Published in Method, Research Students by Mark Murphy on May 24, 2014
(c) Joe Duty
There should be no doubt that with case studies what you gain in depth you lose in breadth – this is the unavoidable compromise that needs to be understood from the beginning of the research process. So this is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage as one aspect cancels out the benefits/drawbacks of the other – there are other benefits and drawbacks that need attention however …
- Their flexibility: case studies are popular for a number of reasons, one being that they can be conducted at various points in the research process. Researchers are known to favour them as a way to develop ideas for more extensive research in the future – pilot studies often take the form of case studies. They are also effective conduits for a broad range of research methods; in that sense they are non-prejudicial against any particular type of research – focus groups are just as welcome in case study research as are questionnaires or participant observation.
- Capturing reality: One of their key benefits is their ability to capture what Hodkinson and Hodkinson call ‘lived reality’ (2001: 3). As they put it, case studies have the potential, when applied successfully, to ‘retain more of the “noise” of real life than many other types of research’ (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2001: 3). The importance of ‘noise’ and its place in research is especially important in contexts such as education, for example in schools where background noise is unavoidable. Educational contexts are always complex, and as a result it is difficult to exclude other unwanted variables, ‘some of which may only have real significance for one of their students’ (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2001, 4).
- The challenge of generality: At the same time, given their specificity, care needs to be taken when attempting to generalise from the findings. While there’s no inherent flaw in case study design that precludes its broader application, it is preferable that researchers choose their case study sites carefully, while also basing their analysis within existing research findings that have been generated via other research designs. No design is infallible but so often has the claim against case studies been made, that some of the criticism (unwarranted and unfair in many cases) has stuck.
- Suspicion of amateurism: Less partisan researchers might wonder whether the case study offers the time and finance-strapped researcher a convenient and pragmatic source of data, providing findings and recommendations that, given the nature of case studies, can neither be confirmed nor denied, in terms of utility or veracity. Who is to say that case studies offer anything more than a story to tell, and nothing more than that?
- But alongside this suspicion is another more insiduous one – a notion that ‘stories’ are not what social science research is about. This can be a concern for those who favour case study research, as the political consequences can be hard to ignore. That said, so much research is based either on peoples’ lives or the impact of other issues (poverty, institutional policy) on their lives, so the stories of what actually occurs in their lives or in professional environments tend to be an invaluable source of evidence. The fact is that stories (individual, collective, institutional) have a vital role to play in the world of research. And to play the specific v. general card against case study design suggests a tendency towards forms of research fundamentalism as opposed to any kind of rational and objective take on case study’s strengths and limitations.
- Preciousness: Having said that, researchers should not fall into the trap (surprising how often this happens) of assuming that case study data speaks for itself – rarely is this ever the case, an assumption that is as patronising to research subjects as it is false. The role of the researcher is both to describe social phenomena and also to explain – i.e., interpret. Without interpretation the research findings lack meaningful presentation – they present themselves as fact when of course the reality of ‘facts’ is one of the reasons why such research is carried out.
- Conflation of political/research objectives: Another trap that case study researchers sometimes fall into is presenting research findings as if they were self-evidently true, as if the stories were beyond criticism. This is often accompanied by a vague attachment to the notion that research is a political process – one that is performed as a form of liberation against for example policies that seek to ignore the stories of those who ‘suffer’ at the hands of overbearing political or economic imperatives. Case study design should not be viewed as a mechanism for providing a ‘local’ bulwark against the ‘global’ – bur rather as a mechanism for checking the veracity of universalist claims (at least one of its objectives). The valorisation of particularism can only get you so far in social research.
Reference: Hodkinson, P. and H. Hodkinson (2001). The strengths and limitations of case study research.Paper presented to the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference, Making an impact on policy and practice, Cambridge, 5-7 December 2001, downloaded from http://education.exeter.ac.uk/tlc/docs/publications/LE_PH_PUB_05.12.01.rtf.26.01.2013
Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.http://dirty-looks.com
The posting below looks at, as the title suggests, the strengths and limitations of case studies research. It is from Chapter 3, Qualitative Case Study Reseaarch in the book Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation by Sharan B. Merriam. Revised and Expanded from Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. Copyright 2009 by John Wiley & Sons Inc. [ www.josseybass.com ] All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741.
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Strengths and Limitations of Case Studies
All research designs can be discussed in terms of their relative strengths and limitations. The merits of a particular design are inherently related to the rationale for selecting it as the most appropriate plan for addressing the research problem. One strength of an experimental design, for example, is the predictive nature of the research findings. Because of the tightly controlled conditions, random sampling, and use of statistical probabilities, it is theoretically possible to predict behavior in similar settings without actually observing that behavior. Likewise, if a researcher needs information about the characteristics of a given population or area of interest, a descriptive study is in order. Results, however, would be limited to describing the phenomenon rather than predicting future behavior.
Thus a researcher selects a case study design because of the nature of the research problem and the questions being asked. Case study is the best plan for answering the research questions; its strengths outweigh its limitations. The case study offers a means of investigating complex social units consisting of multiple variables of potential importance in understanding the phenomenon. Anchored in real-life situations, the case study results in a rich and holistic account of a phenomenon. It offers insights and illuminates meanings that expand its readers' experiences. These insights can be construed as tentative hypotheses that help structure future research; hence, case study plays an important role in advancing a field's knowledge base. Because of its strengths, case study is a particularly appealing design for applied fields of study such as education, social work, administration, health, and so on. An applied field's processes, problems, and programs can be examined to bring about understanding that in turn can affect and perhaps even improve practice. Case study has proven particularly useful for studying educational innovations, evaluating programs, and informing policy.
