Have a language expert improve your writing

Run a free plagiarism check in 10 minutes, generate accurate citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base


  • What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on May 8, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods , but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing , comparing, evaluating and understanding different aspects of a research problem .

Table of contents

When to do a case study, step 1: select a case, step 2: build a theoretical framework, step 3: collect your data, step 4: describe and analyze the case, other interesting articles.

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation . They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions , you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

TipIf your research is more practical in nature and aims to simultaneously investigate an issue as you solve it, consider conducting action research instead.

Unlike quantitative or experimental research , a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

Example of an outlying case studyIn the 1960s the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was discovered to have extremely low rates of heart disease compared to the US average. It became an important case study for understanding previously neglected causes of heart disease.

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience or phenomenon.

Example of a representative case studyIn the 1920s, two sociologists used Muncie, Indiana as a case study of a typical American city that supposedly exemplified the changing culture of the US at the time.

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework . This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

There are many different research methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews , observations , and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data.

Example of a mixed methods case studyFor a case study of a wind farm development in a rural area, you could collect quantitative data on employment rates and business revenue, collect qualitative data on local people’s perceptions and experiences, and analyze local and national media coverage of the development.

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

Here's why students love Scribbr's proofreading services

Discover proofreading & editing

In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis , with separate sections or chapters for the methods , results and discussion .

Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyze its meanings and implications (for example, by using textual analysis or discourse analysis ).

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

McCombes, S. (2023, November 20). What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods. Scribbr. Retrieved November 28, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/case-study/

Is this article helpful?

Shona McCombes

Shona McCombes

Other students also liked, primary vs. secondary sources | difference & examples, what is a theoretical framework | guide to organizing, what is action research | definition & examples, what is your plagiarism score.

  • Search Menu
  • Browse content in Arts and Humanities
  • Browse content in Archaeology
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology
  • Archaeological Methodology and Techniques
  • Archaeology by Region
  • Archaeology of Religion
  • Archaeology of Trade and Exchange
  • Biblical Archaeology
  • Contemporary and Public Archaeology
  • Environmental Archaeology
  • Historical Archaeology
  • History and Theory of Archaeology
  • Industrial Archaeology
  • Landscape Archaeology
  • Mortuary Archaeology
  • Prehistoric Archaeology
  • Underwater Archaeology
  • Zooarchaeology
  • Browse content in Architecture
  • Architectural Structure and Design
  • History of Architecture
  • Landscape Art and Architecture
  • Residential and Domestic Buildings
  • Theory of Architecture
  • Browse content in Art
  • Art Subjects and Themes
  • Gender and Sexuality in Art
  • History of Art
  • Industrial and Commercial Art
  • Theory of Art
  • Biographical Studies
  • Byzantine Studies
  • Browse content in Classical Studies
  • Classical Literature
  • Classical Reception
  • Classical History
  • Classical Philosophy
  • Classical Mythology
  • Classical Art and Architecture
  • Classical Oratory and Rhetoric
  • Greek and Roman Papyrology
  • Greek and Roman Archaeology
  • Greek and Roman Epigraphy
  • Greek and Roman Law
  • Late Antiquity
  • Religion in the Ancient World
  • Digital Humanities
  • Browse content in History
  • Colonialism and Imperialism
  • Diplomatic History
  • Environmental History
  • Genealogy, Heraldry, Names, and Honours
  • Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
  • Historical Geography
  • History by Period
  • History of Agriculture
  • History of Education
  • History of Gender and Sexuality
  • Industrial History
  • Intellectual History
  • International History
  • Labour History
  • Legal and Constitutional History
  • Local and Family History
  • Maritime History
  • Military History
  • National Liberation and Post-Colonialism
  • Oral History
  • Political History
  • Public History
  • Regional and National History
  • Revolutions and Rebellions
  • Slavery and Abolition of Slavery
  • Social and Cultural History
  • Theory, Methods, and Historiography
  • Urban History
  • World History
  • Browse content in Language Teaching and Learning
  • Language Learning (Specific Skills)
  • Language Teaching Theory and Methods
  • Browse content in Linguistics
  • Applied Linguistics
  • Cognitive Linguistics
  • Computational Linguistics
  • Forensic Linguistics
  • Grammar, Syntax and Morphology
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics
  • History of English
  • Language Evolution
  • Language Reference
  • Language Variation
  • Language Families
  • Language Acquisition
  • Lexicography
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Linguistic Theories
  • Linguistic Typology
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Translation and Interpretation
  • Writing Systems
  • Browse content in Literature
  • Bibliography
  • Children's Literature Studies
  • Literary Studies (Romanticism)
  • Literary Studies (American)
  • Literary Studies (Modernism)
  • Literary Studies (Asian)
  • Literary Studies (European)
  • Literary Studies (Eco-criticism)
  • Literary Studies - World
  • Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)
  • Literary Studies (19th Century)
  • Literary Studies (20th Century onwards)
  • Literary Studies (African American Literature)
  • Literary Studies (British and Irish)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Literary Studies (Fiction, Novelists, and Prose Writers)
  • Literary Studies (Gender Studies)
  • Literary Studies (Graphic Novels)
  • Literary Studies (History of the Book)
  • Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights)
  • Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)
  • Literary Studies (Postcolonial Literature)
  • Literary Studies (Queer Studies)
  • Literary Studies (Science Fiction)
  • Literary Studies (Travel Literature)
  • Literary Studies (War Literature)
  • Literary Studies (Women's Writing)
  • Literary Theory and Cultural Studies
  • Mythology and Folklore
  • Shakespeare Studies and Criticism
  • Browse content in Media Studies
  • Browse content in Music
  • Applied Music
  • Dance and Music
  • Ethics in Music
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Gender and Sexuality in Music
  • Medicine and Music
  • Music Cultures
  • Music and Media
  • Music and Culture
  • Music and Religion
  • Music Education and Pedagogy
  • Music Theory and Analysis
  • Musical Scores, Lyrics, and Libretti
  • Musical Structures, Styles, and Techniques
  • Musicology and Music History
  • Performance Practice and Studies
  • Race and Ethnicity in Music
  • Sound Studies
  • Browse content in Performing Arts
  • Browse content in Philosophy
  • Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art
  • Epistemology
  • Feminist Philosophy
  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Metaphysics
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Non-Western Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Language
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Philosophy of Perception
  • Philosophy of Action
  • Philosophy of Law
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic
  • Practical Ethics
  • Social and Political Philosophy
  • Browse content in Religion
  • Biblical Studies
  • Christianity
  • East Asian Religions
  • History of Religion
  • Judaism and Jewish Studies
  • Qumran Studies
  • Religion and Education
  • Religion and Health
  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion and Science
  • Religion and Law
  • Religion and Art, Literature, and Music
  • Religious Studies
  • Browse content in Society and Culture
  • Cookery, Food, and Drink
  • Cultural Studies
  • Customs and Traditions
  • Ethical Issues and Debates
  • Hobbies, Games, Arts and Crafts
  • Lifestyle, Home, and Garden
  • Natural world, Country Life, and Pets
  • Popular Beliefs and Controversial Knowledge
  • Sports and Outdoor Recreation
  • Technology and Society
  • Travel and Holiday
  • Visual Culture
  • Browse content in Law
  • Arbitration
  • Browse content in Company and Commercial Law
  • Commercial Law
  • Company Law
  • Browse content in Comparative Law
  • Systems of Law
  • Competition Law
  • Browse content in Constitutional and Administrative Law
  • Government Powers
  • Judicial Review
  • Local Government Law
  • Military and Defence Law
  • Parliamentary and Legislative Practice
  • Construction Law
  • Contract Law
  • Browse content in Criminal Law
  • Criminal Procedure
  • Criminal Evidence Law
  • Sentencing and Punishment
  • Employment and Labour Law
  • Environment and Energy Law
  • Browse content in Financial Law
  • Banking Law
  • Insolvency Law
  • History of Law
  • Human Rights and Immigration
  • Intellectual Property Law
  • Browse content in International Law
  • Private International Law and Conflict of Laws
  • Public International Law
  • IT and Communications Law
  • Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law
  • Law and Society
  • Law and Politics
  • Browse content in Legal System and Practice
  • Courts and Procedure
  • Legal Skills and Practice
  • Primary Sources of Law
  • Regulation of Legal Profession
  • Medical and Healthcare Law
  • Browse content in Policing
  • Criminal Investigation and Detection
  • Police and Security Services
  • Police Procedure and Law
  • Police Regional Planning
  • Browse content in Property Law
  • Personal Property Law
  • Study and Revision
  • Terrorism and National Security Law
  • Browse content in Trusts Law
  • Wills and Probate or Succession
  • Browse content in Medicine and Health
  • Browse content in Allied Health Professions
  • Arts Therapies
  • Clinical Science
  • Dietetics and Nutrition
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Operating Department Practice
  • Physiotherapy
  • Radiography
  • Speech and Language Therapy
  • Browse content in Anaesthetics
  • General Anaesthesia
  • Neuroanaesthesia
  • Clinical Neuroscience
  • Browse content in Clinical Medicine
  • Acute Medicine
  • Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Clinical Genetics
  • Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics
  • Dermatology
  • Endocrinology and Diabetes
  • Gastroenterology
  • Genito-urinary Medicine
  • Geriatric Medicine
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Medical Toxicology
  • Medical Oncology
  • Pain Medicine
  • Palliative Medicine
  • Rehabilitation Medicine
  • Respiratory Medicine and Pulmonology
  • Rheumatology
  • Sleep Medicine
  • Sports and Exercise Medicine
  • Community Medical Services
  • Critical Care
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Forensic Medicine
  • Haematology
  • History of Medicine
  • Browse content in Medical Skills
  • Clinical Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Nursing Skills
  • Surgical Skills
  • Medical Ethics
  • Browse content in Medical Dentistry
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Paediatric Dentistry
  • Restorative Dentistry and Orthodontics
  • Surgical Dentistry
  • Medical Statistics and Methodology
  • Browse content in Neurology
  • Clinical Neurophysiology
  • Neuropathology
  • Nursing Studies
  • Browse content in Obstetrics and Gynaecology
  • Gynaecology
  • Occupational Medicine
  • Ophthalmology
  • Otolaryngology (ENT)
  • Browse content in Paediatrics
  • Neonatology
  • Browse content in Pathology
  • Chemical Pathology
  • Clinical Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics
  • Histopathology
  • Medical Microbiology and Virology
  • Patient Education and Information
  • Browse content in Pharmacology
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Browse content in Popular Health
  • Caring for Others
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  • Self-help and Personal Development
  • Browse content in Preclinical Medicine
  • Cell Biology
  • Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Reproduction, Growth and Development
  • Primary Care
  • Professional Development in Medicine
  • Browse content in Psychiatry
  • Addiction Medicine
  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • Forensic Psychiatry
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Old Age Psychiatry
  • Psychotherapy
  • Browse content in Public Health and Epidemiology
  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health
  • Browse content in Radiology
  • Clinical Radiology
  • Interventional Radiology
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Reproductive Medicine
  • Browse content in Surgery
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Critical Care Surgery
  • Gastro-intestinal and Colorectal Surgery
  • General Surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Paediatric Surgery
  • Peri-operative Care
  • Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
  • Surgical Oncology
  • Transplant Surgery
  • Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Vascular Surgery
  • Browse content in Science and Mathematics
  • Browse content in Biological Sciences
  • Aquatic Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Microbiology
  • Molecular and Cell Biology
  • Natural History
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry
  • Research Methods in Life Sciences
  • Structural Biology
  • Study and Communication Skills in Life Sciences
  • Systems Biology
  • Zoology and Animal Sciences
  • Browse content in Chemistry
  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Computational Chemistry
  • Crystallography
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Industrial Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Materials Chemistry
  • Medicinal Chemistry
  • Mineralogy and Gems
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Polymer Chemistry
  • Study and Communication Skills in Chemistry
  • Theoretical Chemistry
  • Browse content in Computer Science
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer Architecture and Logic Design
  • Game Studies
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Mathematical Theory of Computation
  • Programming Languages
  • Software Engineering
  • Systems Analysis and Design
  • Virtual Reality
  • Browse content in Computing
  • Business Applications
  • Computer Games
  • Computer Security
  • Computer Networking and Communications
  • Digital Lifestyle
  • Graphical and Digital Media Applications
  • Operating Systems
  • Browse content in Earth Sciences and Geography
  • Atmospheric Sciences
  • Environmental Geography
  • Geology and the Lithosphere
  • Maps and Map-making
  • Meteorology and Climatology
  • Oceanography and Hydrology
  • Palaeontology
  • Physical Geography and Topography
  • Regional Geography
  • Soil Science
  • Urban Geography
  • Browse content in Engineering and Technology
  • Agriculture and Farming
  • Biological Engineering
  • Civil Engineering, Surveying, and Building
  • Electronics and Communications Engineering
  • Energy Technology
  • Engineering (General)
  • Environmental Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • History of Engineering and Technology
  • Mechanical Engineering and Materials
  • Technology of Industrial Chemistry
  • Transport Technology and Trades
  • Browse content in Environmental Science
  • Applied Ecology (Environmental Science)
  • Conservation of the Environment (Environmental Science)
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Environmentalist and Conservationist Organizations (Environmental Science)
  • Environmentalist Thought and Ideology (Environmental Science)
  • Management of Land and Natural Resources (Environmental Science)
  • Natural Disasters (Environmental Science)
  • Nuclear Issues (Environmental Science)
  • Pollution and Threats to the Environment (Environmental Science)
  • Social Impact of Environmental Issues (Environmental Science)
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Browse content in Materials Science
  • Ceramics and Glasses
  • Composite Materials
  • Metals, Alloying, and Corrosion
  • Nanotechnology
  • Browse content in Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Biomathematics and Statistics
  • History of Mathematics
  • Mathematical Education
  • Mathematical Finance
  • Mathematical Analysis
  • Numerical and Computational Mathematics
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Pure Mathematics
  • Browse content in Neuroscience
  • Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience
  • Development of the Nervous System
  • Disorders of the Nervous System
  • History of Neuroscience
  • Invertebrate Neurobiology
  • Molecular and Cellular Systems
  • Neuroendocrinology and Autonomic Nervous System
  • Neuroscientific Techniques
  • Sensory and Motor Systems
  • Browse content in Physics
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics
  • Biological and Medical Physics
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Computational Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Electromagnetism, Optics, and Acoustics
  • History of Physics
  • Mathematical and Statistical Physics
  • Measurement Science
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Particles and Fields
  • Plasma Physics
  • Quantum Physics
  • Relativity and Gravitation
  • Semiconductor and Mesoscopic Physics
  • Browse content in Psychology
  • Affective Sciences
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Criminal and Forensic Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Health Psychology
  • History and Systems in Psychology
  • Music Psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Organizational Psychology
  • Psychological Assessment and Testing
  • Psychology of Human-Technology Interaction
  • Psychology Professional Development and Training
  • Research Methods in Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Browse content in Social Sciences
  • Browse content in Anthropology
  • Anthropology of Religion
  • Human Evolution
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Regional Anthropology
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology
  • Theory and Practice of Anthropology
  • Browse content in Business and Management
  • Business Ethics
  • Business History
  • Business Strategy
  • Business and Technology
  • Business and Government
  • Business and the Environment
  • Comparative Management
  • Corporate Governance
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Health Management
  • Human Resource Management
  • Industrial and Employment Relations
  • Industry Studies
  • Information and Communication Technologies
  • International Business
  • Knowledge Management
  • Management and Management Techniques
  • Operations Management
  • Organizational Theory and Behaviour
  • Pensions and Pension Management
  • Public and Nonprofit Management
  • Strategic Management
  • Supply Chain Management
  • Browse content in Criminology and Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice
  • Criminology
  • Forms of Crime
  • International and Comparative Criminology
  • Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
  • Development Studies
  • Browse content in Economics
  • Agricultural, Environmental, and Natural Resource Economics
  • Asian Economics
  • Behavioural Finance
  • Behavioural Economics and Neuroeconomics
  • Econometrics and Mathematical Economics
  • Economic History
  • Economic Methodology
  • Economic Systems
  • Economic Development and Growth
  • Financial Markets
  • Financial Institutions and Services
  • General Economics and Teaching
  • Health, Education, and Welfare
  • History of Economic Thought
  • International Economics
  • Labour and Demographic Economics
  • Law and Economics
  • Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics
  • Microeconomics
  • Public Economics
  • Urban, Rural, and Regional Economics
  • Welfare Economics
  • Browse content in Education
  • Adult Education and Continuous Learning
  • Care and Counselling of Students
  • Early Childhood and Elementary Education
  • Educational Equipment and Technology
  • Educational Strategies and Policy
  • Higher and Further Education
  • Organization and Management of Education
  • Philosophy and Theory of Education
  • Schools Studies
  • Secondary Education
  • Teaching of a Specific Subject
  • Teaching of Specific Groups and Special Educational Needs
  • Teaching Skills and Techniques
  • Browse content in Environment
  • Applied Ecology (Social Science)
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation of the Environment (Social Science)
  • Environmentalist Thought and Ideology (Social Science)
  • Social Impact of Environmental Issues (Social Science)
  • Browse content in Human Geography
  • Cultural Geography
  • Economic Geography
  • Political Geography
  • Browse content in Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Communication Studies
  • Museums, Libraries, and Information Sciences
  • Browse content in Politics
  • African Politics
  • Asian Politics
  • Chinese Politics
  • Comparative Politics
  • Conflict Politics
  • Elections and Electoral Studies
  • Environmental Politics
  • European Union
  • Foreign Policy
  • Gender and Politics
  • Human Rights and Politics
  • Indian Politics
  • International Relations
  • International Organization (Politics)
  • International Political Economy
  • Irish Politics
  • Latin American Politics
  • Middle Eastern Politics
  • Political Behaviour
  • Political Economy
  • Political Institutions
  • Political Theory
  • Political Methodology
  • Political Communication
  • Political Philosophy
  • Political Sociology
  • Politics and Law
  • Public Policy
  • Public Administration
  • Quantitative Political Methodology
  • Regional Political Studies
  • Russian Politics
  • Security Studies
  • State and Local Government
  • UK Politics
  • US Politics
  • Browse content in Regional and Area Studies
  • African Studies
  • Asian Studies
  • East Asian Studies
  • Japanese Studies
  • Latin American Studies
  • Middle Eastern Studies
  • Native American Studies
  • Scottish Studies
  • Browse content in Research and Information
  • Decision Theory
  • Research Methods
  • Browse content in Social Work
  • Addictions and Substance Misuse
  • Adoption and Fostering
  • Care of the Elderly
  • Child and Adolescent Social Work
  • Couple and Family Social Work
  • Developmental and Physical Disabilities Social Work
  • Direct Practice and Clinical Social Work
  • Emergency Services
  • Human Behaviour and the Social Environment
  • International and Global Issues in Social Work
  • Mental and Behavioural Health
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work and Crime and Justice
  • Social Work Macro Practice
  • Social Work Practice Settings
  • Social Work Research and Evidence-based Practice
  • Welfare and Benefit Systems
  • Browse content in Sociology
  • Childhood Studies
  • Community Development
  • Comparative and Historical Sociology
  • Economic Sociology
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Gerontology and Ageing
  • Health, Illness, and Medicine
  • Marriage and the Family
  • Migration Studies
  • Occupations, Professions, and Work
  • Organizations
  • Population and Demography
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Social Theory
  • Social Movements and Social Change
  • Social Research and Statistics
  • Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility
  • Sociology of Religion
  • Sociology of Education
  • Sport and Leisure
  • Urban and Rural Studies
  • Browse content in Warfare and Defence
  • Defence Strategy, Planning, and Research
  • Land Forces and Warfare
  • Military Administration
  • Military Life and Institutions
  • Naval Forces and Warfare
  • Other Warfare and Defence Issues
  • Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution
  • Weapons and Equipment

