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The Case Study – Through the Looking Glass

October 19, 2015 - Posted toStudy

Content case study   through the looking glass

Project Close-Up 

If you have been assigned a case study, you will be conducting a unique research project and then reporting on that research in a document that has a pre-defined structure, based upon your departmental requirements. While these projects are often equated with graduate business coursework, case studies have been around for a long time in many other fields of study – education, sociology, psychology, political science, and medicine to name a few. If you are unclear about how to write a case study, the following step-by-step process should make things quite clear.

Getting to a Definition

A case study is a specialized research project based upon a real-world problem or phenomenon within its real-world context. A case study identifies the problem or phenomenon and then attempts to answer very specific questions, such as what caused this; how has this happened; why does this exist; or why is this the outcome?

Steps in the Production Process

No matter what academic field for which a case study is being produced, there are very important “common denominators” that must be included in case study writing. These common denominators are achieved through 4 crucial steps.


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The Definition of Your Case – Your Topic

Your “case” is actually a condition, an organization or institution, a person, or a phenomenon – something or someone that exists in his/her/its real world environment.

And you have a question about this “case.” The “case” and the question you are asking comprise your topic. Here are some examples of topic cases and questions:

  • Why as this specific neighborhood experienced such a rapid increase in crime?
  • How did Apple “come back from the dead” and become a multi-billion dollar corporation again?
  • How did Barack Obama win his presidential bid in 2008?
  • Why was a campaign to wipe out Malaria in one African country so successful?
  • How did this school turn itself around in terms of student academic performance?
  • What caused this patient to respond to a specific medical protocol and not others?

You have a research question as a part of your topic; however, it is not the type of research question that you would find for a topic of a dissertation or thesis. And you will not formulate any hypothesis. Your role as a researcher in a case study is to enter into the research process with no pre-conceived ideas or biases.

This initial identification and refinement of your topic and question will ultimately form the basis for the introduction when your case study report is ultimately crafted. When you do write your introduction, you will also need to justify the importance of your case study? What is the purpose? In most instances, the purpose will be so that other people organizations or institutions may attempt to replicate the success or avoid the failure.

The Review of Literature

Finding the right literature to review can be very tricky and sometimes a bit frustrating. What you are looking for are other case studies or research projects that have addressed similar people or phenomena. You need to review these sources carefully to see under what conditions the same things occurred and what factors those researchers identified as critical to those conditions occurring. This research is important because it will give you ideas of what specific factors to look for as you pursue you own research. The literature review should be written up as a section of your case study and will resemble a normal research paper.

Your Research – Collecting the Data

Your Methods:

You will need to determine what methods you will be using to perform your case analysis. These may include any of the following:

  • Archival Records
  • Questionnaires
  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Observations
  • Current Records/Documents

Note: When you write up your case study, any instruments, records, or documents you used as a part of your research should be included in an appendix to the report. You will also be expected to justify the methods you used, demonstrating how they factored into your getting to your answer.

As you can see, your research will be qualitative, rather than quantitative. You will have no experimental groups, treatments, random samplings, and such. You are collecting information and data for careful analysis, as you attempt to ultimately answer your research question.


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From your research, you will identify the factors related to your case and question. For example, was Apple’s turnaround solely the result of re-instating Steve Jobs as CEO? Or were there other people and ideas already in place just waiting for the leadership that was ready to take the risks? If a school has turned around its academic performance, what factors were introduced that other school in the same locale did not have? Was there a new curriculum put in place? Was new technology introduced? Was there a major change in staffing, including leadership? All factors must be analyzed, before conclusions can be reached.

The Conclusion

Your conclusions are important for two reasons. First, they will assist future researchers who select a similar case and research question; second, they will inform practitioners in the fields of your case study as they attempt to replicate or eliminate the factors that you have identified as critical to the condition. For example, if you have identified specific factors responsible for an increase in crime in a specific neighborhood, community leaders in surrounding neighborhoods will want to put things in place to avoid those same factors.

In many conclusion, there will be a SWOT analysis – something that will also inform practitioners as they review your study and commit to some form of action.

Basically, such an analysis includes the following:

  1. Strengths: What are the strengths of the case – the organization, the institution, the community, the successful politician?
  2. Weaknesses: What weaknesses exist that could threaten the current condition of the case?
  3. Opportunities: What opportunities exist for this “case” as s/he/it moves forward?
  4. Threats: What potential threats could undermine the current condition?
Do's Don'ts
  • choose a case and question in which you have a strong interest
  • go into your case study with any pre-conceived ideas - it can invalidate your results
  • keep careful records of the data collected. It will need to be reported in detail in your results section, if your study is to be valid
  • orm questionnaires only to get the answers you want. Lack of interest will impact your design, your instruments, and your analysis 

Common Mistakes

  • Instruments may have flaws and biases. The best means of preventing this is to get a second opinion from an expert – a professor or advisor
  • Researchers may get “caught up” in their “cases” and lose sight of the initial question they asked. All results and conclusions must be directly related to the question and nothing else.

Some Final Key Points to Consider

  1. Be certain that your format and structure meets your professor’s specifications
  2. Be certain that your grammar and composition is impeccable. This is a scholarly piece of writing and must meet high expectations.
  3. Be certain that your conclusions are practical and useful for others.

If done right, a case study can be fascinating, as well as a great learning experience for you.

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