Among different research methods, a case study has been receiving increasing academic attention within recent decades because of its unique potential for exploring phenomena from a broad perspective. Webster’s Dictionary defines a case study as “an intensive analysis of an individual unit (as a person or community) stressing developmental factors about the environment” (“Case Study” 191). An important aspect of this definition is that a case study does not pursue isolating an object of analysis from the conditions in which this object exists and develops (other research methods, such as experiments, may pursue doing so) but pursues studying it in connection to its environment. Therefore, the key concept of the case study research design is the context: case studies approach entities and phenomena with the consideration of contexts in which those entities exist and those phenomena occur. In the case of studies, the studied case can be a person (e.g. his or her development process), a group of people, an organization, or an event. Case studies can be conducted in many areas (social sciences especially), but the particular area of their use that will be examined closely is business. To explore the concept of the case study research method, seven aspects will be addressed: history, rationale, types, areas of research, situations in which the case study method can be used, challenges associated with the method, and particular examples of case studies in business.
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History of the Case Study
The history of case study research began in the 19t century, and the first areas in which the method was used were law, education, and sociology. Thomas and Myers provide three examples of the earliest known application of case studies (17). First, they refer to a lawyer who coined the term “case study method” in 1870 and used the case study format for teaching law in a university. However, similar frameworks had been used before; particularly, a French physician Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard studied the case of a feral child later known as Victor of Aveyron, and Itard’s description became a widely acclaimed example of a case study in education and developmental science: the physician was trying to examine how educable Victor was, and what he could learn. Later, a French sociologist Frédéric Le Play used the framework to study working people in France.
In the 20th century, scholars continued to use case study research methods, especially when they wanted to draw a “big picture” for the academic community, i.e. present their studies in the form of comprehensive narratives. Social scientists were especially interested in this methodology because case studies are particularly applicable to communities; for example, several influential sociological works appeared in the first half of the 20th century that was dedicated to the lives of immigrants, congregations, and diasporas. However, the philosophy of case study, i.e. exploring phenomena in the context in which they exist or occur, can be traced back to the ancient times when the founders of the Western scientific approach argued about the possibility of producing knowledge through examining cases (Thomas and Myers 19). The view that cases are valuable in the production of knowledge ultimately became more influential.
Concerning the business sphere, case studies were first introduced to it in the context of education. When taught about business administration, economics, or management, students were given examples from real-life business practice, and a specific characteristic of these examples was that they were not simply stories but case studies in terms of an analytical approach to exploring the factors that contributed to a business initiative’s success or failure. This spread of the case study framework came from the sphere of law; in the 1870s, a Harvard Law School professor switched from delivering lectures to students to discussing actual legal cases in class, and the Harvard Business School later adopted the approach, too.
However, it was further discovered that case studies could be applied not only to the instructional process but also to research. As the business sphere was developing in the 20th century, and the competition was growing, entrepreneurs, business analysts, and scholars became more and more interested in how business practices could be optimized, growth could be promoted, and innovation could be achieved. Answering these questions required advanced research methods, but purely quantitative measurements (such as the ratio analysis of financial performance) or surveys and interviews did not seem sufficient. A broader view was needed, and the case study framework allowed exploring businesses with much attention paid to the context. Today, case studies are widely used to analyze organizational interactions, business strategies, and correlations among practices, policies, and business performance.
Major reasons for the emergence of a case study as a research method include a shift in formulating research questions, a changing understanding of the object of a study, and the expansion of research areas. First of all, Yin stresses that the form of a research question is the first consideration in the process of deciding what research design and what research methods need to be applied to a planned study (11). The author suggests that “what” questions are connected to either exploration or prevalence, in which case different methods can be used, including experiments, while “how” and “why” questions are more likely to require case study as the method. Therefore, case studies appeared when scholars started exploring things differently, and instead of trying to find an entity or discover a phenomenon (“what will happen if”), they started trying to explore conditions and interconnections among entities and phenomena (“how does this work”).
This also demonstrates the second reason for the development of case studies as research methods: the change of perspective on the object. The object is what is being studied; in the philosophy of science, it is recognized that an object can only be studied if all the factors that affect it are identified, measured, and controlled. It is hard to achieve in real-life conditions, which is why scientists try to isolate objects they study so that it can be ensured that the characteristics the object demonstrates are indeed the characteristics of this object and not external influences. However, as social sciences began to develop actively in the 19th century, the idea of an object changed because, for social scientists, objects are people, communities, institutions, behaviors, interactions, and other things that cannot be isolated in a laboratory. A new scientific method was needed to allow studying objects in their contextual conditions, and case study became such a method.
