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  • What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on May 8, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods , but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing , comparing, evaluating and understanding different aspects of a research problem .

Table of contents

When to do a case study, step 1: select a case, step 2: build a theoretical framework, step 3: collect your data, step 4: describe and analyze the case, other interesting articles.

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation . They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

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Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions , you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

TipIf your research is more practical in nature and aims to simultaneously investigate an issue as you solve it, consider conducting action research instead.

Unlike quantitative or experimental research , a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

Example of an outlying case studyIn the 1960s the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was discovered to have extremely low rates of heart disease compared to the US average. It became an important case study for understanding previously neglected causes of heart disease.

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience or phenomenon.

Example of a representative case studyIn the 1920s, two sociologists used Muncie, Indiana as a case study of a typical American city that supposedly exemplified the changing culture of the US at the time.

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework . This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

There are many different research methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews , observations , and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data.

Example of a mixed methods case studyFor a case study of a wind farm development in a rural area, you could collect quantitative data on employment rates and business revenue, collect qualitative data on local people’s perceptions and experiences, and analyze local and national media coverage of the development.

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

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In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis , with separate sections or chapters for the methods , results and discussion .

Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyze its meanings and implications (for example, by using textual analysis or discourse analysis ).

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

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Research Method

Home » Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Table of Contents

Case Study Research

A case study is a research method that involves an in-depth examination and analysis of a particular phenomenon or case, such as an individual, organization, community, event, or situation.

It is a qualitative research approach that aims to provide a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the case being studied. Case studies typically involve multiple sources of data, including interviews, observations, documents, and artifacts, which are analyzed using various techniques, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, and grounded theory. The findings of a case study are often used to develop theories, inform policy or practice, or generate new research questions.

Types of Case Study

Types and Methods of Case Study are as follows:

Single-Case Study

A single-case study is an in-depth analysis of a single case. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to understand a specific phenomenon in detail.

For Example , A researcher might conduct a single-case study on a particular individual to understand their experiences with a particular health condition or a specific organization to explore their management practices. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of a single-case study are often used to generate new research questions, develop theories, or inform policy or practice.

Multiple-Case Study

A multiple-case study involves the analysis of several cases that are similar in nature. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to identify similarities and differences between the cases.

For Example, a researcher might conduct a multiple-case study on several companies to explore the factors that contribute to their success or failure. The researcher collects data from each case, compares and contrasts the findings, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as comparative analysis or pattern-matching. The findings of a multiple-case study can be used to develop theories, inform policy or practice, or generate new research questions.

Exploratory Case Study

An exploratory case study is used to explore a new or understudied phenomenon. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to generate hypotheses or theories about the phenomenon.

For Example, a researcher might conduct an exploratory case study on a new technology to understand its potential impact on society. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as grounded theory or content analysis. The findings of an exploratory case study can be used to generate new research questions, develop theories, or inform policy or practice.

Descriptive Case Study

A descriptive case study is used to describe a particular phenomenon in detail. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to provide a comprehensive account of the phenomenon.

For Example, a researcher might conduct a descriptive case study on a particular community to understand its social and economic characteristics. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of a descriptive case study can be used to inform policy or practice or generate new research questions.

Instrumental Case Study

An instrumental case study is used to understand a particular phenomenon that is instrumental in achieving a particular goal. This type of case study is useful when the researcher wants to understand the role of the phenomenon in achieving the goal.

For Example, a researcher might conduct an instrumental case study on a particular policy to understand its impact on achieving a particular goal, such as reducing poverty. The researcher collects data from multiple sources, such as interviews, observations, and documents, and uses various techniques to analyze the data, such as content analysis or thematic analysis. The findings of an instrumental case study can be used to inform policy or practice or generate new research questions.

Case Study Data Collection Methods

Here are some common data collection methods for case studies:

Interviews involve asking questions to individuals who have knowledge or experience relevant to the case study. Interviews can be structured (where the same questions are asked to all participants) or unstructured (where the interviewer follows up on the responses with further questions). Interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone, or through video conferencing.

Observations

Observations involve watching and recording the behavior and activities of individuals or groups relevant to the case study. Observations can be participant (where the researcher actively participates in the activities) or non-participant (where the researcher observes from a distance). Observations can be recorded using notes, audio or video recordings, or photographs.

Documents can be used as a source of information for case studies. Documents can include reports, memos, emails, letters, and other written materials related to the case study. Documents can be collected from the case study participants or from public sources.

Surveys involve asking a set of questions to a sample of individuals relevant to the case study. Surveys can be administered in person, over the phone, through mail or email, or online. Surveys can be used to gather information on attitudes, opinions, or behaviors related to the case study.

Artifacts are physical objects relevant to the case study. Artifacts can include tools, equipment, products, or other objects that provide insights into the case study phenomenon.

How to conduct Case Study Research

Conducting a case study research involves several steps that need to be followed to ensure the quality and rigor of the study. Here are the steps to conduct case study research:

  • Define the research questions: The first step in conducting a case study research is to define the research questions. The research questions should be specific, measurable, and relevant to the case study phenomenon under investigation.
  • Select the case: The next step is to select the case or cases to be studied. The case should be relevant to the research questions and should provide rich and diverse data that can be used to answer the research questions.
  • Collect data: Data can be collected using various methods, such as interviews, observations, documents, surveys, and artifacts. The data collection method should be selected based on the research questions and the nature of the case study phenomenon.
  • Analyze the data: The data collected from the case study should be analyzed using various techniques, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or grounded theory. The analysis should be guided by the research questions and should aim to provide insights and conclusions relevant to the research questions.
  • Draw conclusions: The conclusions drawn from the case study should be based on the data analysis and should be relevant to the research questions. The conclusions should be supported by evidence and should be clearly stated.
  • Validate the findings: The findings of the case study should be validated by reviewing the data and the analysis with participants or other experts in the field. This helps to ensure the validity and reliability of the findings.
  • Write the report: The final step is to write the report of the case study research. The report should provide a clear description of the case study phenomenon, the research questions, the data collection methods, the data analysis, the findings, and the conclusions. The report should be written in a clear and concise manner and should follow the guidelines for academic writing.

Examples of Case Study

Here are some examples of case study research:

  • The Hawthorne Studies : Conducted between 1924 and 1932, the Hawthorne Studies were a series of case studies conducted by Elton Mayo and his colleagues to examine the impact of work environment on employee productivity. The studies were conducted at the Hawthorne Works plant of the Western Electric Company in Chicago and included interviews, observations, and experiments.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment: Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment was a case study conducted by Philip Zimbardo to examine the psychological effects of power and authority. The study involved simulating a prison environment and assigning participants to the role of guards or prisoners. The study was controversial due to the ethical issues it raised.
  • The Challenger Disaster: The Challenger Disaster was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The study included interviews, observations, and analysis of data to identify the technical, organizational, and cultural factors that contributed to the disaster.
  • The Enron Scandal: The Enron Scandal was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the Enron Corporation’s bankruptcy in 2001. The study included interviews, analysis of financial data, and review of documents to identify the accounting practices, corporate culture, and ethical issues that led to the company’s downfall.
  • The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster : The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster was a case study conducted to examine the causes of the nuclear accident that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. The study included interviews, analysis of data, and review of documents to identify the technical, organizational, and cultural factors that contributed to the disaster.

Application of Case Study

Case studies have a wide range of applications across various fields and industries. Here are some examples:

Business and Management

Case studies are widely used in business and management to examine real-life situations and develop problem-solving skills. Case studies can help students and professionals to develop a deep understanding of business concepts, theories, and best practices.

Case studies are used in healthcare to examine patient care, treatment options, and outcomes. Case studies can help healthcare professionals to develop critical thinking skills, diagnose complex medical conditions, and develop effective treatment plans.

Case studies are used in education to examine teaching and learning practices. Case studies can help educators to develop effective teaching strategies, evaluate student progress, and identify areas for improvement.

Social Sciences

Case studies are widely used in social sciences to examine human behavior, social phenomena, and cultural practices. Case studies can help researchers to develop theories, test hypotheses, and gain insights into complex social issues.

Law and Ethics

Case studies are used in law and ethics to examine legal and ethical dilemmas. Case studies can help lawyers, policymakers, and ethical professionals to develop critical thinking skills, analyze complex cases, and make informed decisions.

Purpose of Case Study

The purpose of a case study is to provide a detailed analysis of a specific phenomenon, issue, or problem in its real-life context. A case study is a qualitative research method that involves the in-depth exploration and analysis of a particular case, which can be an individual, group, organization, event, or community.

The primary purpose of a case study is to generate a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the case, including its history, context, and dynamics. Case studies can help researchers to identify and examine the underlying factors, processes, and mechanisms that contribute to the case and its outcomes. This can help to develop a more accurate and detailed understanding of the case, which can inform future research, practice, or policy.

Case studies can also serve other purposes, including:

  • Illustrating a theory or concept: Case studies can be used to illustrate and explain theoretical concepts and frameworks, providing concrete examples of how they can be applied in real-life situations.
  • Developing hypotheses: Case studies can help to generate hypotheses about the causal relationships between different factors and outcomes, which can be tested through further research.
  • Providing insight into complex issues: Case studies can provide insights into complex and multifaceted issues, which may be difficult to understand through other research methods.
  • Informing practice or policy: Case studies can be used to inform practice or policy by identifying best practices, lessons learned, or areas for improvement.

Advantages of Case Study Research

There are several advantages of case study research, including:

  • In-depth exploration: Case study research allows for a detailed exploration and analysis of a specific phenomenon, issue, or problem in its real-life context. This can provide a comprehensive understanding of the case and its dynamics, which may not be possible through other research methods.
  • Rich data: Case study research can generate rich and detailed data, including qualitative data such as interviews, observations, and documents. This can provide a nuanced understanding of the case and its complexity.
  • Holistic perspective: Case study research allows for a holistic perspective of the case, taking into account the various factors, processes, and mechanisms that contribute to the case and its outcomes. This can help to develop a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the case.
  • Theory development: Case study research can help to develop and refine theories and concepts by providing empirical evidence and concrete examples of how they can be applied in real-life situations.
  • Practical application: Case study research can inform practice or policy by identifying best practices, lessons learned, or areas for improvement.
  • Contextualization: Case study research takes into account the specific context in which the case is situated, which can help to understand how the case is influenced by the social, cultural, and historical factors of its environment.

Limitations of Case Study Research

There are several limitations of case study research, including:

  • Limited generalizability : Case studies are typically focused on a single case or a small number of cases, which limits the generalizability of the findings. The unique characteristics of the case may not be applicable to other contexts or populations, which may limit the external validity of the research.
  • Biased sampling: Case studies may rely on purposive or convenience sampling, which can introduce bias into the sample selection process. This may limit the representativeness of the sample and the generalizability of the findings.
  • Subjectivity: Case studies rely on the interpretation of the researcher, which can introduce subjectivity into the analysis. The researcher’s own biases, assumptions, and perspectives may influence the findings, which may limit the objectivity of the research.
  • Limited control: Case studies are typically conducted in naturalistic settings, which limits the control that the researcher has over the environment and the variables being studied. This may limit the ability to establish causal relationships between variables.
  • Time-consuming: Case studies can be time-consuming to conduct, as they typically involve a detailed exploration and analysis of a specific case. This may limit the feasibility of conducting multiple case studies or conducting case studies in a timely manner.
  • Resource-intensive: Case studies may require significant resources, including time, funding, and expertise. This may limit the ability of researchers to conduct case studies in resource-constrained settings.

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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.

I.  Introduction

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.

III.  Method

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.

IV.  Discussion

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.

V.  Conclusion

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.

Writing Tip

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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What Is a Case Study?

Weighing the pros and cons of this method of research

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

case study approach meaning

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

case study approach meaning

Verywell / Colleen Tighe

  • Pros and Cons

What Types of Case Studies Are Out There?

Where do you find data for a case study, how do i write a psychology case study.

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in many different fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

The point of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, we got you—here are some rules of APA format to reference.  

At a Glance

A case study, or an in-depth study of a person, group, or event, can be a useful research tool when used wisely. In many cases, case studies are best used in situations where it would be difficult or impossible for you to conduct an experiment. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a lot of˜ information about a specific individual or group of people. However, it's important to be cautious of any bias we draw from them as they are highly subjective.

What Are the Benefits and Limitations of Case Studies?

A case study can have its strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult or impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

  • Allows researchers to capture information on the 'how,' 'what,' and 'why,' of something that's implemented
  • Gives researchers the chance to collect information on why one strategy might be chosen over another
  • Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research

On the other hand, a case study can have some drawbacks:

  • It cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
  • Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
  • It may not be scientifically rigorous
  • It can lead to bias

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they want to explore a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. Through their insights, researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

It's important to remember that the insights from case studies cannot be used to determine cause-and-effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

  • Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
  • Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
  • Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language learning was possible, even after missing critical periods for language development. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse denied her the opportunity to learn a language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might use:

  • Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those who live there.
  • Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Explanatory case studies : These   are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
  • Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
  • Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic case study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers use depends on the unique characteristics of the situation and the case itself.

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  • Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
  • Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
  • Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
  • Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
  • Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
  • Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines you need to follow. If you are writing your case study for a professional publication, check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Here is a general outline of what should be included in a case study.

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.

Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

  • Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
  • Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
  • Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
  • Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Need More Tips?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

  • Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, use their name or a pseudonym.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach .  BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011;11:100.

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Understanding Case Study Research: Small-scale Research with Meaning

  • By: Malcolm Tight
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd
  • Publication year: 2017
  • Online pub date: February 08, 2021
  • Discipline: Business and Management
  • Methods: Case study research , Theory , Research design
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781473920118
  • Keywords: discipline , information systems , international business , publications , reliability and validity , search engines , social science Show all Show less
  • Print ISBN: 9781446273920
  • Online ISBN: 9781529771053
  • Buy the book icon link

Subject index

Written in an accessible and jargon-free style, this book provides a comprehensive, student-friendly guide to the nature and use of case study research. Whether as part of a more substantial study or as the foundation for a self-contained smaller project, case studies provide viable and valuable alternatives to conducting large-scale research. Grounded in both theory and practice, this book sets out not only the key debates and ethical issues surrounding case study research, but also focuses specifically on the work of others and how you can understand, use, and write about secondary data as the basis for your own research project. With tips, examples, and extensive discussion of real-world case studies from a variety of social science and other disciplines, Tight illustrates the kinds of research to which case studies can be applied. Topics include:  • Types of case studies  • Advantages and disadvantages to using case studies  • The meaning and value of case study research  • The use of case studies in different disciplines and research designs Whether you want to know how to access and use the case studies of others or understand the methods behind conducting your own case study research, this book will take you through every step of the process!

