The Process of Researching A Case Study

You are ready to start researching your case study. You have your topic and your hypothesis. What is next? It is time to start researching for your case study. This research can include many different things, but usually focuses on interviews and observations.

The heart of the case study is the research notebook. Every researcher must have a physical notebook to record all finding, notes and observations. While some computer programs and other technological advances can be used, nothing can replace the original research notebook.

Preliminary Research

Once you have chosen your topic, you must do preliminary research to determine whether the topic is viable or not. To do this, you can review newspapers, databases, industry websites, and other previously published case studies. With some topics you might even want to discuss your idea with other people in your field.

You must be certain that you have access to enough information to accurately determine whether or not the topic is viable. It is always a good idea to have one or two backup ideas in the event your first idea doesn't pan out.

Once you have your topic, you must choose which perspective the story should be told.

  • From what perspective will the reader see the case?

  • Who is the decision maker in the case?

  • When will the story begin and when will it end?

You want the case study to be a readable story, so you want to make sure you include enough background so the reader is invested in the story and the study. You want to include enough background that your readers get invested in the story, but not so much they are overwhelmed with too much information.

Make a Timeline

Constructing a timeline is the next step. This timeline should list all events in chronological order, and can be several pages long. However, it will help both you and the reader to understand the time frame, and be able to keep the people and events straight. It can be easy to forget what happened and when without a detailed timeline.

It is also important to set your own timeline. When do you want the case study completed by? If you have one year to complete the study, you must determine how much time you have to conduct background information, do interviews, have time to analyze the findings, and writing the report. Using a timeline can help you stay on task.

Detail Key Players in the Study

Make a list of all the important people in the study, and list them alphabetically using their name and role in the study. You will need to explain to your readers who each person is, and what their background is.

For example, the "Genie" case study has very heavy background information for all of people related to Genie. Her immediate family, her father, mother, and brother all have extremely detailed backgrounds, as that information is essential to Genie's story.

The background information about Genie's father went back to his childhood, as researchers wanted to know what caused her father to be so abusive. Same for her mother, researchers wanted to know why exactly she was willing to sit by and allow her husband to abuse Genie.

When the researchers obtained all this information, they did so with some paper research, but mostly interviews. Since Genie's father committed suicide soon after she was discovered, they were unable to interview him. Therefore, they had to interview those who knew of him. Researchers were surprised to find that most people who knew Genie's father had no idea that he even had a daughter.

Identify Critical Issues

List all critical issues in the case, and rank them based on importance. This information is for you, the researcher, and not your reader. Next to each issue write why the issue is important, and why it is necessary for the study.

Check off each issue as you handle them, and list any resources attached to the issue. You must have a source for everything used in your study. Make sure each issue is accurate, and backed by verifiable research. If you cannot corroborate information, then you must cross it off of the list.

In the Genie case, there were many critical issues. The case study was about acquiring language skills, of which Genie had almost none of when found. The study was going to be an attempt to see whether Genie could acquire language skills as a teenager.

But the Genie case was not that simple. Yes there were language issues. But there were other serious issues as well, such as her behavior, medical issues, and emotional problems. All of these issues had o be identified and dealt with as the study progressed.

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Perform Background Research

If the case study is about a person or people, it will be necessary to research their backgrounds for any relevant information that could be useful in the study. This could include medical history, including medical history of the subject's family.

When performing research, you want to use basic academic research strategies. This includes knowing the difference between primary and secondary research.

Primary research – Primary research is original research done by the researcher. This means that the research is new, and doesn't appear in any other case study.

Secondary research – Secondary research is research done by reading publications from other experts in your field. This research can be used to reach conclusions on your own ideas.

Performing Obtrusive Observation

In case studies that use human subjects, you cannot overtly "spy" on your subjects. This means you must use obtrusive observation, which means your subjects are aware that you are observing them.

In this type of study, you can speak with your subjects and make them feel comfortable about the study. Just remember that your presence will affect your subject's behavior, regardless of the type of relationship you have with them.

The best way to observe your subjects in less inhibited behavior is to establish trust with them. You want to be friendly, while not becoming too close. You want to maintain a level of professionalism. Also, people will be less inhibited in natural environments, such as their home or workplace.

