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The Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies
 
 

Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies

There is no doubt that case studies are a valuable and important form of research for all of the industries and fields that use them. However, along with all their advantages, they also have some disadvantages. In this article we are going to look at both.

Advantages of Case Studies

Intensive Study

Case study method is responsible for intensive study of a unit. It is the investigation and exploration of an event thoroughly and deeply. You get a very detailed and in-depth study of a person or event. This is especially the case with subjects that cannot be physically or ethically recreated.

This is one of the biggest advantages of the Genie case. You cannot lock up a child for 13 years and deprive them of everything. That would be morally and ethically wrong in every single way. So when the opportunity presented itself, researchers could not look away. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about feral children.

Genie was a feral child. She was raised in completed isolation, with little human contact. Because of the abuse she withstood, she was unable to develop cognitively. From infancy she was strapped to a potty chair, and therefore never acquired the physicality needed for walking, running and jumping.

If Genie made a noise, her father beat her. Therefore, she learned to not make a noise. Once she was found, researchers studied her language skills, and attempted to find ways to get her to communicate. They were successful. While she never gained the ability to speak, she did develop other ways to communicate. However, the public soon lost interest in her case, and with that, the funds to conduct the study.

However, her case was extremely important to child development psychology and linguistic theory. Because of her, we know that mental stimulation is needed for proper development. We also now know that there is a "critical period" for the learning of language.

Developing New Research

Case studies are one of the best ways to stimulate new research. A case study can be completed, and if the findings are valuable, they can lead to new and advanced research in the field. There has been a great deal of research done that wouldn't have been possible without case studies.

An example of this is the sociological study Nickel and Dimed. Nickel and Dimed is a book and study done by Barbara Ehrenreich. She wanted to study poverty in America, and did so by living and working as a person living on minimum wage.

Through her experiment, she discovered that poverty was almost inescapable. As soon as she saved a little money, she was hit with a crisis. She might get sick, or her car might break down, all occurrences that can be destructive when a person doesn't have a safety net to fall back on.

It didn't matter where she lived or what she did. Working a minimum wage job gave her no chances for advancement or improvement whatsoever. And she did the experiment as a woman with no children to support.

This study opened a lot of eyes to the problem of the working poor in America. By living and working as the experiment, Ehrenreich was able to show first-hand data regarding the issues surrounding poverty. The book didn't end with any solutions, just suggestions for the reader and points for them to think about.

Using this case study information, new studies could be organized to learn better ways to help people who are fighting poverty, or better ways to help the working poor.

Contradicting Established Ideas or Theories

Oftentimes there are theories that may be questioned with case studies. For example, in the John/John case study, it was believed that gender and sexual identity were a construct of nurture, not nature.

John-John focused on a set of twin boys, both of whom were circumcised at the age of 6 months. One of the twin's circumcisions failed, causing irreparable damage to the penis. His parents were concerned about the sexual health of their son, so they contacted Dr. John Money for a solution.

Dr. Money believed that sexuality came from nurture, not nature, and that the injured baby, Bruce, could be raised as a girl. His penis was removed and he was sexually reassigned to become a girl. Bruce's name was changed to Brenda, and his parents decided to raise him as a girl.

In this case, Dr. Money was dishonest. He believed that gender could be changed, which has since been proven false. Brenda's parents were also dishonest, stating that the surgery was a success, when in fact that wasn't the case.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in How to Write Case Studies?

As Brenda grew up, she always acted masculine and was teased for it at school. She did not socialize as a girl, and did not identify as a female. When Brenda was 13 she learned the truth, and was incredibly relieved. She changed her name to David, and lived the rest of her life as a male.

This case proved that the general theory was wrong, and is still valuable, even though the study author was dishonest.

Giving New Insight

Case studies have the ability to give insight into phenomena that cannot be learned in any other way. An example of this is the case study about Sidney Bradford. Bradford was blind from the age of 10 months old, and regained his sight at the age of 52 from a corneal transplant.

This unique situation allowed researchers to better learn how perception and motion changes when suddenly given sight. They were able to better understand how colors and dimensions affect the human process. For what it is worth, Bradford continued to live and work with his eyes closed, as he found sight too stimulating.