Front Matter

  • List of Boxes and Table
  • About the Author
  • Chapter 1 | Introduction
  • Chapter 2 | Origins and Applications of Case Study
  • Chapter 3 | Key Debates in Case Study Research
  • Chapter 4 | The Value of Case Study
  • Chapter 5 | The Use of Case Study in Different Disciplines
  • Chapter 6 | Case Studies in Mixed/Combined Research Designs
  • Chapter 7 | Learning from Case Study
  • Chapter 8 | Selection, Context and Theory in Case Study
  • Chapter 9 | Method, Analysis and Report in Case Study
  • Chapter 10 | Conclusion

Back Matter

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  • Knowledge Base
  • Methodology
  • Case Study | Definition, Examples & Methods

Case Study | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on 5 May 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 30 January 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organisation, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods , but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing , comparing, evaluating, and understanding different aspects of a research problem .

Table of contents

When to do a case study, step 1: select a case, step 2: build a theoretical framework, step 3: collect your data, step 4: describe and analyse the case.

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation . They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

Prevent plagiarism, run a free check.

Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions , you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

Unlike quantitative or experimental research, a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

If you find yourself aiming to simultaneously investigate and solve an issue, consider conducting action research . As its name suggests, action research conducts research and takes action at the same time, and is highly iterative and flexible. 

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience, or phenomenon.

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework . This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

There are many different research methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews, observations, and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data .

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis, with separate sections or chapters for the methods , results , and discussion .

Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyse its meanings and implications (for example, by using textual analysis or discourse analysis ).

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

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  • Open access
  • Published: 27 June 2011

The case study approach

  • Sarah Crowe 1 ,
  • Kathrin Cresswell 2 ,
  • Ann Robertson 2 ,
  • Guro Huby 3 ,
  • Anthony Avery 1 &
  • Aziz Sheikh 2  

BMC Medical Research Methodology volume  11 , Article number:  100 ( 2011 ) Cite this article

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The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. The value of the case study approach is well recognised in the fields of business, law and policy, but somewhat less so in health services research. Based on our experiences of conducting several health-related case studies, we reflect on the different types of case study design, the specific research questions this approach can help answer, the data sources that tend to be used, and the particular advantages and disadvantages of employing this methodological approach. The paper concludes with key pointers to aid those designing and appraising proposals for conducting case study research, and a checklist to help readers assess the quality of case study reports.

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Introduction

The case study approach is particularly useful to employ when there is a need to obtain an in-depth appreciation of an issue, event or phenomenon of interest, in its natural real-life context. Our aim in writing this piece is to provide insights into when to consider employing this approach and an overview of key methodological considerations in relation to the design, planning, analysis, interpretation and reporting of case studies.

The illustrative 'grand round', 'case report' and 'case series' have a long tradition in clinical practice and research. Presenting detailed critiques, typically of one or more patients, aims to provide insights into aspects of the clinical case and, in doing so, illustrate broader lessons that may be learnt. In research, the conceptually-related case study approach can be used, for example, to describe in detail a patient's episode of care, explore professional attitudes to and experiences of a new policy initiative or service development or more generally to 'investigate contemporary phenomena within its real-life context' [ 1 ]. Based on our experiences of conducting a range of case studies, we reflect on when to consider using this approach, discuss the key steps involved and illustrate, with examples, some of the practical challenges of attaining an in-depth understanding of a 'case' as an integrated whole. In keeping with previously published work, we acknowledge the importance of theory to underpin the design, selection, conduct and interpretation of case studies[ 2 ]. In so doing, we make passing reference to the different epistemological approaches used in case study research by key theoreticians and methodologists in this field of enquiry.

This paper is structured around the following main questions: What is a case study? What are case studies used for? How are case studies conducted? What are the potential pitfalls and how can these be avoided? We draw in particular on four of our own recently published examples of case studies (see Tables 1 , 2 , 3 and 4 ) and those of others to illustrate our discussion[ 3 – 7 ].

What is a case study?

A case study is a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context. It is an established research design that is used extensively in a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. A case study can be defined in a variety of ways (Table 5 ), the central tenet being the need to explore an event or phenomenon in depth and in its natural context. It is for this reason sometimes referred to as a "naturalistic" design; this is in contrast to an "experimental" design (such as a randomised controlled trial) in which the investigator seeks to exert control over and manipulate the variable(s) of interest.

Stake's work has been particularly influential in defining the case study approach to scientific enquiry. He has helpfully characterised three main types of case study: intrinsic , instrumental and collective [ 8 ]. An intrinsic case study is typically undertaken to learn about a unique phenomenon. The researcher should define the uniqueness of the phenomenon, which distinguishes it from all others. In contrast, the instrumental case study uses a particular case (some of which may be better than others) to gain a broader appreciation of an issue or phenomenon. The collective case study involves studying multiple cases simultaneously or sequentially in an attempt to generate a still broader appreciation of a particular issue.

These are however not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. In the first of our examples (Table 1 ), we undertook an intrinsic case study to investigate the issue of recruitment of minority ethnic people into the specific context of asthma research studies, but it developed into a instrumental case study through seeking to understand the issue of recruitment of these marginalised populations more generally, generating a number of the findings that are potentially transferable to other disease contexts[ 3 ]. In contrast, the other three examples (see Tables 2 , 3 and 4 ) employed collective case study designs to study the introduction of workforce reconfiguration in primary care, the implementation of electronic health records into hospitals, and to understand the ways in which healthcare students learn about patient safety considerations[ 4 – 6 ]. Although our study focusing on the introduction of General Practitioners with Specialist Interests (Table 2 ) was explicitly collective in design (four contrasting primary care organisations were studied), is was also instrumental in that this particular professional group was studied as an exemplar of the more general phenomenon of workforce redesign[ 4 ].

What are case studies used for?

According to Yin, case studies can be used to explain, describe or explore events or phenomena in the everyday contexts in which they occur[ 1 ]. These can, for example, help to understand and explain causal links and pathways resulting from a new policy initiative or service development (see Tables 2 and 3 , for example)[ 1 ]. In contrast to experimental designs, which seek to test a specific hypothesis through deliberately manipulating the environment (like, for example, in a randomised controlled trial giving a new drug to randomly selected individuals and then comparing outcomes with controls),[ 9 ] the case study approach lends itself well to capturing information on more explanatory ' how ', 'what' and ' why ' questions, such as ' how is the intervention being implemented and received on the ground?'. The case study approach can offer additional insights into what gaps exist in its delivery or why one implementation strategy might be chosen over another. This in turn can help develop or refine theory, as shown in our study of the teaching of patient safety in undergraduate curricula (Table 4 )[ 6 , 10 ]. Key questions to consider when selecting the most appropriate study design are whether it is desirable or indeed possible to undertake a formal experimental investigation in which individuals and/or organisations are allocated to an intervention or control arm? Or whether the wish is to obtain a more naturalistic understanding of an issue? The former is ideally studied using a controlled experimental design, whereas the latter is more appropriately studied using a case study design.

Case studies may be approached in different ways depending on the epistemological standpoint of the researcher, that is, whether they take a critical (questioning one's own and others' assumptions), interpretivist (trying to understand individual and shared social meanings) or positivist approach (orientating towards the criteria of natural sciences, such as focusing on generalisability considerations) (Table 6 ). Whilst such a schema can be conceptually helpful, it may be appropriate to draw on more than one approach in any case study, particularly in the context of conducting health services research. Doolin has, for example, noted that in the context of undertaking interpretative case studies, researchers can usefully draw on a critical, reflective perspective which seeks to take into account the wider social and political environment that has shaped the case[ 11 ].

How are case studies conducted?

Here, we focus on the main stages of research activity when planning and undertaking a case study; the crucial stages are: defining the case; selecting the case(s); collecting and analysing the data; interpreting data; and reporting the findings.

Defining the case

Carefully formulated research question(s), informed by the existing literature and a prior appreciation of the theoretical issues and setting(s), are all important in appropriately and succinctly defining the case[ 8 , 12 ]. Crucially, each case should have a pre-defined boundary which clarifies the nature and time period covered by the case study (i.e. its scope, beginning and end), the relevant social group, organisation or geographical area of interest to the investigator, the types of evidence to be collected, and the priorities for data collection and analysis (see Table 7 )[ 1 ]. A theory driven approach to defining the case may help generate knowledge that is potentially transferable to a range of clinical contexts and behaviours; using theory is also likely to result in a more informed appreciation of, for example, how and why interventions have succeeded or failed[ 13 ].

For example, in our evaluation of the introduction of electronic health records in English hospitals (Table 3 ), we defined our cases as the NHS Trusts that were receiving the new technology[ 5 ]. Our focus was on how the technology was being implemented. However, if the primary research interest had been on the social and organisational dimensions of implementation, we might have defined our case differently as a grouping of healthcare professionals (e.g. doctors and/or nurses). The precise beginning and end of the case may however prove difficult to define. Pursuing this same example, when does the process of implementation and adoption of an electronic health record system really begin or end? Such judgements will inevitably be influenced by a range of factors, including the research question, theory of interest, the scope and richness of the gathered data and the resources available to the research team.

Selecting the case(s)

The decision on how to select the case(s) to study is a very important one that merits some reflection. In an intrinsic case study, the case is selected on its own merits[ 8 ]. The case is selected not because it is representative of other cases, but because of its uniqueness, which is of genuine interest to the researchers. This was, for example, the case in our study of the recruitment of minority ethnic participants into asthma research (Table 1 ) as our earlier work had demonstrated the marginalisation of minority ethnic people with asthma, despite evidence of disproportionate asthma morbidity[ 14 , 15 ]. In another example of an intrinsic case study, Hellstrom et al.[ 16 ] studied an elderly married couple living with dementia to explore how dementia had impacted on their understanding of home, their everyday life and their relationships.

For an instrumental case study, selecting a "typical" case can work well[ 8 ]. In contrast to the intrinsic case study, the particular case which is chosen is of less importance than selecting a case that allows the researcher to investigate an issue or phenomenon. For example, in order to gain an understanding of doctors' responses to health policy initiatives, Som undertook an instrumental case study interviewing clinicians who had a range of responsibilities for clinical governance in one NHS acute hospital trust[ 17 ]. Sampling a "deviant" or "atypical" case may however prove even more informative, potentially enabling the researcher to identify causal processes, generate hypotheses and develop theory.

In collective or multiple case studies, a number of cases are carefully selected. This offers the advantage of allowing comparisons to be made across several cases and/or replication. Choosing a "typical" case may enable the findings to be generalised to theory (i.e. analytical generalisation) or to test theory by replicating the findings in a second or even a third case (i.e. replication logic)[ 1 ]. Yin suggests two or three literal replications (i.e. predicting similar results) if the theory is straightforward and five or more if the theory is more subtle. However, critics might argue that selecting 'cases' in this way is insufficiently reflexive and ill-suited to the complexities of contemporary healthcare organisations.

The selected case study site(s) should allow the research team access to the group of individuals, the organisation, the processes or whatever else constitutes the chosen unit of analysis for the study. Access is therefore a central consideration; the researcher needs to come to know the case study site(s) well and to work cooperatively with them. Selected cases need to be not only interesting but also hospitable to the inquiry [ 8 ] if they are to be informative and answer the research question(s). Case study sites may also be pre-selected for the researcher, with decisions being influenced by key stakeholders. For example, our selection of case study sites in the evaluation of the implementation and adoption of electronic health record systems (see Table 3 ) was heavily influenced by NHS Connecting for Health, the government agency that was responsible for overseeing the National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT)[ 5 ]. This prominent stakeholder had already selected the NHS sites (through a competitive bidding process) to be early adopters of the electronic health record systems and had negotiated contracts that detailed the deployment timelines.

It is also important to consider in advance the likely burden and risks associated with participation for those who (or the site(s) which) comprise the case study. Of particular importance is the obligation for the researcher to think through the ethical implications of the study (e.g. the risk of inadvertently breaching anonymity or confidentiality) and to ensure that potential participants/participating sites are provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice about joining the study. The outcome of providing this information might be that the emotive burden associated with participation, or the organisational disruption associated with supporting the fieldwork, is considered so high that the individuals or sites decide against participation.

In our example of evaluating implementations of electronic health record systems, given the restricted number of early adopter sites available to us, we sought purposively to select a diverse range of implementation cases among those that were available[ 5 ]. We chose a mixture of teaching, non-teaching and Foundation Trust hospitals, and examples of each of the three electronic health record systems procured centrally by the NPfIT. At one recruited site, it quickly became apparent that access was problematic because of competing demands on that organisation. Recognising the importance of full access and co-operative working for generating rich data, the research team decided not to pursue work at that site and instead to focus on other recruited sites.

Collecting the data

In order to develop a thorough understanding of the case, the case study approach usually involves the collection of multiple sources of evidence, using a range of quantitative (e.g. questionnaires, audits and analysis of routinely collected healthcare data) and more commonly qualitative techniques (e.g. interviews, focus groups and observations). The use of multiple sources of data (data triangulation) has been advocated as a way of increasing the internal validity of a study (i.e. the extent to which the method is appropriate to answer the research question)[ 8 , 18 – 21 ]. An underlying assumption is that data collected in different ways should lead to similar conclusions, and approaching the same issue from different angles can help develop a holistic picture of the phenomenon (Table 2 )[ 4 ].

Brazier and colleagues used a mixed-methods case study approach to investigate the impact of a cancer care programme[ 22 ]. Here, quantitative measures were collected with questionnaires before, and five months after, the start of the intervention which did not yield any statistically significant results. Qualitative interviews with patients however helped provide an insight into potentially beneficial process-related aspects of the programme, such as greater, perceived patient involvement in care. The authors reported how this case study approach provided a number of contextual factors likely to influence the effectiveness of the intervention and which were not likely to have been obtained from quantitative methods alone.

In collective or multiple case studies, data collection needs to be flexible enough to allow a detailed description of each individual case to be developed (e.g. the nature of different cancer care programmes), before considering the emerging similarities and differences in cross-case comparisons (e.g. to explore why one programme is more effective than another). It is important that data sources from different cases are, where possible, broadly comparable for this purpose even though they may vary in nature and depth.

Analysing, interpreting and reporting case studies

Making sense and offering a coherent interpretation of the typically disparate sources of data (whether qualitative alone or together with quantitative) is far from straightforward. Repeated reviewing and sorting of the voluminous and detail-rich data are integral to the process of analysis. In collective case studies, it is helpful to analyse data relating to the individual component cases first, before making comparisons across cases. Attention needs to be paid to variations within each case and, where relevant, the relationship between different causes, effects and outcomes[ 23 ]. Data will need to be organised and coded to allow the key issues, both derived from the literature and emerging from the dataset, to be easily retrieved at a later stage. An initial coding frame can help capture these issues and can be applied systematically to the whole dataset with the aid of a qualitative data analysis software package.

The Framework approach is a practical approach, comprising of five stages (familiarisation; identifying a thematic framework; indexing; charting; mapping and interpretation) , to managing and analysing large datasets particularly if time is limited, as was the case in our study of recruitment of South Asians into asthma research (Table 1 )[ 3 , 24 ]. Theoretical frameworks may also play an important role in integrating different sources of data and examining emerging themes. For example, we drew on a socio-technical framework to help explain the connections between different elements - technology; people; and the organisational settings within which they worked - in our study of the introduction of electronic health record systems (Table 3 )[ 5 ]. Our study of patient safety in undergraduate curricula drew on an evaluation-based approach to design and analysis, which emphasised the importance of the academic, organisational and practice contexts through which students learn (Table 4 )[ 6 ].

