Illustrative Structures for Case Study Compositions

The chapters, sections, subtopics, and other components of a report must be organized in some way, and this constitutes your case study report’s composi­tional structure. Attending to such structure has been a topic of attention with other methodologies. For instance, L. Kidder and Judd (1986, pp. 430-431) write of the “hourglass” shape of a report for quantitative studies. Similarly, in ethnography, John Van Maanen (1988) has developed the concept of “tales” for reporting fieldwork results. He identifies several different types of tales: realist tales, confessional tales, impressionist tales, critical tales, formal tales, literary tales, and jointly told tales. These different types may be used in dif­ferent combinations in the same report.

Alternatives also exist for structuring case study reports. This section sug­gests six illustrative structures (see Figure 6.1) that may be used with any type of case study formats just described. The illustrations are described mainly in relation to the composition of a single-case study, although the principles are readily translatable into multiple-case reports. As a further note and as indi­cated in Figure 6.1, the first three are all applicable to descriptive, exploratory, and explanatory case studies. The fourth is applicable mainly to exploratory and explanatory case studies, the fifth to explanatory cases, and the sixth to descriptive cases.

1. Linear-Analytic Structures

This is a standard approach for composing research reports. The sequence of subtopics starts with the issue or problem being studied and a review of the relevant prior literature. The subtopics then proceed to cover the methods used, the findings from the data collected and analyzed, and the conclusions and implications from the findings.

Most journal articles in experimental science reflect this type of structure, as do many case studies. The structure is comfortable to most investigators and probably is the most advantageous when research colleagues or a thesis or dissertation committee comprise the main audience for a case study. Note that the structure is applicable to explanatory, descriptive, or exploratory case stud­ies. For example, an exploratory case may cover the issue or problem being explored, the methods of exploration, the findings from the exploration, and the conclusions (for further research).

2. Comparative Structures

A comparative structure repeats the same case study two or more times, com­paring alternative descriptions or explanations of the same case. This is best exemplified in Graham Allison’s (1971) noted case study on the Cuban missile crisis (see Chapter 1, BOX 1). In this book, the author repeats the “facts” of the case study three times, each time in relation to a different conceptual model. The purpose of the repetition is to show the degree to which the facts fit each model, and the repetitions actually illustrate a pattern-matching technique at work.

A similar approach can be used even if a case study is serving descriptive, and not explanatory, purposes. The same case can be described repeatedly, from dif­ferent points of view or with different descriptive models, to understand how the case might best be categorized for descriptive purposes—similar to arriving at the correct diagnosis for a clinical patient in psychology. Of course, other vari­ants of the comparative approach are possible, but the main feature is that the entire case study (or the results of a cross-case analysis when doing a multiple- case study) is repeated two or more times, in an overtly comparative mode.

3. Chronological Structures

Because case studies generally cover events over time, a third type of approach is to present the case study evidence in chronological order. Here, the sequence of chapters or sections might follow the early, middle, and late phases of a case history. This approach can serve an important purpose in doing explanatory case studies because presumed causal sequences must occur linearly over time. If a presumed cause of an event occurs after the event has occurred, one would have reason to question the initial causal proposition.

Whether for explanatory or descriptive purposes, a chronological approach has one pitfall to be avoided: giving disproportionate attention to the early events and insufficient attention to the later ones. Most commonly, an investi­gator will expend too much effort in composing the introduction to a case, including its early history and background, and leave insufficient time to write about the current status of the case. Yet, much of the interest in the case may be related to the more recent events. Thus, one recommendation when using a chronological structure is to draft the case study backward. Those chapters or sections that are about the current status of the case should be drafted first, and only after these drafts have been completed should the background to the case be drafted. Once all drafts have been completed, you can then return to the nor­mal chronological sequence in then refining the final version of the case study.

4. Theory-Building Structures

In this approach, the sequence of chapters or sections will follow some theory-building logic. The logic will depend on the specific topic and theory, but each chapter or section should reveal a new part of the theoretical argu­ment being made. If structured well, the entire sequence and its unfolding of key ideas can produce a compelling and impressive case study.

The approach is relevant to both explanatory and exploratory case studies, both of which can be concerned with theory building. Explanatory cases will be examining the various facets of a causal argument; exploratory cases will be debating the value of further investigating various hypotheses or propositions.

5. Suspense Structures

This structure inverts the linear-analytic structure described previously. The direct “answer” or outcome of a case study and its substantive significance is, paradoxically, presented in the initial chapter or section. The remainder of the case study—and its most suspenseful parts—are then devoted to the develop­ment of an explanation of this outcome, with alternative explanations consid­ered in the ensuing chapters or sections.

This type of approach is relevant mainly to explanatory case studies, as a descriptive case study has no especially important outcome. When used well, the suspense approach is often an engaging compositional structure.

6. Unsequenced Structures

An unsequenced structure is one in which the sequence of sections or chapters assumes no particular importance. This structure is often sufficient for descriptive case studies, as in the example of Middletown (Lynd & Lynd, 1929), cited in Chapters 2 and 3 (BOXES 8 and 14). Basically, one could change the order of the chapters in that book and not alter its descriptive value.

Descriptive case studies of organizations often exhibit the same characteris­tic. Such case studies use separate chapters or sections to cover an organiza­tion’s genesis and history, its ownership and employees, its product lines, its formal lines of organization, and its financial status. The particular order in which these chapters or sections is presented is not critical and may therefore be regarded as an unsequenced approach (see BOX 43 for another example).

BOX 43

Unsequenced Chapters, but in a Best-Selling Book

A best-selling book, appealing to both popular and academic audiences, was Peters and Waterman’s (1982) In Search of Excellence. Although the book is based on more than 60 case studies of America’s most successful large businesses, the text contains only the cross-case analysis, each chapter covering an insightful set of general char­acteristics associated with organizational excellence. However, the particular sequence of these chapters is alterable. The book would have made a significant contribution even if the chapters were in some other order.

If an unsequenced structure is used, the investigator does need to attend to one other problem: a test of completeness. Thus, even though the order of the chapters or sections may not matter, the overall collection does. If certain key topics are left uncovered, the description may be regarded as incomplete. An investigator must know a topic well enough—or have related models of case studies to reference—to avoid such a shortcoming. If a case study fails to pre­sent a complete description, the investigator can be accused of having assembled a skewed version of the case—even though the case study was only descriptive.

Source: Yin K Robert (2008), Case Study Research Designs and Methods, SAGE Publications, Inc; 4th edition.

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