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Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

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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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  • 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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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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Sage Research Methods Community

Case Study Methods and Examples

By Janet Salmons, PhD Manager, Sage Research Methods Community

What is Case Study Methodology ?

Case studies in research are both unique and uniquely confusing. The term case study is confusing because the same term is used multiple ways. The term can refer to the methodology, that is, a system of frameworks used to design a study, or the methods used to conduct it. Or, case study can refer to a type of academic writing that typically delves into a problem, process, or situation.

Case study methodology can entail the study of one or more "cases," that could be described as instances, examples, or settings where the problem or phenomenon can be examined. The researcher is tasked with defining the parameters of the case, that is, what is included and excluded. This process is called bounding the case , or setting boundaries.

Case study can be combined with other methodologies, such as ethnography, grounded theory, or phenomenology. 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. Case study research, with its reliance on multiple sources, is also a natural choice for researchers interested in trans-, inter-, or cross-disciplinary studies.

The Encyclopedia of case study research provides an overview:

The purpose of case study research is twofold: (1) to provide descriptive information and (2) to suggest theoretical relevance. Rich description enables an in-depth or sharpened understanding of the case.

It is unique given one characteristic: case studies draw from more than one data source. Case studies are inherently multimodal or mixed methods because this they use either more than one form of data within a research paradigm, or more than one form of data from different paradigms.

A case study inquiry could include multiple types of data:

multiple forms of quantitative data sources, such as Big Data + a survey

multiple forms of qualitative data sources, such as interviews + observations + documents

multiple forms of quantitative and qualitative data sources, such as surveys + interviews

Case study methodology can be used to achieve different research purposes.

Robert Yin , methodologist most associated with case study research, differentiates between descriptive , exploratory and explanatory case studies:

Descriptive : A case study whose purpose is to describe a phenomenon. Explanatory : A case study whose purpose is to explain how or why some condition came to be, or why some sequence of events occurred or did not occur. Exploratory: A case study whose purpose is to identify the research questions or procedures to be used in a subsequent study.

case study research in

Robert Yin’s book is a comprehensive guide for case study researchers!

You can read the preface and Chapter 1 of Yin's book here . See the open-access articles below for some published examples of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods case study research.

Mills, A. J., Durepos, G., & Wiebe, E. (2010).  Encyclopedia of case study research (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412957397

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Open-Access Articles Using Case Study Methodology

As you can see from this collection, case study methods are used in qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods research.

Ang, C.-S., Lee, K.-F., & Dipolog-Ubanan, G. F. (2019). Determinants of First-Year Student Identity and Satisfaction in Higher Education: A Quantitative Case Study. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019846689

Abstract. First-year undergraduates’ expectations and experience of university and student engagement variables were investigated to determine how these perceptions influence their student identity and overall course satisfaction. Data collected from 554 first-year undergraduates at a large private university were analyzed. Participants were given the adapted version of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education Survey to self-report their learning experience and engagement in the university community. The results showed that, in general, the students’ reasons of pursuing tertiary education were to open the door to career opportunities and skill development. Moreover, students’ views on their learning and university engagement were at the moderate level. In relation to student identity and overall student satisfaction, it is encouraging to state that their perceptions of studentship and course satisfaction were rather positive. After controlling for demographics, student engagement appeared to explain more variance in student identity, whereas students’ expectations and experience explained greater variance in students’ overall course satisfaction. Implications for practice, limitations, and recommendation of this study are addressed.

Baker, A. J. (2017). Algorithms to Assess Music Cities: Case Study—Melbourne as a Music Capital. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017691801

Abstract. The global  Mastering of a Music City  report in 2015 notes that the concept of music cities has penetrated the global political vernacular because it delivers “significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits.” This article highlights that no empirical study has combined all these values and offers a relevant and comprehensive definition of a music city. Drawing on industry research,1 the article assesses how mathematical flowcharts, such as Algorithm A (Economics), Algorithm B (Four T’s creative index), and Algorithm C (Heritage), have contributed to the definition of a music city. Taking Melbourne as a case study, it illustrates how Algorithms A and B are used as disputed evidence about whether the city is touted as Australia’s music capital. The article connects the three algorithms to an academic framework from musicology, urban studies, cultural economics, and sociology, and proposes a benchmark Algorithm D (Music Cities definition), which offers a more holistic assessment of music activity in any urban context. The article concludes by arguing that Algorithm D offers a much-needed definition of what comprises a music city because it builds on the popular political economy focus and includes the social importance of space and cultural practices.

Brown, K., & Mondon, A. (2020). Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study. Politics. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395720955036

Abstract. Populism seems to define our current political age. The term is splashed across the headlines, brandished in political speeches and commentaries, and applied extensively in numerous academic publications and conferences. This pervasive usage, or populist hype, has serious implications for our understanding of the meaning of populism itself and for our interpretation of the phenomena to which it is applied. In particular, we argue that its common conflation with far-right politics, as well as its breadth of application to other phenomena, has contributed to the mainstreaming of the far right in three main ways: (1) agenda-setting power and deflection, (2) euphemisation and trivialisation, and (3) amplification. Through a mixed-methods approach to discourse analysis, this article uses  The Guardian  newspaper as a case study to explore the development of the populist hype and the detrimental effects of the logics that it has pushed in public discourse.

Droy, L. T., Goodwin, J., & O’Connor, H. (2020). Methodological Uncertainty and Multi-Strategy Analysis: Case Study of the Long-Term Effects of Government Sponsored Youth Training on Occupational Mobility. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology/Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 147–148(1–2), 200–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0759106320939893

Abstract. Sociological practitioners often face considerable methodological uncertainty when undertaking a quantitative analysis. This methodological uncertainty encompasses both data construction (e.g. defining variables) and analysis (e.g. selecting and specifying a modelling procedure). Methodological uncertainty can lead to results that are fragile and arbitrary. Yet, many practitioners may be unaware of the potential scale of methodological uncertainty in quantitative analysis, and the recent emergence of techniques for addressing it. Recent proposals for ‘multi-strategy’ approaches seek to identify and manage methodological uncertainty in quantitative analysis. We present a case-study of a multi-strategy analysis, applied to the problem of estimating the long-term impact of 1980s UK government-sponsored youth training. We use this case study to further highlight the problem of cumulative methodological fragilities in applied quantitative sociology and to discuss and help develop multi-strategy analysis as a tool to address them.

Ebneyamini, S., & Sadeghi Moghadam, M. R. (2018). Toward Developing a Framework for Conducting Case Study Research .  International Journal of Qualitative Methods .  https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406918817954

Abstract. This article reviews the use of case study research for both practical and theoretical issues especially in management field with the emphasis on management of technology and innovation. Many researchers commented on the methodological issues of the case study research from their point of view thus, presenting a comprehensive framework was missing. We try representing a general framework with methodological and analytical perspective to design, develop, and conduct case study research. To test the coverage of our framework, we have analyzed articles in three major journals related to the management of technology and innovation to approve our framework. This study represents a general structure to guide, design, and fulfill a case study research with levels and steps necessary for researchers to use in their research.

Lai, D., & Roccu, R. (2019). Case study research and critical IR: the case for the extended case methodology. International Relations , 33 (1), 67-87. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047117818818243

Abstract. Discussions on case study methodology in International Relations (IR) have historically been dominated by positivist and neopositivist approaches. However, these are problematic for critical IR research, pointing to the need for a non-positivist case study methodology. To address this issue, this article introduces and adapts the extended case methodology as a critical, reflexivist approach to case study research, whereby the case is constructed through a dynamic interaction with theory, rather than selected, and knowledge is produced through extensions rather than generalisation. Insofar as it seeks to study the world in complex and non-linear terms, take context and positionality seriously, and generate explicitly political and emancipatory knowledge, the extended case methodology is consistent with the ontological and epistemological commitments of several critical IR approaches. Its potential is illustrated in the final part of the article with reference to researching the socioeconomic dimension of transitional justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lynch, R., Young, J. C., Boakye-Achampong, S., Jowaisas, C., Sam, J., & Norlander, B. (2020). Benefits of crowdsourcing for libraries: A case study from Africa . IFLA Journal. https://doi.org/10.1177/0340035220944940

Abstract. Many libraries in the Global South do not collect comprehensive data about themselves, which creates challenges in terms of local and international visibility. Crowdsourcing is an effective tool that engages the public to collect missing data, and it has proven to be particularly valuable in countries where governments collect little public data. Whereas crowdsourcing is often used within fields that have high levels of development funding, such as health, the authors believe that this approach would have many benefits for the library field as well. They present qualitative and quantitative evidence from 23 African countries involved in a crowdsourcing project to map libraries. The authors find benefits in terms of increased connections between stakeholders, capacity-building, and increased local visibility. These findings demonstrate the potential of crowdsourced approaches for tasks such as mapping to benefit libraries and similarly positioned institutions in the Global South in multifaceted ways.

Mason, W., Morris, K., Webb, C., Daniels, B., Featherstone, B., Bywaters, P., Mirza, N., Hooper, J., Brady, G., Bunting, L., & Scourfield, J. (2020). Toward Full Integration of Quantitative and Qualitative Methods in Case Study Research: Insights From Investigating Child Welfare Inequalities. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 14 (2), 164-183. https://doi.org/10.1177/1558689819857972

Abstract. Delineation of the full integration of quantitative and qualitative methods throughout all stages of multisite mixed methods case study projects remains a gap in the methodological literature. This article offers advances to the field of mixed methods by detailing the application and integration of mixed methods throughout all stages of one such project; a study of child welfare inequalities. By offering a critical discussion of site selection and the management of confirmatory, expansionary and discordant data, this article contributes to the limited body of mixed methods exemplars specific to this field. We propose that our mixed methods approach provided distinctive insights into a complex social problem, offering expanded understandings of the relationship between poverty, child abuse, and neglect.

Rashid, Y., Rashid, A., Warraich, M. A., Sabir, S. S., & Waseem, A. (2019). Case Study Method: A Step-by-Step Guide for Business Researchers .  International Journal of Qualitative Methods .  https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919862424

Abstract. Qualitative case study methodology enables researchers to conduct an in-depth exploration of intricate phenomena within some specific context. By keeping in mind research students, this article presents a systematic step-by-step guide to conduct a case study in the business discipline. Research students belonging to said discipline face issues in terms of clarity, selection, and operationalization of qualitative case study while doing their final dissertation. These issues often lead to confusion, wastage of valuable time, and wrong decisions that affect the overall outcome of the research. This article presents a checklist comprised of four phases, that is, foundation phase, prefield phase, field phase, and reporting phase. The objective of this article is to provide novice researchers with practical application of this checklist by linking all its four phases with the authors’ experiences and learning from recently conducted in-depth multiple case studies in the organizations of New Zealand. Rather than discussing case study in general, a targeted step-by-step plan with real-time research examples to conduct a case study is given.

VanWynsberghe, R., & Khan, S. (2007). Redefining Case Study. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 80–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690700600208

Abstract. In this paper the authors propose a more precise and encompassing definition of case study than is usually found. They support their definition by clarifying that case study is neither a method nor a methodology nor a research design as suggested by others. They use a case study prototype of their own design to propose common properties of case study and demonstrate how these properties support their definition. Next, they present several living myths about case study and refute them in relation to their definition. Finally, they discuss the interplay between the terms case study and unit of analysis to further delineate their definition of case study. The target audiences for this paper include case study researchers, research design and methods instructors, and graduate students interested in case study research.

More Sage Research Methods Community Posts about Case Study Research

Use Research Cases to Teach Methods for Large-Scale Data Analysis

Use research cases as the basis for individual or team activities that build skills.

A Case for Teaching Methods

Find an 10-step process for using research cases to teach methods with learning activities for individual students, teams, or small groups. (Or use the approach yourself!)

Design Strategy: How to Choose a Qualitative Research Design

How do you decide which methodology fits your study? In this dialogue Linda Bloomberg and Janet Boberg explain the importance of a strategic approach to qualitative research design that stresses alignment with the purpose of the study.

Perspectives from Researchers on Case Study Design

Case study methods are used by researchers in many disciplines. Here are some open-access articles about multimodal qualitative or mixed methods designs that include both qualitative and quantitative elements.

Designing research with case study methods

Case study methodology is both unique, and uniquely confusing. It is unique given one characteristic: case studies draw from more than one data source.

Case Study Methods and Examples

What is case study methodology? It is unique given one characteristic: case studies draw from more than one data source. In this post find definitions and a collection of multidisciplinary examples.

14381_photo-200x300.jpg

Find discussion of case studies and published examples.

Istanbul as a regional computational social science hub

Experiments and quantitative research.

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd edn)

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23 Case Study Research: In-Depth Understanding in Context

Helen Simons, School of Education, University of Southampton

  • Published: 02 September 2020
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This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation. After first noting various contexts in which case studies are commonly used, the chapter focuses on case study research directly. Strengths and potential problematic issues are outlined, followed by key phases of the process. The chapter emphasizes how important it is to design the case, to collect and interpret data in ways that highlight the qualitative, to have an ethical practice that values multiple perspectives and political interests, and to report creatively to facilitate use in policymaking and practice. Finally, the chapter explores how to generalize from the single case. Concluding issues center on the need to think more imaginatively about design and the range of methods and forms of reporting required to persuade audiences to value qualitative ways of knowing in case study research.

Introduction

This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation using primarily qualitative methods, as well as documentary sources, contemporaneous or historical. However, this is not the only way in which case study can be conceived. No one has a monopoly on the term. While sharing a focus on the singular in a particular context, case study has a wide variety of uses, not all associated with research. A case study, in common parlance, documents a particular situation or event in detail in a specific sociopolitical context. The particular can be a person, a classroom, an institution, a program, or a policy. In the sections that follow, I identify different ways in which case study is used before focusing directly on qualitative case study research. However, first I wish to indicate how I came to advocate and practice this form of research. Origins, context, and opportunity often shape the research processes we endorse. It is helpful for the reader, I think, to know how I came to the perspective I hold.

The Beginnings

I first came to appreciate and enjoy the virtues of case study research when I entered the field of curriculum evaluation and research in the 1970s. The dominant research paradigm for educational research at that time was experimental or quasi-experimental, cost–benefit, or systems analysis, and the dominant curriculum model was aims and objectives (House, 1993 ). The field was dominated, in effect, by a psychometric view of research in which quantitative methods were preeminent. But the innovative projects we were asked to evaluate (predominantly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) were not amenable to such methodologies. The projects were challenging to the status quo of institutions, involved people interpreting the policy and programs, were implemented differently in different contexts and regions, and had many unexpected effects.

We had no choice but to seek other ways to evaluate these complex programs, and case study was the methodology we found ourselves exploring to understand how the projects were being implemented, why they had positive effects in some regions of the country and not others, and what the outcomes meant in different sociopolitical and cultural contexts. What better way to do this than to talk with people to see how they interpreted the “new” curriculum; to watch how teachers and students put it into practice; to document transactions, outcomes, and unexpected consequences; and to interpret all in the specific context of the case (Simons, 1971 , 1987 , ch. 3). From this point on and in further studies, case study in educational research and evaluation came to be a major methodology for understanding complex educational and social programs. It also extended to other practice professions, such as nursing, health, and social care (Greenhalgh & Worrall, 1997 ; Shaw & Gould, 2001 ; Zucker, 2001 ). (For further details of the evolution of the case study approach and qualitative methodologies in evaluation, see Greene, 2000 ; House, 1993 , pp. 2–3; Simons, 2009 , pp. 14–18).

This was not exactly the beginning of case study, of course. It has a long history in many disciplines (Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2004 ; Platt, 2007 ; Ragin, 1992 ; Simons, 1980 ), many aspects of which form part of case study practice to this day. But its evolution in the context just described was a major move in the contemporary evolution of the logic of evaluative inquiry (House, 1980 ). It also coincided with movement toward the qualitative in other disciplines, such as sociology and psychology. This was all part of what Denzin & Lincoln ( 1994 ) termed “a quiet methodological revolution” (p. ix) in qualitative inquiry that had been evolving over the past two decades.

There is a further reason why I continue to advocate and practice case study research and evaluation to this day, and that is my personal predilection for trying to understand and represent complexity, for puzzling through the ambiguities that exist in many contexts and programs, and for presenting and negotiating different values and interests in fair and just ways.

Put more simply, I like interacting with people, listening to their stories, trials and tribulations—giving them a voice in understanding the contexts and projects with which they are involved and finding ways to share these with a range of audiences. In other words, the move toward case study methodology suited my preference for how I learn—through observation of people, events and social interaction in particular sociopolitical contexts.

Concepts and Purposes of Case Study

Before exploring case study as it has come to be established in educational research and evaluation since the mid-sixties I wish to acknowledge other uses of case study. More often than not, these relate to purpose, and appropriately so in their different contexts, but many do not have a research intention. For a study to count as research, it would need to be a systematic investigation generating evidence that leads to “new” knowledge that is made public and open to scrutiny. There are many ways to conduct research stemming from different traditions and disciplines, but they all, in different ways, involve these characteristics.

Everyday Usage: Stories We Tell

The most familiar of these uses of case study is the everyday reference to a person, an anecdote or story illustrative of a particular incident, event, or experience of that person. It is often a short, reported account seen commonly in journalism but also in books exploring a phenomenon, such as recovery from serious accidents or tragedies where the author chooses to illustrate the story or argument with a “lived” example. The story is sometimes written by the author and sometimes by the person whose tale it is. “Let me share with you a story” is a phrase frequently heard.

The spirit behind this everyday usage and its power to connect can be seen in a report by Tim Adams of the London Olympics opening ceremony’s dramatization by Danny Boyle.

It was the point when we suddenly collectively wised up to the idea that what we are about to receive over the next two weeks was not only about “legacy collateral” and “targeted deliverables,” not about G4S failings and traffic lanes and branding opportunities, but about the second-by-second possibilities of human endeavour and spirit and communality, enacted in multiple places and all at the same time. Stories in other words (Adams, 2012 ).

This was a collective story, of course, not an individual one, but it does convey some of the major characteristics of case study—that richness of detail, time, place, multiple happenings, and experiences—that are also manifest in case study research, although carefully evidenced in the latter instance. We can see from this common usage how people have come to associate case study with story. I return to this thread in the reporting section.

Individual Cases in the Professions

In professional settings, in health and social care, case studies, often called case histories , are used to accurately record a person’s health or social care history and his or her current symptoms, experience, and treatment. These case histories include facts, as well as judgments and observations about the person’s reaction to situations or medication. Usually they are confidential. Not dissimilar is the detailed documentation of a case in law, often termed a case precedent when referred to in a court case to support an argument being made. However, in law there is a difference in that such case precedents are publicly documented, whereas in health and social care, confidentiality of the client is the prime concern.

Case Studies in Teaching

Exemplars of practice.

In education, but also in health and social care training contexts, case studies have long been used as exemplars of practice. These are brief descriptions with some detail of a person or project’s experience in an area of practice. Though frequently reported accounts, they are based on a person’s experience and sometimes on previous research.

Case Scenarios

Management studies are a further context in which case studies are often used. Here the case is more like a scenario outlining a particular problem situation for the management student to resolve. These scenarios may be based on research, but frequently are hypothetical situations used to raise issues for discussion and resolution. What distinguishes these case scenarios and the case exemplars in education from case study research is the intention to use them for teaching purposes.

Country Case Studies

Then there are case studies of programs, projects, and even countries, as in international development, where a whole-country study might be termed a case study or, in the context of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which examines the state of the art of a subject, such as education or environmental science in one or several countries. This may be a contemporaneous study and/or what transpired in a program over a period of time. Such studies often do have a research base, but frequently are reported accounts that do not detail the design, methodology, and analysis of the case as a research case study would do. Nor do they report in ways that give readers a vicarious experience, through observations, incidents, and voices of participants, of what it is like to live in the particular context of the case. Such case studies tend to be more knowledge and information focused than experiential.

