Case Study Method
Saul McLeod published 2008
Case studies are in-depth investigations of a single person, group, event or community. Typically, data are gathered from a variety of sources and by using several different methods (e.g. observations & interviews). The research may also continue for an extended period of time, so processes and developments can be studied as they happen.
The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e. the patient’s personal history).
The case study method often involves simply observing what happens to, or reconstructing ‘the case history’ of a single participant or group of individuals (such as a school class or a specific social group), i.e. the idiographic approach. Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.
The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies. Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g. letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g. case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports). Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e. verbal description rather than measurement) but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.
The data collected can be analyzed using different theories (e.g. grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, text interpretation, e.g. thematic coding) etc. All the approaches mentioned here use preconceived categories in the analysis and they are ideographic in their approach, i.e. they focus on the individual case without reference to a comparison group.
Case studies are widely used in psychology and amongst the best known were the ones carried out by Sigmund Freud. He conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.
Freud's most famous case studies include Little Hans (1909a) and The Rat Man (1909b). Even today case histories are one of the main methods of investigation in abnormal psychology and psychiatry. For students of these disciplines they can give a vivid insight into what those who suffer from mental illness often have to endure.
Case studies are often conducted in clinical medicine and involve collecting and reporting descriptive information about a particular person or specific environment, such as a school. In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual. The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual's past (i.e. retrospective), as well as to significant events which are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.
In order to produce a fairly detailed and comprehensive profile of the person, the psychologist may use various types of accessible data, such as medical records, employer's reports, school reports or psychological test results. The interview is also an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person's friends, parents, employer, work mates and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist, i.e. someone with a professional qualification. There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e. abnormal) behavior or atypical development.
The procedure used in a case study means that the researcher provides a description of the behavior. This comes from interviews and other sources, such as observation. The client also reports detail of events from his or her point of view. The researcher then writes up the information from both sources above as the case study, and interprets the information.
Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always make clear which information is factual description and which is an inference or the opinion of the researcher.
Strengths of Case Studies
- Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
- Provides insight for further research.
- Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.
Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways. Research which only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension to experience which is so important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.
Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person's life are related to each other. The method is therefore important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e. humanistic psychologists).
Limitations of Case Studies
- Can’t generalize the results to the wider population.
- Researchers' own subjective feeling may influence the case study (researcher bias).
- Difficult to replicate.
- Time consuming.
Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group we can never be sure whether the conclusions drawn from this particular case apply elsewhere. The results of the study are not generalizable because we can never know whether the case we have investigated is representative of the wider body of "similar" instances
Because they are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e. descriptive) data a lot depends on the interpretation the psychologist places on the information she has acquired. This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.
For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit the particular theories about behavior (e.g. Little Hans). This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.
Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 151(3), 298-304
Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der "Rattenmann"). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE, 10: 151-318.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Case study method. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/case-study.html
What is a Case Study? Definition and Method
Many students don’t know how to write a case study and find it a very difficult assignment even before getting started. Of course, it can be quite a challenging task but with the help of various recommendations and case study examples, you will be able to complete the assignment in a blink of an eye!
A case study is a task, which aims to teach the student how to analyze the causes and consequences of an event or activity by creating its role model. Such assignments show how complexities may influence various decisions and that is what makes case studies so important.
In most of the cases, your professor will give the same topic to a whole class and it will become a sort of a discussion, after processing all available data. That is why you need to use all of your thinking skills and knowledge to get a chance to analyze the situation properly. Here are some recommendations, which will be helpful in completing a case study:
- Use real-life examples. If you are free to choose a topic on your own, try to take it from real life. However, avoid real names;
- Finish every part of your study with points for discussing. They will engage your reader and help him orient in the study;
- Provide credible information on the topic;
- Make sure the story is believable, i.e. it consists of sequence of time and events, problems and issues to solve, identities and so on.
There are also a few problems you need to avoid to make your case study as interesting and catchy, as possible:
- No limitations. It is very easy to get lost in background information and data, which is not directly related to the subject. Try to distinguish key points of your paper and concentrate on them, instead of including information from different areas;
- No credible sources. Such task has lots of requirements, including trustworthy sources. Every statement you make should be backed with credible data and evidence;
- No conclusions. Every assignment, not depending on a topic and complexity, should end up with conclusions to give the reader an idea of topic relevance. Make sure you spend enough time on analyzing the results and providing useful conclusions.
Order an Exclusive Paper of Top Standard
100% Originality Assured. Only Qualified Specialists
Examples & Samples of Case Study
There are multiple ways of making the process of completing the assignment easier, including ordering a task at a writing service or asking other students for help. However, most of the students decide to download a case study template and try to complete the assignment on their own, using an example.
It can be a great option for those, who easily process information and can analyze the template structure to apply it in their own works. Such samples can be of a great help, as they contain a proper formatting style, content and other important elements, which distinguish a first-class paper. With the help of a sample case study you will be able to complete the assignment quicker and with less efforts.
Case Study Example
Case Study Examples
Case Study Format
Case Study Samples
Case Study Template
Sample Case Study
Case Study Template and Format
You have already learned what a case study is and how it should look like, so it is time to learn more about the structure of assignment and its content. However, every research greatly differs depending on the topic, so you should carefully note down all the guidelines your professor provides not to miss anything.
Here is a general structure of a study, which can be applied in most of the cases:
- Title page, which contains the title of your work, author’s name and name of the institution. In some cases you may be asked to add key words, which will be used by various searching tools;
- Abstract, which can be of a narrative or a structured type. Narrative abstract is a summary of the whole work to give the reader a chance to understand whether he is interested in reading the whole paper. Structured abstracts are used in scientific studies, when you need to provide a list of information or questions, which will be later studied in the text. You can use sub-headings, which will give the reader an idea of how the structure of your assignment looks like;
- Introduction, which aims to give the audience an idea of what makes your study so interesting. You can include examples of similar cases or get back to historical events to connect them with the problem you are studying;
- Presentation. In this section you need to provide the raw information you have collected. Try to make it narrative and interesting;
- Outcomes, which should give the reader an idea of how the problem or event should be treated. Make sure you provide all of your recommendations in a simple way, using credible sources;
- References, which should include only credible sources.
When you complete such assignment, you should never forget about case study format, as it can greatly influence the result. Your professor may ask you to use a certain formatting style, which will be much easier for you and will help to avoid the most common mistakes.