The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics

  • < Previous chapter
  • Next chapter >

4 The Case Study: What it is and What it Does

John Gerring is Professor of Political Science, Boston University.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
  • Cite Icon Cite
  • Permissions Icon Permissions

This article presents a reconstructed definition of the case study approach to research. This definition emphasizes comparative politics, which has been closely linked to this method since its creation. The article uses this definition as a basis to explore a series of contrasts between cross-case study and case study research. This article attempts to provide better understanding of this persisting methodological debate as a matter of tradeoffs, which may also contribute to destroying the boundaries that have separated these rival genres within the subfield of comparative politics.

Two centuries after Le Play's pioneering work, the various disciplines of the social sciences continue to produce a vast number of case studies, many of which have entered the pantheon of classic works. Judging by the large volume of recent scholarly output the case study research design plays a central role in anthropology, archeology, business, education, history, medicine, political science, psychology, social work, and sociology ( Gerring 2007 a , ch. 1 ). Even in economics and political economy, fields not usually noted for their receptiveness to case‐based work, there has been something of a renaissance. Recent studies of economic growth have turned to case studies of unusual countries such as Botswana, Korea, and Mauritius. 1 Debates on the relationship between trade and growth and the IMF and growth have likewise combined cross‐national regression evidence with in‐depth (quantitative and qualitative) case analysis ( Srinivasan and Bhagwati 1999 ; Vreeland 2003 ). Work on ethnic politics and ethnic conflict has exploited within‐country variation or small‐N crosscountry comparisons ( Abadie and Gardeazabal 2003 ; Chandra 2004 ; Posner 2004 ). By the standard of praxis, therefore, it would appear that the method of the case study is solidly ensconced, perhaps even thriving. Arguably, we are witnessing a movement away from a variable‐centered approach to causality in the social sciences and towards a case‐based approach.

Indeed, the statistical analysis of cross‐case observational data has been subjected to increasing scrutiny in recent years. It no longer seems self‐evident, even to nomothetically inclined scholars, that non‐experimental data drawn from nation‐states, cities, social movements, civil conflicts, or other complex phenomena should be treated in standard regression formats. The complaints are myriad, and oft‐reviewed. 2 They include: (a) the problem of arriving at an adequate specification of the causal model, given a plethora of plausible models, and the associated problem of modeling interactions among these covariates; (b) identification problems, which cannot always be corrected by instrumental variable techniques; (c) the problem of “extreme” counterfactuals, i.e. extrapolating or interpolating results from a general model where the extrapolations extend beyond the observable data points; (d) problems posed by influential cases; (e) the arbitrariness of standard significance tests; (f) the misleading precision of point estimates in the context of “curve‐fitting” models; (g) the problem of finding an appropriate estimator and modeling temporal autocorrelation in pooled time series; (h) the difficulty of identifying causal mechanisms; and last, but certainly not least, (i) the ubiquitous problem of faulty data drawn from a variety of questionable sources. Most of these difficulties may be understood as the byproduct of causal variables that offer limited variation through time and cases that are extremely heterogeneous.

A principal factor driving the general discontent with cross‐case observational research is a new‐found interest in experimental models of social scientific research. Following the pioneering work of Donald Campbell (1988 ; Cook and Campbell 1979 ) and Donald Rubin (1974) , methodologists have taken a hard look at the regression model and discovered something rather obvious but at the same time crucially important: this research bears only a faint relationship to the true experiment, for all the reasons noted above. The current excitement generated by matching estimators, natural experiments, and field experiments may be understood as a move toward a quasi‐experimental, and frequently case‐based analysis of causal relations. Arguably, this is because the experimental ideal is often better approximated by a small number of cases that are closely related to one another, or by a single case observed over time, than by a large sample of heterogeneous units.

A third factor militating towards case‐based analysis is the development of a series of alternatives to the standard linear/additive model of cross‐case analysis, thus establishing a more variegated set of tools to capture the complexity of social behavior (see Brady and Collier 2004 ). Charles Ragin and associates have shown us how to deal with situations where multiple causal paths lead to the same set of outcomes, a series of techniques known as Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) (“Symposium: Qualitative Comparative Analysis” 2004 ). Andrew Abbott has worked out a method that maps causal sequences across cases, known as optimal sequence matching ( Abbott 2001 ; Abbott and Forrest 1986 ; Abbott and Tsay 2000 ). Bear Braumoeller, Gary Goertz, Jack Levy, and Harvey Starr have defended the importance of necessary‐condition arguments in the social sciences, and have shown how these arguments might be analyzed ( Braumoeller and Goertz 2000 ; Goertz 2003 ; Goertz and Levy forthcoming ; Goertz and Starr 2003 ). James Fearon, Ned Lebow, Philip Tetlock, and others have explored the role of counterfactual thought experiments in the analysis of individual case histories ( Fearon 1991 ; Lebow 2000 ; Tetlock and Belkin 1996 ). Colin Elman has developed a typological method of analyzing cases ( Elman 2005 ). David Collier, Jack Goldstone, Peter Hall, James Mahoney, and Dietrich Rueschemeyer have worked to revitalize the comparative and comparative‐historical methods ( Collier 1993 ; Goldstone 1997 ; Hall 2003 ; Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003 ). And scores of researchers have attacked the problem of how to convert the relevant details of a temporally constructed narrative into standardized formats so that cases can be meaningfully compared ( Abell 1987 , 2004 ; Abbott 1992 ; Buthe 2002 ; Griffin 1993 ). While not all of these techniques are, strictly speaking, case study techniques—since they sometimes involve a large number of cases—they do move us closer to a case‐based understanding of causation insofar as they preserve the texture and detail of individual cases, features that are often lost in large‐N cross‐case analysis.

A fourth factor concerns the recent marriage of rational choice tools with case study analysis, sometimes referred to as an “analytic narrative” ( Bates et al. 1998 ). Whether the technique is qualitative or quantitative, scholars equipped with economic models are turning, increasingly, to case studies in order to test the theoretical predictions of a general model, investigate causal mechanisms, and/or explain the features of a key case.

Finally, epistemological shifts in recent decades have enhanced the attractiveness of the case study format. The “positivist” model of explanation, which informed work in the social sciences through most of the twentieth century, tended to downplay the importance of causal mechanisms in the analysis of causal relations. Famously, Milton Friedman (1953) argued that the only criterion of a model was to be found in its accurate prediction of outcomes. The verisimilitude of the model, its accurate depiction of reality, was beside the point. In recent years, this explanatory trope has come under challenge from “realists,” who claim (among other things) that causal analysis should pay close attention to causal mechanisms (e.g. Bunge 1997 ; Little 1998 ). Within political science and sociology, the identification of a specific mechanism—a causal pathway—has come to be seen as integral to causal analysis, regardless of whether the model in question is formal or informal or whether the evidence is qualitative or quantitative ( Achen 2002 ; Elster 1998 ; George and Bennett 2005 ; Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998 ). Given this new‐found (or at least newly self‐conscious) interest in mechanisms, it is not surprising that social scientists would turn to case studies as a mode of causal investigation.

For all the reasons stated above, one might intuit that social science is moving towards a case‐based understanding of causal relations. Yet, this movement, insofar as it exists, has scarcely been acknowledged, and would certainly be challenged by many close observers—including some of those cited in the foregoing passages.

The fact is that the case study research design is still viewed by most methodologists with extreme circumspection. A work that focuses its attention on a single example of a broader phenomenon is apt to be described as a “mere” case study, and is often identified with loosely framed and non‐generalizable theories, biased case selection, informal and undisciplined research designs, weak empirical leverage (too many variables and too few cases), subjective conclusions, non‐replicability, and causal determinism. To some, the term case study is an ambiguous designation covering a multitude of “inferential felonies.” 3

The quasi‐mystical qualities associated with the case study persist to this day. In the field of psychology, a gulf separates “scientists” engaged in cross‐case research and “practitioners” engaged in clinical research, usually focused on several cases ( Hersen and Barlow 1976, 21 ). In the fields of political science and sociology, case study researchers are acknowledged to be on the “soft” side of hard disciplines. And across fields, the persisting case study orientations of anthropology, education, law, social work, and various other fields and subfields relegate them to the non‐rigorous, non‐systematic, non‐scientific, non‐positivist end of the academic spectrum.

The methodological status of the case study is still, officially, suspect. Even among its defenders there is confusion over the virtues and vices of this ambiguous research design. Practitioners continue to ply their trade but have difficulty articulating what it is they are doing, methodologically speaking. The case study survives in a curious methodological limbo.

This leads to a paradox: although much of what we know about the empirical world has been generated by case studies and case studies continue to constitute a large proportion of work generated by the social science disciplines, the case study method is poorly understood.

How can we make sense of the profound disjuncture between the acknowledged contributions of this genre to the various disciplines of social science and its maligned status within these disciplines? If case studies are methodologically flawed, why do they persist? Should they be rehabilitated, or suppressed? How fruitful is this style of research?

In this chapter, I provide a reconstructed definition of the case study approach to research with special emphasis on comparative politics, a field that has been closely identified with this method since its birth. Based on this definition, I then explore a series of contrasts between case study and cross‐case study research. These contrasts are intended to illuminate the characteristic strengths and weaknesses (“affinities”) of these two research designs, not to vindicate one or the other. The effort of this chapter is to understand this persisting methodological debate as a matter of tradeoffs. Case studies and cross‐case studies explore the world in different ways. Yet, properly constituted, there is no reason that case study results cannot be synthesized with results gained from cross‐case analysis, and vice versa. My hope, therefore, is that this chapter will contribute to breaking down the boundaries that have separated these rival genres within the subfield of comparative politics.

1 Definitions

The key term of this chapter is, admittedly, a definitional morass. To refer to a work as a “case study” might mean: that its method is qualitative, small‐N; that the research is holistic, thick (a more or less comprehensive examination of a phenomenon); that it utilizes a particular type of evidence (e.g. ethnographic, clinical, non‐experimental, non‐survey based, participant observation, process tracing, historical, textual, or field research); that its method of evidence gathering is naturalistic (a “real‐life context”); that the research investigates the properties of a single observation; or that the research investigates the properties of a single phenomenon, instance, or example. Evidently, researchers have many things in mind when they talk about case study research. Confusion is compounded by the existence of a large number of near‐synonyms—single unit, single subject, single case, N=1, case based, case control, case history, case method, case record, case work, clinical research, and so forth. As a result of this profusion of terms and meanings, proponents and opponents of the case study marshal a wide range of arguments but do not seem any closer to agreement than when this debate was first broached several decades ago.

