 ), is situated in a social constructivist paradigm, whereas the second, by Yin ( 2012 ), Flyvbjerg ( 2011 ), and Eisenhardt ( 1989 ), approaches case study from a post-positivist viewpoint. Scholarship from both schools of inquiry has contributed to the popularity of case study and development of theoretical frameworks and principles that characterize the methodology.

The diversity of case studies reported in the published literature, and on-going debates about credibility and the use of case study in qualitative research practice, suggests that differences in perspectives on case study methodology may prevent researchers from developing a mutual understanding of practice and rigour. In addition, discussion about case study limitations has led some authors to query whether case study is indeed a methodology (Luck, Jackson, & Usher, 2006 ; Meyer, 2001 ; Thomas, 2010 ; Tight, 2010 ). Methodological discussion of qualitative case study research is timely, and a review is required to analyse and understand how this methodology is applied in the qualitative research literature. The aims of this study were to review methodological descriptions of published qualitative case studies, to review how the case study methodological approach was applied, and to identify issues that need to be addressed by researchers, editors, and reviewers. An outline of the current definitions of case study and an overview of the issues proposed in the qualitative methodological literature are provided to set the scene for the review.

Definitions of qualitative case study research

Case study research is an investigation and analysis of a single or collective case, intended to capture the complexity of the object of study (Stake, 1995 ). Qualitative case study research, as described by Stake ( 1995 ), draws together “naturalistic, holistic, ethnographic, phenomenological, and biographic research methods” in a bricoleur design, or in his words, “a palette of methods” (Stake, 1995 , pp. xi–xii). Case study methodology maintains deep connections to core values and intentions and is “particularistic, descriptive and heuristic” (Merriam, 2009 , p. 46).

As a study design, case study is defined by interest in individual cases rather than the methods of inquiry used. The selection of methods is informed by researcher and case intuition and makes use of naturally occurring sources of knowledge, such as people or observations of interactions that occur in the physical space (Stake, 1998 ). Thomas ( 2011 ) suggested that “analytical eclecticism” is a defining factor (p. 512). Multiple data collection and analysis methods are adopted to further develop and understand the case, shaped by context and emergent data (Stake, 1995 ). This qualitative approach “explores a real-life, contemporary bounded system (a case ) or multiple bounded systems (cases) over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information … and reports a case description and case themes ” (Creswell, 2013b , p. 97). Case study research has been defined by the unit of analysis, the process of study, and the outcome or end product, all essentially the case (Merriam, 2009 ).

The case is an object to be studied for an identified reason that is peculiar or particular. Classification of the case and case selection procedures informs development of the study design and clarifies the research question. Stake ( 1995 ) proposed three types of cases and study design frameworks. These include the intrinsic case, the instrumental case, and the collective instrumental case. The intrinsic case is used to understand the particulars of a single case, rather than what it represents. An instrumental case study provides insight on an issue or is used to refine theory. The case is selected to advance understanding of the object of interest. A collective refers to an instrumental case which is studied as multiple, nested cases, observed in unison, parallel, or sequential order. More than one case can be simultaneously studied; however, each case study is a concentrated, single inquiry, studied holistically in its own entirety (Stake, 1995 , 1998 ).

Researchers who use case study are urged to seek out what is common and what is particular about the case. This involves careful and in-depth consideration of the nature of the case, historical background, physical setting, and other institutional and political contextual factors (Stake, 1998 ). An interpretive or social constructivist approach to qualitative case study research supports a transactional method of inquiry, where the researcher has a personal interaction with the case. The case is developed in a relationship between the researcher and informants, and presented to engage the reader, inviting them to join in this interaction and in case discovery (Stake, 1995 ). A postpositivist approach to case study involves developing a clear case study protocol with careful consideration of validity and potential bias, which might involve an exploratory or pilot phase, and ensures that all elements of the case are measured and adequately described (Yin, 2009 , 2012 ).

Current methodological issues in qualitative case study research

The future of qualitative research will be influenced and constructed by the way research is conducted, and by what is reviewed and published in academic journals (Morse, 2011 ). If case study research is to further develop as a principal qualitative methodological approach, and make a valued contribution to the field of qualitative inquiry, issues related to methodological credibility must be considered. Researchers are required to demonstrate rigour through adequate descriptions of methodological foundations. Case studies published without sufficient detail for the reader to understand the study design, and without rationale for key methodological decisions, may lead to research being interpreted as lacking in quality or credibility (Hallberg, 2013 ; Morse, 2011 ).

