Case study

Case study

A case study is an intensive analysis of an individual unit (e.g., a person, group, or event) stressing developmental factors in relation to context.[1] The case study is common in social sciences and life sciences. Case studies may be descriptive or explanatory. The latter type is used to explore causation in order to find underlying principles.[2][3] They may be prospective, in which criteria are established and cases fitting the criteria are included as they become available, or retrospective, in which criteria are established for selecting cases from historical records for inclusion in the study.

Thomas[4] offers the following definition of case study: "Case studies are analyses of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions, or other systems that are studied holistically by one or more methods. The case that is the subject of the inquiry will be an instance of a class of phenomena that provides an analytical frame — an object — within which the study is conducted and which the case illuminates and explicates."

Rather than using samples and following a rigid protocol (strict set of rules) to examine limited number of variables, case study methods involve an in-depth, longitudinal (over a long period of time) examination of a single instance or event: a case. They provide a systematic way of looking at events, collecting data, analyzing information, and reporting the results. As a result the researcher may gain a sharpened understanding of why the instance happened as it did, and what might become important to look at more extensively in future research. Case studies lend themselves to both generating and testing hypotheses.[5]

Another suggestion is that case study should be defined as a research strategy, an empirical inquiry that investigates a phenomenon within its real-life context. Case study research means single and multiple case studies, can include quantitative evidence, relies on multiple sources of evidence and benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions. Case studies should not be confused with qualitative research and they can be based on any mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence. Single-subject research provides the statistical framework for making inferences from quantitative case-study data.[3][6] This is also supported and well-formulated in (Lamnek, 2005): "The case study is a research approach, situated between concrete data taking techniques and methodologic paradigms."

The case study is sometimes mistaken for the case method, but the two are not the same.


Case selection and structure of the case study

An average, or typical, case is often not the richest in information. In clarifying lines of history and causation it is more useful to select subjects that offer an interesting, unusual or particularly revealing set of circumstances. A case selection that is based on representativeness will seldom be able to produce these kinds of insights. When selecting a subject for a case study, researchers will therefore use information-oriented sampling, as opposed to random sampling.[5] Outlier cases (that is, those which are extreme, deviant or atypical) reveal more information than the putatively representative case. Alternatively, a case may be selected as a key case, chosen because of the inherent interest of the case or the circumstances surrounding it. Or it may be chosen because of researchers' in-depth local knowledge; where researchers have this local knowledge they are in a position to “soak and poke” as Fenno[7] puts it, and thereby to offer reasoned lines of explanation based on this rich knowledge of setting and circumstances.

Three types of cases may thus be distinguished:

  1. Key cases
  2. Outlier cases
  3. Local knowledge cases

Whatever the frame of reference for the choice of the subject of the case study (key, outlier, local knowledge), there is a distinction to be made between the subject and the object of the case study. The subject is the “practical, historical unity” [8] through which the theoretical focus of the study is being viewed. The object is that theoretical focus – the analytical frame. Thus, for example, if a researcher were interested in US resistance to communist expansion as a theoretical focus, then the Korean War might be taken to be the subject, the lens, the case study through which the theoretical focus, the object, could be viewed and explicated.[9]

Beyond decisions about case selection and the subject and object of the study, decisions need to be made about purpose, approach and process in the case study. Thomas[10] thus proposes a typology for the case study wherein purposes are first identified (evaluative or exploratory), then approaches are delineated (theory-testing, theory-building or illustrative), then processes are decided upon, with a principal choice being between whether the study is to be single or multiple, and choices also about whether the study is to be retrospective, snapshot or diachronic, and whether it is nested, parallel or sequential. It is thus possible to take many routes through this typology, with, for example, an exploratory, theory-building, multiple, nested study, or an evaluative, theory-testing, single, retrospective study. The typology thus offers many permutations for case study structure.

For more on case selection, see [1]

Generalizing from case studies

A critical case can be defined as having strategic importance in relation to the general problem. A critical case allows the following type of generalization, ‘If it is valid for this case, it is valid for all (or many) cases.’ In its negative form, the generalization would be, ‘If it is not valid for this case, then it is not valid for any (or only few) cases.’

