Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments
- Annotated Bibliography
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- Group Presentations
- Dealing with Nervousness
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- Grading Someone Else's Paper
- Types of Structured Group Activities
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- Writing a Case Analysis Paper
- Writing a Case Study
- About Informed Consent
- Writing Field Notes
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- Writing a Reflective Paper
- Writing a Research Proposal
- Generative AI and Writing
A case study research paper examines a person, place, event, condition, phenomenon, or other type of subject of analysis in order to extrapolate key themes and results that help predict future trends, illuminate previously hidden issues that can be applied to practice, and/or provide a means for understanding an important research problem with greater clarity. A case study research paper usually examines a single subject of analysis, but case study papers can also be designed as a comparative investigation that shows relationships between two or more subjects. The methods used to study a case can rest within a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-method investigative paradigm.
Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010 ; “What is a Case Study?” In Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London: SAGE, 2010.
How to Approach Writing a Case Study Research Paper
General information about how to choose a topic to investigate can be found under the " Choosing a Research Problem " tab in the Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper writing guide. Review this page because it may help you identify a subject of analysis that can be investigated using a case study design.
However, identifying a case to investigate involves more than choosing the research problem . A case study encompasses a problem contextualized around the application of in-depth analysis, interpretation, and discussion, often resulting in specific recommendations for action or for improving existing conditions. As Seawright and Gerring note, practical considerations such as time and access to information can influence case selection, but these issues should not be the sole factors used in describing the methodological justification for identifying a particular case to study. Given this, selecting a case includes considering the following:
- The case represents an unusual or atypical example of a research problem that requires more in-depth analysis? Cases often represent a topic that rests on the fringes of prior investigations because the case may provide new ways of understanding the research problem. For example, if the research problem is to identify strategies to improve policies that support girl's access to secondary education in predominantly Muslim nations, you could consider using Azerbaijan as a case study rather than selecting a more obvious nation in the Middle East. Doing so may reveal important new insights into recommending how governments in other predominantly Muslim nations can formulate policies that support improved access to education for girls.
- The case provides important insight or illuminate a previously hidden problem? In-depth analysis of a case can be based on the hypothesis that the case study will reveal trends or issues that have not been exposed in prior research or will reveal new and important implications for practice. For example, anecdotal evidence may suggest drug use among homeless veterans is related to their patterns of travel throughout the day. Assuming prior studies have not looked at individual travel choices as a way to study access to illicit drug use, a case study that observes a homeless veteran could reveal how issues of personal mobility choices facilitate regular access to illicit drugs. Note that it is important to conduct a thorough literature review to ensure that your assumption about the need to reveal new insights or previously hidden problems is valid and evidence-based.
- The case challenges and offers a counter-point to prevailing assumptions? Over time, research on any given topic can fall into a trap of developing assumptions based on outdated studies that are still applied to new or changing conditions or the idea that something should simply be accepted as "common sense," even though the issue has not been thoroughly tested in current practice. A case study analysis may offer an opportunity to gather evidence that challenges prevailing assumptions about a research problem and provide a new set of recommendations applied to practice that have not been tested previously. For example, perhaps there has been a long practice among scholars to apply a particular theory in explaining the relationship between two subjects of analysis. Your case could challenge this assumption by applying an innovative theoretical framework [perhaps borrowed from another discipline] to explore whether this approach offers new ways of understanding the research problem. Taking a contrarian stance is one of the most important ways that new knowledge and understanding develops from existing literature.
- The case provides an opportunity to pursue action leading to the resolution of a problem? Another way to think about choosing a case to study is to consider how the results from investigating a particular case may result in findings that reveal ways in which to resolve an existing or emerging problem. For example, studying the case of an unforeseen incident, such as a fatal accident at a railroad crossing, can reveal hidden issues that could be applied to preventative measures that contribute to reducing the chance of accidents in the future. In this example, a case study investigating the accident could lead to a better understanding of where to strategically locate additional signals at other railroad crossings so as to better warn drivers of an approaching train, particularly when visibility is hindered by heavy rain, fog, or at night.