Case Study as History

Closer to a research context is case study as history—what transpired at a certain time in a certain place. This is likely to be supported by documentary evidence but not primary data, unless it is an oral history (see Leavy, 2011 , for the evolution and practice of oral history as a research method). In education, in the late 1970s, Stenhouse ( 1978 ) experimented with a case study archive. Using contemporaneous data gathering, primarily through interviewing, he envisaged this database, which he termed a case record , forming an archive from which different individuals, at some later date, could write a case study . This approach uses case study as a documentary source to begin to generate a history of education, as indicated in the subtitle of Stenhouse’s 1978 paper, “Towards a Contemporary History of Education.”

Case Study Research

From here on, my focus is on case study research per se, adopting for this purpose the following definition: “Case study is an in-depth exploration from multiple perspectives of the complexity and uniqueness of a particular project, policy, institution or system in a “real-life” context. It is research based, inclusive of different methods and is evidence-led” (Simons, 2009 , p. 21). For further related definitions of case study, see Stake ( 1995 ), Merriam ( 1988 ), and Chadderton and Torrance ( 2011 ). For definitions from a slightly different perspective, see Yin ( 2004 ) and Thomas ( 2016 , p. 23).

Not Defined by Method or Perspective

The inclusion of different methods in the definition quoted above signals that case study research is not defined by methodology or method. What defines case study is its singularity and the concept and boundary of the case. It is theoretically possible to conduct a case study using primarily quantitative data if this is the best way of providing evidence to inform the issues the case is exploring. This may not happen often, and only perhaps in some disciplines like medicine, although even in that context, there is increasing recognition, particularly in clinical settings, that client-centered and context studies are important for diagnosis and treatment (Greenhalgh & Worrall, 1997 ). It is equally possible to conduct case study that is mainly qualitative, to engage people with the experience of the case or to provide a rich portrayal of a person (MacDonald, 1977 ) or an event, project, or program. While the focus of the case is usually a project, program, or policy, within the case there can be portrayals of individuals who are key actors. These are what I term case profiles . In some instances, these profiles, or even shorter cameos of individuals, may be quite prominent. For it is through the perceptions, interpretations, and interactions of people that we learn how policies and programs are enacted (Kushner, 2000 , p. 12). The program is still the main focus of analysis in such cases, but, in exploring how individuals play out their different roles in the program, we get closer to the actual experience and meaning of the program in practice.

In the past three decades the literature and associated courses and conferences on mixed methods in educational and social research has proliferated (Greene, Caracelli, & Graham, 1989 ); (Greene & Caracelli, 1997 ; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998, 2003). This development, which first became evident in the eighties, evolved partly to overcome the partisan focus of either quantitative or qualitative research, but it also provides a perspective from different methodologies that may add to understanding of the case and increases the options for learning from different ways of knowing. Mixed methods methodology is sometimes preferred by stakeholders who believe it provides a firmer basis for informing policy. This is not necessarily the case, but is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore. Case study research has always been open to the inclusion of different methods because what is paramount in case research is understanding the complexity and uniqueness of the case, and a variety of methods offer different angles to comprehending this complexity and uniqueness. For further discussion of the complexities of mixing methods and the virtue of using qualitative methods and case study in a mixed methods design, see Greene ( 2007 ). The focus for the remainder of this chapter will be on the qualitative dimension of case study research.

Case study research may also be conducted from different standpoints—realist, interpretivist, or constructivist, for example. My perspective falls within a constructivist, interpretivist framework. What interests me is how I and those in the case perceive and interpret what we find and how we construct or co-construct understandings of the case. This suits not only my predilection for how I see the world, but also my preferred phenomenological approach to interviewing and curiosity about people and how they act in social and professional life.

Qualitative Case Study Research

Qualitative case study research shares many characteristics with other forms of qualitative research, such as narrative, oral history, life history, ethnography, in-depth interview and observational studies that utilize qualitative methods. However, its focus, purpose, and origins, in educational research and evaluation at least, are a little different. The focus is clearly the study of the singular. The purpose is to portray an in-depth view of the quality and complexity of social/educational programs or policies as they are implemented in specific sociopolitical contexts. What makes it qualitative is its emphasis on subjective ways of knowing, particularly the experiential, practical, and presentational rather than the propositional (Heron, 1992 , 1999 ) to comprehend and communicate what transpired in the case.

Characteristic Features and Advantages

Case study research is not method dependent, as noted earlier, nor is it constrained by resources or time. Although it can be conducted over several years, which provides an opportunity to explore the process of change and explain how and why things happened, it can equally be carried out contemporaneously in a few days, weeks, or months. This flexibility is extremely useful in many contexts, particularly when a change in policy or unforeseen issues in the field require modifying the design.

Flexibility extends to reporting. The case can be written up in different lengths and forms to meet different audience needs and to maximize use (see the section on reporting). Using the natural language of participants and familiar methods (like interview, observation and oral history) also enables participants to engage in the research process, thereby contributing significantly to the generation of knowledge of the case. As I have indicated elsewhere (Simons, 2009 ), “This is both a political and epistemological point. It signals a potential shift in the power base of who controls knowledge and recognizes the importance of co-constructing perceived reality through the relationships and joint understandings we create in the field” (p. 23).

Possible Disadvantages

If one is an advocate, identifying advantages of a research approach is easier than pointing out its disadvantages, something detractors are quite keen to do anyway! But no approach is perfect, and here are some of the issues that often trouble people about case study research. The sample of one is an obvious issue that worries those convinced that only large samples can constitute valid research, especially if it is to inform policy. Understanding complexity in depth may not be a sufficient counterargument, and I suspect there is little point in trying to persuade otherwise. For frequently this perception is one of epistemological and methodological, if not ideological, preference.

However, there are some genuine concerns that many case researchers face: the difficulty of processing a mass of data; of “telling the truth” in contexts where people may be identifiable; personal involvement, when the researcher is the main instrument of data gathering; and writing reports that are data based, yet readable in style and length. But one issue that concerns advocates and nonadvocates alike is how inferences are drawn from the single case.

Answers to some of these issues are covered in the sections that follow. Whether they convince may again be a question of preference. However, it is worth noting here that I do not think we should seek to justify these concerns in terms identified by other methodologies. Many are intrinsic to the nature and strength of qualitative case study research.

Subjectivity, for instance, both of participants and of the researcher, is inevitable, as it is in many other qualitative methodologies. This is often the basis on which we act. Rather than seeing this as bias or something to counter, it is an intelligence that is essential to understanding and interpreting the experience of participants and stakeholders. Such subjectivity needs to be disciplined, of course, through procedures that examine the validity of individuals’ representations of “their truth” and demonstrate how the researcher took a reflexive approach to monitoring how his or her own values and predilections may have unduly influenced the data.

Types of Case Study

There are numerous types of case study, too many to categorize, I think, as there are overlaps between them. However, attempts have been made to do so and, for those who value typologies, I refer them to Bassey ( 1999 ) and, for a more extended typology, to Thomas ( 2011 ). A slightly different approach is taken by Gomm et al. ( 2004 ): noting, in an annotated bibliography, the different emphases in major texts on case study. What I prefer to do here is to highlight a few familiar types to focus the discussion that follows on the practice of case study research.

Stake ( 1995 ) offered a threefold distinction that is helpful when it comes to practice, he says, because it influences the methods we choose to gather data (p. 4). He distinguishes between an intrinsic case study , one that is studied to learn about the particular case itself, and an instrumental case study , in which we choose a case to gain insight into a particular issue (i.e., the case is instrumental to understanding something else; p. 3). The collective case study is what its name suggests: an extension of the instrumental to several cases.

Theory-led or theory-generated case study is similarly self-explanatory, the first starting from a specific theory that is tested through the case and the second constructing a theory through interpretation of data generated in the case. In other words, one ends rather than begins with a theory. In qualitative case study research, this is the more familiar route. The theory of the case becomes the argument or story you will tell.

Evaluation case study has three essential elements. Its purpose is to determine the value of a particular project, program or policy, to include and balance different interests and perspectives and to report findings to a range of stakeholders in ways that they can use. It is a social, political and ethical practice. It needs to be responsive to issues or questions identified by stakeholders, including those who commission evaluations, who often have different perspectives of the program and different interests in the expected outcomes. The task of the evaluator in such situations becomes one of negotiating and representing all interests and values in the program fairly and justly. This is an inherently political process and requires an ethical practice that offers participants some protection over the personal data they give as part of the research and agreed audiences access to the findings presented in ways they can understand. The ethical protocols that have evolved to support this process are outlined in the section on ethics.

Designing Case Study Research

Design issues in case study sometimes take second place to those of data gathering, the more exciting task, perhaps, in beginning research. However, it is critical to consider the design at the outset, even if changes are required in practice due to the reality of what is encountered in the field. In this sense, the design of case study is emergent, rather than preordinate (predetermined in advance), shaped and reshaped as understanding of the significance of foreshadowed issues emerges and other, perhaps more pertinent issues are discovered.

Before entering the field, there are a myriad of planning issues to think about related to stakeholders, participants, and audiences. These include whose values matter, whether to engage these groups in data gathering and interpretation, the style of reporting appropriate for each, and the ethical guidelines that will underpin data collection and reporting. However, here I emphasize only three: the broad focus of the study, what the case is a case of, and framing questions/issues. These steps are often ignored in an enthusiasm to gather data, resulting in a case study that claims to be research but lacks the basic principles required for generation of valid, public knowledge.

Conceptualize the Topic

First, it is important that the topic of the research is conceptualized in a way that it can be researched (i.e., it is not too wide). This seems an obvious point to make, but failure to think through precisely what it is about your research topic you wish to investigate will have a knock-on effect on the framing of the case, data gathering and interpretation and may lead, in some instances, to not gathering or analyzing data that actually inform the topic. Further conceptualization or reconceptualization may be necessary as the study proceeds, but it is critical to have a clear focus at the outset.

What Constitutes the Case

Second, it is important to decide what would constitute the case (i.e., what it is a case of) and where the boundaries lie. This often proves more difficult than first appears. And sometimes, partly because of the semifluid nature of the way the case evolves, it is only possible to finally establish what the case is a case of at the end. Nevertheless, it is useful to identify what the case and its boundaries are at the outset to help focus data collection while maintaining an awareness that they may shift. This is emergent design in action.

In deciding the boundary of the case, there are several factors to bear in mind. Is it bounded by an institution or a unit within an institution, by people within an institution, by region, or by project, program, or policy? If we take a school as an example, the case could be composed of the principal, teachers and students, or the boundary could be extended to the cleaners, the caretaker, or the receptionist, people who often know a great deal about the subnorms and culture of the institution.

If the case is a policy or particular parameter of a policy, the considerations may be slightly different. People will still be paramount—those who generated the policy and those who implemented it—but there is likely also to be a political culture surrounding the policy that had an influence on the way the policy evolved. Would this be part of the case? In evaluation case study it invariably would, because it is difficult to fully comprehend how a policy is interpreted and implemented without an understanding of the values and intentions behind the setting up of the policy in the first place.

Whatever boundary is chosen, it may change in the course of conducting the study when issues arise that can only be understood by going to another level. What transpires in a classroom, for example, if a classroom is the case, is often partly dependent on the support of the school leadership and culture of the institution and this, in turn, to some extent is dependent on what resources are allocated from the local education administration. Much like a series of Russian dolls, one context inside the other.

Unit of analysis

Thinking about what would constitute the unit of analysis—a classroom, an institution, a program, a region—may help in setting the boundaries of the case, and it will certainly facilitate analysis. But this is a slightly different issue from deciding what the case is a case of. Taking a health example, the case may be palliative care support, but the unit of analysis the palliative care ward. The focus would be directly on how palliative care was managed in the context of a particular ward or wards and the understanding this generated for palliative care support in general. Here, as in the school example, you would need to consider which of the many people who populate the ward form part of the case—is it the nurses, interns, or doctors only, or does it extend to patients, cleaners, nurse aides, and medical students? If you took palliative care support as the unit of analysis, you would be less concerned about the specific details of the ward. Your focus would be more on the broader policy, key strategies, and units supporting palliative care, as well as the perspective of key actors in the process and how they delivered such care.

Framing Questions and Issues

The third most important consideration is how to frame the study, and you are likely to do this once you have selected the site or sites for study. There are at least four approaches: specific research or evaluative questions, foreshadowed issues (Smith & Pohland, 1974 ), theoretical framework, or a program logic. To some extent, your choice will be dictated by the type of case you have chosen, as well as by your personal preference for how to conduct it—in either a structured or an open way.

Initial questions give structure; foreshadowed issues give more freedom to explore. In qualitative case study, foreshadowed issues are more common, allowing scope for issues to change as the study evolves, guided by participants’ perspectives and events in the field. With this perspective, it is more likely that you will generate a theory of the case toward the end, through your interpretation and analysis, rather than start with a preexisting theoretical framework. See Thomas ( 2016 , ch. 11) for an exploration of different ways to generate theory in and of your case.

If you are conducting an instrumental case study , staying close to the questions or foreshadowed issues is necessary to be sure you gain data that will illuminate the central focus of the study. This is critical if you are exploring issues across several cases, although it is possible also to do a cross-case analysis from cases that have each followed a different route to discovering significant issues.

Opting to start with a theoretical framework provides a basis for formulating questions or identifying issues, but it can also constrain the study to only those questions/issues that fit the framework. The same is true with using program logic to frame the case. This approach is frequently adopted in evaluation case study, where the evaluator, individually or with stakeholders, examines how the aims and objectives of the program relate to the activities designed to promote it and the outcomes and impacts expected. It provides direction and is useful for engaging stakeholders in thinking through the assumptions underlying any theory of change they propose. However, it can lead to simply confirming what was anticipated, rather than documenting what transpired in the case (see Rogers, 2017 ; and Funnell & Rogers, 2011 , for helpful accounts of the potential and pitfalls of adopting a logic model as a framework).

Whichever approach you choose to frame the case, it is useful to think about the rationale or theory for each question or aspect of the framing and what methods would best enable you to gain an understanding of them. This will not only start a reflexive process of examining your choices—an important aspect of the process of data gathering and interpretation—but also aid analysis and interpretation further down the track.

Methodology and Methods

Qualitative case study research, as already noted, appeals to subjective ways of knowing and to a primarily qualitative methodology that captures experiential understanding (Stake, 2010 , pp. 56–70). It follows that the main methods of data gathering to access this way of knowing will be qualitative. Interviewing, observation, and document analysis are the primary three, often supported by critical incidents, focus groups, cameos, vignettes, diaries/journals, and photographs. Before gathering any primary data, however, it is useful to search relevant existing sources (written or visual) to learn about the antecedents and context of a project, program, or policy as a backdrop to the case. This can sharpen framing questions, avoid unnecessary data gathering, and shorten the time needed in the field.

Given that there are excellent texts on qualitative methods (see, for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 1994 ; Seale, 1999 ; Silverman, 2000 , 2004 ; Stake, 2010 ), I will not discuss all potential relevant methods here, but simply focus on the qualities of the primary methods that are particularly appropriate for case study research.

Primary Qualitative Data Gathering Methods

Interviewing.

The most effective style of interviewing in qualitative case study research is the unstructured interview, in which active listening and open questioning are paramount, whatever prequestions or foreshadowed issues have been identified. Specific advantages of this approach to gaining in-depth data are the opportunity to document multiple perspectives and experiences and establish which issues are most significant in the case—an important step in refining the emergent design. This form of interviewing can include photographs—a useful starting point with certain cultural groups and the less articulate, to encourage them to tell their story through connecting or identifying with something in the image. The flexibility of unstructured interviewing has three further advantages for understanding participants’ experiences. First, through questioning, probing, listening, and, above all, paying attention to the silences and what they mean, you can get closer to the meaning of participants’ experiences. It is not always what they say. For thoughtful observations of the meaning of silences in qualitative research, see Mazzei ( 2003 , 2007 ).Second, unstructured interviewing is useful for engaging participants in the process of research. Instead of starting with questions and issues, invite participants to tell their stories or reflect on specific issues, to conduct their own self-evaluative interview, in fact. Not only will they contribute their particular perspective to the case, they will also learn about themselves, thereby making the process of research educative for them as well as for audiences of the research. Third, the open-endedness of this style of interviewing has the potential for creating a dialogue between participants and the researcher and between the researcher and the public, if enough of the dialogue is retained in the publication (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985 ).

Observations

Observations in case study research are likely to be close-up descriptions of events, activities, and incidents that detail what happens in a particular context. These will record time, place, specific incidents, transactions, dialogue, and note characteristics of the setting and of people within it without preconceived categories or judgment. No description is devoid of some judgment in selection, but, on the whole, the intent is to describe the scene or event as it is, providing a rich, textured description to give readers a sense of what it was like to be there or provide a basis for later interpretation.

Take the following excerpt from a study of the West Bromwich Operatic Society. It is the first night of a new production, The Producers , by this amateur operatic society. This brief excerpt is from a much longer observation of the overture to the first evening’s performance, detailing exactly what the production is, where it is, and why there is such a tremendous sense of atmosphere and expectation surrounding the event. Space prevents including the whole observation, but I hope you can get a glimmer of the passion and excitement that precedes the performance:

Birmingham, late November, 2011, early evening.… Bars and restaurants spruce up for the evening’s trade. There is a chill in the air but the party season is just starting … A few hundred yards away, past streaming traffic on Suffolk Street, Queensway, an audience is gathering at the New Alexandra Theatre. The foyer windows shine in the orange sodium night. Above each one is the rubric: WORLD CLASS THEATRE. Inside the preparatory rituals are being observed; sweets chosen, interval drinks ordered and programmes bought. People swap news and titbits about the production … The bubble of anticipation grows as the 5-minute warning sounds. People make their way to the auditorium. There have been so many nights like this in the past 110 years since a man named William Coutts invested £10,000 to build this palace of dreams.… So many fantasies have been played under this arch: melodramas and pantomimes, musicals and variety.… So many audiences, settling down in their tip-up seats, wanting to be transported away from work, from ordinariness and private troubles … The dimming lights act like a mother’s hush. You could touch the silence. Boinnng! A spongy thump on a bass drum, and the horns pipe up that catchy, irrepressible, tasteless tune and already you’re singing under your breath, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany …” The orchestra is out of sight in the pit. There’s just the velvet curtain to watch as your fingers tap along. What’s waiting behind? Then it starts it to move. Opening night … It’s opening night! (Matarasso, 2012 , pp. 1–2)

For another and different example—a narrative observation of an everyday but unique incident that details date, time, place, and experience—see Simons ( 2009 , p. 60).

Such naturalistic observations are also useful in contexts where we cannot understand what is going on through interviewing alone or in cultures with which we are less familiar and where key actors may not share our language or have difficulty expressing what they mean. Careful description in these situations can help identify key issues, discover the norms and values that exist in the culture, and, if sufficiently detailed, allow others to cross-corroborate what significance we draw from these observations. This last point is very important to avoid the danger in observation of ascribing motivations to people and meanings to transactions.

Finally, naturalistic observations are very important in highly politicized environments, often the case in commissioned evaluation case study, where individuals in interview may try to elude the “truth” or press upon you that their view is the right view of the situation. In these contexts, naturalistic observations not only enable you to document interactions as you perceive them, but also provide a cross-check on the veracity of information obtained in interviews.

Document Analysis

Analysis of documents, as already intimated, is useful for establishing what historical antecedents might exist to provide a springboard for contemporaneous data gathering. In most cases, existing documents are also extremely pertinent for understanding the policy context.

In a national policy case study I conducted on a major curriculum change, the importance of preexisting documentation was brought home to me sharply when certain documentation initially proved elusive to obtain. It was difficult to believe that it did not exist, because the evolution of the innovation involved several parties who had not worked together before and they needed to develop a shared understanding of the ‘new’ curriculum. There was bound, I thought, to be minuted meetings sharing progress and documentation of the “new” curriculum. In the absence of some crucial documents, I began to piece together the story through interviewing different individuals who had a role to play in the evolution of the new curriculum. But there were gaps, and certain issues did not make sense.

