Qualitative research methods are ways of investigating a topic to gain a deeper understanding and generate new theories and ideas. These methods usually examine and interpret patterns in written or textual data. Methods of qualitative research vary depending on the goals of the researcher and the resources available. Case studies are qualitative research methods that look intensively at an individual or specific situation. Case studies use unstructured interviews and observations to understand the experience or behavior of individuals.
Formulate your research question. Case studies typically seek to answer questions beginning with “how” or “why.” Decide on a study object. This can take the form of a program, person or group of people connected to political, social, historical or personal issues that will inform your questions. Develop questions that will help focus the study. Review the relevant literature. This will help inform your question and give you an understanding of the area that you are investigating. Compare previous research and identify areas that have not yet been explored.
Design your research methods. Decide how you will seek to answer your questions. Select the cases that you will study and how you will gather data. Keep your research question in mind as you design your methods. Decide if you will use a single case or compare multiple cases. Choose a method for collecting data. Most case studies use multiple methods of collecting data, such as interviews, surveys, observations, document review and, occasionally, the collection of physical artifacts. For interviews or surveys, subjects must be contacted and scheduled. For field research, such as observations, you will need to put aside a considerable amount of time to observe the case and prepare notes on your observations, thoughts and reflections.
Collect and evaluate the data. Organize and consolidate the data as you are collecting it. Qualitative data can be overwhelming and include copious notes. As you organize your data, you may begin to see patterns or themes emerging. For case studies, it is common to have these themes guide the data collection and even change your research questions. Organize the data into charts, tables or other forms to help you understand and examine them. Compare your results to those from other studies and have them peer reviewed. Different perspectives and feedback on your research can only enhance the validity of your study.
- Consider the type of case study that you are interested in. Case studies can be intrinsic (focusing on understanding that specific case), instrumental (focusing on understanding the issue in a broader way) or collective (comparing multiple cases).
- Case studies have been criticized for lacking reliability and generality because they only look at a small number of cases. Consider using quantitative methods, such as surveys, or mixed-method research strategies, such as combining qualitative and quantitative elements in research design, if you are concerned about the reliability and generality of your study.
- observation image by Arkady Chubykin from Fotolia.com