Case study

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A case study involves an up-close, in-depth, and detailed examination of a particular case or cases, within a real-world context. [1] [2] For example, case studies in medicine may focus on an individual patient or ailment; case studies in business might cover a particular firm's strategy or a broader market; similarly, case studies in politics can range from a narrow happening over time (e.g., a specific political campaign) to an enormous undertaking (e.g., a World War).

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Generally, a case study can highlight nearly any individual, group, organization, event, belief system, or action. A case study does not necessarily have to be one observation (N=1), but may include many observations (one or multiple individuals and entities across multiple time periods, all within the same case study). [3] [4] [5] [6] Research projects involving numerous cases are frequently called cross-case research, whereas a study of a single case is called within-case research. [5] [7]

Case study research has been extensively practiced in both the social and natural sciences. [8] [9] :5–6 [10] [11]

Definition of case study

There are multiple definitions of case studies, which may emphasize the number of observations (a small N), the method (qualitative), the thickness of the research (a comprehensive examination of a phenomenon and its context), and the naturalism (a "real-life context" is being examined) involved in the research. [12] There is general agreement among scholars that a case study does not necessarily have to entail one observation (N=1), but can include many observations within a single case or across numerous cases. [3] [4] [5] [6] For example, a case study of the French Revolution would at the bare minimum be an observation of two observations: France before and after a revolution. [13] John Gerring writes that the N=1 research design is so rare in practice that it amounts to a "myth." [13]

The term cross-case research is frequently used for studies of multiple cases, whereas within-case research is frequently used for a single case study. [5] [7]

John Gerring defines the case study approach as an "intensive study of a single unit or a small number of units (the cases), for the purpose of understanding a larger class of similar units (a population of cases)." [14] According to Gerring, case studies lend themselves to an idiographic style of analysis, whereas quantitative work lends itself to a nomothetic style of analysis. [15] He adds that "that the defining feature of qualitative work is its use of noncomparable observations—observations that pertain to different aspects of a causal or descriptive question", whereas quantitative observations are comparable. [15]

According to John Gerring, the key characteristic that distinguishes case studies from all other methods is the "reliance on evidence drawn from a single case and its attempts, at the same time, to illuminate features of a broader set of cases." [13] Scholars use case studies to shed light on a "class" of phenomena.

Case Study Research Designs

As with other social science methods, no single research design dominates case study research. Case studies can use at least four types of designs. First, there may be a "no theory first" type of case study design, which is closely connected to Kathleen M. Eisenhardt's methodological work. [16] [17] A second type of research design highlights the distinction between single- and multiple-case studies, following Robert K. Yin's guidelines and extensive examples. [16] [9] A third design deals with a "social construction of reality", represented by the work of Robert E. Stake. [16] [18] Finally, the design rationale for a case study may be to identify "anomalies". A representative scholar of this design is Michael Burawoy. [16] [19] Each of these four designs may lead to different applications, and understanding their sometimes unique ontological and epistemological assumptions becomes important. However, although the designs can have substantial methodological differences, the designs also can be used in explicitly acknowledged combinations with each other.

While case studies can be intended to provide bounded explanations of single cases or phenomena, they are often intended to theoretical insights about the features of a broader population. [20]

Case Selection and Structure

Case selection in case study research is generally intended to both find cases that are a representative sample and which have variations on the dimensions of theoretical interest. [20] Using that is solely representative, such as 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.

While random selection of cases is a valid case selection strategy in large-N research, there is a consensus among scholars that it risks generating serious biases in small-N research. [21] [22] [20] [23] [24] Random selection of cases may produce unrepresentative cases, as well as uninformative cases. [24] Cases should generally be chosen that have a high expected information gain. [25] [20] [26] For example, outlier cases (those which are extreme, deviant or atypical) can reveal more information than the potentially representative case. [26] [27] [28] A case may also be chosen because of the inherent interest of the case or the circumstances surrounding it. Alternatively 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 Richard Fenno put it, [29] and thereby to offer reasoned lines of explanation based on this rich knowledge of setting and circumstances.