It was only when I presented two versions of what I discerned had transpired in the development of this initiative in an interim report 18 months into the study that things started to change. Subsequent to the meeting at which the report was presented, the “missing” documents started to appear. Suddenly found! What lay behind the “missing” documents, something I suspected from what certain individuals did and did not say in interview, was a major difference of view about how the innovation evolved, who was key in the process, and whose voice was more important in the context: political differences, in other words, that some stakeholders were trying to keep from me. The emergence of the documents enabled me to finally produce an accurate and fair account.

This is an example of the importance of having access to all relevant documents relating to a program or policy to study it fairly. The other major way in which document analysis is useful in case study is for understanding the values, explicit and hidden, in policy and program documents and in the organization where the program or policy is implemented. Not to be ignored as documents are photographs; these, too, can form the basis of a cultural and value analysis of an organization (Prosser, 2000 ).

Creative Artistic Approaches

Increasingly, some case study researchers are employing creative approaches associated with the arts as a means of data gathering and analysis. Artistic approaches have often been used in representing findings, but less frequently in data gathering and interpretation (Simons & McCormack, 2007 ). A major exception is the work of Richardson ( 1994 ), who views the very process of writing as an interpretative act, and that of Cancienne and Snowber ( 2003 ), who argue for movement as method.

The most familiar of these creative and artistic forms are written—narratives and short stories (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000 ; Richardson, 1994 ; Sparkes, 2002 ), poems or poetic form (Butler-Kisber, 2010 ; Duke, 2007 ; Richardson, 1997; Sparkes & Douglas, 2007 ), and cameos of people, or vignettes of situations. These can be written by participants or by the researcher or developed in partnership. They can also be shared with participants to further the interpretation of the data.

Photographs also have a long history in qualitative research for presenting and constructing understanding (Butler-Kisber, 2010 ; Collier, 1967 ; Prosser, 2000 ; Rugang, 2006 ; Walker, 1993 ). The photo story in particular—a selection of photographs placed in sequence to show the interpretation of an event or circumstance—is a powerful way of telling. Less common are other visual forms of gathering data, such as “draw and write” (Sewell, 2011 ), artifacts, drawings, sketches, paintings, and collages, although these, too, are increasingly being adopted. For examples of the use of collage in data gathering, see Duke ( 2007 ) and Butler-Kisber ( 2010 ), and for charcoal drawing, see Elliott ( 2008 ). Collages have the potential not only for revealing inner states and feelings, but also for documenting conflicts and tensions in a case. Duke ( 2007 ) made effective use of collage in this respect to portray differences and tensions with doctors in a medical setting where she, in her role as a nurse consultant, was conducting research as well as performing her normal nurse duties. The collage served to channel the emotions she was experiencing in this hierarchical context without influencing the research or her professional role. More recently, Plakoyiannaki & Stavraki ( 2018 ) explored the various ways in which collages can be interpreted to reveal the meaning embedded in the juxtaposition of images and visual metaphors in a collage. They also offer a heuristic analytic approach to counter what they see as limitations in some of the other forms of analyzing collages. Though written primarily for an audience in management research, many aspects of their paper are pertinent for case study research.

Videos can be a useful means of documenting events and interactions between people, especially when individuals cannot be interviewed. See, for example, Flewitt ( 2005 ) for a discussion of the value of video for exploring communications between young children in the home and preschool contexts. In other contexts—videos of classroom events, for example—they can be extremely useful for engaging participants and stakeholders in the interpretation of such events. It is often suggested, furthermore, that videos are a useful means of reporting case study data. Not, I suggest, in raw form. Beyond the ethical issue of the potential identification of individuals is the difficulty of understanding what is going on if you were not present at the time and had a grasp of other data relevant to that understanding. In other words, videos have a temporary life. Without additional data, the distant viewer may not comprehend. This is a separate issue from preparing a video report, composed of different kinds of data to tell the story of the case in a visual, succinct way. Such videos have the power to engage different audiences and can facilitate immediate understanding of the critical issues in the case. An excellent example of this is the CD that Jenny Elliot ( 2008 ) prepared as part of her Ph.D. thesis, showing how it was possible through the research she conducted to get a unit of brain-damaged men to dance. The video was widely shown subsequently in many healthcare contexts.

In qualitative inquiry broadly, these creative approaches are now quite common. And in the context of arts and health (see, for example, Frank, 1997 ; Liamputtong & Rumbold, 2008 ; Spouse, 2000 ), they are frequently used to illuminate perspectives of individuals in therapeutic settings or enhance understanding of how spaces and environments in health and social care affect those who inhabit them (Fenner, 2011 , 2017 ). However, in case study research to date, narrative forms have tended to dominate, possibly because the contexts in which much case study research is conducted are policy or program focused where narrative forms of understanding are more the norm. This is not to say creative approaches may not be useful in these contexts. It may be a question of lack of familiarity with such approaches and acceptance of their usefulness in those environments.

Finally, for capturing the quality and essence of peoples’ experience, nothing could be more revealing than a recording of their voices. Video diaries—self-evaluative portrayals by individuals of their perspectives, feelings, or experience of an event or situation—are a most potent way both of gaining understanding and of communicating that to others. It is rather more difficult to gain access for observational videos because it is hard to effectively disguise individuals. Even if consent is granted, where individuals are visible it is not possible to foresee how portrayals of their life and experience will be viewed years after the research is completed. Research is context and time bound. So, video diaries may be most useful in a temporal sense to facilitate understanding of the case. See Simons ( 2007 ) for an exploration of the ethical dimension of the use of visual data.

It will be evident from the foregoing discussion of qualitative methods that close-up portrayals of individuals and contexts requires sensitive ethical protocols. Negotiating what information becomes public can be quite difficult in singular settings where people are identifiable and intricate or problematic transactions have been documented. The consequences that ensue from making knowledge public that hitherto was private may be considerable for those in the case. It may also be difficult to portray some of the contextual detail that would enhance understanding for readers because it would raise the risk of identifiability of individuals, as would visual data, as already noted.

The ethical stance that underpins the case study research and evaluation I conduct stems from a theory of ethics that emphasizes the centrality of relationships in the specific context (see Kirkhart, 2013 , for the concept of relational validity that supports this focus) and the consequences for individuals, while remaining aware of the research imperative to publicly report. It is essentially an independent democratic process based on the concepts of fairness and justice, in which confidentiality, negotiation, and accessibility are key principles (MacDonald, 1976 ; Simons, 2009 , ch. 6; and Simons, 2010 ). The principles are translated into specific procedures to guide the collection, validation, and dissemination of data in the field. These include:

engaging participants and stakeholders in identifying issues to explore and sometimes also in interpreting the data;

documenting how different people interpret and value the program;

negotiating what data become public, respecting both the individual’s “right to privacy” and the public’s “right to know”;

offering participants opportunities to check how their data are used in the context of reporting;

reporting in language and forms accessible to a wide range of audiences; and

disseminating to audiences within and beyond the case.

For further discussion of the ethics of democratic case study evaluation and examples of their use in practice, see Simons ( 2000 , 2006 , 2009 , ch. 6, 2010 ).

Getting It All Together

Case study is so often associated with story or with a report of some event or program that it is easy to forget that much analysis and interpretation has gone on before we reach this point. In many case study reports, this process is hidden, leaving the reader with little evidence on which to assess the validity of the findings and having to trust the one who wrote the tale.

This section briefly outlines possibilities, first, for analyzing and interpreting data, and second, for how to communicate the findings to others. However, it is useful to think of them together and indeed, at the start, because decisions about how you report may influence how you choose to make sense of the data. Your choice may also vary according to the context of the study—what is expected or acceptable—and your personal predilections, whether you prefer a more rational than intuitive mode of analysis, for example, or a formal or informal style of writing up that includes images, metaphor, narratives, or poetic forms.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

When it comes to making sense of data, I make a distinction between analysis—a formal inductive process that seeks to explain—and interpretation, a more intuitive process that gains understanding and insight from an holistic grasp of data, although they may interact and overlap at different stages.

The process, whichever emphasis you choose, is one of reducing or transforming a large amount of data to themes that can encapsulate the overarching meaning in the data. This involves sorting, refining, and refocusing data until they make sense. It starts at the beginning with preliminary hunches, sometimes called interpretative asides or working hypotheses , later moving to themes, analytic propositions, or a theory of the case.

There are many ways to conduct this process. Two strategies often employed are concept mapping —a means of representing data visually to explore links between related concepts—and progressive focusing (Parlett & Hamilton, 1976 ), the gradual reframing of initially identified issues into themes that are then further interpreted to generate findings. Each of these strategies tends to have three stages: initial sense making, identification of themes, and examination of patterns and relationships between them.

If taking a formal analytic approach to the task, the data would likely be broken down into segments or data sets (coded and categorized) and then reordered and explored for themes, patterns, and possible propositions. If adopting a more intuitive process, you might focus on identifying insights through metaphors and images, lateral thinking, or puzzling over paradoxes and ambiguities in the data, after first immersing yourself in the total data set and reading and rereading interview scripts, observations, and field notes to get a sense of the whole. Trying different forms of making sense through poetry, vignettes, cameos, narratives, collages, and drawing are further creative ways to interpret data, as are photographs taken in the case arranged to explain or tell the story of the case.

Reporting Case Study Research

Narrative structure and story.

As indicated in the introduction, telling a story is often associated with case study and some think this is what a case study is. In one sense it is, and, given that story is the natural way in which we learn (Okri, 1997 ), it is a useful framework both for gathering data and for communicating case study findings. Not any story will do, however. To count as research, it must be authentic, grounded in data, interpreted and analyzed to convey the meaning of the case.

There are several senses in which story is appropriate in qualitative case study: in capturing stories participants tell, in generating a narrative structure that makes sense of the case (i.e., the story you will tell), and in deciding how you communicate this narrative (i.e., in story form). If you choose a written story form, Harrington ( 2003 ) and Caulley ( 2008 ) are useful authors to consult to ensure the story is clearly structured, well written, and contains only the detail that is necessary to give readers the vicarious experience of what it was like in the case. Harrington ( 2003 ) reminds us, among other things, that it is not only in the technical sense that good writing is required—using plain, precise, direct language and grammar—but also how we convey meaning—“‘selecting telling details’ … ‘balancing the particular and the universal’ … ‘structuring stories so insight emerges’” (p. 97). If the story is to be communicated in other ways, through, for example, audio or videotape or computer or personal interaction, the same applies, substituting visual and interpersonal skill for written. In addition to these authors, I often get inspiration for constructing a story or a portrayal of a person from novelists who write well.

Matching Forms of Reporting to Audience

The art of reporting is strongly connected to usability, so forms of reporting need to connect to the audiences we hope to inform: how they learn, what kind of evidence they value, and what kind of reporting maximizes the chances they will use the findings to promote policies and programs in the interests of beneficiaries. As Okri ( 1997 ) further reminds us “The writer only does half the work, the reader does the other” (p. 41).

There may be other considerations as well: How open are commissioners to receiving stories of difficulties as well as success stories? What might they need to hear beyond what is sought in the technical brief? And through what style of reporting would you try to persuade them? If you are conducting noncommissioned case study research, the scope for different forms of reporting is wider. In academia, for instance, many institutions these days accept creative and artistic forms of reporting when supported by supervisors and appreciated by examiners.

Styles of Reporting

The most obvious form of reporting is linear , often starting with a short executive summary and a brief description of focus and context, followed by methodology, the case study itself in its totality, or demonstrated in the thematic analysis, findings, and conclusions or implications. Conclusion-led reporting is similar in terms of its formality, but simply starts the other way around. From the conclusions drawn from the analyzed data, it works backward to tell the story through narrative, verbatim, and observational data of how these conclusions were reached. Both have a strong storyline. The intent is analytic and explanatory.

Quite a different approach is to engage the reader in the experience and veracity of the case. Rather like constructing a portrait or editing a documentary film, this involves the sifting, constructing, and reordering of frames, events, and episodes to tell a coherent story primarily through interview excerpts, observations, vignettes, and critical incidents that depict what transpired in the case. Interpretation is indirect through the weaving of the data. The story can start at any point, provided the underlying narrative structure is maintained to establish coherence (House, 1980 , p. 116).

Different again, and from the other end of a continuum, is a highly interpretative account that may use similar ways of presenting data but weaves a story from the outset that is highly interpretative. Engaging metaphor, images, short stories, contradictions, paradoxes, and puzzles, it is invariably interesting to read and can be most persuasive. However, the evidence is less visible and therefore less open to alternative interpretations.

Even more persuasive is a case study that uses artistic forms to communicate the story of the case. Paintings, poetic form, drawings, photography, collage, and movement can all be adopted to report findings, whether the data were acquired using these forms or by other means. The arts-based inquiry movement (Mullen & Finley, 2003 ) has contributed hugely to the validation and legitimation of artistic and creative ways of representing qualitative research findings. The journal Qualitative Inquiry contains many good examples, but see also Liamputtong & Rumbold ( 2008 ). Such artistic forms of representation may not be for everyone or appropriate in some contexts, but they do have the power to engage an audience and the potential to facilitate use.

Before leaving reporting, it is important to mention that in recent years, not surprisingly given the rapid growth and ever-changing technology at our disposal, there has been an increase in the use of data visualization techniques, both to present data and to report findings. See, for example, some of the excellent ideas offered by Stephanie Evergreen ( 2013 , 2016 ) using graphics and charts of different kinds to summarize data effectively. Telling the story of the case, then, can be visual as well as literary. Using these techniques, linked often with quotations from interviews and pictorial evidence of context, it is possible to communicate the findings of a case in a few pages, or even just one page. This can be of immense benefit to policy makers who may have little time to read long case reports or those who value visual learning as much as written. Such techniques are unlikely to replace the narrative form. Given the importance of people and context in case study, the need to represent participants’ voices and the sociopolitical context will invariably demand a longer and integrated story. Data visualization is an added strength and an option for those who are persuaded by visual means or who have little time.

Generalization in Case Study Research

One of the potential limitations of case study often proposed is that it is impossible to generalize. This is not so. However, the way in which one generalizes from a case is different from that adopted in traditional forms of social science research that utilize large samples (randomly selected) and statistical procedures and that assume regularities in the social world that allow cause and effect to be determined. In this form of research, inferences from data are stated as formal propositions that apply to all in the target population. See Donmoyer ( 1990 ) for an argument on the restricted nature of this form of generalization when considering single-case studies.

Making inferences from cases with a qualitative data set arises more from a process of interpretation in context, appealing to tacit and situated understanding for acceptance of their validity. Such inferences are possible where the context and experience of the case is richly described so the reader can recognize and connect with the events and experiences portrayed. There are two ways to examine how to reach these generalized understandings. One is to generalize from the case to other cases of a similar or dissimilar nature. The other is to see what we learn in depth from the uniqueness of the single case itself.

Generalizing from the Single Case

A common approach to generalization and one most akin to a propositional form is cross-case generalization. In a collective or multisite case study, each case is explored to see if issues that arise in one case also exist in other cases and what interconnecting themes exist between them. This kind of generalization has a degree of abstraction and potential for theorizing and is often welcomed by commissioners of research concerned that findings from the single case do not provide an adequate or “safe” basis for policy determination.

However, there are four additional ways to generalize from the single case, all of which draw more on tacit knowledge and recognition of context, although in different ways. In naturalistic generalization , first proposed by Stake ( 1978 ), generalization is reached on the basis of recognition of similarities and differences to cases with which we are familiar. To enable such recognition, the case should feature rich description; people’s voices; and enough detail of time, place, and context to provide a vicarious experience to help readers discern what is similar and dissimilar to their own context (Stake, 1978 ).

Situated generalization (Simons, Kushner, Jones, & James, 2003 ) is close to the concept of naturalistic generalization in relying for its generality on retaining a connectedness with the context in which it first evolved. However, it has an extra dimension in a practice context. This notion of generalization was identified in an evaluation of a research project that engaged teachers in and with research. Here, in addition to the usual validity criteria to establish the methodological warrant for the findings, the generalization was seen as dependable if trust existed between those who conducted the research (teachers, in this example) and those thinking about using it (other teachers). In other words, beyond the technical validity of the research, teachers considered using the findings in their own practice because they had confidence in those who generated them. This is a useful way to think about generalization if we wish research findings to improve professional practice.

The next two concepts of generalization— concept and process generalization —relate more to what you discover in making sense of the case. As you interpret and analyze, you begin to generate a theory of the case that makes sense of the whole. Concepts may be identified that make sense in the one case but have equal significance in other cases of a similar kind, even if the contexts are different. It is the concept that generalizes, not the specific content or context. This may be similar to the process Donmoyer ( 2008 ) identifies of “intellectual generalization” (as cited in Butler-Kisber, 2010 , p. 15) to indicate the cognitive understanding one can gain from qualitative accounts even if settings are quite different.

The same is true for generalization of a process. It is possible to identify a significant process in one case (or several cases) that is transferable to other contexts, irrespective of the precise content and contexts of those other cases. An example here is the collaborative model for sustainable school self-evaluation I identified in researching school self-evaluation in a number of schools and countries (Simons, 2002 ). Schools that successfully sustained school self-evaluation had an infrastructure that was collaborative at all stages of the evaluation process from design to conduct of the study, to analyzing and interpreting the results, and to reporting the findings. This ensured that the whole school was involved and that results were discussed and built into the ongoing development of school policies and practice. In other cases, different processes may be discovered that have applicability in a range of contexts. As with concept generalization, it is the process that generalizes not the substantive content or specific context.

Particularization

The forms of generalization discussed above are useful when we have to justify case study in a research or policy context. But the overarching justification for how we learn from case study is particularization —a rich portrayal of insights and understandings interpreted in the particular context. Several authors have made this point (Flyvberg, 2006 ; Simons, 2009 ; Stake, 1995 , 2006 ). Stake (2005) puts it most sharply when he observes that “the real business of case study is particularization, not generalization” (p. 8), referring here to the main reason for studying the singular, which is to understand the uniqueness of the case itself.

My perspective (explored further in Simons, 1996 , 2009 , p. 239; Simons & McCormack, 2007 ) is similar in that I believe the “real” strength of case study lies in the insights we gain from in-depth study of the particular. But I also argue for the universality of such insights—if we get it “right,” by which I mean that if we are able to capture and report the uniqueness, the essence of the case, in all its particularity and present it in a way we can all recognize, we will discover something of universal significance. This is something of a paradox. The more you learn in depth about the particularity of one person, situation, or context, the more likely you are to discover something universal. This process of reaching understanding has support both from the way in which many discoveries are made in science and in how we learn from artists, poets, and novelists, who reach us by communicating a recognizable truth about individuals, human relationships, and/or social contexts.

This concept of particularization is far from new, as the quotation below from a preface to a book written in 1908 attests. Stephen Reynolds, the author of A Poor Man’s House (Reynolds, 1908 ) noted in the preface that the substance of the book was first recorded in a journal, kept for purposes of fiction and in letters to one of his friends, but fiction proved an inappropriate medium. He felt that the life and the people were so much better than anything he could invent. The book therefore consists of the journal and letters drawn together to present a picture of a typical poor man’s house and life, much as we might draw together a range of data to present a case study. It is not the substance of the book that concerns us here, but the methodological relevance to case study research. Reynolds pointed out that the conclusions in his book were tentative and possibly went beyond this man’s life, so he thought some explanation of the way he arrived at them was needed:

Educated people usually deal with the poor man’s life deductively; they reason from the general to the particular; and, starting with a theory, religious, philanthropic, political, or what not, they seek, and too easily find, among the millions of poor, specimens—very frequently abnormal—to illustrate their theories. With anything but human beings, that is an excellent method. Human beings, unfortunately, have individualities. They do what, theoretically, they ought not to do, and leave undone those things they ought to do. They are even said to possess souls—untrustworthy things beyond the reach of sociologists. The inductive method—reasoning from the particular to the general … should at least help to counterbalance the psychological superficiality of the deductive method. (Reynolds, 1908 , preface) 1

Slightly overstated, perhaps, but the point is well made. In our search for general laws, we not only lose sight of the uniqueness and humanity of individuals, but also reduce them in the process, failing to present their experience in any “real” sense. What is astonishing about the quotation is that it was written over a century ago, and yet many still argue that you cannot generalize from the particular.

