What Are Case Studies?

What Are Case Studies?

Case studies are frequently cited in the business media and blogosphere. Typically, few details are given about the research, however. Most of us haven’t been trained in case study research, either, so it can be hard to tell how competently the research was conducted and what we can take away from it.

G. David Garson is full professor of public administration at North Carolina State University, a winner of numerous awards, and a highly prolific author and excellent writer. He has impressive knowledge of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and advanced statistics.

I have several of his books, one of which is Case Study Analysis & QCA. It did not disappoint. This subject is not as simple and clear cut as some may believe. For example, there are quantitative elements to case study research, such as qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), which employs Boolean-based pattern matching, as well as meta-analysis. QCA receives considerable attention in this book, including its weaknesses. Sophisticated qualitative methods, perhaps less surprisingly, are also extensively used in case studies.

Below are some excerpts from the book which summarize what case study research is and why we might consider it for our own purposes.

Any copy/paste and editing errors are mine.

“Case study research is a time-honored, traditional approach to the study of topics in social science and management…Although case study research may be used in its own right, it is more often recommended as part of a multimethod approach (‘triangulation’) in which the same dependent variable is investigated using multiple additional procedures (e.g., also grounded theory, survey research, sociometry and network analysis, focus groups, content analysis, ethnography, participant observation, narrative analysis, analysis of archival data, or other methods).

‘Case study research’ is an umbrella term that means different things to different researchers. There are as many types of case studies as there are researchers. However, this has not stopped scholars from categorizing case studies into types, and these typologies throw light on the dimensions of case study research.

Stake (1995) and Cresswell (2012) divide case studies into three categories:

The intrinsic case study: Research that examines a unique case in depth, selected in its own right. The purpose of the intrinsic case study is descriptive. However, it may have normative implications in so far as it describes some process or group in favorable terms. Likewise it may have policy implications in so far as it describes a success story or a failure/problem story in some policy arena. Although the described case may have implications, the intrinsic case study is presented in descriptive terms, with generalization to other settings usually absent, leaving it to the reader to infer ‘lessons’ of the case.


The instrumental case study: Research on a case selected because it is thought to throw light on a predetermined theory, theme, or issue. The purpose of the instrumental case study is to generalize from the case at hand. The case is seen as an instance of a class of cases and the researcher generalizes to that class, not simply leaving it to the reader to draw inferences.

The collective case study: An instrumental case study design, but based on multiple cases. The purpose is to extent the instrumental strategy through study of multiple cases, sometimes by multiple researchers functioning as a collective. Multiple cases bring greater representativeness of the class to which the researchers wish to generalize, enabling stronger testing of hypotheses.

Jensen and Rodgers (2001) set forth a different typology of case studies, which included these types:

Snapshot case studies: Detailed, objective study of one research entity at one point in time. Hypothesis-testing by comparing patterns across sub-entities (e.g., comparing departments within the case study agency).

Longitudinal case studies: Quantitative and/or qualitative study of one research entity at multiple time points.

Pre-post case studies: Study of one research entity at two time points separated by a critical event. A critical event is one, which on the basis of a theory under study, would be expected to impact case observations significantly.

Patchwork case studies: A set of multiple case studies of the same research entity, using snapshot, longitudinal, and/or pre-post designs. This multi-design approach is intended to provide a more holistic view of the dynamics of the research subject.

Comparative case studies: A set of multiple case studies of multiple research entities for the purpose of cross-unit comparison. Both qualitative and quantitative comparisons comparisons are generally made.

Finally, Yin (2009), a noted leader in case study research, developed a complex typology based on single- vs. multiple-case studies, embedded vs. holistic studies, and other dimensions noted below.

Single-case holistic studies focus on all dimensions of a single case, which may be of one of five subtypes: critical cases as identified by theory, unique cases based on extreme values, representative cases based on average values, revelatory cases based on previously inaccessible data, and longitudinal cases based on trace the same case over time. Single-case embedded studies have the same five subtypes but are case studies embedded in some larger research project in which data are collected from multiple units of analysis, not just the individual case.

Multiple case holistic studies are of two subtypes: (a) literal replication, focusing on similar patterns across multiple cases leading to the same outcomes; or (b) theoretical replication, focusing on studying multiple cases selected because contrasting results are expected based on theoretical understanding.

Multiple case embedded studies have the same two subtypes but research is embedded in some larger research project in which data are collected from multiple units of analysis.

It is interesting to note that case study research plays an important role in the natural sciences as well as social sciences. Many scientific fields, such as astronomy, geology, and human biology, do not lend themselves to scientific investigation through traditional controlled experiments. Darwin’s theory of evolution was based, in essence, on case study research, not experimentation, as was Galileo’s theory of gravity, which was based on a single case involving a feather and a ball of metal.

The term ‘case history’ usually refers to a narrative or record taken from an individual, much as a doctor records the medical history of a new patient based on the patient’s own account. While case histories may be part of a case study, the case study researcher is apt to use a variety of other forms of data collection, including in-depth interviews, surveys, examination of archival records, observational protocols, audio and video logs, standardized tests (ex., Myers-Briggs), transcripts, and even interpretations of body language, depending on the type of case study.

Case studies are a common form of teaching in business, public administration, and the military, but in a teaching context their purpose is pedagogical, not research. In fact, the teaching ‘case study’ is often simplified and ‘sharpened’ to illustrate certain management principles and in some cases may even represent a fictional scenario. Case study research, in contrast, involves thick description of real-world complexity seeking to bring new knowledge to light, not to illustrate established management principles.”

Source: Garson, G. David. Case Study Analysis & QCA, Statistical Associates.


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