Case Study Method

A case study is an in-depth examination of entities (individuals or organizations), processes, or activities that seeks further theoretical understanding and practical knowledge of some phenomenon. This qualitative research tool relies on a variety of techniques to achieve context-rich, detailed information about a single group or issue. Historically, case studies reflect the postmodern view of research, which emphasizes inductive and subjective methods rather than deductive and objective approaches to assessing behavior within context. Case studies have been used extensively in the political science, sociology, and education literature.

Because of the inherent flexibility of this method of study, case studies can be used to move beyond the extant empirical or theoretical literature to investigate creative and innovative solutions to organizationally relevant problems. There are many types of case studies, each reflecting a different method of addressing the research question under investigation. Delbert Miller and Neil Salkind identified four general types of cases:

  1. Intrinsic case: The case (individuals or organizations) itself is of interest. An examination of best practices for Web-based training within a single technologically advanced organization is an example of an intrinsic case study.
  2. Instrumental/illustrative case: The research question involves the examination and description of a specific issue in the context of a single unit of study; the case is used as a means to explore this question. For example, the abuse of skill-based pay plans could be researched in an organization that recently implemented this pay system to illustrate how important guidelines are to appropriate expenditures.
  3. Collective case: Multiple cases (either individuals or organizations) are used to explore an issue. One application of this method could be an examination of selection practices for assembly line workers in four different automotive organizations.
  4. Collective instrumental case: Multiple cases provide evidence in support of a point. For example, organizations that recently implemented a 360-degree feedback system could be selected to support the argument that these systems are most appropriate for developmental purposes.

Data Collection and Analysis

The design and incorporation of hypotheses depends on the nature of the research. Like traditional quantitative research, theory and expectations should guide the design of qualitative research when possible. The identification and number of participants should reflect this theory and boundaries. However, in some instances, case studies are used as the primary tool for theory building, making it difficult for the researcher to identify expectations or propositions prior to designing the study. In other instances, the case study may be used to verify existing theory with one or more organizations in context; in this situation, expectations or hypotheses should be explicated prior to designing the study.

Yin identified a number of techniques that can be used to conduct case study research. These include participant observation, direct observation, interviews, document analysis, archival data analysis, and field studies. Thorough explication of the methodology and participants involved in the case study is critical to enhancing perceptions of the generalizability and meaningfulness of the findings. Additionally, the use of multiple standardized methods to triangulate across sources can bolster the representativeness of case study results.

Once the data are collected, analysis traditionally progresses in one of two ways: holistically or through the use of coding schemes. This analysis may occur within a single case, across individuals, or across multiple cases. If the researcher is interested in the information obtained as a whole rather than smaller units of meaning, the holistic method of analysis is used. In this instance, general patterns or themes of behavior are identified in the data. Alternatively, elements of the material gathered can be coded to quantify the prevalence of certain themes or behaviors across individuals or organizations. Because of the subjective nature of the coding process, the use of multiple coders and some assessment of intercoder reliability (e.g., Cohen’s kappa) is strongly recommended.

Strengths of the Case Study Method

The main benefit of case study research is the depth of information provided about a single unit (person, organization, or issue) within context. This detailed information, often referred to as thick descriptions, provides a real-world context in which the processes under investigation can be better understood. Because it focuses on the context of events and behaviors, this type of research may be more relevant to the practitioner than mean-level, quantitative survey data.

Case study research may also benefit theory building and result in more robust theories that reflect contextual influences. Because of the inherent flexibility of the techniques associated with the case study method, researchers can better identify unexpected themes or results and further explore these to build more realistic theories. Some qualitative researchers argue that the case study method has high construct validity because it does not place constraints on the situation, traditionally a necessary element of quantitative research.

Weaknesses of the Case Study Method

The most common argument against the use of the case study method as a technique for scientific inquiry is the lack of generalizability of findings because of the narrow focus and sample. For many researchers, external validity only involves the use of sample data to approximate population parameters in order to identify a universal law of behavior and achieve statistical generalizability. Proponents of the case study method argue that researchers should focus instead on analytical generalization, whereby findings are generalized to a broader theory. Additionally, researchers using multiple groups of individuals or multiple organizations to triangulate across sources can argue for increased generalizability of patterns or themes.

Internal validity may also be an issue in case study research in that there is little to no control over the factors influencing the behavior or individuals of interest. This lack of control may call into question the establishment of any patterns of behavior. However, the creation and evaluation of alternative explanations for repeated patterns of behavior can help the case study researcher to refute claims of a lack of internal validity of results.

Because of the inherent subjectivity of the case study process, which is a result of the individualistic techniques used (e.g., interviews, observation), the reliability of results is often questioned. Case study researchers argue, however, that the consistency of the case study process can be enhanced by thorough research protocols with careful documentation. Some have argued that researchers should shift their thinking to an examination of dependability, or the stability and consistency of the process of collecting the in-depth data, rather than focusing on the outcome of the data-collection procedure.

Summary

The case study method of research provides context-rich information about an individual or group, process, or activity. As a qualitative and subjective method of inquiry, it suffers from problems with internal and external validity, as well as reliability in results. However, its disadvantages are balanced by the rich detail it provides, which contributes to theory development and practical understanding of issues that are relevant to social scientists and those interested in organizational behavior. The use of multiple sources and multiple methods can enhance perceptions of the utility of this method of research.

References:

  1. Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  2. Miller, D. C., & Salkind, N. J. (2002). Hand book of research design and social measurement (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Reige, A. M. (2003). Validity and reliability tests in case study research: A literature review with “hands-on” applications for each research phase. Qualitative Market Research, 6(2), 75-86.
  4. Yin, R. K. (1989). Case study research: Design and method. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.