Going even further back to 1798, Blake proclaimed that ‘To generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit&quot; (Blake,1798, cited by Keynes (1957). In research, we may not wish to make such a strong distinction; these processes both have their uses in different kinds of research. But there is a major point here for the study of the particular that Wilson ( 2008 ) notes in commenting on Blake’s perception when he says, “Favouring the abstract over the concrete, one ‘sees all things only thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern’ ” (referring here to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [1793], as cited in Wilson, 2008 , p. 62). The danger Wilson is pointing to here is that abstraction relies heavily on what we know from our past understanding of things, and this may prevent us experiencing a concrete event directly or “apprehend[ing] a particular moment” (Wilson, 2008 , p. 63).

Blake had a different mission, of course, from case researchers, and he was not himself free from abstractions, as Wilson points out, although he [Blake] fought hard “to break through mental barriers to something unique and living” (Wilson, 2008 , p. 65). It is this search for the “unique and living” and experiencing the “isness” of the particular that we should take from the Blake example to remind us of the possibility of discovering something “new,” beyond our current understanding of the way things are.

Focusing on particularization does not diminish the usefulness of case study research for policy makers or practitioners. Grounded in recognizable experience, the potential is there to reach a range of audiences and to facilitate use of the findings. It may be more difficult for those who seek formal generalizations that seem to offer a safe basis for policy making to accept case study reports. However, particular stories often hold the key to why policies have or have not worked well in the past. It is not necessary to present long cases—a criticism frequently leveled—to demonstrate the story of the case. Such case stories can be most insightful for policy makers who, like many of us in everyday life, often draw inferences from a single instance or case, whatever the formal evidence presented “I am reminded of the story of …” Stake ( 2006 , pp. 197–198) also reminds us that we are constantly making small generalizations from particular situations as we go about our professional work and life. These may not survive systematic research scrutiny, but the point Stake is making here is that it is our natural tendency to generalize from the particular in making sense of our worlds. In case study research that aspires to represent “lived experience,” this seems a natural way to proceed.

The case for studying the particular to inform practice in professional contexts needs less persuasion because practitioners can recognize the content and context quite readily and make the inference to their own particular context (Simons et al., 2003 ). In both sets of circumstances—policy and practice—it is more a question of whether the readers of our case research accept the validity of findings determined in this way, how they choose to learn, and our skill in telling the case study story.

Conclusion and Future Directions

In this chapter, I have presented an argument for case study research, making the case, in particular, for using qualitative methods to highlight what qualitative case study research can bring to the study of social and educational programs. I outlined the various ways in which case study is commonly used before focusing directly on case study as a major mode of research inquiry, noting characteristics it shares with other qualitative methodologies, as well as its difference and the difficulties it is often perceived to have. The chapter emphasizes the importance of thinking through what the case is to be sure that the issues explored and the data generated do illuminate this case and not any other.

But there is still more to be done. In particular, I think we need to be more adventurous in how we craft and report the case, and I have made several suggestions in the text as to how this could be done. I suspect also that we may have been too cautious in the past in how we justified case study research, borrowing concepts from other disciplines and forms of educational research. Fifty years on, it is time to take a greater risk—in demonstrating the intrinsic nature of case study research and what it can offer our understanding of human and social situations.

I have already drawn attention to the need to design the case, although this could be developed further to accentuate the uniqueness of the particular case. One way to do this is to feature individuals more in the design itself, not only to explore programs and policies through perspectives of key actors or groups and transactions between them, which to some extent happens already, but also to get them to characterize what makes the context unique. This is the reversal of many a design framework that starts with the logic of a program and takes forward the argument for personalizing evaluation (Kushner, 2000 ) on the grounds that it is through individuals that programs and policies are enacted. Apart from this attention to design, there are three other issues I think we need to explore further: the warrant for creative methods in case study, more imaginative reporting, and how we learn from a study of the singular.

Warrant for More Creative Methods in Case Study Research

The promise that creative methods have for eliciting in-depth understanding and capturing the unusual, the idiosyncratic, the uniqueness of the case, was mentioned in the methods section. Yet, in case study research, particularly in program and policy contexts, we have few good examples of the use of artistic approaches for eliciting and interpreting data, although there are more, indicated below for presenting it. This may be because case study research is often conducted in academic or policy environments, where propositional ways of knowing are more valued.

Using creative and artistic forms in generating and interpreting case study data offers a form of evidence that acknowledges experiential understanding in illuminating the uniqueness of the case. The question is how to establish the warrant for this way of knowing and persuade others of its virtue. The answer is simple: by demonstrating the use of these methods in action, by arguing for a different form of validity that matches the intrinsic nature of the method, and, above all, by good examples. I earlier noted the impact that Elliott’s CD of men with brain damage had on audiences beyond the case. Rugang ( 2006 ) also used the CD form, two in this instance, presenting contrasting photographs of a “new” culture and an old culture in one province in China. These told the story well, as did a narrative poem by Duke ( 2007 ) of her leadership illustrating how she performed her role as a nurse consultant with responsibility to help other nurses research concurrent with her usual job as a senior nurse.

Re-presenting Findings to Engage Audiences in Learning

In evaluative and research policy contexts, where case study is often the main mode of inquiry or part of a broader study, case study reports often take a formal structure or, sometimes, where the context is receptive, a portrayal or interpretative form. But, too often, the qualitative is an add-on to a story told by other means or reduced to issues in which the people who gave rise to the data are no longer seen. However, there are many ways to put them center stage.

Tell good stories and tell them well. Or, let key actors tell their own stories in narrative or on video. Explore the different ways technology can help. Make video clips that demonstrate events in context, illustrate interactions between people, give voice to participants—show the reality of the program, in other words. Use graphics to summarize key issues and interactive cartoon technology, as seen on some TED presentations, to summarize and visually show the complexity of the case. Explore the data visualization techniques now becoming widely available. Video diaries were mentioned in the methods section: seeing individuals tell their tales directly is a powerful way of communicating, unhindered by “our” sense making. Tell photo stories. Let the photos convey the narrative, but make sure the structure of the narrative is evident to ensure coherence. These are just the beginnings. Those skilled in information technology could no doubt stretch our imagination further.

One problem and a further question concerns our audiences. In your thesis you may well have scope to experiment with some of these alternative forms of presentation. In other contexts—I am thinking here of policy makers and commissioners—it may be more challenging, and you may wonder if they will accept these alternative modes of communication. Maybe not, in some cases. However, there are three points I wish to leave you with. First, if people are fully present in the story and the complexity is not diminished, those reading, watching, or hearing about the case will get the message. If you are worried about how commissioners might respond, remember that they are no different from any other stakeholder or participant when it comes to how they learn from human experience. Witness the reference to Okri ( 1997 ) earlier about how we learn and Stake’s ( 2010 ) reminder of how we generalize from the particular in everyday life.

Second, when you detect that the context requires a more formal presentation of findings, respond according to expectation, but also include elements of other forms of presentation. Nudge a little in the direction of creativity. Third, simply take a chance. Challenge the status quo. Find situations and contexts where you can fully represent the qualitative nature of the experience in the cases you study with creative forms of interpretation and representation. And let the audience decide.

Learning from a Study of the Singular

Finally, to return to the issue of “generalization” in case study that worries some audiences. I pointed out in the generalization section several ways in which it is possible to generalize from case study research, not in a formal propositional sense or from a case to a population, but by retaining a connection with the context in which the generalization first arose—that is, to realize in-depth understanding in context in different circumstances and situations. However, I also emphasized that, in many instances, it is particularization from which we learn. That is the point of the singular case study, and it is an art to perceive and craft the case in ways that we can.

Acknowledgments

Parts of this chapter build on ideas first explored in Simons ( 2009 ).

I am grateful to Bob Williams for pointing out the relevance of this quotation from Reynolds to remind us that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that we sometimes continue to engage endlessly in debates that have been well rehearsed before.

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Writing a Case Study

Hands holding a world globe

What is a case study?

A Map of the world with hands holding a pen.

A Case study is: 

  • An in-depth research design that primarily uses a qualitative methodology but sometimes​​ includes quantitative methodology.
  • Used to examine an identifiable problem confirmed through research.
  • Used to investigate an individual, group of people, organization, or event.
  • Used to mostly answer "how" and "why" questions.

What are the different types of case studies?

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Note: These are the primary case studies. As you continue to research and learn

about case studies you will begin to find a robust list of different types. 

Who are your case study participants?

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What is triangulation ? 

Validity and credibility are an essential part of the case study. Therefore, the researcher should include triangulation to ensure trustworthiness while accurately reflecting what the researcher seeks to investigate.

Triangulation image with examples

How to write a Case Study?

When developing a case study, there are different ways you could present the information, but remember to include the five parts for your case study.

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The case study approach

Sarah crowe.

1 Division of Primary Care, The University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

Kathrin Cresswell

2 Centre for Population Health Sciences, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Ann Robertson

3 School of Health in Social Science, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Anthony Avery

Aziz sheikh.

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.

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 ​ Tables1, 1 , ​ ,2, 2 , ​ ,3 3 and ​ and4) 4 ) and those of others to illustrate our discussion[ 3 - 7 ].

Example of a case study investigating the reasons for differences in recruitment rates of minority ethnic people in asthma research[ 3 ]

Example of a case study investigating the process of planning and implementing a service in Primary Care Organisations[ 4 ]

Example of a case study investigating the introduction of the electronic health records[ 5 ]

Example of a case study investigating the formal and informal ways students learn about patient safety[ 6 ]

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 ​ (Table5), 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.

Definitions of a case study

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 ​ (Table1), 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 ​ Tables2, 2 , ​ ,3 3 and ​ and4) 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 ​ (Table2) 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 ​ Tables2 2 and ​ and3, 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 ​ (Table4 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 ​ (Table6). 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 ].

Example of epistemological approaches that may be used in case study research

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 ​ Table7 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 ].

Example of a checklist for rating a case study proposal[ 8 ]

For example, in our evaluation of the introduction of electronic health records in English hospitals (Table ​ (Table3), 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 ​ (Table1) 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 ​ Table3) 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 ​ (Table2 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 ​ (Table1 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 ​ (Table3 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 ​ (Table4 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 ​ Table3, 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 ​ (Table4), 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 ​ Table8 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 ​ (Table9 9 )[ 8 ].

Potential pitfalls and mitigating actions when undertaking case study research

Stake's checklist for assessing the quality of a case study report[ 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.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

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.

Pre-publication history

The pre-publication history for this paper can be accessed here:

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2288/11/100/prepub

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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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, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience 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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  • Roberta Heale 1 ,
  • Alison Twycross 2
  • 1 School of Nursing , Laurentian University , Sudbury , Ontario , Canada
  • 2 School of Health and Social Care , London South Bank University , London , UK
  • Correspondence to Dr Roberta Heale, School of Nursing, Laurentian University, Sudbury, ON P3E2C6, Canada; rheale{at}laurentian.ca

https://doi.org/10.1136/eb-2017-102845

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What is it?

Case study is a research methodology, typically seen in social and life sciences. 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 some other unit in which the researcher examines in-depth data relating to several variables. 2

Often there are several similar cases to consider such as educational or social service programmes that are delivered from a number of locations. Although similar, they are complex and have unique features. In these circumstances, the evaluation of several, similar cases will provide a better answer to a research question than if only one case is examined, hence the multiple-case study. Stake asserts that the cases are grouped and viewed as one entity, called the quintain . 6  ‘We study what is similar and different about the cases to understand the quintain better’. 6

The steps when using case study methodology are the same as for other types of research. 6 The first step is defining the single case or identifying a group of similar cases that can then be incorporated into a multiple-case study. A search to determine what is known about the case(s) is typically conducted. This may include a review of the literature, grey literature, media, reports and more, which serves to establish a basic understanding of the cases and informs the development of research questions. Data in case studies are often, but not exclusively, qualitative in nature. In multiple-case studies, analysis within cases and across cases is conducted. Themes arise from the analyses and assertions about the cases as a whole, or the quintain, emerge. 6

Benefits and limitations of case studies

If a researcher wants to study a specific phenomenon arising from a particular entity, then a single-case study is warranted and will allow for a in-depth understanding of the single phenomenon and, as discussed above, would involve collecting several different types of data. This is illustrated in example 1 below.

Using a multiple-case research study allows for a more in-depth understanding of the cases as a unit, through comparison of similarities and differences of the individual cases embedded within the quintain. Evidence arising from multiple-case studies is often stronger and more reliable than from single-case research. Multiple-case studies allow for more comprehensive exploration of research questions and theory development. 6

Despite the advantages of case studies, there are limitations. The sheer volume of data is difficult to organise and data analysis and integration strategies need to be carefully thought through. There is also sometimes a temptation to veer away from the research focus. 2 Reporting of findings from multiple-case research studies is also challenging at times, 1 particularly in relation to the word limits for some journal papers.

Examples of case studies

Example 1: nurses’ paediatric pain management practices.

One of the authors of this paper (AT) has used a case study approach to explore nurses’ paediatric pain management practices. This involved collecting several datasets:

Observational data to gain a picture about actual pain management practices.

Questionnaire data about nurses’ knowledge about paediatric pain management practices and how well they felt they managed pain in children.

Questionnaire data about how critical nurses perceived pain management tasks to be.

These datasets were analysed separately and then compared 7–9 and demonstrated that nurses’ level of theoretical did not impact on the quality of their pain management practices. 7 Nor did individual nurse’s perceptions of how critical a task was effect the likelihood of them carrying out this task in practice. 8 There was also a difference in self-reported and observed practices 9 ; actual (observed) practices did not confirm to best practice guidelines, whereas self-reported practices tended to.

Example 2: quality of care for complex patients at Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinics (NPLCs)

The other author of this paper (RH) has conducted a multiple-case study to determine the quality of care for patients with complex clinical presentations in NPLCs in Ontario, Canada. 10 Five NPLCs served as individual cases that, together, represented the quatrain. Three types of data were collected including:

Review of documentation related to the NPLC model (media, annual reports, research articles, grey literature and regulatory legislation).

Interviews with nurse practitioners (NPs) practising at the five NPLCs to determine their perceptions of the impact of the NPLC model on the quality of care provided to patients with multimorbidity.

Chart audits conducted at the five NPLCs to determine the extent to which evidence-based guidelines were followed for patients with diabetes and at least one other chronic condition.

The three sources of data collected from the five NPLCs were analysed and themes arose related to the quality of care for complex patients at NPLCs. The multiple-case study confirmed that nurse practitioners are the primary care providers at the NPLCs, and this positively impacts the quality of care for patients with multimorbidity. Healthcare policy, such as lack of an increase in salary for NPs for 10 years, has resulted in issues in recruitment and retention of NPs at NPLCs. This, along with insufficient resources in the communities where NPLCs are located and high patient vulnerability at NPLCs, have a negative impact on the quality of care. 10

These examples illustrate how collecting data about a single case or multiple cases helps us to better understand the phenomenon in question. Case study methodology serves to provide a framework for evaluation and analysis of complex issues. It shines a light on the holistic nature of nursing practice and offers a perspective that informs improved patient care.

  • Gustafsson J
  • Calanzaro M
  • Sandelowski M

Competing interests None declared.

Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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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 research in

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

case study research in

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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Qualitative Research in the Post-Modern Era pp 233–285 Cite as

Case Study Research

  • Robert E. White   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8045-164X 3 &
  • Karyn Cooper 4  
  • First Online: 29 September 2022

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As a footnote to the previous chapter, there is such a beast known as the ethnographic case study. Ethnographic case study has found its way into this chapter rather than into the previous one because of grammatical considerations. Simply put, the “case study” part of the phrase is the noun (with “case” as an adjective defining what kind of study it is), while the “ethnographic” part of the phrase is an adjective defining the type of case study that is being conducted. As such, the case study becomes the methodology, while the ethnography part refers to a method, mode or approach relating to the development of the study.

The experiential account that we get from a case study or qualitative research of a similar vein is just so necessary. How things happen over time and the degree to which they are subject to personality and how they are only gradually perceived as tolerable or intolerable by the communities and the groups that are involved is so important. Robert Stake, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Robert E. White

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A Case in Case Study Methodology

Christine Benedichte Meyer

Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration

Meyer, C. B. (2001). A Case in Case Study Methodology. Field Methods 13 (4), 329-352.

The purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive view of the case study process from the researcher’s perspective, emphasizing methodological considerations. As opposed to other qualitative or quantitative research strategies, such as grounded theory or surveys, there are virtually no specific requirements guiding case research. This is both the strength and the weakness of this approach. It is a strength because it allows tailoring the design and data collection procedures to the research questions. On the other hand, this approach has resulted in many poor case studies, leaving it open to criticism, especially from the quantitative field of research. This article argues that there is a particular need in case studies to be explicit about the methodological choices one makes. This implies discussing the wide range of decisions concerned with design requirements, data collection procedures, data analysis, and validity and reliability. The approach here is to illustrate these decisions through a particular case study of two mergers in the financial industry in Norway.

In the past few years, a number of books have been published that give useful guidance in conducting qualitative studies (Gummesson 1988; Cassell & Symon 1994; Miles & Huberman 1994; Creswell 1998; Flick 1998; Rossman & Rallis 1998; Bryman & Burgess 1999; Marshall & Rossman 1999; Denzin & Lincoln 2000). One approach often mentioned is the case study (Yin 1989). Case studies are widely used in organizational studies in the social science disciplines of sociology, industrial relations, and anthropology (Hartley 1994). Such a study consists of detailed investigation of one or more organizations, or groups within organizations, with a view to providing an analysis of the context and processes involved in the phenomenon under study.

As opposed to other qualitative or quantitative research strategies, such as grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967) or surveys (Nachmias & Nachmias 1981), there are virtually no specific requirements guiding case research. Yin (1989) and Eisenhardt (1989) give useful insights into the case study as a research strategy, but leave most of the design decisions on the table. This is both the strength and the weakness of this approach. It is a strength because it allows tailoring the design and data collection procedures to the research questions. On the other hand, this approach has resulted in many poor case studies, leaving it open to criticism, especially from the quantitative field of research (Cook and Campbell 1979). The fact that the case study is a rather loose design implies that there are a number of choices that need to be addressed in a principled way.

Although case studies have become a common research strategy, the scope of methodology sections in articles published in journals is far too limited to give the readers a detailed and comprehensive view of the decisions taken in the particular studies, and, given the format of methodology sections, will remain so. The few books (Yin 1989, 1993; Hamel, Dufour, & Fortin 1993; Stake 1995) and book chapters on case studies (Hartley 1994; Silverman 2000) are, on the other hand, mainly normative and span a broad range of different kinds of case studies. One exception is Pettigrew (1990, 1992), who places the case study in the context of a research tradition (the Warwick process research).

Given the contextual nature of the case study and its strength in addressing contemporary phenomena in real-life contexts, I believe that there is a need for articles that provide a comprehensive overview of the case study process from the researcher’s perspective, emphasizing methodological considerations. This implies addressing the whole range of choices concerning specific design requirements, data collection procedures, data analysis, and validity and reliability.

WHY A CASE STUDY?

Case studies are tailor-made for exploring new processes or behaviors or ones that are little understood (Hartley 1994). Hence, the approach is particularly useful for responding to how and why questions about a contemporary set of events (Leonard-Barton 1990). Moreover, researchers have argued that certain kinds of information can be difficult or even impossible to tackle by means other than qualitative approaches such as the case study (Sykes 1990). Gummesson (1988:76) argues that an important advantage of case study research is the opportunity for a holistic view of the process: “The detailed observations entailed in the case study method enable us to study many different aspects, examine them in relation to each other, view the process within its total environment and also use the researchers’ capacity for ‘verstehen.’ ”

The contextual nature of the case study is illustrated in Yin’s (1993:59) definition of a case study as an empirical inquiry that “investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context and addresses a situation in which the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident.”