There is a level of artistic license that is embraced by qualitative researchers and distinguishes practice, which nurtures creativity, innovation, and reflexivity (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Morse, 2009 ). Qualitative research is “inherently multimethod” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011a , p. 5); however, with this creative freedom, it is important for researchers to provide adequate description for methodological justification (Meyer, 2001 ). This includes paradigm and theoretical perspectives that have influenced study design. Without adequate description, study design might not be understood by the reader, and can appear to be dishonest or inaccurate. Reviewers and readers might be confused by the inconsistent or inappropriate terms used to describe case study research approach and methods, and be distracted from important study findings (Sandelowski, 2000 ). This issue extends beyond case study research, and others have noted inconsistencies in reporting of methodology and method by qualitative researchers. Sandelowski ( 2000 , 2010 ) argued for accurate identification of qualitative description as a research approach. She recommended that the selected methodology should be harmonious with the study design, and be reflected in methods and analysis techniques. Similarly, Webb and Kevern ( 2000 ) uncovered inconsistencies in qualitative nursing research with focus group methods, recommending that methodological procedures must cite seminal authors and be applied with respect to the selected theoretical framework. Incorrect labelling using case study might stem from the flexibility in case study design and non-directional character relative to other approaches (Rosenberg & Yates, 2007 ). Methodological integrity is required in design of qualitative studies, including case study, to ensure study rigour and to enhance credibility of the field (Morse, 2011 ).

Case study has been unnecessarily devalued by comparisons with statistical methods (Eisenhardt, 1989 ; Flyvbjerg, 2006 , 2011 ; Jensen & Rodgers, 2001 ; Piekkari, Welch, & Paavilainen, 2009 ; Tight, 2010 ; Yin, 1999 ). It is reputed to be the “the weak sibling” in comparison to other, more rigorous, approaches (Yin, 2009 , p. xiii). Case study is not an inherently comparative approach to research. The objective is not statistical research, and the aim is not to produce outcomes that are generalizable to all populations (Thomas, 2011 ). Comparisons between case study and statistical research do little to advance this qualitative approach, and fail to recognize its inherent value, which can be better understood from the interpretive or social constructionist viewpoint of other authors (Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ). Building on discussions relating to “fuzzy” (Bassey, 2001 ), or naturalistic generalizations (Stake, 1978 ), or transference of concepts and theories (Ayres, Kavanaugh, & Knafl, 2003 ; Morse et al., 2011 ) would have more relevance.

Case study research has been used as a catch-all design to justify or add weight to fundamental qualitative descriptive studies that do not fit with other traditional frameworks (Merriam, 2009 ). A case study has been a “convenient label for our research—when we ‘can't think of anything ‘better”—in an attempt to give it [qualitative methodology] some added respectability” (Tight, 2010 , p. 337). Qualitative case study research is a pliable approach (Merriam, 2009 ; Meyer, 2001 ; Stake, 1995 ), and has been likened to a “curious methodological limbo” (Gerring, 2004 , p. 341) or “paradigmatic bridge” (Luck et al., 2006 , p. 104), that is on the borderline between postpositivist and constructionist interpretations. This has resulted in inconsistency in application, which indicates that flexibility comes with limitations (Meyer, 2001 ), and the open nature of case study research might be off-putting to novice researchers (Thomas, 2011 ). The development of a well-(in)formed theoretical framework to guide a case study should improve consistency, rigour, and trust in studies published in qualitative research journals (Meyer, 2001 ).

Assessment of rigour

The purpose of this study was to analyse the methodological descriptions of case studies published in qualitative methods journals. To do this we needed to develop a suitable framework, which used existing, established criteria for appraising qualitative case study research rigour (Creswell, 2013b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ). A number of qualitative authors have developed concepts and criteria that are used to determine whether a study is rigorous (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Lincoln, 1995 ; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002 ). The criteria proposed by Stake ( 1995 ) provide a framework for readers and reviewers to make judgements regarding case study quality, and identify key characteristics essential for good methodological rigour. Although each of the factors listed in Stake's criteria could enhance the quality of a qualitative research report, in Table I we present an adapted criteria used in this study, which integrates more recent work by Merriam ( 2009 ) and Creswell ( 2013b ). Stake's ( 1995 ) original criteria were separated into two categories. The first list of general criteria is “relevant for all qualitative research.” The second list, “high relevance to qualitative case study research,” was the criteria that we decided had higher relevance to case study research. This second list was the main criteria used to assess the methodological descriptions of the case studies reviewed. The complete table has been preserved so that the reader can determine how the original criteria were adapted.