- The case offers a new direction in future research? A case study can be used as a tool for an exploratory investigation that highlights the need for further research about the problem. A case can be used when there are few studies that help predict an outcome or that establish a clear understanding about how best to proceed in addressing a problem. For example, after conducting a thorough literature review [very important!], you discover that little research exists showing the ways in which women contribute to promoting water conservation in rural communities of east central Africa. A case study of how women contribute to saving water in a rural village of Uganda can lay the foundation for understanding the need for more thorough research that documents how women in their roles as cooks and family caregivers think about water as a valuable resource within their community. This example of a case study could also point to the need for scholars to build new theoretical frameworks around the topic [e.g., applying feminist theories of work and family to the issue of water conservation].
Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. “Building Theories from Case Study Research.” Academy of Management Review 14 (October 1989): 532-550; Emmel, Nick. Sampling and Choosing Cases in Qualitative Research: A Realist Approach . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013; Gerring, John. “What Is a Case Study and What Is It Good for?” American Political Science Review 98 (May 2004): 341-354; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Seawright, Jason and John Gerring. "Case Selection Techniques in Case Study Research." Political Research Quarterly 61 (June 2008): 294-308.
Structure and Writing Style
The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In applied social sciences disciplines [e.g., education, social work, public administration, etc.], case studies may also be used to reveal best practices, highlight key programs, or investigate interesting aspects of professional work.
In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.
As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study . The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:
- What is being studied? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis [the case] you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
- Why is this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
- What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
- How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.
Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.
II. Literature Review
The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address . This includes synthesizing studies that help to:
- Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated . This would involve summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
- Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable . Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to investigate the research problem and the underlying research questions.
- Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study . If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your use of a case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies . This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
- Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research . Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
- Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill . Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
- Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!] . Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in relation to explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.
In this section, you explain why you selected a particular case [i.e., subject of analysis] and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that constitutes your case study.
If your subject of analysis is an incident or event . In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be a rare or critical event or it can focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: a) when did it take place; b) what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; and, c) what were the consequences of the event in relation to the research problem.
If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experiences they have had that provide an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of their experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using them as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem [e.g., why is one politician in a particular local election used to show an increase in voter turnout from any other candidate running in the election]. Note that these issues apply to a specific group of people used as a case study unit of analysis [e.g., a classroom of students].
If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, historical, cultural, economic, political], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, explain why you are studying Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?]. If applicable, describe what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [e.g., prior research suggests Echo Park has more homeless veterans].
If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut off? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.
NOTE: The choice of the case or set of cases to study cannot appear random. Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should clearly support investigation of the research problem and linked to key findings from your literature review. Be sure to cite any studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for examining the problem.
The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your analysis of the case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is common to combine a description of the results with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:
Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.
Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.
Relate the Findings to Similar Studies No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.
Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings Remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations revealed by the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research if that is how the findings can be interpreted from your case.
Acknowledge the Study's Limitations You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here .
Suggest Areas for Further Research Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.
As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and any need for further research.
The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1) reiterate the main argument supported by the findings from your case study; 2) state clearly the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.
Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:
- If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
- If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
- Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.
Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in or the preferences of your professor, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented as it applies to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.
Problems to Avoid
Overgeneralization One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were engaged with social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.
Failure to Document Limitations No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study , you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood more in terms of managing access rather than preserving access to a scarce resource.
Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis that leave the reader questioning the results.
Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Gerring, John. Case Study Research: Principles and Practices . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education . Rev. ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998; Miller, Lisa L. “The Use of Case Studies in Law and Social Science Research.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 14 (2018): TBD; Mills, Albert J., Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Putney, LeAnn Grogan. "Case Study." In Encyclopedia of Research Design , Neil J. Salkind, editor. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010), pp. 116-120; Simons, Helen. Case Study Research in Practice . London: SAGE Publications, 2009; Kratochwill, Thomas R. and Joel R. Levin, editors. Single-Case Research Design and Analysis: New Development for Psychology and Education . Hilldsale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992; Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London : SAGE, 2010; Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods . 6th edition. Los Angeles, CA, SAGE Publications, 2014; Walo, Maree, Adrian Bull, and Helen Breen. “Achieving Economic Benefits at Local Events: A Case Study of a Local Sports Event.” Festival Management and Event Tourism 4 (1996): 95-106.