Perhaps because a case study focuses on a single unit, a single instance, the issue of generalizability looms larger here than with other types of qualitative research. However, much can be learned from a particular case. Readers can learn vicariously from an encounter with the case through the researcher's narrative description. (Stake, 2005). The colorful description in a case study can create an image: "a vivid portrait of excellent teaching, for example--can become a prototype that can be used in the education of teachers or for the appraisal of teaching" (Eisner, 1991, p. 199). Further, Erickson (1986) argues that since the general lies in the particular, what we learn in a particular case can be transferred to similar situations. It is the reader, not the researcher, who determines what can apply to his or her context. Stake (2005, p. 455) explains how this knowledge transfer works: case researchers "will, like others, pass along to readers some of their personal meanings of events and relationships--and fail to pass along others. They know that the reader, too, will add and subtract, invent and shape--reconstructing the knowledge in ways that leave it...more likely to be personally useful."
The special features of case study research that provide the rationale for its selection also present certain limitations in it usage. Although rich, thick description and analysis of a phenomenon may be desired, a researcher may not have the time or money to devote to such an undertaking. And assuming time is available to produce a worthy case study, the product may be too lengthy, too detailed, or too involved for busy policy makers and practitioners to read and use. The amount of description, analysis, or summary material is up to the investigator. The researcher also must decide. "1. How much to make the report a story; 2. How much to compare with other cases; 3. How much to formalize generalizations or leave such generalizing to readers; 4. How much description of the researcher to include in the report; and, 5. Whether or not and how much to protect anonymity" (Stake, 2005, p. 460).
Qualitative case studies are limited, too, by the sensitivity and integrity of the investigator. The researcher is the primary instrument of data collection and analysis. This has its advantages. But training in observation and interviewing, though necessary, is not readily available to aspiring case study researchers. Nor are there guidelines in constructing the final report. The investigator is left to rely on his or her own instincts and abilities throughout most of this research effort.
A concern about case study research--and in particular case evaluation--is what Guba and Lincoln (1981) refer to as "unusual problems of ethics. An unethical case writer could so select from among available data that virtually anything he wished could be illustrated" (p. 378). Both the readers of case studies and the authors themselves need to be aware of biases that can affect the final product.
Further limitations involve the issues of reliability, validity, and generalizability. A Hamel (1993, p. 23) observes, "the case study has basically been faulted for its lack of representativeness...and its lack of rigor in the collection, construction, and analysis of the empirical materials that give rise to this study. This lack of rigor is linked to the problem of bias...introduced by the subjectivity of the researcher and others involved in the case. However, this argument against case study research misses the point of doing this type of research. In a recent presentation critiquing the new "gold standard" of randomized controlled trials in educational research, Shields (2007) argues for qualitative case studies: "The strength of qualitative approaches is that they account for and include difference--ideologically, epistemologically, methodologically--and most importantly, humanly. They do not attempt to eliminate what cannot be discounted. They do not attempt to simplify what cannot be simplified. Thus, it is precisely because case study includes paradoxes and acknowledges that there are no simple answers, that it can and should qualify as the gold standard" (p. 12). These issues, which are discussed more fully in Chapter Nine, are the focus of much discussion in the literature on qualitative research generally.
In an interesting discussion of the value of case study research, Flyvbjerg (2006) sets up five "misunderstandings" about case study research, which he then dismantles, substituting a more accurate statement about the issue underlying each misunderstanding. These misunderstandings and their restatements are displayed in Table 3.1. The second misunderstanding, for example, "that one cannot generalize on the basis of a single case is usually considered to be devastating to the case study as a scientific method" (p.224). However, citing single cases, experiments, and experiences of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, Flyvbjerg makes the point that both human and natural sciences can be advanced by a single case. He also argues that formal generalizations based on large samples are overrated in their contribution to scientific progress (for a discussion comparing sampling, representativeness, and generalizability in both quantitative and qualitative research, see Gobo, 2004).
TABLE 3.1. FIVE MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT CASE STUDY RESEARCH. ________________________________________________________________________________ Misunderstanding Restatement
1. General knowledge is more Universals can't be found in the
valuable than context-specific study of human affairs. Context-
knowledge. dependent knowledge is more valuable.
2. One can't generalize from Formal generalization is
a single case so a single case overvalued as a source of
doesn't add to scientific scientific development; the
development. force of a single example is underestimated
3. The case study is most useful The case study is useful for
in the first phase of a research both generating and testing of
process; used for generating hypotheses but is not limited to
hypotheses. these activities.
4. The case study confirms the There is no greater bias in
researcher's preconceived case study toward confirming
notions. preconceived notions than in
other forms of research.
5. It is difficult to summarize Difficulty in summarizing case
case studies into general studies is due to properties of the
propositions and theories. reality studied, not the research
Adapted form Flyvbjerg (2006), pp. 219-245).
Eisner, E.W. (1991). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Old Tappan, NJ: Macmillan.
Erickson, F. (1986). Qualitative methods in research on teaching. In M.C. Whittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching. (3rd ed.) (pp. 119-161). Old Tappan, NJ: Macmillan.
Flyvberg, B. (2006). Five misunderstanding about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219-245.
Gobo, G. (2004). Sampling, representativeness and generalizability. In C. Seale, G. Gobo, J.F. Gubrium, & D. Silverman (Eds.) Qualitative research practice (pp. 435-456). London: Sage.
Guba, E., & Lincoln, Y. (1981). Effective evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hamel, J. (1993). Case Study methods. Qualitative Research Methods. Vol. 32. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Stake, R.E. (2005). Qualitative case studies. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.) The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.) (pp. 443-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.