Framework for assessing quality in qualitative case study research.

Adapted from Stake ( 1995 , p. 131).

Study design

The critical review method described by Grant and Booth ( 2009 ) was used, which is appropriate for the assessment of research quality, and is used for literature analysis to inform research and practice. This type of review goes beyond the mapping and description of scoping or rapid reviews, to include “analysis and conceptual innovation” (Grant & Booth, 2009 , p. 93). A critical review is used to develop existing, or produce new, hypotheses or models. This is different to systematic reviews that answer clinical questions. It is used to evaluate existing research and competing ideas, to provide a “launch pad” for conceptual development and “subsequent testing” (Grant & Booth, 2009 , p. 93).

Qualitative methods journals were located by a search of the 2011 ISI Journal Citation Reports in Social Science, via the database Web of Knowledge (see m.webofknowledge.com). No “qualitative research methods” category existed in the citation reports; therefore, a search of all categories was performed using the term “qualitative.” In Table II , we present the qualitative methods journals located, ranked by impact factor. The highest ranked journals were selected for searching. We acknowledge that the impact factor ranking system might not be the best measure of journal quality (Cheek, Garnham, & Quan, 2006 ); however, this was the most appropriate and accessible method available.

International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being.

Search strategy

In March 2013, searches of the journals, Qualitative Health Research , Qualitative Research , and Qualitative Inquiry were completed to retrieve studies with “case study” in the abstract field. The search was limited to the past 5 years (1 January 2008 to 1 March 2013). The objective was to locate published qualitative case studies suitable for assessment using the adapted criterion. Viewpoints, commentaries, and other article types were excluded from review. Title and abstracts of the 45 retrieved articles were read by the first author, who identified 34 empirical case studies for review. All authors reviewed the 34 studies to confirm selection and categorization. In Table III , we present the 34 case studies grouped by journal, and categorized by research topic, including health sciences, social sciences and anthropology, and methods research. There was a discrepancy in categorization of one article on pedagogy and a new teaching method published in Qualitative Inquiry (Jorrín-Abellán, Rubia-Avi, Anguita-Martínez, Gómez-Sánchez, & Martínez-Mones, 2008 ). Consensus was to allocate to the methods category.

Outcomes of search of qualitative methods journals.

In Table III , the number of studies located, and final numbers selected for review have been reported. Qualitative Health Research published the most empirical case studies ( n= 16). In the health category, there were 12 case studies of health conditions, health services, and health policy issues, all published in Qualitative Health Research . Seven case studies were categorized as social sciences and anthropology research, which combined case study with biography and ethnography methodologies. All three journals published case studies on methods research to illustrate a data collection or analysis technique, methodological procedure, or related issue.

The methodological descriptions of 34 case studies were critically reviewed using the adapted criteria. All articles reviewed contained a description of study methods; however, the length, amount of detail, and position of the description in the article varied. Few studies provided an accurate description and rationale for using a qualitative case study approach. In the 34 case studies reviewed, three described a theoretical framework informed by Stake ( 1995 ), two by Yin ( 2009 ), and three provided a mixed framework informed by various authors, which might have included both Yin and Stake. Few studies described their case study design, or included a rationale that explained why they excluded or added further procedures, and whether this was to enhance the study design, or to better suit the research question. In 26 of the studies no reference was provided to principal case study authors. From reviewing the description of methods, few authors provided a description or justification of case study methodology that demonstrated how their study was informed by the methodological literature that exists on this approach.

The methodological descriptions of each study were reviewed using the adapted criteria, and the following issues were identified: case study methodology or method; case of something particular and case selection; contextually bound case study; researcher and case interactions and triangulation; and, study design inconsistent with methodology. An outline of how the issues were developed from the critical review is provided, followed by a discussion of how these relate to the current methodological literature.