Case study findings can have implications both for theory development and theory testing. They may establish, strengthen or weaken historical explanations of a case and, in certain circumstances, allow theoretical (as opposed to statistical) generalisation beyond the particular cases studied[ 12 ]. These theoretical lenses should not, however, constitute a strait-jacket and the cases should not be "forced to fit" the particular theoretical framework that is being employed.

When reporting findings, it is important to provide the reader with enough contextual information to understand the processes that were followed and how the conclusions were reached. In a collective case study, researchers may choose to present the findings from individual cases separately before amalgamating across cases. Care must be taken to ensure the anonymity of both case sites and individual participants (if agreed in advance) by allocating appropriate codes or withholding descriptors. In the example given in Table 3 , we decided against providing detailed information on the NHS sites and individual participants in order to avoid the risk of inadvertent disclosure of identities[ 5 , 25 ].

What are the potential pitfalls and how can these be avoided?

The case study approach is, as with all research, not without its limitations. When investigating the formal and informal ways undergraduate students learn about patient safety (Table 4 ), for example, we rapidly accumulated a large quantity of data. The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted on the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources. This highlights a more general point of the importance of avoiding the temptation to collect as much data as possible; adequate time also needs to be set aside for data analysis and interpretation of what are often highly complex datasets.

Case study research has sometimes been criticised for lacking scientific rigour and providing little basis for generalisation (i.e. producing findings that may be transferable to other settings)[ 1 ]. There are several ways to address these concerns, including: the use of theoretical sampling (i.e. drawing on a particular conceptual framework); respondent validation (i.e. participants checking emerging findings and the researcher's interpretation, and providing an opinion as to whether they feel these are accurate); and transparency throughout the research process (see Table 8 )[ 8 , 18 – 21 , 23 , 26 ]. Transparency can be achieved by describing in detail the steps involved in case selection, data collection, the reasons for the particular methods chosen, and the researcher's background and level of involvement (i.e. being explicit about how the researcher has influenced data collection and interpretation). Seeking potential, alternative explanations, and being explicit about how interpretations and conclusions were reached, help readers to judge the trustworthiness of the case study report. Stake provides a critique checklist for a case study report (Table 9 )[ 8 ].

Conclusions

The case study approach allows, amongst other things, critical events, interventions, policy developments and programme-based service reforms to be studied in detail in a real-life context. It should therefore be considered when an experimental design is either inappropriate to answer the research questions posed or impossible to undertake. Considering the frequency with which implementations of innovations are now taking place in healthcare settings and how well the case study approach lends itself to in-depth, complex health service research, we believe this approach should be more widely considered by researchers. Though inherently challenging, the research case study can, if carefully conceptualised and thoughtfully undertaken and reported, yield powerful insights into many important aspects of health and healthcare delivery.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the participants and colleagues who contributed to the individual case studies that we have drawn on. This work received no direct funding, but it has been informed by projects funded by Asthma UK, the NHS Service Delivery Organisation, NHS Connecting for Health Evaluation Programme, and Patient Safety Research Portfolio. We would also like to thank the expert reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. Our thanks are also due to Dr. Allison Worth who commented on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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AS conceived this article. SC, KC and AR wrote this paper with GH, AA and AS all commenting on various drafts. SC and AS are guarantors.

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Crowe, S., Cresswell, K., Robertson, A. et al. The case study approach. BMC Med Res Methodol 11 , 100 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

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Methodology or method? A critical review of qualitative case study reports

Despite on-going debate about credibility, and reported limitations in comparison to other approaches, case study is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers. We critically analysed the methodological descriptions of published case studies. Three high-impact qualitative methods journals were searched to locate case studies published in the past 5 years; 34 were selected for analysis. Articles were categorized as health and health services ( n= 12), social sciences and anthropology ( n= 7), or methods ( n= 15) case studies. The articles were reviewed using an adapted version of established criteria to determine whether adequate methodological justification was present, and if study aims, methods, and reported findings were consistent with a qualitative case study approach. Findings were grouped into five themes outlining key methodological issues: case study methodology or method, case of something particular and case selection, contextually bound case study, researcher and case interactions and triangulation, and study design inconsistent with methodology reported. Improved reporting of case studies by qualitative researchers will advance the methodology for the benefit of researchers and practitioners.

Case study research is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers (Thomas, 2011 ). Several prominent authors have contributed to methodological developments, which has increased the popularity of case study approaches across disciplines (Creswell, 2013b ; Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Ragin & Becker, 1992 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Current qualitative case study approaches are shaped by paradigm, study design, and selection of methods, and, as a result, case studies in the published literature vary. Differences between published case studies can make it difficult for researchers to define and understand case study as a methodology.

Experienced qualitative researchers have identified case study research as a stand-alone qualitative approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ). Case study research has a level of flexibility that is not readily offered by other qualitative approaches such as grounded theory or phenomenology. Case studies are designed to suit the case and research question and published case studies demonstrate wide diversity in study design. There are two popular case study approaches in qualitative research. The first, proposed by Stake ( 1995 ) and Merriam ( 2009 ), is situated in a social constructivist paradigm, whereas the second, by Yin ( 2012 ), Flyvbjerg ( 2011 ), and Eisenhardt ( 1989 ), approaches case study from a post-positivist viewpoint. Scholarship from both schools of inquiry has contributed to the popularity of case study and development of theoretical frameworks and principles that characterize the methodology.

The diversity of case studies reported in the published literature, and on-going debates about credibility and the use of case study in qualitative research practice, suggests that differences in perspectives on case study methodology may prevent researchers from developing a mutual understanding of practice and rigour. In addition, discussion about case study limitations has led some authors to query whether case study is indeed a methodology (Luck, Jackson, & Usher, 2006 ; Meyer, 2001 ; Thomas, 2010 ; Tight, 2010 ). Methodological discussion of qualitative case study research is timely, and a review is required to analyse and understand how this methodology is applied in the qualitative research literature. The aims of this study were to review methodological descriptions of published qualitative case studies, to review how the case study methodological approach was applied, and to identify issues that need to be addressed by researchers, editors, and reviewers. An outline of the current definitions of case study and an overview of the issues proposed in the qualitative methodological literature are provided to set the scene for the review.

Definitions of qualitative case study research

Case study research is an investigation and analysis of a single or collective case, intended to capture the complexity of the object of study (Stake, 1995 ). Qualitative case study research, as described by Stake ( 1995 ), draws together “naturalistic, holistic, ethnographic, phenomenological, and biographic research methods” in a bricoleur design, or in his words, “a palette of methods” (Stake, 1995 , pp. xi–xii). Case study methodology maintains deep connections to core values and intentions and is “particularistic, descriptive and heuristic” (Merriam, 2009 , p. 46).

As a study design, case study is defined by interest in individual cases rather than the methods of inquiry used. The selection of methods is informed by researcher and case intuition and makes use of naturally occurring sources of knowledge, such as people or observations of interactions that occur in the physical space (Stake, 1998 ). Thomas ( 2011 ) suggested that “analytical eclecticism” is a defining factor (p. 512). Multiple data collection and analysis methods are adopted to further develop and understand the case, shaped by context and emergent data (Stake, 1995 ). This qualitative approach “explores a real-life, contemporary bounded system (a case ) or multiple bounded systems (cases) over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information … and reports a case description and case themes ” (Creswell, 2013b , p. 97). Case study research has been defined by the unit of analysis, the process of study, and the outcome or end product, all essentially the case (Merriam, 2009 ).

The case is an object to be studied for an identified reason that is peculiar or particular. Classification of the case and case selection procedures informs development of the study design and clarifies the research question. Stake ( 1995 ) proposed three types of cases and study design frameworks. These include the intrinsic case, the instrumental case, and the collective instrumental case. The intrinsic case is used to understand the particulars of a single case, rather than what it represents. An instrumental case study provides insight on an issue or is used to refine theory. The case is selected to advance understanding of the object of interest. A collective refers to an instrumental case which is studied as multiple, nested cases, observed in unison, parallel, or sequential order. More than one case can be simultaneously studied; however, each case study is a concentrated, single inquiry, studied holistically in its own entirety (Stake, 1995 , 1998 ).

Researchers who use case study are urged to seek out what is common and what is particular about the case. This involves careful and in-depth consideration of the nature of the case, historical background, physical setting, and other institutional and political contextual factors (Stake, 1998 ). An interpretive or social constructivist approach to qualitative case study research supports a transactional method of inquiry, where the researcher has a personal interaction with the case. The case is developed in a relationship between the researcher and informants, and presented to engage the reader, inviting them to join in this interaction and in case discovery (Stake, 1995 ). A postpositivist approach to case study involves developing a clear case study protocol with careful consideration of validity and potential bias, which might involve an exploratory or pilot phase, and ensures that all elements of the case are measured and adequately described (Yin, 2009 , 2012 ).

Current methodological issues in qualitative case study research

The future of qualitative research will be influenced and constructed by the way research is conducted, and by what is reviewed and published in academic journals (Morse, 2011 ). If case study research is to further develop as a principal qualitative methodological approach, and make a valued contribution to the field of qualitative inquiry, issues related to methodological credibility must be considered. Researchers are required to demonstrate rigour through adequate descriptions of methodological foundations. Case studies published without sufficient detail for the reader to understand the study design, and without rationale for key methodological decisions, may lead to research being interpreted as lacking in quality or credibility (Hallberg, 2013 ; Morse, 2011 ).

There is a level of artistic license that is embraced by qualitative researchers and distinguishes practice, which nurtures creativity, innovation, and reflexivity (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Morse, 2009 ). Qualitative research is “inherently multimethod” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011a , p. 5); however, with this creative freedom, it is important for researchers to provide adequate description for methodological justification (Meyer, 2001 ). This includes paradigm and theoretical perspectives that have influenced study design. Without adequate description, study design might not be understood by the reader, and can appear to be dishonest or inaccurate. Reviewers and readers might be confused by the inconsistent or inappropriate terms used to describe case study research approach and methods, and be distracted from important study findings (Sandelowski, 2000 ). This issue extends beyond case study research, and others have noted inconsistencies in reporting of methodology and method by qualitative researchers. Sandelowski ( 2000 , 2010 ) argued for accurate identification of qualitative description as a research approach. She recommended that the selected methodology should be harmonious with the study design, and be reflected in methods and analysis techniques. Similarly, Webb and Kevern ( 2000 ) uncovered inconsistencies in qualitative nursing research with focus group methods, recommending that methodological procedures must cite seminal authors and be applied with respect to the selected theoretical framework. Incorrect labelling using case study might stem from the flexibility in case study design and non-directional character relative to other approaches (Rosenberg & Yates, 2007 ). Methodological integrity is required in design of qualitative studies, including case study, to ensure study rigour and to enhance credibility of the field (Morse, 2011 ).

Case study has been unnecessarily devalued by comparisons with statistical methods (Eisenhardt, 1989 ; Flyvbjerg, 2006 , 2011 ; Jensen & Rodgers, 2001 ; Piekkari, Welch, & Paavilainen, 2009 ; Tight, 2010 ; Yin, 1999 ). It is reputed to be the “the weak sibling” in comparison to other, more rigorous, approaches (Yin, 2009 , p. xiii). Case study is not an inherently comparative approach to research. The objective is not statistical research, and the aim is not to produce outcomes that are generalizable to all populations (Thomas, 2011 ). Comparisons between case study and statistical research do little to advance this qualitative approach, and fail to recognize its inherent value, which can be better understood from the interpretive or social constructionist viewpoint of other authors (Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ). Building on discussions relating to “fuzzy” (Bassey, 2001 ), or naturalistic generalizations (Stake, 1978 ), or transference of concepts and theories (Ayres, Kavanaugh, & Knafl, 2003 ; Morse et al., 2011 ) would have more relevance.

Case study research has been used as a catch-all design to justify or add weight to fundamental qualitative descriptive studies that do not fit with other traditional frameworks (Merriam, 2009 ). A case study has been a “convenient label for our research—when we ‘can't think of anything ‘better”—in an attempt to give it [qualitative methodology] some added respectability” (Tight, 2010 , p. 337). Qualitative case study research is a pliable approach (Merriam, 2009 ; Meyer, 2001 ; Stake, 1995 ), and has been likened to a “curious methodological limbo” (Gerring, 2004 , p. 341) or “paradigmatic bridge” (Luck et al., 2006 , p. 104), that is on the borderline between postpositivist and constructionist interpretations. This has resulted in inconsistency in application, which indicates that flexibility comes with limitations (Meyer, 2001 ), and the open nature of case study research might be off-putting to novice researchers (Thomas, 2011 ). The development of a well-(in)formed theoretical framework to guide a case study should improve consistency, rigour, and trust in studies published in qualitative research journals (Meyer, 2001 ).

Assessment of rigour

The purpose of this study was to analyse the methodological descriptions of case studies published in qualitative methods journals. To do this we needed to develop a suitable framework, which used existing, established criteria for appraising qualitative case study research rigour (Creswell, 2013b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ). A number of qualitative authors have developed concepts and criteria that are used to determine whether a study is rigorous (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ; Lincoln, 1995 ; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002 ). The criteria proposed by Stake ( 1995 ) provide a framework for readers and reviewers to make judgements regarding case study quality, and identify key characteristics essential for good methodological rigour. Although each of the factors listed in Stake's criteria could enhance the quality of a qualitative research report, in Table I we present an adapted criteria used in this study, which integrates more recent work by Merriam ( 2009 ) and Creswell ( 2013b ). Stake's ( 1995 ) original criteria were separated into two categories. The first list of general criteria is “relevant for all qualitative research.” The second list, “high relevance to qualitative case study research,” was the criteria that we decided had higher relevance to case study research. This second list was the main criteria used to assess the methodological descriptions of the case studies reviewed. The complete table has been preserved so that the reader can determine how the original criteria were adapted.

Framework for assessing quality in qualitative case study research.

Adapted from Stake ( 1995 , p. 131).

Study design

The critical review method described by Grant and Booth ( 2009 ) was used, which is appropriate for the assessment of research quality, and is used for literature analysis to inform research and practice. This type of review goes beyond the mapping and description of scoping or rapid reviews, to include “analysis and conceptual innovation” (Grant & Booth, 2009 , p. 93). A critical review is used to develop existing, or produce new, hypotheses or models. This is different to systematic reviews that answer clinical questions. It is used to evaluate existing research and competing ideas, to provide a “launch pad” for conceptual development and “subsequent testing” (Grant & Booth, 2009 , p. 93).

Qualitative methods journals were located by a search of the 2011 ISI Journal Citation Reports in Social Science, via the database Web of Knowledge (see m.webofknowledge.com). No “qualitative research methods” category existed in the citation reports; therefore, a search of all categories was performed using the term “qualitative.” In Table II , we present the qualitative methods journals located, ranked by impact factor. The highest ranked journals were selected for searching. We acknowledge that the impact factor ranking system might not be the best measure of journal quality (Cheek, Garnham, & Quan, 2006 ); however, this was the most appropriate and accessible method available.