Using questionnaires are a great way to conduct obtrusive research. Your subjects will know they are being watched, but it is an easy way to obtain general information.

Take Notes!

When conducting any type of research, it is essential to take as many notes as possible. When possible, some researchers use a tape recorder and speak their observations. This usually isn't possible with observational research, so you will have to take extensive notes.

In some cases, you might need to ask your participants to keep diaries so they can record their personal experiences.

With the Genie case, all of her sessions were videotaped, and in some instances, other researchers sat in on her sessions. Her mother gave authorization for the sessions to be videotaped, but in retrospect, many child development specialists and other professionals had an issue with the ethics surrounding the videotaping.

The researchers who would sit in on the sessions would write down all observations about Genie, such as how she looked, her behavior, whether she was ill, and how she was responding to the interviews done by the lead researcher. They would also record observations of the main researcher. For instance, if the main researcher was tired or ill, did that affect how they worked with Genie that day. Since the Genie case couldn't be ethically recreated, it was important that every possible observation be made.

The Interview Process

This is often the backbone of the case study, and the single most important way to get information from your study participants. Depending on the size of the study, interviews could be conducted weekly or monthly. You will want to use the questions you developed in the planning stage, and then dig deeper if necessary.

When asking questions to your subjects, keep your focus on the following:

1. Describe the experience – When interviewing the subject ask them what it's like to participate in the study.

2. Describe the meaning – When interviewing the subject ask them what the study means to them, and what, if anything, they will take from the experience.

3. The focus – As the interview progresses be certain to keep the focus on the study, while keeping an open mind to any newly developing questions or ideas.

When asking questions, you want a balance of open-ended and close-ended questions. For example, a researcher studying PTSD in veterans could have the following set of questions:

1. Which event of war did you find most upsetting when they happened?

2. When you have nightmares, what are they about?

3. Based on a scale of 1-10, where do you rank the sound of gunfire?

4. Based on a scale on 1-10, where do you rank the image of an injured child?

5. When you think of an injured child, how do you feel?

As you can see, these questions require the subject to speak about his experiences, but some questions are quantitative, such as ranking triggers on a scale of 1-10.

Stay Rigorous!

Case studies are not as data-driven as medical or scientific trials or large studies. But that doesn't mean you can lose or relax attention to detail. The study methodology must remain strict.

If you have multiple interview subjects, make sure you spend equal time with all subjects. You may find yourself drawn to certain subjects, especially if their results are helping or proving your case. However, keep interviewing and observing your typical subjects as well. You won't be able to judge the veracity of their responses until after the interview period is over, and you begin to review you notes.

Collecting and Analyzing Data

Once the interviews have been completed, it is time to analyze all of the information you gained during the interview process. How you do this will depend on how many people you interviewed, and the depth and length of those interviews.

Key Term

Qualitative Data

Qualitative data is a measurement expressed in terms of language, not numbers. Data expressed in numbers is called quantitative data.

There are two main ways to analyze qualitative data, and these are deductive and inductive.

The deductive method uses structured and predetermined framework to analyze the data. This means the researcher sets the standards using his own ideas or theories, and uses them to analyze the interview transcripts.

This type of approach is best for situations when the researcher is already aware of possible subject responses. For example, if veterans state that certain wartime activities cause PTSD, the researcher may know which activities these are. When it comes to analyzing the data, the researcher can completed the data assessment marking which veteran experienced which negative wartime activity.

The deductive method can also be faulty, especially if the researcher doesn't do enough background research. If the researcher has never been to war, or fought combat, there are things that occur that the researcher may not be privy to. Without knowing this, the researcher could be leaving out a major trigger of PTSD.

The inductive method analyzes data based on zero predetermined notions. A researcher using this method goes into the study blind, and uses the data obtained in the study to determine the solutions.

For example, a researcher studying the triggers for PTSD would conduct all of the interviews, and then use the results to determine what was the biggest trigger. Some vets may say that gunfire is a trigger; others might say that seeing an injured child is a trigger. The researcher will record every possible trigger mentioned by the vets, and then will mark down each time of the vets mentioned the particular trigger.

The inductive method is the most common form of data analysis used in case studies.