At Least Five Misconceptions about Case Study Research
Social science case studies are often perceived as limited in their ability to create new knowledge because they are not randomly selected and findings cannot be generalized to larger populations. Flyvbjerg examines five misunderstandings about case study research and systematically "corrects" each one. To quote, these are:
Misunderstanding 1 : General, theoretical [context-independent] knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical [context-dependent] knowledge. Misunderstanding 2 : One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development. Misunderstanding 3 : The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building. Misunderstanding 4 : The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Misunderstanding 5 : It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies [p. 221].
While writing your paper, think introspectively about how you addressed these misconceptions because to do so can help you strengthen the validity and reliability of your research by clarifying issues of case selection, the testing and challenging of existing assumptions, the interpretation of key findings, and the summation of case outcomes. Think of a case study research paper as a complete, in-depth narrative about the specific properties and key characteristics of your subject of analysis applied to the research problem.
Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12 (April 2006): 219-245.
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Conducting Case Study Research in Sociology
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A case study is a research method that relies on a single case rather than a population or sample. When researchers focus on a single case, they can make detailed observations over a long period of time, something that cannot be done with large samples without costing a lot of money. Case studies are also useful in the early stages of research when the goal is to explore ideas, test, and perfect measurement instruments, and to prepare for a larger study. The case study research method is popular not just within the field of sociology, but also within the fields of anthropology, psychology, education, political science, clinical science, social work, and administrative science.
Overview of the Case Study Research Method
A case study is unique within the social sciences for its focus of study on a single entity, which can be a person, group or organization, event, action, or situation. It is also unique in that, as a focus of research, a case is chosen for specific reasons, rather than randomly , as is usually done when conducting empirical research. Often, when researchers use the case study method, they focus on a case that is exceptional in some way because it is possible to learn a lot about social relationships and social forces when studying those things that deviate from norms. In doing so, a researcher is often able, through their study, to test the validity of the social theory, or to create new theories using the grounded theory method .
The first case studies in the social sciences were likely conducted by Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play, a 19th-century French sociologist and economist who studied family budgets. The method has been used in sociology, psychology, and anthropology since the early 20th century.
Within sociology, case studies are typically conducted with qualitative research methods . They are considered micro rather than macro in nature , and one cannot necessarily generalize the findings of a case study to other situations. However, this is not a limitation of the method, but a strength. Through a case study based on ethnographic observation and interviews, among other methods, sociologists can illuminate otherwise hard to see and understand social relations, structures, and processes. In doing so, the findings of case studies often stimulate further research.
Types and Forms of Case Studies
There are three primary types of case studies: key cases, outlier cases, and local knowledge cases.
- Key cases are those which are chosen because the researcher has a particular interest in it or the circumstances surrounding it.
- Outlier cases are those that are chosen because the case stands out from other events, organizations, or situations, for some reason, and social scientists recognize that we can learn a lot from those things that differ from the norm .
- Finally, a researcher may decide to conduct a local knowledge case study when they already have amassed a usable amount of information about a given topic, person, organization, or event, and so is well-poised to conduct a study of it.
Within these types, a case study may take four different forms: illustrative, exploratory, cumulative, and critical.
- Illustrative case studies are descriptive in nature and designed to shed light on a particular situation, set of circumstances, and the social relations and processes that are embedded in them. They are useful in bringing to light something about which most people are not aware of.
- Exploratory case studies are also often known as pilot studies . This type of case study is typically used when a researcher wants to identify research questions and methods of study for a large, complex study. They are useful for clarifying the research process, which can help a researcher make the best use of time and resources in the larger study that will follow it.