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. Gary Thomas 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. [30]

In a 2015 article, John Gerring and Jason Seawright list seven case selection strategies: [20]

  1. Typical cases are cases that exemplify a stable cross-case relationship. These cases are representative of the larger population of cases, and the purpose of the study is to look within the case rather than compare it with other cases.
  2. Diverse cases are cases that have variation on the relevant X and Y variables. Due to the range of variation on the relevant variables, these cases are representative of the full population of cases.
  3. Extreme cases are cases that have an extreme value on the X or Y variable relative to other cases.
  4. Deviant cases are cases that defy existing theories and common sense. They not only have extreme values on X or Y (like extreme cases), but defy existing knowledge about causal relations.
  5. Influential cases are cases that are central to a model or theory (for example, Nazi Germany in theories of fascism and the far-right).
  6. Most similar cases are cases that are similar on all the independent variables, except the one of interest to the researcher.
  7. Most different cases are cases that are different on all the independent variables, except the one of interest to the researcher.

For theoretical discovery, Jason Seawright recommends using deviant cases or extreme cases that have an extreme value on the X variable. [26]

Arend Lijphart, and Harry Eckstein identified five types of case study research designs (depending on the research objectives), Alexander George and Andrew Bennett added a sixth category: [31]

  1. In atheoretical (or configurative idiographic) case studies the goal is to describe a case very well, but not to contribute to a theory.
  2. In interpretative (or disciplined configurative) case studies the goal is to use established theories to explain a specific case.
  3. In hypothesis-generating (or heuristic) case studies the goal is to inductively identify new variables, hypotheses, causal mechanisms and causal paths.
  4. In theory testing case studies the goal is to assess the validity and scope conditions of existing theories.
  5. In plausibility probes the goal is to assess the plausibility of new hypotheses and theories.
  6. In building block studies of types or subtypes the goal is to identify common patterns across cases.

In terms of case selection, Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba warn against "selecting on the dependent variable". They argue for example that researchers cannot make valid causal inferences about war outbreak by only looking at instances where war did happen (the researcher should also look at cases where war did not happen). [22] Scholars of qualitative methods have disputed this claim, however. They argue that selecting on the dependent variable can be useful depending on the purposes of the research. [25] [32] [33] Barbara Geddes shares KKV's concerns with selecting on the dependent variable (she argues that it cannot be used for theory testing purposes), but she argues that selecting on the dependent variable can be useful for the purposes of theory creation and theory modification. [34]

King, Keohane and Verba argue that there is no methodological problem in selecting on the explanatory variable, however. They do warn about multicollinearity (choosing two or more explanatory variables that perfectly correlate with each other). [22]

Uses and Limits

Uses

Case studies have commonly been seen as a fruitful way to come up with hypotheses and generate theories. [21] [22] [35] [25] [36] [15] Classic examples of case studies that generated theories includes Darwin's theory of evolution (derived from his travels to the Easter Island), and Douglass North's theories of economic development (derived from case studies of early developing states, such as England). [36]

Case studies are also useful for formulating concepts, which are an important aspect of theory construction. [37] The concepts used in qualitative research will tend to have higher conceptual validity than concepts used in quantitative research (due to conceptual stretching: the unintentional comparison of dissimilar cases). [25] Case studies add descriptive richness, [38] [33] and can have greater internal validity than quantitative studies. [39] Case studies are suited to explain outcomes in individual cases, which is something that quantitative methods are less equipped to do. [32]

Through fine-gained knowledge and description, case studies can fully specify the causal mechanisms in a way that may be harder in a large-N study. [40] [38] [41] [21] [42] In terms of identifying "causal mechanisms", some scholars distinguish between "weak" and "strong chains". Strong chains actively connect elements of the causal chain to produce an outcome whereas weak chains are just intervening variables. [43]

Case studies of cases that defy existing theoretical expectations may contribute knowledge by delineating why the cases violate theoretical predictions and specifying the scope conditions of the theory. [21] Case studies are useful in situations of causal complexity where there may be equifinality, complex interaction effects and path dependency. [25] [44] Case studies can identify necessary and insufficient conditions, as well as complex combinations of necessary and sufficient conditions. [25] [32] [45] They argue that case studies may also be useful in identifying the scope conditions of a theory: whether variables are sufficient or necessary to bring about an outcome. [25] [32]

Qualitative research may be necessary to determine whether a treatment is as-if random or not. As a consequence, good quantitative observational research often entails a qualitative component. [15]

