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What is a Case Study research design and how the doctoral candidates should develop it?

A case study research design is a qualitative research method that involves an in-depth and detailed examination of a particular case or instance within its real-life context. The case can be an individual, a group, an event, an organization, or any other unit of analysis. The aim of a case study is to provide a thorough understanding of the complexities and dynamics of the chosen case. A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation. Case study research designs are widely used in various fields, including social sciences, business, education, and healthcare, among others. They offer a valuable method for investigating complex phenomena, generating detailed insights, and contributing to a deeper understanding of real-world situations. I, myself used a Case Study research design for my doctoral dissertation and deeply understand the basics of case study research design.

Setting the stage

During the course of my ‘Qualitative Research Design and Methods’ Class with the Ph.D students, I asked them to tell me about the research areas, they want to be discussed, taught and understood thoroughly, deeply and rigorously.  The reply was “Research Design”.  I started working on it much more diligently and scrupulously.  This blog post is aimed at sharing my understanding of the Case Study research design with novice researchers, doctoral candidates and Ph.D scholars to help them develop better understand and generate deep insight about it.

This detailed and a comprehensive write-up covers the following important topics:

  1. What is a Case Study?
  2. Why is it called Case Study?
  3. Who is the father of the Case Study?
  4. Is a Case Study individual or group?
  5. What are the characteristics of a Case Study design?
  6. What are the types of Case Studies?
  7. Importance of Case Study research design
  8. What are the components/parts of a Case Study design?
  9. What is the main purpose of a Case Study research design?
  10. Strengths and weakness of Case Study research design
  11. What research philosophy suits Case Study research?

 The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. There are multiple ways to define case study research, reflecting the diverse applications and interpretations of this qualitative research method. Here are a few definitions:

What is a Case Study?

To begin with, a Case Study is a detailed examination of a specific subject, such as a person, group, event, or situation. It involves a thorough analysis of the chosen case, considering various factors, contexts, and details to gain a deep understanding. Case Studies are often used to explore real-life scenarios, providing rich insights into complexities and contributing to a broader understanding of the subject under investigation.

According to Merriam (1988), “A case study is an in-depth study of a particular qualitative case, designed to bring out aspects of interest, uniqueness, or complexity. It involves an intensive, prolonged engagement with a case and its context, providing a detailed account and analysis.”

To Yin (2018), “A case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and context are not clearly evident. It relies on multiple sources of evidence and benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions to guide data collection and analysis.”

Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner (1984) believed, “The detailed examination of a single example of a class of phenomena, a case study cannot provide reliable information about the broader class, but it may be useful in the preliminary stages of an investigation since it provides hypotheses, which may be tested systematically with a larger number of cases”.

Stake (1995) was of the view, “A case study is the study of the particularity and complexity of a single case, coming to understand its activity within important circumstances.” whereas according to Creswell (2014), “A case study is an exploration of a ‘bounded system’ or a case (or multiple cases) over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information rich in context.”

Flyvbjerg (2011) argued,  “A case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and context are not clearly evident and in which multiple sources of evidence are used.”

In essence, a case study is a research method that involves an in-depth examination of a specific case or instance to gain a comprehensive understanding of its complexities, dynamics, and context. Researchers use various qualitative data collection methods to explore the unique characteristics of the case and often aim to provide rich, detailed descriptions and interpretations. The case study approach is particularly valuable when studying complex, unique, or context-dependent phenomena.

Why is it called a Case Study?

The term “case study” originates from the field of law, where the analysis of legal cases has long been a common practice. In the context of research and academia, the term was adopted to describe an in-depth examination of a particular instance, situation, or phenomenon.

The name “case study” reflects the approach’s focus on investigating and analyzing a specific case or instance in detail. The word “case” in this context refers to a particular occurrence, individual, group, event, or situation that is selected for thorough examination. The study involves a comprehensive exploration of this chosen case within its natural context.