The case study is also effective for generalizing using the type of test that Karl Popper called falsification, which forms part of critical reflexivity.[5] Falsification is one of the most rigorous tests to which a scientific proposition can be subjected: if just one observation does not fit with the proposition it is considered not valid generally and must therefore be either revised or rejected. Popper himself used the now famous example of, "All swans are white," and proposed that just one observation of a single black swan would falsify this proposition and in this way have general significance and stimulate further investigations and theory-building. The case study is well suited for identifying "black swans" because of its in-depth approach: what appears to be "white" often turns out on closer examination to be "black."

Galileo Galilei’s rejection of Aristotle’s law of gravity was based on a case study selected by information-oriented sampling and not random sampling. The rejection consisted primarily of a conceptual experiment and later on of a practical one. These experiments, with the benefit of hindsight, are self-evident. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s incorrect view of gravity dominated scientific inquiry for nearly two thousand years before it was falsified. In his experimental thinking, Galileo reasoned as follows: if two objects with the same weight are released from the same height at the same time, they will hit the ground simultaneously, having fallen at the same speed. If the two objects are then stuck together into one, this object will have double the weight and will according to the Aristotelian view therefore fall faster than the two individual objects. This conclusion seemed contradictory to Galileo. The only way to avoid the contradiction was to eliminate weight as a determinant factor for acceleration in free fall. Galileo’s experimentalism did not involve a large random sample of trials of objects falling from a wide range of randomly selected heights under varying wind conditions, and so on. Rather, it was a matter of a single experiment, that is, a case study.(Flyvbjerg, 2006, p. 225-6) [2]

Galileo’s view continued to be subjected to doubt, however, and the Aristotelian view was not finally rejected until half a century later, with the invention of the air pump. The air pump made it possible to conduct the ultimate experiment, known by every pupil, whereby a coin or a piece of lead inside a vacuum tube falls with the same speed as a feather. After this experiment, Aristotle’s view could be maintained no longer. What is especially worth noting, however, is that the matter was settled by an individual case due to the clever choice of the extremes of metal and feather. One might call it a critical case, for if Galileo’s thesis held for these materials, it could be expected to be valid for all or a large range of materials. Random and large samples were at no time part of the picture. However it was Galileo's view that was the subject of doubt as it was not reasonable enough to be the Aristotelian view. By selecting cases strategically in this manner one may arrive at case studies that allow generalization.(Flyvbjerg, 2006, p. 225-6) For more on generalizing from case studies, see [3] hiya

The case study paradox

Case studies have existed as long as recorded history. Much of what is known about the empirical world has been produced by case study research, and many of the classics in a long range of disciplines are case studies, including in psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, education, economics, political science, management, geography, biology, and medical science. Half of all articles in the top political science journals use case studies, for instance. But there is a paradox here, as argued by Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg. At the same time that case studies are extensively used and have produced canonical works, one may observe that the case study is generally held in low regard, or is simply ignored, within the academy. Statistics on courses offered in universities confirm this. It has been argued that the case study paradox exists because the case study is widely misunderstood as a research method. Flyvbjerg argues that by clearing the misunderstandings about the case study, the case study paradox may be resolved [11]

The debate regarding case study's value as a research method

Flyvbjerg (2006) identified five statements regarding the limitations of case study as a research:

  1. General, theoretical knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical knowledge.
  2. One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case and, therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development.
  3. The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building.
  4. The case study contains a bias toward verification, i.e., a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions.
  5. It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies.

These statements can be said to represent the cautionary view of case studies in conventional philosophy of science. Flyvbjerg (2006) argued that these statements are too categorical, and argued for the value of phenomenological insights gleamed by closely examining contextual "expert knowledge".

History of the case study

It is generally believed that the case-study method was first introduced into social science by Frederic Le Play in 1829 as a handmaiden to statistics in his studies of family budgets. (Les Ouvriers Europeens (2nd edition, 1879).[12]

The use of case studies for the creation of new theory in social sciences has been further developed by the sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss who presented their research method, Grounded theory, in 1967.