Case study methodology or method

A third of the case studies reviewed appeared to use a case report method, not case study methodology as described by principal authors (Creswell, 2013b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Case studies were identified as a case report because of missing methodological detail and by review of the study aims and purpose. These reports presented data for small samples of no more than three people, places or phenomenon. Four studies, or “case reports” were single cases selected retrospectively from larger studies (Bronken, Kirkevold, Martinsen, & Kvigne, 2012 ; Coltart & Henwood, 2012 ; Hooghe, Neimeyer, & Rober, 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ). Case reports were not a case of something, instead were a case demonstration or an example presented in a report. These reports presented outcomes, and reported on how the case could be generalized. Descriptions focussed on the phenomena, rather than the case itself, and did not appear to study the case in its entirety.

Case reports had minimal in-text references to case study methodology, and were informed by other qualitative traditions or secondary sources (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; Nagar-Ron & Motzafi-Haller, 2011 ). This does not suggest that case study methodology cannot be multimethod, however, methodology should be consistent in design, be clearly described (Meyer, 2001 ; Stake, 1995 ), and maintain focus on the case (Creswell, 2013b ).

To demonstrate how case reports were identified, three examples are provided. The first, Yeh ( 2013 ) described their study as, “the examination of the emergence of vegetarianism in Victorian England serves as a case study to reveal the relationships between boundaries and entities” (p. 306). The findings were a historical case report, which resulted from an ethnographic study of vegetarianism. Cunsolo Willox, Harper, Edge, ‘My Word’: Storytelling and Digital Media Lab, and Rigolet Inuit Community Government (2013) used “a case study that illustrates the usage of digital storytelling within an Inuit community” (p. 130). This case study reported how digital storytelling can be used with indigenous communities as a participatory method to illuminate the benefits of this method for other studies. This “case study was conducted in the Inuit community” but did not include the Inuit community in case analysis (Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013 , p. 130). Bronken et al. ( 2012 ) provided a single case report to demonstrate issues observed in a larger clinical study of aphasia and stroke, without adequate case description or analysis.

Case study of something particular and case selection

Case selection is a precursor to case analysis, which needs to be presented as a convincing argument (Merriam, 2009 ). Descriptions of the case were often not adequate to ascertain why the case was selected, or whether it was a particular exemplar or outlier (Thomas, 2011 ). In a number of case studies in the health and social science categories, it was not explicit whether the case was of something particular, or peculiar to their discipline or field (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson, Botelho, Welch, Joseph, & Tennstedt, 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ). There were exceptions in the methods category ( Table III ), where cases were selected by researchers to report on a new or innovative method. The cases emerged through heuristic study, and were reported to be particular, relative to the existing methods literature (Ajodhia-Andrews & Berman, 2009 ; Buckley & Waring, 2013 ; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013 ; De Haene, Grietens, & Verschueren, 2010 ; Gratton & O'Donnell, 2011 ; Sumsion, 2013 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ).

Case selection processes were sometimes insufficient to understand why the case was selected from the global population of cases, or what study of this case would contribute to knowledge as compared with other possible cases (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ). In two studies, local cases were selected (Barone, 2010 ; Fourie & Theron, 2012 ) because the researcher was familiar with and had access to the case. Possible limitations of a convenience sample were not acknowledged. Purposeful sampling was used to recruit participants within the case of one study, but not of the case itself (Gallagher et al., 2013 ). Random sampling was completed for case selection in two studies (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ), which has limited meaning in interpretive qualitative research.

To demonstrate how researchers provided a good justification for the selection of case study approaches, four examples are provided. The first, cases of residential care homes, were selected because of reported occurrences of mistreatment, which included residents being locked in rooms at night (Rytterström, Unosson, & Arman, 2013 ). Roscigno et al. ( 2012 ) selected cases of parents who were admitted for early hospitalization in neonatal intensive care with a threatened preterm delivery before 26 weeks. Hooghe et al. ( 2012 ) used random sampling to select 20 couples that had experienced the death of a child; however, the case study was of one couple and a particular metaphor described only by them. The final example, Coltart and Henwood ( 2012 ), provided a detailed account of how they selected two cases from a sample of 46 fathers based on personal characteristics and beliefs. They described how the analysis of the two cases would contribute to their larger study on first time fathers and parenting.