Can we reconstruct this concept in a clearer, more productive fashion? In order to do so we must understand how the key terms—case and case study—are situated within a neighborhood of related terms. In this crowded semantic field, each term is defined in relation to others. And in the context of a specific work or research terrain, they all take their meaning from a specific inference. (The reader should bear in mind that any change in the inference, and the meaning of all the key terms will probably change.) My attempt here will be to provide a single, determinate, definition of these key terms. Of course, researchers may choose to define these terms in many different ways. However, for purposes of methodological discussion it is helpful to enforce a uniform vocabulary.

Let us stipulate that a case connotes a spatially delimited phenomenon (a unit) observed at a single point in time or over some period of time. It comprises the sort of phenomena that an inference attempts to explain. Thus, in a study that attempts to explain certain features of nation‐states, cases are comprised of nation‐states (across some temporal frame). In a study that attempts to explain the behavior of individuals, individuals comprise the cases. And so forth. Each case may provide a single observation or multiple (within‐case) observations.

For students of comparative politics, the archetypal case is the dominant political unit of our time, the nation‐state. However, the study of smaller social and political units (regions, cities, villages, communities, social groups, families) or specific institutions (political parties, interest groups, businesses) is equally common in other subfields, and perhaps increasingly so in comparative politics. Whatever the chosen unit, the methodological issues attached to the case study have nothing to do with the size of the individual cases. A case may be created out of any phenomenon so long as it has identifiable boundaries and comprises the primary object of an inference.

Note that the spatial boundaries of a case are often more apparent than its temporal boundaries. We know, more or less, where a country begins and ends, even though we may have difficulty explaining when a country begins and ends. Yet, some temporal boundaries must be assumed. This is particularly important when cases consist of discrete events—crises, revolutions, legislative acts, and so forth— within a single unit. Occasionally, the temporal boundaries of a case are more obvious than its spatial boundaries. This is true when the phenomena under study are eventful but the unit undergoing the event is amorphous. For example, if one is studying terrorist attacks it may not be clear how the spatial unit of analysis should be understood, but the events themselves may be well bounded.

A case study may be understood as the intensive study of a single case for the purpose of understanding a larger class of cases (a population). Case study research may incorporate several cases. However, at a certain point it will no longer be possible to investigate those cases intensively. At the point where the emphasis of a study shifts from the individual case to a sample of cases we shall say that a study is cross‐case . Evidently, the distinction between a case study and cross‐case study is a continuum. The fewer cases there are, and the more intensively they are studied, the more a work merits the appellation case study. Even so, this proves to be a useful distinction, for much follows from it.

A few additional terms will now be formally defined.

An observation is the most basic element of any empirical endeavor. Conventionally, the number of observations in an analysis is referred to with the letter N . (Confusingly, N may also be used to designate the number of cases in a study, a usage that I shall try to avoid.) A single observation may be understood as containing several dimensions, each of which may be measured (across disparate observations) as a variable. Where the proposition is causal, these may be subdivided into dependent (Y) and independent (X) variables. The dependent variable refers to the outcome of an investigation. The independent variable refers to the explanatory (causal) factor, that which the outcome is supposedly dependent on.

Note that a case may consist of a single observation (N=1). This would be true, for example, in a cross‐sectional analysis of multiple cases. In a case study, however, the case under study always provides more than one observation. These may be constructed diachronically (by observing the case or some subset of within‐case units through time) or synchronically (by observing within‐case variation at a single point in time).

This is a clue to the fact that case studies and cross‐case usually operate at different levels of analysis. The case study is typically focused on within‐case variation (if there a cross‐case component it is probably secondary). The cross‐case study, as the name suggests, is typically focused on cross‐case variation (if there is also within‐case variation, it is secondary in importance). They have the same object in view—the explanation of a population of cases—but they go about this task differently.

A sample consists of whatever cases are subjected to formal analysis; they are the immediate subject of a study or case study. (Confusingly, the sample may also refer to the observations under study, and will be so used at various points in this narrative. But at present, we treat the sample as consisting of cases.) Technically, one might say that in a case study the sample consists of the case or cases that are subjected to intensive study. However, usually when one uses the term sample one is implying that the number of cases is rather large. Thus, “sample‐based work” will be understood as referring to large‐N cross‐case methods—the opposite of case study work. Again, the only feature distinguishing the case study format from a sample‐based (or “cross‐case”) research design is the number of cases falling within the sample—one or a few versus many. Case studies, like large‐N samples, seek to represent, in all ways relevant to the proposition at hand, a population of cases. A series of case studies might therefore be referred to as a sample if they are relatively brief and relatively numerous; it is a matter of emphasis and of degree. The more case studies one has, the less intensively each one is studied, and the more confident one is in their representativeness (of some broader population), the more likely one is to describe them as a sample rather than a series of case studies. For practical reasons—unless, that is, a study is extraordinarily long—the case study research format is usually limited to a dozen cases or less. A single case is not at all unusual.

The sample rests within a population of cases to which a given proposition refers. The population of an inference is thus equivalent to the breadth or scope of a proposition. (I use the terms proposition , hypothesis , inference , and argument interchangeably.) Note that most samples are not exhaustive; hence the use of the term sample, referring to sampling from a population. Occasionally, however, the sample equals the population of an inference; all potential cases are studied.

For those familiar with the rectangular form of a dataset it may be helpful to conceptualize observations as rows, variables as columns, and cases as either groups of observations or individual observations.

2 What is a Case Study Good For? Case Study versus Cross‐Case Analysis

I have argued that the case study approach to research is most usefully defined as the intensive study of a single unit or a small number of units (the cases), for the purpose of understanding a larger class of similar units (a population of cases). This is put forth as a minimal definition of the topic. 4 I now proceed to discuss the non ‐definitional attributes of the case study—attributes that are often, but not invariably, associated with the case study method. These will be understood as methodological affinities flowing from a minimal definition of the concept. 5

The case study research design exhibits characteristic strengths and weaknesses relative to its large‐N cross‐case cousin. These tradeoffs derive, first of all, from basic research goals such as (1) whether the study is oriented toward hypothesis generating or hypothesis testing, (2) whether internal or external validity is prioritized, (3) whether insight into causal mechanisms or causal effects is more valuable, and (4) whether the scope of the causal inference is deep or broad. These tradeoffs also hinge on the shape of the empirical universe, i.e. (5) whether the population of cases under study is heterogeneous or homogeneous, (6) whether the causal relationship of interest is strong or weak, (7) whether useful variation on key parameters within that population is rare or common, and (8) whether available data are concentrated or dispersed.

Along each of these dimensions, case study research has an affinity for the first factor and cross‐case research has an affinity for the second, as summarized in Table 4.1 . To clarify, these tradeoffs represent methodological affinities , not invariant laws. Exceptions can be found to each one. Even so, these general tendencies are often noted in case study research and have been reproduced in multiple disciplines and subdisciplines over the course of many decades.

It should be stressed that each of these tradeoffs carries a ceteris paribus caveat. Case studies are more useful for generating new hypotheses, all other things being equal . The reader must bear in mind that many additional factors also rightly influence a writer's choice of research design, and they may lean in the other direction. Ceteris are not always paribus. One should not jump to conclusions about the research design appropriate to a given setting without considering the entire range of issues involved—some of which may be more important than others.

3. Hypothesis: Generating versus Testing

Social science research involves a quest for new theories as well as a testing of existing theories; it is comprised of both “conjectures” and “refutations.” 6 Regrettably, social science methodology has focused almost exclusively on the latter. The conjectural element of social science is usually dismissed as a matter of guesswork, inspiration, or luck—a leap of faith, and hence a poor subject for methodological reflection. 7 Yet, it will readily be granted that many works of social science, including most of the acknowledged classics, are seminal rather than definitive. Their classic status derives from the introduction of a new idea or a new perspective that is subsequently subjected to more rigorous (and refutable) analysis. Indeed, it is difficult to devise a program of falsification the first time a new theory is proposed. Path‐breaking research, almost by definition, is protean. Subsequent research on that topic tends to be more definitive insofar as its primary task is limited: to verify or falsify a preexisting hypothesis. Thus, the world of social science may be usefully divided according to the predominant goal undertaken in a given study, either hypothesis generating or hypothesis testing . There are two moments of empirical research, a lightbulb moment and a skeptical moment, each of which is essential to the progress of a discipline. 8

Case studies enjoy a natural advantage in research of an exploratory nature. Several millennia ago, Hippocrates reported what were, arguably, the first case studies ever conducted. They were fourteen in number. 9 Darwin's insights into the process of human evolution came after his travels to a few select locations, notably Easter Island. Freud's revolutionary work on human psychology was constructed from a close observation of fewer than a dozen clinical cases. Piaget formulated his theory of human cognitive development while watching his own two children as they passed from childhood to adulthood. Lévi‐Strauss's structuralist theory of human cultures built on the analysis of several North and South American tribes. Douglass North's neo‐institutionalist theory of economic development was constructed largely through a close analysis of a handful of early developing states (primarily England, the Netherlands, and the United States). 10 Many other examples might be cited of seminal ideas that derived from the intensive study of a few key cases.

Evidently, the sheer number of examples of a given phenomenon does not, by itself, produce insight. It may only confuse. How many times did Newton observe apples fall before he recognized the nature of gravity? This is an apocryphal example, but it illustrates a central point: case studies may be more useful than cross‐case studies when a subject is being encountered for the first time or is being considered in a fundamentally new way. After reviewing the case study approach to medical research, one researcher finds that although case reports are commonly regarded as the lowest or weakest form of evidence, they are nonetheless understood to comprise “the first line of evidence.” The hallmark of case reporting, according to Jan Vanden‐broucke, “is to recognize the unexpected.” This is where discovery begins. 11

The advantages that case studies offer in work of an exploratory nature may also serve as impediments in work of a confirmatory/disconfirmatory nature. Let us briefly explore why this might be so. 12

Traditionally, scientific methodology has been defined by a segregation of conjecture and refutation. One should not be allowed to contaminate the other. 13 Yet, in the real world of social science, inspiration is often associated with perspiration. “Light‐bulb” moments arise from a close engagement with the particular facts of a particular case. Inspiration is more likely to occur in the laboratory than in the shower.

The circular quality of conjecture and refutation is particularly apparent in case study research. Charles Ragin notes that case study research is all about “casing”— defining the topic, including the hypothesis(es) of primary interest, the outcome, and the set of cases that offer relevant information vis‐à‐vis the hypothesis. 14 A study of the French Revolution may be conceptualized as a study of revolution, of social revolution, of revolt, of political violence, and so forth. Each of these topics entails a different population and a different set of causal factors. A good deal of authorial intervention is necessary in the course of defining a case study topic, for there is a great deal of evidentiary leeway. Yet, the “subjectivity” of case study research allows for the generation of a great number of hypotheses, insights that might not be apparent to the cross‐case researcher who works with a thinner set of empirical data across a large number of cases and with a more determinate (fixed) definition of cases, variables, and outcomes. It is the very fuzziness of case studies that grants them an advantage in research at the exploratory stage, for the single‐case study allows one to test a multitude of hypotheses in a rough‐and‐ready way. Nor is this an entirely “conjectural” process. The relationships discovered among different elements of a single case have a prima facie causal connection: they are all at the scene of the crime. This is revelatory when one is at an early stage of analysis, for at that point there is no identifiable suspect and the crime itself may be difficult to discern. The fact that A , B , and C are present at the expected times and places (relative to some outcome of interest) is sufficient to establish them as independent variables. Proximal evidence is all that is required. Hence, the common identification of case studies as “plausibility probes,” “pilot studies,” “heuristic studies,” “exploratory” and “theory‐building” exercises. 15

A large‐N cross‐study, by contrast, generally allows for the testing of only a few hypotheses but does so with a somewhat greater degree of confidence, as is appropriate to work whose primary purpose is to test an extant theory. There is less room for authorial intervention because evidence gathered from a cross‐case research design can be interpreted in a limited number of ways. It is therefore more reliable. Another way of stating the point is to say that while case studies lean toward Type 1 errors (falsely rejecting the null hypothesis), cross‐case studies lean toward Type 2 errors (failing to reject the false null hypothesis). This explains why case studies are more likely to be paradigm generating, while cross‐case studies toil in the prosaic but highly structured field of normal science.

I do not mean to suggest that case studies never serve to confirm or disconfirm hypotheses. Evidence drawn from a single case may falsify a necessary or sufficient hypothesis, as discussed below. Additionally, case studies are often useful for the purpose of elucidating causal mechanisms, and this obviously affects the plausibility of an X/Y relationship. However, general theories rarely offer the kind of detailed and determinate predictions on within‐case variation that would allow one to reject a hypothesis through pattern matching (without additional cross‐case evidence). Theory testing is not the case study's strong suit. The selection of “crucial” cases is at pains to overcome the fact that the cross‐case N is minimal. Thus, one is unlikely to reject a hypothesis, or to consider it definitively proved, on the basis of the study of a single case.

Harry Eckstein himself acknowledges that his argument for case studies as a form of theory confirmation is largely hypothetical. At the time of writing, several decades ago, he could not point to any social science study where a crucial case study had performed the heroic role assigned to it. 16 I suspect that this is still more or less true. Indeed, it is true even of experimental case studies in the natural sciences. “We must recognize,” note Donald Campbell and Julian Stanley,

that continuous, multiple experimentation is more typical of science than once‐and‐for‐all definitive experiments. The experiments we do today, if successful, will need replication and cross‐validation at other times under other conditions before they can become an established part of science … [E]ven though we recognize experimentation as the basic language of proof … we should not expect that “crucial experiments” which pit opposing theories will be likely to have clear‐cut outcomes. When one finds, for example, that competent observers advocate strongly divergent points of view, it seems likely on a priori grounds that both have observed something valid about the natural situation, and that both represent a part of the truth. The stronger the controversy, the more likely this is. Thus we might expect in such cases an experimental outcome with mixed results, or with the balance of truth varying subtly from experiment to experiment. The more mature focus…avoids crucial experiments and instead studies dimensional relationships and interactions along many degrees of the experimental variables. 17

A single case study is still a single shot—a single example of a larger phenomenon.

The tradeoff between hypothesis generating and hypothesis testing helps us to reconcile the enthusiasm of case study researchers and the skepticism of case study critics. They are both right, for the looseness of case study research is a boon to new conceptualizations just as it is a bane to falsification.

4. Validity: Internal versus External

Questions of validity are often distinguished according to those that are internal to the sample under study and those that are external (i.e. applying to a broader— unstudied—population). Cross‐case research is always more representative of the population of interest than case study research, so long as some sensible procedure of case selection is followed (presumably some version of random sampling). Case study research suffers problems of representativeness because it includes, by definition, only a small number of cases of some more general phenomenon. Are the men chosen by Robert Lane typical of white, immigrant, working‐class, American males? 18 Is Middletown representative of other cities in America? 19 These sorts of questions forever haunt case study research. This means that case study research is generally weaker with respect to external validity than its cross‐case cousin.

The corresponding virtue of case study research is its internal validity. Often, though not invariably, it is easier to establish the veracity of a causal relationship pertaining to a single case (or a small number of cases) than for a larger set of cases. Case study researchers share the bias of experimentalists in this regard: they tend to be more disturbed by threats to within‐sample validity than by threats to out‐of‐sample validity. Thus, it seems appropriate to regard the tradeoff between external and internal validity, like other tradeoffs, as intrinsic to the cross‐case/single‐case choice of research design.

