What Makes an Exemplary Case Study?

In all of case study research, one of the most challenging tasks is to define an exemplary case study. Although no direct evidence is available, some specula­tions seem an appropriate way of concluding this book.3

The exemplary case study goes beyond the methodological procedures already highlighted throughout this book. Even if you, as a case study investi­gator, have followed most of the basic techniques—using a case study protocol, maintaining a chain of evidence, establishing a case study database, and so on—you still may not have produced an exemplary case study. The mastering of these techniques makes you a good technician but not necessarily an esteemed social scientist. To take but one analogy, consider the difference between a chronicler and a historian: The former is technically correct but does not produce the insights into human or social processes provided by the latter.

Five general characteristics of an exemplary case study are described below. They are intended to help your case study to be a lasting contribution to research.

EXERCISE 6.5 Defining a Good Case Study

Select a case study that you believe is one of the best you know (again, the selection can be from the BOXES in this book). What makes it a good case study? Why are such characteristics so infrequently found in other case stud­ies? What specific efforts might you make to emulate such a good case study?

1. The Case Study Must Be Significant

The first general characteristic may be beyond the control of many investi­gators. If an investigator has access to only a few “cases,” or if resources are extremely limited, the ensuing case study may have to be on a topic of only marginal significance. This situation is not likely to produce an exemplary case study. However, where choice exists, the exemplary case study is likely to be one in which

  • the individual case or cases are unusual and of general public interest,
  • the underlying issues are nationally important—either in theoretical terms or in policy or practical terms, or
  • your case meets both of the preceding conditions.

For instance, a single-case study may have been chosen because it was a revelatory case—that is, one reflecting some real-life situation that social scientists had not been able to study in the past. This revelatory case is in itself likely to be regarded as a discovery and to provide an opportunity for doing an exemplary case study. Alternatively, a critical case may have been chosen because of the desire to compare two rival propositions; if the propositions are at the core of a well-known debate in the literature—or reflect major differ­ences in public beliefs—the case study is likely to be significant. Finally, imagine the situation in which both discovery and theory development are found within the same case study, as in a multiple-case study in which each individual case reveals a discovery but in which the replication across cases also adds up to a significant theoretical breakthrough. This situation truly lends itself to the production of an exemplary case study.

In contrast to these promising situations, many students select nondistinc- tive cases or outmoded theoretical issues as the topics for their case studies. This situation can be avoided, in part, by doing better homework with regard to the existing body of research. Prior to selecting a case study, you should describe, in detail, the contribution to be made, assuming that the intended case study were to be completed successfully. If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, you might want to plan another case study.

2. The Case Study Must Be “Complete”

This characteristic is extremely difficult to describe operationally. However, a sense of completeness is as important in doing a case study as it is in defin­ing a complete series of laboratory experiments (or in completing a symphony or finishing a painting). All have the problem of defining the boundaries of the effort, but few guidelines are available.

For case studies, completeness can be characterized in at least three ways. First, the complete case is one in which the boundaries of the case—that is, the distinction between the phenomenon being studied and its context—are given explicit attention. If this is done only mechanically—for example, by declar­ing at the outset that only arbitrary time intervals or spatial boundaries will be considered—a nonexemplary case study is likely to result. The best way is to show, either through logical argument or the presentation of evidence, that as the analytic periphery is reached, the information is of decreasing relevance to the case study. Such testing of the boundaries can occur throughout the analytic and reporting steps in doing case studies.

A second way involves the collection of evidence. The complete case study should demonstrate convincingly that the investigator expended exhaustive effort in collecting the relevant evidence. The documentation of such evidence need not be placed in the text of the case study, thereby dulling its content. Footnotes, appendices, and the like will do. The overall goal, nevertheless, is to convince the reader that little relevant evidence remained untouched by the investigator, given the boundaries of the case study. This does not mean that the investigator should literally collect all available evidence—an impossible task—but that the critical pieces have been given “complete” attention. Such critical pieces, for instance, would be those representing rival propositions.

A third way concerns the absence of certain artifactual conditions. A case study is not likely to be complete if the study ended only because resources were exhausted, because the investigator ran out of time (when the semester ended), or because she or he faced other, nonresearch constraints. When a time or resource constraint is known at the outset of a study, the responsible inves­tigator should design a case study that can be completed within such con­straints, rather than reaching and possibly exceeding his or her limits. This type of design requires much experience and some good fortune. Nevertheless, these are the conditions under which an exemplary case study is likely to be produced. Unfortunately, if in contrast a severe time or resource constraint suddenly emerges in the middle of a case study, it is unlikely that the case study will become exemplary.

3. The Case Study Must Consider Alternative Perspectives

For explanatory case studies, one valuable approach is the consideration of rival propositions and the analysis of the evidence in terms of such rivals (see Chapter 5). The citing of rival claims or alternative perspectives also should be part of a good abstract for your case study (Kelly & Yin, 2007). Even in doing an exploratory or a descriptive case study, the examination of the evidence from different perspectives will increase the chances that a case study will be exemplary.