Limitations

Designing Social Inquiry (also called "KKV"), an influential 1994 book written by Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, primarily applies lessons from regression-oriented analysis to qualitative research, arguing that the same logics of causal inference can be used in both types of research. [22] [46] [37] The authors' recommendation is to increase the number of observations (a recommendation that Barbara Geddes also makes in Paradigms and Sand Castles), [34] because few observations make it harder to estimate multiple causal effects, as well as increase the risk that there is measurement error, and that an event in a single case was caused by random error or unobservable factors. [22] KKV sees process-tracing and qualitative research as being "unable to yield strong causal inference" due to the fact that qualitative scholars would struggle with determining which of many intervening variables truly links the independent variable with a dependent variable. The primary problem is that qualitative research lacks a sufficient number of observations to properly estimate the effects of an independent variable. They write that the number of observations could be increased through various means, but that would simultaneously lead to another problem: that the number of variables would increase and thus reduce degrees of freedom. [37]

The purported "degrees of freedom" problem that KKV identify is widely considered flawed; while quantitative scholars try to aggregate variables to reduce the number of variables and thus increase the degrees of freedom, qualitative scholars intentionally want their variables to have many different attributes and complexity. [47] [25] For example, James Mahoney writes, "the Bayesian nature of process tracing explains why it is inappropriate to view qualitative research as suffering from a small-N problem and certain standard causal identification problems." [48] By using Bayesian probability, it may be possible to makes strong causal inferences from a small sliver of data. [49]

A commonly described limit of case studies is that they do not lend themselves to generalizability. [22] Due to the small number of cases, it may be harder to ensure that the chosen cases are representative of the larger population. [39] Some scholars, such as Bent Flyvbjerg, have pushed back on that notion. [35]

As small-N research should not rely on random sampling, scholars must be careful in avoiding selection bias when picking suitable cases. [21] A common criticism of qualitative scholarship is that cases are chosen because they are consistent with the scholar's preconceived notions, resulting in biased research. [21] [35]

Alexander George and Andrew Bennett note that a common problem in case study research is that of reconciling conflicting interpretations of the same data. [25]

One limit of case study research is that it can be hard to estimate the magnitude of a causal effect. [50]

Teaching case studies

Teachers may prepare a case study that will then be used in classrooms in the form of a "teaching" case study (also see case method and casebook method). For instance, as early as 1870 at Harvard Law School, Christopher Langdell departed from the traditional lecture-and-notes approach to teaching contract law and began using cases pled before courts as the basis for class discussions. [51] By 1920, this practice had become the dominant pedagogical approach used by law schools in the United States. [52]

Engineering students participate in a case study competition. Case Study Caption 1.jpg
Engineering students participate in a case study competition.

Outside of law, teaching case studies have become popular in many different fields and professions, ranging from business education to science education. The Harvard Business School has been among the most prominent developers and users of teaching case studies. [53] [54] Teachers develop case studies with particular learning objectives in mind. Additional relevant documentation, such as financial statements, time-lines, short biographies, and multimedia supplements (such as video-recordings of interviews) often accompany the case studies. Similarly, teaching case studies have become increasingly popular in science education, covering different biological and physical sciences. The National Center for Case Studies in Teaching Science has made a growing body of teaching case studies available for classroom use, for university as well as secondary school coursework. [55] [56]

See also

Related Research Articles

Research Systematic study undertaken to increase knowledge

Research is "creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge". It involves the collection, organization, and analysis of information to increase understanding of a topic or issue. A research project may be an expansion on past work in the field. To test the validity of instruments, procedures, or experiments, research may replicate elements of prior projects or the project as a whole.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research relies on data obtained by the researcher from first-hand observation, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, participant-observation, recordings made in natural settings, documents, and artifacts. The data are generally nonnumerical. Qualitative methods include ethnography, grounded theory, discourse analysis, and interpretative phenomenological analysis. Qualitative research methods have been used in sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, social work, and educational research. Qualitative researchers study individuals' understanding of their social reality.

Social research Research conducted by social scientists following a systematic plan

Social research is a research conducted by social scientists following a systematic plan. Social research methodologies can be classified as quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative research All procedures for the numerical representation of empirical facts

Quantitative research is a research strategy that focuses on quantifying the collection and analysis of data. It is formed from a deductive approach where emphasis is placed on the testing of theory, shaped by empiricist and positivist philosophies.