Contextually bound case study

The limits or boundaries of the case are a defining factor of case study methodology (Merriam, 2009 ; Ragin & Becker, 1992 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Adequate contextual description is required to understand the setting or context in which the case is revealed. In the health category, case studies were used to illustrate a clinical phenomenon or issue such as compliance and health behaviour (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; D'Enbeau, Buzzanell, & Duckworth, 2010 ; Gallagher et al., 2013 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ). In these case studies, contextual boundaries, such as physical and institutional descriptions, were not sufficient to understand the case as a holistic system, for example, the general practitioner (GP) clinic in Gallagher et al. ( 2013 ), or the nursing home in Colón-Emeric et al. ( 2010 ). Similarly, in the social science and methods categories, attention was paid to some components of the case context, but not others, missing important information required to understand the case as a holistic system (Alexander, Moreira, & Kumar, 2012 ; Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; Nairn & Panelli, 2009 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ).

In two studies, vicarious experience or vignettes (Nairn & Panelli, 2009 ) and images (Jorrín-Abellán et al., 2008 ) were effective to support description of context, and might have been a useful addition for other case studies. Missing contextual boundaries suggests that the case might not be adequately defined. Additional information, such as the physical, institutional, political, and community context, would improve understanding of the case (Stake, 1998 ). In Boxes 1 and 2 , we present brief synopses of two studies that were reviewed, which demonstrated a well bounded case. In Box 1 , Ledderer ( 2011 ) used a qualitative case study design informed by Stake's tradition. In Box 2 , Gillard, Witt, and Watts ( 2011 ) were informed by Yin's tradition. By providing a brief outline of the case studies in Boxes 1 and 2 , we demonstrate how effective case boundaries can be constructed and reported, which may be of particular interest to prospective case study researchers.

Article synopsis of case study research using Stake's tradition

Ledderer ( 2011 ) used a qualitative case study research design, informed by modern ethnography. The study is bounded to 10 general practice clinics in Denmark, who had received federal funding to implement preventative care services based on a Motivational Interviewing intervention. The researcher question focussed on “why is it so difficult to create change in medical practice?” (Ledderer, 2011 , p. 27). The study context was adequately described, providing detail on the general practitioner (GP) clinics and relevant political and economic influences. Methodological decisions are described in first person narrative, providing insight on researcher perspectives and interaction with the case. Forty-four interviews were conducted, which focussed on how GPs conducted consultations, and the form, nature and content, rather than asking their opinion or experience (Ledderer, 2011 , p. 30). The duration and intensity of researcher immersion in the case enhanced depth of description and trustworthiness of study findings. Analysis was consistent with Stake's tradition, and the researcher provided examples of inquiry techniques used to challenge assumptions about emerging themes. Several other seminal qualitative works were cited. The themes and typology constructed are rich in narrative data and storytelling by clinic staff, demonstrating individual clinic experiences as well as shared meanings and understandings about changing from a biomedical to psychological approach to preventative health intervention. Conclusions make note of social and cultural meanings and lessons learned, which might not have been uncovered using a different methodology.

Article synopsis of case study research using Yin's tradition

Gillard et al. ( 2011 ) study of camps for adolescents living with HIV/AIDs provided a good example of Yin's interpretive case study approach. The context of the case is bounded by the three summer camps of which the researchers had prior professional involvement. A case study protocol was developed that used multiple methods to gather information at three data collection points coinciding with three youth camps (Teen Forum, Discover Camp, and Camp Strong). Gillard and colleagues followed Yin's ( 2009 ) principles, using a consistent data protocol that enhanced cross-case analysis. Data described the young people, the camp physical environment, camp schedule, objectives and outcomes, and the staff of three youth camps. The findings provided a detailed description of the context, with less detail of individual participants, including insight into researcher's interpretations and methodological decisions throughout the data collection and analysis process. Findings provided the reader with a sense of “being there,” and are discovered through constant comparison of the case with the research issues; the case is the unit of analysis. There is evidence of researcher immersion in the case, and Gillard reports spending significant time in the field in a naturalistic and integrated youth mentor role.

This case study is not intended to have a significant impact on broader health policy, although does have implications for health professionals working with adolescents. Study conclusions will inform future camps for young people with chronic disease, and practitioners are able to compare similarities between this case and their own practice (for knowledge translation). No limitations of this article were reported. Limitations related to publication of this case study were that it was 20 pages long and used three tables to provide sufficient description of the camp and program components, and relationships with the research issue.

