Preparation and Training for a Specific Case Study

1. Human Subjects Protection

Some time between the completion of your design and the start of your data collection, you will need to show how you plan to protect the human subjects in your case study. You will need to obtain formal approval for your plan. Such approval should not merely be viewed as an oversight process, because you should always conduct all of your research with the highest ethical standard.

The specific need for protecting human subjects comes from the fact that nearly all case studies, like those covered by this book, are about contempo­rary human affairs. In this single manner, you and other social scientists differ from scientists who study physical, chemical, or other nonhuman systems or from historians who may be studying the “dead past.” The study of “a con­temporary phenomenon in its real-life context” obligates you to important ethical practices akin to those followed in medical research.

As part of the protection, you are responsible for conducting your case study with special care and sensitivity—going beyond the research design and other technical considerations covered throughout this book. The care usually involves

  • gaining informed consent from all persons who may be part of your case study, by alerting them to the nature of your case study and formally soliciting their volunteerism in participating in the study;
  • protecting those who participate in your study from any harm, including avoiding the use of any deception in your study;
  • protecting the privacy and confidentiality of those who participate so that, as a result of their participation, they will not be unwittingly put in any undesirable position, even such as being on a roster to receive requests to participate in some future study, whether conducted by you or anyone else; and
  • taking special precautions that might be needed to protect especially vulnerable groups (for instance, research involving children).

Exactly how you exercise the needed care and sensitivity will vary, depend­ing on your case study. General guidance comes from your own professional ethics. Professional research associations also promulgate their own standards for doing human subjects research, not just case studies (e.g., Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation, 1981). Most important, however, your institutional setting will have its own expectations, whether you are part of a university or of an independent research organization, and you need to fol­low its specific guidance.

In particular, every institution now has an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The board is charged with reviewing and approving all human subjects research before such research can proceed. The board’s review will cover the objectives of your study and how you plan to protect the human subjects that may be part of the study. Note that your interactions with the specific human subjects in your study take place through both direct contact (as in interviews) and the potential use of personal records (as in client records). Case studies present a more challenging situation than when using other research methods because these interactions are not necessarily as structured as with other methods (such as in administering a closed-ended questionnaire). The board will want to know such information as how you plan to interact with those being studied, the pro­tocols or data collection instruments you are planning to use, and how you will ensure such protections as informed consent and confidentiality.

As a result, the most imperative step before proceeding with your case study is to seek out the IRB at your institution, follow its guidance, and obtain its approval. The IRB’s concerns will vary from institution to institution and IRB to IRB. Do not hesitate to speak with a member or two of the IRB informally and ahead of time, to gain insight into the review process and its expectations.

2. Case Study Training as a Seminar Experience

Training also is a necessary step in doing case study research. The timing of the training, relative to the timing for seeking human subjects approval, will not always be linear. You need to have some data collection plans before seeking approval, but, as pointed out below, the finalization of the plans cannot occur until after the approval has been granted. The training activities described below may therefore take place over an extended period of time, as in a regular seminar.

For case study research, the key to understanding the needed training is to understand that every case study investigator must be able to operate as a “senior” investigator. Once you have started collecting data, you should think of yourself as an independent investigator who cannot rely on a rigid formula to guide your inquiry. You must be able to make intelligent decisions through­out the data collection process.

In this sense, training for a case study investigation actually begins with the definition of the questions being addressed and the development of the case study design. If these steps have been satisfactorily conducted, as described in Chapters 1 and 2, only minimal further effort may be needed, especially if there is only a single case study investigator.

However, it often happens that a case study investigation must rely on a case study team,2 for any of three reasons:

  1. a single case calls for intensive data collection at the same site, requiring a “team” of investigators (see BOX 14);
  2. a case study involves multiple cases, with different persons being needed to cover each site or to rotate among the sites (Stake, 2006, p. 21); or
  3. a combination of the first two conditions.

Under these circumstances, all team members should have contributed to the development of a draft case study protocol. This draft would then have been the version submitted for IRB approval, with the IRB-approved version subsequently being considered the final version of the protocol.

BOX 14

The Logistics of Field Research, Circa 1924-1925

Arranging schedules and gaining access to relevant sources of evidence are important to the management of a case study. The modern researcher may feel that these activities have only emerged with the growth of “big” social science during the 1960s and 1970s.

In a famous field study done decades ago, however, many of the same manage­ment techniques already had been practiced. The two principal investigators and their staff secretary opened a local office in the city they were studying. This office was used by other project staff for extended periods of time. From this vantage point, the research team participated in local life, examined documentary materials, compiled local statistics, conducted interviews, and distributed and collected ques­tionnaires. This extensive fieldwork resulted 5 years later in the publication of the now-classic study of small-town America, Middletown (1929), by Robert and Helen Lynd (also see BOX 8, Chapter 2, p. 48).