The choice of the term “case study” emphasizes the method’s intent to deeply explore and understand the intricacies, complexities, and unique aspects of a specific case. It implies that the research involves a detailed investigation of a real-life scenario, offering insights and lessons that may be applicable beyond the individual case itself.

Over time, the term has become widely adopted across various disciplines, including psychology, sociology, business, medicine, and education, to describe a qualitative research method that involves an intensive and holistic analysis of a particular case within its broader context. The name has persisted as the method has proven valuable for gaining in-depth insights into complex phenomena and real-world situations.

Who is the father of the Case Study?

The concept of the case study method has evolved over time, and it’s challenging to attribute its development to a single individual. It is generally believed that the case-study method was first introduced into social science by Frederic Le Play in 1829 as a handmaiden to statistics in his studies of family budgets. However, one influential figure often credited with contributing significantly to the early development of case study methodology is Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis.

Freud’s use of detailed case histories, such as his famous cases of Anna O. and Little Hans, involved in-depth examinations of individual patients to understand the complexities of their psychological conditions. These clinical case studies played a crucial role in the development of psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice.

While Freud is associated with the early use of case studies in psychology and psychiatry, the broader adoption of case study methodology across various disciplines occurred over the 20th century. Researchers like Robert K. Yin and Donald T. Campbell further developed and popularized the case study as a research method in social sciences.

It’s important to note that the evolution of case study methodology involved contributions from multiple scholars across different fields, and the method has been refined and adapted by various researchers over the years. As a result, the development of the case study method is a collective endeavor rather than the work of a single individual.

Is a case study focused on individuals or groups or units?

A case study can focus on either an individual or a group, depending on the research question, objectives, and the nature of the phenomenon being investigated. The term “case” in a case study refers to the specific instance, situation, or unit of analysis that is the subject of the study. This case can be an individual, a group, an event, an organization, or any other identifiable unit.

  1. Individual Case Study:
    • In an individual case study, the research focuses on a single person as the case. This approach is common in fields like psychology, counseling, and medicine, where researchers may examine the life, experiences, or behaviors of an individual in-depth.
  2. Group Case Study:
    • In a group case study, the case under investigation is a collective entity, such as a team, organization, community, or any other group of individuals. This approach is often used in organizational studies, sociology, education, and business, where the dynamics and interactions within a group are of interest.
  3. Multiple Case Study:
    • Researchers can also conduct a multiple case study, where they examine more than one case, either multiple individuals or multiple groups. This comparative approach allows for a broader understanding of patterns, variations, and commonalities across different cases.

The choice between an individual or group case study depends on the research objectives and the complexity of the phenomenon being studied. Researchers or Ph.D students may select the unit of analysis based on the depth of understanding required and the nature of the research questions. Both individual and group case studies have been widely used across various disciplines to explore, describe, and analyze real-world situations.

What are the defining characteristics of a case study design?

A case study design is characterized by several key features that distinguish it from other research methods. These characteristics contribute to the in-depth and contextualized nature of case study research. The key characteristics of a case study research design include but not limited to the following:

  1. Holistic approach: Case studies seek to capture the entire context of the case, considering various factors that may influence the phenomenon under investigation. This holistic approach allows researchers to explore the interplay of different elements.
  2. In-depth exploration: The primary focus is on gaining a comprehensive and deep understanding of the case. Researchers collect and analyze a wealth of information to paint a detailed picture of the subject.
  3. Naturalistic setting: Case studies are often conducted in the natural setting where the case naturally occurs. This naturalistic approach enhances the ecological validity of the study.
  4. Multiple data sources: Researchers typically use multiple sources of data, such as interviews, observations, documents, archival records, and sometimes quantitative data, to triangulate information and provide a more comprehensive view.
  5. Qualitative data analysis: Qualitative data analysis methods, such as thematic analysis or content analysis, are commonly employed to interpret the rich and detailed data collected during the study.
  6. Exploratory or explanatory purpose: Case studies can be exploratory, aiming to understand a phenomenon in its natural context, or explanatory, seeking to uncover causal relationships and factors influencing the case.
  7. Unique and specific cases: Case studies are particularly suitable for investigating unique, rare, or atypical cases where a broader, more generalizable study might not be feasible or appropriate.
  8. Longitudinal perspective: Some case studies adopt a longitudinal perspective, allowing researchers to study the case over time and observe changes, developments, or patterns.
  9. Small samples: Case studies often involve small sample sizes, as the emphasis is on depth rather than breadth. The focus is on the quality of information rather than statistical representation.
  10. Iterative process: The research process in a case study is often iterative, with researchers continuously refining their understanding, revisiting data collection, and adjusting the research approach based on emerging insights.

