What is a case study?
A case study is a qualitative research approach where multiple methods of data collection are used for a detailed examination of a single 'case'. A case is a single unit in a study. It can be a person or an organisation, like a clinic, police force, factory or a hospital. A case can also be a community or groups of people. Television series have also been used as case studies of how television programmes are produced. Sometimes researchers undertake more than one case study for purposes of comparison, e.g. private versus public hospitals. In medicine, there has been a tradition of using a singular person to give a detailed medical history or description of an unusual health condition. In social sciences, sometimes a life history is considered a case study as it is a detailed analysis of a single case.
Case studies focus on the complexity, dynamics and circumstances of a single case (sometimes called a phenomenon). Multiple research methods are used. Cases are intensively explored in-depth, retrospectively, currently and sometimes over time. By focusing on small numbers, greater depth and more details can be obtained. This is in contrast to quantitative methods which gathers specific concise information on a large number of cases.
The aim is to understand the case/phenomenon selected for study. The researcher gives detailed descriptions, develops possible explanations and evaluates the phenomenon. Case studies are designed to provide detailed information about a specific area but there is often a view to place the case in the context of the wider society. For example, a case study of migrants' health in Yorkshire can be used as a basis for understanding their needs and relationships with the wider society. However, it should be noted that the material case studies produce is not generalisable. Quantitative research can be done later on to assess how typical the situation and/or organisation is. Case studies are sometimes used to develop a theory.
Case study seeks to answer the question "what are the characteristics of the phenomenon?"
Researchers spend an extended period of time on-site with their participants and collect a substantial amount of data from a wide variety of sources. Data collection typically consists of unstructured interviews, observation and document analysis (such as information from records, analysis of official statistics). In other words, formal and informal interviews, interactive fieldwork and some use of quantitative measures. It is advisable to carry out a pilot study first using a sub-group within the organisation to test that what you intend to do will work. It is good to iron out the design faults before jumping in to do the study. While large-scale case studies can be costly and time-consuming, a small-scale case study has little financial cost. Perhaps, this is why it is a popular research method used by graduate students!
Analysis will depend upon the methods used. For example, you would use qualitative analysis for unstructured interviews and observations and a content analysis for documents. Usually, this will consist of interpretational (i.e. search for themes), structural (search for patterns in discourse) and reflective (portrayal of participants' views). Like other qualitative approaches, the case study is reliant on the skills of the investigator to interpret the data in a rigorous manner rather than just reporting selective perceptions.
The case study is not suited to the traditional presentation of results (i.e. statement of problem, literature review, methods, analysis and conclusions). Instead, a case study consists of (1)a chronological or biographical description of the case; (2) the investigator's approach to understanding and investigating the case and (3) description of each of the main components of the case. It is good to use illustrations of particular episodes to back up your findings.
- Good for the study of complex social settings.
- Useful in the exploratory, early stages of research and for generating hypotheses.
- Becoming more common in evaluative studies where case studies can be used to evaluate a health programme.
- Can be used as a biographical research method (unstructured interviews to obtain a narrative of a respondent's life).
- Can be used by investigators using a phenomenological perspective.
- It has long been used by clinicians in relation to the understanding of disease.
Bowling, A. Research Methods in Health, 2nd Edition. Open University Press, 2002.
Leedy, P. Practical Research: Planning and Design. 6th Edition. Merril, New Jersey, 1997.