The key difference between the case study and other qualitative designs such as grounded theory and ethnography (Glaser & Strauss 1967; Strauss & Corbin 1990; Gioia & Chittipeddi 1991) is that the case study is open to the use of theory or conceptual categories that guide the research and analysis of data. In contrast, grounded theory or ethnography presupposes that theoretical perspectives are grounded in and emerge from firsthand data. Hartley (1994) argues that without a theoretical framework, the researcher is in severe danger of providing description without meaning. Gummesson (1988) says that a lack of preunderstanding will cause the researcher to spend considerable time gathering basic information. This preunderstanding may arise from general knowledge such as theories, models, and concepts or from specific knowledge of institutional conditions and social patterns. According to Gummesson, the key is not to require researchers to have split but dual personalities: “Those who are able to balance on a razor’s edge using their pre-understanding without being its slave” (p. 58).

DESCRIPTION OF THE ILLUSTRATIVE STUDY

The study that will be used for illustrative purposes is a comparative and longitudinal case study of organizational integration in mergers and acquisitions taking place in Norway. The study had two purposes: (1) to identify contextual factors and features of integration that facilitated or impeded organizational integration, and (2) to study how the three dimensions of organizational integration (integration of tasks, unification of power, and integration of cultures and identities) interrelated and evolved over time. Examples of contextual factors were relative power, degree of friendliness, and economic climate. Integration features included factors such as participation, communication, and allocation of positions and functions.

Mergers and acquisitions are inherently complex. Researchers in the field have suggested that managers continuously underestimate the task of integrating the merging organizations in the postintegration process (Haspeslaph & Jemison 1991). The process of organizational integration can lead to sharp interorganizational conflict as the different top management styles, organizational and work unit cultures, systems, and other aspects of organizational life come into contact (Blake & Mounton 1985; Schweiger & Walsh 1990; Cartwright & Cooper 1993). Furthermore, cultural change in mergers and acquisitions is compounded by additional uncertainties, ambiguities, and stress inherent in the combination process (Buono & Bowditch 1989).

I focused on two combinations: one merger and one acquisition. The first case was a merger between two major Norwegian banks, Bergen Bank and DnC (to be named DnB), that started in the late 1980s. The second case was a study of a major acquisition in the insurance industry (i.e., Gjensidige’s acquisition of Forenede), that started in the early 1990s. Both combinations aimed to realize operational synergies though merging the two organizations into one entity. This implied disruption of organizational boundaries and threat to the existing power distribution and organizational cultures.

The study of integration processes in mergers and acquisitions illustrates the need to find a design that opens for exploration of sensitive issues such as power struggles between the two merging organizations. Furthermore, the inherent complexity in the integration process, involving integration of tasks, unification of power, and cultural integration stressed the need for in-depth study of the phenomenon over time. To understand the cultural integration process, the design also had to be linked to the past history of the two organizations.

DESIGN DECISIONS

In the introduction, I stressed that a case is a rather loose design that requires that a number of design choices be made. In this section, I go through the most important choices I faced in the study of organizational integration in mergers and acquisitions. These include: (1) selection of cases; (2) sampling time; (3) choosing business areas, divisions, and sites; and (4) selection of and choices regarding data collection procedures, interviews, documents, and observation.

Selection of Cases

There are several choices involved in selecting cases. First, there is the question of how many cases to include. Second, one must sample cases and decide on a unit of analysis. I will explore these issues subsequently.

Single or Multiple Cases

Case studies can involve single or multiple cases. The problem of single cases is limitations in generalizability and several information-processing biases (Eisenhardt 1989).

One way to respond to these biases is by applying a multi-case approach (Leonard-Barton 1990). Multiple cases augment external validity and help guard against observer biases. Moreover, multi-case sampling adds confidence to findings. By looking at a range of similar and contrasting cases, we can understand a single-case finding, grounding it by specifying how and where and, if possible, why it behaves as it does. (Miles & Huberman 1994)

Given these limitations of the single case study, it is desirable to include more than one case study in the study. However, the desire for depth and a pluralist perspective and tracking the cases over time implies that the number of cases must be fairly few. I chose two cases, which clearly does not support generalizability any more than does one case, but allows for comparison and contrast between the cases as well as a deeper and richer look at each case.

Originally, I planned to include a third case in the study. Due to changes in management during the initial integration process, my access to the case was limited and I left this case entirely. However, a positive side effect was that it allowed a deeper investigation of the two original cases and in hindsight turned out to be a good decision.

Sampling Cases

The logic of sampling cases is fundamentally different from statistical sampling. The logic in case studies involves theoretical sampling, in which the goal is to choose cases that are likely to replicate or extend the emergent theory or to fill theoretical categories and provide examples for polar types (Eisenhardt 1989). Hence, whereas quantitative sampling concerns itself with representativeness, qualitative sampling seeks information richness and selects the cases purposefully rather than randomly (Crabtree and Miller 1992).

The choice of cases was guided by George (1979) and Pettigrew’s (1990) recommendations. The aim was to find cases that matched the three dimensions in the dependent variable and provided variation in the contextual factors, thus representing polar cases.

To match the choice of outcome variable, organizational integration, I chose cases in which the purpose was to fully consolidate the merging parties’ operations. A full consolidation would imply considerable disruption in the organizational boundaries and would be expected to affect the task-related, political, and cultural features of the organizations. As for the contextual factors, the two cases varied in contextual factors such as relative power, friendliness, and economic climate. The DnB merger was a friendly combination between two equal partners in an unfriendly economic climate. Gjensidige’s acquisition of Forenede was, in contrast, an unfriendly and unbalanced acquisition in a friendly economic climate.

Unit of Analysis

Another way to respond to researchers’ and respondents’ biases is to have more than one unit of analysis in each case (Yin 1993). This implies that, in addition to developing contrasts between the cases, researchers can focus on contrasts within the cases (Hartley 1994). In case studies, there is a choice of a holistic or embedded design (Yin 1989). A holistic design examines the global nature of the phenomenon, whereas an embedded design also pays attention to subunit(s).

I used an embedded design to analyze the cases (i.e., within each case, I also gave attention to subunits and subprocesses). In both cases, I compared the combination processes in the various divisions and local networks. Moreover, I compared three distinct change processes in DnB: before the merger, during the initial combination, and two years after the merger. The overall and most important unit of analysis in the two cases was, however, the integration process.

Sampling Time

According to Pettigrew (1990), time sets a reference for what changes can be seen and how those changes are explained. When conducting a case study, there are several important issues to decide when sampling time. The first regards how many times data should be collected, while the second concerns when to enter the organizations. There is also a need to decide whether to collect data on a continuous basis or in distinct periods.

Number of data collections. I studied the process by collecting real time and retrospective data at two points in time, with one-and-a-half- and two-year intervals in the two cases. Collecting data twice had some interesting implications for the interpretations of the data. During the first data collection in the DnB study, for example, I collected retrospective data about the premerger and initial combination phase and real-time data about the second step in the combination process.

Although I gained a picture of how the employees experienced the second stage of the combination process, it was too early to assess the effects of this process at that stage. I entered the organization two years later and found interesting effects that I had not anticipated the first time. Moreover, it was interesting to observe how people’s attitudes toward the merger processes changed over time to be more positive and less emotional.

When to enter the organizations. It would be desirable to have had the opportunity to collect data in the precombination processes. However, researchers are rarely given access in this period due to secrecy. The emphasis in this study was to focus on the postcombination process. As such, the precombination events were classified as contextual factors. This implied that it was most important to collect real-time data after the parties had been given government approval to merge or acquire. What would have been desirable was to gain access earlier in the postcombination process. This was not possible because access had to be negotiated. Due to the change of CEO in the middle of the merger process and the need for renegotiating access, this took longer than expected.

Regarding the second case, I was restricted by the time frame of the study. In essence, I had to choose between entering the combination process as soon as governmental approval was given, or entering the organization at a later stage. In light of the previous studies in the field that have failed to go beyond the initial two years, and given the need to collect data about the cultural integration process, I chose the latter strategy. And I decided to enter the organizations at two distinct periods of time rather than on a continuous basis.

There were several reasons for this approach, some methodological and some practical. First, data collection on a continuous basis would have required use of extensive observation that I didn’t have access to, and getting access to two data collections in DnB was difficult in itself. Second, I had a stay abroad between the first and second data collection in Gjensidige. Collecting data on a continuous basis would probably have allowed for better mapping of the ongoing integration process, but the contrasts between the two different stages in the integration process that I wanted to elaborate would probably be more difficult to detect. In Table 1 I have listed the periods of time in which I collected data in the two combinations.

Sampling Business Areas, Divisions, and Sites

Even when the cases for a study have been chosen, it is often necessary to make further choices within each case to make the cases researchable. The most important criteria that set the boundaries for the study are importance or criticality, relevance, and representativeness. At the time of the data collection, my criteria for making these decisions were not as conscious as they may appear here. Rather, being restricted by time and my own capacity as a researcher, I had to limit the sites and act instinctively. In both cases, I decided to concentrate on the core businesses (criticality criterion) and left out the business units that were only mildly affected by the integration process (relevance criterion). In the choice of regional offices, I used the representativeness criterion as the number of offices widely exceeded the number of sites possible to study. In making these choices, I relied on key informants in the organizations.

SELECTION OF DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURES

The choice of data collection procedures should be guided by the research question and the choice of design. The case study approach typically combines data collection methods such as archives, interviews, questionnaires, and observations (Yin 1989). This triangulated methodology provides stronger substantiation of constructs and hypotheses. However, the choice of data collection methods is also subject to constraints in time, financial resources, and access.

I chose a combination of interviews, archives, and observation, with main emphasis on the first two. Conducting a survey was inappropriate due to the lack of established concepts and indicators. The reason for limited observation, on the other hand, was due to problems in obtaining access early in the study and time and resource constraints. In addition to choosing among several different data collection methods, there are a number of choices to be made for each individual method.

When relying on interviews as the primary data collection method, the issue of building trust between the researcher and the interviewees becomes very important. I addressed this issue by several means. First, I established a procedure of how to approach the interviewees. In most cases, I called them first, then sent out a letter explaining the key features of the project and outlining the broad issues to be addressed in the interview. In this letter, the support from the institution’s top management was also communicated. In most cases, the top management’s support of the project was an important prerequisite for the respondent’s input. Some interviewees did, however, fear that their input would be open to the top management without disguising the information source. Hence, it became important to communicate how I intended to use and store the information.

To establish trust, I also actively used my preunderstanding of the context in the first case and the phenomenon in the second case. As I built up an understanding of the cases, I used this information to gain confidence. The active use of my preunderstanding did, however, pose important challenges in not revealing too much of the research hypotheses and in balancing between asking open-ended questions and appearing knowledgeable.

There are two choices involved in conducting interviews. The first concerns the sampling of interviewees. The second is that you must decide on issues such as the structure of the interviews, use of tape recorder, and involvement of other researchers.

Sampling Interviewees

Following the desire for detailed knowledge of each case and for grasping different participant’s views the aim was, in line with Pettigrew (1990), to apply a pluralist view by describing and analyzing competing versions of reality as seen by actors in the combination processes.

I used four criteria for sampling informants. First, I drew informants from populations representing multiple perspectives. The first data collection in DnB was primarily focused on the top management level. Moreover, most middle managers in the first data collection were employed at the head offices, either in Bergen or Oslo. In the second data collection, I compensated for this skew by including eight local middle managers in the sample. The difference between the number of employees interviewed in DnB and Gjensidige was primarily due to the fact that Gjensidige has three unions, whereas DnB only has one. The distribution of interviewees is outlined in Table 2 .

The second criterion was to use multiple informants. According to Glick et al. (1990), an important advantage of using multiple informants is that the validity of information provided by one informant can be checked against that provided by other informants. Moreover, the validity of the data used by the researcher can be enhanced by resolving the discrepancies among different informants’ reports. Hence, I selected multiple respondents from each perspective.

Third, I focused on key informants who were expected to be knowledgeable about the combination process. These people included top management members, managers, and employees involved in the integration project. To validate the information from these informants, I also used a fourth criterion by selecting managers and employees who had been affected by the process but who were not involved in the project groups.

Structured versus unstructured. In line with the explorative nature of the study, the goal of the interviews was to see the research topic from the perspective of the interviewee, and to understand why he or she came to have this particular perspective. To meet this goal, King (1994:15) recommends that one have “a low degree of structure imposed on the interviewer, a preponderance of open questions, a focus on specific situations and action sequences in the world of the interviewee rather than abstractions and general opinions.” In line with these recommendations, the collection of primary data in this study consists of unstructured interviews.

Using tape recorders and involving other researchers. The majority of the interviews were tape-recorded, and I could thus concentrate fully on asking questions and responding to the interviewees’ answers. In the few interviews that were not tape-recorded, most of which were conducted in the first phase of the DnB-study, two researchers were present. This was useful as we were both able to discuss the interviews later and had feedback on the role of an interviewer.

In hindsight, however, I wish that these interviews had been tape-recorded to maintain the level of accuracy and richness of data. Hence, in the next phases of data collection, I tape-recorded all interviews, with two exceptions (people who strongly opposed the use of this device). All interviews that were tape-recorded were transcribed by me in full, which gave me closeness and a good grasp of the data.

When organizations merge or make acquisitions, there are often a vast number of documents to choose from to build up an understanding of what has happened and to use in the analyses. Furthermore, when firms make acquisitions or merge, they often hire external consultants, each of whom produces more documents. Due to time constraints, it is seldom possible to collect and analyze all these documents, and thus the researcher has to make a selection.

The choice of documentation was guided by my previous experience with merger and acquisition processes and the research question. Hence, obtaining information on the postintegration process was more important than gaining access to the due-diligence analysis. As I learned about the process, I obtained more documents on specific issues. I did not, however, gain access to all the documents I asked for, and, in some cases, documents had been lost or shredded.

The documents were helpful in a number of ways. First, and most important, they were used as inputs to the interview guide and saved me time, because I did not have to ask for facts in the interviews. They were also useful for tracing the history of the organizations and statements made by key people in the organizations. Third, the documents were helpful in counteracting the biases of the interviews. A list of the documents used in writing the cases is shown in Table 3 .

Observation

The major strength of direct observation is that it is unobtrusive and does not require direct interaction with participants (Adler and Adler 1994). Observation produces rigor when it is combined with other methods. When the researcher has access to group processes, direct observation can illuminate the discrepancies between what people said in the interviews and casual conversations and what they actually do (Pettigrew 1990).

As with interviews, there are a number of choices involved in conducting observations. Although I did some observations in the study, I used interviews as the key data collection source. Discussion in this article about observations will thus be somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I faced a number of choices in conducting observations, including type of observation, when to enter, how much observation to conduct, and which groups to observe.

The are four ways in which an observer may gather data: (1) the complete participant who operates covertly, concealing any intention to observe the setting; (2) the participant-as-observer, who forms relationships and participates in activities, but makes no secret of his or her intentions to observe events; (3) the observer-as-participant, who maintains only superficial contact with the people being studied; and (4) the complete observer, who merely stands back and eavesdrops on the proceedings (Waddington 1994).

In this study, I used the second and third ways of observing. The use of the participant-as-observer mode, on which much ethnographic research is based, was rather limited in the study. There were two reasons for this. First, I had limited time available for collecting data, and in my view interviews made more effective use of this limited time than extensive participant observation. Second, people were rather reluctant to let me observe these political and sensitive processes until they knew me better and felt I could be trusted. Indeed, I was dependent on starting the data collection before having built sufficient trust to observe key groups in the integration process. Nevertheless, Gjensidige allowed me to study two employee seminars to acquaint me with the organization. Here I admitted my role as an observer but participated fully in the activities. To achieve variation, I chose two seminars representing polar groups of employees.

As observer-as-participant, I attended a top management meeting at the end of the first data collection in Gjensidige and observed the respondents during interviews and in more informal meetings, such as lunches. All these observations gave me an opportunity to validate the data from the interviews. Observing the top management group was by far the most interesting and rewarding in terms of input.

Both DnB and Gjensidige started to open up for more extensive observation when I was about to finish the data collection. By then, I had built up the trust needed to undertake this approach. Unfortunately, this came a little late for me to take advantage of it.

DATA ANALYSIS

Published studies generally describe research sites and data-collection methods, but give little space to discuss the analysis (Eisenhardt 1989). Thus, one cannot follow how a researcher arrives at the final conclusions from a large volume of field notes (Miles and Huberman 1994).

In this study, I went through the stages by which the data were reduced and analyzed. This involved establishing the chronology, coding, writing up the data according to phases and themes, introducing organizational integration into the analysis, comparing the cases, and applying the theory. I will discuss these phases accordingly.

The first step in the analysis was to establish the chronology of the cases. To do this, I used internal and external documents. I wrote the chronologies up and included appendices in the final report.

The next step was to code the data into phases and themes reflecting the contextual factors and features of integration. For the interviews, this implied marking the text with a specific phase and a theme, and grouping the paragraphs on the same theme and phase together. I followed the same procedure in organizing the documents.

I then wrote up the cases using phases and themes to structure them. Before starting to write up the cases, I scanned the information on each theme, built up the facts and filled in with perceptions and reactions that were illustrative and representative of the data.

The documents were primarily useful in establishing the facts, but they also provided me with some perceptions and reactions that were validated in the interviews. The documents used included internal letters and newsletters as well as articles from the press. The interviews were less factual, as intended, and gave me input to assess perceptions and reactions. The limited observation was useful to validate the data from the interviews. The result of this step was two descriptive cases.

To make each case more analytical, I introduced the three dimensions of organizational integration—integration of tasks, unification of power, and cultural integration—into the analysis. This helped to focus the case and to develop a framework that could be used to compare the cases. The cases were thus structured according to phases, organizational integration, and themes reflecting the factors and features in the study.

I took all these steps to become more familiar with each case as an individual entity. According to Eisenhardt (1989:540), this is a process that “allows the unique patterns of each case to emerge before the investigators push to generalise patterns across cases. In addition it gives investigators a rich familiarity with each case which, in turn, accelerates cross-case comparison.”

The comparison between the cases constituted the next step in the analysis. Here, I used the categories from the case chapters, filled in the features and factors, and compared and contrasted the findings. The idea behind cross-case searching tactics is to force investigators to go beyond initial impressions, especially through the use of structural and diverse lenses on the data. These tactics improve the likelihood of accurate and reliable theory, that is, theory with a close fit to the data (Eisenhardt 1989).

As a result, I had a number of overall themes, concepts, and relationships that had emerged from the within-case analysis and cross-case comparisons. The next step was to compare these emergent findings with theory from the organizational field of mergers and acquisitions, as well as other relevant perspectives.

This method of generalization is known as analytical generalization. In this approach, a previously developed theory is used as a template with which to compare the empirical results of the case study (Yin 1989). This comparison of emergent concepts, theory, or hypotheses with the extant literature involves asking what it is similar to, what it contradicts, and why. The key to this process is to consider a broad range of theory (Eisenhardt 1989). On the whole, linking emergent theory to existent literature enhances the internal validity, generalizability, and theoretical level of theory-building from case research.

According to Eisenhardt (1989), examining literature that conflicts with the emergent literature is important for two reasons. First, the chance of neglecting conflicting findings is reduced. Second, “conflicting results forces researchers into a more creative, frame-breaking mode of thinking than they might otherwise be able to achieve” (p. 544). Similarly, Eisenhardt (1989) claims that literature discussing similar findings is important because it ties together underlying similarities in phenomena not normally associated with each other. The result is often a theory with a stronger internal validity, wider generalizability, and a higher conceptual level.

The analytical generalization in the study included exploring and developing the concepts and examining the relationships between the constructs. In carrying out this analytical generalization, I acted on Eisenhardt’s (1989) recommendation to use a broad range of theory. First, I compared and contrasted the findings with the organizational stream on mergers and acquisition literature. Then I discussed other relevant literatures, including strategic change, power and politics, social justice, and social identity theory to explore how these perspectives could contribute to the understanding of the findings. Finally, I discussed the findings that could not be explained either by the merger and acquisition literature or the four theoretical perspectives.

