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May 17, 2021 (Updated: February 9, 2023)
Imagine your company receives a string of negative reviews online. You notice a few common themes among the complaints, but you still aren’t quite sure what went wrong. Or suppose an old blog post suddenly went viral, and you’d like to know why and how to do it again. In both of these situations, a case study could be the best way to find answers.
A case study is a process whereby researchers examine a specific subject in a thorough, detailed way. The subject of a case study could be an individual, a group, a community, a business, an organization, an event, or a phenomenon. Regardless of the type of subject, case studies are in-depth investigations designed to identify patterns and cause-and-effect relationships. Case studies are often used by researchers in the field of psychology, medicine, business, social work, anthropology, education, or political science.
Because they are singular in their focus and often rely on qualitative data, case studies tend to be highly subjective. The results of a single case study cannot always be generalized and applied to the larger population. However, case studies can be valuable tools for developing a thesis or illustrating a principle. They can help researchers understand, describe, compare, and evaluate different aspects of an issue or question.
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Case studies can be classified according to their purpose or their subject. For instance, a case study can focus on any of the following:
In addition to different types of subjects, case studies often have different designs or purposes. Here are a few of the most common types of case studies:
Case studies are often used in the exploratory phase of research to gather qualitative data. They can also be used to create, support, or refute a hypothesis and guide future research. For instance, a marketing professional might conduct a case study to discover why a viral ad campaign was so successful. They can then take any lessons they glean from the case study and apply them to future marketing efforts. A psychologist could use a case study to form a theory about the best way to treat a specific disorder. That theory could then be tested later through a large-scale controlled study.
Case studies are a good way to explore a real-world topic in-depth, illustrate a point, discuss the implications or meaning of an event, or compare the experiences of different individuals. A trainer may use a case study to bring to life what would otherwise be an abstract series of recommended action steps or to spark a conversation about how to respond in a specific scenario. Similarly, professors can use case studies to highlight key concepts from a lecture and pose questions to test students’ understanding of the material.
In some situations, case studies are the only way to compile quantitative data in an ethical manner. For instance, many of the recommendations that doctors make regarding what is or is not safe during pregnancy are based on case studies. It wouldn’t be ethical to conduct a controlled study that exposes pregnant women to potentially harmful substances, so doctors rely on the anecdotal evidence provided by case studies to find correlations and draw their conclusions.
Case studies can also be used to gather data that would be otherwise impossible or impractical to obtain. Students often use case studies for their thesis or dissertation when they lack the time or resources to conduct large-scale research. Zoologists might use existing case studies to determine the success rate of reintroducing rehabilitated animals into the wild. A historian could use case studies to explore the strategies used by dictators to gain and maintain power.
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Case studies can be used on their own or as a complement to other research methods, depending on the situation. The examples above are just a few instances where case studies can be useful. Case studies also work well for the following:
Case studies generally provide more qualitative data as opposed to quantitative data, and that makes them an invaluable tool for gathering insight into complex topics. Psychologists, for instance, use case studies to better understand human behavior. Crafting theories on the motives behind human actions would be difficult with quantitative data alone. The information gleaned through case studies may be subjective, but so is much of what makes us human. As individuals, we each have a unique blend of emotions, attitudes, opinions, motivations, and behaviors. Objective quantitative data is rarely the best way to identify and explain these nuances.
By their very nature, case studies allow more more intensive, in-depth study than other research methods. Rather than aiming for a large sample size, case studies follow a single subject. Often case studies are conducted over a longer period of time, and the narrow focus allows researchers to gather more detail than would be possible in a study of thousands of people. The information gleaned may not be representative of the broader population, but it does provide richer insight into the subject than other research methods.
Case studies are often used as the first step in a larger research project. The results of a case study cannot necessarily be generalized, but they can help researchers narrow their focus. For instance, researchers in the medical field might conduct a case study on a patient who survived an injury that typically proves fatal.
Over the course of the study, researchers may identify two or three ways in which this patient’s situation differed from others they have seen. Perhaps they identify something unique in the patient’s DNA or lifestyle choices or in the steps doctors took to treat the injury. Letting that information guide them, researchers could use other methods to deepen their understanding of those factors and perhaps develop new treatments or preventative recommendations.
Case studies can also be used in the fields of social work, politics, and anthropology to draw attention to a widespread problem and spur more research. A detailed narrative about one person’s experience will inspire more compassion than an academic paper filled with quantitative data. Stories often have a greater impact than statistics.
