What is a Case Study Introduction

What is a Case Study?

Learning Objectives

  • Familiarize yourself with how the case study is seen in professional and social science
  •  Understand why there is no universal agreement on how to define the case study
  •  Review the list of nine “case study” genres identified from the literature review
  •  Examine the training objectives that have been paired with each module

Introduction: The Contested Terrain of Case Study

Case study is today one of the most recognizable forms of knowledge-production in the world. Industries such as law, business, education, social work and medicine value the case study as an intensive investigation that draws on professional expertise to isolate critical details and perform in-depth analysis (often for practical ends). Even in daily practice, professionals “operate on the basis of intimate knowledge of several thousand concrete cases in their areas of expertise,” and use these cases to generate “theories-in-use” for industry problems (Kinsella, 2010; Flyvbjerg, 2006, p. 222). The sciences, meanwhile, regard the case study as something of a “Swiss-army-knife” method (Low & Bowden, 2013[a]), which, while adaptable to a wide range of real world problems, struggles to achieve the sort of rigor and explanatory power enjoyed in experimental traditions (see Module 8 for this debate). The principal advantage of the case study is that it peers into highly complex systems that would otherwise be inaccessible to experimentation or statistics alone. These sophisticated systems preclude the application of experimental “controls” because they prompt “situations where the number of variables […] far outstrips the number of datapoints,” or where confounding variables cloud the system from the outset (Yin, 1994, p. 13). The magic of the case study, then, is to carve-out manageable pieces of the environment that are entangled with the phenomenon, creating a set of contextual units. But it does so at the cost of controls, and ultimately the level of rigor demanded by some scientists (Harrison, Birks, Franklin, & Mills, 2017; Hammersley, 2010[a]; 2010[b]; George & Bennett, 2004; Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2000[a]; Hamel, Dufour, & Fortin, 1993; Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg, 1991; Bromley, 1986).

Participants in this Research Ready Training may be surprised to learn that, in spite of its wide popularity, there is no universal genre for the case study. Berlant (2007) explains that what we call “the case study” is actually a complex multiverse of practices, each occurring in separate spheres of knowledge and obeying separate rules. According to Berlant, disciplinary authorities use the case study as a way of demarcating their spheres of expertise by imposing a distinct language and logic:  

The case represents a problem-event that has animated some kind of judgment. Any enigma could do – a symptom, a crime, a causal variable, a situation, a stranger, or any irritating obstacle to clarity. What matters is the idiom of judgment. This varies tremendously across disciplines, professions, and ordinary life scenes: law, medicine, universities, sports bars, chat shows, blogs; each domain with its [own] vernacular and rule-based conventions for folding the singular into the general (2007, p. 663).

Like Berlant, historians such as Joy Damousi see the case study as “a central disciplinary apparatus in fields ranging from law and medicine to criminology and psychoanalysis” (Damousi, Lang, & Sutton, 2015, p. 1). They argue that the case study is as old as “discipline-building” itself, traceable to the 18th- and 19th-century campaigns of middleclass professionals to validate their careers and social status. It was Michel Foucault, the French historian, who famously characterized the rise of the case study as a social revolution, in which professionals took power through their newfound expertise (Forrester, 1996, pp. 10-13; Foucault, 1977). Foucault recounted how the clinician’s case file, “surrounded by all its documentary techniques, makes each individual a ‘case’: a case which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge [but also] a hold for a branch of power,” in that it validates professional expertise (1977, p. 191).

If we accept, as Foucault did, that the rise of modern disciplines created a pluralistic structure to knowledge-making, then the idea of a contested intellectual terrain makes sense: there is no one “owner” of the case study in sciences or humanities, and hence, no universal form to how it should look. Readers should hardly despair over this situation. Even in a contested terrain, where the fault-lines are many, we can find pockets of norming that exhibit a common pattern. A list below captures nine species of “case study” drawn from various pockets of norming throughout scholarly literature (readers may refer to Module 2 for sources in support of these “species”):

Case study [1]: the study of social, cultural, or behavioral phenomena through a contextual framework known as a “case unit,” particularly as carried out in the social sciences and professional sciences.  