5. Causal Insight: Causal Mechanisms versus Causal Effects

A third tradeoff concerns the sort of insight into causation that a researcher intends to achieve. Two goals may be usefully distinguished. The first concerns an estimate of the causal effect ; the second concerns the investigation of a causal mechanism (i.e. pathway from X to Y).

By causal effect I refer to two things: (a) the magnitude of a causal relationship (the expected effect on Y of a given change in X across a population of cases) and (b) the relative precision or uncertainty associated with that point estimate. Evidently, it is difficult to arrive at a reliable estimate of causal effects across a population of cases by looking at only a single case or a small number of cases. (The one exception would be an experiment in which a given case can be tested repeatedly, returning to a virgin condition after each test. But here one faces inevitable questions about the representativeness of that much‐studied case.) 20 Thus, the estimate of a causal effect is almost always grounded in cross‐case evidence.

It is now well established that causal arguments depend not only on measuring causal effects, but also on the identification of a causal mechanism. 21   X must be connected with Y in a plausible fashion; otherwise, it is unclear whether a pattern of covariation is truly causal in nature, or what the causal interaction might be. Moreover, without a clear understanding of the causal pathway(s) at work in a causal relationship it is impossible to accurately specify the model, to identify possible instruments for the regressor of interest (if there are problems of endogeneity), or to interpret the results. 22 Thus, causal mechanisms are presumed in every estimate of a mean (average) causal effect.

In the task of investigating causal mechanisms, cross‐case studies are often not so illuminating. It has become a common criticism of large‐N cross‐national research—e.g. into the causes of growth, democracy, civil war, and other national‐level outcomes—that such studies demonstrate correlations between inputs and outputs without clarifying the reasons for those correlations (i.e. clear causal pathways). We learn, for example, that infant mortality is strongly correlated with state failure; 23 but it is quite another matter to interpret this finding, which is consistent with a number of different causal mechanisms. Sudden increases in infant mortality might be the product of famine, of social unrest, of new disease vectors, of government repression, and of countless other factors, some of which might be expected to impact the stability of states, and others of which are more likely to be a result of state instability.

Case studies, if well constructed, may allow one to peer into the box of causality to locate the intermediate factors lying between some structural cause and its purported effect. Ideally, they allow one to “see” X and Y interact—Hume's billiard ball crossing the table and hitting a second ball. 24 Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss point out that in fieldwork “general relations are often discovered in vivo ; that is, the field worker literally sees them occur.” 25 When studying decisional behavior case study research may offer insight into the intentions, the reasoning capabilities, and the information‐processing procedures of the actors involved in a given setting. Thus, Dennis Chong uses in‐depth interviews with a very small sample of respondents in order to better understand the process by which people reach decisions about civil liberties issues. Chong comments:

One of the advantages of the in‐depth interview over the mass survey is that it records more fully how subjects arrive at their opinions. While we cannot actually observe the underlying mental process that gives rise to their responses, we can witness many of its outward manifestations. The way subjects ramble, hesitate, stumble, and meander as they formulate their answers tips us off to how they are thinking and reasoning through political issues. 26

Similarly, the investigation of a single case may allow one to test the causal implications of a theory, thus providing corroborating evidence for a causal argument. This is sometimes referred to as pattern matching ( Campbell 1988 ).

Dietrich Rueschemeyer and John Stephens offer an example of how an examination of causal mechanisms may call into question a general theory based on cross‐case evidence. The thesis of interest concerns the role of British colonialism in fostering democracy among postcolonial regimes. In particular, the authors investigate the diffusion hypothesis, that democracy was enhanced by “the transfer of British governmental and representative institutions and the tutoring of the colonial people in the ways of British government.” On the basis of in‐depth analysis of several cases the authors report:

We did find evidence of this diffusion effect in the British settler colonies of North America and the Antipodes; but in the West Indies, the historical record points to a different connection between British rule and democracy. There the British colonial administration opposed suffrage extension, and only the white elites were “tutored” in the representative institutions. But, critically, we argued on the basis of the contrast with Central America, British colonialism did prevent the local plantation elites from controlling the local state and responding to the labor rebellion of the 1930s with massive repression. Against the adamant opposition of that elite, the British colonial rulers responded with concessions which allowed for the growth of the party—union complexes rooted in the black middle and working classes, which formed the backbone of the later movement for democracy and independence. Thus, the narrative histories of these cases indicate that the robust statistical relation between British colonialism and democracy is produced only in part by diffusion. The interaction of class forces, state power, and colonial policy must be brought in to fully account for the statistical result. 27

Whether or not Rueschemeyer and Stephens are correct in their conclusions need not concern us here. What is critical, however, is that any attempt to deal with this question of causal mechanisms is heavily reliant on evidence drawn from case studies. In this instance, as in many others, the question of causal pathways is simply too difficult, requiring too many poorly measured or unmeasurable variables, to allow for accurate cross‐sectional analysis. 28

To be sure, causal mechanisms do not always require explicit attention. They may be quite obvious. And in other circumstances, they may be amenable to cross‐case investigation. For example, a sizeable literature addresses the causal relationship between trade openness and the welfare state. The usual empirical finding is that more open economies are associated with higher social welfare spending. The question then becomes why such a robust correlation exists. What are the plausible interconnections between trade openness and social welfare spending? One possible causal path, suggested by David Cameron, 29 is that increased trade openness leads to greater domestic economic vulnerability to external shocks (due, for instance, to changing terms of trade). If so, one should find a robust correlation between annual variations in a country's terms of trade (a measure of economic vulnerability) and social welfare spending. As it happens, the correlation is not robust and this leads some commentators to doubt whether the putative causal mechanism proposed by David Cameron and many others is actually at work. 30 Thus, in instances where an intervening variable can be effectively operationalized across a large sample of cases it may be possible to test causal mechanisms without resorting to case study investigation. 31

Even so, the opportunities for investigating causal pathways are generally more apparent in a case study format. Consider the contrast between formulating a standardized survey for a large group of respondents and formulating an in‐depth interview with a single subject or a small set of subjects, such as that undertaken by Dennis Chong in the previous example. In the latter situation, the researcher is able to probe into details that would be impossible to delve into, let alone anticipate, in a standardized survey. She may also be in a better position to make judgements as to the veracity and reliability of the respondent. Tracing causal mechanisms is about cultivating sensitivity to a local context. Often, these local contexts are essential to cross‐case testing. Yet, the same factors that render case studies useful for micro‐level investigation also make them less useful for measuring mean (average) causal effects. It is a classic tradeoff.

6 Scope of Proposition: Deep versus Broad

The utility of a case study mode of analysis is in part a product of the scope of the causal argument that a researcher wishes to prove or demonstrate. Arguments that strive for great breadth are usually in greater need of cross‐case evidence; causal arguments restricted to a small set of cases can more plausibly subsist on the basis of a single‐case study. The extensive/intensive tradeoff is fairly commonsensical. 32 A case study of France probably offers more useful evidence for an argument about Europe than for an argument about the whole world. Propositional breadth and evidentiary breadth generally go hand in hand.

Granted, there are a variety of ways in which single‐case studies can credibly claim to provide evidence for causal propositions of broad reach—e.g. by choosing cases that are especially representative of the phenomenon under study (“typical” cases) or by choosing cases that represent the most difficult scenario for a given proposition and are thus biased against the attainment of certain results (“crucial” cases). Even so, a proposition with a narrow scope is more conducive to case study analysis than a proposition with a broad purview, all other things being equal. The breadth of an inference thus constitutes one factor, among many, in determining the utility of the case study mode of analysis. This is reflected in the hesitancy of many case study researchers to invoke determinate causal propositions with great reach —“covering laws,” in the idiom of philosophy of science.

By the same token, one of the primary virtues of the case study method is the depth of analysis that it offers. One may think of depth as referring to the detail, richness, completeness, wholeness, or the degree of variance in an outcome that is accounted for by an explanation. The case study researcher's complaint about the thinness of cross‐case analysis is well taken; such studies often have little to say about individual cases. Otherwise stated, cross‐case studies are likely to explain only a small portion of the variance with respect to a given outcome. They approach that outcome at a very general level. Typically, a cross‐case study aims only to explain the occurrence/non‐occurrence of a revolution, while a case study might also strive to explain specific features of that event—why it occurred when it did and in the way that it did. Case studies are thus rightly identified with “holistic” analysis and with the “thick” description of events. 33

Whether to strive for breadth or depth is not a question that can be answered in any definitive way. All we can safely conclude is that researchers invariably face a choice between knowing more about less, or less about more. The case study method may be defended, as well as criticized, along these lines. 34 Indeed, arguments about the “contextual sensitivity” of case studies are perhaps more precisely (and fairly) understood as arguments about depth and breadth. The case study researcher who feels that cross‐case research on a topic is insensitive to context is usually not arguing that nothing at all is consistent across the chosen cases. Rather, the case study researcher's complaint is that much more could be said—accurately—about the phenomenon in question with a reduction in inferential scope. 35

Indeed, I believe that a number of traditional issues related to case study research can be understood as the product of this basic tradeoff. For example, case study research is often lauded for its holistic approach to the study of social phenomena in which behavior is observed in natural settings. Cross‐case research, by contrast, is criticized for its construction of artificial research designs that decontextualize the realm of social behavior by employing abstract variables that seem to bear little relationship to the phenomena of interest. 36 These associated congratulations and critiques may be understood as a conscious choice on the part of case study researchers to privilege depth over breadth.

7 The Population of Cases: Heterogeneous versus Homogeneous

The choice between a case study and cross‐case style of analysis is driven not only by the goals of the researcher, as reviewed above, but also by the shape of the empirical universe that the researcher is attempting to understand. Consider, for starters, that the logic of cross‐case analysis is premised on some degree of cross‐unit comparability (unit homogeneity). Cases must be similar to each other in whatever respects might affect the causal relationship that the writer is investigating, or such differences must be controlled for. Uncontrolled heterogeneity means that cases are “apples and oranges;” one cannot learn anything about underlying causal processes by comparing their histories. The underlying factors of interest mean different things in different contexts (conceptual stretching) or the X / Y relationship of interest is different in different contexts (unit heterogeneity).

Case study researchers are often suspicious of large‐sample research, which, they suspect, contains heterogeneous cases whose differences cannot easily be modeled. “Variable‐oriented” research is said to involve unrealistic “homogenizing as‐sumptions.” 37 In the field of international relations, for example, it is common to classify cases according to whether they are deterrence failures or deterrence successes. However, Alexander George and Richard Smoke point out that “the separation of the dependent variable into only two subclasses, deterrence success and deterrence failure,” neglects the great variety of ways in which deterrence can fail. Deterrence, in their view, has many independent causal paths (causal equifinality), and these paths may be obscured when a study lumps heterogeneous cases into a common sample. 38

Another example, drawn from clinical work in psychology, concerns heterogeneity among a sample of individuals. Michel Hersen and David Barlow explain:

Descriptions of results from 50 cases provide a more convincing demonstration of the effectiveness of a given technique than separate descriptions of 50 individual cases. The major difficulty with this approach, however, is that the category in which these clients are classified most always becomes unmanageably heterogeneous. “Neurotics,” [for example],…may have less in common than any group of people one would choose randomly. When cases are described individually, however, a clinician stands a better chance of gleaning some important information, since specific problems and specific procedures are usually described in more detail. When one lumps cases together in broadly defined categories, individual case descriptions are lost and the ensuing report of percentage success becomes meaningless. 39

Under circumstances of extreme case heterogeneity, the researcher may decide that she is better off focusing on a single case or a small number of relatively homogeneous cases. Within‐case evidence, or cross‐case evidence drawn from a handful of most‐similar cases, may be more useful than cross‐case evidence, even though the ultimate interest of the investigator is in a broader population of cases. (Suppose one has a population of very heterogeneous cases, one or two of which undergo quasi‐experimental transformations. Probably, one gains greater insight into causal patterns throughout the population by examining these cases in detail than by undertaking some large‐N cross‐case analysis.) By the same token, if the cases available for study are relatively homogeneous, then the methodological argument for cross‐case analysis is correspondingly strong. The inclusion of additional cases is unlikely to compromise the results of the investigation because these additional cases are sufficiently similar to provide useful information.

The issue of population heterogeneity/homogeneity may be understood, therefore, as a tradeoff between N (observations) and K (variables). If, in the quest to explain a particular phenomenon, each potential case offers only one observation and also requires one control variable (to neutralize heterogeneities in the resulting sample), then one loses degrees of freedom with each additional case. There is no point in using cross‐case analysis or in extending a two‐case study to further cases. If, on the other hand, each additional case is relatively cheap—if no control variables are needed or if the additional case offers more than one useful observation (through time)—then a cross‐case research design may be warranted. 40 To put the matter more simply, when adjacent cases are unit homogeneous the addition of more cases is easy, for there is no (or very little) heterogeneity to model. When adjacent cases are heterogeneous additional cases are expensive, for every added heterogeneous element must be correctly modeled, and each modeling adjustment requires a separate (and probably unverifiable) assumption. The more background assumptions are required in order to make a causal inference, the more tenuous that inference is; it is not simply a question of attaining statistical significance. The ceteris paribus assumption at the core of all causal analysis is brought into question. In any case, the argument between case study and cross‐case research designs is not about causal complexity per se (in the sense in which this concept is usually employed), but rather about the tradeoff between N and K in a particular empirical realm, and about the ability to model case heterogeneity through statistical legerdemain. 41

Before concluding this discussion it is important to point out that researchers' judgements about case comparability are not, strictly speaking, matters that can be empirically verified. To be sure, one can look—and ought to look—for empirical patterns among potential cases. If those patterns are strong then the assumption of case comparability seems reasonably secure, and if they are not then there are grounds for doubt. However, debates about case comparability usually concern borderline instances. Consider that many phenomena of interest to social scientists are not rigidly bounded. If one is studying democracies there is always the question of how to define a democracy, and therefore of determining how high or low the threshold for inclusion in the sample should be. Researchers have different ideas about this, and these ideas can hardly be tested in a rigorous fashion. Similarly, there are long‐standing disputes about whether it makes sense to lump poor and rich societies together in a single sample, or whether these constitute distinct populations. Again, the borderline between poor and rich (or “developed” and “undeveloped”) is blurry, and the notion of hiving off one from the other for separate analysis questionable, and unresolvable on purely empirical grounds. There is no safe (or “conservative”) way to proceed. A final sticking point concerns the cultural/historical component of social phenomena. Many case study researchers feel that to compare societies with vastly different cultures and historical trajectories is meaningless. Yet, many cross‐case researchers feel that to restrict one's analytic focus to a single cultural or geographic region is highly arbitrary, and equally meaningless. In these situations, it is evidently the choice of the researcher how to understand case homogeneity/heterogeneity across the potential populations of an inference. Where do like cases end and unlike cases begin?

Because this issue is not, strictly speaking, empirical it may be referred to as an ontological element of research design. An ontology is a vision of the world as it really is, a more or less coherent set of assumptions about how the world works, a research Weltanschauung analogous to a Kuhnian paradigm. 42 While it seems odd to bring ontological issues into a discussion of social science methodology it may be granted that social science research is not a purely empirical endeavor. What one finds is contingent upon what one looks for, and what one looks for is to some extent contingent upon what one expects to find. Stereotypically, case study researchers tend to have a “lumpy” vision of the world; they see countries, communities, and persons as highly individualized phenomena. Cross‐case researchers, by contrast, have a less differentiated vision of the world; they are more likely to believe that things are pretty much the same everywhere, at least as respects basic causal processes. These basic assumptions, or ontologies, drive many of the choices made by researchers when scoping out appropriate ground for research.