International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being.

Search strategy

In March 2013, searches of the journals, Qualitative Health Research , Qualitative Research , and Qualitative Inquiry were completed to retrieve studies with “case study” in the abstract field. The search was limited to the past 5 years (1 January 2008 to 1 March 2013). The objective was to locate published qualitative case studies suitable for assessment using the adapted criterion. Viewpoints, commentaries, and other article types were excluded from review. Title and abstracts of the 45 retrieved articles were read by the first author, who identified 34 empirical case studies for review. All authors reviewed the 34 studies to confirm selection and categorization. In Table III , we present the 34 case studies grouped by journal, and categorized by research topic, including health sciences, social sciences and anthropology, and methods research. There was a discrepancy in categorization of one article on pedagogy and a new teaching method published in Qualitative Inquiry (Jorrín-Abellán, Rubia-Avi, Anguita-Martínez, Gómez-Sánchez, & Martínez-Mones, 2008 ). Consensus was to allocate to the methods category.

Outcomes of search of qualitative methods journals.

In Table III , the number of studies located, and final numbers selected for review have been reported. Qualitative Health Research published the most empirical case studies ( n= 16). In the health category, there were 12 case studies of health conditions, health services, and health policy issues, all published in Qualitative Health Research . Seven case studies were categorized as social sciences and anthropology research, which combined case study with biography and ethnography methodologies. All three journals published case studies on methods research to illustrate a data collection or analysis technique, methodological procedure, or related issue.

The methodological descriptions of 34 case studies were critically reviewed using the adapted criteria. All articles reviewed contained a description of study methods; however, the length, amount of detail, and position of the description in the article varied. Few studies provided an accurate description and rationale for using a qualitative case study approach. In the 34 case studies reviewed, three described a theoretical framework informed by Stake ( 1995 ), two by Yin ( 2009 ), and three provided a mixed framework informed by various authors, which might have included both Yin and Stake. Few studies described their case study design, or included a rationale that explained why they excluded or added further procedures, and whether this was to enhance the study design, or to better suit the research question. In 26 of the studies no reference was provided to principal case study authors. From reviewing the description of methods, few authors provided a description or justification of case study methodology that demonstrated how their study was informed by the methodological literature that exists on this approach.

The methodological descriptions of each study were reviewed using the adapted criteria, and the following issues were identified: case study methodology or method; case of something particular and case selection; contextually bound case study; researcher and case interactions and triangulation; and, study design inconsistent with methodology. An outline of how the issues were developed from the critical review is provided, followed by a discussion of how these relate to the current methodological literature.

Case study methodology or method

A third of the case studies reviewed appeared to use a case report method, not case study methodology as described by principal authors (Creswell, 2013b ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Case studies were identified as a case report because of missing methodological detail and by review of the study aims and purpose. These reports presented data for small samples of no more than three people, places or phenomenon. Four studies, or “case reports” were single cases selected retrospectively from larger studies (Bronken, Kirkevold, Martinsen, & Kvigne, 2012 ; Coltart & Henwood, 2012 ; Hooghe, Neimeyer, & Rober, 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ). Case reports were not a case of something, instead were a case demonstration or an example presented in a report. These reports presented outcomes, and reported on how the case could be generalized. Descriptions focussed on the phenomena, rather than the case itself, and did not appear to study the case in its entirety.

Case reports had minimal in-text references to case study methodology, and were informed by other qualitative traditions or secondary sources (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; Nagar-Ron & Motzafi-Haller, 2011 ). This does not suggest that case study methodology cannot be multimethod, however, methodology should be consistent in design, be clearly described (Meyer, 2001 ; Stake, 1995 ), and maintain focus on the case (Creswell, 2013b ).

To demonstrate how case reports were identified, three examples are provided. The first, Yeh ( 2013 ) described their study as, “the examination of the emergence of vegetarianism in Victorian England serves as a case study to reveal the relationships between boundaries and entities” (p. 306). The findings were a historical case report, which resulted from an ethnographic study of vegetarianism. Cunsolo Willox, Harper, Edge, ‘My Word’: Storytelling and Digital Media Lab, and Rigolet Inuit Community Government (2013) used “a case study that illustrates the usage of digital storytelling within an Inuit community” (p. 130). This case study reported how digital storytelling can be used with indigenous communities as a participatory method to illuminate the benefits of this method for other studies. This “case study was conducted in the Inuit community” but did not include the Inuit community in case analysis (Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013 , p. 130). Bronken et al. ( 2012 ) provided a single case report to demonstrate issues observed in a larger clinical study of aphasia and stroke, without adequate case description or analysis.

Case study of something particular and case selection

Case selection is a precursor to case analysis, which needs to be presented as a convincing argument (Merriam, 2009 ). Descriptions of the case were often not adequate to ascertain why the case was selected, or whether it was a particular exemplar or outlier (Thomas, 2011 ). In a number of case studies in the health and social science categories, it was not explicit whether the case was of something particular, or peculiar to their discipline or field (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson, Botelho, Welch, Joseph, & Tennstedt, 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ). There were exceptions in the methods category ( Table III ), where cases were selected by researchers to report on a new or innovative method. The cases emerged through heuristic study, and were reported to be particular, relative to the existing methods literature (Ajodhia-Andrews & Berman, 2009 ; Buckley & Waring, 2013 ; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013 ; De Haene, Grietens, & Verschueren, 2010 ; Gratton & O'Donnell, 2011 ; Sumsion, 2013 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ).

Case selection processes were sometimes insufficient to understand why the case was selected from the global population of cases, or what study of this case would contribute to knowledge as compared with other possible cases (Adamson & Holloway, 2012 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ). In two studies, local cases were selected (Barone, 2010 ; Fourie & Theron, 2012 ) because the researcher was familiar with and had access to the case. Possible limitations of a convenience sample were not acknowledged. Purposeful sampling was used to recruit participants within the case of one study, but not of the case itself (Gallagher et al., 2013 ). Random sampling was completed for case selection in two studies (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ), which has limited meaning in interpretive qualitative research.

To demonstrate how researchers provided a good justification for the selection of case study approaches, four examples are provided. The first, cases of residential care homes, were selected because of reported occurrences of mistreatment, which included residents being locked in rooms at night (Rytterström, Unosson, & Arman, 2013 ). Roscigno et al. ( 2012 ) selected cases of parents who were admitted for early hospitalization in neonatal intensive care with a threatened preterm delivery before 26 weeks. Hooghe et al. ( 2012 ) used random sampling to select 20 couples that had experienced the death of a child; however, the case study was of one couple and a particular metaphor described only by them. The final example, Coltart and Henwood ( 2012 ), provided a detailed account of how they selected two cases from a sample of 46 fathers based on personal characteristics and beliefs. They described how the analysis of the two cases would contribute to their larger study on first time fathers and parenting.

Contextually bound case study

The limits or boundaries of the case are a defining factor of case study methodology (Merriam, 2009 ; Ragin & Becker, 1992 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). Adequate contextual description is required to understand the setting or context in which the case is revealed. In the health category, case studies were used to illustrate a clinical phenomenon or issue such as compliance and health behaviour (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; D'Enbeau, Buzzanell, & Duckworth, 2010 ; Gallagher et al., 2013 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Jackson et al., 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ). In these case studies, contextual boundaries, such as physical and institutional descriptions, were not sufficient to understand the case as a holistic system, for example, the general practitioner (GP) clinic in Gallagher et al. ( 2013 ), or the nursing home in Colón-Emeric et al. ( 2010 ). Similarly, in the social science and methods categories, attention was paid to some components of the case context, but not others, missing important information required to understand the case as a holistic system (Alexander, Moreira, & Kumar, 2012 ; Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; Nairn & Panelli, 2009 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ).

In two studies, vicarious experience or vignettes (Nairn & Panelli, 2009 ) and images (Jorrín-Abellán et al., 2008 ) were effective to support description of context, and might have been a useful addition for other case studies. Missing contextual boundaries suggests that the case might not be adequately defined. Additional information, such as the physical, institutional, political, and community context, would improve understanding of the case (Stake, 1998 ). In Boxes 1 and 2 , we present brief synopses of two studies that were reviewed, which demonstrated a well bounded case. In Box 1 , Ledderer ( 2011 ) used a qualitative case study design informed by Stake's tradition. In Box 2 , Gillard, Witt, and Watts ( 2011 ) were informed by Yin's tradition. By providing a brief outline of the case studies in Boxes 1 and 2 , we demonstrate how effective case boundaries can be constructed and reported, which may be of particular interest to prospective case study researchers.

Article synopsis of case study research using Stake's tradition

Ledderer ( 2011 ) used a qualitative case study research design, informed by modern ethnography. The study is bounded to 10 general practice clinics in Denmark, who had received federal funding to implement preventative care services based on a Motivational Interviewing intervention. The researcher question focussed on “why is it so difficult to create change in medical practice?” (Ledderer, 2011 , p. 27). The study context was adequately described, providing detail on the general practitioner (GP) clinics and relevant political and economic influences. Methodological decisions are described in first person narrative, providing insight on researcher perspectives and interaction with the case. Forty-four interviews were conducted, which focussed on how GPs conducted consultations, and the form, nature and content, rather than asking their opinion or experience (Ledderer, 2011 , p. 30). The duration and intensity of researcher immersion in the case enhanced depth of description and trustworthiness of study findings. Analysis was consistent with Stake's tradition, and the researcher provided examples of inquiry techniques used to challenge assumptions about emerging themes. Several other seminal qualitative works were cited. The themes and typology constructed are rich in narrative data and storytelling by clinic staff, demonstrating individual clinic experiences as well as shared meanings and understandings about changing from a biomedical to psychological approach to preventative health intervention. Conclusions make note of social and cultural meanings and lessons learned, which might not have been uncovered using a different methodology.

Article synopsis of case study research using Yin's tradition

Gillard et al. ( 2011 ) study of camps for adolescents living with HIV/AIDs provided a good example of Yin's interpretive case study approach. The context of the case is bounded by the three summer camps of which the researchers had prior professional involvement. A case study protocol was developed that used multiple methods to gather information at three data collection points coinciding with three youth camps (Teen Forum, Discover Camp, and Camp Strong). Gillard and colleagues followed Yin's ( 2009 ) principles, using a consistent data protocol that enhanced cross-case analysis. Data described the young people, the camp physical environment, camp schedule, objectives and outcomes, and the staff of three youth camps. The findings provided a detailed description of the context, with less detail of individual participants, including insight into researcher's interpretations and methodological decisions throughout the data collection and analysis process. Findings provided the reader with a sense of “being there,” and are discovered through constant comparison of the case with the research issues; the case is the unit of analysis. There is evidence of researcher immersion in the case, and Gillard reports spending significant time in the field in a naturalistic and integrated youth mentor role.

This case study is not intended to have a significant impact on broader health policy, although does have implications for health professionals working with adolescents. Study conclusions will inform future camps for young people with chronic disease, and practitioners are able to compare similarities between this case and their own practice (for knowledge translation). No limitations of this article were reported. Limitations related to publication of this case study were that it was 20 pages long and used three tables to provide sufficient description of the camp and program components, and relationships with the research issue.

Researcher and case interactions and triangulation

Researcher and case interactions and transactions are a defining feature of case study methodology (Stake, 1995 ). Narrative stories, vignettes, and thick description are used to provoke vicarious experience and a sense of being there with the researcher in their interaction with the case. Few of the case studies reviewed provided details of the researcher's relationship with the case, researcher–case interactions, and how these influenced the development of the case study (Buzzanell & D'Enbeau, 2009 ; D'Enbeau et al., 2010 ; Gallagher et al., 2013 ; Gillard et al., 2011 ; Ledderer, 2011 ; Nagar-Ron & Motzafi-Haller, 2011 ). The role and position of the researcher needed to be self-examined and understood by readers, to understand how this influenced interactions with participants, and to determine what triangulation is needed (Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ).

Gillard et al. ( 2011 ) provided a good example of triangulation, comparing data sources in a table (p. 1513). Triangulation of sources was used to reveal as much depth as possible in the study by Nagar-Ron and Motzafi-Haller ( 2011 ), while also enhancing confirmation validity. There were several case studies that would have benefited from improved range and use of data sources, and descriptions of researcher–case interactions (Ajodhia-Andrews & Berman, 2009 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Fincham, Scourfield, & Langer, 2008 ; Fourie & Theron, 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ; Yeh, 2013 ).

Study design inconsistent with methodology

Good, rigorous case studies require a strong methodological justification (Meyer, 2001 ) and a logical and coherent argument that defines paradigm, methodological position, and selection of study methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011b ). Methodological justification was insufficient in several of the studies reviewed (Barone, 2010 ; Bronken et al., 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ; Yeh, 2013 ). This was judged by the absence, or inadequate or inconsistent reference to case study methodology in-text.

In six studies, the methodological justification provided did not relate to case study. There were common issues identified. Secondary sources were used as primary methodological references indicating that study design might not have been theoretically sound (Colón-Emeric et al., 2010 ; Coltart & Henwood, 2012 ; Roscigno et al., 2012 ; Snyder-Young, 2011 ). Authors and sources cited in methodological descriptions were inconsistent with the actual study design and practices used (Fourie & Theron, 2012 ; Hooghe et al., 2012 ; Jorrín-Abellán et al., 2008 ; Mawn et al., 2010 ; Rytterström et al., 2013 ; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2012 ). This occurred when researchers cited Stake or Yin, or both (Mawn et al., 2010 ; Rytterström et al., 2013 ), although did not follow their paradigmatic or methodological approach. In 26 studies there were no citations for a case study methodological approach.

The findings of this study have highlighted a number of issues for researchers. A considerable number of case studies reviewed were missing key elements that define qualitative case study methodology and the tradition cited. A significant number of studies did not provide a clear methodological description or justification relevant to case study. Case studies in health and social sciences did not provide sufficient information for the reader to understand case selection, and why this case was chosen above others. The context of the cases were not described in adequate detail to understand all relevant elements of the case context, which indicated that cases may have not been contextually bounded. There were inconsistencies between reported methodology, study design, and paradigmatic approach in case studies reviewed, which made it difficult to understand the study methodology and theoretical foundations. These issues have implications for methodological integrity and honesty when reporting study design, which are values of the qualitative research tradition and are ethical requirements (Wager & Kleinert, 2010a ). Poorly described methodological descriptions may lead the reader to misinterpret or discredit study findings, which limits the impact of the study, and, as a collective, hinders advancements in the broader qualitative research field.

The issues highlighted in our review build on current debates in the case study literature, and queries about the value of this methodology. Case study research can be situated within different paradigms or designed with an array of methods. In order to maintain the creativity and flexibility that is valued in this methodology, clearer descriptions of paradigm and theoretical position and methods should be provided so that study findings are not undervalued or discredited. Case study research is an interdisciplinary practice, which means that clear methodological descriptions might be more important for this approach than other methodologies that are predominantly driven by fewer disciplines (Creswell, 2013b ).

