The Case Study Investigator: Desired Skills

Too many people are drawn to the case study strategy because they believe it is “easy.” Many social scientists—especially budding ones—think the case study strategy can be mastered without much difficulty. Their belief is that they will have to learn only a minimal set of technical procedures; that any of their own shortcomings in formal, analytic skills will be unimportant; and that a case study will allow them simply to “tell it like it is.” No belief could be farther from the truth.

In actuality, the demands of a case study on your intellect, ego, and emo­tions are far greater than those of any other research method. This is because the data collection procedures are not routinized. In laboratory experiments or in surveys, for instance, the data collection phase of a research project can be largely, if not wholly, conducted by one (or more) research assistant(s). The assistant is to carry out the data collection activities with a minimum of discretionary behavior, and in this sense, the activity is routinized—and analytically boring.

Conducting case studies offers no such parallel. Rather, a well-trained and experienced investigator is needed to conduct a high-quality case study because of the continuous interaction between the theoretical issues being studied and the data being collected. During data collection, only a more experienced investigator will be able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities rather than being trapped by them—and also will exercise sufficient care against potentially biased procedures.

Unfortunately, there are no tests for distinguishing those persons likely to become good case study investigators from those who are not. Compare this situation to that in mathematics or even a profession such as law. In math, people are able to score themselves for their abilities and to screen themselves from further advancement because they simply cannot carry out higher levels of math problems. To practice law, a person must pass the bar examination in a particular state. Again, many people screen themselves out of the field by failing to pass this test.

No such gatekeepers exist for assessing case study skills. However, a basic list of commonly required skills is as follows:

  • A good case study investigator should be able to ask good questions—and inter­pret the answers.
  • An investigator should be a good “listener” and not be trapped by her or his own ideologies or preconceptions.
  • An investigator should be adaptive and flexible, so that newly encountered situa­tions can be seen as opportunities, not threats.
  • An investigator must have a firm grasp of the issues being studied, even if in an exploratory mode. Such a grasp reduces the relevant events and information to be sought to manageable proportions.
  • A person should be unbiased by preconceived notions, including those derived from theory. Thus, a person should be sensitive and responsive to contradictory evidence.

Each of these attributes is described below. Any absence of these attributes is remediable, as anyone missing one or more of the skills can work on devel­oping them. But everyone must be honest in assessing her or his capabilities in the first place.

1. Asking Good Questions

More than with the other research methods discussed in Chapter 1, case studies require an inquiring mind during data collection, not just before or after the activity. The ability to pose and ask good questions is therefore a pre­requisite for case study investigators. The desired result is for the investigator to create a rich dialogue with the evidence, an activity that encompasses pondering the possibilities gained from deep familiarity with some aspect of the world, systematizing those ideas in relation to kinds of information one might gather, checking the ideas in the light of that information, dealing with the inevitable discrepancies between what was expected and what was found by rethinking the possibilities of getting more data, and so on. (Becker, 1998, p. 66)

Case study data collection does follow a formal protocol, but the specific information that may become relevant to a case study is not readily pre­dictable. As you collect case study evidence, you must quickly review the evi­dence and continually ask yourself why events or facts appear as they do. Your judgments may lead to the immediate need to search for additional evidence. If you are able to ask good questions throughout the data collection process, a good prediction is that you also will be mentally and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day. This depletion of analytic energy is far different from the experience in collecting experimental or survey data—that is, testing “subjects” or administering questionnaires. In these situations, data collection is highly routinized, and the data collector must complete a certain volume of work but exercise minimal discretionary behavior. Furthermore, any substan­tive review of the evidence does not come until some later time. The result is that such a data collector may become physically exhausted but will have been mentally untested after a day of data collection.

One insight into asking good questions is to understand that research is about questions and not necessarily about answers. If you are the type of per­son for whom one tentative answer immediately leads to a whole host of new questions, and if these questions eventually aggregate to some significant inquiry about how or why the world works as it does, you are likely to be a good asker of questions.

2. Being a Good “Listener”

For case studies, “listening” means receiving information through multiple modalities—for example, making keen observations or sensing what might be going on—not just using the aural modality. Being a good listener means being able to assimilate large amounts of new information without bias. As an interviewee recounts an incident, a good listener hears the exact words used by the interviewee (sometimes, the terminology reflects an important orienta­tion), captures the mood and affective components, and understands the con­text from which the interviewee is perceiving the world.

