A good researcher knows that everything happens in context. It’s not just in social science, but a fundamental principle in physics – every reaction is caused by something. In studying people, communities and behaviour, we need to consider the embedded world in which they live.
In qualitative research this is always an important part of the research, but it also provides a difficult methodological question: how much of the context should be the research study? It’s obviously not possible to study the whole world and all the interactions of people and customs in it, but you also don’t want to look at one part of the puzzle in isolation.
That’s where case study research comes in. Here, you adopt a series of methodologies that are exploring the phenomenon you want to study in context (in vivo / in life) rather than in isolation (in vitro – in a glass tube). Rather than just finding individual research respondents who meet your criteria for inclusion in your study, you research a little more of the world they live in. It’s often used to look at organisations such as a school, workplace, hospital or support group. While often closely connected with ethnography, case study research doesn’t have to just use ethnographic methods.
Miles and Huberman (1994) define a case study as a phenomenon occurring in a bounded context. Of course everything happens in some sort of context, but having a specific context of study is essentially what forms the unit of analysis, and this may be an individual, an organisation, an intervention or a process.
Usually qualitative case studies employ a qualitative inquiry approach, so could have exploratory, interpretive, or descriptive questions. It’s often used with a theory testing approach, where no such case study has been done before, so new explanations are likely to be generated using phenomenology or grounded theory.
Because of the exploratory and in-depth nature of the issues tackled in case study research, it’s likely that a researcher will embed themselves in the context for a long period of time, similar to ethnography. They will get to know the people and site in great detail, usually through a lot of direct observation. Since it’s difficult to be a totally impartial fly-on-the-wall during this type of study approach, the researcher needs to not only embrace the fact that their presence will influence the data in some way (constructivism and subjectivisim) but also plan for and manage the potential impact.
Yin (2003) notes that case study research is often chosen when you cannot directly manipulate the behaviour of participants, the context is important, or it’s not clear where the context of what you are studying ends. However, the last point also contains a word of caution – to make sure that the research questions are aimed correctly, so that the research project doesn’t grow too much. Setting exactly what is the specific and interesting part of the context of the case is probably the most important factor in designing case study research.
These may also be geographical boundaries to a case, or they may cover a single site – such as one workplace rather than all branches of that office. However, it’s important to note that qualitative case study research almost always involves selective or purposeful sampling: because the number of cases are so small, it is unlikely there there is going to be a random selection process for which sites are included.
There are also comparative case studies – also called multiple or collective case studies which are used to compare phenomenon at multiple sites. However, as case studies are usually always ‘in-depth’ due to the complex interplay they are studying, it is unusual to have more than a few different case study locations, especially as each may require months or years of study.
Gaining access through ‘gate-keepers’, and earning trust from potential participants is even more important in case study research than other settings, since the researcher is likely to be embedded there for a considerable period of time, and will get privileged access to the inner workings of the context or setting. It can take a lot of work, dead-ends and patience before access is granted to the context of the case study, and researchers need to present a convincing, but realistic reason that they should be allowed to study the setting, and what participants can expect.
So what actual methods can be used in a qualitative case study? Well observation is the most obvious and commonly used: watching how people act and behave in natural settings (Mayse and Pope 1995). Here researchers will take notes, although may also record audio or video of key sessions or activities for later analysis. A research journal is a good idea – somewhere to keep the researcher’s own thoughts, comments and interpretations of the study as it goes along. This is especially important since the case study will likely take many months of work, and multiple informal observation settings.
However, it may not always be obvious to an outsider what is happening and why just by watching, so interviews and focus groups can also be used to ask questions to participants about the context and their actions. Document analysis is also important in case study research, as it can provide evidence and insight to how the context operates (such as meeting notes, internal policy) but also documents about the setting from outside, which may include media and government policy.
Reading through some examples of research based on case study research can give you an idea of what is typical, as well as the breadth of approaches and subjects. For example, a study of an organisation and management in Switzerland used a single case study approach, but was embedded for a whole year (Meissner and Sprenger 2010). A study of sport clubs for young people in Zambia used a typical multi-case study approach, looking at 5 groups over 4 months with individual interviews and field notes (Njelesani et al. 2015). Case studies can also look at virtual communities, using both online and offline approaches (Nørskov and Rask 2011).
As ever, our short blog post only opens the door to a complex topic, and further reading is always advised. In addition to the classic articles and books on case study research, especially Yin (2014) and Miles and Huberman (2013), there are two excellent overview articles: Baxter and Jack (2008) and Harrison et al. (2017) which will provide more depth and further reading (links and references below).
Considering the huge amount of notes, data and diaries that case studies generate, a simple intuitive tool to collect, manage and analyse qualitative text data would be an important consideration. Thankfully, we designed Quirkos to do just that, and you can download a free trial to see how it can help your qualitative analysis and case study research!
Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13(4), 544-559. https://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR13-4/baxter.pdf
HARRISON, Helena et al. Case Study Research: Foundations and Methodological Orientations. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, [S.l.], v. 18, 2017. https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2655/4079
Miles, Huberman and Saldana (2014), Qualitative Data Analysis
A Methods Sourcebook Los Angeles, CA: Sage. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/qualitative-data-analysis/book239534
Yin, Robert K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/case-study-research-and-applications/book250150