A case study is a research design or method of analysis that seeks to investigate an individual, group, or phenomenon. It lays out key themes and results to understand past and future trends, and aims to explain a problem with more clarity.
Often, a case study examines in detail a single subject to arrive at a clear understanding of the matter. It can include a comparative investigation to show relationships between two or more subjects.
Before you begin to write your case study, read this guide to help you prepare and understand how to do it properly and effectively.
Step 1: Determine the topic of your study.
Identify what you would like to investigate. What issues have you discussed in class? Is there something currently trending on social media or in the news that is of interest to you? Once you decide upon a subject, do further research and interviews to narrow down your focus. Look for information in books, magazines, newspapers, and online journals. Remember to take as many notes as you can as you go along and keep a list of all your resource materials. (You will need this list when citing your references at the end of your study.)
Determine whether anyone has done the same study in the past; this will allow you to refine your work or find a different angle. Reviewing similar studies will provide style and investigative ideas that you might like to try on your own.
Step 2: Choose your study type.
There are four types of case studies, depending on your goal and purpose. These include:
- Illustrative – An illustrative (or descriptive) study uses one or two instances of an event or phenomenon to give readers a clearer overall picture. It aims to give readers a common language and understanding about the given topic.
- Exploratory – Exploratory (or pilot) case studies aim to find patterns in the data gathered and create a model for easier visualization of that data. They rely on a pre-existing collection of information from which to make an interpretation. The main goal of an exploratory study is to identify questions and select methods of measurement prior to the main investigation.
- Cumulative – A cumulative study combines information from several sources gathered at different times for greater generalization. This reduces costs and time spent on repetitive studies.
- Critical instance – The purpose of this study is to examine one or more situations to scrutinize a generalized or universal assumption. Critical instance case studies are typically used in cause and effect situations.
Step 3: Have a clear structure and style.
A case study seeks to discover new understandings about a particular issue. It can also contribute to an existing body of knowledge. Therefore, your work should have a clear and organized structure and writing style.
Here are some key elements to take note of as you begin writing your study:
Introduction – The introduction captures the scope and purpose of your idea; it addresses why and how the case will address the chosen topic. When writing your introduction, try to answer these four questions:
- What am I studying? Describe the subject of analysis. Briefly explain what elements of the case will help broaden knowledge about it.
- Why is it important to investigate this topic? Explain the significance of your research issue. Describe why you believe your study design and subject of analysis are essential in understanding the chosen topic.
- What was presently known before this study was conducted? Give your readers the background information they need to understand why you are writing this study. Describe how your case will prove useful in exploring new knowledge about the topic at hand.
- How will this study advance further knowledge? Describe why your case study will provide new ways of understanding your topic and how it will expand currently documented knowledge.
These questions should be answered in a few paragraphs. (If you are addressing a complex problem, more elaborate background information is required.)
Literature Review – A literature review includes a historical interpretation of your subject. Background information included here should be well-organized to help your readers better understand the issue.
Here are some tips for writing a solid literature review:
- Cite and summarize studies that used a similar subject of analysis to tackle a research problem.
- Include a description of any recent work that supports your analysis and the questions you are asking.
- Explain how it introduces new ideas that can pave the way for future research, or how it provides a new understanding.
- Synthesize or combine any literature that pertains to unanswered questions and unresolved concerns about the topic. Describe how your subject of analysis will help address these concerns.
Method – In this section, explain your reasons for selecting the topic and the strategy used in answering research questions. Descriptions of the method can vary according to the type of analysis in which your case study is framed.
The four subjects of analysis and how to describe your method according to each subject are:
- Incident/event – The incident looks at a rare happening in order to find new ways of thinking about the broader problem or to test a hypothesis. For a case study about a critical incident, describe the method used to highlight the event. Explain how you determined the validity of the case to discover broader perspectives or new findings with respect to the research.
- Person – Describe why you chose to focus on this individual. What experience does he or she have that provides an opportunity to promote new knowledge? Include the person’s background information; this will help readers understand the importance of his/her experiences to your study. (When mentioning more than one person, clearly differentiate them from others and explain how they are useful to your research.)
- Place – Describe the essential attributes of the place or arena in which the topic exists (physical, social, economic, cultural, political, etc.). Explain the method used for choosing this place and how it sheds light on new knowledge. Clearly establish why it has been chosen as the topic.
- Phenomenon – Any fact or circumstance that can be observed or studied but is not clearly understood can be a phenomenon. In social and behavioral sciences, this may focus on human interaction within a complex social, economic, cultural, or physical setting.
Discussion – The discussion section should focus on interpreting and drawing conclusions about the significant findings you’ve gathered. This section should have the following objectives:
- State the major findings – Restate why you focused on the research problem or subject of analysis. In a declarative, straightforward, and succinct statement, describe your findings. Emphasize unexpected data and present it clearly.
- Explain the essence of the findings – Describe the meaning of your findings and why they are significant. Start with the most important or unexpected findings and review each one.
- Link the findings to similar existing studies – Acknowledge the relationship of your findings to that of prior studies, especially if your subject of analysis was inspired by others. Comparing and contrasting helps to establish the importance of your results and differentiates your analysis from previous research.
- Identify the limitations of your study – Explain the limitations of your study as well as any unanswered questions that could not be addressed (or why they are not significant).
- Suggest areas for future research – Lead the way for future research on your topic. There may be additional questions related to the topic that can lend themselves to further investigation.
Conclusion – Using direct, simple language, summarize your conclusion and highlight how your results differ from or strengthen the conclusion of previous studies. Synthesize the key findings and clearly state how they answer the research questions.
Writing a case study requires time and a great deal of research. If you are unsure of how to get started, consider hiring a writing professional.
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