The listening skill also needs to be applied to the inspection of documentary evidence, as well as to observations of real-life situations. In reviewing docu­ments, listening takes the form of worrying whether there is any important message between the lines; any inferences, of course, would need to be cor­roborated with other sources of information, but important insights may be gained in this way. Poor “listeners” may not even realize that there can be information between the lines. Other listening deficiencies include having a closed mind or simply having a poor memory.

3. Exercising Adaptiveness and Flexibility

Few case studies will end up exactly as planned. Inevitably, you will have to make minor if not major changes, ranging from the need to pursue an unex­pected lead (potentially minor) to the need to identify a new “case” for study (potentially major). The skilled investigator must remember the original pur­pose of the investigation but then must be willing to adapt procedures or plans if unanticipated events occur (see BOX 13).

BOX 13

Maintaining Flexibility in Designing a Case Study

Peter Blau’s study of behavior in large government agencies (The Dynamics of Bureaucracy, 1955) is still valued for its insights into the relationship between the formal and informal organization of work groups, even over 50 years later.

Although his study focused on two government agencies, that was not Blau’s initial design. As the author notes, he first intended to study a single orga­nization and later switched to a plan to compare two organizations—a public one and a private one (Blau, 1955, pp. 272-273). However, his initial attempts to gain access to a private firm were unsuccessful, and in the meanwhile, he had developed a stronger rationale for comparing two government agencies but of different kinds.

These shifts in the initial plans are examples of the kinds of changes that can occur in the design of a case study. Blau’s experience shows how a skilled investigator can take advantage of changing opportunities, as well as shifts in theoretical concerns, to produce a classic case study.

When a shift is made, you must maintain an unbiased perspective and acknowledge those situations in which, in fact, you may have inadvertently begun to pursue a totally new investigation. When this occurs, many com­pleted steps—including the initial design of the case study—must be repeated and redocumented. One of the worst complaints about the conduct of case study research is that investigators change directions without knowing that their original research design was inadequate for the revised investigation, thereby leaving unknown gaps and biases. Thus, the need to balance adaptive­ness with rigor—but not rigidity—cannot be overemphasized.

4. Having a Firm Grasp of the Issues Being Studied

The main way of staying on target, of course, is to understand the purpose of the case study investigation in the first place. Each case study investigator must understand the theoretical or policy issues because analytic judgments have to be made throughout the data collection phase. Without a firm grasp of the issues, you could miss important clues and would not know when a devi­ation was acceptable or even desirable. The point is that case study data col­lection is not merely a matter of recording data in a mechanical fashion, as it is in some other types of research. You must be able to interpret the informa­tion as it is being collected and to know immediately, for instance, if several sources of information contradict one another and lead to the need for addi­tional evidence—much like a good detective.

In fact, the detective role offers some keen insights into case study field­work. Note that the detective arrives on a scene after a crime has occurred and is basically being called upon to make inferences about what actually transpired. The inferences, in turn, must be based on convergent evidence from witnesses and physical evidence, as well as some unspecifiable element of common sense. Finally, the detective may have to make inferences about multiple crimes, to determine whether the same perpetrator committed them. This last step is similar to the replication logic underlying multiple- case studies.

5. Avoiding Bias

All of the preceding conditions will be negated if an investigator seeks only to use a case study to substantiate a preconceived position. Case study inves­tigators are especially prone to this problem because they must understand the issues beforehand (see Becker, 1958, 1967). You also may have selected the case study method to enable you (wrongly) to pursue or (worse yet) advocate particular issues.1 In contrast, the traditional research assistant, though mech­anistic and possibly even sloppy, is not likely to introduce a substantive bias into the research.

One test of this possible bias is the degree to which you are open to contrary findings. For example, researchers studying “nonprofit” organizations may be surprised to find that many of these organizations have entrepreneurial and capitalistic motives (even though the organizations don’t formally make prof­its). If such findings are based on compelling evidence, the conclusions of the case study would have to reflect these contrary findings. To test your own tol­erance for contrary findings, report your preliminary findings—possibly while still in the data collection phase—to two or three critical colleagues. The col­leagues should offer alternative explanations and suggestions for data collec­tion. If the quest for contrary findings can produce documentable rebuttals, the likelihood of bias will have been reduced.

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

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