Authors frequently omit elements of methodologies and include others to strengthen study design, and we do not propose a rigid or purist ideology in this paper. On the contrary, we encourage new ideas about using case study, together with adequate reporting, which will advance the value and practice of case study. The implications of unclear methodological descriptions in the studies reviewed were that study design appeared to be inconsistent with reported methodology, and key elements required for making judgements of rigour were missing. It was not clear whether the deviations from methodological tradition were made by researchers to strengthen the study design, or because of misinterpretations. Morse ( 2011 ) recommended that innovations and deviations from practice are best made by experienced researchers, and that a novice might be unaware of the issues involved with making these changes. To perpetuate the tradition of case study research, applications in the published literature should have consistencies with traditional methodological constructions, and deviations should be described with a rationale that is inherent in study conduct and findings. Providing methodological descriptions that demonstrate a strong theoretical foundation and coherent study design will add credibility to the study, while ensuring the intrinsic meaning of case study is maintained.

The value of this review is that it contributes to discussion of whether case study is a methodology or method. We propose possible reasons why researchers might make this misinterpretation. Researchers may interchange the terms methods and methodology, and conduct research without adequate attention to epistemology and historical tradition (Carter & Little, 2007 ; Sandelowski, 2010 ). If the rich meaning that naming a qualitative methodology brings to the study is not recognized, a case study might appear to be inconsistent with the traditional approaches described by principal authors (Creswell, 2013a ; Merriam, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 ; Yin, 2009 ). If case studies are not methodologically and theoretically situated, then they might appear to be a case report.

Case reports are promoted by university and medical journals as a method of reporting on medical or scientific cases; guidelines for case reports are publicly available on websites ( http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/institutional_review_board/guidelines_policies/guidelines/case_report.html ). The various case report guidelines provide a general criteria for case reports, which describes that this form of report does not meet the criteria of research, is used for retrospective analysis of up to three clinical cases, and is primarily illustrative and for educational purposes. Case reports can be published in academic journals, but do not require approval from a human research ethics committee. Traditionally, case reports describe a single case, to explain how and what occurred in a selected setting, for example, to illustrate a new phenomenon that has emerged from a larger study. A case report is not necessarily particular or the study of a case in its entirety, and the larger study would usually be guided by a different research methodology.

This description of a case report is similar to what was provided in some studies reviewed. This form of report lacks methodological grounding and qualities of research rigour. The case report has publication value in demonstrating an example and for dissemination of knowledge (Flanagan, 1999 ). However, case reports have different meaning and purpose to case study, which needs to be distinguished. Findings of our review suggest that the medical understanding of a case report has been confused with qualitative case study approaches.

In this review, a number of case studies did not have methodological descriptions that included key characteristics of case study listed in the adapted criteria, and several issues have been discussed. There have been calls for improvements in publication quality of qualitative research (Morse, 2011 ), and for improvements in peer review of submitted manuscripts (Carter & Little, 2007 ; Jasper, Vaismoradi, Bondas, & Turunen, 2013 ). The challenging nature of editor and reviewers responsibilities are acknowledged in the literature (Hames, 2013 ; Wager & Kleinert, 2010b ); however, review of case study methodology should be prioritized because of disputes on methodological value.

Authors using case study approaches are recommended to describe their theoretical framework and methods clearly, and to seek and follow specialist methodological advice when needed (Wager & Kleinert, 2010a ). Adequate page space for case study description would contribute to better publications (Gillard et al., 2011 ). Capitalizing on the ability to publish complementary resources should be considered.

Limitations of the review

There is a level of subjectivity involved in this type of review and this should be considered when interpreting study findings. Qualitative methods journals were selected because the aims and scope of these journals are to publish studies that contribute to methodological discussion and development of qualitative research. Generalist health and social science journals were excluded that might have contained good quality case studies. Journals in business or education were also excluded, although a review of case studies in international business journals has been published elsewhere (Piekkari et al., 2009 ).

The criteria used to assess the quality of the case studies were a set of qualitative indicators. A numerical or ranking system might have resulted in different results. Stake's ( 1995 ) criteria have been referenced elsewhere, and was deemed the best available (Creswell, 2013b ; Crowe et al., 2011 ). Not all qualitative studies are reported in a consistent way and some authors choose to report findings in a narrative form in comparison to a typical biomedical report style (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002 ), if misinterpretations were made this may have affected the review.

Case study research is an increasingly popular approach among qualitative researchers, which provides methodological flexibility through the incorporation of different paradigmatic positions, study designs, and methods. However, whereas flexibility can be an advantage, a myriad of different interpretations has resulted in critics questioning the use of case study as a methodology. Using an adaptation of established criteria, we aimed to identify and assess the methodological descriptions of case studies in high impact, qualitative methods journals. Few articles were identified that applied qualitative case study approaches as described by experts in case study design. There were inconsistencies in methodology and study design, which indicated that researchers were confused whether case study was a methodology or a method. Commonly, there appeared to be confusion between case studies and case reports. Without clear understanding and application of the principles and key elements of case study methodology, there is a risk that the flexibility of the approach will result in haphazard reporting, and will limit its global application as a valuable, theoretically supported methodology that can be rigorously applied across disciplines and fields.

Conflict of interest and funding

The authors have not received any funding or benefits from industry or elsewhere to conduct this study.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Case Study in Education Research

Introduction, general overview and foundational texts of the late 20th century.

  • Conceptualisations and Definitions of Case Study
  • Case Study and Theoretical Grounding
  • Choosing Cases
  • Methodology, Method, Genre, or Approach
  • Case Study: Quality and Generalizability
  • Multiple Case Studies
  • Exemplary Case Studies and Example Case Studies
  • Criticism, Defense, and Debate around Case Study

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Case Study in Education Research by Lorna Hamilton LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021 LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0201

It is important to distinguish between case study as a teaching methodology and case study as an approach, genre, or method in educational research. The use of case study as teaching method highlights the ways in which the essential qualities of the case—richness of real-world data and lived experiences—can help learners gain insights into a different world and can bring learning to life. The use of case study in this way has been around for about a hundred years or more. Case study use in educational research, meanwhile, emerged particularly strongly in the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom and the United States as a means of harnessing the richness and depth of understanding of individuals, groups, and institutions; their beliefs and perceptions; their interactions; and their challenges and issues. Writers, such as Lawrence Stenhouse, advocated the use of case study as a form that teacher-researchers could use as they focused on the richness and intensity of their own practices. In addition, academic writers and postgraduate students embraced case study as a means of providing structure and depth to educational projects. However, as educational research has developed, so has debate on the quality and usefulness of case study as well as the problems surrounding the lack of generalizability when dealing with single or even multiple cases. The question of how to define and support case study work has formed the basis for innumerable books and discursive articles, starting with Robert Yin’s original book on case study ( Yin 1984 , cited under General Overview and Foundational Texts of the Late 20th Century ) to the myriad authors who attempt to bring something new to the realm of case study in educational research in the 21st century.

This section briefly considers the ways in which case study research has developed over the last forty to fifty years in educational research usage and reflects on whether the field has finally come of age, respected by creators and consumers of research. Case study has its roots in anthropological studies in which a strong ethnographic approach to the study of peoples and culture encouraged researchers to identify and investigate key individuals and groups by trying to understand the lived world of such people from their points of view. Although ethnography has emphasized the role of researcher as immersive and engaged with the lived world of participants via participant observation, evolving approaches to case study in education has been about the richness and depth of understanding that can be gained through involvement in the case by drawing on diverse perspectives and diverse forms of data collection. Embracing case study as a means of entering these lived worlds in educational research projects, was encouraged in the 1970s and 1980s by researchers, such as Lawrence Stenhouse, who provided a helpful impetus for case study work in education ( Stenhouse 1980 ). Stenhouse wrestled with the use of case study as ethnography because ethnographers traditionally had been unfamiliar with the peoples they were investigating, whereas educational researchers often worked in situations that were inherently familiar. Stenhouse also emphasized the need for evidence of rigorous processes and decisions in order to encourage robust practice and accountability to the wider field by allowing others to judge the quality of work through transparency of processes. Yin 1984 , the first book focused wholly on case study in research, gave a brief and basic outline of case study and associated practices. Various authors followed this approach, striving to engage more deeply in the significance of case study in the social sciences. Key among these are Merriam 1988 and Stake 1995 , along with Yin 1984 , who established powerful groundings for case study work. Additionally, evidence of the increasing popularity of case study can be found in a broad range of generic research methods texts, but these often do not have much scope for the extensive discussion of case study found in case study–specific books. Yin’s books and numerous editions provide a developing or evolving notion of case study with more detailed accounts of the possible purposes of case study, followed by Merriam 1988 and Stake 1995 who wrestled with alternative ways of looking at purposes and the positioning of case study within potential disciplinary modes. The authors referenced in this section are often characterized as the foundational authors on this subject and may have published various editions of their work, cited elsewhere in this article, based on their shifting ideas or emphases.

Merriam, S. B. 1988. Case study research in education: A qualitative approach . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This is Merriam’s initial text on case study and is eminently accessible. The author establishes and reinforces various key features of case study; demonstrates support for positioning the case within a subject domain, e.g., psychology, sociology, etc.; and further shapes the case according to its purpose or intent.

Stake, R. E. 1995. The art of case study research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Stake is a very readable author, accessible and yet engaging with complex topics. The author establishes his key forms of case study: intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Stake brings the reader through the process of conceptualizing the case, carrying it out, and analyzing the data. The author uses authentic examples to help readers understand and appreciate the nuances of an interpretive approach to case study.

Stenhouse, L. 1980. The study of samples and the study of cases. British Educational Research Journal 6:1–6.

DOI: 10.1080/0141192800060101

A key article in which Stenhouse sets out his stand on case study work. Those interested in the evolution of case study use in educational research should consider this article and the insights given.

Yin, R. K. 1984. Case Study Research: Design and Methods . Beverley Hills, CA: SAGE.

This preliminary text from Yin was very basic. However, it may be of interest in comparison with later books because Yin shows the ways in which case study as an approach or method in research has evolved in relation to detailed discussions of purpose, as well as the practicalities of working through the research process.

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Case Study Research Method in Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

On This Page:

Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources using several methods (e.g., observations & interviews).

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.

The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events that are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

The case study is not a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.

Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.

There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

case study

 Famous Case Studies

  • Anna O – One of the most famous case studies, documenting psychoanalyst Josef Breuer’s treatment of “Anna O” (real name Bertha Pappenheim) for hysteria in the late 1800s using early psychoanalytic theory.
  • Little Hans – A child psychoanalysis case study published by Sigmund Freud in 1909 analyzing his five-year-old patient Herbert Graf’s house phobia as related to the Oedipus complex.
  • Bruce/Brenda – Gender identity case of the boy (Bruce) whose botched circumcision led psychologist John Money to advise gender reassignment and raise him as a girl (Brenda) in the 1960s.
  • Genie Wiley – Linguistics/psychological development case of the victim of extreme isolation abuse who was studied in 1970s California for effects of early language deprivation on acquiring speech later in life.
  • Phineas Gage – One of the most famous neuropsychology case studies analyzes personality changes in railroad worker Phineas Gage after an 1848 brain injury involving a tamping iron piercing his skull.

Clinical Case Studies

  • Studying the effectiveness of psychotherapy approaches with an individual patient
  • Assessing and treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD
  • Neuropsychological cases investigating brain injuries or disorders

Child Psychology Case Studies

  • Studying psychological development from birth through adolescence
  • Cases of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD
  • Effects of trauma, abuse, deprivation on development

Types of Case Studies

  • Explanatory case studies : Used to explore causation in order to find underlying principles. Helpful for doing qualitative analysis to explain presumed causal links.
  • Exploratory case studies : Used to explore situations where an intervention being evaluated has no clear set of outcomes. It helps define questions and hypotheses for future research.
  • Descriptive case studies : Describe an intervention or phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurred. It is helpful for illustrating certain topics within an evaluation.
  • Multiple-case studies : Used to explore differences between cases and replicate findings across cases. Helpful for comparing and contrasting specific cases.
  • Intrinsic : Used to gain a better understanding of a particular case. Helpful for capturing the complexity of a single case.
  • Collective : Used to explore a general phenomenon using multiple case studies. Helpful for jointly studying a group of cases in order to inquire into the phenomenon.

Where Do You Find Data for a Case Study?

There are several places to find data for a case study. The key is to gather data from multiple sources to get a complete picture of the case and corroborate facts or findings through triangulation of evidence. Most of this information is likely qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might also collect numerical data.

1. Primary sources

  • Interviews – Interviewing key people related to the case to get their perspectives and insights. The interview is an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
  • Observations – Observing behaviors, interactions, processes, etc., related to the case as they unfold in real-time.
  • Documents & Records – Reviewing private documents, diaries, public records, correspondence, meeting minutes, etc., relevant to the case.

2. Secondary sources

  • News/Media – News coverage of events related to the case study.
  • Academic articles – Journal articles, dissertations etc. that discuss the case.
  • Government reports – Official data and records related to the case context.
  • Books/films – Books, documentaries or films discussing the case.

3. Archival records

Searching historical archives, museum collections and databases to find relevant documents, visual/audio records related to the case history and context.

Public archives like newspapers, organizational records, photographic collections could all include potentially relevant pieces of information to shed light on attitudes, cultural perspectives, common practices and historical contexts related to psychology.

4. Organizational records

Organizational records offer the advantage of often having large datasets collected over time that can reveal or confirm psychological insights.

Of course, privacy and ethical concerns regarding confidential data must be navigated carefully.

However, with proper protocols, organizational records can provide invaluable context and empirical depth to qualitative case studies exploring the intersection of psychology and organizations.

  • Organizational/industrial psychology research : Organizational records like employee surveys, turnover/retention data, policies, incident reports etc. may provide insight into topics like job satisfaction, workplace culture and dynamics, leadership issues, employee behaviors etc.
  • Clinical psychology : Therapists/hospitals may grant access to anonymized medical records to study aspects like assessments, diagnoses, treatment plans etc. This could shed light on clinical practices.
  • School psychology : Studies could utilize anonymized student records like test scores, grades, disciplinary issues, and counseling referrals to study child development, learning barriers, effectiveness of support programs, and more.

How do I Write a Case Study in Psychology?

Follow specified case study guidelines provided by a journal or your psychology tutor. General components of clinical case studies include: background, symptoms, assessments, diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.

1. Introduction

  • Provide background on the case context and why it is of interest, presenting background information like demographics, relevant history, and presenting problem.
  • Compare briefly to similar published cases if applicable. Clearly state the focus/importance of the case.

2. Case Presentation

  • Describe the presenting problem in detail, including symptoms, duration,and impact on daily life.
  • Include client demographics like age and gender, information about social relationships, and mental health history.
  • Describe all physical, emotional, and/or sensory symptoms reported by the client.
  • Use patient quotes to describe the initial complaint verbatim. Follow with full-sentence summaries of relevant history details gathered, including key components that led to a working diagnosis.
  • Summarize clinical exam results, namely orthopedic/neurological tests, imaging, lab tests, etc. Note actual results rather than subjective conclusions. Provide images if clearly reproducible/anonymized.
  • Clearly state the working diagnosis or clinical impression before transitioning to management.

