What is a Case Study and Why should I Use It in My PhD Dissertation? Understanding the purpose of case studies in research.

A case study can provide appropriate research design in a qualitative or quantitative study to to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge and multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context. The case study can be a great tool for providing insight and developing theories in the avenue of present research.

What is a case study?

A case study is a structured, focused, in-depth look at a particular issue or topic that reports on the findings and conclusions of researchers who have studied the case. A case study is not intended to be an exploratory analysis or to make sweeping generalizations. Rather, it is an objective, focused, and structured approach to understand the specific circumstances of an issue or the people, places, and things that make up a society. Prepared to the best of the researchers knowledge, a case study is a unique research method. In fact, case studies are the most common type of qualitative research. A case study is often a combination of interviews, focus groups, documentation, and research documentation.

Why do researchers use case study?

Case studies often contain detailed, in-depth examination of a particular issue or topic that reports on the findings and conclusions of researchers who have studied the case. Case studies are excellent for gaining insight and understanding in the following ways: – 

  • Focus on one aspect of the phenomena being studied
  • Give the researcher a window into the participants’ world 
  • Explain the decision making process involved in data collection, analysis, and presentation 
  • Allow for in-depth examination of the methodology

How to do a case study in PhD research

To conduct a case study, the students must first adhere to the university requirements and establish a strong subject knowledge in the domain of study. This is to help the researcher design the case study in a controlled environment. The case study must:

Be descriptive – Be specific – Be analytical – Be critical – Be narrative – Be written within required format

Key elements of a successful case study

The basic elements of a successful case study include: – 

  • The issue 
  • The phenomenon 
  • The context 
  • The data 
  • The methodology 
  • The conclusions 
  • The recommendations 
  • The detail of resources used  

Research design using cases

Research designs that incorporate the use of case studies are often qualitative or quantitative in nature. A quantitative approach to the study of a phenomenon could involve questionnaires to collect data about the respondents’ experiences. On the other hand, a qualitative approach could involve in-depth interviews to understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of people who are experiencing the same phenomenon as the research team. Case studies can also be used in the analysis of the validity of a plan. For example, a case study examining the feasibility of a new project could examine the cost, risks, and benefits of undertaking the study and the study’s design.

The case study can be used in various design settings:

  • Explanatory case studies aim to answer ‘how’ or ’why’ questions and involve an accurate description of the event or situation under study rather than the researcher’s thoughts.
  • A descriptive case study is one that is focused and detailed to illustrate an unfamiliar subject that the researcher wants the audience to understand and the phenomenon under study is carefully scrutinized.
  • Exploratory case studies aim to find answers to the questions of ‘what’ or ‘who’. This is often conducted on the premise of a larger research problem to narrow the focus of the study and reach a specific research objective.

Should I be using case studies in my research?

Eisenhardt (1989) says that case studies are:

“Particularly well suited to new research areas or research areas for

which existing theory seems inadequate. This type of work is highly

complementary to incremental theory building from normal science

research. The former is useful in early stages of research on a topic or

when a fresh perspective is needed, whilst the latter is useful in later

stages of knowledge” (pp.548-549).

There is a certain skepticism about the usefulness of case studies as an objective research method considering its many limitations like the reliability of the respondents and the behavioral differences that can contribute to the inadequacy of the information provided by the subjects of the case, the issue of possibility of generalization of the findings of a case study considering the narrow and focussed approach that case studied utilize and finally the researcher bias which forms the main disadvantage to an objective study. The researcher should also consider the efficiency of using case studies in his or her research because of the detailed nature of this method that is not only dependent on factors beyond control but also intensive in preparation and deduction of conclusions.

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