Doing case studies as research

Ross Woods, 2022

What is a “case”?

Every case is a system of some kind with its own patterns of behavior, its own context and history, and boundaries.

Cases also often have:

  1. Assumptions or shared beliefs
  2. Personal or collective cultures
  3. Causes for why it is as it is
  4. Observable phenomena
  5. Consequences or implications for their beliefs and actions


You need good reasons for selecting a particular case, for example:

  1. It has intrinsic value; you aim to understand a case because it has some kind of complexity that is not yet understood.
  2. It will give you insight into a particular issue.
  3. It will help you to refine a theory. For example, you might find a case that seems contrary to a current dominant theory.
  4. You want to compare cases to better understand a phenomenon.

Write a clear research question. This is necessary to keep you focused and to enable you to draw a conclusion.

Components of a case study

As part of the introduction, describe the case. It is often best to tell it as a story.

  1. What is the case?
  2. What is its history?
  3. What is its physical setting?
  4. What other contexts are relevant (e.g. political, demographic, etc.)
  5. Do any other cases make this case particularly important?

In the methodology chapter, say how you plan to gather information. In many cases, this will be to identify the informants and say how you will gather information from them. You might also collect other kinds of information, such as statistical data.

During the study

What issues arose during the study?


  1. Beware of bias when reporting the story. Unless readers have reasons to think otherwise, they will treat your writing as statements of fact.
  2. Others might want to compare your research with other cases. Write in such a way that readers won’t create spurious interpretations.
  3. Unexpected findings are often the most valuable and interesting, and indicate that the research has actually been successful. However, some students think they’ve failed when their research doesn’t go as they expected.
    1. You might find out that the actual problem is very different from what you expected.
    2. You might find that the answer to your research question is actually very simple. (That’s the moment when you slap your head and say “Of course! It’s obvious.”)
  4. You must maintain the uniqueness of the case and resist the temptation to make generalizations that apply to other contexts. Instead, consider them to be implications or questions for further research.

Comparing cases

Case studies make the assumption that each case might be unique. Consequently, cases are difficult to compare because you are not necessarily comparing like with like. Do comparisons on an aspect by aspect basis so that you can see which aspects can be compared and which can’t. In the comparison, put each aspect of comparison in context, so that you qualify any statements carefully.

Key reference: Robert E. Stake. “Case studies” pp. 326-437 in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research. (Thousand Oaks, Ca.: SAGE Publications, 1994).