Case studies can be particularly useful in the process of forming and testing theories. A case study may lead researchers to form a new theory or call into a question an existing one. They are an invaluable tool for identifying exceptions to a rule or disproving conventional wisdom.
For instance, a medical professional may write a case study about a patient who exhibited atypical symptoms to assert that the list of symptoms for a condition should be expanded. A psychologist could use a case study to determine whether the new treatment they devised for depression is effective, or to demonstrate that existing treatment methods are flawed. As the result of a case study, a marketing professional could suggest that consumers values have changed and that marketing best practices should be updated accordingly.
Some subjects would be impossible, impractical, or unethical to study through other research methods. This is true in the case of extremely rare phenomenon, many aspects of human behavior, and even some medical conditions.
Suppose a medical professional would like to gather more information about multiple-birth pregnancies with four or more fetuses. More information would be helpful because we have less information about them, but the reason we have less information is because they are so rare. Conducting case studies of a few women who are currently pregnant with multiples or have given birth to multiples in the past may be the only practical way to research them.
Case studies can also be used to gain insight into historical events and natural phenomenon — things we are not able to repeat at will. Case studies have also been used to study subjects such as a feral child, child prodigies, rare psychological conditions, crisis response, and more.
Educators incorporate case studies into their lectures for a reason. Walking students through a detailed case study can make the abstract seem more real and draw out the nuances of a concept. Case studies can facilitate engaging discussions, spark thoughtful questions, and give students a chance to apply what they have learned to real-world situations.
Outside the classroom, case studies can be used to illustrate complex ideas. For instance, a well-constructed case study can highlight the unintended consequences of a new piece of legislation or demonstrate that depression does not always manifest in an obvious way. Case studies can help readers and listeners understand and care about an issue that does not directly affect them.
Despite their benefits, case studies do come with a few limitations. Compared to other research methods, case studies are often at a disadvantage in terms of the following:
In most cases, scientists strive to create experiments that can be repeated by others. That way, other scientists can perform their own research and compare their results to those of the initial study. Assuming these other scientists achieve similar results, the replicability of the experiment lends credibility to the findings and theories of the original researchers.
One limitation of case studies is that they are often difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Although this fact does not diminish the value of case studies, it does demonstrate that case studies are not a good fit for every research problem — at least, not on their own. Additional research would have to be performed to corroborate the results and prove or disprove any generalized theories generated by a case study.
Generalization is another area in which case studies cannot match other research methods. A case study can help us challenge existing theories and form new ones, but its results cannot necessarily be generalized. The data we gather from a case study is only valid for that specific subject, and we cannot assume that our conclusions apply to the broader population.
Researchers or readers can attempt to apply the principles from a particular case to similar situations or incorporate the results into a more comprehensive theory. However, a case study by itself can only prove the existence of certain possibilities and exceptions, not a general rule.
The reliability of case studies may be called into question for two reasons. The first objection centers on the fallibility of human memory and the question of whether subjects are being honest. Many case studies rely on subjects to self-report biographical details, their state of mind, their thoughts and feelings, or their behaviors.
The second issue is the Hawthorne effect, which refers to the tendency of individuals to modify their behavior when they know they are being observed. This effect makes it nearly impossible for researchers to ensure that the observations and conclusions of their case study are reliable.
Researcher bias is another potential issue with case studies. The results of a case study are by nature subjective and qualitative rather than objective and qualitative, and any findings rely heavily on the observations and narrative provided by the researcher. Even the best researchers are still human, and no matter how hard they try to remain objective, they will not be able to keep their findings completely free of bias.
Researchers may have biases they are not even aware of. A researcher may over-identify with the subject and lose the benefit of a dispassionate outside perspective. If the researcher already has an opinion on the subject, they may subconsciously overlook or discount facts that contradict their pre-existing assumptions. Researcher bias can affect what the researcher observes and records, as well as how they interpret and apply their observations.
Case studies can be time-consuming and expensive to conduct. Crafting a thorough case study can be a lengthy project due to the intensive, detailed nature of this type of research. Plus, once the information has been gathered, it must be interpreted. Between the observation and analysis, a case study could take months or even years to complete. Researchers will need to be heavily involved in every step of the process, putting in a lot of time, energy, focus, and effort to ensure that the case study is as informative as possible.
Now that you understand the benefits, limitations, and types of case studies, you can follow these steps to write your own:
Whether research is your primary occupation or only an incidental part of your job, you can benefit from a solid understanding of what case studies are, how they work, and when to use them. Use the information and steps above to design and write a case study that will provide the answers you’re looking for.