3. Management and Outcome

  • Indicate the total duration of care and number of treatments given over what timeframe. Use specific names/descriptions for any therapies/interventions applied.
  • Present the results of the intervention,including any quantitative or qualitative data collected.
  • For outcomes, utilize visual analog scales for pain, medication usage logs, etc., if possible. Include patient self-reports of improvement/worsening of symptoms. Note the reason for discharge/end of care.

4. Discussion

  • Analyze the case, exploring contributing factors, limitations of the study, and connections to existing research.
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the intervention,considering factors like participant adherence, limitations of the study, and potential alternative explanations for the results.
  • Identify any questions raised in the case analysis and relate insights to established theories and current research if applicable. Avoid definitive claims about physiological explanations.
  • Offer clinical implications, and suggest future research directions.

5. Additional Items

  • Thank specific assistants for writing support only. No patient acknowledgments.
  • References should directly support any key claims or quotes included.
  • Use tables/figures/images only if substantially informative. Include permissions and legends/explanatory notes.
  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.

Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.

The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).

Limitations

  • Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
  • Researchers’ own subjective feelings may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time-consuming and expensive.
  • The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.

Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.

This means that there is a lot of scope for Anna O , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).

This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1895).  Studies on hysteria . Standard Edition 2: London.

Curtiss, S. (1981). Genie: The case of a modern wild child .

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.

Harlow J. M. (1848). Passage of an iron rod through the head.  Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 39 , 389–393.

Harlow, J. M. (1868).  Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head .  Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2  (3), 327-347.

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972).  Man & Woman, Boy & Girl : The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Money, J., & Tucker, P. (1975). Sexual signatures: On being a man or a woman.

Further Information

  • Case Study Approach
  • Case Study Method
  • Enhancing the Quality of Case Studies in Health Services Research
  • “We do things together” A case study of “couplehood” in dementia
  • Using mixed methods for evaluating an integrative approach to cancer care: a case study

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Research Guides

Ethnographic Case Studies

Jeannette Armstrong; Laura Boyle; Lindsay Herron; Brandon Locke; and Leslie Smith

Description

This research guide discusses ethnographic case study. While there is much debate over what, precisely, delimits a case study , the general consensus seems to be that ethnographic case studies differ from other types of case studies primarily in their focus, methodology, and duration. In essence, ethnographic case studies are case studies “employing ethnographic methods and focused on building arguments about cultural, group, or community formation or examining other sociocultural phenomena” (Schwandt & Gates, 2018, p. 344), typically with a long duration, per the demands of ethnographic work. In essence, ethnographic case studies are case studies “employing ethnographic methods and focused on building arguments about cultural, group, or community formation or examining other sociocultural phenomena” (Schwandt & Gates, 2018, p. 344), typically with a long duration, per the demands of ethnographic work. Indeed, in its very situatedness, ethnography has a “case study character” and is “intimately related” to case studies (Ó Rian, 2009, p. 291); though there is currently a move to extract ethnographic work from overly situated contexts and use extended case methods, “[e]thnographic research has long been synonymous with case studies, typically conceived of as grounded in the local and situated in specific, well-defined and self-contained social contexts” (Ó Rian, 2009, p. 290). Because ethnography, in practice, is often a kind of case study, it’s useful to consider ethnography and case studies each in their own right for a fuller picture of what ethnographic case study entails.

Ethnographic research is one approach under the larger umbrella of qualitative research. Methodologically, it is, “a theoretical, ethical, political, and at times moral orientation to research, which guides the decisions one makes, including choices about research methods” (Harrison, 2014, p. 225), that is at its crux “based upon sharing the time and space of those who one is studying” (Ó Rian, 2009, p. 291)–a situated, nuanced exploration seeking a thick description and drawing on methods such as observation and field notes. According to …an ethnography focuses on an entire culture-sharing group and attempts to develop a complex, complete description of the culture of the group. Creswell and Poth (2018), an ethnography focuses on an entire culture-sharing group and attempts to develop a complex, complete description of the culture of the group. In doing so, ethnographers look for patterns of behavior such as rituals or social behaviors, as well as how their ideas and beliefs are expressed through language, material activities, and actions (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Yin (2016)  suggests that ethnographies seek “to promote embedded research that fuses close-up observation, rigorous theory, and social critique. [Ethnographies foster] work that pays equal attention to the minutiae of experience, the cultural texture of social relations, and to the remote structural forces and power vectors that bear on them” (p. 69).

Case study research, meanwhile, is characterized as an approach “that facilitates exploration of a phenomenon within its context using a variety of data sources” (Baxter & Jack, 2008, p. 544). The aim of case studies is precise description of reconstruction of cases (Flick, 2015). The philosophical background is a qualitative, constructivist paradigm based on the claim that reality is socially constructed and can best be understood by exploring the tacit, i.e., experience-based, knowledge of individuals. There is some debate about how to define a The philosophical background is a qualitative, constructivist paradigm based on the claim that reality is socially constructed and can best be understood by exploring the tacit, i.e., experience-based, knowledge of individuals. “case” (e.g., Ó Rian, 2009), however. As Schwandt and Gates (2018) write, “[A] case is an instance, incident, or unit of something and can be anything–a person, an organization, an event, a decision, an action, a location”; it can be at the micro, meso, or macro level; it can be an empirical unit or a theoretical construct, specific or general; and in fact, “what the research or case object is a case of may not be known until most of the empirical research is completed” (p. 341). The two authors conclude that given the multifarious interpretations of what case study is, “[b]eyond positing that case study methodology has something to do with ‘in-depth’ investigation of a phenomenon . . . , it is a fool’s errand to pursue what is (or should be) truly called ‘case study’” (p. 343, 344).

Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13 (4), 544-559.

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Flick, U. (2015). Introducing research methodology . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Rian, S. (2009). Extending the ethnographic case study. In D. Byrne & C. C. Ragin (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of case-based methods (pp. 289–306). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Schwandt, T. A., & Gates, E. F. (2018). Case study methodology. In N. K. Dezin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (5th ed.; pp. 341-358). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Yin, R. K. (2016). Qualitative research from start to finish (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Key Research Books and Articles on Ethnographic Case Study Methodology

Fusch, G. E., & Ness, L. R. (2017). How to conduct a mini-ethnographic case study: A guide for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report , 22 (3), 923-941.  Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol22/iss3/16

In this how-to article, the authors present an argument for the use of a blended research design, namely the Ethnographic Case Study, for student researchers. To establish their point of view, the authors reiterate recognized research protocols, such as choosing a design that suits the research question to ensure data saturation. Additionally, they remind their reader that one must also consider the feasibility of the project in terms of time, energy, and financial constraints.

Before outlining the benefits and components of the Ethnographic Case Study approach, the authors provide detailed narratives of ethnographic, mini-ethnographic (sometimes referred to as a focused ethnography ), and case study research designs to orient the reader. Next, we are introduced to the term mini-ethnographic case-study design, which is defined as a blended design that is bound in time and space and uses qualitative ethnographic and case study collection methods. The benefits of such an approach permit simultaneous generation of theory and the study of that theory in practice, as it allows for the exploration of causality.

Ethnographic Case Study research shares many characteristics with its parent approaches.  For example, subjectivity and bias are present and must be addressed. Next, data triangulation is necessary to ensure the collected qualitative data and subsequent findings are valid and reliable. Data collection methods include direct observation, fieldwork, reflective journaling, informal or unstructured interviews, and focus groups. Finally, the authors discuss three limitations to the ethnographic case study. First, this design requires the researcher to be embedded, yet the duration of time may not be for as long when compared to full-scale ethnographic studies.  Second, since there are fewer participants, there should be a larger focus on rich data as opposed to thick data, or said differently, quality is valued over quantity. Third, the researcher must be aware that the end-goal is not transferability, but rather the objective is to gain a greater understanding of the culture of a particular group that is bound by space and time.

Gregory, E. & Ruby, M. (2010) The ‘insider/outsider’ dilemma of ethnography: Working with young children and their families in cross-cultural contexts. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 9 (2), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1476718X10387899

This article focuses on the dilemma of insider and outsider roles in ethnographic work. It challenges the notion that a researcher can be both an insider and an outsider at the same time. There is no insider/outsider status; it is one or the other–not both.

It is easy to make assumptions about one’s status as an insider. It is not uncommon for a researcher to assume that because one is working amongst his/her “own” people sharing a similar background, culture, or faith that she/he is an insider. Likewise, a researcher may assume that it will be easy to build rapport with a community with which he/she has commonalities; however, it is important to keep in mind that the person may be an insider but the researcher may not have this same status. When the person enters into the protective space of family or community as a researcher, it is similar to being an outsider. Being a researcher makes one different, regardless of the commonalities that are shared. It is not the researcher’s presumed status of “insider” or “outsider” that makes the difference; rather, researcher status is determined by the participants or community that is being studied. It is wise for researchers to understand that they are distinctively one of “them” as opposed to one of “us”. This is not to say that researchers cannot become an “insider” to some degree. But to assume insider status, regardless of the rationale, is wrong. Assuming common beliefs across cultures or insider status can lead to difficulties that could impact the scope or nature of the study.

In conclusion, regardless of the ethnographic design (e.g., realist ethnography, ethnographic case study, critical ethnography), it is important for the researcher to approach the study as an “outsider”. Although the outsider status may change over time, it essential to understand that when one enters a community as a researcher or becomes a researcher within a community, insider status must be earned and awarded according to the participants in the community.

Ó Rian, S. (2009). Extending the ethnographic case study. In D. Byrne & C. C. Ragin (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of case-based methods (pp. 289–306). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

In this chapter, Ó Rian valorizes the problems and potential hiding within the vagaries of ethnographic “case” boundaries, arguing that “whereas the fluid and multi-faceted aspects of the ethnographic case pose dilemmas for ethnographers, they can also become resources for ethnographers in exploring theoretical and empirical questions” (p. 292). Indeed, he views the idea of firm case boundaries as a weakness, as “definitions of the case will rule in and out certain social processes,” and suggests ethnography’s flexibility can deal with this problem well because it permits researchers to “question the boundaries of the case as the study proceeds,” leading to a “de- and re-construction of the case that . . . places ethnography at the centre of a resurgent contextualist paradigm of social inquiry . . . that is increasingly self-consciously exploring its own theoretical and methodological foundations” (p. 304). Most of the chapter delves into these possibilities for exploration, offering an insightful (if occasionally difficult to follow) perspective on how they have been proceeding.

The chapter offers considerations that might be particularly helpful to researchers undertaking ethnographic case studies who are struggling to connect their cases, so firmly rooted in a particular context and their own personal experiences and observations, to a bigger picture. Ó Rian elucidates the reflexive strategies various ethnographers have adopted as they’ve sought “[t]o achieve a link between context-specific data and meso- or macro-level generalizations,” categorizing these strategies into three “interlocking extensions of case study research” (p. 292): personal extensions (related to “the shaping of the boundaries of the case by the ethnographer’s location within the field and . . . how ethnographers can convey their personalized experiences and tacit learning to readers” [p. 292]), theoretical extensions (which bridge the gap between the situated worlds being explored and “the larger structures and processes that produced and shaped them” [p. 292]), and empirical extensions (“creative efforts to experiment with the empirical boundaries of the ethnographic case” [p. 292] by bringing in, for example, historical context, social networks, etc.). The crux of his argument is that ethnographic researchers have a prime opportunity to push against the boundaries of their context and “extend their cases across space, time and institutional structures and practices” so that the ethnographer is “multiply, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably, situated” (p. 304), and also to include an “emphasis on the ongoing process of theoretical sampling within the process of the ethnographic study, with close attention to be paid to the paths chosen and rejected, and the reasons for these decisions” (p. 304). These kinds of extensions offer an opportunity for theories to “be refined or reconstructed” as the researcher attempts to locate their personal experience within a broader framework, allowing “[t]he case study . . . to challenge and reconstruct the preferred theory” while also connecting the case to a larger body of work, particularly because theory “carries the accumulated knowledge of previous studies” (p. 296).

Ó Rian’s in-depth descriptions of how other researchers have varyingly handled these personal, theoretical, and empirical extensions might be a bit overwhelming to novice researchers but overall can offer a way to “locate their cases within broader social processes and not solely within their own personal trajectories” (p. 294)–while also helping to situate their reflections and extensions within a larger body of literature replete with researchers struggling with similar questions and concerns.

This chapter offers an  in-depth, generally accessible (but occasionally overwhelming) overview of case studies of all sorts and integrates an extensive review of relevant literature. The authors provide an informed perspective on various considerations and debates in the case study field (e.g., varying definitions of what a “case” is construed to be; interpretive vs. critical realist orientations; the relative benefits of and techniques involved in different types of approaches), helping novice researchers locate and better describe their own approach within the context of the field. The information is quite detailed and delves into a wide variety of case study types, suggesting this chapter might best be first skimmed as an initial introduction, followed by more careful readings of relevant sections and perusal of the key texts cited in the chapter. The breadth of this chapter makes it a helpful resource for anyone interested in case-study methodology.

The authors do not specifically explore ethnographic case studies as a separate type of case study. They do, however, briefly touch on this idea, locating ethnography within the interpretive orientation (comprising constructivist approaches offering “phenomenological attention to lived experience” [p. 344]). The authors also cite researchers who distinguish it due to its “[employing] ethnographic methods and focus on building arguments about cultural, group, or community formation or examining other sociocultural phenomena” (p. 344). Ethnographic case study is placed in contrast to case studies that use non-ethnographic methods (e.g., studies “relying perhaps on survey data and document analysis”) or that “are focused on ‘writing culture’” (p. 344).

Two aspects of this chapter are particularly useful for novice researchers. First, it is worth highlighting the authors’ discussion of varying definitions of what a “case” is, as it can provide an interesting reconceptualization of the purpose of the research and the reason for conducting it. The second noteworthy aspect is the authors’ detailed descriptions of the four main case study uses/designs ( descriptive, hypothesis generation or theory development, hypothesis and theory testing , and contributing to normative theory ), which the authors beautifully align with the respective purposes and methods of each type while also offering insight into relevant conversations in the field.

Further Readings

Moss, P. A., & Haertel, E. H. (2016). Engaging methodological pluralism. In D. H. Gitomer & C. A. Bell (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (pp. 127–247). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Simons, H. (2014). Case study research: In-depth understanding in context. In P. Leavy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of qualitative research (pp. 455–470). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Recent Dissertations Using Ethnographic Case Study Methodology

Cozzolino, M. (2014). Global education, accountability, and 21st century skills: A case of curriculum innovation . Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order Number 3648007)

This dissertation is self-described as an ethnographic case study of a small, public, suburban high school in Pennsylvania. In this study, the researcher investigates the school’s process of integrating global education into its curriculum by implementing a school-wide initiative (Global Studies Initiative or GSI) as well as a program of study (Global Studies Credential or GSC). Cozzolino asserts that her framework has been shaped by both social constructivism and critical/Freirean pedagogy. From the constructivist view, she views knowledge as constructed through social interaction, and thus she sought to understand the world in which the research participants work, learn, and experience large parts of their lives. It is here that she situates the first three research questions that entail looking at the the GSI and the GSC in terms of their features, rationales, and implementations. The fourth question involves understanding the students’ views and perceptions of the GSC and here the author takes up a critical and Freirean pedagogy to honor and hear the voices of the students themselves.

