case study ~ research design, methodology, method?

Since the early 80s when I did my MA degree I have been steeped in “case study research,” and I have the deepest respect for those who have articulated the importance of focusing on the particular in social science research (Robert Yin, Robert Stake, Sharon Merriam, for example). The work of these individuals is valuable ~ Yin provides a valuable foundation for why we should look at cases, and Stake has added detail about different motivations for looking at cases.

With a background in sociology and cultural anthropology my early exposure to case studies created little confusion ~ I was and remain interested in the particular. So researching and understanding a case make conceptual sense. Being schooled in ethnography as a methodology meant that using the language of case study provided a way to engage the tools of ethnography in a flexible way, focusing on pretty much anything that can be identified as a case, that is, a bounded system. Indeed, Creswell defines case study as “an in-depth exploration of a bounded system (e.g., an activity, event, process, or individuals) based on extensive data collection” and he goes on to clarify what a bounded system is: “the case is separated out for research in terms of time, place, or some physical boundaries.” The coupling of a bounded case in naturalistic settings aligns these methodological ideas with interpretivist and critical perspectives on research, but a case can also be investigated within a post-positivist perspective.

In his 2000 book, The Art of Case Study Research, Bob Stake characterized case studies as intrinsic, instrumental or collective. Intrinsic cases are those that are inherently interesting to a researcher, perhaps because of their uniqueness or peculiarity. Instrumental cases are those that researchers study because they have features connected to bigger concepts and that provide an empirical instance to study a bigger idea. Collective case study is looking at multiple cases often with a desire to compare and understand variation, in other words it is a collection of instrumental cases.

So far, we have case study as the investigation of bounded systems that we are motivated to investigate with three possible intentions. Sounds like a very important feature of research design.

But is it a methodology?

Research methodology is a framework that guides research practice ~ it is the theoretical frame that pulls epistemology forward into a discourse that further articulates the nature of knowledge and that guides our choice of methods. Crotty describes it as: “the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and methods to the desired [research] outcomes.” Note that methodology is a theoretical framework. An important feature of methodologies is that they have substantive content, notions about what the focus of the research will be. If one does ethnography, for example, some notion of culture (even if adapted substantially from cultural anthropology) is central to the investigation. If one does critical research, some notion of power (and likely inequity) is central to the investigation. If one does narrative research, some notion of storying is central. So methodologies bring together salient, foundational social constructs with features of doing research. One could argue that certain methodologies logically entail the investigation of cases, in which case, case study could be an element of a methodology, but that it is only one among a number of elements.

So where does this leave case study as a methodology? What are the foundational social constructs that are central to it as a methodology? Here is where the logic breaks down. Looking at a case, in a natural setting, doing extensive data collection in natural settings doesn’t begin to hint at any particular foundational social constructs… inevitably researchers must draw on some other methodology for those. There is considerable variation in methodologies that inform what one does when investigating a case, and even when researchers do not articulate their methodology it lurks in the articulation of what those central social constructs are and the means by which we investigate them (reflection on pre-reflected experience in phenomenology; story telling in narrative analysis; culture in ethnography; and so on).

Terminology is inconsistent in discussions of research ~ there is a bewildering, often rolling sea of ideas, concepts, and practices to navigate in learning about research. There is no single ship of understanding, but thoughtful (re)articulation of the ideas underlying the theoretical and practical aspects of research is part of being in a community of social science researchers.


Further reading: This recently published comparative analysis of Yin, Stake & Merriam‘s take on what case study research is explicates their positions well, and I think still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of what case study is. My view of case study as a feature of research design is unchanged.

3 thoughts on “case study ~ research design, methodology, method?

  1. Nice post raising an important question. I would say the case study is best described as a method. A research design covers more than what the case study does, and I agree that it is also too narrow in order to qualify as a methodology. Case studies can be positivist, interpretivist, etc., suggesting that reference to ‘case studies’ does not imply a specific methodology. This only leaves the case study as a method. But as the post emphasizes, people often use design, methodology, and method interchangeably and I am not confident that this will change in the future.

  2. Thanks Ingo for you comments… totally agree that it is less about solving the language issues than it is about being clear about what we really mean when we use these labels. I find it frustrating when people say they are doing a case study and assume that what that means is self-evident.

  3. Very interesting post and discussion! Thank you! Let’s consider Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm as a multi-layered notion consisted of ontology, epistemology and methodology. Viewed in this light, case research is not simply a tool or method rather than a methodology shaped by the researcher’s ontological and epistemogical assumptions. Case research does not exist in a philosophical vacuum – it is dynamically related to our paradigmatic stance.

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