Finally, the areas of research were expanding, and broader methodological perspectives were needed to address those areas. The area of business is an example: as businesses were growing into larger and more complicated structures in the 20th century, were becoming international and global, adopted more and more complex systems of management, and were developing alternative work environments and practices for their employees, studying businesses was becoming harder. The primary purpose of a business is profit; therefore, businesses are interested in identifying how they can increase their profit and are normally willing to invest in research. Business research is well-funded, but the effectiveness of such methodological frameworks as experiments or surveys was decreasing.
Since businesses incorporate various types of interactions, numerous factors may affect the operation of a business—from individual characteristics of employees to external market forces. A broader view was needed to study business structures and systems and to study elements in a context instead of studying element by element separately. Case studies provide this opportunity. However, a business case study should not be regarded as merely a success (or failure) story; case study is still a research method that pursues identifying causes and effects (among other things). The business sphere needed the case study method because the method can help answer questions that are important for any business, such as “Why is the new marketing strategy not working?”
Types of Case Studies
Major types of case studies are exploratory, explanatory, and descriptive (Hancock and Algozzine 39). The first type has certain specific features that make it different from the majority of research methods; mostly, studies pursue answering a question, but exploratory case studies may involve research efforts before the formulation of a research question. In this context, exploration is the process of gaining insight into a phenomenon or a system to establish the feasibility of the research. In business, exploratory case studies can be applied when an organization wants to know what factors affect its operation, and what the extent of each influence is. Exploration helps build a theory of how certain processes work, and further, a particular research question can be formulated. For example, a company wants to know how its internal ethical environment shapes the practices that the company’s employees adopt; an exploratory study can help identify several ethical beliefs or principles which the employees recognize and to which they commit. Further studies can examine the effect of a certain ethical principle on the performance.
These further studies can be of the second type—explanatory case studies. They explain phenomena by establishing causal relationships. An example of this method can be found in the area of marketing: a company may want to explain the mechanism of building customer loyalty. Several factors that may contribute to customer loyalty need to be identified (these may include special offers, bonuses for repeat customers, promotion, special communication techniques for repeat customers, and other efforts made by the company to increase the number of loyal customers); further, an explanatory study analyzes the effect of each factor and establishes the processes occurring in customers when they decide to buy from the company again and again. A particular difference can be observed between a general explanatory study and an explanatory case study: the former may adopt such techniques as interviewing to explain the phenomenon of loyalty from the customer’s perspective; the latter, on the other hand, examines the phenomenon in a combined context, both from the customer’s perspective and the company’s perspective. Other contextual details, such as external influences or competition that the company faces, may be included in an explanatory case study, too.
Finally, the third type is descriptive. Compared to the other two, descriptive case studies may be seen as the simplest one; one may argue that describing an existing condition, system, or phenomenon is easier than exploring phenomena (i.e. dealing with unidentified influences or poorly studied processes) or explaining causes (establishing causalities, as opposed to correlations, which is one of the most challenging aspects of research in social sciences). However, the amount of effort needed to properly describe something from a scholarly perspective should not be underestimated. Businesses often sustain losses due to poorly understood internal processes and procedures.
For example, according to policies and internal regulations, a certain process, such as data verification, should be carried out in a particular way, but the real practice is different because the employees involved in the procedure have been working together for a long time and have adjusted the procedure to their convenience, possibly omitting some seemingly insignificant elements and doing some other elements in a slightly different way. However, the impression of insignificance or some slight changes may be misleading. The management recognizes it and wants to analyze the actual procedure so that its weaknesses can be detected. A descriptive case study describes the procedure in detail and presents it in the form of a model with certain steps. A detailed description further helps the management improve the procedure. Another similar example is logistics; a descriptive case study can present a comprehensive model of all logistics- and transportation-related activities a company conducts. As a result, risks, threats, and weaknesses will be identified, and the management will be enabled to improve particular components of a process.
Areas of Research
To establish areas in which a case study is applicable as a research method, it is primarily needed to define what can be the object of a case study. From several examples given in the previous sections, it is evident that there is a wide range of categories of objects. First of all, an individual can be an object of a case study; Victor of Aveyron is an example (see History). Further, groups of interacting individuals can be the object, e.g. the staff of a particular department, a project team, or a community, e.g. an ethical, religious, or cultural minority. Finally, large structures can be objects for a case study, such as organizations, or regulatory bodies. Also, it should not be overlooked that case studies may not consider objects or entities only but may also explore, explain, and describe events. For example, a financial crisis can be the topic of a case study; many different organizations and entities can be involved, but the focus will be on the crisis itself.