When multiple investigators or team members participate in the same case study, all need to learn to be “senior” investigators. Training takes the form of a seminar rather than didactic instruction. As in a seminar, much time has to be allowed for reading, preparing for the training, and holding the training. (See Figure 3.1 for an agenda of an illustrative training session.)

Typically, the seminar will cover all phases of the planned case study inves­tigation, including readings on the subject matter, the theoretical issues that led to the case study design, and case study methods and tactics. You might review examples of tools used in other case studies (see BOX 15), to add to the methodological portion of the training.

The goal of the training is to have all participants understand the basic concepts, terminology, and methodological issues relevant to the study. Each team member needs to know

  • why the study is being done,
  • what evidence is being sought,
  • what variations can be anticipated (and what should be done if such variations occur), and
  • what would constitute supportive or contrary evidence for any given proposition.

BOX 15

Reviewing the Tools and Methods Used in Other Case Studies, Circa the 21st Century

Web sites have provided new opportunities to access the tools and methods used in other case studies. For example, in online versions of articles, academic journals may reproduce supplementary materials that might not have appeared in the printed version of the article. For one case study, the supplementary materials included the formal case study protocol, case study coding book, evidentiary tables linking claims to sections of the case study database, and a list of documents in the case study database (Randolph & Eronen, 2007).

Discussions, rather than lectures, are the key part of the training effort, to ensure that the desired level of understanding has been achieved.

This seminar approach to case study training can be contrasted to the train­ing for other types of data collection—for example, group training for survey interviewers. The survey training does involve discussions, but it mainly emphasizes the questionnaire items or terminology to be used and takes place over an intensive but short period of time. Moreover, the survey training may not cover the global or conceptual concerns of the study, as interviewers may not need to have any broader understanding beyond the mechanics of the sur­vey instrument. Survey training rarely involves any outside reading about the substantive issues, and the survey interviewer generally does not know how the survey data are to be analyzed or what issues are to be investigated. Such an approach may feed the strengths of doing surveys but would be insufficient for case study training.

3. Protocol Development and Review

The next subsection will say more about the content of the case study pro­tocol. However, a legitimate and desirable training task is the understanding of the protocol by all of the case study investigators.

To reinforce such an understanding, each investigator or team member may be assigned one portion of the substantive topics covered by the protocol. Each investigator is then responsible for reviewing the appropriate reading materi­als related to the assigned portion, adding any other information that may be relevant, and leading a discussion that clarifies that portion of the protocol’s questions. In this manner, such an arrangement should ensure that each team member has mastered the content of the protocol.

4. Problems to Be Addressed

The training also has the purpose of uncovering problems within the case study plan or with the research team’s capabilities. If such problems do emerge, one consolation is that they will be more troublesome if they are not recognized until later, after the data collection begins. Good case study inves­tigators should therefore press to be certain, during the training period, that potential problems are brought into the open.

The most obvious problem is that the training may reveal flaws in the case study design or even the initial definition of the study questions. If this occurs, you must be willing to make the necessary revisions, even if more time and effort are necessary. Sometimes, the revisions will challenge the basic purpose of the investigation, as in a situation in which the original objective may have been to investigate a technological phenomenon, such as the use of personal computers, but in which the case study really turns out to be about an organi­zational phenomenon, such as poor supervision. Any revisions, of course, also may lead to the need to review a slightly different literature and to recast the entire study and its audience. You also should check your IRB’s procedures to see whether it will need to conduct a new human subjects review. Despite these unexpected developments, changing the basic premise of your case study is fully warranted if the training has demonstrated the unrealistic (or uninterest­ing) nature of the original plan.

A second problem is that the training may reveal incompatibilities among the investigating team—and in particular, the fact that some of the team members may not share the orientation of the project or its sponsors. In one multiple-case study of community organizations, for instance, team members varied in then- beliefs regarding the efficacy of such organizations (U.S. National Commission on Neighborhoods, 1979). When such biases are discovered, one way of deal­ing with the contrary orientations is to suggest to the team that contrary evi­dence will be respected if it is collected and verifiable. A team member still has the choice, of course, of continuing to participate in the study or deciding to drop out.

A third problem is that the training may reveal some impractical time deadlines or expectations regarding available resources. For instance, a case study may have assumed that 20 persons were to be contacted for open-ended interviews during a site visit, as part of the data collection. The training may have revealed, however, that the time needed for meeting with these persons is likely to be much longer than anticipated. Under such circumstances, any expectation for interviewing 20 persons would have to depend on revising the original data collection schedule.

Finally, the training may uncover some positive features, such as the fact that two or more team members have complementary skills and are able to work productively together. Such rapport and productivity during the training session may readily extend to the actual data collection period and may therefore sug­gest certain pairings for the fieldwork teams. In general, the training should have the effect of creating group norms for the ensuing data collection activity. This norm-building process is more than an amenity; it will help ensure sup­portive reactions, should unexpected problems arise during the data collection.

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

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