In every scientific study, questions are raised about whether the study is valid and reliable. The issues of validity and reliability in case studies are just as important as for more deductive designs, but the application is fundamentally different.

VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY

The problems of validity in qualitative studies are related to the fact that most qualitative researchers work alone in the field, they focus on the findings rather than describe how the results were reached, and they are limited in processing information (Miles and Huberman 1994).

Researchers writing about qualitative methods have questioned whether the same criteria can be used for qualitative and quantitative studies (Kirk & Miller 1986; Sykes 1990; Maxwell 1992). The problem with the validity criteria suggested in qualitative research is that there is little consistency across the articles as each author suggests a new set of criteria.

One approach in examining validity and reliability is to apply the criteria used in quantitative research. Hence, the criteria to be examined here are objectivity/intersubjectivity, construct validity, internal validity, external validity, and reliability.

Objectivity/Intersubjectivity

The basic issue of objectivity can be framed as one of relative neutrality and reasonable freedom from unacknowledged research biases (Miles & Huberman 1994). In a real-time longitudinal study, the researcher is in danger of losing objectivity and of becoming too involved with the organization, the people, and the process. Hence, Leonard-Barton (1990) claims that one may be perceived as, and may even become, an advocate rather than an observer.

According to King (1994), however, qualitative research, in seeking to describe and make sense of the world, does not require researchers to strive for objectivity and distance themselves from research participants. Indeed, to do so would make good qualitative research impossible, as the interviewer’s sensitivity to subjective aspects of his or her relationship with the interviewee is an essential part of the research process (King 1994:31).

This does not imply, however, that the issue of possible research bias can be ignored. It is just as important as in a structured quantitative interview that the findings are not simply the product of the researcher’s prejudices and prior experience. One way to guard against this bias is for the researcher to explicitly recognize his or her presuppositions and to make a conscious effort to set these aside in the analysis (Gummesson 1988). Furthermore, rival conclusions should be considered (Miles & Huberman 1994).

My experience from the first phase of the DnB study was that it was difficult to focus the questions and the analysis of the data when the research questions were too vague and broad. As such, developing a framework before collecting the data for the study was useful in guiding the collection and analysis of data. Nevertheless, it was important to be open-minded and receptive to new and surprising data. In the DnB study, for example, the positive effect of the reorganization process on the integration of cultures came as a complete surprise to me and thus needed further elaboration.

I also consciously searched for negative evidence and problems by interviewing outliers (Miles & Huberman 1994) and asking problem-oriented questions. In Gjensidige, the first interviews with the top management revealed a much more positive perception of the cultural integration process than I had expected. To explore whether this was a result of overreliance on elite informants, I continued posing problem-oriented questions to outliers and people at lower levels in the organization. Moreover, I told them about the DnB study to be explicit about my presuppositions.

Another important issue when assessing objectivity is whether other researchers can trace the interpretations made in the case studies, or what is called intersubjectivity. To deal with this issue, Miles & Huberman (1994) suggest that: (1) the study’s general methods and procedures should be described in detail, (2) one should be able to follow the process of analysis, (3) conclusions should be explicitly linked with exhibits of displayed data, and (4) the data from the study should be made available for reanalysis by others.

In response to these requirements, I described the study’s data collection procedures and processing in detail. Then, the primary data were displayed in the written report in the form of quotations and extracts from documents to support and illustrate the interpretations of the data. Because the study was written up in English, I included the Norwegian text in a separate appendix. Finally, all the primary data from the study were accessible for a small group of distinguished researchers.

Construct Validity

Construct validity refers to whether there is substantial evidence that the theoretical paradigm correctly corresponds to observation (Kirk & Miller 1986). In this form of validity, the issue is the legitimacy of the application of a given concept or theory to established facts.

The strength of qualitative research lies in the flexible and responsive interaction between the interviewer and the respondents (Sykes 1990). Thus, meaning can be probed, topics covered easily from a number of angles, and questions made clear for respondents. This is an advantage for exploring the concepts (construct or theoretical validity) and the relationships between them (internal validity). Similarly, Hakim (1987) says the great strength of qualitative research is the validity of data obtained because individuals are interviewed in sufficient detail for the results to be taken as true, correct, and believable reports of their views and experiences.

Construct validity can be strengthened by applying a longitudinal multicase approach, triangulation, and use of feedback loops. The advantage of applying a longitudinal approach is that one gets the opportunity to test sensitivity of construct measures to the passage of time. Leonard-Barton (1990), for example, found that one of her main constructs, communicability, varied across time and relative to different groups of users. Thus, the longitudinal study aided in defining the construct more precisely. By using more than one case study, one can validate stability of construct across situations (Leonard-Barton 1990). Since my study only consists of two case studies, the opportunity to test stability of constructs across cases is somewhat limited. However, the use of more than one unit of analysis helps to overcome this limitation.

Construct validity is strengthened by the use of multiple sources of evidence to build construct measures, which define the construct and distinguish it from other constructs. These multiple sources of evidence can include multiple viewpoints within and across the data sources. My study responds to these requirements in its sampling of interviewees and uses of multiple data sources.

Use of feedback loops implies returning to interviewees with interpretations and developing theory and actively seeking contradictions in data (Crabtree & Miller 1992; King 1994). In DnB, the written report had to be approved by the bank’s top management after the first data collection. Apart from one minor correction, the bank had no objections to the established facts. In their comments on my analysis, some of the top managers expressed the view that the political process had been overemphasized, and that the CEO’s role in initiating a strategic process was undervalued. Hence, an important objective in the second data collection was to explore these comments further. Moreover, the report was not as positive as the management had hoped for, and negotiations had to be conducted to publish the report. The result of these negotiations was that publication of the report was postponed one-and-a-half years.

The experiences from the first data collection in the DnB had some consequences. I was more cautious and brought up the problems of confidentiality and the need to publish at the outset of the Gjensidige study. Also, I had to struggle to get access to the DnB case for the second data collection and some of the information I asked for was not released. At Gjensidige, I sent a preliminary draft of the case chapter to the corporation’s top management for comments, in addition to having second interviews with a small number of people. Beside testing out the factual description, these sessions gave me the opportunity to test out the theoretical categories established as a result of the within-case analysis.

Internal Validity

Internal validity concerns the validity of the postulated relationships among the concepts. The main problem of internal validity as a criterion in qualitative research is that it is often not open to scrutiny. According to Sykes (1990), the researcher can always provide a plausible account and, with careful editing, may ensure its coherence. Recognition of this problem has led to calls for better documentation of the processes of data collection, the data itself, and the interpretative contribution of the researcher. The discussion of how I met these requirements was outlined in the section on objectivity/subjectivity above.

However, there are some advantages in using qualitative methods, too. First, the flexible and responsive methods of data collection allow cross-checking and amplification of information from individual units as it is generated. Respondents’ opinions and understandings can be thoroughly explored. The internal validity results from strategies that eliminate ambiguity and contradiction, filling in detail and establishing strong connections in data.

Second, the longitudinal study enables one to track cause and effect. Moreover, it can make one aware of intervening variables (Leonard-Barton 1990). Eisenhardt (1989:542) states, “Just as hypothesis testing research an apparent relationship may simply be a spurious correlation or may reflect the impact of some third variable on each of the other two. Therefore, it is important to discover the underlying reasons for why the relationship exists.”

Generalizability

According to Mitchell (1983), case studies are not based on statistical inference. Quite the contrary, the inferring process turns exclusively on the theoretically necessary links among the features in the case study. The validity of the extrapolation depends not on the typicality or representativeness of the case but on the cogency of the theoretical reasoning. Hartley (1994:225) claims, “The detailed knowledge of the organization and especially the knowledge about the processes underlying the behaviour and its context can help to specify the conditions under which behaviour can be expected to occur. In other words, the generalisation is about theoretical propositions not about populations.”

Generalizability is normally based on the assumption that this theory may be useful in making sense of similar persons or situations (Maxwell 1992). One way to increase the generalizability is to apply a multicase approach (Leonard-Barton 1990). The advantage of this approach is that one can replicate the findings from one case study to another. This replication logic is similar to that used on multiple experiments (Yin 1993).

Given the choice of two case studies, the generalizability criterion is not supported in this study. Through the discussion of my choices, I have tried to show that I had to strike a balance between the need for depth and mapping changes over time and the number of cases. In doing so, I deliberately chose to provide a deeper and richer look at each case, allowing the reader to make judgments about the applicability rather than making a case for generalizability.

Reliability

Reliability focuses on whether the process of the study is consistent and reasonably stable over time and across researchers and methods (Miles & Huberman 1994). In the context of qualitative research, reliability is concerned with two questions (Sykes 1990): Could the same study carried out by two researchers produce the same findings? and Could a study be repeated using the same researcher and respondents to yield the same findings?

The problem of reliability in qualitative research is that differences between replicated studies using different researchers are to be expected. However, while it may not be surprising that different researchers generate different findings and reach different conclusions, controlling for reliability may still be relevant. Kirk and Miller’s (1986:311) definition takes into account the particular relationship between the researcher’s orientation, the generation of data, and its interpretation:

For reliability to be calculated, it is incumbent on the scientific investigator to document his or her procedure. This must be accomplished at such a level of abstraction that the loci of decisions internal to the project are made apparent. The curious public deserves to know how the qualitative researcher prepares him or herself for the endeavour, and how the data is collected and analysed.

The study addresses these requirements by discussing my point of departure regarding experience and framework, the sampling and data collection procedures, and data analysis.

Case studies often lack academic rigor and are, as such, regarded as inferior to more rigorous methods where there are more specific guidelines for collecting and analyzing data. These criticisms stress that there is a need to be very explicit about the choices one makes and the need to justify them.

One reason why case studies are criticized may be that researchers disagree about the definition and the purpose of carrying out case studies. Case studies have been regarded as a design (Cook and Campbell 1979), as a qualitative methodology (Cassell and Symon 1994), as a particular data collection procedure (Andersen 1997), and as a research strategy (Yin 1989). Furthermore, the purpose for carrying out case studies is unclear. Some regard case studies as supplements to more rigorous qualitative studies to be carried out in the early stage of the research process; others claim that it can be used for multiple purposes and as a research strategy in its own right (Gummesson 1988; Yin 1989). Given this unclear status, researchers need to be very clear about their interpretation of the case study and the purpose of carrying out the study.

This article has taken Yin’s (1989) definition of the case study as a research strategy as a starting point and argued that the choice of the case study should be guided by the research question(s). In the illustrative study, I used a case study strategy because of a need to explore sensitive, ill-defined concepts in depth, over time, taking into account the context and history of the mergers and the existing knowledge about the phenomenon. However, the choice of a case study strategy extended rather than limited the number of decisions to be made. In Schramm’s (1971, cited in Yin 1989:22–23) words, “The essence of a case study, the central tendency among all types of case study, is that it tries to illuminate a decision or set of decisions, why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what result.”

Hence, the purpose of this article has been to illustrate the wide range of decisions that need to be made in the context of a particular case study and to discuss the methodological considerations linked to these decisions. I argue that there is a particular need in case studies to be explicit about the methodological choices one makes and that these choices can be best illustrated through a case study of the case study strategy.

As in all case studies, however, there are limitations to the generalizability of using one particular case study for illustrative purposes. As such, the strength of linking the methodological considerations to a specific context and phenomenon also becomes a weakness. However, I would argue that the questions raised in this article are applicable to many case studies, but that the answers are very likely to vary. The design choices are shown in Table 4 . Hence, researchers choosing a longitudinal, comparative case study need to address the same set of questions with regard to design, data collection procedures, and analysis, but they are likely to come up with other conclusions, given their different research questions.

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Christine Benedichte Meyer is an associate professor in the Department of Strategy and Management in the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, Bergen-Sandviken, Norway. Her research interests are mergers and acquisitions, strategic change, and qualitative research. Recent publications include: “Allocation Processes in Mergers and Acquisitions: An Organisational Justice Perspective” (British Journal of Management 2001) and “Motives for Acquisitions in the Norwegian Financial Industry” (CEMS Business Review 1997).

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  • 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.

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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

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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A qualitative study of rural healthcare providers’ views of social, cultural, and programmatic barriers to healthcare access

  • Nicholas C. Coombs 1 ,
  • Duncan G. Campbell 2 &
  • James Caringi 1  

BMC Health Services Research volume  22 , Article number:  438 ( 2022 ) Cite this article

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Ensuring access to healthcare is a complex, multi-dimensional health challenge. Since the inception of the coronavirus pandemic, this challenge is more pressing. Some dimensions of access are difficult to quantify, namely characteristics that influence healthcare services to be both acceptable and appropriate. These link to a patient’s acceptance of services that they are to receive and ensuring appropriate fit between services and a patient’s specific healthcare needs. These dimensions of access are particularly evident in rural health systems where additional structural barriers make accessing healthcare more difficult. Thus, it is important to examine healthcare access barriers in rural-specific areas to understand their origin and implications for resolution.

We used qualitative methods and a convenience sample of healthcare providers who currently practice in the rural US state of Montana. Our sample included 12 healthcare providers from diverse training backgrounds and specialties. All were decision-makers in the development or revision of patients’ treatment plans. Semi-structured interviews and content analysis were used to explore barriers–appropriateness and acceptability–to healthcare access in their patient populations. Our analysis was both deductive and inductive and focused on three analytic domains: cultural considerations, patient-provider communication, and provider-provider communication. Member checks ensured credibility and trustworthiness of our findings.

Five key themes emerged from analysis: 1) a friction exists between aspects of patients’ rural identities and healthcare systems; 2) facilitating access to healthcare requires application of and respect for cultural differences; 3) communication between healthcare providers is systematically fragmented; 4) time and resource constraints disproportionately harm rural health systems; and 5) profits are prioritized over addressing barriers to healthcare access in the US.

Conclusions

Inadequate access to healthcare is an issue in the US, particularly in rural areas. Rural healthcare consumers compose a hard-to-reach patient population. Too few providers exist to meet population health needs, and fragmented communication impairs rural health systems’ ability to function. These issues exacerbate the difficulty of ensuring acceptable and appropriate delivery of healthcare services, which compound all other barriers to healthcare access for rural residents. Each dimension of access must be monitored to improve patient experiences and outcomes for rural Americans.

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Unequal access to healthcare services is an important element of health disparities in the United States [ 1 ], and there remains much about access that is not fully understood. The lack of understanding is attributable, in part, to the lack of uniformity in how access is defined and evaluated, and the extent to which access is often oversimplified in research [ 2 ]. Subsequently, attempts to address population-level barriers to healthcare access are insufficient, and access remains an unresolved, complex health challenge [ 3 , 4 , 5 ]. This paper presents a study that aims to explore some of the less well studied barriers to healthcare access, particularly those that influence healthcare acceptability and appropriateness.

In truth, healthcare access entails a complicated calculus that combines characteristics of individuals, their households, and their social and physical environments with characteristics of healthcare delivery systems, organizations, and healthcare providers. For one to fully ‘access’ healthcare, they must have the means to identify their healthcare needs and have available to them care providers and the facilities where they work. Further, patients must then reach, obtain, and use the healthcare services in order to have their healthcare needs fulfilled. Levesque and colleagues critically examined access conceptualizations in 2013 and synthesized all ways in which access to healthcare was previously characterized; Levesque et al. proposed five dimensions of access: approachability, acceptability, availability, affordability and appropriateness [ 2 ]. These refer to the ability to perceive, seek, reach, pay for, and engage in services, respectively.

According to Levesque et al.’s framework, the five dimensions combine to facilitate access to care or serve as barriers. Approachability indicates that people facing health needs understand that healthcare services exist and might be helpful. Acceptability represents whether patients see healthcare services as consistent or inconsistent with their own social and cultural values and worldviews. Availability indicates that healthcare services are reached both physically and in a timely manner. Affordability simplifies one’s capacity to pay for healthcare services without compromising basic necessities, and finally, appropriateness represents the fit between healthcare services and a patient’s specific healthcare needs [ 2 ]. This study focused on the acceptability and appropriateness dimensions of access.

Before the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2; COVID-19) pandemic, approximately 13.3% of adults in the US did not have a usual source of healthcare [ 6 ]. Millions more did not utilize services regularly, and close to two-thirds reported that they would be debilitated by an unexpected medical bill [ 7 , 8 , 9 ]. Findings like these emphasized a fragility in the financial security of the American population [ 10 ]. These concerns were exacerbated by the pandemic when a sudden surge in unemployment increased un- and under-insurance rates [ 11 ]. Indeed, employer-sponsored insurance covers close to half of Americans’ total cost of illness [ 12 ]. Unemployment linked to COVID-19 cut off the lone outlet to healthcare access for many. Health-related financial concerns expanded beyond individuals, as healthcare organizations were unequipped to manage a simultaneous increase in demand for specialized healthcare services and a steep drop off for routine revenue-generating healthcare services [ 13 ]. These consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic all put additional, unexpected pressure on an already fragmented US healthcare system.

Other structural barriers to healthcare access exist in relation to the rural–urban divide. Less than 10% of US healthcare resources are located in rural areas where approximately 20% of the American population resides [ 14 ]. In a country with substantially fewer providers per capita compared to many other developed countries, persons in rural areas experience uniquely pressing healthcare provider shortages [ 15 , 16 ]. Rural inhabitants also tend to have lower household income, higher rates of un- or under-insurance, and more difficulty with travel to healthcare clinics than urban dwellers [ 17 ]. Subsequently, persons in rural communities use healthcare services at lower rates, and potentially preventable hospitalizations are more prevalent [ 18 ]. This disparity often leads rural residents to use services primarily for more urgent needs and less so for routine care [ 19 , 20 , 21 ].

The differences in how rural and urban healthcare systems function warranted a federal initiative to focus exclusively on rural health priorities and serve as counterpart to Healthy People objectives [ 22 ]. The rural determinants of health, a more specific expression of general social determinants, add issues of geography and topography to the well-documented social, economic and political factors that influence all Americans’ access to healthcare [ 23 ]. As a result, access is consistently regarded as a top priority in rural areas, and many research efforts have explored the intersection between access and rurality, namely within its less understood dimensions (acceptability and appropriateness) [ 22 ].

Acceptability-related barriers to care

Acceptability represents the dimension of healthcare access that affects a patient’s ability to seek healthcare, particularly linked to one’s professional values, norms and culture [ 2 ]. Access to health information is an influential factor for acceptable healthcare and is essential to promote and maintain a healthy population [ 24 ]. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health literacy or a high ‘health IQ’ is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others, which impacts healthcare use and system navigation [ 25 ]. The literature indicates that lower levels of health literacy contribute to health disparities among rural populations [ 26 , 27 , 28 ]. Evidence points to a need for effective health communication between healthcare organizations and patients to improve health literacy [ 24 ]. However, little research has been done in this area, particularly as it relates to technologically-based interventions to disseminate health information [ 29 ].

Stigma, an undesirable position of perceived diminished status in an individual’s social position, is another challenge that influences healthcare acceptability [ 30 ]. Those who may experience stigma fear negative social consequences in relation to care seeking. They are more likely to delay seeking care, especially among ethnic minority populations [ 31 , 32 ]. Social media presents opportunities for the dissemination of misleading medical information; this runs further risk for stigma [ 33 ]. Stigma is difficult to undo, but research has shown that developing a positive relationship with a healthcare provider or organization can work to reduce stigma among patients, thus promoting healthcare acceptability [ 34 ].

A provider’s attempts to engage patients and empower them to be active decision-makers regarding their treatment has also been shown to improve healthcare acceptability. One study found that patients with heart disease who completed a daily diary of weight and self-assessment of symptoms, per correspondence with their provider, had better care outcomes than those who did not [ 35 ]. Engaging with household family members and involved community healers also mitigates barriers to care, emphasizing the importance of a team-based approach that extends beyond those who typically provide healthcare services [ 36 , 37 ]. One study, for instance, explored how individuals closest to a pregnant woman affect the woman’s decision to seek maternity care; partners, female relatives, and community health-workers were among the most influential in promoting negative views, all of which reduced a woman’s likelihood to access care [ 38 ].