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Therefore, the areas of case study application are various and are not limited to the social sciences. Beyond social sciences, there are the areas of software engineering (Runeson et al. 1), health and medicine (a patient case can be analyzed as an example of an individual case study, and an epidemic can be analyzed as an example of an event/phenomenon case study), biology, and technology. However, according to Runeson et al., the method is more widely applied to social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science, communication studies, and community planning (1). The author also stresses that case study research applies to various areas associated with regulation; these may include corporate governance, public administration, policy-making, management, and the work of executive bodies. Since regulation is present in one way or another in virtually any area of human activities, the area of case study research is not limited to a certain kind of activity or a certain group of sciences but can be applied to a vast array of activities, interactions, events, and phenomena.
However, an area in which case studies are particularly relevant, as it was demonstrated in the previous sections, is business. The business presents a variety of topics for a case study; for example, an entire company can be regarded as an object, and with the descriptive case study research design, the operation of the company can be examined closely as a set of interactions and procedures. Also, particular departments can be explored; an explorative case study can help identify the attitudes that prevail among salespeople toward customers; this will provide data for further research identifying what attitudes are more favorable in terms of improving the performance of the sales department. Finally, an explanatory case study can compare two competitors and explain why the production is more efficient in one company than in the other one. Human resources management, finance, managerial practices, employee communications, public relations, marketing, and other areas of business can be approached with the case study toolkit.
Case Study Situations
In case a researcher is hesitant about choosing a particular type of research design to address an existing problem or poorly understood phenomenon, particular situations should be described in which case study is a preferable and potentially effective method. First of all, it should be recognized that, even though a case study is widely considered a qualitative method, the method can use both qualitative and quantitative data (Pucher et al. 2). Therefore, a researcher should not rule out the case study design in case what is pursued in a study is measuring certain indicators or gaining statistical data. Instead, the researcher should not think about the qualitative/quantitative classification of studies but about the scope of what is being studied and the context of it. In case a researcher wants to know the cultural backgrounds of all the employees in the company and establish correlations between the background and key performance indicators, a quantitative survey will suffice. However, if a researcher wants to explore the causality and see how cultural backgrounds may affect the employees’ practices and performance, a case study with a quantitative element will be adequate.
Second, it is noteworthy that the key concept in the case study research design is context, and the method is to be applied if the researcher feels that the data he or she can obtain in a study will not be relevant or helpful without exploring their contexts. Since an example of a case study incorporating quantitative methods has been shown, it can be proposed to turn to a qualitative example. In a company, there is a growing rate of misunderstandings between managers and employees, and a business researcher is invited to investigate the case and propose solutions. The researcher can opt for conducting a series of in-depth interviews with managers and employees to find out what attitudes prevail in each group toward the other group.
However, during the interviews, the researcher may reveal that both managers and employees refer to certain recent policy changes that modified the work of both groups, and the tension started to grow. In this situation, a wise decision for the researcher will be to expand the research design to a case study that will integrate the qualitative data from the in-depth interviews into a larger perspective of the analysis of the entire organization with its recent policy changes. A descriptive case study will help evaluate what exactly changed about the managers’ and employees’ work, and an explanatory study will help establish the connection between the new policies and the worsening relationships between the two groups.
Finally, a case study can be chosen as a research method if not only the purpose of creating knowledge is pursued but also the purpose of improving the current situation (Runeson et al. 1). With experiments, certain results are obtained (that either confirm or disconfirm the initial hypothesis), and the discussion of the results may involve attempts to assume why these certain results were demonstrated; however, these are often assumptions, and further research is needed to answer the “why” question. The case study design is different: it describes a situation broadly, and there are many things to be discussed, including recommendations for improvements. Therefore, case studies apply to attempts to not only explain what a thing is but also describe how the thing can be improved.
Major challenges associated with the use of the case study method are sampling, generalizability, and scope. First of all, the sampling frame of a study will depend on some factors, including research objectives and possible biases (Ishak and Bakar 34). Oftentimes, the sampling procedure is not necessary for a case study, e.g. if the performance of a working group is studied (in this case, the sample is the working group). However, in some other cases, the researcher is required to develop the sampling frame, i.e. define inclusion and exclusion criteria and the overall type of samplings, such as snowball or convenience-based. From this perspective, sampling is rather challenging. If a researcher wants to find out what the image of a business is among the business’s existing and potential customers, a random sample can be composed. However, if it is not an attitude or a perception that is being studied but a case, sampling may not be that simple because cases have participants and stakeholders, and the researcher is required to develop a strong theoretical basis for including some of the stakeholders in the study’s sample and possibly excluding other stakeholders.
