Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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DM&E Tip: When to Use a Case Study

When to Use a Case Study

A case study is a research methodology which allows the investigation to maintain all the meaningful characteristics of real-world events and process. A core feature of case study methodology is its multi-perspectival analysis: it considers not just the voice and perspectives of the actors, but also of relevant groups of actors and their interactions.

A case study, in other words, is a story about something interesting and/or unique. That story may be a conflict or context assessment, understanding how and why a particular community changed during and post-project implementation, or a short anecdotal report to donors, headquarters or the media. It can also be used for project or program monitoring and evaluation.

A case study is particularly useful to:

  • Explain real-life phenomenon which are too complex for other research methodologies, such as surveys or experimental strategies;
  • Describe phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurs;
  • Illustrate certain topics within a phenomenon in a descriptive mode; and,
  • Explore situations in which causation is difficult to attribute.

Case Study Design

The following elements are generally included in case study design. It is important to note, however, that a case study may not necessarily have a proposition (a hypothesis). For example, an exploratory case study—a study aimed at defining the questions or hypotheses of a subsequent study or determining the feasibility of the desired research or action—such as conflict and context assessments, may not put forth a hypothesis but rather aim to explore and illuminate key dynamics in the conflict and context.

  1. The study’s questions
  • What question do you seek to answer with the case study?
  • Its propositions, if any
    • Your hypothesis of why something occurred
  • Its unit(s) of analysis
    • What is the “case”?
  • The logic linking the data to the proposition
    • Linking qualitative and quantitative evidence to your hypothesis
  • The criteria for interpreting the findings.
    • How will you know if your hypothesis was correct?

    General Principles to Follow:

    • Triangulate!

    A study which employs more than one method of data collection will be considered more robust. Consider using individual interviews and focus groups to complement each other and to bring out further dynamics and issues. And don’t focus solely on the qualitative: use quantitative methods to gain an overview of the phenomenon (such as its prevalence in the context), and qualitative methods to understand the phenomenon in-depth (how it impacts people and the implications).

    •  “How” and “Why”?

    Case study methodology has a particular advantage over other research methodologies when a “how?” or “why?” question is being asked.

    • Be Flexible

    As in any qualitative research, you may begin the study with one or several questions driving the inquiry, but you may discover new key factors during data collection. These might be unexpected patterns or issues which only become evident while conducting the research. These new questions or issues may be posed at the end of the study, thus linking to the possibility of further research.

    Hot Resources:

    Free Online! Writing Guide: Case Studies by Colorado State University

    Free Online! Preparing a Case Study: A Guide for Designing and Conducting a Case Study for Evaluation Input by Palena Neale, Shyam Thapa and Carolyn Boyce

    Thanks for this post -- I was drawn to it because I recently wrote up a case study for a course assignment. 

    One point that is perhaps obvious to many readers (but was new information for me) is that the term "case study" can refer to very different learning tools. The type that we are discussing here is research based, however, in classroom settings "case studies" are written incorporating information from a variety of situations and not meant to represent a single event.  Again, this may be obvious, but without this understanding some of the literature on writing case studies can be quite confusing.

    I am fond of using case studies in research, as they offer the opportunity to share stories.  Storytelling is a powerful form of information sharing and I appreciate the opportunity to share and learn from stories in many forms. 

    Further to what your comments on Design, Yin makes an important point that “…the complete case is one in which the boundaries of the case – that is, the distinction between the phenomenon being studied and its context – are given explicit attention.” (Yin, Robert K., Case Study Research Design and Methods. London: Sage Publications, Inc., 1885, p. 141).  By not setting proper boundaries a case's key points can be diluted, resulting in less rigorous research and generally less profound results.

    Your note about being flexible is especially appreciated as I work through my case study, and I am grateful for the resources that you've included with your post. I offer the following resource to any others who are writing or planning to write up a research case study:

    Many thanks, and all the best!