The study design is therefore an embedded single-case study in that it is bound by the place (Olympus High School) and by its population. Furthermore, it is also a case within a case, as it seeks to understand the students’ perspectives of the global programming. The case study is ethnographically rooted through the multiple ethnographic data sources such as participant-observations and a prolonged engagement at the research site. Cozzolino embedded herself in the research site over a five-year period and became an active and invested member of the school community, thereby establishing a sound rationale for an ethnographic case-study approach.

The author concludes that there were some competing priorities about the overall initiative from stakeholders inside and outside the school district. This resulted in a less than ideal implementation of the program of study across the curriculum. Nonetheless, the students who were enrolled in these courses reported it to be a worthwhile experience. While Cozzolino presents specific recommendations for the improvements at Olympus High, she also offers implications for several other groups. First, she provides advice for implementation to other educational institutions that aim to integrate a global focus into their curriculum. Next, she gives recommendations for local, state, and national policy changes. Finally, she gives suggestions for engaging all parties in fruitful discourse to achieve their ultimate goal of implementing a meaningful and valuable global education curriculum.

Hamman, L. (2018). Reframing the language separation debate: Language, identity, and  ideology in two-way immersion . Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order Number 2089463322)

This study explored the issues of surrounding language separation in two-way immersion (TWI) classrooms. The author looked at how classroom language practices and teacher ideologies influenced the student experience and how the students’ understanding of what it means to be bilingual is influenced in a classroom that purports to be equitable in terms of language use.

The study is theoretically grounded in sociocultural, critical, and postcultural theories and adapted Lemke’s ecosocial system to conceptualize TWI classroom. Hamman also drew upon translanguaging theory and dynamic bilingualism to provide a framework for a more modern and nuanced perspective of bilingualism, bilingual learning, and bilingual students.

The author combined a single-case study approach with ethnographic methods to “engage in close analysis of classroom language use and the discursive negotiation of identities and ideologies, while situating these analyses within a rich understanding of the sociolinguistic context of this TWI classroom” (p. 78-79). She employed various ethnographic methods such as taking fieldnotes, conducting participant observations, interviewing, and memoing. The study is “bound” in that it takes place in one 2nd-grade classroom with one teacher and 18 students over the course of one year.

Hamman concludes that student perspectives on language separation should be considered, since this forced separation of language influenced how they thought of their developing bilingualism and identity as bilinguals. Furthermore, the study envisages a linguistic “middle ground” to strict separation that allows for appropriate and meaningful spaces for linguistic negotiation. Finally, this dissertation asserts that the strict separation of languages codifies a monoglossic ideology mindset and limits learners’ possibilities for learning and making connections across languages.

Kim, S. (2015). Korean migrant youth identity work in the transnational social field: A link between identity, transnationalism, and new media literacy . Retrieved from University of Missouri-St. Louis Institutional Repository Library. https://irl.umsl.edu/dissertation/158/

This doctoral dissertation takes an ethnographic case study approach to explore the identity formation of transnational Korean youth. The researcher, herself a Korean immigrant to the U.S. navigating complex identity processes, focuses on these research questions: “1) what are the contexts in which migrant youth negotiate their identities? 2) how do youth understand and negotiate their sense of belonging? 3) how do youth’s [sic] cultural and literacy practices inform and shape their identities? 3i) how do youth make use of transnational new media for their identity work? 3ii) how do literacy practices potentially shape their identities?” (p. 7).

Drawing on Leander and McKim (2013), the author conceptualizes her study as a “connective ethnography” (p. 36) encompassing multiple spaces, both digital and physical, in which “space” comprises a variety of relationships, instead of a more traditional ethnography bounded by physical space. The “case study” aspect, meanwhile, refers to the four specific participants in which she chose to focus. She chose Korean immigrants in St. Louis, in general, due to their mobility between the U.S. and Korea, their high use of digital communication and information technology, and their limited access to the cultural resources of Korea in a Midwestern city. From an initial 32 possible participants purposively selected, the researcher chose four focal participants based on their Korean ethnicity, biliteracy in Korean and English, age (between 11 and 19 years old), residence in the U.S. (for at least 2 years), and their use of digital communication technologies. Data sources included an initial screening survey, an identity map each participant created, informal recorded conversations, recorded interviews in either English or Korean, field notes from the researcher’s interactions with the youth in various settings (home, school, community centers), and “literacy documents” (evidence of literacy practices from participants’ school and home, emails to the researcher, or activities in digital spaces). She used social semiotic multimodal discourse analysis and what she describes as “grounded theory thematic analysis” to analyze the data.

This is a reflective, thoughtful, and interesting dissertation. The author carefully notes the relationship between the data sources and her research questions, specifically addresses steps she took to ensure the validity of the data (e.g., triangulation via multiple data sources and theoretical frameworks, member checks, and feedback from her professors and other researchers), and discloses her own positionalities and biases. Her discussion includes not only a clear thematic exploration of her findings but also offers specific practical suggestions for how her findings can be applied and extended in the classroom.

Internet Resources

Abalos-Gerard Gonzalez , L. (2011). Ethnographic research . Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/lanceabalos/ethnographic-research-2?from_action=save

Created by Lance Gerard G. Abalos, teacher at the Department of Education-Philippines, this SlideShare, Ethnographic Research , explains that, regardless of specific design, ethnographic research should be undertaken “without any priori hypothesis to avoid predetermining what is observed or that information is elicited from informants . . .hypotheses evolve out of the fieldwork itself” (slide 4). It is also suggested that researchers refer to individuals from whom information is gathered as ‘informants’ is preferred over the term ‘participants’ (slide 4).

According to Abalos, “It is not the data collection techniques that determine whether the study is ethnographic, but rather the ‘socio-cultural interpretation’ that sets it apart from other forms of qualitative inquiry” (slide 6). A social situation always has three components: a place, actors, and activities (slide 8) and it is the socio-cultural interpretation of the interactions of these three that is the focus of the ethnographic research.

Ethnographic questions should guide what the researcher sees, hears, and collects as data (slide 9). When writing the ethnography, it is essential to ‘bring the culture or group to life’ through the words and descriptions used to describe the place, actors, and activities.

Abalos describes three types of ethnographic designs:

  • Realist Ethnographies : an objective account of the situation, written dispassionately from third-person point of view, reporting objectively on information learned from informants, containing closely edited quotations (slide 11-12).
  • Ethnographic Case Studies : researchers focus on a program, event, or activity involving individuals rather than a group, looking for shared patterns that develop as a group as a result of the program, event, or activity (slide 13).
  • Critical Ethnographies: incorporating a ‘critical’ approach that includes an advocacy perspective, researchers are interested in advocating against inequality and domination (slide 14).

As ethnographic data is analyzed, in any design (e.g., realist, case study, critical), there is a shift away from reporting the facts to making an interpretation of people and activities, determining how things work, and identifying the essential features in themes of the cultural setting (slide 22). “The ethnographer must present the description, themes, and interpretation within the context or setting of the culture-sharing group (slide 23).

Brehm, W. (2016, July 21). FreshEd #13 – Jane Kenway . Retrieved from http://www.freshedpodcast.com/tag/ethnography/ (EDXSymposium: New Frontiers in Comparative Education).

Jane Kenway is with the Australian Research Council and is an emeritus professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. In this podcast, she explains “traditional’ forms of ethnography and multi-sited global ethnography, which are her area of specialization. She considers “traditional” ethnography to have three components: space, time, and mobility.

Insider/outsider stance is explained within the context of spatiality, community, and culture of space specific to ‘traditional” ethnography. Researchers are outsiders who are attempting to enter a space and become insiders, then leave the space once the research is completed. Research is conducted over an extended period of time in one place/space. As a result, researchers will get to know in an extremely intimate manner the ways of life of the community or group. “Work is supposed to be a temporality of slowness. In other words, you don’t rush around like a mad thing in a field, you just quietly and slowly immerse yourself in the field over this extended period of time and get to understand it, get to appreciate it bit by bit.” (minute 7:56).

“Traditional” ethnographers are not necessarily interested in mobility over time or exploring who enters and exits the site. Most ethnographers are only interested in the movement that occurs in the space that is being studied during the time that they are in the field. It is about looking at the roots of the space, not necessarily about looking at the movements into and out of the space.

Multi-sited global ethnography tries to look at the way bounded sites can be studied as unbounded and on the move, as opposed to staying still. It considers how certain things (e.g., things, ideas, people) are  followed as they move. The researcher moves between sites, studying change that is encountered in different sites. From this perspective, the interested lies in the connections between sites. Multiple sites with commonalities can also be studied at the onset, without the need to physically follow.

Paulus, T. M., Lester, J. N., & Dempster, P. G. (2014). Digital Tools for Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

While this text is not solely about ethnographic case studies, it is rich with countless ideas for utilizing digital tools to aid in the multiple facets of qualitative research. In Chapter 5 of their text, entitled Generating Data, the authors dedicate a section to exploring Internet archives and multimedia data. They state that, “in addition to online communities, the Internet is rich with multimedia data such as professionally curated archives, ameteur-created YouTube and Vimeo videos and photo-sharing sites” (p. 81). They provide three specific examples, each explained below: The Internet Archive, CADENSA, and Britain’s BBC Archives.

The Internet Archive ( https://archive.org ) is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more. The site also contains a variety of cultural artifacts that are easily available and downloadable. CADENSA ( http://cadensa.bl.uk ) is an online archive of the British Library Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. And finally, the BBC Archives ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/ ) is a particularly useful site for researchers interested in reviewing documentary film and political speeches.

Wang, T. (2016, September). Tricia Wang: The human insights missing from big data. [Video file]. Retrieved from  https://www.ted.com/talks/tricia_wang_the_human_insights_missing_from_big_data

In this TED Talk, Tricia Wang discusses her ethnographic work with technology and advocates for the need to save a place for thick data as opposed to relying only on big data. She argues that while companies invest millions of dollars in generating big data because they assume it will efficiently provide all the answers, it routinely does not provide a good return on investment. Instead, companies are left without answers to the questions about consumer preferences and behaviors, which leaves them unprepared for market changes.

In turn, Wang coins the term thick data, which is described as “precious data from humans, like stories, emotions, and interactions that cannot be quantified” (Minute 11:50). Wang suggests that this thick data may only come from a small group of individuals, but it is an essential component that can provide insights that are different and valuable. As an example, while working for Nokia, her ethnographic experiences in China provided her with new understandings on the future demand for smartphones. However, her employer did not take her findings seriously, and as a result, they lost their foothold in the technology market. She posits that a blended approach to collecting and analyzing data (i.e. combining or integrating thick data analysis with big data analysis) allows for a better grasp on the whole picture and making informed decisions.

Her conclusions for a blended approach to data collection also have implications for blending ethnographic and case-study approaches. While Wang took more of an ethnographic approach to her research, one could envision what her work might have looked like if she had used an Ethnographic Case Study approach. Wang could have clearly defined the time and space boundaries of her various ethnographic experiences (e.g. as a street vendor, living in the slums, hanging out in internet cafés). This would have allowed her to infer causality through the generation of thick data with a small sample size for each location and bound by each group.

Ethnographic Case Studies Copyright © 2019 by Jeannette Armstrong; Laura Boyle; Lindsay Herron; Brandon Locke; and Leslie Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  • http://orcid.org/0000-0001-9531-4990 Bashar Hasan 1 , 2 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0001-9225-1197 Samer Saadi 1 , 2 ,
  • Noora S Rajjoub 1 ,
  • Moustafa Hegazi 1 , 2 ,
  • Mohammad Al-Kordi 1 , 2 ,
  • Farah Fleti 1 , 2 ,
  • Magdoleen Farah 1 , 2 ,
  • Irbaz B Riaz 3 ,
  • Imon Banerjee 4 , 5 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9368-6149 Zhen Wang 1 , 6 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5502-5975 Mohammad Hassan Murad 1 , 2
  • 1 Kern Center for the Science of Healthcare Delivery , Mayo Clinic , Rochester , Minnesota , USA
  • 2 Public Health, Infectious Diseases and Occupational Medicine , Mayo Clinic , Rochester , Minnesota , USA
  • 3 Division of Hematology-Oncology Department of Medicine , Mayo Clinic , Rochester , Minnesota , USA
  • 4 Department of Radiology , Mayo Clinic Arizona , Scottsdale , Arizona , USA
  • 5 School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence , Arizona State University , Tempe , Arizona , USA
  • 6 Health Care Policy and Research , Mayo Clinic Minnesota , Rochester , Minnesota , USA
  • Correspondence to Dr Bashar Hasan, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN 55905, USA; Hasan.Bashar{at}mayo.edu

Large language models (LLMs) may facilitate and expedite systematic reviews, although the approach to integrate LLMs in the review process is unclear. This study evaluates GPT-4 agreement with human reviewers in assessing the risk of bias using the Risk Of Bias In Non-randomised Studies of Interventions (ROBINS-I) tool and proposes a framework for integrating LLMs into systematic reviews. The case study demonstrated that raw per cent agreement was the highest for the ROBINS-I domain of ‘Classification of Intervention’. Kendall agreement coefficient was highest for the domains of ‘Participant Selection’, ‘Missing Data’ and ‘Measurement of Outcomes’, suggesting moderate agreement in these domains. Raw agreement about the overall risk of bias across domains was 61% (Kendall coefficient=0.35). The proposed framework for integrating LLMs into systematic reviews consists of four domains: rationale for LLM use, protocol (task definition, model selection, prompt engineering, data entry methods, human role and success metrics), execution (iterative revisions to the protocol) and reporting. We identify five basic task types relevant to systematic reviews: selection, extraction, judgement, analysis and narration. Considering the agreement level with a human reviewer in the case study, pairing artificial intelligence with an independent human reviewer remains required.

  • Evidence-Based Practice
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request. Search strategy, selection process flowchart, prompts and boxes containing included SRs and studies are available in the appendix. Analysed datasheet is available upon request.

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjebm-2023-112597

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WHAT IS ALREADY KNOWN ON THIS TOPIC

Risk of bias assessment in systematic reviews is a time-consuming task associated with inconsistency. Large language models’ (LLMs) utilisation in systematic reviews may be helpful but largely unexplored.

WHAT THIS STUDY ADDS

This study introduces a structured framework for integrating LLMs into systematic reviews with four domains: rationale, protocol, execution and reporting.

The framework defines five possible task types for LLMs in systematic reviews: selection, data extraction, judgement, analysis and narration.

A case study about using LLMs for risk of bias assessments using Risk Of Bias In Non-randomised Studies of Interventions demonstrates fair agreement between LLM and human reviewers.

HOW THIS STUDY MIGHT AFFECT RESEARCH, PRACTICE OR POLICY

The proposed framework can serve as a blueprint for future systematic reviewers planning to integrate LLMs into their workflow.

