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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Case Study Design*

Definition and Purpose

A case study is an in-depth study of a particular research problem rather than a sweeping statistical survey. It is often used to narrow down a very broad field of research into one or a few easily researchable examples. The case study research design is also useful for testing whether a specific theory and model actually applies to phenomena in the real world. It is a useful design when not much is known about a phenomenon.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Approach excels at bringing us to an understanding of a complex issue through detailed contextual analysis of a limited number of events or conditions and their relationships.
  2. A researcher using a case study design can apply a vaiety of methodologies and rely on a variety of sources to investigate a research problem.
  3. Design can extend experience or add strength to what is already known through previous research.
  4. Social scientists, in particular, make wide use of this research design to examine contemporary real-life situations and provide the basis for the application of concepts and theories and extension of methods.
  5. The design can provide detailed descriptions of specific and rare cases.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. A single or small number of cases offers little basis for establishing reliability or to generalize the findings to a wider population of people, places, or things.
  2. The intense exposure to study of the case may bias a researcher's interpretation of the findings.
  3. Design does not facilitate assessment of cause and effect relationships.
  4. Vital information may be missing, making the case hard to interpret.
  5. The case may not be representative or typical of the larger problem being investigated.
  6. If the criteria for selecting a case is because it represents a very unusual or unique phenomenon or problem for study, then your intepretation of the findings can only apply to that particular case.


Sample Case Studies