8 Causal Strength: Strong versus Weak

Regardless of whether the population is homogeneous or heterogeneous, causal relationships are easier to study if the causal effect is strong, rather than weak. Causal “strength,” as I use the term here, refers to the magnitude and consistency of X's effect on Y across a population of cases. (It invokes both the shape of the evidence at hand and whatever priors might be relevant to an interpretation of that evidence.) Where X has a strong effect on Y it will be relatively easy to study this relationship. Weak relationships, by contrast, are often difficult to discern. This much is commonsensical, and applies to all research designs.

For our purposes, what is significant is that weak causal relationships are particularly opaque when encountered in a case study format. Thus, there is a methodological affinity between weak causal relationships and large‐N cross‐case analysis, and between strong causal relationships and case study analysis.

This point is clearest at the extremes. The strongest species of causal relationships may be referred to as deterministic , where X is assumed to be necessary and/or sufficient for Y's occurrence. A necessary and sufficient cause accounts for all of the variation on Y. A sufficient cause accounts for all of the variation in certain instances of Y. A necessary cause accounts, by itself, for the absence of Y. In all three situations, the relationship is usually assumed to be perfectly consistent, i.e. invariant. There are no exceptions.

It should be clear why case study research designs have an easier time addressing causes of this type. Consider that a deterministic causal proposition can be dis proved with a single case. 43 For example, the reigning theory of political stability once stipulated that only in countries that were relatively homogeneous, or where existing heterogeneity was mitigated by cross‐cutting cleavages, would social peace endure. 44 Arend Lijphart's case study of the Netherlands, a country with reinforcing social cleavages and very little social conflict, disproved this deterministic theory on the basis of a single case. 45 (One may dispute whether the original theory is correctly understood as deterministic. However, if it is , then it has been decisively refuted by a single case study.) Proving an invariant causal argument generally requires more cases. However, it is not nearly as complicated as proving a probabilistic argument for the simple reason that one assumes invariant relationships; consequently, the single case under study carries more weight.

Magnitude and consistency—the two components of causal strength—are usually matters of degree. It follows that the more tenuous the connection between X and Y, the more difficult it will be to address in a case study format. This is because the causal mechanisms connecting X with Yare less likely to be detectable in a single case when the total impact is slight or highly irregular. It is no surprise, therefore, that the case study research design has, from the very beginning, been associated with causal arguments that are deterministic, while cross‐case research has been associated with causal arguments that are assumed to be minimal in strength and “probabilistic” in consistency. 46 (Strictly speaking, causal magnitude and consistency are independent features of a causal relationship. However, because they tend to covary, and because we tend to conceptualize them in tandem, I treat them as components of a single dimension.)

Now, let us now consider an example drawn from the other extreme. There is generally assumed to be a weak relationship between regime type and economic performance. Democracy, if it has any effect on economic growth at all, probably has only a slight effect over the near‐to‐medium term, and this effect is probably characterized by many exceptions (cases that do not fit the general pattern). This is because many things other than democracy affect a country's growth performance and because there may be a significant stochastic component in economic growth (factors that cannot be modeled in a general way). Because of the diffuse nature of this relationship it will probably be difficult to gain insight by looking at a single case. Weak relationships are difficult to observe in one instance. Note that even if there seems to be a strong relationship between democracy and economic growth in a given country it may be questioned whether this case is actually typical of the larger population of interest, given that we have already stipulated that the typical magnitude of this relationship is diminutive and irregular. Of course, the weakness of democracy's presumed relationship to growth is also a handicap in cross‐case analysis. A good deal of criticism has been directed toward studies of this type, where findings are rarely robust. 47 Even so, it seems clear that if there is a relationship between democracy and growth it is more likely to be perceptible in a large cross‐case setting. The positive hypothesis, as well as the null hypothesis, is better approached in a sample rather than in a case.

9 Useful Variation: Rare versus Common

When analyzing causal relationships we must be concerned not only with the strength of an X/Y relationship but also with the distribution of evidence across available cases. Specifically, we must be concerned with the distribution of useful variation —understood as variation (temporal or spatial) on relevant parameters that might yield clues about a causal relationship. It follows that where useful variation is rare—i.e. limited to a few cases—the case study format recommends itself. Where, on the other hand, useful variation is common, a cross‐case method of analysis may be more defensible.

Consider a phenomenon like social revolution, an outcome that occurs very rarely. The empirical distribution on this variable, if we count each country‐year as an observation, consists of thousands of non‐revolutions (0) and just a few revolutions (1). Intuitively, it seems clear that the few “revolutionary” cases are of great interest. We need to know as much as possible about them, for they exemplify all the variation that we have at our disposal. In this circumstance, a case study mode of analysis is difficult to avoid, though it might be combined with a large‐N cross‐case analysis. As it happens, many outcomes of interest to social scientists are quite rare, so the issue is by no means trivial. 48

By way of contrast, consider a phenomenon like turnover, understood as a situation where a ruling party or coalition is voted out of office. Turnover occurs within most democratic countries on a regular basis, so the distribution of observations on this variable (incumbency/turnover) is relatively even across the universe of country‐years. There are lots of instances of both outcomes. Under these circumstances a cross‐case research design seems plausible, for the variation across cases is regularly distributed.

Another sort of variation concerns that which might occur within a given case. Suppose that only one or two cases within a large population exhibit quasi‐experimental qualities: the factor of special interest varies, and there is no corresponding change in other factors that might affect the outcome. Clearly, we are likely to learn a great deal from studying this particular case—perhaps a lot more than we might learn from studying hundreds of additional cases that deviate from the experimental ideal. But again, if many cases have this experimental quality, there is little point in restricting ourselves to a single example; a cross‐case research design may be justified.

A final sort of variation concerns the characteristics exhibited by a case relative to a particular theory that is under investigation. Suppose that a case provides a “crucial” test for a theory: it fits that theory's predictions so perfectly and so precisely that no other explanation could plausibly account for the performance of the case. If no other crucial cases present themselves, then an intensive study of this particular case is de rigueur. Of course, if many such cases lie within the population then it may be possible to study them all at once (with some sort of numeric reduction of the relevant parameters).

The general point here is that the distribution of useful variation across a population of cases matters a great deal in the choice between case study and cross‐case research designs.

10 Data Availability: Concentrated versus Dispersed

I have left the most prosaic factor for last. Sometimes, one's choice of research design is driven by the quality and quantity of information that is currently available, or could be easily gathered, on a given question. This is a practical matter, and is distinct from the actual (ontological) shape of the world. It concerns, rather, what we know about the former at a given point in time. 49 The question of evidence may be posed as follows: How much do we know about the cases at hand that might be relevant to the causal question of interest, and how precise, certain, and case comparable is that data? An evidence‐rich environment is one where all relevant factors are measurable, where these measurements are relatively precise, where they are rendered in comparable terms across cases, and where one can be relatively confident that the information is, indeed, accurate. An evidence‐poor environment is the opposite.

The question of available evidence impinges upon choices in research design when one considers its distribution across a population of cases. If relevant information is concentrated in a single case, or if it is contained in incommensurable formats across a population of cases, then a case study mode of analysis is almost unavoidable. If, on the other hand, it is evenly distributed across the population—i.e. we are equally well informed about all cases—and is case comparable, then there is little to recommend a narrow focus. (I employ data, evidence, and information as synonyms in this section.)

Consider the simplest sort of example, where information is truly limited to one or a few cases. Accurate historical data on infant mortality and other indices of human development are currently available for only a handful of countries (these include Chile, Egypt, India, Jamaica, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, the United States, and several European countries). 50 This data problem is not likely to be rectified in future years, as it is exceedingly difficult to measure infant mortality except by public or private records. Consequently, anyone studying this general subject is likely to rely heavily on these cases, where in‐depth analysis is possible and profitable. Indeed, it is not clear whether any large‐N cross‐case analysis is possible prior to the twentieth century. Here, a case study format is virtually prescribed, and a cross‐case format proscribed.

Other problems of evidence are more subtle. Let us dwell for the moment on the question of data comparability. In their study of social security spending, Mulligan, Gil, and Sala‐i‐Martin note that

although our spending and design numbers are of good quality, there are some missing observations and, even with all the observations, it is difficult to reduce the variety of elderly subsidies to one or two numbers. For this reason, case studies are an important part of our analysis, since those studies do not require numbers that are comparable across a large number of countries. Our case study analysis utilizes data from a variety of country‐specific sources, so we do not have to reduce “social security” or “democracy” to one single number. 51

Here, the incommensurability of the evidence militates towards a case study format. In the event that the authors (or subsequent analysts) discover a coding system that provides reasonably valid cross‐case measures of social security, democracy, and other relevant concepts then our state of knowledge about the subject is changed, and a cross‐case research design is rendered more plausible.

Importantly, the state of evidence on a topic is never entirely fixed. Investigators may gather additional data, recode existing data, or discover new repositories of data. Thus, when discussing the question of evidence one must consider the quality and quantity of evidence that could be gathered on a given question, given sufficient time and resources. Here it is appropriate to observe that collecting new data, and correcting existing data, is usually easier in a case study format than in a large‐N cross‐case format. It will be difficult to rectify data problems if one's cases number in the hundreds or thousands. There are simply too many data points to allow for this.

One might consider this issue in the context of recent work on democracy. There is general skepticism among scholars with respect to the viability of extant global indicators intended to capture this complex concept (e.g. by Freedom House and by the Polity IV data project). 52 Measurement error, aggregation problems, and questions of conceptual validity are rampant. When dealing with a single country or a single continent it is possible to overcome some of these faults by manually recoding the countries of interest. 53 The case study format often gives the researcher an opportunity to fact‐check, to consult multiple sources, to go back to primary materials, and to overcome whatever biases may affect the secondary literature. Needless to say, this is not a feasible approach for an individual investigator if one's project encompasses every country in the world. The best one can usually manage, under the circumstances, is some form of convergent validation (by which different indices of the same concept are compared) or small adjustments in the coding intended to correct for aggregation problems or measurement error. 54

For the same reason, the collection of original data is typically more difficult in cross‐case analysis than in case study analysis, involving greater expense, greater difficulties in identifying and coding cases, learning foreign languages, traveling, and so forth. Whatever can be done for a set of cases can usually be done more easily for a single case.

It should be kept in mind that many of the countries of concern to anthropologists, economists, historians, political scientists, and sociologists are still terra incognita. Outside the OECD, and with the exception of a few large countries that have received careful attention from scholars (e.g. India, Brazil, China), most countries of the world are not well covered by the social science literature. Any statement that one might wish to make about, say, Botswana, will be difficult to verify if one has recourse only to secondary materials. And these—very limited—secondary sources are not necessarily of the most reliable sort. Thus, if one wishes to say something about political patterns obtaining in roughly 90 percent of the world's countries and if one wishes to go beyond matters that can be captured in standard statistics collected by the World Bank and the IMF and other agencies (and these can also be very sketchy when lesser‐studied countries are concerned) one is more or less obliged to conduct a case study. Of course, one could, in principle, gather similar information across all relevant cases. However, such an enterprise faces formidable logistical difficulties. Thus, for practical reasons, case studies are sometimes the most defensible alternative when the researcher is faced with an information‐poor environment.

However, this point is easily turned on its head. Datasets are now available to study many problems of concern to the social sciences. Thus, it may not be necessary to collect original information for one's book, article, or dissertation. Sometimes in‐depth single‐case analysis is more time consuming than cross‐case analysis. If so, there is no informational advantage to a case study format. Indeed, it may be easier to utilize existing information for a cross‐case analysis, particularly when a case study format imposes hurdles of its own—e.g. travel to distant climes, risk of personal injury, expense, and so forth. It is interesting to note that some observers consider case studies to be “relatively more expensive in time and resources.” 55

Whatever the specific logistical hurdles, it is a general truth that the shape of the evidence—that which is currently available and that which might feasibly be collected by an author—often has a strong influence on an investigator's choice of research designs. Where the evidence for particular cases is richer and more accurate there is a strong prima facie argument for a case study format focused on those cases. Where, by contrast, the relevant evidence is equally good for all potential cases, and is comparable across those cases, there is no reason to shy away from cross‐case analysis. Indeed, there may be little to gain from case study formats.

11 Conclusions

At the outset, I took note of the severe disjuncture that has opened up between an often‐maligned methodology and a heavily practiced method. The case study is disrespected but nonetheless regularly employed. Indeed, it remains the workhorse of most disciplines and subfields in the social sciences. How, then, can one make sense of this schizophrenia between methodological theory and praxis?

The torment of the case study begins with its definitional penumbra. Frequently, this key term is conflated with a set of disparate methodological traits that are not definitionally entailed. My first objective, therefore, was to craft a narrower and more useful concept for purposes of methodological discussion. The case study, I argued, is best defined as an intensive study of a single case with an aim to generalize across a larger set of cases. It follows from this definition that case studies may be small‐or large‐N, qualitative or quantitative, experimental or observational, synchronic or diachronic. It also follows that the case study research design comports with any macrotheoretical framework or paradigm—e.g. behavioralism, rational choice, institutionalism, or interpretivism. It is not epistemologically distinct. What differentiates the case study from the cross‐case study is simply its way of defining observations, not its analysis of those observations or its method of modeling causal relations. The case study research design constructs its observations from a single case or a small number of cases, while cross‐case research designs construct observations across multiple cases. Cross‐case and case study research operate, for the most part, at different levels of analysis.

The travails of the case study are not simply definitional. They are also rooted in an insufficient appreciation of the methodological tradeoffs that this method calls forth. At least eight characteristic strengths and weaknesses must be considered. Ceteris paribus, case studies are more useful when the strategy of research is exploratory rather than confirmatory/disconfirmatory, when internal validity is given preference over external validity, when insight into causal mechanisms is prioritized over insight into causal effects, when propositional depth is prized over breadth, when the population of interest is heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, when causal relationships are strong rather than weak, when useful information about key parameters is available only for a few cases, and when the available data are concentrated rather than dispersed.

Although I do not have the space to discuss other issues in this venue, it is worth mentioning that other considerations may also come into play in a researcher's choice between a case study and cross‐case study research format. However, these additional issues—e.g. causal complexity and the state of research on a topic—do not appear to have clear methodological affinities. They may augur one way, or the other.

My objective throughout this chapter is to restore a greater sense of meaning, purpose, and integrity to the case study method. It is hoped that by offering a narrower and more carefully bounded definition of this method the case study may be rescued from some of its most persistent ambiguities. And it is hoped that the characteristic strengths of this method, as well as its limitations, will be more apparent to producers and consumers of case study research. The case study is a useful tool for some research objectives, but not all.

Abadie, A. and Gardeazabal, J.   2003 . The economic costs of conflict: a case study of the asque Country.   American Economic Review , 93: 113–32. 10.1257/000282803321455188

Google Scholar

Abbott, A.   1990 . Conceptions of time and events in social science methods: causal and narrative approaches.   Historical Methods , 23 (4): 140–50.