Case study [2]: the study of “case records” and their composite “case histories” from the vantage point of a professional-practitioner in medicine, counseling/psychiatry, social work,  or criminology – or any field that keeps case files – with the intent of securing a more general understanding of a phenomenon (or context) in question.   

Case study [3]: the study of “case books” or other forms of case documentation in the legal profession, particularly as conducted via the “Harvard case method” (invented by Christopher Langdell between 1870 and 1895).  

Case study [4]: the study of clinical examples made available at medical schools or other research institutes, particularly as conducted via the “Harvard case method” (converted from the legal tradition by Walter Cannon and Richard Cabot between 1900 and 1910).

Case study [5]: the study of “case books” and other forms of case documentation in the business profession, particularly as conducted via the “Harvard case method” (converted from the legal tradition by Charles Eliot and William Donham between 1908 and 1920).

Case study [6]: the study of case histories as they occur in Western literature, particularly as conducted by literary or cultural critics.

Case study [7]: the study of a problem-event in epistemology, which requires philosophic investigation from humanities areas such as analytic philosophy, historiography, cultural study, literary criticism, or linguistics.  

Case study [8]: the study of casuist reasoning in moral dilemmas, particularly as conducted by ethicists or legal theorists.

Case study [9]: the study of bounded (or strategically simplified) narratives as pedagogic tools for teaching complex ideas to the broader masses; particularly as conducted by education theorists and communications scholars.

Glancing at the list, one is immediately struck by the varied uses of the word “case.” The social scientist, for instance, identifies “the case” as a real-world context for examining social or behavioral activity. The medical student, on the other hand, identifies “the case” as a clinic manifestation that holds relevance for diagnostic or treatment regimens. The law student recognizes “the case” as a collection of formal records on court proceedings and judicial rulings. For the industry practitioner, “the case” is a series of records amassed as a working “history.” For the philosopher or ethicist, “the case” is a set of factual conditions warranting logical analysis. For the communications scholar, “the case” is a mini-narrative that facilitates the transmission of ideas. Each use of the word is justified by its own “domain” of knowledge-making, and follows its own “rule-based conventions” (Berlant, 2007, p. 663).       

Research Ready Objectives

This Research Ready Training addresses the social scientific case study. Yazan points out that even in the social sciences, there are profound differences of opinion about what constitutes a “case,” and what a case study strategy should look like. The “case study methodology has long been a contested terrain in social scientific research which is characterized by varying, sometimes opposing, approaches espoused by many research methodologists. Despite being one of the most frequently used qualitative research methodologies […], methodologists do not have a full consensus on the design and implementation of case study” (2015, p. 134). Gerring similarly observes that case study experts “have difficulty articulating what it is that they are doing methodologically speaking,” to the extent that “the case study survives [today] in a curious methodological limbo” (2004, p. 341). These sobering assessments suggest that students may not be able rely solely on “experts” to administer a uniform approach to case study. While authorities such as Robert Yin (2018; 1994), Sharan Merriam (1998), and Robert Stake (2006; 1995) present compelling accounts of the case study strategy individually, they paint a very different picture as a whole, and hence force the novice researcher to scramble on how best to reconcile their views. Brown, in her global review of the case study literature, agrees that Yin, Merriam, and Stake offer “distinctly different” versions of case study that create serious challenges for their reader (2008, p. 7).