Another famous study was the sociological study of Milgram.

Stanley Milgram did a study from 1960 to 1974 in which he studied the effects of social pressure. The study was set up as an independent laboratory. A random person would walk in, and agree to be a part of the study. He was told to act as a teacher, and ask questions to another volunteer, who was the learner.

The teacher would ask the learner questions, and whenever he answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give the learner an electric shock. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock would be increased by 15 volts. What the teacher didn't know was that the learner was a part of the experiment, and that no shocks were being given. However, the learner did act as if they were being shocked.

If the teachers tried to quit, they were strongly pushed to continue. The goal of the experiment was to see whether or not any of the teachers would go up to the highest voltage. As it turned out, 65% of the teachers did.

This study opened eyes when it comes to social pressure. If someone tells you it is okay to hurt someone, at what point will the person back off and say "this is not ok!" And in this study, the results were the same, regardless of income, race, gender or ethnicity.

This study opened up the sociological world of understanding the divide between social pressure and morality.

Disadvantages of Case Studies

Inability to Replicate

As demonstrated with the Genie case study, many studies cannot be replicated, and therefore, cannot be corroborated. Because the studies cannot be replicated, it means the data and results are only valid for that one person. Now, one could infer that that results of the Genie study would be the same with other feral children, without additional studies we can never be 100% certain.

Also, Genie was a white, American female. We do not know whether someone with a different gender, race or ethnicity would have a different result.

Key Term!

Hawthorne Effect

The effect in which people change their behavior when they are aware they are being observed.

Researcher Bias

When conducting a case study, it is very possible for the author to form a bias. This bias can be for the subject; the form of data collection, or the way the data is interpreted. This is very common, since it is normal for humans to be subjective. It is well known that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, was often biased in his case histories and interpretations.

The researcher can become close to a study participant, or may learn to identify with the subject. When this happens the researcher loses their perspective as an outsider.

No Classification

Any classification is not possible due to studying a small unit. This generalization of results is limited, since the study is only focusing on one small group. However, this isn't always a problem, especially if generalization is not one of the study's goals.

Time Intensive

Case studies can be very time consuming. The data collection process can be very intensive and long, and this is something new researchers are not familiar with. It takes a long period of time to develop a case study, and develop a detailed analysis.

Many studies also require the authors to immerse themselves in the case. For example, in the Genie case, the lead researchers spent an abnormal amount of time with Genie, since so few people knew how to handle her. David Rigler, one of the lead researchers, actually had Genie live with him and his family for years. Because of this attachment, many questioned the veracity of the study data.

Possibility of Errors

Case study method may have errors of memory or judgment. Since reconstructing case history is based on memory, this can lead to errors. Also, how one person perceived the past could be different for another person, and this can and does lead to errors.

When considering various aspects of their lives, people tend to focus on issues that they find most important. This allows them to form a prejudice and can make them unaware of other possible options.

Ethical Issues

With small studies, there is always the question of ethics. At what point does a study become unethical? The Genie case was riddled with accusations of being unethical, and people still debate about it today.

Was it ethical to study Genie as deeply as she was studied?

Did Genie deserve to live out her life unbothered by researchers and academics trying to use her case to potentially further their careers?

At what point does the pursuit of scientific knowledge outweigh the right to a life free from research?

Also, because the researchers became so invested in the study, people questioned whether a researcher would report unethical behavior if they witnessed it.

Advantages and Disadvantages in Real-Life Studies

Two of these case studies are the Tylenol Scandal and the Genie language study.

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of these two studies.

Genie – Advantages

Uniqueness of study – Being able to study a feral child is a rare occurrence.

Genie – Disadvantages

Ethics - The lead researcher David Rigler provided a home for Genie, and was paid for being a foster parent. This is often seen as unethical, since Rigler had a financial interest in Genie and her case.

Tylenol – Advantages

Uniqueness of study – What happened to Tylenol was very unique and rare. While companies face crisis all the time, a public health crisis of this magnitude is very unique.

Tylenol – Disadvantages

The main disadvantage is that the study cannot be recreated, and what happens in one industry, doesn't necessarily resonate in other industries.
 
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