——  1992 . From causes to events: notes on narrative positivism.   Sociological Methods and Research , 20 (4): 428–55. 10.1177/0049124192020004002

——  2001 . Time Matters: On Theory and Method . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Google Preview

—— and Forrest, J.   1986 . Optimal matching methods for historical sequences.   Journal of Interdisciplinary History , 16 (3): 471–94. 10.2307/204500

—— and Tsay, A.   2000 . Sequence analysis and optimal matching methods in sociology.   Sociological Methods and Research , 29: 3–33. 10.1177/0049124100029001001

Abell, P.   1987 . The Syntax of Social Life: The Theory and Method of Comparative Narratives . Oxford: Clarendon Press.

——  2004 . Narrative explanation: an alternative to variable‐centered explanation?   Annual Review of Sociology , 30: 287–310. 10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100113

Acemoglu, D.   Johnson, S. and Robinson, J. A.   2003 . An African success story: Botswana. Pp. 80–122 in In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth , ed. D. Rodrik . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Achen, C. H.   1986 . The Statistical Analysis of Quasi‐Experiments . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

——  2002 . Toward a new political methodology: microfoundations and ART.   Annual Review of Political Science , 5: 423–50. 10.1146/annurev.polisci.5.112801.080943

—— and Snidal, D.   1989 . Rational deterrence theory and comparative case studies.   World Politics , 41: 143–69. 10.2307/2010405

Alesina, A.   Glaeser, E. and Sacerdote, B.   2001 . Why doesn't the US have a European‐style welfare state?   Brookings Papers on Economic Activity , 2: 187–277.

Allen, W. S.   1965 . The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930–1935 . New York: Watts.

Almond, G. A.   1956 . Comparative political systems.   Journal of Politics , 18: 391–409. 10.2307/2127255

Angrist, J. D. and Krueger, A. B.   2001 . Instrumental variables and the search for identification: from supply and demand to natural experiments.   Journal of Economic Perspectives , 15 (4): 69–85. 10.1257/jep.15.4.69

Bates, R. H.   Greif, A.   Levi, M.   Rosenthal, J.‐L. and Weingast, B.   1998 . Analytic Narratives . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bendix, R.   1963 . Concepts and generalizations in comparative sociological studies.   American Sociological Review , 28: 532–9. 10.2307/2090069

Bentley, A.   1908 /1967. The Process of Government . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Blumer, H.   1969 . Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bollen, K. A.   1993 . Liberal democracy: validity and method factors in cross‐national meas ures.   American Journal of Political Science , 37: 1207–30. 10.2307/2111550

Bonoma, T. V.   1985 . Case research in marketing: opportunities, problems, and a process.   Journal of Marketing Research , 22 (2): 199–208. 10.2307/3151365

Bowman, K.   Lehoucq, F. and Mahoney, J.   2005 . Measuring political democracy: case expertise, data adequacy, and Central America.   Comparative Political Studies , 38 (8): 939–70. 10.1177/0010414005277083

Brady, H. E. and Collier, D. eds. 2004 . Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards . Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Braumoeller, B. F. and Goertz, G.   2000 . The methodology of necessary conditions.   American Journal of Political Science , 44 (3): 844–58. 10.2307/2669285

Bunge, M.   1997 . Mechanism and explanation.   Philosophy of the Social Sciences , 27: 410–65. 10.1177/004839319702700402

Buthe, T.   2002 . Taking temporality seriously: modeling history and the use of narratives as evidence.   American Political Science Review , 96 (3): 481–93.

Cameron, D.   1978 . The expansion of the public economy: a comparative analysis.   American Political Science Review , 72 (4): 1243–61. 10.2307/1954537

Campbell, D. T.   1988 . Methodology and Epistemology for Social Science , ed. E. S. Overman . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—— and Stanley, J.   1963 . Experimental and Quasi‐experimental Designs for Research . Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Chandra, K.   2004 . Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic Headcounts in India . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chernoff, B. and Warner, A.   2002 . Sources of fast growth in Mauritius: 1960–2000. Center for International Development, Harvard University.

Chong, D.   1993 . How people think, reason, and feel about rights and liberties.   American Journal of Political Science , 37 (3): 867–99. 10.2307/2111577

Coase, R. H.   1959 . The Federal Communications Commission.   Journal of Law and Economics , 2: 1–40. 10.1086/466549

——  2000 . The acquisition of Fisher Body by General Motors.   Journal of Law and Economics , 43: 15–31. 10.1086/467446

Collier, D.   1993 . The comparative method. Pp. 105–19 in Political Science: The State of the Discipline II , ed. A. W. Finifter . Washington, DC: American Political Science Association.

Cook, T. and Campbell, D.   1979 . Quasi‐experimentation: Design and Analysis Issues for Field Settings . Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

De Soto, H.   1989 . The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World . New York: Harper & Row.

Dessler, D.   1991 . Beyond correlations: toward a causal theory of war.   International Studies Quarterly , 35: 337–55. 10.2307/2600703

Dion, D.   1998 . Evidence and inference in the comparative case study.   Comparative Politics , 30: 127–45. 10.2307/422284

Eckstein, H.   1975 . Case studies and theory in political science. Pp. 79–133 in Handbook of Political Science , vii: Political Science: Scope and Theory , ed. F. I. Greenstein and N. W. Polsby . Reading, Mass.: Addison‐Wesley.

——  1975 /1992. Case studies and theory in political science. In Regarding Politics: Essays on Political Theory, Stability, and Change , by H. Eckstein . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Elman, C.   2005 . Explanatory typologies in qualitative studies of international politics.   International Organization , 59 (2): 293–326.

Elster, J.   1998 . A plea for mechanisms. Pp. 45–73 in Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory , ed. P. Hedstrom and R. Swedberg . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fearon, J.   1991 . Counter factuals and hypothesis testing in political science.   World Politics , 43: 169–95. 10.2307/2010470

Feng, Y.   2003 . Democracy, Governance, and Economic Performance: Theory and Evidence . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Freedman, D. A.   1991 . Statistical models and shoe leather.   Sociological Methodology , 21: 291–313. 10.2307/270939

Friedman, M.   1953 . The methodology of positive economics. Pp. 3–43 in Essays in Positive Economics , by M. Friedman . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geddes, B.   1990 . How the cases you choose affect the answers you get: selection bias in comparative politics. Pp. 131–52 in Political Analysis , vol. ii, ed. J. A. Stimson . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

——  2003 . Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Geertz, C.   1973 . Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture. 3 3–30 in The Interpretation of Cultures , by C. Geertz . New York: Basic Books.

George, A. L. and Bennett, A.   2005 . Case Studies and Theory Development . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

—— and Smoke, R.   1974 . Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice . New York: Columbia University Press.

Gerring, J.   2001 . Social Science Methodology: A Criterial Framework . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

——  2005 . Causation: a unified framework for the social sciences.   Journal of Theoretical Politics , 17 (2): 163–98. 10.1177/0951629805050859

——  2007 a . Case Study Research: Principles and Practices . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— 2007 b . Global justice as an empirical question. PS: Political Science and Politics (forth coming).

—— and Barresi, P. A.   2003 . Putting ordinary language to work: a min‐max strategy of concept formation in the social sciences.   Journal of Theoretical Politics , 15 (2): 201–32. 10.1177/0951629803015002647

—— and Thomas, C. 2005. Comparability: a key issue in research design. MS.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L.   1967 . The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research . New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Goertz, G.   2003 . The substantive importance of necessary condition hypotheses. Ch. 4 in Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology and Applications , ed. G. Goertz and H. Starr . New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

—— and Levy, J. eds. Forthcoming. Causal explanations, necessary conditions, and case studies: World War I and the end of the Cold War. MS.

—— and Starr, H. eds. 2003 . Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology and Applications . New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Goldstone, J. A.   1997 . Methodological issues in comparative macrosociology.   Comparative Social Research , 16: 121–32.

——  Gurr, T. R.   Harff, B.   Levy, M. A.   Marshall, M. G.   Bates, R. H.   Epstein, D. L.   Kahl, C. H.   Surko, P. T.   Ulfelder, J. C., Jr. and Unger, A. N. 2000. State Failure Task Force report: phase III Wndings. Available at www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/stfail/SFTF%20Phase%20III%20Report%20Final.pdf

Goldthorpe, J. H.   1997 . Current issues in comparative macrosociology: a debate on meth odological issues.   Comparative Social Research , 16: 121–32.

Griffin, L. J.   1993 . Narrative, event‐structure analysis, and causal interpretation in historical sociology.   American Journal of Sociology , 98: 1094–133. 10.1086/230140

Gutting, G. ed. 1980 . Paradigms and Revolutions: Appraisals and Applications of Thomas Kuhn's Philosophy of Science . Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Hall, P. A.   2003 . Aligning ontology and methodology in comparative politics. In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences , ed. J. Mahoney and D. Rueschemeyer . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hedstrom, P. and Swedberg, R. eds. 1998 . Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hersen, M. and Barlow, D. H.   1976 . Single‐Case Experimental Designs: Strategies for Studying Behavior Change . Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Hochschild, J. L.   1981 . What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Jervis, R.   1989 . Rational deterrence: theory and evidence.   World Politics , 41 (2): 183–207. 10.2307/2010407

Kennedy, P.   2003 . A Guide to Econometrics , 5th edn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

King, C.   2004 . The micropolitics of social violence.   World Politics , 56 (3): 431–55. 10.1353/wp.2004.0016

King, G.   Keohane, R. O. and Verba, S.   1994 . Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kittel, B.   1999 . Sense and sensitivity in pooled analysis of political data.   European Journal of Political Research , 35: 225–53. 10.1111/1475-6765.00448

—— 2005. A crazy methodology? On the limits of macroquantitative social science research. Unpublished MS. University of Amsterdam.

Kittel, B. , and Winner, H.   2005 . How reliable is pooled analysis in political economy? The globalization‐welfare state nexus revisited.   European Journal of Political Research , 44 (2): 269–93. 10.1111/j.1475-6765.2005.00228.x

Kuhn, T. S.   1962 /1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lane, R.   1962 . Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does . New York: Free Press.

Lebow, R. N.   2000 . What's so different about a counterfactual?   World Politics , 52: 550–85.

Levine, R. , and Renelt, D.   1992 . A sensitivity analysis of cross‐country growth regressions.   American Economic Review , 82 (4): 942–63.

Libecap, G. D.   1993 . Contracting for Property Rights . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberson, S.   1985 . Making it Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

——  1992 . Einstein, Renoir, and Greeley: some thoughts about evidence in sociology: 1991 Presidential Address.   American Sociological Review , 57 (1): 1–15. 10.2307/2096141

——  1994 . More on the uneasy case for using Mill‐type methods in small‐N comparative studies.   Social Forces , 72 (4): 1225–37. 10.2307/2580300

Lijphart, A.   1968 . The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Nether lands . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

——  1969 . Consociational democracy.   World Politics , 21 (2): 207–25. 10.2307/2009820

——  1971 . Comparative politics and the comparative method.   American Political Science Review , 65 (3): 682–93. 10.2307/1955513

Lipset, S. M.   1960 /1963. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics . Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

——  Trow, M. A. , and Coleman, J. S.   1956 . Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union . New York: Free Press.

Little, D.   1998 . Microfoundations, Method, and Causation . New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Lynd, R. S. and Lynd, H. M.   1929 /1956. Middletown: A Study in American Culture . New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Mc Keown, T. J.   1983 . Hegemonic stability theory and nineteenth‐century tariff levels.   Inter national Organization , 37 (1): 73–91. 10.1017/S0020818300004203

Mahoney, J.   2001 . Beyond correlational analysis: recent innovations in theory and method.   Sociological Forum , 16 (3): 575–93. 10.1023/A:1011912816997

—— and Rueschemeyer, D. eds. 2003 . Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— and Goertz, G.   2004 . The possibility principle: choosing negative cases in comparative research.   American Political Science Review , 98 (4): 653–69.

Manski, C. F.   1993 . Identification problems in the social sciences.   Sociological Methodology , 23: 1–56. 10.2307/271005

Martin, C. J. , and Swank, D.   2004 . Does the organization of capital matter? Employers and active labor market policy at the national and firm levels.   American Political Science Review , 98 (4): 593–612.

Martin, L. L.   1992 . Coercive Cooperation: Explaining Multilateral Economic Sanctions . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Meehl, P. E.   1954 . Clinical versus Statistical Predictions: ATheoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 10.1037/11281-000

Mulligan, C.   Gil, R. , and Sala‐i‐Martin, X.   2002 . Social security and democracy. MS. University of Chicago and Columbia University.

Munck, G. L. , and Snyder, R. eds. 2007 . Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

—— and Verkuilen, J.   2002 . Measuring democracy: evaluating alternative indices.   Com parative Political Studies , 35 (1): 5–34.

Njolstad, O.   1990 . Learning from history? Case studies and the limits to theory‐building. Pp. 220–46 in Arms Races: Technological and Political Dynamics , ed. O. Njolstad . Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

North, D. C. , Anderson, T. L. and Hill, P. J.   1983 . Growth and Welfare in the American Past: A New American History , 3rd edn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice‐Hall.

—— and Thomas, R. P.   1973 . The Rise of the Western World . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— and Weingast, B. R.   1989 . Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth‐century England.   Journal of Economic History , 49: 803–32. 10.1017/S0022050700009451

Odell, J. S.   2004 . Case study methods in international political economy. Pp. 56–80 in Models, Numbers and Cases: Methods for Studying International Relations , ed. D. F. Sprinz and Y. Wolinsky‐Nahmias . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Orum, A. M.   Feagin, J. R. , and Sjoberg, G.   1991 . Introduction: the nature of the case study. Pp. 1–26 in A Case for the Case , ed. J. R. Feagin   A. M. Orum and G. Sjoberg . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Papyrakis, E. and Gerlagh, R.   2003 . The resource curse hypothesis and its transmission channels.   Journal of Comparative Economics , 32: 181–93. 10.1016/j.jce.2003.11.002

Patton, M. Q.   2002 . Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods . Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Popper, K.   1934 /1968. The Logic of Scientific Discovery . New York: Harper & Row.

——  1969 . Conjectures and Refutations . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Posner, D.   2004 . The political salience of cultural difference: why Chewas and Tumbukas are allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi.   American Political Science Review , 98 (4): 529–46.

Przeworski, A. and Teune, H.   1970 . The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry . New York: John Wiley.

Ragin, C. C.   1987 . The Comparative Method: Moving beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

——  1992 . Cases of “what is a case?” Pp. 1–17 in What Is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry , ed. C. C. Ragin and H. S. Becker . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

——  1997 . Turning the tables: how case‐oriented research challenges variable‐oriented re search.   Comparative Social Research , 16: 27–42.

——  2000 . Fuzzy‐Set Social Science . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——  2004 . Turning the tables. Pp. 123–38 in Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards , ed. H. E. Brady and D. Collier . Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Robinson, W. S.   1951 . The logical structure of analytic induction.   American Sociological Review , 16 (6): 812–18. 10.2307/2087508

Rodrik, D. ed. 2003 . In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rogowski, R.   1995 . The role of theory and anomaly in social‐scientific inference.   American Political Science Review , 89 (2): 467–70. 10.2307/2082443

Ross, M.   2001 . Does oil hinder democracy?   World Politics , 53: 325–61. 10.1353/wp.2001.0011

Rubin, D. B.   1974 . Estimating causal effects of treatments in randomized and nonrandomized studies.   Journal of Educational Psychology , 66: 688–701. 10.1037/h0037350

Rueschemeyer, D. , and Stephens, J. D.   1997 . Comparing historical sequences: a powerful tool for causal analysis.   Comparative Social Research , 16: 55–72.