- Cumulative case studies are those in which a researcher pulls together already completed case studies on a particular topic. They are useful in helping researchers to make generalizations from studies that have something in common.
- Critical instance case studies are conducted when a researcher wants to understand what happened with a unique event and/or to challenge commonly held assumptions about it that may be faulty due to a lack of critical understanding.
Whatever type and form of case study you decide to conduct, it's important to first identify the purpose, goals, and approach for conducting methodologically sound research.
- Definition of Idiographic and Nomothetic
- Pilot Study in Research
- Understanding Purposive Sampling
- The Different Types of Sampling Designs in Sociology
- Social Surveys: Questionnaires, Interviews, and Telephone Polls
- Introduction to Sociology
- Abstract Writing for Sociology
- All About Marxist Sociology
- The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
- Definition and Overview of Grounded Theory
- Definition of Cultural Materialism
- Definition of Aggregate and Social Aggregate
- Macro- and Microsociology
- Cluster Sample in Sociology Research
- How to Write and Format a Business Case Study
- Sociology of Health and Illness
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Now imagine that your neighbour, on their birthday, cuts into a large apple pie instead of a cake. Everyone on your street gets cakes on their birthday except this one neighbour. This intrigues you and you start researching this unusual tradition. Why not a birthday cake? Is there some cultural or historical significance behind celebrating with a pie? If so, why is it an apple pie? Would having a cherry pie, for example, hold the same meaning?
The point of this (seemingly random) scenario is to understand why researchers may choose to use case studies in their research. To give you a good understanding of case studies, we will be looking at:
- In this explanation, we will explore the definition of case study research
- Next, we'll go over a description of how case studies are used
- After this, we'll explore the methodology of case studies
- Then, we'll take a look at some examples of case studies
- Finally, we'll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the case study method in sociology
Definition of case study research
Case studies are a research method sometimes used by sociologists. Research that takes the form of a case study can also be called a case study design. Let's examine the definition of a case study.
- Case studies are in-depth investigations focused on an individual person, group, community, organisation, situation, or event.
Description of case studies
Case studies are used in a wide range of academic research areas. For instance, they can be used to study the intricacies of a particular medical phenomenon or to investigate a certain historical event.
In social research, such as in sociology, case studies are a good way to investigate social phenomena or to understand how certain processes and groups within society operate.
A researcher could study the details of a serial killer's deviance (focusing on one individual) or explore the integration of asylum seekers and refugees in a particular neighbourhood (focusing on a specific group of people).
Let's consider some common features or characteristics of case studies.
Methodology of case studies
Case studies can use methodological pluralism (using a wide range of research methods) to achieve triangulation (cross-checking of data to increase validity).
Due to the use of methodological pluralism, case studies can produce both quantitative and qualitative data.
Case studies can sometimes also be Longitudinal Studies (researchers studying the data at regular intervals over a long period of time).
The sample of the case study (the person, group, event, etc that is being studied) is often chosen because they are unique or exceptional in some way, and researchers want to learn more. For instance, researchers may choose to study a group of 15 delinquent children in a certain school because they deviate from behavioural norms.
Data found from case studies can be used to formulate new social theories or to test the validity of existing theories.
Check out Longitudinal Studies for more information.
Because case studies have a narrow focus , they are not used to make wider claims about populations. However, although the focus is narrow, the scope of the project can be very extensive, e.g. if a researcher is studying a person's social development throughout childhood and adolescence.
Using case studies with other research methods
Case studies can be used to follow up on a survey to provide more depth to the investigation. A case study can also precede a survey to establish whether a phenomenon merits further research.
Methodological pluralism in case studies
Researchers can use methodological pluralism in case studies to obtain a wide range of data using a wide range of research methods. Although the research methods used vary from case to case, they may include the following:
Examining videos and photos
Studying Documents such as historical records or letters
Examples of case studies
Case studies are relevant not only to sociology but to many different fields, including history, politics, economics, law, and The Media . Some well-known examples of case studies include research on:
Karen O'Reilly's (2000) and Michaela Benson's (2011) research of expatriate Briton communities in Costa del Sol, Spain. They examined groups of British people in Spain, who were notorious for being drunkards.
