Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Case Study Research

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Written and posted by Dr Hannes Nel


There is an increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the world without a defined chain of transmission.

It is easy to miss infected people who came into contact with the virus.

New cases increasingly crop up in unsuspected places.

There is still much uncertainty regarding how the virus spreads.

Rumours abound, and scaremongering is becoming as serious a problem as the virus itself.

This is a perfect example of a problem that can be researched through case study research.

I will discuss case study research as a research method in this article.

Case study research

Case study research can follow almost any research paradigm.

The exceptions can be technicist paradigms, especially scientism, rationalism, positivism and modernism.

Then again, I believe one can even use case studies to do research in natural science.

Case study means doing systematic research on contemporary phenomena or events.

Like action research, it is linked to a specific time, site and context.

Multiple sources of evidence can be used.

A case study strives towards a holistic and comprehensive understanding of how participants relate to and interact with each other in a specific situation.

Case study research looks for meaning in a situation or event.

It can be used across a variety of disciplines to answer epistemological questions.

Research questions can be answered by an individual, two people or a whole group.

Although answers are given by members of a target group, the focus is on a system of action rather than just the sample for the research.

Case study research can be selective, focusing on one or two issues that are fundamental to understanding the system being examined.

Case study research investigates behavior, but not just the behavior of the target group for the research.

It strives to identify the behavior of an entire system.

For example, the researcher might do research on how people react to those who might have come into contact with the COVID-19 virus by interviewing them.

Or they can determine how people respond to such “almost infected” people by observing how family and friends react when they return home from where they could have come into contact with the virus.

The researcher will probably try to identify a pattern of behavior that can be regarded as generally applicable.

You will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioural pattern can be identified and described.

A strong point of the case study method is that almost any data collection method can be used.

For example, participant observation, interviewing, audio-visual material, document surveys and even the collection of physical artifacts.

You should determine in advance what evidence to gather and what analysis techniques to use with the data that you collect.

Data collection will probably be mostly qualitative in nature, but it can also include quantitative data.

A second strong point of the case study method is that it deals directly with the individual case in its actual context.

Case studies get as close to the subject of interest as they possibly can.

This is achieved because direct observation in natural settings can be used.

Also, because you can have access to subjective factors, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.

Surely you will ask people how they feel, how they experience the situation, etc. when you interview them.

The case itself is the focus of your research, not the variables.

You need to focus strongly on the purpose of your research, nothing else.

The general purpose of case study research is to generate knowledge.

It can also be used for theoretical elaboration or analytical generalization.

Criticism of case study research is that it often depends on a single case.

That makes it difficult to have your findings apply generally.


Case study research is perfectly suited to finding solutions for social problems.

The current COVID-19 situation is a good example, where social scientists would investigate the psychological effect of the threat on people while natural scientists try to find a way in which to combat the virus.

Case study research can use most philosophical stances or paradigms.

Epistemological questions are mostly investigated.

A good measure of generalization is sought for human behavior at a particular time and context.

You, as the researcher, will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

Case studies investigate a target group through direct observation in a natural setting.

The purpose of the research is critically important.

Case study research can be used to generate knowledge, for theoretical elaboration and analytical generalization.

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