28 November 2014

...Defining Case Study Research

Definitions of case study research design are as numerous as the books written on the subject. This post aims to draw together some key definitions of case study research, in an attempt to clarify the aims and purposes of this approach to social inquiry. As usual, I also share a reference list including suggestions of recommended sources for further information.

I wrote the following passage for a paper some time ago. It ended up in the 'cast-offs' folder on my hard drive. But here it is, resurrected, to introduce the subject of case study research:
Case study involves exploring a particular situation, describing and explaining findings (Newby, 2010), and presenting a reality which communicates the researcher's learning and a sense of understanding with their audience or readership (Cohen et al., 2011). (Ayres, 2011)
Looking back, however confident I sounded, I'm not sure I understood the significance of the 'particular situation' or the 'sense of understanding'. I certainly wasn't aware of the historical and theoretical development of case study research...
For over 40 years authors have categorised and compartmentalised many different flavours of the case study approach. Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier (2013), in their description of the historical development of case studies, identify at least 15 different forms of the approach, including exploratory, interpretative, and particularistic designs.

There are two key reasons for the variations, I believe: Firstly, the positioning of case study among established qualitative and emergent mixed-method research paradigms has been a contentious issue. Commentators continue to debate whether case study is a research approach, a method or a genre (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013). 

Secondly, and significantly for the purposes of this post, what represents a particular 'case' for one researcher will differ for the next. The nature of the subject/s under scrutiny will vary between research projects.  Also, the design of a case study, including the modes of analysis used, will be dictated by unique factors such as the lead researcher's values and beliefs, the project's core aims, objectives, and planned research questions.

So, let us continue our consideration of definitions of case study,  by focusing on the nature of a specific case.
Case study is the study of the particularity and complexity of a single case, coming to understand its activity within important circumstances. (Stake, 1995 in Thomas, 2009, p.116)
The 'single case' can be a situation, an individual, a group, a culture, an event, an activity or a process that we do not sufficiently understand (Burns, 2000; Creswell, 2005).  Examples might include a professional development programme (CPD, or InSET for example), policy documentation, a rural school's English curriculum, or even a community celebration (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).

The connection to 'community' is highly significant since many people see case study as a type of ethnography. Ethnographic research designs tend to focus on a cultural group, context or practice. They generally aim to examine core facets of human behaviour - the beliefs, values, actions and communication - within a culture-sharing group. In contrast, case study researchers focus on programmes or events involving individuals, rather than the behaviour of the group per se (Creswell, 2005).
Case study is a variation of an ethnography in that the researcher provides an in-depth exploration of a bounded system. (Creswell, 2005, p.589)
It is important to understand a case as 'a bounded system' - an object, rather than a process, problem, relationship, or theme (Stake, 1995) - specific in terms of time, place or physical location (Creswell, 2005). Although the case may involve problems, relationships and themes, it will exist as an entity in itself with a unique life and importance, worthy of study.
My next definition contains implications for the collection of data, moving us from the what? to the how?
Case study research [involves] the in-depth study of instances of a phenomenon in real-life settings and from the perspective of the participants involved. (Gall et al., 2007)
Studying 'a unique example of a real situation' (Cohen et al., 2011, p. 181) can develop our understanding of larger issues (Creswell, 2005). However, to access the social reality of the participants 'at the local, immediate level' (Gall et al., 2007), and to ensure 'in-depth' exploration, data collection must be carefully considered.
It is widely held that a range of data types, from different sources and perspectives, is necessary to inform a valid, comprehensive study. This stance locates case study design within a mixed-method research paradigm, which values triangulation of data to support understanding of complex phenomena.
So, a case study must employ a range of data collection methods (e.g., interviews, observation, or questionnaires) and might seek to collect different forms of data  (e.g., documents, pictures, or e-mails) to develop an in-depth understanding of the case. Such a comprehensive approach generates 'rich data' enabling thorough analysis and legitimate conclusions. In my experience this approach to educational research allows for creativity, and encourages participation and engagement. It also makes for a unique, enjoyable project... or master's level assignment, if that's on your mind at the moment ;).

Five Elements of Case Study Design

  • Purpose - to gain in-depth understanding of complex phenomena;
  • Methodology - a mixed-method, generally interpretivist research approach; a frame, a design, or genre;
  • Focus - a 'bounded unit'; an individual, an event, or a practice; an 'object';
  • Data - in different forms, collected through a range of methods;
  • Analysis - flexible; depends on research aims, & stance of the researcher.
Citing this post?

Ayres, D. (2014) Defining Case Study Research. Available at: http://danieljayres.blogspot.co.uk/ (Accessed: [Date]). 

References & further reading
Ayres, D. (2011) Research Methods and Analysis - Draft. Unpublished EdD paper. UEL.
Ball, S. J. (2013) The Education Debate (2nd edn.) Bristol: Policy Press.
Burns, R.B. (2000) Introduction to Research Methods. (4th edn.) London: Sage.
Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2011) Research Methods in Education. New York: Routledge-Falmer.
Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (2008) Basics of Qualitative Research. London: Sage.
Creswell, J. (2005) Educational Research: Planning, Conducting and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research, New Jersey: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P. & Borg, W. R. (2007) Educational Research: An introduction. (8th edn.) Pearson International.
Hamilton, L. & Corbett-Whittier, C. (2013) Using Case Study in Education Research. London: Sage.
Newby, P. (2010) Research Methods for Education. Essex: Pearson Education.
Ragin, C. & Becker, H. (eds.) (1992) What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stake, R. E. (1995) The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Thomas, G. (2009) Research Project. London: Sage.
Thanks to David Morris for suggesting & contributing to this post.


Please add your comments & views. No tricky verification required...
Regards, DJA