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 one case is singled out by a researcher, it allows them to observe events in detail over a considerable time period, a scenario that is not possible with large-scale samples or at least not without incurring considerable cost. Another advantage of using case studies is how useful they are 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 that uses case studies is not just popular in the sociology field, but it is also popular in other fields such as administrative science, anthropology, clinical science, education, political science, psychology, and social work.

Using Case Studies as a Research Method – An Overview

Using case studies as a research method is a unique method in social sciences fields because of the way the study is focused 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 happens 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 digress from what is usually the norm. By doing things this way, researchers are usually able to test whether a particular social theory is valid or they are able to develop new theories using the method of grounded theory. 

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

Cases 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 not really possible to apply generalization to 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 that are based on interviews, ethnographic observations, and other suitable methods, a sociologist is able to 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:

  1. The key case: This type of case is used where a researcher is particularly interested in it or the specific circumstances that surround it.
  2. The outlier case: Cases of this type are selected because the case in question is different from other situations, events, or organizations, and the social scientist conducting the study recognizes that a great deal can be learned from things that stand out from the commonplace or normal.  
  3. Lastly, it is possible that researchers may chose the local knowledge type case study if or when they have already collected a sufficient amount of usable information on a particular topic, whether this concerns a person, event, or organization, and they are therefore in a good position to study it.

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 that is unknown to the majority of 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 form of case study, the researcher draws together all the cases that have already been completed on a given topic. This form is useful for drawing generalizations from studies that have common elements.  
  1. The critical instance form of case study: These studies are undertaken when the person conducting the study wants to learn about or understand the outcome of an unusual event or they may 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 in order for your study to be methodologically reliable and sound.