These characteristics collectively contribute to the unique strengths of case study research, allowing researchers to explore, describe, and analyze complex phenomena in their natural context.

What are the types of Case Studies?

Case studies can be categorized into several types based on different criteria such as the purpose of the study, the nature of the case, and the research design. Here are some common types of case studies:

  1. Descriptive Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To provide a detailed account and description of a case.
    • Focus: Describing the characteristics, events, and context of the case.
    • Example: A descriptive case study of an organization’s history, structure, and operations.
  2. Exploratory or Pilot Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To explore a phenomenon, generate hypotheses, or identify key variables for further research.
    • Focus: Investigating new or understudied topics to gain new insights.
    • Example: Exploring the experiences of early adopters of a new technology.
  3. Explanatory Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To explain causation and relationships within the case.
    • Focus: Identifying factors influencing the case and their interconnections.
    • Example: Investigating the factors contributing to the success or failure of a social program.
  4. Intrinsic Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To understand the case for its unique and intrinsic value.
    • Focus: Studying the case itself, often because it is of particular interest.
    • Example: Examining a rare medical condition for its unique features.
  5. Instrumental Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To understand a broader issue by examining a specific case.
    • Focus: Using the case as an instrument to gain insights into general principles.
    • Example: Studying a specific organization to draw conclusions about trends in the industry.
  6. Collective or Multiple Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To compare and contrast multiple cases.
    • Focus: Identifying patterns, similarities, and differences across cases.
    • Example: Comparing the implementation of a policy in different regions or countries.
  7. Longitudinal Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To study a case over an extended period, observing changes and developments.
    • Focus: Understanding how the case evolves over time.
    • Example: Tracking the career trajectory of individuals over several decades.
  8. Critical instance Case Studies:
    • Purpose: To examine a particularly significant or critical instance.
    • Focus: Analyzing a case that challenges or confirms existing theories.
    • Example: Studying a specific event that had a profound impact on an organization.

These types of case studies offer flexibility in addressing various research questions and goals. Researchers or doctoral candidates select the type of case study based on the nature of their inquiry, the level of detail needed, and the specific characteristics of the case under investigation.

Importance of a case study research design

Case study research design holds significant importance for numerous reasons, making it a valuable and versatile method across various disciplines. Here are some key reasons highlighting the importance of case study research design:

  1. Deep understanding: Case study research design allows for a deep and thorough exploration of a specific case. This in-depth analysis provides a rich understanding of the complexities, nuances, and contextual factors that may influence the phenomenon under investigation.
  2. Contextualization: Case studies are conducted in the natural setting where the case naturally occurs. This emphasis on the real-life context enhances the ecological validity of the study, allowing researchers to understand the phenomenon within its unique environmental, social, and cultural context.
  3. Complexity of phenomena: Case study design is particularly useful when dealing with complex and multifaceted phenomena that cannot be fully understood through quantitative methods alone. It provides a holistic approach to studying intricate issues.
  4. Theory development: Case studies can contribute to the development and refinement of theories. Through in-depth exploration, researchers may uncover patterns, relationships, and dynamics that can inform or challenge existing theoretical frameworks.
  5. Exploratory and descriptive Research: Case studies are well-suited for exploratory research, where the goal is to generate hypotheses and explore new topics, as well as for descriptive research, providing detailed descriptions of specific cases.
  6. Practical applications: Findings from case studies often have direct implications for practical applications. They can inform decision-making, policy development, and interventions in fields such as business, education, healthcare, and social work.
  7. Small sample sizes: In situations where the population or sample size is small, case study research remains effective. It allows researchers to focus on a limited number of cases and gather detailed information.
  8. Longitudinal studies: Case studies can adopt a longitudinal perspective, enabling the study of a case over an extended period. This longitudinal approach allows researchers to observe changes, developments, and patterns over time.
  9. Comparative analysis: Multiple case studies can facilitate comparative analysis, where researchers compare and contrast different cases to identify commonalities, differences, and patterns across cases.
  10. Humanistic approach: Case studies often adopt a humanistic approach, emphasizing the subjective experiences and perspectives of individuals or groups. This approach is particularly valuable in fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
  11. Flexibility and adaptability: Case study research design is flexible and adaptable to various research questions and contexts. It allows researchers to adjust their approach based on emerging insights and the evolving nature of the study.