The case study suggests the need to pair LLMs assessing the risk of bias with a human reviewer.

Introduction

Systematic reviews are the key initial step in decision-making in healthcare. However, they are costly, require a long time to complete and become outdated, especially in areas of rapidly evolving evidence. Semi-automating systematic reviews and transitioning to living systematic reviews using the best contemporary available evidence are key priority areas of current evidence synthesis. 1–4 Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have ushered in a new era of possibilities in healthcare practice and medical research, 5–7 including evidence synthesis and living systematic reviews. 8 9 By learning from human data analysis patterns (supervision), AI technologies offer the ability to automate, accelerate and enhance the accuracy of a wide array of research tasks, from data collection to analysis and even interpretation. 10

A recent AI advancement, large language models (LLMs) such as Meta AI LLaMA2 and OpenAI’s GPT-4, 11 are considered foundational models pre-trained in a self-supervised manner by leveraging a tremendous amount of free text data. The pre-training process allows them to acquire generic knowledge, and afterward, they can be fine-tuned on downstream tasks. With increasing model size, larger training data sets and longer training time, LLMs evolve emergent abilities such as zero-shot and few-shot in-context learning generalisation and have demonstrated significant capabilities in understanding and generating human-like text and processing data with minimal supervision, which may lead to meaningful participation in a systematic review. 12 13

Risk of bias (RoB) assessment is a significant step in systematic reviews that requires time, introduces inconsistencies and may be amenable to using AI and LLMs. 14 In this exposition, we propose a framework for incorporating LLMs into systematic reviews and employ GPT-4 for RoB assessment in a case study using the Cochrane Collaboration’s Risk Of Bias In Non-randomised Studies of Interventions (ROBINS-I) tool. 15 We chose the ROBINS-I tool for this case study because it is a modern tool that is quite detailed, relatively complicated, and requires a long time to apply, 16 which makes it an ideal candidate to explore whether models such as GPT-4 can improve its consistency and time requirements.

The reporting of this case study adheres to the guidelines of methodological research. 17

Search strategy and study identification

We searched Scopus to identify all systematic reviews (SRs) from the Cochrane Collaboration that cited the original publication of the ROBINS-I tool. 15 We limited our search to SRs conducted by Cochrane in the field of medicine that were fully published. All original non-randomised studies included in the identified SRs were included as long as the ROBINS-I tool was used for their RoB assessment in the SR.

Data entry into ChatGPT

We conducted several pilot tests to determine the most effective method of obtaining RoB assessments using ChatGPT (GPT-4). The initial approach involved directly uploading the study PDFs to GPT-4 via the Code Interpreter tool available to Plus users. However, the tool was unable to interpret the fragmented pieces of text from the PDFs. We then attempted to paste the full text of individual studies in the prompt, however, this was unsuccessful due to the current estimated 2500-word limit for GPT-4 prompts. Finally, we converted the PDF to a Word file and extracted only the Methods and Results sections from each study for RoB assessment because these are the sections on which human reviewers focus for RoB assessments. Prompts used to instruct ChatGPT are presented in the appendix. The processes of data entry and prompt development were done iteratively until data were appropriately uploaded and a sensical output was obtained (ie, these processes were not prespecified). Foreign-language studies were provided in their original language to GPT-4.

Statistical analysis

One reviewer extracted RoB judgements from each Cochrane SR and a second reviewer verified the extraction. We measured the agreement between Cochrane reviewers and GPT-4 comparing the ordinal judgements about RoB using raw per cent agreement, weighted Cohen’s kappa and Kendall’s τ for correlation. The magnitude of agreement based on values of a correlation or kappa coefficient was considered to be slight (0–0.20), fair (0.21–0.40), moderate (0.41–60), substantial (0.61–0.80) and almost perfect (0.81–1.0).

Analysis was conducted using R software package (R Core Team (2022). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria URL https://www.R-project.org ).

Initial screening and inclusion

The initial search yielded 98 SRs, from which 36 provided full ROBINS-I assessment. After deduplicating studies that appeared in multiple SRs, we finalised our sample with 307 unique individual studies ( online supplemental figure; box 1 and box 2 ).

Supplemental material

Agreement between cochrane reviewers and gpt-4.

Agreement measures are summarised in table 1 for each ROBINS-I domain and for overall judgements. Raw per cent agreement was the highest for the domain of ‘Classification of Intervention’. Kendall agreement coefficient was highest for the domains of ‘Participant Selection’, ‘Missing Data’ and ‘Measurement of Outcomes’, suggesting moderate agreement in these domains. Kappa coefficient was low across all domains. Agreement about the overall RoB across domains was fair (61% raw agreement, Kendall coefficient 0.35).

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Performance metrics

Framework for incorporating LLM’s in a systematic review

Figure 1 outlines the proposed framework for integrating LLMs into a systematic review workflow. The framework has four domains that relate to establishing a rationale, incorporating LLM in the protocol of the systematic review, execution and reporting.

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Framework for incorporating large language models in systematic reviews. LLM, large language model; RoB, risk of bias; SR, systematic review.

The first step is to establish the rationale (ie, why LLMs are needed, and whether they are capable of doing this specific task). In the protocol, the LLM model should be described with its version and whether it was off the shelf or used via other tools, applications or interfaces. For example, code interpreters or AI agents can be used. An LLM agent, such as a generative pre-trained transformer (GPT) agent, is a specialised system designed to execute complex, multistep tasks and can adapt to new tools not included in the general model’s training data or recently published tools.

The prompts for LLM need to be iteratively tested and refined and described in the protocol to the extent possible, realising that it will not be possible to prespecify or anticipate every step. The method of data entry (copy/paste vs uploading a file) also needs to be tested and described in the protocol. Metrics of success depend on the task type that is assigned to LLM. We identify five basic task types: selection (eg, of included studies), extraction (eg, of study characteristics and outcomes), judgement (eg, RoB assessment), analysis (quantitative and qualitative) and narration/editing (eg, writing a manuscript, abstract or a lay person or executive summary). The metrics of success and the extent of human interaction and supervision should also be specified in the protocol.

The execution of LLM engagement will likely lead to changes in some of the approaches specified in the protocol, which should be explicitly mentioned as revisions to the protocol. Reporting is the last part of the framework and is vital. The items mentioned above, which are beyond the usual reporting requirements from the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses statement and its extensions, should all be included in the manuscript. 18 19 Importantly, the AI model and interface used need to be explicitly reported along with a timestamp of when AI was used because the output may vary over time for the same input and prompts. The transparency in reporting and informing peer reviewers and journal editors about the details of using LLMs are critical for the credibility of the systematic review process and subsequent decisions made based on the evidence. The proposed framework is applied to the current case study in table 2 .

Applying the proposed framework to the case study

The current case study suggests an overall fair agreement between Cochrane reviewers and ChatGPT-4 in using ROBINS-I for assessing RoB in non-randomised studies of intervention. This work identifies several challenges for using general utility LLM models, such as handling file types, word token limits and the quality of prompt engineering. Nonetheless, our study provides an assessment of zero-shot performance and a rationale for training RoB-specific systematic review models. The proposed framework is just a starting point since this field is very dynamic.

The current study also provides insight into evaluating inter-rater agreement on ordinal variables. We found that the weighted kappa coefficient was low across all domains which likely reflects the skewed distribution of the ratings. Kappa accounts for agreement occurring by chance, while Kendall’s τ measures the strength and direction of the association between two ranked variables. A recent comparison of reliability coefficients for ordinal rating scales suggested that the differences between these measures can vary at different agreement levels. 20 Thus, using more than one measure is helpful to assess the robustness of results. While our findings suggest the potential of LLMs like GPT-4 to be used in systematic reviews, it is obvious that there is a certain rate of error and that duplication of RoB assessment is needed.

Some limitations of the case study should be mentioned. This study was feasible because of the availability of comprehensive systematic reviews from the Cochrane Collaboration that used the ROBINS-I tool and reported detailed judgements. While their RoB assessment is certainly not a reference standard and can be quite poor for some domains such as confounding, 21 the rigorous and multidomain evaluation conducted by pairs of independent reviewers in these reviews makes them a reasonable comparison for novel LLM application. It is possible also that some systematic reviews used ROBINS-I but did not cite its original paper and were not included in our sample. We also had to use ChatGPT to translate a few studies published in languages other than English, truncate text when it was too lengthy and convert files format, all may have affected RoB judgements.

Practical implications

Given its current capabilities, GPT-4 is arguably a very advanced text-analysing tool. A major advantage is its availability as a universal language model—one model that can perform any language-based extraction, retrieval or even reasoning-based tasks. However, this approach may not be suitable for application in every domain. Sensitive domains like medicine require precise use of language in a consistent manner. LLMs have displayed trends of inconsistency in performance—different output for the same input. LLMs have the propensity to generate favourable answers and to hallucinate. Hallucination is a major threat to the use of LLMs in research. In table 3 , we describe the phenomenon of artificial hallucinations in terms of definition, types and plausible causes. 22–24

The phenomenon of artificial hallucinations: definition, types and causes

Additional applications in systematic reviews can extend to other tasks such as aiding in screening studies, translating foreign-language studies in real-time, data extraction, meta-analysis and even generating decision aids or translational products. 25 However, a human reviewer remains needed as a duplicate independent reviewer.

This exploration of LLMs application in systematic reviews is a step toward integrating AI as a dynamic adjunct in research. The proposed framework, coupled with a case study on RoB assessment, underscores the potential of LLMs to facilitate research tasks. While GPT-4 is not without its limitations, its ability to assist in complex tasks under human supervision makes it a promising tool for assessing RoB in systematic reviews. Considering the agreement level with a human reviewer in the case study, pairing AI with an independent human reviewer remains required at present.

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication.

Not applicable.

Ethics approval

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  • Blaizot A ,
  • Veettil SK ,
  • Saidoung P , et al

Supplementary materials

Supplementary data.

This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

  • Data supplement 1

Twitter @BasharHasanMD, @M_Hassan_Murad

Contributors MHM and BH conceived this study. BH, SS, MH, MA-K, FF, MF, ZW, IBR, IB and NSR participated in data identification, extraction and analysis. MHM, SS, IBR and IB wrote the first draft. All authors critically revised the manuscript and approved the final version. BH is the guarantor.

Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Competing interests None declared.

Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.

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IMAGES

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  1. What Is a Case Study?

    A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research. A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods, but quantitative methods are sometimes also used.

  2. The case study approach

    The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. The value of the case study approach is well recognised in the fields of business, law and policy, but somewhat less so in health services research.

  3. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

    1. Case study is a research strategy, and not just a method/technique/process of data collection. 2. A case study involves a detailed study of the concerned unit of analysis within its natural setting.

  4. What is a Case Study? Definition & Examples

    A case study is an in-depth investigation of a single person, group, event, or community. This research method involves intensively analyzing a subject to understand its complexity and context.

  5. Case Study

    Defnition: A case study is a research method that involves an in-depth examination and analysis of a particular phenomenon or case, such as an individual, organization, community, event, or situation. It is a qualitative research approach that aims to provide a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the case being studied.

  6. What is a case study?

    There is no one definition of case study research. 1 However, very simply… 'a case study can be defined as an intensive study about a person, a group of people or a unit, which is aimed to generalize over several units'. 1 A case study has also been described as an intensive, systematic investigation of a single individual, group, community or s...

  7. Case Study Methods and Examples

    In such studies the research on the case uses another framework to further define the study and refine the approach. Case study is also described as a method, given particular approaches used to collect and analyze data. Case study research is conducted by almost every social science discipline: business, education, sociology, psychology.

  8. UCSF Guides: Qualitative Research Guide: Case Studies

    According to the book Understanding Case Study Research, case studies are "small scale research with meaning" that generally involve the following: The study of a particular case, or a number of cases. That the case will be complex and bounded. That it will be studied in its context. That the analysis undertaken will seek to be holistic.

  9. Distinguishing case study as a research method from case reports as a

    Distinctions include the investigator's definitions and delimitations of the case being studied, the clarity of the role of the investigator, the rigor of gathering and combining evidence about the case, and the contextualization of the findings.

  10. Writing a Case Study

    A case study is a research method that involves an in-depth analysis of a real-life phenomenon or situation. Learn how to write a case study for your social sciences research assignments with this helpful guide from USC Library. Find out how to define the case, select the data sources, analyze the evidence, and report the results.

  11. Case Study: Definition, Examples, Types, and How to Write

    A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in many different fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

  12. Understanding Case Study Research: Small-scale Research with Meaning

    Written in an accessible and jargon-free style, this book provides a comprehensive, student-friendly guide to the nature and use of case study research. Whether as part of a more substantial study or as the foundation for a self-contained smaller project, case studies provide viable and valuable alternatives to conducting large-scale research.

  13. Case Study

    A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organisation, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research. A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods, but quantitative methods are sometimes also used.

  14. Case Study Method: A Step-by-Step Guide for Business Researchers

    Case study method is the most widely used method in academia for researchers interested in qualitative research ( Baskarada, 2014 ). Research students select the case study as a method without understanding array of factors that can affect the outcome of their research.

  15. The case study approach

    The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. The value of the case study approach is well recognised in the fields of business, law and policy, but somewhat less so in health services research.

  16. (PDF) The Case Study Approach

    The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. The value of the case study approach is well recognised in the fields of...

  17. Methodology or method? A critical review of qualitative case study

    Case studies are designed to suit the case and research question and published case studies demonstrate wide diversity in study design. There are two popular case study approaches in qualitative research.

  18. PDF What is a case study?

    Case study is a research methodology, typically seen in social and life sciences.

  19. Case study

    A case study is a detailed description and assessment of a specific situation in the real world, often for the purpose of deriving generalizations and other insights about the subject of the case study. Case studies can be about an individual, a group of people, an organization, or an event, and they are used in multiple fields, including business, health care, anthropology, political science ...

  20. Case Study in Education Research

    The question of how to define and support case study work has formed the basis for innumerable books and discursive articles, ... The author uses authentic examples to help readers understand and appreciate the nuances of an interpretive approach to case study. Stenhouse, L. 1980. The study of samples and the study of cases.

  21. Case Study Research Method in Psychology

    Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources using several methods (e.g., observations & interviews). The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient's personal history).

  22. (Pdf) a Case Study Approach in Research

    A case study can use a questionnaire as a research instrument. Even though this instrument is widely used but it has the limitation that its structured nature may complete the respondents to give ...

  23. Ethnographic Case Studies

    Case study research, meanwhile, is characterized as an approach "that facilitates exploration of a phenomenon within its context using a variety of data sources" (Baxter & Jack, 2008, p. 544). The aim of case studies is precise description of reconstruction of cases (Flick, 2015).

  24. Integrating large language models in systematic reviews: a framework

    Large language models (LLMs) may facilitate and expedite systematic reviews, although the approach to integrate LLMs in the review process is unclear. This study evaluates GPT-4 agreement with human reviewers in assessing the risk of bias using the Risk Of Bias In Non-randomised Studies of Interventions (ROBINS-I) tool and proposes a framework for integrating LLMs into systematic reviews.