The popularity of case studies in testing hypotheses has developed only in recent decades. One of the areas in which case studies have been gaining popularity is education and in particular educational evaluation.[13]

Case studies have also been used as a teaching method and as part of professional development, especially in business and legal education. The problem-based learning (PBL) movement is such an example. When used in (non-business) education and professional development, case studies are often referred to as critical incidents.

When the Harvard Business School was started, the faculty quickly realized that there were no textbooks suitable to a graduate program in business. Their first solution to this problem was to interview leading practitioners of business and to write detailed accounts of what these managers were doing. Cases are generally written by business school faculty with particular learning objectives in mind and are refined in the classroom before publication. Additional relevant documentation (such as financial statements, time-lines, and short biographies, often referred to in the case as "exhibits"), multimedia supplements (such as video-recordings of interviews with the case protagonist), and a carefully crafted teaching note often accompany cases.

See also


  1. ^ Bent Flyvbjerg, 2011, "Case Study," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), pp. 301-316.
  2. ^ Shepard, Jon; Robert W. Greene (2003). Sociology and You. Ohio: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. pp. A-22. ISBN 0078285763. 
  3. ^ a b Robert K. Yin. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Fourth Edition. SAGE Publications. California, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4129-6099-1
  4. ^ G. Thomas (2011) A typology for the case study in social science following a review of definition, discourse and structure. Qualitative Inquiry, 17, 6, 511-521
  5. ^ a b c Bent Flyvbjerg, 2006, "Five Misunderstandings About Case Study Research." Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 2, April, pp. 219-245.; Bent Flyvbjerg, 2011, "Case Study," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), pp. 301-316.
  6. ^ Siegfried Lamnek. Qualitative Sozialforschung. Lehrbuch. 4. Auflage. Beltz Verlag. Weihnhein, Basel, 2005
  7. ^ R. Fenno (1986) Observation, context, and sequence in the study of politics. American Political Science Review, 80, 1, 3-15
  8. ^ M. Wieviorka (1992) Case studies: history or sociology? In C.C. Ragin and H.S. Becker (Eds) What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. ^ Gary Thomas, How to do your Case Study (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2011)
  10. ^ G. Thomas (2011) A typology for the case study in social science following a review of definition, discourse and structure. Qualitative Inquiry, 17, 6, 511-521
  11. ^ Bent Flyvbjerg, 2011, "Case Study," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), pp. 301-316.
  12. ^ Sister Mary Edward Healy, C. S. J. (1947). "Le Play's Contribution to Sociology: His Method". The American Catholic Sociological Review 8 (2): 97–110. 
  13. ^ Robert E. Stake, The Art of Case Study Research (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995). ISBN 080395767X

Useful Sources

  • Baxter, P and Jack, S. (2008) Qualitative Case Study Methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers, in The Qualitative Report, 13(4): 544-559. Available from [4]
  • Dul, J. and Hak, T (2008). Case Study Methodology in Business Research. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-8196-4.
  • Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case study research. The Academy of Management Review, 14 (4), Oct, 532-550. doi:10.2307/258557
  • Flyvbjerg, Bent, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). ISBN 052177568X
  • Flyvbjerg, Bent. (2006). Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research, in Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2): 219-245. Available:[5]
  • Flyvbjerg, Bent. (2011) "Case Study," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 301-316.
  • George, Alexander L. and Bennett,Andrew. (2005). Case studies and theory development in the social sciences. London, MIT Press 2005. ISBN 0-262-57222-2
  • Gerring, John. (2005) Case Study Research. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-67656-4
  • Hancké, Bob. (2009) Intelligent Research Design. A guide for beginning researchers in the social sciences. Oxford University Press.
  • Lijphart, Arend.(1971)Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method,in The American Political Science Review, 65(3): 682-693. Available from [6]
  • Ragin, Charles C. and Becker, Howard S. eds. (1992) What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521421888
  • Scholz, Roland W. and Tietje, Olaf. (2002) Embedded Case Study Methods. Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Knowledge. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks 2002, Sage. ISBN 0761919465 ,9337270973
  • Straits, Bruce C. and Singleton, Royce A. (2004) Approaches to Social Research, 4th ed.Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195147944 Available from: [7]
  • Thomas, Gary (2011) How to do your Case Study: A Guide for Students and Researchers. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

External links

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