In summary, the importance of case study research design lies in its ability to provide detailed insights, contextual understanding, and practical applications for complex and real-world phenomena. It is a valuable tool for new researchers and PhD scholars seeking to explore, describe, and analyze specific cases in depth.

What is the main purpose/ goal of a case study design?

The main purpose or goal of a case study design is to provide a detailed, in-depth, and contextualized understanding of a specific case or instance. This research method aims to explore, describe, and analyze the complexities, dynamics, and unique characteristics of the chosen case within its natural context. The primary objectives of a case study design include:

  1. Comprehensive understanding: To achieve a thorough comprehension of the case, considering all relevant aspects, including its background, context, and various influencing factors.
  2. Rich description: To provide a rich and detailed description of the case, offering insights into the specific features, behaviors, interactions, and circumstances that characterize the phenomenon under investigation.
  3. Contextualization: To study the case within its real-life context, recognizing the influence of environmental, social, cultural, and historical factors on the case. This contextualization enhances the ecological validity of the study.
  4. Exploration of complexity: To delve into the complexities of the case, acknowledging and understanding the intricate relationships, challenges, and dynamics that contribute to its uniqueness.
  5. Theory development or testing: Depending on the research goals, a case study design may aim to contribute to the development of new theories or the refinement of existing ones. It can also be used to test theoretical propositions in real-world situations.
  6. Examination of specific instances: To investigate specific instances, events, individuals, groups, or organizations, allowing researchers to draw conclusions about the generalizability of findings to broader contexts.
  7. Identification of patterns and trends: To identify patterns, trends, or themes within the data, facilitating a deeper understanding of recurring phenomena or issues.
  8. Insights for practice and decision-making: To generate insights that are applicable to practical situations, guiding decision-making, policy development, or interventions in various fields.
  9. Comparative analysis: In the case of multiple case studies, the goal may be to conduct comparative analyses, identifying similarities, differences, and patterns across cases.
  10. Holistic examination: To take a holistic approach, considering multiple dimensions of the case and avoiding reductionism by examining the interplay of various elements.

In summary, the main goal of a case study design is to provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of a specific case, contributing valuable insights to the existing body of knowledge and informing theory, practice, or policy in relevant fields.

Strengths and weakness in case study research design

Case study research design comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these can help researchers make informed decisions about when to use this method and how to interpret the results. Here are some key strengths and weaknesses of case study research:


  1. In-depth exploration: Allows for a detailed and in-depth exploration of a particular case, providing rich and nuanced insights.
  2. Contextual understanding: Emphasizes studying the case within its natural context, enhancing the ecological validity of the findings.
  3. Holistic perspective: Takes a holistic approach, considering multiple dimensions and factors that contribute to the complexity of the phenomenon.
  4. Real-world applicability: Findings often have direct implications for real-world applications, guiding decision-making and interventions.
  5. Flexibility: Offers flexibility, allowing researchers to adapt the design to the specific characteristics of the case and research questions.
  6. Small sample size: Suitable for situations where the population or sample size is small, such as rare or unique cases.
  7. Comparative analysis: Enables comparative analysis when multiple cases are studied, identifying patterns and variations across cases.
  8. Longitudinal perspective: Allows for a longitudinal perspective, tracking changes and developments over time.


