Definition of Case Study and Its Main Characteristics


Case study is a descriptive qualitative form of research that is used to look at subjects, a small group, or a group as a whole. Researchers collect data on participants using participants and direct observations, interviews, tests, and record exams.

Researchers do not focus on the discovery of a universal, generalizable truth, nor do they seek cause-and-effect relationships; Instead, the emphasis is placed on exploration and description.

This type of method typically examines the interaction of all variables in order to provide as complete an understanding of an event or situation as possible.

This kind of understanding is obtained through a process known as a thick description, which involves a detailed description of the entity being assessed, the circumstances under which it is used, the characteristics of the people involved, and the nature of the community in which it is located.

Rough description also involves interpreting the meaning of demographic and descriptive data, such as cultural norms and customs, community values, attitudes, and motives. Quantitative research methods, such as survey, focus on the issues:

  • Who
  • What
  • At where
  • How much

And they also consider an archival analysis, which often places the participant in some form of historical context.

Qualitative research methods raise questions such as:

  • When
  • As

Likewise, they are the preferred method when the researcher has little control over the events, and when there is a contemporary focus within a real life context. Moreover, unlike specifically directed experiments, the case study requires a problem that seeks a holistic understanding of the event or situation in question using inductive logic.

In academic circles, cases are often discussed in the context of qualitative research and naturalistic inquiry. They are often referenced interchangeably with ethnography, field study, and participant observation.

The underlying philosophical assumptions in the case are similar to these types of qualitative research, because each occurs in a natural environment (such as a classroom, neighborhood or private home), and strives for a maisholistic interpretation of the event or situation under study. Unlike more statistically based studies that seek quantifiable data, the purpose of this method is to offer new variables and questions for future research.


Research through descriptive cases is not a new form of research; Naturalistic research was the main research tool until the development of the scientific method. The fields of sociology and anthropology are credited with the primary formation of the concept as we know it today.

However, this type of research has drawn from a number of other areas as well: the clinical methods of doctors; the social work technique developed by social workers; the methods of historians and anthropologists, as well as qualitative descriptions provided by quantitative researchers and even techniques of journalists and novelists.

Park was a former newspaper reporter and editor who became very influential in developing such studies in the sociological fields at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. As a newspaper professional, he coined the term “scientific” or “depth” of reporting: the description of local events in a way that pointed to the main social trends.

Park emphasized the variety and value of human experience. He believed that sociology sought to arrive at natural but fluid laws and generalizations regarding human nature and society. Park encouraged students to leave the library, to stop looking at papers and books, to see the constant experiment of human experience.

But over the years, this type of descriptive research has attracted its share of criticism. In fact, the method had its detractors from the beginning. In the 1920s, the debate between pro-qualitative and pro-quantitative became quite heated. When compared to statistics, they were considered by many to be unscientific.

From the 1930s, the rise of positivism had a growing influence on quantitative methods in sociology. People wanted static and generalizable laws in science. Sociological positivists sought stable laws of social phenomena. In addition, they condemned it because of the small number of cases studied and that the sub-standardized character of their descriptions made it impossible to generalize.

Case Study – Educational Applications

The 1950s marked the dawn of a new era in research with this type of study, namely that of its use as a teaching method. The basic purpose of instituting the case method as a teaching strategy was to “transfer much of the responsibility for teacher learning to the student, whose role as a result moves away from passive absorption to active construction” (Boehrer, 1990).

Through careful examination and discussion of various cases, “students learn to identify real problems, recognize key actors and their agendas, and become aware of those aspects of the situation that contribute to the problem” (Merseth 1991). In addition, students are encouraged to “generate their own analysis of problems under consideration, develop their own solutions and apply their own theoretical knowledge to these problems” (Boyce, 1993).

Along the way, students also develop “the power to analyze and master a tangled circumstance, identifying and outlining important factors, the ability to use ideas, test them against facts, and throw them into new combinations” (Merseth, 1991) .

In addition to the practical application and testing of academic knowledge, case discussions can also help students prepare for real problems, situations and crises by providing an approach to various professional environments (eg, classroom, boardroom, court or hospital ). Thus, through examination of specific cases, students have the opportunity to elaborate their own professional issues through the trials, tribulations, experiences, and discoveries of others.

An obvious advantage to this mode of instruction is that it allows students exposure to settings and contexts that they might not have experience with. The case study also incorporates the idea that students can learn from each other.

Designing a Case Study

The research project is the logical sequence that ultimately links the data to be collected and the conclusions to be drawn to the initial questions of the study.

Typically, research projects deal with at least four problems:

  • What questions to study
  • What data is relevant
  • What data to collect
  • How to analyze these data

Robert K. Yin (1993) offers five basic components of a research project:

  • Questions from a study.
  • Proposals for a study (if any).
  • Units of analysis of the study.
  • The logical connection of data to propositions.
  • The criteria for interpreting the results.

In addition to these five basic components, Yin also emphasizes the importance of clearly articulating the theoretical perspective, determining the objectives of the study, selecting the subject (s), selecting the method (s) of data collection and the composition of the final report.

Validity and Reliability Issues

Once the key variables are identified, they can be analyzed. Reliability becomes a key concern at this stage, and many researchers go a long way to ensure that their interpretations of the data will be reliable and valid. As questions of validity and reliability are an important part of any study in the social sciences, it is important to identify some ways of dealing with the results.

Researchers in this type of multimodal research often balance the results of their coding with interview data or the writer’s reflections on their own work. Consequently, the researchers’ conclusions become highly contextualized.

As with other research methodologies, there are also issues of external validity, construct validity, and reliability that need to be carefully considered.

This type of research is, however, extremely useful in areas such as sociology and psychology.

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