Researchers dove behind the stereotypes of British expatriates in Costa del Sol and studied their everyday experiences. They also studied expats' reasons for migrating to Spain and found complex accounts of expatriate life through Interviews .
Stephen Ball's (1981) study into underperforming working-class students at Beachside Comprehensive examined in detail why working-class students were not performing well in school. Ball carried out participant Observation at the school for three years. Upon observing two groups of students, he found there was some differentiation between students, which harmed working-class students' education.
Simon Holdaway's (1982, 1983) study of police service, w hilst serving as a sergeant. Holdaway carried out a covert ethnographic study of police work in the London Metropolitan Police Service.
The study is considered ground-breaking. Holdaway is referred to by some sociologists as a police research pioneer.
Graham Allison's (1971) study of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He wrote the ' Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis ', analysing the historical events of 1962.
It was used as a case study to study governmental and political decision-making in further detail. The book is well-known in the study of international relations.
Advantages and disadvantages of case study method in sociology
Gauging the suitability of a case study for a research project depends on several considerations.
Advantages of case studies
Interpretivist sociologists favour case studies because they generate detailed, qualitative data and bring in-depth insights to the investigation.
Case studies that use methodological pluralism are highly valid as they have achieved triangulation.
Researchers can gather both qualitative and quantitative data.
It is comparably cheaper to study a small sample compared to researching a large sample.
Disadvantages of case studies
Case studies are criticised by positivists for small and unrepresentative sample sizes, meaning that findings cannot be generalised to the wider population.
Positivists also state case studies are difficult to replicate because of the unique circumstances of each case study.
Researcher bias and influence may affect the validity of the findings.
It can still be expensive and time-consuming to carry out a case study.
Depending on the nature of the case study, there may be ethical concerns , especially around sensitive information.
Case Studies - Key takeaways
- Case studies can use methodological pluralism to achieve triangulation. Methodological pluralism in case studies can include using questionnaires, interviews, observations, photos, videos, and Documents to carry out research.
- Although the focus of case studies is narrow, their scope is extensive.
- The advantages of case studies include in-depth qualitative data, high validity, and cheaper costs.
- The disadvantages of case studies include unrepresentative sample sizes, lack of generalisability and replicability, researcher bias, and cost. They can also be time-consuming and potentially unethical.
Frequently Asked Questions about Case Studies
--> what is a case study.
A case study is an in-depth investigation focused on an individual person, group, community, organisation, situation, or event.
--> What is the purpose of case study research?
Case studies are used in a wide range of academic research areas. For instance, they can be used to study the intricacies of a particular medical phenomenon or to investigate a certain historical event.
--> What is case study research?
Case study research is research obtained through the case study design. A case study design is a research method.
--> Why is the case study method used in sociology?
--> how do you write a case study.
To write a case study, one must choose a topic, pick a methodology, choose a sample, conduct the study, analyse their data, and write up their findings.
Final Case Studies Quiz
Case studies quiz - teste dein wissen.
What are case studies?
Case studies are in-depth investigations focused on an individual person, group, community, organisation, situation, or event.
Research that takes the form of a case study can also be called a _____.
Case study design
What is methodological pluralism?
Methodological pluralism is the use of a wide range of research methods.
Why do case studies use methodological pluralism?
To achieve triangulation.
Case studies can only produce qualitative data. True or false?
How can data from case studies be used?
Data found from case studies can be used to formulate new social theories of to test the validity of existing theories.
Case studies have a ____ focus but ____ scope.
A researcher wants to study 100 delinquent schoolchildren. Why might it not be a good idea to use a case study design?
Any of the following:
- the sample size is too large
- data collected may not be extensive
- costly and time-consuming
Which kind of sociologists favour case studies and why?
Interpretivist sociologists favour case studies because they generate detailed, qualitative data and bring in-depth insights into the investigation.
Case studies that use methodological pluralism are high in _____ as they have achieved triangulation.
