How to tell a ‘good’ story … in theory (March 2017)

I have been using case study for a number of years as a research methodology and more practically for evaluation purposes when I want to explore impact and change more deeply and directly with participants or beneficiaries. This short article explores what we mean by case study and explores some of the questions and challenges that this enriching methodology raises.

What is case study research?

For me in seeking rich learning from experience and specific practice examples, case study provides a valuable research methodology. Yin (2003) tells us that case study is “an empirical inquiry that investigates contemporary phenomena within its real life context.” Yin (p.13-14).

Case study can involve an exploration of one particular case for its own sake, where there is no expectation that results have implications for other case studies. We can use a case study of one case to gain insights into a particular issue where learning can be used to inform or develop theory. Case studies can also be used in a collective way when a number of case studies can highlight shared themes and differences.

The implications for deciding which type of case study relate to the overall purpose and the expectations for using learning from the case study. For example, Yin (2003) describes a rationale for using a single case study where it is designed to “…confirm, challenge, or extend the theory.” (p40).

Isn’t there a problem with such a small sample?

Using a single case study does raise questions about how well you can generalise from one single case. A common critique of case study is the limitations for generalising. Yin (2003) points out that it is important to be clear that the purpose of the single case study is to expand and generate theory as opposed to proving theory. This confirms the role of case study research as an exploratory tool. If a collective model of case studies is used then the scope for generalisation increases.

But which case study?

The above discussion raises another important question which is how to choose the single case. Stake (1993, 2003) offers us a set of criteria. He dismisses typicality and representativeness as being unrealistic and unachievable in terms of the single case. For Stake, the primary criteria should be ‘opportunity to learn’ (p6, 1993). By this he means identifying a case where there is good access and a willingness to participate. This ensures that the researcher can maximise the learning opportunities. After all, we are talking about an exploratory approach.

Strengths, issues and concerns

The strength of case study research lies in the capacity for in-depth study in real-life settings. Case study research provides an opportunity to gather first-hand experience using a variety of data collection methods. It is based on establishing long term relationships between the researcher and the research participants, hence there is high potential for exploring change and development over time.

But despite the wide use of case study across the social sciences, there is a continuing stereotype of the case study as a weak research method. This is based on the subjective nature of the content of the case study and the relationships between the researcher and the researched that lead to accusations of bias.  This relational aspect is crucial to the telling of authentic stories and can be justified through the clarity of purpose. That is being clear what the case study is and what it is not.

Achieving rigour – quality assurance tactics

These issues and concerns present the case study researcher with the main challenge as the need for high quality practice and procedures in the production of robust and valid research or ‘the ability to do a good case study’ (Yin, 2003, p11). Yin (2003) describes the use of a ‘case study protocol’ a blue print or overview of the research process. This includes practical procedures, ethical considerations, questions, analysis and a plan for how the case study report is expected to be written up. The case study protocol is an important guide for keeping the case study focussed. It can be used if there are to be multiple case studies and where external validation is used it provides a clear research pathway.

Similarly, Stake (2003) identifies triangulation as a quality assurance tactic to ensure that case study research is based on a disciplined approach and not simply a matter of intuition, good intention and common sense. Triangulation in case study research uses multiple data points to establish and deepen meaning. In this way the researcher actively seeks different perspectives on the case study topic to check interpretation and to reveal alternative meanings.

Ethical Considerations

The main ethical consideration in case study research is protecting the confidentiality and anonymity of the participants. Stake (2003) highlights the privileged position of the case study researcher when he says: “Qualitative researchers are guests in the private spaces of the world. Their manners should be good and their code of ethics strict” (p154). Van Loon and Mann (2006) describe a need for ‘facilitating a trustworthy space for safe reflection’ (p129). These quotes highlight how researchers need to be aware of the sensitivity of case study and as Stake alerts us “to listen well for signs of concern” (p154).

References

Flyvbjerg, B. (2004). Five misunderstandings about case-study research, in Seale, C. Gobo, G.

Stake, R.E. (2003). Case Studies (134-164) in Denzin, N.K. &Lincoln, Y. (eds) (2003). Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry (2nd ed). London: Sage.

Van Loon, A. and Mann, S. (2006) Development of community partnerships (121-136), in T. Koch and D. Kralik (2006) Participatory action research in health care, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Yin, R.K. (2003). Case Study Research – Design and Methods (3rd ed). London: Sage Publications.