Second, a case study may not be generalizable, and this compromises it as a research method in away. From the perspective of philosophy of science, studies should reveal patterns and reactions that will be manifested in the same situation in a different place or time; studies should be replicable, i.e. conducted under conditions that can be repeated by a different researcher, and similar results will be demonstrated. Case studies may be too specific, too attached to a particular context, which is why the results of a business case study for a particular company may not apply to a different company. To address this challenge, researchers should properly explain all the factors in a given study; in case the factors are present in a different situation (e.g. a different company), similar results may be expected, but in case the factors are absent or different, similar results should not be expected even if, in general, the situation seems similar.
Finally, establishing the scope of a studied case may be challenging. Case studies address real-life situations without isolating objects from external influences; therefore, what influences to consider and what influences to exclude from the scope are difficult questions. For example, a case study examines a public relations campaign conducted by a small business; two parties are involved: the company and the public. However, the researcher may consider also including in the scope the public relations campaign simultaneously conducted by a competitor, and there are other ways to expand the scope, too, which is why the researcher should clearly define what the case is in a given case study.
For a closer examination of the use of the case study research design in the business sphere, three particular studies that adopted case studies as their methods can be reviewed. The first example is a study of corporate community involvement programs; the study was conducted by Barkay, and it employed the case study design through “first-hand observations and on-site ethnographic accounts” (277). The author argues that today’s large businesses widely engage in corporate social responsibility activities, such as community involvement, but the results of such programs, i.e. the effect of corporate programs on different communities, are rarely reported by the businesses themselves or external researchers. Barkay examines the case of community involvement programs conducted by Coca-Cola in Israel, and the author adopts the case study methodology because the purpose of the study is not only to measure the effects of the program but also to examine the entire case in the context of Coca-Cola’s corporate and community-related policies. The case study design allows Barkay to employ different research methods, such as “two years of participant observations, in-depth interviews, and the compilation and analyses of textual intra- and inter-organizational materials” (281), and to draw conclusions about the difference between the declared purposes of community involvement programs and the actual practices Coca-Cola demonstrates.
Another example comes from the area of web-based businesses: Trattner and Kappe address the phenomenon of marketing campaigns conducted via social networking services, such as Facebook, and explore how effective such campaigns can be (86). The authors stress that social networking services are increasingly popular marketing instruments today, but little is known about their actual impacts. The authors employ the case study method, and the object of their research is a particular Facebook campaign. The research design allows the authors to examine the campaign from three perspectives: the business that conducts the campaign, the target audience, and the channel itself, i.e. the so-called social medium. The case study revealed that there were particularly “valuable” users, i.e. members of the target audience on Facebook that were likely to promote the effectiveness of online marketing campaigns, and the indicators to recognize a “valuable” user included the number of friends, the intensity of activity online, and the number of advertising posts the user shares.
Finally, case studies can be applied to such hard-to-measure aspects of the business as corporate cultures. For example, Qin studied Home Inns, China’s largest lodging firm, and the purpose was to reveal the reasons for the success of this hotel chain in the increasingly expanding tourism industry in China (1021). The object of the case study was the company itself, and the aspect to which the researcher paid special attention was the corporate culture manifested in the relationships among employees, managers, and clients. It was discovered that being “happy and caring” (Qin 1030) was the company’s core value referred to by both employees and managers and manifested not only in the communication among them but also in the physical environment, e.g. in the company’s iconic yellow color of the walls. The author argues that the case study allows observing how a company’s corporate culture can become the glue that combines the efforts of the entire staff and ensures compliance with common strategic goals.
A case study is a research method that should be applied to studies in which entities and phenomena are analyzed in the context in which they exist or occur. This research design regards the object of a study to its environment. A case study is not merely a narrative but a scientific exploration of factors that contribute to the unfolding of a real-life situation. In business, case studies can be used both in the instructional process and in research; it has been confirmed that the method allows establishing causalities, explaining how and why something is happening, and providing recommendations for improving a given situation. Although case studies may not always be generalizable, they are widely used in business research today, and virtually every aspect of business operation and administration can be studied based on the case study research design.
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