Appropriateness-related barriers to care

Appropriateness marks the dimension of healthcare access that affects a patient’s ability to engage, and according to Levesque et al., is of relevance once all other dimensions (the ability to perceive, seek, reach and pay for) are achieved [ 2 ]. The ability to engage in healthcare is influenced by a patient’s level of empowerment, adherence to information, and support received by their healthcare provider. Thus, barriers to healthcare access that relate to appropriateness are often those that indicate a breakdown in communication between a patient with their healthcare provider. Such breakdown can involve a patient experiencing miscommunication, confrontation, and/or a discrepancy between their provider’s goals and their own goals for healthcare. Appropriateness represents a dimension of healthcare access that is widely acknowledged as an area in need of improvement, which indicates a need to rethink how healthcare providers and organizations can adapt to serve the healthcare needs of their communities [ 39 ]. This is especially true for rural, ethnic minority populations, which disproportionately experience an abundance of other barriers to healthcare access. Culturally appropriate care is especially important for members of minority populations [ 40 , 41 , 42 ]. Ultimately, patients value a patient-provider relationship characterized by a welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere [ 43 , 44 ]. In rural settings especially, level of trust and familiarity are common factors that affect service utilization [ 45 ]. Evidence suggests that kind treatment by a healthcare provider who promotes patient-centered care can have a greater overall effect on a patient’s experience than a provider’s degree of medical knowledge or use of modern equipment [ 46 ]. Of course, investing the time needed to nurture close and caring interpersonal connections is particularly difficult in under-resourced, time-pressured rural health systems [ 47 , 48 ].

The most effective way to evaluate access to healthcare largely depends on which dimensions are explored. For instance, a population-based survey can be used to measure the barrier of healthcare affordability. Survey questions can inquire directly about health insurance coverage, care-related financial burden, concern about healthcare costs, and the feared financial impacts of illness and/or disability. Many national organizations have employed such surveys to measure affordability-related barriers to healthcare. For example, a question may ask explicitly about financial concerns: ‘If you get sick or have an accident, how worried are you that you will not be able to pay your medical bills?’ [ 49 ]. Approachability and availability dimensions of access are also studied using quantitative analysis of survey questions, such as ‘Is there a place that you usually go to when you are sick or need advice about your health?’ or ‘Have you ever delayed getting medical care because you couldn’t get through on the telephone?’ In contrast, the remaining two dimensions–acceptability and appropriateness–require a qualitative approach, as the social and cultural factors that determine a patient’s likelihood of accepting aspects of the services that are to be received (acceptability) and the fit between those services and the patient’s specific healthcare needs (appropriateness) can be more abstract [ 50 , 51 ]. In social science, qualitative methods are appropriate to generate knowledge of what social events mean to individuals and how those individuals interact within them; these methods allow for an exploration of depth rather than breadth [ 52 , 53 ]. Qualitative methods, therefore, are appropriate tools for understanding the depth of healthcare providers’ experiences in the inherently social context of seeking and engaging in healthcare.

In sum, acceptability- and appropriateness-related barriers to healthcare access are multi-layered, complex and abundant. Ensuring access becomes even more challenging if structural barriers to access are factored in. In this study, we aimed to explore barriers to healthcare access among persons in Montana, a historically underserved, under-resourced, rural region of the US. Montana is the fourth largest and third least densely populated state in the country; more than 80% of Montana counties are classified as non-core (the lowest level of urban/rural classification), and over 90% are designated as health professional shortage areas [ 54 , 55 ]. Qualitative methods supported our inquiry to explore barriers to healthcare access related to acceptability and appropriateness.

Participants

Qualitative methods were utilized for this interpretive, exploratory study because knowledge regarding barriers to healthcare access within Montana’s rural health systems is limited. We chose Montana healthcare providers, rather than patients, as the population of interest so we may explore barriers to healthcare access from the perspective of those who serve many persons in rural settings. Inclusion criteria required study participants to provide direct healthcare to patients at least one-half of their time. We defined ‘provider’ as a healthcare organization employee with clinical decision-making power and the qualifications to develop or revise patients’ treatment plans. In an attempt to capture a group of providers with diverse experience, we included providers across several types and specialties. These included advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), physicians (MDs and DOs), and physician assistants (PAs) who worked in critical care medicine, emergency medicine, family medicine, hospital medicine, internal medicine, pain medicine, palliative medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, and urgent care medicine. We also included licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and clinical psychologists who specialize in behavioral healthcare provision.

Recruitment and Data Collection

We recruited participants via email using a snowball sampling approach [ 56 ]. We opted for this approach because of its effectiveness in time-pressured contexts, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made healthcare provider populations hard to reach [ 57 ]. Considering additional constraints with the pandemic and the rural nature of Montana, interviews were administered virtually via Zoom video or telephone conferencing with Zoom’s audio recording function enabled. All interviews were conducted by the first author between January and September 2021. The average length of interviews was 50 min, ranging from 35 to 70 min. There were occasional challenges experienced during interviews (poor cell phone reception from participants, dropped calls), in which case the interviewer remained on the line until adequate communication was resumed. All interviews were included for analysis and transcribed verbatim into NVivo Version 12 software. All qualitative data were saved and stored on a password-protected University of Montana server. Hard-copy field notes were securely stored in a locked office on the university’s main campus.

Data analysis included a deductive followed by an inductive approach. This dual analysis adheres to Levesque’s framework for qualitative methods, which is discussed in the Definition of Analytic Domains sub-section below. Original synthesis of the literature informed the development of our initial deductive codebook. The deductive approach was derived from a theory-driven hypothesis, which consisted of synthesizing previous research findings regarding acceptability- and appropriateness-related barriers to care. Although the locations, patient populations and specific type of healthcare services varied by study in the existing literature, several recurring barriers to healthcare access were identified. We then operationalized three analytic domains based on these findings: cultural considerations, patient-provider communication, and provider-provider communication. These domains were chosen for two reasons: 1) the terms ‘culture’ and ‘communication’ were the most frequently documented characteristics across the studies examined, and 2) they each align closely with the acceptability and appropriateness dimensions of access to healthcare, respectively. In addition, ‘culture’ is included in the definition of acceptability and ‘communication’ is a quintessential aspect of appropriateness. These domains guided the deductive portion of our analysis, which facilitated the development of an interview guide used for this study.

Interviews were semi-structured to allow broad interpretations from participants and expand the open-ended characterization of study findings. Data were analyzed through a flexible coding approach proposed by Deterding and Waters [ 58 ]. Qualitative content analysis was used, a method particularly beneficial for analyzing large amounts of qualitative data collected through interviews that offers possibility of quantifying categories to identify emerging themes [ 52 , 59 ]. After fifty percent of data were analyzed, we used an inductive approach as a formative check and repeated until data saturation, or the point at which no new information was gathered in interviews [ 60 ]. At each point of inductive analysis, interview questions were added, removed, or revised in consideration of findings gathered [ 61 ]. The Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR) was used for reporting all qualitative data for this study [ 62 ]. The first and third authors served as primary and secondary analysts of the qualitative data and collaborated to triangulate these findings. An audit approach was employed, which consisted of coding completed by the first author and then reviewed by the third author. After analyses were complete, member checks ensured credibility and trustworthiness of findings [ 63 ]. Member checks consisted of contacting each study participant to explain the study’s findings; one-third of participants responded and confirmed all findings. All study procedures were reviewed and approved by the Human Subjects Committee of the authors’ institution’s Institutional Review Board.

Definitions of Analytic Domains

Cultural considerations.

Western health systems often fail to consider aspects of patients’ cultural perspectives and histories. This can manifest in the form of a providers’ lack of cultural humility. Cultural humility is a process of preventing imposition of one’s worldview and cultural beliefs on others and recognizing that everyone’s conception of the world is valid. Humility cultivates sensitive approaches in treating patients [ 64 ]. A lack of cultural humility impedes the delivery of acceptable and appropriate healthcare [ 65 ], which can involve low empathy or respect for patients, or dismissal of culture and traditions as superstitions that interfere with standard treatments [ 66 , 67 ]. Ensuring cultural humility among all healthcare employees is a step toward optimal healthcare delivery. Cultural humility is often accomplished through training that can be tailored to particular cultural- or gender-specific populations [ 68 , 69 ]. Since cultural identities and humility have been marked as factors that can heavily influence patients’ access to care, cultural considerations composed our first analytic domain. To assess this domain, we asked participants how they address the unique needs of their patients, how they react when they observe a cultural behavior or attitude from a patient that may not directly align with their treatment plan, and if they have received any multicultural training or training on cultural considerations in their current role.

Patient-provider communication

Other barriers to healthcare access can be linked to ineffective patient-provider communication. Patients who do not feel involved in healthcare decisions are less likely to adhere to treatment recommendations [ 70 ]. Patients who experience communication difficulties with providers may feel coerced, which generates disempowerment and leads patients to employ more covert ways of engagement [ 71 , 72 ]. Language barriers can further compromise communication and hinder outcomes or patient progress [ 73 , 74 ]. Any miscommunication between a patient and provider can affect one’s access to healthcare, namely affecting appropriateness-related barriers. For these reasons, patient-provider communication composed our second analytic domain. We asked participants to highlight the challenges they experience when communicating with their patients, how those complications are addressed, and how communication strategies inform confidentiality in their practice. Confidentiality is a core ethical principle in healthcare, especially in rural areas that have smaller, interconnected patient populations [ 75 ].

Provider-Provider Communication

A patient’s journey through the healthcare system necessitates sufficient correspondence between patients, primary, and secondary providers after discharge and care encounters [ 76 ]. Inter-provider and patient-provider communication are areas of healthcare that are acknowledged to have some gaps. Inconsistent mechanisms for follow up communication with patients in primary care have been documented and emphasized as a concern among those with chronic illness who require close monitoring [ 68 , 77 ]. Similar inconsistencies exist between providers, which can lead to unclear care goals, extended hospital stays, and increased medical costs [ 78 ]. For these reasons, provider-provider communication composed our third analytic domain. We asked participants to describe the approaches they take to streamline communication after a patient’s hospital visit, the methods they use to ensure collaborative communication between primary or secondary providers, and where communication challenges exist.

Healthcare provider characteristics

Our sample included 12 providers: four in family medicine (1 MD, 1 DO, 1 PA & 1 APRN), three in pediatrics (2 MD with specialty in hospital medicine & 1 DO), three in palliative medicine (2 MDs & 1 APRN with specialty in wound care), one in critical care medicine (DO with specialty in pediatric pulmonology) and one in behavioral health (1 LCSW with specialty in trauma). Our participants averaged 9 years (range 2–15) as a healthcare provider; most reported more than 5 years in their current professional role. The diversity of participants extended to their patient populations as well, with each participant reporting a unique distribution of age, race and level of medical complexity among their patients. Most participants reported that a portion of their patients travel up to five hours, sometimes across county- or state-lines, to receive care.

Theme 1: A friction exists between aspects of patients’ rural identities and healthcare systems

Our participants comprised a collection of medical professions and reported variability among health-related reasons their patients seek care. However, most participants acknowledged similar characteristics that influence their patients’ challenges to healthcare access. These identified factors formed categories from which the first theme emerged. There exists a great deal of ‘rugged individualism’ among Montanans, which reflects a self-sufficient and self-reliant way of life. Stoicism marked a primary factor to characterize this quality. One participant explained:

True Montanans are difficult to treat medically because they tend to be a tough group. They don’t see doctors. They don’t want to go, and they don’t want to be sick. That’s an aspect of Montana that makes health culture a little bit difficult.

Another participant echoed this finding by stating:

The backwoods Montana range guy who has an identity of being strong and independent probably doesn’t seek out a lot of medical care or take a lot of medications. Their sense of vitality, independence and identity really come from being able to take care and rely on themselves. When that is threatened, that’s going to create a unique experience of illness.

Similar responses were shared by all twelve participants; stoicism seemed to be heavily embedded in many patient populations in Montana and serves as a key determinant of healthcare acceptability. There are additional factors, however, that may interact with stoicism but are multiply determined. Stigma is an example of this, presented in this context as one’s concern about judgement by the healthcare system. Respondents were openly critical of this perception of the healthcare system as it was widely discussed in interviews. One participant stated:

There is a real perception of a punitive nature in the medical community, particularly if I observe a health issue other than the primary reason for one’s hospital visit, whether that may be predicated on medical neglect, delay of care, or something that may warrant a report to social services. For many of the patients and families I see, it’s not a positive experience and one that is sometimes an uphill barrier that I work hard to circumnavigate.

Analysis of these factors suggest that low use of healthcare services may link to several characteristics, including access problems. Separately, a patient’s perceived stigma from healthcare providers may also impact a patient’s willingness to receive services. One participant put it best by stating

Sometimes, families assume that I didn’t want to see them because they will come in for follow up to meet with me but end up meeting with another provider, which is frustrating because I want to maintain patients on my panel but available time and resource occasionally limits me from doing so. It could be really hard adapting to those needs on the fly, but it’s an honest miss.

When a patient arrives for a healthcare visit and experiences this frustration, it may elicit a patient’s perceptions of neglect or disorganization. This ‘honest miss’ may, in turn, exacerbate other acceptable-related barriers to care.

Theme 2: Facilitating access to healthcare requires application of and respect for cultural differences

The biomedical model is the standard of care utilized in Western medicine [ 79 , 80 ]. However, the US comprises people with diverse social and cultural identities that may not directly align with Western conceptions of health and wellness. Approximately 11.5% of the Montana population falls within an ethnic minority group. 6.4% are of American Indian or Alaska Native origin, 0.5% are of Black or African American origin, 0.8% are of Asian origin and 3.8% are of multiple or other origins. [ 81 ]. Cultural insensitivity is acknowledged in health services research as an active deterrent for appropriate healthcare delivery [ 65 ]. Participants for this study were asked how they react when a patient brings up a cultural attitude or behavior that may impact the proposed treatment plan. Eight participants noted a necessity for humility when this occurs. One participant conceptualized this by stating:

When this happens, I learn about individuals and a way of life that is different to the way I grew up. There is a lot of beauty and health in a non-patriarchal, non-dominating, non-sexist framework, and when we can engage in such, it is really expansive for my own learning process.

The participants who expressed humility emphasized that it is best to work in tandem with their patient, congruently. Especially for those with contrasting worldviews, a provider and a patient working as a team poses an opportunity to develop trust. Without it, a patient can easily fall out of the system, further hindering their ability to access healthcare services in the future. One participant stated:

The approach that ends up being successful for a lot of patients is when we understand their modalities, and they have a sense we understand those things. We have to show understanding and they have to trust. From there, we can make recommendations to help get them there, not decisions for them to obey, rather views based on our experiences and understanding of medicine.

Curiosity was another reaction noted by a handful of participants. One participant said:

I believe patients and their caregivers can be engaged and loving in different ways that don’t always follow the prescribed approach in the ways I’ve been trained, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are detrimental. I love what I do, and I love learning new things or new approaches, but I also love being surprised. My style of medicine is not to predict peoples’ lives, rather to empower and support what makes life meaningful for them.

Participants mentioned several other characteristics that they use in practice to prevent cultural insensitivity and support a collaborative approach to healthcare. Table 1 lists these facilitating characteristics and quotes to explain the substance of their benefit.

Consensus among participants indicated that the use of these protective factors to promote cultural sensitivity and apply them in practice is not standardized. When asked, all but two participants said they had not received any culturally-based training since beginning their practice. Instead, they referred to developing skills through “on the job training” or “off the cuff learning.” The general way of medicine, one participant remarked, was to “throw you to the fire.” This suggested that use of standardized cultural humility training modules for healthcare providers was not common practice. Many attributed this to time constraints.

Individual efforts to gain culturally appropriate skills or enhance cultural humility were mentioned, however. For example, three participants reported that they attended medical conferences to discuss cultural challenges within medicine, one participant sought out cultural education within their organization, and another was invited by Native American community members to engage in traditional peace ceremonies. Participants described these additional efforts as uncommon and outside the parameters of a provider’s job responsibilities, as they require time commitments without compensation.

Additionally, eight participants said they share their personal contact information with patients so they may call them directly for medical needs. The conditions and frequency with which this is done was variable and more common among providers in specialized areas of medicine or those who described having a manageable patient panel. All who reported that they shared their personal contact information described it as an aspect of rural health service delivery that is atypical in other, non-rural healthcare systems.

Theme 3: Communication between healthcare providers is systematically fragmented

Healthcare is complex and multi-disciplinary, and patients’ treatment is rarely overseen by a single provider [ 82 ]. The array of provider types and specialties is vast, as is the range of responsibilities ascribed to providers. Thus, open communication among providers both within and between healthcare systems is vital for the success of collaborative healthcare [ 83 ]. Without effective communication achieved between healthcare providers, the appropriate delivery of healthcare services may be become compromised. Our participants noted that they face multiple challenges that complicate communication with other providers. Miscommunication between departments, often implicating the Emergency Department (ED), was a recurring point noted among participants. One participant who is a primary care physician said:

If one of my patients goes to the ER, I don’t always get the notes. They’re supposed to send them to the patient’s primary care doc. The same thing happens with general admissions, but again, I often find out from somebody else that my patient was admitted to the hospital.

This failure to communicate can negatively impact the patient, particularly if time sensitivity or medical complexity is essential to treatment. A patient’s primary care physician is the most accurate source of their medical history; without an effective way to obtain and synthesize a patient’s health information, there may be increased risk of medical error. One participant in a specialty field stated:

One of the biggest barriers I see is obtaining a concise description of a patient’s history and needs. You can imagine if you’re a mom and you’ve got a complicated kid. You head to the ER. The ER doc looks at you with really wide eyes, not knowing how to get information about your child that’s really important.

This concern was highlighted with a specific example from a different participant:

I have been unable to troubleshoot instances when I send people to the ER with a pretty clear indication for admission, and then they’re sent home. For instance, I had an older fellow with pretty severe chronic kidney disease. He presented to another practitioner in my office with shortness of breath and swelling and appeared to have newly onset decompensated heart failure. When I figured this out, I sent him to the ER, called and gave my report. The patient later came back for follow up to find out not only that they had not been admitted but they lost no weight with outpatient dialysis . I feel like a real opportunity was missed to try to optimize the care of the patient simply because there was poor communication between myself and the ER. This poor guy… He ended up going to the ER four times before he got admitted for COVID-19.

In some cases, communication breakdown was reported as the sole cause of a poor outcome. When communication is effective, each essential member of the healthcare team is engaged and collaborating with the same information. Some participants called this process ‘rounds’ when a regularly scheduled meeting is staged between a group of providers to ensure access to accurate patient information. Accurate communication may also help build trust and improve a patient’s experience. In contrast, ineffective communication can result in poor clarity regarding providers’ responsibilities or lost information. Appropriate delivery of healthcare considers the fit between providers and a patient’s specific healthcare needs; the factors noted here suggest that provider-provider miscommunication can adversely affect this dimension of healthcare access.

Another important mechanism of communication is the sharing of electronic medical records (EMRs), a process that continues to shift with technological advances. Innovation is still recent enough, however, for several of our study participants to be able to recall a time when paper charts were standard. Widespread adoption and embrace of the improvements inherent in electronic medical records expanded in the late 2000’s [ 84 ]. EMRs vastly improved the ability to retain, organize, safeguard, and transfer health information. Every participant highlighted EMRs at one point or another and often did so with an underlying sense of anger or frustration. Systematic issues and problems with EMRs were discussed. One participant provided historical context to such records:

Years back, the government aimed to buy an electronic medical record system, whichever was the best, and a number of companies created their own. Each were a reasonable system, so they all got their checks and now we have four completely separate operating systems that do not talk to each other. The idea was to make a router or some type of relay that can share information back and forth. There was no money in that though, so of course, no one did anything about it. Depending on what hospital, clinic or agency you work for, you will most likely work within one of these systems. It was a great idea; it just didn’t get finished.