Researcher and case interactions and triangulation

Researcher and case interactions and transactions are a defining feature of case study methodology (Stake, 1995 ). Narrative stories, vignettes, and thick description are used to provoke vicarious experience and a sense of being there with the researcher in their interaction with the case. Few of the case studies reviewed provided details of the researcher's relationship with the case, researcher–case interactions, and how these influenced the development of the case study (Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; D'Enbeau et al., 2010 ; Gallagher et al., 2013 ; Gillard et al., 2011 ; Ledderer, 2011 ; Nagar-Ron & Motzafi-Haller, 2011 ). The role and position of the researcher needed to be self-examined and understood by readers, to understand how this influenced interactions with participants, and to determine what triangulation is needed (Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ).

Gillard et al. ( 2011 ) provided a good example of triangulation, comparing data sources in a table (p. 1513). Triangulation of sources was used to reveal as much depth as possible in the study by Nagar-Ron and Motzafi-Haller ( 2011 ), while also enhancing confirmation validity. There were several case studies that would have benefited from improved range and use of data sources, and descriptions of researcher–case interactions (Ajodhia-Andrews & Berman, 2009 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Fincham, Scourfield, & Langer, 2008 ; Fourie & Theron, 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ; Yeh, 2013 ).

Study design inconsistent with methodology

Good, rigorous case studies require a strong methodological justification (Meyer, 2001 ) and a logical and coherent argument that defines paradigm, methodological position, and selection of study methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ). Methodological justification was insufficient in several of the studies reviewed (Barone, 2010 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ; Yeh, 2013 ). This was judged by the absence, or inadequate or inconsistent reference to case study methodology in-text.

In six studies, the methodological justification provided did not relate to case study. There were common issues identified. Secondary sources were used as primary methodological references indicating that study design might not have been theoretically sound (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Coltart & Henwood, 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ). Authors and sources cited in methodological descriptions were inconsistent with the actual study design and practices used (Fourie & Theron, 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Jorrín-Abellán et al., 2008 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Rytterström et al., 2013 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ). This occurred when researchers cited Stake or Yin, or both (Mawn et al., 2010 ; Rytterström et al., 2013 ), although did not follow their paradigmatic or methodological approach. In 26 studies there were no citations for a case study methodological approach.

The findings of this study have highlighted a number of issues for researchers. A considerable number of case studies reviewed were missing key elements that define qualitative case study methodology and the tradition cited. A significant number of studies did not provide a clear methodological description or justification relevant to case study. Case studies in health and social sciences did not provide sufficient information for the reader to understand case selection, and why this case was chosen above others. The context of the cases were not described in adequate detail to understand all relevant elements of the case context, which indicated that cases may have not been contextually bounded. There were inconsistencies between reported methodology, study design, and paradigmatic approach in case studies reviewed, which made it difficult to understand the study methodology and theoretical foundations. These issues have implications for methodological integrity and honesty when reporting study design, which are values of the qualitative research tradition and are ethical requirements (Wager & Kleinert, 2010a ). Poorly described methodological descriptions may lead the reader to misinterpret or discredit study findings, which limits the impact of the study, and, as a collective, hinders advancements in the broader qualitative research field.

The issues highlighted in our review build on current debates in the case study literature, and queries about the value of this methodology. Case study research can be situated within different paradigms or designed with an array of methods. In order to maintain the creativity and flexibility that is valued in this methodology, clearer descriptions of paradigm and theoretical position and methods should be provided so that study findings are not undervalued or discredited. Case study research is an interdisciplinary practice, which means that clear methodological descriptions might be more important for this approach than other methodologies that are predominantly driven by fewer disciplines (Creswell, 2013b ).

Authors frequently omit elements of methodologies and include others to strengthen study design, and we do not propose a rigid or purist ideology in this paper. On the contrary, we encourage new ideas about using case study, together with adequate reporting, which will advance the value and practice of case study. The implications of unclear methodological descriptions in the studies reviewed were that study design appeared to be inconsistent with reported methodology, and key elements required for making judgements of rigour were missing. It was not clear whether the deviations from methodological tradition were made by researchers to strengthen the study design, or because of misinterpretations. Morse ( 2011 ) recommended that innovations and deviations from practice are best made by experienced researchers, and that a novice might be unaware of the issues involved with making these changes. To perpetuate the tradition of case study research, applications in the published literature should have consistencies with traditional methodological constructions, and deviations should be described with a rationale that is inherent in study conduct and findings. Providing methodological descriptions that demonstrate a strong theoretical foundation and coherent study design will add credibility to the study, while ensuring the intrinsic meaning of case study is maintained.