The purpose of this training is to provide a high-level overview for novice researchers, disentangling areas of methodological sophistication that are often confusing for students at the outset of their design. Readers are cautioned that the training modules herein do not constitute a comprehensive treatment of the case study. For this level of guidance, readers should refer to their programmatic materials or consult with established research sources such as Yin (2018), Hancock and Algozzine (2016), Thomas an Myers (2015), Thomas (2012), Simons (2009), Gerring (2007), Stake (2006, 1995), Gillham (2001), Bassey (1999), or Merriam (1998). The goal here is to address common areas of misunderstanding at the “big picture” level, dealing with issues such as methodological variation; case unit confusion, triangulation difficulties, and the value of the findings. This training therefore attends to the following objectives:

  • Clarifying the history of the case study [Module 2]
  • Outlining the methodological variants of the case study [Module 3]
  • Examining the different connotations of “case unit” [Modules 4-5]
  • Previewing the logic for selecting unit(s) [Modules 5-6]
  • Discussing the options for triangulation [Modules 7]
  • Reviewing the value of case study findings [Modules 8-9]

The hope is that, at the end of this training, students will arrive at a better understanding of what the case study offers to modern social science. Students should appreciate that, in spite of the methodological diversity, the case study is a recognizable and systematic research strategy owing to is focus on unit-structuring and triangulation. Contrary to its critics, the case study cannot be dismissed as just “a convenient label for our research when we can’t think of anything better” (Tight, 2010, p. 337).


 Bassey, M. (1999). Case Study Research in Educational Settings. Maidenhead, UK: Open Univ. Press.

 Berlant, L. (2007). On the case. Critical Inquiry 33 (4): 663-72.

 Bromley, D. B. (1986). The Case-Study Method in Psychology and Related Disciplines. New York: Wiley.

 Brown, P. A. (2008). A review of literature on the case study. Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education 1 (1). Retrieved from:  https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjnse/article/view/30395

 Damousi, J., Lang, B., & Sutton, K. (Eds.) (2015). Case Studies and the Dissemination of Knowledge. New York: Routledge.

 Feagin, F. R., Orum, A. M., & Sjoberg, G. (Eds.) (1991). A Case for the Case Study. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

 Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Allen Lane.

 Forrester, J. (1996). If p, then what? Thinking in cases. History of the Human Sciences 9 (3): 1-25.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry 12 (2): 219-45.

 George, A. L., & Bennett, A. (2004). Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 Gerring, J. (2004). What is a case study and what is it good for? American Political Science Review 98 (2): 341-54.

 Gerring, J. (2007). Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge Univ. Press.

 Gomm, R., Hammersley, M., & Foster, P. (Eds.) (2000[a]). Case Study Method: Key Issues, Key Texts. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Hamel, J., Dufour, S., & Fortin, D. (1993). Case Study Methods. Newbury Park: SAGE.

 Hancock, D. R., & Algozzine, B. (2016). Doing Case Study Research: A Practical Guide for Beginning Researchers (3rd ed). New York: Columbia Teacher’s College.

 Harrison, H., Birks, M., Franklin, R., & Mills, J. (2017). Case study research: foundations and methodological orientation. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 18 (1). Retrieved from: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2655/4079

 Kinsella, E. A. (2010). The art of reflective practice in health care and social work: reflections on the legacy of Donald Schön. Reflective Practice 13 (2): 565-75.

 Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 Simons, H. (2009). Case Study Research in Practice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Stake, R. E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Stake, R. E. (2006). Multiple Case Study Analysis. New York: Guilford.

 Stern, S. (2011). Detecting doctrines: the case method and the detective story. Yale Journal of Law & Humanities 23 (2): 339-87.

 Thomas, G. (2012). How to do Your Case Study – A Guide for Students and Researchers. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Thomas, G., & Myers, K. (2015). The Anatomy of the Case Study. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

 Tight, M. (2010). The curious case of case study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 13 (4): 329-39.

 Yazan, B. (2015). Three approaches to case study methods in education: Yin, Merriam, and Stake. The Qualitative Report 20 (2). Retrieved from: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol20/iss2/12/

 Yin, R. K. (1994). Case Study Research: Design and Methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Method (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

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