Understanding How Case Studies Are Used as a Research Method

Case studies are a method of research where the study is based on one case and not on sampling or a population. When a researcher singles out one case, it allows them to observe events in detail over a considerable period, a scenario that is impossible with large-scale samples or at least not without incurring considerable cost. Another advantage of using case studies is their usefulness early on in a research project when the primary aim is exploring different ideas, testing and perfecting measurement methods and instruments, and preparing for a larger-scale study.

The research method of case studies is popular not only in sociology but also in other fields, such as administrative science, anthropology, clinical science, education, political science, psychology, and social work.

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Using Case Studies as a Research Method – An Overview

Using case studies as a research method is a unique method in social sciences because the study focuses on just one entity, which may be an action, event, situation, person, or group of people. Another unique aspect of this type of research is that cases are selected for very particular reasons, as opposed to being chosen at random, in much the same way as when undertaking empirical-type research. Often, when the case study method is used, the researcher focuses on one case that is in some way exceptional since this makes it possible to understand and learn a great deal about the social forces and relationships when looking at elements that stray from what is usually the norm. By doing things this way, researchers can usually test whether a particular social theory is valid or develop new theories using the grounded theory method. 

It is likely that a French economist and sociologist, Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play, undertook the very first social sciences case studies in the 1800s. Le Play studied family budgeting. From early on in the 20th century, this study method has been employed in anthropology, psychology, and sociology.



Case studies are generally undertaken in sociology using qualitative methods of research.

In terms of their nature, these methods are considered micro as opposed to macro, and it is impossible to generalize the results or findings of one case study to another situation. This, however, is a strength of the case study method rather than a limitation. Using case studies based on interviews, ethnographic observations, and other suitable methods, a sociologist can illuminate structures, processes, and social relations that are otherwise difficult to see. And, as a result, the results or findings from a case study often give rise to further or additional research.

Case Studies – Their Forms and Types

Essentially, case studies can be divided into three main types, which are:


While the above are types of case studies, these, in turn, can be divided into four distinct forms, which are:

  1. The illustrative form of case study: The nature of this form of case study is descriptive and its purpose is to provide enlightenment on a given type of circumstance or situation and the processes and social relations within these. This form of study is useful for shedding light on something unknown to most people.
  2. The exploratory type of case study: Also referred to as pilot studies, this form of case study is generally used where a researcher or scientist wants to formulate or identify a set of research questions and study methods for a large-scale and complex project. This form is useful for adding clarification to a research process, and it can help researchers make optimum use of the resources and time available for the larger-scale study to follow.
  3. The cumulative form of case study: In this case study, the researcher draws together all the cases already completed on a given topic. This form is useful for drawing generalizations from studies that have common elements.  
  4. The critical instance form of case study: These studies are undertaken when the person conducting them wants to learn about or understand the outcome of an unusual event. They may also use them to challenge existing (and accepted) assumptions that could be flawed because they are not critically understood. 

Regardless of the form or type of case study you are conducting or need to conduct, it is essential to first work out the goals, purpose, and approach you will use for your study to be methodologically reliable and sound.

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