The value of this review is that it contributes to discussion of whether case study is a methodology or method. We propose possible reasons why researchers might make this misinterpretation. Researchers may interchange the terms methods and methodology, and conduct research without adequate attention to epistemology and historical tradition (Carter & Little, 2007 ; Sandelowski, 2010 ). If the rich meaning that naming a qualitative methodology brings to the study is not recognized, a case study might appear to be inconsistent with the traditional approaches described by principal authors (Creswell, 2013a ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). If case studies are not methodologically and theoretically situated, then they might appear to be a case report.

Case reports are promoted by university and medical journals as a method of reporting on medical or scientific cases; guidelines for case reports are publicly available on websites ( http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/institutional_review_board/guidelines_policies/guidelines/case_report.html ). The various case report guidelines provide a general criteria for case reports, which describes that this form of report does not meet the criteria of research, is used for retrospective analysis of up to three clinical cases, and is primarily illustrative and for educational purposes. Case reports can be published in academic journals, but do not require approval from a human research ethics committee. Traditionally, case reports describe a single case, to explain how and what occurred in a selected setting, for example, to illustrate a new phenomenon that has emerged from a larger study. A case report is not necessarily particular or the study of a case in its entirety, and the larger study would usually be guided by a different research methodology.

This description of a case report is similar to what was provided in some studies reviewed. This form of report lacks methodological grounding and qualities of research rigour. The case report has publication value in demonstrating an example and for dissemination of knowledge (Flanagan, 1999 ). However, case reports have different meaning and purpose to case study, which needs to be distinguished. Findings of our review suggest that the medical understanding of a case report has been confused with qualitative case study approaches.

In this review, a number of case studies did not have methodological descriptions that included key characteristics of case study listed in the adapted criteria, and several issues have been discussed. There have been calls for improvements in publication quality of qualitative research (Morse, 2011 ), and for improvements in peer review of submitted manuscripts (Carter & Little, 2007 ; Jasper, Vaismoradi, Bondas, & Turunen, 2013 ). The challenging nature of editor and reviewers responsibilities are acknowledged in the literature (Hames, 2013 ; Wager & Kleinert, 2010b ); however, review of case study methodology should be prioritized because of disputes on methodological value.

Authors using case study approaches are recommended to describe their theoretical framework and methods clearly, and to seek and follow specialist methodological advice when needed (Wager & Kleinert, 2010a ). Adequate page space for case study description would contribute to better publications (Gillard et al., 2011 ). Capitalizing on the ability to publish complementary resources should be considered.

Limitations of the review

There is a level of subjectivity involved in this type of review and this should be considered when interpreting study findings. Qualitative methods journals were selected because the aims and scope of these journals are to publish studies that contribute to methodological discussion and development of qualitative research. Generalist health and social science journals were excluded that might have contained good quality case studies. Journals in business or education were also excluded, although a review of case studies in international business journals has been published elsewhere (Piekkari et al., 2009 ).

The criteria used to assess the quality of the case studies were a set of qualitative indicators. A numerical or ranking system might have resulted in different results. Stake's ( 1995 ) criteria have been referenced elsewhere, and was deemed the best available (Creswell, 2013b ; Crowe et al., 2011 ). Not all qualitative studies are reported in a consistent way and some authors choose to report findings in a narrative form in comparison to a typical biomedical report style (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002 ), if misinterpretations were made this may have affected the review.

Case study research is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers, which provides methodological flexibility through the incorporation of different paradigmatic positions, study designs, and methods. However, whereas flexibility can be an advantage, a myriad of different interpretations has resulted in critics questioning the use of case study as a methodology. Using an adaptation of established criteria, we aimed to identify and assess the methodological descriptions of case studies in high impact, qualitative methods journals. Few articles were identified that applied qualitative case study approaches as described by experts in case study design. There were inconsistencies in methodology and study design, which indicated that researchers were confused whether case study was a methodology or a method. Commonly, there appeared to be confusion between case studies and case reports. Without clear understanding and application of the principles and key elements of case study methodology, there is a risk that the flexibility of the approach will result in haphazard reporting, and will limit its global application as a valuable, theoretically supported methodology that can be rigorously applied across disciplines and fields.

Conflict of interest and funding

The authors have not received any funding or benefits from industry or elsewhere to conduct this study.