Sambanis, N.   2004 . Using case studies to expand economic models of civil war.   Perspectives on Politics , 2 (2): 259–79.

Sartori, G.   1976 . Parties and Party Systems . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sekhon, J. S.   2004 . Quality meets quantity: case studies, conditional probability and counter‐ factuals.   Perspectives in Politics , 2 (2): 281–93.

Shalev, M. 1998. Limits of and alternatives to multiple regression in macro‐comparative research. Paper prepared for presentation at the second conference on The Welfare State at the Crossroads, Stockholm.

Smelser, N. J.   1973 . The methodology of comparative analysis. Pp. 42–86 in Comparative Research Methods , ed. D. P. Warwick and S. Osherson . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice‐Hall.

Srinivasan, T. N. , and Bhagwati, J.   1999 . Outward‐orientation and development: are revisionists right? Discussion Paper no. 806, Economic Growth Center, Yale University.

Stoecker, R.   1991 . Evaluating and rethinking the case study.   Sociological Review , 39: 88–112.

Symposium: Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) . 2004. Qualitative Methods: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association Organized Section on Qualitative Methods , 1 (2): 2–25.

Temple, J.   1999 . The new growth evidence.   Journal of Economic Literature , 37: 112–56.

Tetlock, P. E. , and Belkin, A. eds. 1996 . Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thies, M. F.   2001 . Keeping tabs on partners: the logic of delegation in coalition governments.   American Journal of Political Science , 45 (3): 580–98. 10.2307/2669240

Tilly, C.   2001 . Mechanisms in political processes.   Annual Review of Political Science , 4: 21–41. 10.1146/annurev.polisci.4.1.21

Treier, S. , and Jackman, S.   2005 . Democracy as a latent variable. Department of Political Science, Stanford University.

Truman, D. B.   1951 . The Governmental Process . New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Vandenbroucke, J. P.   2001 . In defense of case reports and case series.   Annals of Internal Medicine , 134 (4): 330–4.

Vreeland, J. R.   2003 . The IMF and Economic Development . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, M. D. and Bakke, K.   2005 . Predicting civil conflicts: on the utility of empirical research. MS.

Winship, C. and Morgan, S. L.   1999 . The estimation of causal effects of observational data.   Annual Review of Sociology , 25: 659–707. 10.1146/annurev.soc.25.1.659

—— and Sobel, M.   2004 . Causal inference in sociological studies. Pp. 481–503 in Handbook of Data Analysis , ed. M. Hardy and A. Bryman . London: Sage.

Wolin, S. S.   1968 . Paradigms and political theories. Pp. 125–52 in Politics and Experience , ed. P. King and B. C. Parekh . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Young, O. R. ed. 1999 . The Effectiveness of International Environmental Regimes: Causal Connections and Behavioral Mechanisms . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Znaniecki, F.   1934 . The Method of Sociology . New York: Rinehart.

Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2003) , Chernoff and Warner (2002) , Rodrik (2003) . See also studies focused on particular firms or regions, e.g. Coase 1959 , 2000 .

For general discussion of the following points see Achen (1986) , Freedman (1991) , Kittel (1999 , 2005 ), Kittel and Winner (2005) , Manski (1993) , Winship and Morgan (1999) , Winship and Sobel (2004) .

Achen and Snidal (1989 : 160). See also Geddes (1990 , 2003 ), Goldthorpe (1997) , King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) , Lieberson (1985: 107–15 , 1992 , 1994 ), Lijphart (1971: 683–4 ), Odell (2004) , Sekhon (2004) , Smelser (1973 : 45, 57). It should be noted that these writers, while critical of the case study format, are not necessarily opposed to case studies per se (that is to say, they should not be classified as opponents of the case study).

My intention is to include only those attributes commonly associated with the case study method that are always implied by our use of the term, excluding those attributes that are sometimes violated by standard usage. Thus, I chose not to include “ethnography” as a defining feature of the case study, since many case studies (so called) are not ethnographic. For further discussion of minimal definitions see Gerring (2001 , ch. 4 ), Gerring and Barresi (2003) , Sartori (1976) .

These additional attributes might also be understood as comprising an ideal‐type (“maximal”) definition of the topic ( Gerring 2001 , ch. 4 ; Gerring and Barresi 2003 ).

Popper (1969) .

Karl Popper (quoted in King, Keohane, and Verba 1994 , 14) writes: “there is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas … Discovery contains ‘an irrational element,’ or a ‘creative intuition.’” One recent collection of essays and interviews takes new ideas as its special focus ( Munck and Snyder 2007 ), though it may be doubted whether there are generalizable results.

Gerring (2001 , ch. 10 ). The tradeoff between these two styles of research is implicit in Achen and Snidal (1989) , who criticize the case study for its deficits in the latter genre but also acknowledge the benefits of the case study along the former dimension ( 1989, 167–8 ). Reichenbach also distinguished between a “context of discovery,” and a “context of justification.” Likewise, Peirce's concept of abduction recognizes the importance of a generative component in science.

Bonoma (1985: 199) . Some of the following examples are discussed in Patton (2002, 245) .

North and Weingast (1989) ; North and Thomas (1973) .

Vandenbroucke (2001, 331) .

For discussion of this tradeoff in the context of economic growth theory see Temple (1999, 120) .

Geddes (2003) , King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) , Popper (1934/1968 ).

Ragin (1992) .

Eckstein (1975) , Ragin (1992 , 1997 ), Rueschemeyer and Stephens (1997) .

Eckstein (1975) .

Campbell and Stanley (1963: 3) .

Lane (1962) .

Lynd and Lynd (1929/1956 ).

Note that the intensive study of a single unit may be a perfectly appropriate way to estimate causal effects within that unit . Thus, if one is interested in the relationship between welfare benefits and work effort in the United States one might obtain a more accurate assessment by examining data drawn from the USA alone, rather than crossnationally. However, since the resulting generalization does not extend beyond the unit in question it is not a case study in the usual sense.

Achen (2002) , Dessler (1991) , Elster (1998) , George and Bennett (2005) , Gerring (2005) , Hedstrom and Swedberg (1998) , Mahoney (2001) , Tilly (2001) .

In a discussion of instrumental variables in two‐stage least‐squares analysis, Angrist and Krueger (2001: 8) note that “good instruments often come from detailed knowledge of the economic mechanism, institutions determining the regressor of interest.”

Goldstone et al. (2000) .

This has something to do with the existence of process‐tracing evidence, a matter discussed below. But it is not necessarily predicated on this sort of evidence. Sensitive time‐series data, another specialty of the case study, is also relevant to the question of causal mechanisms.

Glaser and Strauss (1967, 40) .

Chong (1993, 868) . For other examples of in‐depth interviewing see Hochschild (1981) , Lane (1962) .

Rueschemeyer and Stephens (1997, 62) .

Other good examples of within‐case research that shed light on a broader theory can be found in Martin (1992) ; Martin and Swank (2004) ; Thies (2001) ; Young (1999) .

Cameron (1978) .

Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote (2001) .

For additional examples of this nature, see Feng (2003) ; Papyrakis and Gerlagh (2003) ; Ross (2001) .

Eckstein (1975, 122) .

I am using the term “thick” in a somewhat different way than in Geertz (1973) .

See Ragin (2000, 22) .

Ragin (1987 , ch. 2 ). Herbert Blumer's (1969 , ch 7 ) complaints, however, are more far‐reaching.

Orum, Feagin, and Sjoberg (1991, 7) .

Ragin (2000: 35) . See also Abbott (1990) ; Bendix (1963) ; Meehl (1954) ; Przeworski and Teune (1970, 8–9) ; Ragin (1987 ; 2004, 124 ); Znaniecki (1934, 250–1) .

George and Smoke (1974, 514) .

Hersen and Barlow (1976, 11) .

Shalev (1998) .

To be sure, if adjacent cases are identical , the phenomenon of interest is invariant then the researcher gains nothing at all by studying more examples of a phenomenon, for the results obtained with the first case will simply be replicated. However, virtually all phenomena of interest to social scientists have some degree of heterogeneity (cases are not identical), some stochastic element. Thus, the theoretical possibility of identical, invariant cases is rarely met in practice.

Gutting (1980) ; Hall (2003) ; Kuhn (1962/1970 ); Wolin (1968) .

Dion (1998) .

Almond (1956) ; Bentley (1908/1967 ); Lipset (1960/1963 ); Truman (1951) .

Lijphart (1968) ; see also Lijphart (1969) . For additional examples of case studies disconfirming general propositions of a deterministic nature see Allen (1965) ; Lipset, Trow, and Coleman (1956) ; Njolstad (1990) ; discussion in Rogowski (1995) .

Znaniecki (1934) . See also discussion in Robinson (1951) .

Kittel (1999 , 2005 ); Kittel and Winner (2005) ; Levine and Renelt (1992) ; Temple (1999) .

Consider the following topics and their—extremely rare—instances of variation: early industrialization (England, the Netherlands), fascism (Germany, Italy), the use of nuclear weapons (United States), world war (WWI, WWII), single non‐transferable vote electoral systems (Jordan, Taiwan, Vanuatu, pre‐reform Japan), electoral system reforms within established democracies (France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand). The problem of “rareness” is less common where parameters are scalar, rather than dichotomous. But there are still plenty of examples of phenomena whose distributions are skewed by a few outliers, e.g. population (China, India), personal wealth (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett), ethnic heterogeneity (Papua New Guinea).

Of course, what we know about the potential cases is not independent of the underlying reality; it is, nonetheless, not entirely dependent on that reality.

Gerring (2007b) .

Mulligan, Gil, and Sala‐i‐Martin (2002, 13) .

Bollen (1993) ; Bowman, Lehoucq, and Mahoney (2005) ; Munck and Verkuilen (2002) ; Treier and Jackman (2005) .

Bowman, Lehoucq, and Mahoney (2005) .

Bollen (1993) ; Treier and Jackman (2005) .

Stoecker (1991, 91) .

  • About Oxford Academic
  • Publish journals with us
  • University press partners
  • What we publish
  • New features  
  • Open access
  • Institutional account management
  • Rights and permissions
  • Get help with access
  • Accessibility
  • Advertising
  • Media enquiries
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Languages
  • University of Oxford

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide

  • Copyright © 2023 Oxford University Press
  • Cookie settings
  • Cookie policy
  • Privacy policy
  • Legal notice

This Feature Is Available To Subscribers Only

Sign In or Create an Account

This PDF is available to Subscribers Only

For full access to this pdf, sign in to an existing account, or purchase an annual subscription.

No internet connection.

All search filters on the page have been cleared., your search has been saved..

  • All content
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Expert Insights
  • Foundations
  • How-to Guides
  • Journal Articles
  • Little Blue Books
  • Little Green Books
  • Project Planner
  • Tools Directory
  • Sign in to my profile No Name

Not Logged In

  • Sign in Signed in
  • My profile No Name

Not Logged In

Encyclopedia of Case Study Research

  • Edited by: Albert J. Mills , Gabrielle Durepos & Elden Wiebe
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Publication year: 2010
  • Online pub date: December 27, 2012
  • Discipline: Anthropology
  • Methods: Case study research
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781412957397
  • Print ISBN: 9781412956703
  • Online ISBN: 9781412957397
  • Buy the book icon link

Reader's guide

Entries a-z, subject index.

Case study research has a long history within the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, dating back to the early 1920's. At first it was a useful way for researchers to make valid inferences from events outside the laboratory in ways consistent with the rigorous practices of investigation inside the lab. Over time, case study approaches garnered interest in multiple disciplines as scholars studied phenomena in context. Despite widespread use, case study research has received little attention among the literature on research strategies.

The Encyclopedia of Case Study Research provides a compendium on the important methodological issues in conducting case study research and explores both the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigmatic approaches. These two volumes focus on the distinctive characteristics of case study research and its place within and alongside other research methodologies.

Key Features

Presents a definition of case study research that can be used in different fields of study; Describes case study as a research strategy rather than as a single tool for decision making and inquiry; Guides rather than dictates, readers understanding and applications of case study research; Includes a critical summary in each entry, which raises additional matters for reflection; Makes case study relevant to researchers at various stages of their careers, across philosophic divides, and throughout diverse disciplines

Academic Disciplines; Case Study Research Design; Conceptual Issues; Data Analysis; Data Collection; Methodological Approaches; Theoretical Traditions; Theory Development and Contributions

From Case Study Research

Types of Case Study Research

Front Matter

  • Editorial Board
  • List of Entries
  • Reader's Guide
  • About the Editors
  • Contributors
  • Introduction

Reader’s Guide

Back matter.