It is often comparably cheaper to study a small sample compared to a large sample. True or false?
What kind of sociologists criticise case studies and why?
Case studies are criticised by positivists for small and unrepresentative sample sizes, meaning that findings cannot be generalised to the wider population.
According to positivists, why are case studies difficult to replicate?
Positivists state case studies are difficult to replicate because of the unique circumstances of each case study.
What can affect the validity of the findings of a case study?
Researcher bias and influence.
In sociology, what are case studies good for?
Case studies are a good way to investigate social phenomena or to understand how certain processes and groups within society operate.
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CASE METHOD (Social Science)
The case method (or the case study) is a prolonged, intimate, and detailed investigation of a single case or a set of cases. The in-depth analysis of a case or small set of cases illuminates larger sociological processes and phenomena. The case method is used in urban and rural ethnographies, life histories, and social histories of a group of people or an event. Cases can be empirical, theoretical, or "discovered" during the research process. The case method requires an ongoing, engaged, and critical conversation between data collection and data analysis. Typically, the social scientist using the case method refines her definition of a case throughout the course of a study (Becker 1992). The case method is especially useful in illuminating social worlds that are not appreciated or understood by others.
The history of the ethnographic case study is grounded in a volume of works produced by the Chicago school during the early twentieth century. Early Chicago school scholars used the case method to illuminate people’s understanding of urban culture (Zorbaugh  1976), race and ethnic relations, and social problems such as homelessness (Anderson and Council of Social Agencies of Chicago 1923), poverty and segregation (Wirth 1928), deviance, and delinquency (Thrasher 1927). The naturalistic case study grounds observations and concepts in everyday social interactions and processes, which are observed directly by the researcher. Social scientists using the extended case method seek to complicate or "extend" extant concepts and theory by explicitly linking the case under study to local, national, and global trends and histories (Burawoy 1998).
Today, the case method is valued for its utility in labeling previously undocumented or misunderstood activities and understanding complicated social or historical phenomena, including social problems such as poverty, homelessness, drug use, and inner-city violence. Like early Chicago school scholars, contemporary social scientists use participant observation and in-depth interviews to systematically examine a social group or social phenomenon, while also developing new and innovative ways to collect data (Emerson 2004). In addition to data collected from direct and participant observation, the case method also takes advantage of the available quantitative data, including public records, and, at times, archival data. The primary data source for ethnographic case studies is the field researcher’s notebook. Throughout the research process, the social scientist takes copious field notes, which are essential to data analysis and to the final presentation of the study to outside audiences (Emerson 2004). A common analytical tool used in case studies is analytical induction; a working hypothesis is developed once the researcher begins to collect data on his first case and then tests and refines his developing theory throughout the process of data collection and analysis (Becker 1998). Typically, the findings from a case study are presented in narrative form, as a story that conveys the lived experience of the social group, actor, organization, or historical event.
Large quantitative studies (such as a population census or a large-scale survey) emphasize researcher objectivity. In contrast, the case method uses a researcher’s subjectivity (Ragin 1997) or reflexivity (Burawoy 1998) as a tool to deepen one’s understanding of a social group or phenomenon. Field researchers who are concerned with limiting the influence of researcher bias may construct a team of field researchers that will effectively standardize the process of data collection and analysis (for example, Newman 1999). A noted strength of the case method approach is the validity of its findings. Typically, the researcher using the case method has a wealth of sources including field notes, interviews, media reports, and archived materials to "triangulate" or cross-check during the research process. Critics also argue that the case study method does not allow for the generalization of findings to a much larger population of cases. Some researchers identify this as a limitation of the case method in the presentation of their findings, while others argue that one can generalize from a single case study to others, if similar conditions exist (Becker 1967).
Social scientists who use the case method help to complicate our understanding of everyday life, social processes, and social phenomena in ways that are elusive or impossible for quantitative-based studies to accomplish. At times, the most rigorous case studies will form the foundation of larger quantitative studies. The deep insight generated from the case study illuminates the many problems that concern contemporary social scientists.
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