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  1. Exploratory research design

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COMMENTS

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

    A case study is one of the most commonly used methodologies of social research. This article attempts to look into the various dimensions of a case study research strategy, the different epistemological strands which determine the particular case study type and approach adopted in the field, discusses the factors which can enhance the effectiveness of a case study research, and the debate ...

  2. Exploratory Research

    Revised on November 20, 2023. Exploratory research is a methodology approach that investigates research questions that have not previously been studied in depth. Exploratory research is often qualitative and primary in nature. However, a study with a large sample conducted in an exploratory manner can be quantitative as well.

  3. Case Study

    A case study is a research method that involves an in-depth examination and analysis of a particular phenomenon or case, such as an individual, organization, community, event, or situation. ... An exploratory case study is used to explore a new or understudied phenomenon. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to generate ...

  4. Exploratory Research

    Exploratory Research Methods. There are several types of exploratory research, including: ... Case Study. This involves an in-depth analysis of a particular case or situation to gain insights into the underlying causes, processes, and dynamics of the issue under investigation. It can be used to develop a more comprehensive understanding of a ...

  5. PDF Chapter 3: Method (Exploratory Case Study)

    Describe and justify your research method. Background Reading for This Section Chapter 7 in the Field Guide, particularly Section 7.5 The method used for an exploratory case study is a qualitative method. Qualitative methods are used to gain a deeper understanding of the perceptions of people regarding a particular phenomenon (Merriam, 2009).

  6. What Is a Case Study?

    Revised on November 20, 2023. A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research. A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods, but quantitative methods are ...

  7. PDF A (VERY) BRIEF REFRESHER ON THE CASE STUDY METHOD

    different research methods, including the case study method, can be determined by the kind of research question that a study is trying to address (e.g., Shavelson ... modes, and case study research goes well beyond exploratory functions. In other . 6 PART I. STARTING POINTS words, all the methods can cover the entire range of situations, from ...

  8. Continuing to enhance the quality of case study methodology in health

    The popularity of case study research methodology in Health Services Research ... Yin 30 proposed three types of case study approaches—descriptive, explanatory, and exploratory. Each can be designed around single or multiple cases, creating six basic case study methodologies. Descriptive studies provide a rich description of the phenomenon ...

  9. What is a Case Study?

    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 ...

  10. Case Study

    The definitions of case study evolved over a period of time. Case study is defined as "a systematic inquiry into an event or a set of related events which aims to describe and explain the phenomenon of interest" (Bromley, 1990).Stoecker defined a case study as an "intensive research in which interpretations are given based on observable concrete interconnections between actual properties ...

  11. PDF The utility of case study as a methodology for work-integrated learning

    Yin categorizes case studies as explanatory, exploratory or descriptive. An ... It has recently been suggested that the lines between case study and mixed methods research are permeable (Carolan, Forbat, & Smith, 2016). Despite clear virtues, there are some key challenges to using case study methodology, which need to

  12. (PDF) Qualitative Case Study Methodology: Study Design and

    McMaster University, West Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Qualitative case study methodology prov ides tools for researchers to study. complex phenomena within their contexts. When the approach is ...

  13. Exploratory Research

    Exploratory research is a methodology approach that investigates topics and research questions that have not previously been studied in depth. Exploratory research is often qualitative in nature. However, a study with a large sample conducted in an exploratory manner can be quantitative as well. It is also often referred to as interpretive ...

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

    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 ... Mayo's exploratory case study at Hawthrone plant generated a number of hypotheses, which got tested in several other case studies, and

  15. (PDF) Case Study Research

    The case study method is a research strategy that aims to gain an in-depth understanding of a specific phenomenon by collecting and analyzing ... An exploratory case study was used in this study ...

  16. Methodology or method? A critical review of qualitative case study

    Definitions of qualitative case study research. Case study research is an investigation and analysis of a single or collective case, intended to capture the complexity of the object of study (Stake, 1995).Qualitative case study research, as described by Stake (), draws together "naturalistic, holistic, ethnographic, phenomenological, and biographic research methods" in a bricoleur design ...

  17. Explanatory Research

    Explanatory Research | Definition, Guide, & Examples. Published on December 3, 2021 by Tegan George and Julia Merkus. Revised on November 20, 2023. Explanatory research is a research method that explores why something occurs when limited information is available. It can help you increase your understanding of a given topic, ascertain how or why a particular phenomenon is occurring, and predict ...