Educational research refers to the systematic collection and analysis of data related to the field of education. Research may involve a variety of methods and various aspects of education including student learning, teaching methods, teacher training, and classroom dynamics.

Methodology A coherent and logical theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study

Methodology is "'a contextual framework' for research, a coherent and logical scheme based on views, beliefs, and values, that guides the choices researchers [or other users] make".

Grounded theory

Grounded theory is a systematic methodology that has been largely, but not exclusively, applied to qualitative research conducted by social scientists. The methodology involves the construction of hypotheses and theories through the collecting and analysis of data. Grounded theory involves the application of inductive reasoning. The methodology contrasts with the hypothetico-deductive model used in traditional scientific research.

Exploratory research is "the preliminary research to clarify the exact nature of the problem to be solved." It is used to ensure additional research is taken into consideration during an experiment as well as determining research priorities, collecting data and honing in on certain subjects which may be difficult to take note of without exploratory research. It can include techniques, such as:

Truncated regression models are a class of models in which the sample has been truncated for certain ranges of the dependent variable. That means observations with values in the dependent variable below or above certain thresholds are systematically excluded from the sample. Therefore, whole observations are missing, so that neither the dependent nor the independent variable is known. This is in contrast to censored regression models where only the value of the dependent variable is clustered at a lower threshold, an upper threshold, or both, while the value for independent variables is available.

Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research is an influential 1994 book written by Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba that lays out guidelines for conducting qualitative research. The central thesis of the book is that qualitative and quantitative research share the same "logic of inference." The book primarily applies lessons from regression-oriented analysis to qualitative research, arguing that the same logics of causal inference can be used in both types of research.

Research question Question that a research project sets out to answer

A research question is 'a question that a research project sets out to answer'. Choosing a research question is an essential element of both quantitative and qualitative research. Investigation will require data collection and analysis, and the methodology for this will vary widely. Good research questions seek to improve knowledge on an important topic, and are usually narrow and specific.

Comparative historical research

Comparative historical research is a method of social science that examines historical events in order to create explanations that are valid beyond a particular time and place, either by direct comparison to other historical events, theory building, or reference to the present day. Generally, it involves comparisons of social processes across times and places. It overlaps with historical sociology. While the disciplines of history and sociology have always been connected, they have connected in different ways at different times. This form of research may use any of several theoretical orientations. It is distinguished by the types of questions it asks, not the theoretical framework it employs.

In statistics, qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) is a data analysis based on set theory to examine the relationship of conditions to outcome. QCA describes the relationship in terms of necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. The technique was originally developed by Charles Ragin in 1987 to study data sets that are too small for linear regression analysis but large for cross-case analysis.

David Collier (political scientist)

David Collier is an American political scientist. He is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He works in the fields of comparative politics, Latin American politics, and methodology.

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Causal inference is the process of determining the independent, actual effect of a particular phenomenon that is a component of a larger system. The main difference between causal inference and inference of association is that causal inference analyzes the response of an effect variable when a cause of the effect variable is changed. The science of why things occur is called etiology. Causal inference is said to provide the evidence of causality theorized by causal reasoning.

Critical realism (philosophy of the social sciences)

Critical realism is a philosophical approach to understanding science initially developed by Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014). It combines a general philosophy of science with a philosophy of social science. It specifically opposes forms of empiricism and positivism by viewing science as concerned with identifying causal mechanisms. In the last decades of the twentieth century it also stood against various forms of postmodernism and poststructuralism by insisting on the reality of objective existence. In contrast to positivism's methodological foundation, and poststructuralism's epistemological foundation, critical realism insists that (social) science should be built from an explicit ontology. Critical realism is one of a range of types of philosophical realism, as well as forms of realism advocated within social science such as analytic realism and subtle realism.

Feminist empiricism is a perspective within feminist research that combines the objectives and observations of feminism with the research methods and empiricism. Feminist empiricism is typically connected to mainstream notions of positivism. Feminist empiricism proposes that feminist theories can be objectively proven through evidence. Feminist empiricism critiques what it perceives to be inadequacies and biases within mainstream research methods, including positivism.

Harry H. Eckstein was an American political scientist. He was an influential scholar of comparative politics and political culture, as well as qualitative research methods.

A causal map can be defined as a network consisting of links or arcs between nodes or factors, such that a link between C and E means, in some sense, that C has or had some causal influence on E.

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Further reading