Seven participants confirmed these points and their impacts on making coordination more difficult, relying on outdated communication strategies more often than not. Many noted this even occurs between facilities within the same city and in separate small metropolitan areas across the state. One participant said:

If my hospital decides to contract with one EMR and the hospital across town contracts with another, correspondence between these hospitals goes back to traditional faxing. As a provider, you’re just taking a ‘fingered crossed’ approach hoping that the fax worked, is picked up, was put in the appropriate inbox and was actually looked at. Information acquisition and making sure it’s timely are unforeseen between EMRs.

Participants reported an “astronomic” number of daily faxes and telephone calls to complete the communication EMRs were initially designed to handle. These challenges are even more burdensome if a patient moves from out of town or out of state; obtaining their medical records was repeatedly referred to as a “chore” so onerous that it often remains undone. Another recurring concern brought up by participants regarded accuracy within EMRs to lend a false sense of security. They are not frequently updated, not designed to be family-centered and not set up to do anything automatically. One participant highlighted these limitations by stating:

I was very proud of a change I made in our EMR system [EPIC], even though it was one I never should have had to make. I was getting very upset because I would find out from my nursing assistant who read the obituary that one of my patients had died. There was a real problem with the way the EMR was notifying PCP’s, so I got an EPIC-level automated notification built into our EMR so that any time a patient died, their status would be changed to deceased and a notification would be sent to their PCP. It’s just really awful to find out a week later that your patient died, especially when you know these people and their families really well. It’s not good care to have blind follow up.

Whether it be a physical or electronic miscommunication between healthcare providers, the appropriate delivery of healthcare can be called to question

Theme 4: Time and resource constraints disproportionately harm rural health systems

Several measures of system capacity suggest the healthcare system in the US is under-resourced. There are fewer physicians and hospital beds per capita compared to most comparable countries, and the growth of healthcare provider populations has stagnated over time [ 15 ]. Rural areas, in particular, are subject to resource limitations [ 16 ]. All participants discussed provider shortages in detail. They described how shortages impact time allocation in their day-to-day operations. Tasks like patient intakes, critical assessments, and recovering information from EMRs take time, of which most participants claimed to not have enough of. There was also a consensus in having inadequate time to spend on medically complex cases. Time pressures were reported to subsequently influence quality of care. One participant stated:

With the constant pace of medicine, time is not on your side. A provider cannot always participate in an enriching dialogue with their patients, so rather than listen and learn, we are often coerced into the mindset of ‘getting through’ this patient so we can move on. This echoes for patient education during discharge, making the whole process more arduous than it otherwise could be if time and resources were not as sparse.

Depending on provider type, specialty, and the size of patient panels, four participants said they have the luxury of extending patient visits to 40 + minutes. Any flexibility with patient visits was regarded as just that: a luxury. Very few providers described the ability to coordinate their schedules as such. This led some study participants to limit the number of patients they serve. One participant said:

We simply don’t have enough clinicians, which is a shame because these people are really skilled, exceptional, brilliant providers but are performing way below their capacity. Because of this, I have a smaller case load so I can engage in a level of care that I feel is in the best interest of my patients. Everything is a tradeoff. Time has to be sacrificed at one point or another. This compromise sets our system up to do ‘ok’ work, not great work.

Of course, managing an overly large number of patients with high complexity is challenging. Especially while enduring the burden of a persisting global pandemic, participants reflected that the general outlook of administering healthcare in the US is to “do more with less.” This often forces providers to delegate responsibilities, which participants noted has potential downsides. One participant described how delegating patient care can cause problems.

Very often will a patient schedule a follow up that needs to happen within a certain time frame, but I am unable to see them myself. So, they are then placed with one of my mid-level providers. However, if additional health issues are introduced, which often happens, there is a high-risk of bounce-back or need to return once again to the hospital. It’s an inefficient vetting process that falls to people who may not have specific training in the labs and imaging that are often included in follow up visits. Unfortunately, it’s a forlorn hope to have a primary care physician be able to attend all levels of a patient’s care.

Several participants described how time constraints stretch all healthcare staff thin and complicate patient care. This was particularly important among participants who reported having a patient panel exceeding 1000. There were some participants, however, who praised the relationships they have with their nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants and mark transparency as the most effective way to coordinate care. Collectively, these clinical relationships were built over long standing periods of time, a disadvantage to providers at the start of their medical career. All but one participant with over a decade of clinical experience mentioned the usefulness of these relationships. The factors discussed in Theme 4 are directly linked to the Availability dimension of access to healthcare. A patient’s ability to reach care is subject to the capacity of their healthcare provider(s). Additionally, further analysis suggests these factors also link to the Appropriateness dimension because the quality of patient-provider relationships may be negatively impacted if a provider’s time is compromised.

Theme 5: Profits are prioritized over addressing barriers to healthcare access in the US.

The US healthcare system functions partially for-profit in the public and private sectors. The federal government provides funding for national programs such as Medicare, but a majority of Americans access healthcare through private employer plans [ 85 ]. As a result, uninsurance rates influence healthcare access. Though the rate of the uninsured has dropped over the last decade through expansion of the Affordable Care Act, it remains above 8 percent [ 86 ]. Historically, there has been ethical criticism in the literature of a for-profit system as it is said to exacerbate healthcare disparities and constitute unfair competition against nonprofit institutions. Specifically, the US healthcare system treats healthcare as a commodity instead of a right, enables organizational controls that adversely affect patient-provider relationships, undermines medical education, and constitutes a medical-industrial complex that threatens influence on healthcare-related public policy [ 87 ]. Though unprompted by the interviewer, participants raised many of these concerns. One participant shared their views on how priorities stand in their practice:

A lot of the higher-ups in the healthcare system where I work see each patient visit as a number. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity to think beyond that, but that’s what their role is, making sure we’re profitable. That’s part of why our healthcare system in the US is as broken as it is. It’s accentuated focus on financially and capitalistically driven factors versus understanding all these other barriers to care.

Eight participants echoed a similar concept, that addressing barriers to healthcare access in their organizations is largely complicated because so much attention is directed on matters that have nothing to do with patients. A few other participants supported this by alluding to a “cherry-picking” process by which those at the top of the hierarchy devote their attention to the easiest tasks. One participant shared an experience where contrasting work demands between administrators and front-line clinical providers produces adverse effects:

We had a new administrator in our hospital. I had been really frustrated with the lack of cultural awareness and curiosity from our other leaders in the past, so I offered to meet and take them on a tour of the reservation. This was meant to introduce them to kids, families and Tribal leaders who live in the area and their interface with healthcare. They declined, which I thought was disappointing and eye-opening.

Analysis of these factors suggest that those who work directly with patients understand patient needs better than those who serve in management roles. This same participant went on to suggest an ulterior motive for a push towards telemedicine, as administrators primarily highlight the benefit of billing for virtual visits instead of the nature of the visits themselves.

This study explored barriers and facilitators to healthcare access from the perspective of rural healthcare providers in Montana. Our qualitative analysis uncovered five key themes: 1) a friction exists between aspects of patients’ rural identities and healthcare systems; 2) facilitating access to healthcare requires application of and respect for cultural differences; 3) communication between healthcare providers is systematically fragmented; 4) time and resource constraints disproportionately harm rural health systems; and 5) profits are prioritized over addressing barriers to healthcare access in the US. Themes 2 and 3 were directly supported by earlier qualitative studies that applied Levesque’s framework, specifically regarding healthcare providers’ poor interpersonal quality and lack of collaboration with other providers that are suspected to result from a lack of provider training [ 67 , 70 ]. This ties back to the importance of cultural humility, which many previous culture-based trainings have referred to as cultural competence. Cultural competence is achieved through a plethora of trainings designed to expose providers to different cultures’ beliefs and values but induces risk of stereotyping and stigmatizing a patient’s views. Therefore, cultural humility is the preferred idea, by which providers reflect and gain open-ended appreciation for a patient’s culture [ 88 ].

Implications for Practice

Perhaps the most substantial takeaway is how embedded rugged individualism is within rural patient populations and how difficult that makes the delivery of care in rural health systems. We heard from participants that stoicism and perceptions of stigma within the system contribute to this, but other resulting factors may be influential at the provider- and organizational-levels. Stoicism and perceived stigma both appear to arise, in part, from an understandable knowledge gap regarding the care system. For instance, healthcare providers understand the relations between primary and secondary care, but many patients may perceive both concepts as elements of a single healthcare system [ 89 ]. Any issue experienced by a patient when tasked to see both a primary and secondary provider may result in a patient becoming confused [ 90 ]. This may also overlap with our third theme, as a disjointed means of communication between healthcare providers can exacerbate patients’ negative experiences. One consideration to improve this is to incorporate telehealth programs into an existing referral framework to reduce unnecessary interfacility transfers; telehealth programs have proven effective in rural and remote settings [ 91 ].

In fact, telehealth has been rolled out in a variety of virtual platforms throughout its evolution, its innovation matched with continued technological advancement. Simply put, telehealth allows health service delivery from a distance; it allows knowledge and practice of clinical care to be in a different space than a patient. Because of this, a primary benefit of telehealth is its impact on improving patient-centered outcomes among those living in rural areas. For instance, text messaging technology improves early infant diagnosis, adherence to recommended diagnostic testing, and participant engagement in lifestyle change interventions [ 92 , 93 , 94 ]. More sophisticated interventions have found their way into smartphone-based technology, some of which are accessible even without an internet connection [ 95 , 96 ]. Internet accessibility is important because a number of study participants noted internet connectivity as a barrier for patients who live in low resource communities. Videoconferencing is another function of telehealth that has delivered a variety of health services, including those which are mental health-specific [ 97 ], and mobile health clinics have been used in rural, hard-to-reach settings to show the delivery of quality healthcare is both feasible and acceptable [ 98 , 99 , 100 ]. While telehealth has potential to reduce a number of healthcare access barriers, it may not always address the most pressing healthcare needs [ 101 ]. However, telehealth does serve as a viable, cost-effective alternative for rural populations with limited physical access to specialized services [ 102 ]. With time and resource limitations acknowledged as a key theme in our study, an emphasis on expanding telehealth services is encouraged as it will likely have significant involvement on advancing healthcare in the future, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic persists [ 103 ].

Implications for Policy

One could argue that most of the areas of fragmentation in the US healthcare system can be linked to the very philosophy on which it is based: an emphasis on profits as highest priority. Americans are, therefore, forced to navigate a health service system that does not work solely in their best interests. It is not surprising to observe lower rates of healthcare usage in rural areas, which may be a result from rural persons’ negative views of the US healthcare system or a perception that the system does not exist to support wellness. These perceptions may interact with ‘rugged individualism’ to squelch rural residents’ engagement in healthcare. Many of the providers we interviewed for this study appeared to understand this and strived to improve their patients’ experiences and outcomes. Though these efforts are admirable, they may not characterize all providers who serve in rural areas of the US. From a policy standpoint, it is important to recognize these expansive efforts from providers. If incentives were offered to encourage maximum efforts be made, it may lessen burden due to physician burnout and fatigue. Of course, there is no easy fix to the persisting limit of time and resources for providers, problems that require workforce expansion. Ultimately, though, the current structure of the US healthcare system is failing rural America and doing little to help the practice of rural healthcare providers.

Implications for Future Research

It is important for future health systems research efforts to consider issues that arise from both individual- and system-level access barriers and where the two intersect. Oftentimes, challenges that appear linked to a patient or provider may actually stem from an overarching system failure. If failures are critically and properly addressed, we may refine our understanding of what we can do in our professional spaces to improve care as practitioners, workforce developers, researchers and advocates. This qualitative study was exploratory in nature. It represents a step forward in knowledge generation regarding challenges in access to healthcare for rural Americans. Although mental health did not come up by design in this study, future efforts exploring barriers to healthcare access in rural systems should focus on access to mental healthcare. In many rural areas, Montana included, rates of suicide, substance use and other mental health disorders are highly prevalent. These characteristics should be part of the overall discussion of access to healthcare in rural areas. Optimally, barriers to healthcare access should continue to be explored through qualitative and mixed study designs to honor its multi-dimensional stature.

Strengths and Limitations

It is important to note first that this study interviewed healthcare providers instead of patients, which served as both a strength and limitation. Healthcare providers were able to draw on numerous patient-provider experiences, enabling an account of the aggregate which would have been impossible for a patient population. However, accounts of healthcare providers’ perceptions of barriers to healthcare access for their patients may differ from patients’ specific views. Future research should examine acceptability- and appropriateness-related barriers to healthcare access in patient populations. Second, study participants were recruited through convenience sampling methods, so results may be biased towards healthcare providers who are more invested in addressing barriers to healthcare access. Particularly, the providers interviewed for this study represented a subset who go beyond expectations of their job descriptions by engaging with their communities and spending additional uncompensated time with their patients. It is likely that a provider who exhibits these behavioral traits is more likely to participate in research aimed at addressing barriers to healthcare access. Third, the inability to conduct face-to-face interviews for our qualitative study may have posed an additional limitation. It is possible, for example, that in-person interviews might have resulted in increased rapport with study participants. Notwithstanding this possibility, the remote interview format was necessary to accommodate health risks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, given our qualitative approach, results from our study cannot be generalizable to all rural providers’ views or other rural health systems. In addition, no causality can be inferred regarding the influence of aspects of rurality on access. The purpose of this exploratory qualitative study was to probe research questions for future efforts. We also acknowledge the authors’ roles in the research, also known as reflexivity. The first author was the only author who administered interviews and had no prior relationships with all but one study participant. Assumptions and pre-dispositions to interview content by the first author were regularly addressed throughout data analysis to maintain study integrity. This was achieved by conducting analysis by unique interview question, rather than by unique participant, and recoding the numerical order of participants for each question. Our commitment to rigorous qualitative methods was a strength for the study for multiple reasons. Conducting member checks with participants ensured trustworthiness of findings. Continuing data collection to data saturation ensured dependability of findings, which was achieved after 10 interviews and confirmed after 2 additional interviews. We further recognize the heterogeneity in our sample of participants, which helped generate variability in responses. To remain consistent with appropriate means of presenting results in qualitative research however, we shared minimal demographic information about our study participants to ensure confidentiality.

The divide between urban and rural health stretches beyond a disproportionate allocation of resources. Rural health systems serve a more complicated and hard-to-reach patient population. They lack sufficient numbers of providers to meet population health needs. These disparities impact collaboration between patients and providers as well as the delivery of acceptable and appropriate healthcare. The marker of rurality complicates the already cumbersome challenge of administering acceptable and appropriate healthcare and impediments stemming from rurality require continued monitoring to improve patient experiences and outcomes. Our qualitative study explored rural healthcare providers’ views on some of the social, cultural, and programmatic factors that influence access to healthcare among their patient populations. We identified five key themes: 1) a friction exists between aspects of patients’ rural identities and healthcare systems; 2) facilitating access to healthcare requires application of and respect for cultural differences; 3) communication between healthcare providers is systematically fragmented; 4) time and resource constraints disproportionately harm rural health systems; and 5) profits are prioritized over addressing barriers to healthcare access in the US. This study provides implications that may shift the landscape of a healthcare provider’s approach to delivering healthcare. Further exploration is required to understand the effects these characteristics have on measurable patient-centered outcomes in rural areas.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to individual privacy could be compromised but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Ethics approval and consent to participate.

All study procedures and methods were carried out in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations from the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki. Ethics approval was given by exempt review from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Montana (IRB Protocol No.: 186–20). Participants received oral and written information about the study prior to interview, which allowed them to provide informed consent for the interviews to be recorded and used for qualitative research purposes. No ethical concerns were experienced in this study pertaining to human subjects.

Consent for publication.

The participants consented to the publication of de-identified material from the interviews.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Center for Biomedical Research Excellence award (P20GM130418) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institute of Health. The first author was also supported by the University of Montana Burnham Population Health Fellowship. We would like to thank Dr. Christopher Dietrich, Dr. Jennifer Robohm and Dr. Eric Arzubi for their contributions on determining inclusion criteria for the healthcare provider population used for this study.

 This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, and not-for-profit sectors. 

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Coombs, N.C., Campbell, D.G. & Caringi, J. A qualitative study of rural healthcare providers’ views of social, cultural, and programmatic barriers to healthcare access. BMC Health Serv Res 22 , 438 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-022-07829-2

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The case study approach

  • Sarah Crowe 1 ,
  • Kathrin Cresswell 2 ,
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  • Aziz Sheikh 2  

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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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Sarah Crowe & Anthony Avery

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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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Kahneman, long associated with Princeton University, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work challenging the assumption that humans act rationally when making economic decisions. Instead, Kahneman argued, humans have hard-wired cognitive biases that influence their judgment.

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NLI drew upon the work of Kahneman and his longtime collaborator, Dr. Amos Tversky, to categorize more than 150 cognitive biases into an easy-to-remember framework: The SEEDS Model ® , which stands for similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety. Insights from Kahneman’s research were integrated into this framework to make leaders more aware of their decision-making processes and help guide their teams to more thoughtful decisions.

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  1. 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.

  2. What Is a Case Study?

    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 ...

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

    A case study is one of the most commonly used methodologies of social research. This article attempts to look into the various dimensions of a case study research strategy, the different epistemological strands which determine the particular case study type and approach adopted in the field, discusses the factors which can enhance the effectiveness of a case study research, and the debate ...

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

    Although case studies have been discussed extensively in the literature, little has been written about the specific steps one may use to conduct case study research effectively (Gagnon, 2010; Hancock & Algozzine, 2016).Baskarada (2014) also emphasized the need to have a succinct guideline that can be practically followed as it is actually tough to execute a case study well in practice.

  5. 22 Case Study Research: In-Depth Understanding in Context

    Abstract. This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation. After first noting various contexts in which case studies are commonly used, the chapter focuses on case study research directly Strengths and potential problematic issues are outlined and then key phases of the process.

  6. Planning Qualitative Research: Design and Decision Making for New

    A case study can be a complete research project in itself, such as in the study of a particular organization, community, or program. Case studies are also often used for evaluation purposes, for example, in an external review. In educational contexts, case studies can be used to illustrate, test, or extend a theory, or assist other educators to ...

  7. Writing a Case Study

    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.

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    The purpose of case study research is twofold: (1) to provide descriptive information and (2) to suggest theoretical relevance. Rich description enables an in-depth or sharpened understanding of the case. It is unique given one characteristic: case studies draw from more than one data source. Case studies are inherently multimodal or mixed ...

  9. 23 Case Study Research: In-Depth Understanding in Context

    This chapter explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation using primarily qualitative methods, as well as documentary sources, contemporaneous or historical. However, this is not the only way in which case study can be conceived. No one has a monopoly on the term. While sharing a focus on the singular in a particular context, case study has a wide variety of uses, not all ...

  10. LibGuides: Research Writing and Analysis: Case Study

    A Case study is: An in-depth research design that primarily uses a qualitative methodology but sometimes includes quantitative methodology. Used to examine an identifiable problem confirmed through research. Used to investigate an individual, group of people, organization, or event. Used to mostly answer "how" and "why" questions.

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    Origins of case study research. Case study is a research design that involves an intensive and holistic examination of a contemporary phenomenon in a real-life setting. 1-3 It uses a variety of methods and multiple data sources to explore, describe or explain a single case bounded in time and place (ie, an event, individual, group, organisation or programme).

  12. The case study approach

    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.

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    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.

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    The purpose of this exploratory qualitative study was to probe research questions for future efforts. We also acknowledge the authors' roles in the research, also known as reflexivity. The first author was the only author who administered interviews and had no prior relationships with all but one study participant. ... a qualitative case ...

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    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 ...

  26. In Memoriam: Daniel Kahneman

    NLI was saddened to learn that psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose research contributed profoundly to our development of The SEEDS Model ®, died last week at the age of 90.. Kahneman, long associated with Princeton University, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work challenging the assumption that humans act rationally when making economic decisions.

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