  • Selected Bibliography: Case Study Publications by Contributing Authors
  • Case Study Research in Anthropology
  • Before-and-After Case Study Design
  • Action-Based Data Collection
  • Activity Theory
  • Case Study and Theoretical Science
  • Analytic Generalization
  • ANTi-History
  • Case Study Research in Business and Management
  • Blended Research Design
  • Bayesian Inference and Boolean Logic
  • Analysis of Visual Data
  • Actor-Network Theory
  • Chicago School
  • Case Study as a Teaching Tool
  • Case Study Research in Business Ethics
  • Bounding the Case
  • Authenticity and Bad Faith
  • Anonymity and Confidentiality
  • Colonialism
  • Authenticity
  • Case Study in Creativity Research
  • Case Study Research in Education
  • Case Selection
  • Author Intentionality
  • Case-to-Case Synthesis
  • Anonymizing Data for Secondary Use
  • Autoethnography
  • Constructivism
  • Concatenated Theory
  • Case Study Research in Tourism
  • Case Study Research in Feminism
  • Causal Case Study: Explanatory Theories
  • Archival Records as Evidence
  • Base and Superstructure
  • Critical Realism
  • Conceptual Argument
  • Case Study With the Elderly
  • Case Study Research in Medicine
  • Case Within a Case
  • Contentious Issues in Case Study Research
  • Chronological Order
  • Audiovisual Recording
  • Case Study as a Methodological Approach
  • Critical Theory
  • Conceptual Model: Causal Model
  • Collective Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Political Science
  • Comparative Case Study
  • Cultural Sensitivity and Case Study
  • Coding: Axial Coding
  • Autobiography
  • Dialectical Materialism
  • Conceptual Model: Operationalization
  • Configurative-Ideographic Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Psychology
  • Critical Incident Case Study
  • Dissertation Proposal
  • Coding: Open Coding
  • Case Study Database
  • Class Analysis
  • Epistemology
  • Conceptual Model in a Qualitative Research Project
  • Critical Pedagogy and Digital Technology
  • Case Study Research in Public Policy
  • Cross-Sectional Design
  • Ecological Perspectives
  • Coding: Selective Coding
  • Case Study Protocol
  • Existentialism
  • Conceptual Model in a Quantitative Research Project
  • Diagnostic Case Study Research
  • Decision Making Under Uncertainty
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Case Study Surveys
  • Codifying Social Practices
  • Contribution, Theoretical
  • Explanatory Case Study
  • Deductive-Nomological Model of Explanation
  • Masculinity and Femininity
  • Cognitive Mapping
  • Consent, Obtaining Participant
  • Communicative Action
  • Formative Context
  • Credibility
  • Exploratory Case Study
  • Deviant Case Analysis
  • Objectivism
  • Communicative Framing Analysis
  • Contextualization
  • Community of Practice
  • Frame Analysis
  • Docile Bodies
  • Inductivism
  • Discursive Frame
  • Comparing the Case Study With Other Methodologies
  • Historical Materialism
  • Equifinality
  • Institutional Ethnography
  • Healthcare Practice Guidelines
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: ATLAS.ti
  • Consciousness Raising
  • Interpretivism
  • Instrumental Case Study
  • Pedagogy and Case Study
  • Pluralism and Case Study
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: CAITA (Computer-Assisted Interpretive Textual Analysis)
  • Data Resources
  • Contradiction
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Explanation Building
  • Intercultural Performance
  • Event-Driven Research
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: Kwalitan
  • Depth of Data
  • Critical Discourse Analysis
  • Managerialism
  • Extension of Theory
  • Intrinsic Case Study
  • Exemplary Case Design
  • Power/Knowledge
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: MAXQDA 2007
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Critical Sensemaking
  • Falsification
  • Limited-Depth Case Study
  • Extended Case Method
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: NVIVO
  • Direct Observation as Evidence
  • North American Case Research Association
  • Functionalism
  • Multimedia Case Studies
  • Extreme Cases
  • Researcher as Research Tool
  • Concept Mapping
  • Discourse Analysis
  • Decentering Texts
  • Generalizability
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Congruence Analysis
  • Documentation as Evidence
  • Deconstruction
  • Paradigm Plurality in Case Study Research
  • Genericization
  • Participatory Case Study
  • Holistic Designs
  • Utilitarianism
  • Constant Causal Effects Assumption
  • Ethnostatistics
  • Dialogic Inquiry
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Indeterminacy
  • Content Analysis
  • Fiction Analysis
  • Discourse Ethics
  • Indexicality
  • Pracademics
  • Integrating Independent Case Studies
  • Conversation Analysis
  • Field Notes
  • Double Hermeneutic
  • Postcolonialism
  • Processual Case Research
  • Cross-Case Synthesis and Analysis
  • Postmodernism
  • Macrolevel Social Mechanisms
  • Program Evaluation and Case Study
  • Longitudinal Research
  • Going Native
  • Ethnographic Memoir
  • Postpositivism
  • Middle-Range Theory
  • Program-Logic Model
  • Mental Framework
  • Document Analysis
  • Informant Bias
  • Ethnography
  • Poststructuralism
  • Naturalistic Generalization
  • Prospective Case Study
  • Mixed Methods in Case Study Research
  • Factor Analysis
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Poststructuralist Feminism
  • Overdetermination
  • Real-Time Cases
  • Most Different Systems Design
  • Eurocentrism
  • Radical Empiricism
  • Plausibility
  • Retrospective Case Study
  • High-Quality Analysis
  • Iterative Nodes
  • Radical Feminism
  • Probabilistic Explanation
  • Re-Use of Qualitative Data
  • Multiple-Case Designs
  • Language and Cultural Barriers
  • Process Tracing
  • Single-Case Designs
  • Multi-Site Case Study
  • Interactive Methodology, Feminist
  • Multiple Sources of Evidence
  • Scientific Method
  • Spiral Case Study
  • Naturalistic Inquiry
  • Interpreting Results
  • Narrative Analysis
  • Front Stage and Back Stage
  • Scientific Realism
  • Reporting Case Study Research
  • Storyselling
  • Natural Science Model
  • Socialist Feminism
  • Rhetoric in Research Reporting
  • Number of Cases
  • Naturalistic Context
  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Statistical Generalization
  • Outcome-Driven Research
  • Knowledge Production
  • Nonparticipant Observation
  • Governmentality
  • Substantive Theory
  • Paradigmatic Cases
  • Method of Agreement
  • Objectivity
  • Grounded Theory
  • Theory-Building With Cases
  • Method of Difference
  • Over-Rapport
  • Hermeneutics
  • Theory-Testing With Cases
  • Multicollinearity
  • Participant Observation
  • Underdetermination
  • Multidimensional Scaling
  • Imperialism
  • Polar Types
  • Institutional Theory, Old and New
  • Problem Formulation
  • Pattern Matching
  • Personality Tests
  • Intertextuality
  • Quantitative Single-Case Research Design
  • Re-Analysis of Previous Data
  • Isomorphism
  • Quasi-Experimental Design
  • Regulating Group Mind
  • Questionnaires
  • Langue and Parôle
  • Quick Start to Case Study Research
  • Relational Analysis
  • Reflexivity
  • Layered Nature of Texts
  • Random Assignment
  • Replication
  • Life History
  • Research Framework
  • Reliability
  • Logocentrism
  • Research Objectives
  • Rival Explanations
  • Repeated Observations
  • Management of Impressions
  • Research Proposals
  • Secondary Data as Primary
  • Researcher-Participant Relationship
  • Means of Production
  • Research Questions, Types of Retrospective Case Study
  • Serendipity Pattern
  • Situational Analysis
  • Sensitizing Concepts
  • Modes of Production
  • Standpoint Analysis
  • Subjectivism
  • Multimethod Research Program
  • Socially Distributed Knowledge
  • Statistical Analysis
  • Subject Rights
  • Multiple Selfing
  • Theoretical Saturation
  • Native Points of View
  • Statistics, Use of in Case Study
  • Temporal Bracketing
  • Triangulation
  • Negotiated Order
  • Textual Analysis
  • Use of Digital Data
  • Network Analysis
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Utilization
  • One-Dimensional Culture
  • Visual Research Methods
  • Ordinary Troubles
  • Theory, Role of
  • Organizational Culture
  • Webs of Significance
  • Within-Case Analysis
  • Performativity
  • Phenomenology
  • Practice-Oriented Research
  • Primitivism
  • Qualitative Analysis in Case Study
  • Qualitative Comparative Analysis
  • Self-Confrontation Method
  • Self-Presentation
  • Sensemaking
  • Signifier and Signified
  • Sign System
  • Social-Interaction Theory
  • Storytelling
  • Structuration
  • Symbolic Value
  • Symbolic Violence
  • Thick Description
  • Writing and Difference

Sign in to access this content

Get a 30 day free trial, more like this, sage recommends.

We found other relevant content for you on other Sage platforms.

Have you created a personal profile? Login or create a profile so that you can save clips, playlists and searches

  • Sign in/register

Navigating away from this page will delete your results

Please save your results to "My Self-Assessments" in your profile before navigating away from this page.

Sign in to my profile

Sign up for a free trial and experience all Sage Research Methods has to offer.

You must have a valid academic email address to sign up.

Get off-campus access

  • View or download all content my institution has access to.
  • view my profile
  • view my lists
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Kids Mental Health
  • Therapy Center
  • When To See a Therapist
  • Types of Therapy
  • Best Online Therapy
  • Best Couples Therapy
  • Best Family Therapy
  • Managing Stress
  • Sleep and Dreaming
  • Understanding Emotions
  • Self-Improvement
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Relationships in 2023
  • Student Resources
  • Personality Types
  • Verywell Mind Insights
  • 2023 Verywell Mind 25
  • Mental Health in the Classroom
  • Editorial Process
  • Meet Our Review Board
  • Crisis Support

What Is a Case Study?

An in-depth study of one person, group, or event

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

definition of case study pdf

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

definition of case study pdf

Verywell / Colleen Tighe

Benefits and Limitations

Types of case studies, how to write a case study.

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in various fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .  

A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

  • Allows researchers to collect a great deal of information
  • Give researchers the chance to collect information on rare or unusual cases
  • Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research

On the negative side, a case study:

  • Cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
  • Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
  • May not be scientifically rigorous
  • Can lead to bias

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

  • Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
  • Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
  • Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:

  • Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those living there.
  • Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Explanatory case studies : These   are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
  • Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
  • Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.

There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.

Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.

Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Where to Find Data

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  • Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
  • Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
  • Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
  • Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
  • Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
  • Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.

Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

  • Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
  • Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
  • Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
  • Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

  • Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, their name or a pseudonym.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references .

A Word From Verywell

Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.

  • Pop culture
  • Writing tips
  • Daily Crossword
  • Word Puzzle
  • Word Finder
  • Word of the Day
  • Synonym of the Day
  • Word of the Year
  • Language stories
  • All featured
  • Gender and sexuality
  • All pop culture
  • Grammar Coach ™
  • Writing hub
  • Grammar essentials
  • Commonly confused
  • All writing tips

a study of an individual unit, as a person, family, or social group, usually emphasizing developmental issues and relationships with the environment, especially in order to compare a larger group to the individual unit.

case history .

Origin of case study

Words nearby case study.

  • case-sensitive
  • case stated
  • case system

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

How to use case study in a sentence

In a case study from Metric Theory, Target Impression Share bidding, the total cost per click increased with both mobile and desktop devices.

It would also become the subject of a fair number of business school case studies.

Not just blog posts, you can also share other resources like case studies, podcast episodes, and webinars via Instagram Stories.

They become the architecture for a case study of Flint, expressed in a more personal and poetic way than a straightforward investigation could.

The Creek Fire was a case study in the challenge facing today’s fire analysts, who are trying to predict the movements of fires that are far more severe than those seen just a decade ago.

A case study would be your Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke.

A good case study for the minority superhero problem is Luke Cage.

He was asked to review a case study out of Lebanon that had cited his work.

Instead, now we have a political science case-study proving how political fortunes can shift and change at warp speed.

One interesting case study is Sir Arthur Evans, the original excavator and “restorer” of the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete.

As this is a case study , it should be said that my first mistake was in discrediting my early religious experience.

The author of a recent case study of democracy in a frontier county commented on the need for this kind of investigation.

How could a case study of Virginia during this period illustrate these developments?

British Dictionary definitions for case study

the act or an instance of analysing one or more particular cases or case histories with a view to making generalizations

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012


  1. case study research what why and how pdf

    definition of case study pdf

  2. (PDF) Case Study Definition and Implementation

    definition of case study pdf

  3. (PDF) An Overview of Case Study

    definition of case study pdf

  4. What is a Business Case Study and How to Write with Examples

    definition of case study pdf

  5. (DOC) Definition of Case Study

    definition of case study pdf

  6. 31+ Case Study Samples

    definition of case study pdf


  1. Case Studies

  2. 🔴TNPSC GR 4 2023

  3. Case study of a child बच्चे का एकल अध्ययन -B.ED /BTC

  4. மாற்றம் Free Test Batch

  5. Nintex Case Study: Lippuner Automates Procurement

  6. Why Embracing Change Unlocks a New Era of Possibilities in Management


  1. PDF What is a case study?

    Case study is a research methodology, typically seen in social and life sciences.

  2. PDF What is a Case Study?

    A definition of the case study is presented in section 1.5, and expanded upon in section 1.6. The popular point of view that a case study is characterised by a holistic approach is explained and discussed in section 1.7. In section 1.8 we review the contents of this chapter and we draw conclusions. 1.1 Introduction

  3. (PDF) The case study as a type of qualitative research

    The case study as a type of qualitative research March 2013 Authors: A. Biba Rebolj Solution Focused Possibilities Citations (193) Abstract This article presents the case study as a type...


    The case study method embraces the full set of procedures needed to do case study research. These tasks include designing a case study, collecting the study's data, ana- lyzing the data, and presenting and reporting the results.

  5. Redefining Case Study

    case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real- life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident.

  6. PDF Kurt Schoch I

    Kurt Schoch In this chapter, I provide an introduction to case study design. The chapter begins with a definition of case study research and a description of its origins and philosophical underpinnings. I share dis- cipline-specific applications of case study methods and describe the appropriate research questions addressed by case studies.

  7. (PDF) Case Study Research Defined [White Paper]

    A case study is a methodological research approach used to generate an in-depth understanding of a contemporary issue or phenomenon in a bounded system. A case study is one of the most...

  8. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

    A case study is one of the most commonly used methodologies of social research. This article attempts to look into the various dimensions of a case study research strategy, the different epistemological strands which determine the particular case study type and approach adopted in the field, discusses the factors which can enhance the effectiveness of a case study research, and the debate ...

  9. PDF Case Study

    What Is a Case Study? Definitions of "case study" abound. Some are useful, others not. Merriam-Webster's dictionary (2009) defines a case study straightforwardly as follows: Case Study. An intensive analysis of an individual unit (as a person or com - munity) stressing developmental factors in relation to environment.

  10. What Is a Case Study?

    A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research. A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods, but quantitative methods are sometimes also used.

  11. What Is a Case, and What Is a Case Study?

    AbstractRésumé. Case study is a common methodology in the social sciences (management, psychology, science of education, political science, sociology). A lot of methodological papers have been dedicated to case study but, paradoxically, the question "what is a case?" has been less studied.

  12. (PDF) Case Study

    (PDF) Case Study Case Study Authors: Tanya Sammut-Bonnici University of Malta John McGee The University of Warwick Abstract Case studies involve the documented history and comprehensive...

  13. The Case Study: What it is and What it Does

    In a study that attempts to explain the behavior of individuals, individuals comprise the cases. And so forth. Each case may provide a single observation or multiple (within‐case) observations. For students of comparative politics, the archetypal case is the dominant political unit of our time, the nation‐state.

  14. Case Study Method: A Step-by-Step Guide for Business Researchers

    aspects of a phenomenon in a single case study (Cruzes, Dyba˚, Runeson, & Ho¨st, 2015). The purpose here is to suggest, help, and guide future research students based on what authors have learned while conducting an in-depth case study by implying autoethnography. Case study method is the most widely used method in aca-

  15. Sage Research Methods

    The Encyclopedia of Case Study Research provides a compendium on the important methodological issues in conducting case study research and explores both the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigmatic approaches. These two volumes focus on the distinctive characteristics of case study research and its place within and alongside other ...

  16. (PDF) An Overview of Case Study

    This study is Journal of Public Management Research ISSN 2377-3294 2022 guided by the descriptive case study approach. Case study based on the definition given by Dr. Kenneth Harling, states that ...

  17. PDF The utility of case study as a methodology for work-integrated learning

    studies are similar to Stakes collective case study in that the researcher can delve into dissimilarities both within and between cases i.e. not just one case as in a holistic case study. Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Study Irrespective of the type of case study, it is clear that case study provides the researcher with the ability

  18. (PDF) What is a case study?

    A case study has been defined as an intensive investigation of a person, a group of people or a unit (52). Case studies are fit to get an in-depth and holistic understanding of complex...

  19. What Is a Case Study? Definition, Elements and 15 Examples

    A case study is an in-depth analysis of specific, real-world situations or the scenarios inspired by them. Both teachers and professionals use them as training tools. They're used to present a problem, allowing individuals to interpret it and provide a solution. In the business world, organizations of many sizes use case studies to train ...

  20. Case Study: Definition, Examples, Types, and How to Write

    Benefits and Limitations Examples Types of Case Studies How to Write a Case Study A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior.

  21. Case study

    A case study is a detailed description and assessment of a specific situation in the real world, often for the purpose of deriving generalizations and other insights about the subject of the case study. Case studies can be about an individual, a group of people, an organization, or an event, and they are used in multiple fields, including business, health care, anthropology, political science ...

  22. CASE STUDY Definition & Usage Examples

    Case study definition: . See examples of CASE STUDY used in a sentence.

  23. (PDF) Case Study Method

    Regression techniques to study the student performance in post graduate examinations -A case study. August 2014. View full-text. PDF | Content for Post Graduate Courses | Find, read and cite all ...