Like children in a sweetshop, researchers are often spoilt for choice when it comes to determining which tools to use to address a research question. This includes an array of quantitative and qualitative research tools, ranging from desk-based literature reviews to in-depth case studies. Given the time and cost restraints of many projects the more in-depth methods are often perceived as time consuming and frequently dismissed. Based on my experience, here are my thoughts on the value and challenges of including case studies in social research.
Case studies are an in-depth investigation of one particular individual, group, time-period or event. They encompass a range of qualitative and quantitative research tools to investigate underlying principles of an occurrence within a real-life context.
For example, last year, Changeworks was commissioned to undertake research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with the purpose of exploring whether or not district heating in UK social housing is delivering against its affordability and sustainability goals. The project gave us the opportunity to use eight case studies to support a wider literature review, a social housing provider survey and stakeholder interviews.
- Comprehensive. The most significant benefit of case studies is that they enable a holistic review. Unlike standalone research techniques which give more of a snapshot, eg surveys, a case study offers the opportunity for a researcher to use a range of tools on one subject. This gives time and space to build a detailed understanding of the topic, establishing a sound platform from which to explore the factors influencing the case study in greater detail.
- Reducing bias. Case studies capture a range of perspectives, as opposed to the single view of an individual you get with a survey response or interview. This gives the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the subject in hand and reduces the potential for any bias, by diluting the agenda of a particular individual. The methodology for the district heating case studies included face-to-face interviews with up to five members of staff from relevant social housing departments and external organisations where third party management organisations were used. The methodology also featured in-depth technical and financial analysis and a focus group with residents from each of the case study schemes.
- Wider relevance. A common criticism of the case study is that the findings can’t be generalised. However, we’ve found when they’re part of broader research a case study can look to explore common problems in greater detail. In the district heating research we used the broader background research to identify areas of particular interest and then used the case studies to further investigate the causes and impacts. Furthermore, the case study participants were carefully selected to ensure a good spread of locations, technologies and management arrangements.
- Permissions. In social research, maintaining participants’ anonymity helps to provide a true picture of what is happening. Studies have shown that participants are more open with the research team in situations where they are confident that their identity will not be disclosed1. However maintaining anonymity can be challenging given the detailed nature of the case study. For in-depth case studies it may be appropriate to seek confirmation that the lead participant agrees that the material is anonymous and accurate, enabling confidence on both the part of the researcher and the participant. However the process of gaining permission can take time and result in additional iterations of the published research.
- Time. Case studies can be time consuming. Planning multiple interviews, waiting to receive data and possibly co-ordinating focus groups can take a considerable amount of time. Especially if you are relying on a case study participant who is often acting in a voluntary capacity and busy fulfilling their day to day tasks. Yet these issues can be overcome by offering participants incentives, outlining what is required from the participant at the outset and sending notification of deadlines well in advance.
I believe that case studies enable a researcher to gain a more detailed, un-biased understanding of a complex situation, through the use of a range of research tools. This real-life view, places the research organisation in a stronger position to confidently recommend practical solutions to challenges. While there are some difficulties associated with the delivery of case studies, these can be overcome through forward planning, background research and informed participant selection.
If you’re interested in commissioning a piece of research, or to discuss how research can help inform your project, please get in touch with me. You can also read our report to find out more about the case studies that featured in our latest district heating research.
- Ong, A. D. and Weiss, D. J. (2000), The Impact of Anonymity on Responses to Sensitive Questions1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30: 1691–1708. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02462.x