For instance, a descriptive case study that fails to account for different per­spectives may raise a critical reader’s suspicions. The investigator may not have collected all the relevant evidence and only may have attended to the evidence supporting a single point of view. Even if the investigator was not purposefully biased, different descriptive interpretations might not have been entertained, thereby presenting a one-sided case. To this day, this type of problem persists whenever studies of organizations appear to represent the perspectives of management and not workers, or when studies of social groups appear to be insensitive to issues of gender or multiculturalism, or when studies of youth programs appear to represent adult perspectives and ignore those of youths.

To represent different perspectives adequately, an investigator must seek those alternatives that most seriously challenge the assumptions of the case study. These perspectives may be found in alternative cultural views, different theories, variations among the stakeholders or decision makers who are part of the case study, or some similar contrasts. If sufficiently important, the alterna­tive perspectives can appear as alternative renditions covering the same case, using the comparative structure of composition described earlier in this chapter as one of seven possible structures. Less prominently but still invalu­able would be the presentation of alternative views as separate chapters or sections of the main case study (see BOX 46).

BOX 46

Adding Alternative Perspectives, Written by a
Case Study’s Participants, as Supplements to a Case Study

Edgar Schein’s (2003) single-case study tried to explain the demise of a computer firm that had been among the country’s top 50 corporations in size (see BOX 28, Chapter 5, p. 142). The contemporary nature of the case study meant that the firm’s former executives were still available to offer their own rendition of the firm’s fate. Schein supported his own explanation with much documentation and interview data, but he made his case study distinctive in another way: He also included sup­plementary chapters, each giving a key executive the opportunity to present his own rival explanation.

Many times, if an investigator describes a case study to a critical listener, the listener will immediately offer an alternative interpretation of the facts of the case. Under such circumstances, the investigator is likely to become defensive and to argue that the original interpretation was the only relevant or correct one. In fact, the exemplary case study anticipates these “obvious” alternatives, even advocates their positions as forcefully as possible, and shows—empiri­cally—the basis upon which such alternatives might be rejected.

4. The Case Study Must Display Sufficient Evidence

Although Chapter 4 encouraged investigators to create a case study data­base, the critical pieces of evidence for a case study must still be contained within the case study report. The exemplary case study is one that judiciously and effectively presents the most relevant evidence, so that a reader can reach an independent judgment regarding the merits of the analysis.

This selectiveness does not mean that the evidence should be cited in a biased manner—for example, by including only the evidence that supports an investigator’s conclusions. On the contrary, the evidence should be presented neutrally, with both supporting and challenging data. The reader should then be able to draw an independent conclusion about the validity of a particular interpretation. The selectiveness is relevant in limiting the report to the most critical evidence and not cluttering the presentation with supportive but sec­ondary information. Such selectiveness takes a lot of discipline among inves­tigators, who usually want to display their entire evidentiary base, in the (false) hope that sheer volume or weight will sway the reader. (In fact, sheer volume or weight will bore the reader.)

Another goal is to present enough evidence to gain the reader’s confi­dence that the investigator “knows” his or her subject. In doing a field study, for instance, the evidence presented should convince the reader that the investigator has indeed been in the field, made penetrating inquiries while there, and has become steeped in the issues about the case. A parallel goal exists in multiple-case studies: The investigator should show the reader that all of the single cases have been treated fairly and that the cross-case conclusions have not been biased by undue attention to one or a few of the entire array of cases.

Finally, the display of adequate evidence should be accompanied by some indication that the investigator attended to the validity of the evidence—in maintaining a chain of evidence, for example. This does not mean that all case studies need to be burdened with methodological treatises. A few judicious footnotes will serve the purpose. Alternatively, some words in the preface of the case study can cover the critical validating steps. Notes to a table or figure also will help. As a negative example, a figure or table that presents evidence without citing its source is an indication of sloppy research and cautions the reader to be more critical of other aspects of the case study. This is not a situ­ation that produces exemplary case studies.

5. The Case Study Must Be Composed in an Engaging Manner

One last global characteristic has to do with the composition of the case study report. Regardless of the medium used (a written report, an oral presen­tation, or some other form), the report should be engaging.

For written reports, this means a clear writing style, but one that con­stantly entices the reader to continue reading. A good manuscript is one that “seduces” the eye. If you read such a manuscript, your eye will not want to leave the page, and you will continue to read paragraph after paragraph, page after page, until exhaustion sets in. Anyone reading good fiction has had this experience. This type of seduction should be the goal in composing any case study report.

The production of such seductive writing calls for talent and experience. The more often that someone has written for the same audience, the more likely that the communication will be effective. However, the clarity of writ­ing also increases with rewriting, which is highly recommended. With the use of electronic writing tools, an investigator has no excuse for shortcutting the rewriting process.

Engagement, enticement, and seduction—these are unusual characteristics of case studies. To produce such a case study requires an investigator to be enthusiastic about the investigation and to want to communicate the results widely. In fact, the good investigator might even think that the case study con­tains earth-shattering conclusions. This sort of inspiration should pervade the entire investigation and will indeed lead to an exemplary case study.

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

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