A case study in academic research is a detailed and in-depth examination of a specific instance or event, generally conducted through a qualitative approach to data.
The most common case study definition that I come across is is Robert K. Yin’s (2003, p. 13) quote provided below:
“An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident.”
Researchers conduct case studies for a number of reasons, such as to explore complex phenomena within their real-life context, to look at a particularly interesting instance of a situation, or to dig deeper into something of interest identified in a wider-scale project.
While case studies render extremely interesting data, they have many limitations and are not suitable for all studies. One key limitation is that a case study’s findings are not usually generalizable to broader populations because one instance cannot be used to infer trends across populations.
Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages
1. In-depth analysis of complex phenomena
Case study design allows researchers to delve deeply into intricate issues and situations.
By focusing on a specific instance or event, researchers can uncover nuanced details and layers of understanding that might be missed with other research methods, especially large-scale survey studies.
As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue,
“It allows that particular event to be studies in detail so that its unique qualities may be identified.”
This depth of analysis can provide rich insights into the underlying factors and dynamics of the studied phenomenon.
2. Holistic Understanding
Building on the above point, case studies can help us to understand a topic holistically and from multiple angles.
This means the researcher isn’t restricted to just examining a topic by using a pre-determined set of questions, as with questionnaires. Instead, researchers can use qualitative methods to delve into the many different angles, perspectives, and contextual factors related to the case study.
We can turn to Lee and Saunders (2017) again, who notes that case study researchers “develop a deep, holistic understanding of a particular phenomenon” with the intent of deeply understanding the phenomenon.
3. Examination of rare and Unusual Phenomena
We need to use case study methods when we stumble upon “rare and unusual” (Lee & Saunders, 2017) phenomena that would tend to be seen as mere outliers in population studies.
Take, for example, a child genius. A population study of all children of that child’s age would merely see this child as an outlier in the dataset, and this child may even be removed in order to predict overall trends.
So, to truly come to an understanding of this child and get insights into the environmental conditions that led to this child’s remarkable cognitive development, we need to do an in-depth study of this child specifically – so, we’d use a case study.
4. Helps Reveal the Experiences of Marginalzied Groups
Just as rare and unsual cases can be overlooked in population studies, so too can the experiences, beliefs, and perspectives of marginalized groups.
As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue, “case studies are also extremely useful in helping the expression of the voices of people whose interests are often ignored.”
Take, for example, the experiences of minority populations as they navigate healthcare systems. This was for many years a “hidden” phenomenon, not examined by researchers. It took case study designs to truly reveal this phenomenon, which helped to raise practitioners’ awareness of the importance of cultural sensitivity in medicine.
5. Ideal in Situations where Researchers cannot Control the Variables
Experimental designs – where a study takes place in a lab or controlled environment – are excellent for determining cause and effect. But not all studies can take place in controlled environments (Tetnowski, 2015).
When we’re out in the field doing observational studies or similar fieldwork, we don’t have the freedom to isolate dependent and independent variables. We need to use alternate methods.
Case studies are ideal in such situations.
A case study design will allow researchers to deeply immerse themselves in a setting (potentially combining it with methods such as ethnography or researcher observation) in order to see how phenomena take place in real-life settings.
6. Supports the generation of new theories or hypotheses
While large-scale quantitative studies such as cross-sectional designs and population surveys are excellent at testing theories and hypotheses on a large scale, they need a hypothesis to start off with!
This is where case studies – in the form of grounded research – come in. Often, a case study doesn’t start with a hypothesis. Instead, it ends with a hypothesis based upon the findings within a singular setting.
The deep analysis allows for hypotheses to emerge, which can then be taken to larger-scale studies in order to conduct further, more generalizable, testing of the hypothesis or theory.
7. Reveals the Unexpected
When a largescale quantitative research project has a clear hypothesis that it will test, it often becomes very rigid and has tunnel-vision on just exploring the hypothesis.
Of course, a structured scientific examination of the effects of specific interventions targeted at specific variables is extermely valuable.
But narrowly-focused studies often fail to shine a spotlight on unexpected and emergent data. Here, case studies come in very useful. Oftentimes, researchers set their eyes on a phenomenon and, when examining it closely with case studies, identify data and come to conclusions that are unprecedented, unforeseen, and outright surprising.
As Lars Meier (2009, p. 975) marvels, “where else can we become a part of foreign social worlds and have the chance to become aware of the unexpected?”
1. Not Usually Generalizable
Case studies are not generalizable because they tend not to look at a broad enough corpus of data to be able to infer that there is a trend across a population.
As Yang (2022) argues, “by definition, case studies can make no claims to be typical.”
Case studies focus on one specific instance of a phenomenon. They explore the context, nuances, and situational factors that have come to bear on the case study. This is really useful for bringing to light important, new, and surprising information, as I’ve already covered.
But, it’s not often useful for generating data that has validity beyond the specific case study being examined.
2. Subjectivity in interpretation
Case studies usually (but not always) use qualitative data which helps to get deep into a topic and explain it in human terms, finding insights unattainable by quantitative data.
But qualitative data in case studies relies heavily on researcher interpretation. While researchers can be trained and work hard to focus on minimizing subjectivity (through methods like triangulation), it often emerges – some might argue it’s innevitable in qualitative studies.
So, a criticism of case studies could be that they’re more prone to subjectivity – and researchers need to take strides to address this in their studies.
3. Difficulty in replicating results
Case study research is often non-replicable because the study takes place in complex real-world settings where variables are not controlled.
So, when returning to a setting to re-do or attempt to replicate a study, we often find that the variables have changed to such an extent that replication is difficult. Furthermore, new researchers (with new subjective eyes) may catch things that the other readers overlooked.
Replication is even harder when researchers attempt to replicate a case study design in a new setting or with different participants.
Lee, B., & Saunders, M. N. K. (2017). Conducting Case Study Research for Business and Management Students. SAGE Publications.
Meir, L. (2009). Feasting on the Benefits of Case Study Research. In Mills, A. J., Wiebe, E., & Durepos, G. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Case Study Research (Vol. 2). London: SAGE Publications.
Tetnowski, J. (2015). Qualitative case study research design. Perspectives on fluency and fluency disorders, 25(1), 39-45. (Source)
Yang, S. L. (2022). The War on Corruption in China: Local Reform and Innovation. Taylor & Francis.
Yin, R. (2003). Case Study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]