Using case study in research - How to tell a 'good' story

This is a short paper that supported a presentation that I gave within my research forum at the University of Dundee.

Starting points
My research is an exploratory study focussed on learning about how a theoretical idea works in its real life context. It is a study of the particular experiences of one project of the phenomenon being studied, with a view to further development and exploration of the indicators in other projects.

Theory ⇔ Practice (Case study)

A different starting point might be:

Practice (Case study) ⇔ Theory

What is case study research?

An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomena within its real life context.” Yin (p.13-14, 2003) 

“… case study is defined by interest in individual cases, not by the methods of inquiry used.” Stake (p134, 2003)

What type of Case Study?
Stake (1995, 2003) draws our attention to an important feature of case study: how to choose what type of case to be studied.

The implications for deciding which type of case study relate to the overall purpose of the research study and the expectations for using learning from the case study to generalise or to create new theory. For example, Yin (2003) describes a rationale for using a single instrumental case study when a set of propositions have been defined where the case study is designed to “…confirm, challenge, or extend the theory.” (p40).

Isn’t there a problem with such a small sample?
Using a single case study does raise questions about how well you can generalise from one single case. Indeed, a common critique of case study is the limitations for generalising (Sarantakos, 2005). Yin (2003) counters this by highlighting that it is important to be clear that the purpose of the single case study is to expand and generate theory or ‘analytical generalisation’ as opposed to proving theory or ‘statistical generalisation’. This assertion maintains the role of case study research as an exploratory tool. If a collective model of case studies is used then the scope for generalisation increases (Yin, 2003; Stake, 1993, 2003).

But which case study?
The above discussion raises another important question for the case study researcher which is how to choose the single case. Stake (1993, 2003) offers us a set of criteria. He dismisses typicality and representativeness as being unrealistic and unachievable in terms of the single case. For Stake, the primary criteria should be ‘opportunity to learn’ (p6, 1993). By this he means identifying a case where there is good access and a willingness to participate. This ensures that the researcher can maximise the learning opportunities.

Strengths, issues and concerns
The strength of case study research lies in the capacity for in-depth study of complex social phenomenon in real-life settings. Case study research provides an opportunity to gather first-hand experience using a variety of data collection methods, and is based on establishing long term relationships between the researcher and the research participants.

However, Yin (2003) explains that, despite the wide use of case study across the social sciences, there is a continuing stereotype of the case study as a weak research method. This assertion is based on an assessment that case study research is characterised by ‘insufficient precision, objectivity or rigour’ (pxiii). These weaknesses refer to the subjective nature of the content of the case study and the relationships between the researcher and the researched that lead to accusations of bias. There is also a concern that case study is weakened because of confusion created by different uses and interpretations. For example case study is frequently referred to as a teaching method which is distinct from the overarching research strategy that Yin has described. The issue of generalisation has already been highlighted and is resolved through being clear about the exploratory and theory building nature of case study research. This issue can be practically resolved by using case study to initiate research prior to a larger and perhaps more quantitative study, or as a tool to provide illustrations in support of quantitative data. But for Yin and Stake single and collective case study research have a valid role as a main focus for research.

These issues and concerns present the case study researcher with the main challenge identified by Yin (2003) as the need for high quality practice and procedures in the production of robust and valid research or ‘the ability to do a good case study’(p11). This factor may be highlighted as a counter to the low recognition of case study as a valid research strategy, but it is no less important to ‘do good work’ in other research methods.

Achieving rigour - quality assurance tactics
Yin (2003) describes a range of ‘tactics’ (p34) available which the case study researcher, for example the use of ‘case study protocol’ (p67). This is essentially a blue print or overview of the whole research process in that it lays out clearly the instrument of analysis that is to be used; the rules and procedures that are to be adopted; and also prepares in advance how the case study is to be reported. The case study protocol is an important guide for keeping the case study focussed. It can be used if there are to be multiple case studies and where external validation is used it provides a clear research pathway. These include for example: an overview of the case study project; field procedures including ethical considerations; case study questions and analysis instruments; and a plan for how the case study report is expected to be written up.

Similarly, Stake identifies triangulation as a quality assurance tactic to ensure that case study research is based on a disciplined approach and not simply a matter of intuition, good intention and common sense (p107). Triangulation in case study research is similar to the navigation methods used by travellers, but instead of using multiple reference points to establish position, the researcher is using multiple data points to establish and verify meaning. In this way the researcher actively seeks different perspectives on the case study topic to check interpretation and to reveal alternative meanings. These different perspectives are drawn from what Denzin (1984) refers to as ‘triangulation protocols’, or the range of triangulation approaches available to the researcher. For example investigator triangulation involves getting other researchers to verify meaning; theoretical triangulation involves exposing data to interpretation from different theoretical perspectives; and methodological triangulation involves employing a range of data collection methods to view the same question.

Ethical Considerations
The main ethical consideration in case study research is protecting the confidentiality and anonymity of the participants. Stake (2003) highlights the privileged position of the case study researcher when he says: “Qualitative researchers are guests in the private spaces of the world. Their manners should be good and their code of ethics strict.” (p154). He goes on to assert that it is important that researchers go beyond standard ethics requirements and to exercise great caution to minimise risk by, for example maintaining an active dialogue with the research participants, providing feedback, and in particular for the researcher “to listen well for signs of concern”(p154).

Denzin, N.K. (1975). The Research Act – A theoretical introduction to sociological methods. (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Comp.

Sarantakos, S. (2005). Social Research (3rd Ed). Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Silverman, D. (2006). Interpreting Qualitative Data – Methods for analysing talk, text and interaction (3rd ed). London: Sage.

Stake, R.E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage Publications.

Stake, R.E. (2003). Case Studies (134-164) in Denzin, N.K. &Lincoln, Y. (eds) (2003). Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry (2nd ed). London: Sage.

Yin, R.K. (2003). Case Study Research – Design and Methods (3rd ed). London: Sage Publications.

© Lesley Greenaway 2011
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