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Illustrative Case Study Definition Psychology

Case Study Method

Saul McLeod published 2008


Case studies are in-depth investigations of a single person, group, event or community. Typically, data are gathered from a variety of sources and by using several different methods (e.g. observations & interviews). The research may also continue for an extended period of time, so processes and developments can be studied as they happen.

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e. the patient’s personal history).

The case study method often involves simply observing what happens to, or reconstructing ‘the case history’ of a single participant or group of individuals (such as a school class or a specific social group), i.e. the idiographic approach. Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies. Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g. letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g. case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports). Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e. verbal description rather than measurement) but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.

The data collected can be analyzed using different theories (e.g. grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, text interpretation, e.g. thematic coding) etc. All the approaches mentioned here use preconceived categories in the analysis and they are ideographic in their approach, i.e. they focus on the individual case without reference to a comparison group.

Case studies are widely used in psychology and amongst the best known were the ones carried out by Sigmund Freud. He conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses. 

Freud's most famous case studies include Little Hans (1909a) and The Rat Man (1909b). Even today case histories are one of the main methods of investigation in abnormal psychology and psychiatry. For students of these disciplines they can give a vivid insight into what those who suffer from mental illness often have to endure.

Case studies are often conducted in clinical medicine and involve collecting and reporting descriptive information about a particular person or specific environment, such as a school. In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual. The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual's past (i.e. retrospective), as well as to significant events which are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

In order to produce a fairly detailed and comprehensive profile of the person, the psychologist may use various types of accessible data, such as medical records, employer's reports, school reports or psychological test results. The interview is also an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person's friends, parents, employer, work mates and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist, i.e. someone with a professional qualification. There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e. abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

The procedure used in a case study means that the researcher provides a description of the behavior. This comes from interviews and other sources, such as observation. The client also reports detail of events from his or her point of view. The researcher then writes up the information from both sources above as the case study, and interprets the information.

Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always make clear which information is factual description and which is an inference or the opinion of the researcher.


Strengths of Case Studies

  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways. Research which only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension to experience which is so important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person's life are related to each other. The method is therefore important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e. humanistic psychologists).


Limitations of Case Studies

  • Can’t generalize the results to the wider population.
  • Researchers' own subjective feeling may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time consuming.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group we can never be sure whether the conclusions drawn from this particular case apply elsewhere. The results of the study are not generalizable because we can never know whether the case we have investigated is representative of the wider body of "similar" instances

Because they are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e. descriptive) data a lot depends on the interpretation the psychologist places on the information she has acquired. This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit the particular theories about behavior (e.g. Little Hans). This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

References

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der "Rattenmann"). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE, 10: 151-318.


How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Case study method. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/case-study.html

     Case Study Method

This module describes the case study method of descriptive research and its uses.

Learning Objectives:

  • Define case study research.
  • List reasons researchers use the case study method
  • Explain the how data is recorded when using the case study method.
  • Describe the benefits and limitations of using the case study method.

Case study research refers to an in-depth, detailed study of an individual or a small group of individuals.  Such studies are typically qualitative in nature, resulting in a narrative description of behavior or experience.  Case study research is not used to determine cause and effect, nor is it used to discover generalizable truths or make predictions. Rather, the emphasis in case study research is placed on exploration and description of a phenomenon.   The main characteristics of case study research are that it is narrowly focused, provides a high level of detail, and is able to combine both objective and subjective data to achieve an in-depth understanding.

Quantitative studies commonly ask questions of who, what, where, how much and how many.  Case studies, on the other hand, are used to answer questions of how or why.  They are commonly used to collect in-depth data in a natural setting where the researcher has little or no control over the events and there is a real life context. Often times, the goal of a case study is provide information that may research in the formation of a hypothesis for future research.   Case studies are commonly used in social science research and educational settings.  For example, case studies may be used to study psychological problems such as the development of a child raised by a single, deaf parent or the effects on a child who had been isolated, abused and neglected until the age of 12 years old.  Case studies could also be used in an educational setting to explore the development of writing skills in a small group of high school freshmen taking a creative writing class.

There are several types of case study methods.  The method selected depends upon the nature of the question being asked and the goals of the researcher.  Following is a list of the different types of case studies:

  • Illustrative – This type of method is used to “illustrate” or describe an event or situation in such a way that people can become more familiar with the topic in question and perhaps become acquainted with the terminology associated with the topic.
  • Exploratory – This method is a condensed case study and the purpose is to gather basic, initial data that could be used to identify a particular question for a larger study. This study is not designed to produce detailed data from which any conclusions could be drawn.  It is simply exploratory in nature.
  • Cumulative – The cumulative method is designed to pull together information for several events/situations and aggregate it in such a way that it allows for greater generalization. It has the advantage of saving time and money by not creating new and repetitive studies.
  • Critical Instance – These studies are used to examine situations of unique interest or to challenge a universal or generalized belief. Such studies are not to create new generalizations. Rather, several situations or events may be examined to raise questions or challenge previously held assertions.

Once the question has been identified and the basic type of case study method has been selected, the researcher will need to begin designing their case study approach.  In order to obtain a full and detailed picture of the participant or small group, the researcher can use a variety of approaches and methods to collect data.  These methods may include interviews, field studies, protocol or transcript analyses, direct participant observations, a review of documents and archived records, and an exploration of artifacts.  Researchers may choose to use one of these methods to collect data (single method approach) or they may use several methods (multi-modal approach). 

After the researcher has determined the data collection methods and what type of data will be used and recorded in the study, he or she will need to decide upon a strategy for analyzing the data.  Case study researchers typically interpret their data either holistically or through coding procedures.  A holistic approach reviews all of the data as a whole and attempts to draw conclusions based on the data in its entirety. This is an appropriate approach when the question being studied is more general in nature and the data provides an overview.  Sometimes, it may be more useful to break the data into smaller pieces.  This usually involves searching the data to identify and categorize specific actions or characteristics. These categories can be assigned a numeric code that allows the data to be analyzed using statistical, quantitative methods.

Regardless of the type of case study, data collection method or data analysis method, all case studies have advantages and disadvantages.  The following list discusses the potential benefits and limitations associated with using case study research methods:

Advantages:

  • Case studies are more flexible than many other types of research and allow the researcher to discover and explore as the research develops.
  • Case studies emphasize in-depth content. The researcher is able to delve deep and use a variety of data sources to get a complete picture.
  • The data is collected in a natural setting and context.
  • Often leads to the creation of new hypotheses that can be tested later.
  • Case studies often shed new light on an established theory that results in further exploration.
  • Researchers are able to study and analyze situations, events and behaviors that could be created in a laboratory setting.

Disadvantages:

  • The uniqueness of the data usually means that it is not able to be replicated.
  • Case studies have some level of subjectivity and researcher bias may be a problem.
  • Because of the in-depth nature of the data, it is not possible to conduct the research on a large scale.
  • There are concerns about the reliability, validity and generalizability of the results.

The Resource Links on this page provide a more comprehensive and detailed discussion regarding the types of case study methods, data collection methods and data analysis methods.  In summary, the following video, Case Study, reviews the case study methodology and discusses several types of case study methods.

 Suggested Readings:

  • Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
  • Burt, C. (1922). Research in education.
  • Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
  • Gomm, R., Hammersley, M., & Foster, P. (Eds.). (2000). Case study method: Key issues, key texts. Sage.
  • Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
  • Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
  • Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
  • Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.
  • Soy, S. (2015). The case study as a research method.
  • Stake, R. E. (1978). The case study method in social inquiry. Educational researcher, 7(2), 5-8.
  • Svensson, L. (1984). Three Approaches to Descriptive Research.

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