  1. Limited generalizability: Findings may not be easily generalizable to a broader population due to the focus on a specific case.
  2. Subjectivity: Prone to researcher subjectivity in data collection, interpretation, and analysis, impacting the objectivity of the study.
  3. Selection bias: The selection of cases may introduce bias, as researchers may choose cases that align with their preconceived notions.
  4. Time-consuming: Can be time-consuming, especially in longitudinal studies or when dealing with complex cases.
  5. Difficulty in replication: Replicability of a case study may be challenging due to the uniqueness of each case.
  6. Ethical concerns: In-depth exploration may raise ethical concerns, particularly regarding participant privacy and confidentiality.
  7. Limited control: Researchers have limited control over external factors, making it challenging to isolate variables.
  8. Potential for misinterpretation: Findings can be open to misinterpretation if the researcher’s bias is not adequately addressed.
  9. Dependency on researcher’s skills: The success of a case study heavily depends on the researcher’s skills in data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Understanding these strengths and weaknesses is crucial for researchers and academics to make informed decisions about the appropriateness of the case study method for their research questions and objectives. It also highlights the importance of mitigating potential biases and addressing ethical considerations throughout the research process.

What are the components/parts of a case study design?

A case study design typically consists of several key components or parts that structure the research process. While the specific elements may vary based on the researcher’s approach and the nature of the study, here are common components found in a case study design that may be followed by Ph.D scholars or novice researchers:

  1. Introduction:
    • Objective: Clearly state the purpose and objectives of the case study.
    • Contextual background: Provide background information on the case and its significance.
    • Research questions: Clearly articulate the research questions or hypotheses to be addressed.
  2. Literature Review:
    • Review of relevant literature: Summarize existing research relevant to the case study.
  3. Theoretical Framework:
    • Theoretical framework: If applicable, present a theoretical framework guiding the study.
    • Theoretical underpinnings: Identify and discuss the theoretical perspectives influencing the research.
  4. Research design and methodology:
    • Type of Case Study: Specify whether the case study is exploratory, explanatory, intrinsic, instrumental, etc.
    • Sampling strategy: Describe how cases or participants will be selected.
    • Data collection methods: Detail the methods for collecting data (interviews, observations, documents, etc.).
    • Data analysis plan: Outline the approach to analyzing the collected data (thematic analysis, content analysis, etc.).
  5. Case selection:
    • Criteria for selection: Specify the criteria used to select the case or cases.
    • Rationale for selection: Provide a rationale for why the chosen case is appropriate for the study.
  6. Data collection:
    • Data sources: Clearly identify the sources of data (interviews, observations, documents, etc.).
    • Data collection procedures: Describe the step-by-step procedures for data collection.
    • Data validation methods: Discuss methods to ensure the validity and reliability of the data.
  7. Data analysis:
    • Coding procedures: Explain how data will be coded and categorized.
    • Data interpretation: Discuss the process of interpreting the data and drawing conclusions.
  8. Ethical considerations:
    • Informed consent: Describe how participants will be informed and provide consent.
    • Confidentiality: Address how the confidentiality of participants will be maintained.
    • Ethical approval: If applicable, mention any ethical approvals obtained.
  9. Findings and Results:
    • Presentation of findings: Report the results of the case study in a clear and organized manner.
    • Quotes or examples: Include relevant quotes or examples from the data.
  10. Discussion:
    • Interpretation of results: Discuss and interpret the findings in relation to the research questions.
    • Comparison with literature: Compare the results with existing literature.
    • Theoretical implications: Explore the theoretical implications of the findings.
  11. Conclusion:
    • Summary of key findings: Summarize the main findings of the study.
    • Limitations: Acknowledge any limitations of the study.
    • Recommendations for future research: Suggest areas for future research based on the findings.
  12. References:
    • Include a comprehensive list of all sources cited in the case study.

These components collectively guide the design, execution, and reporting of a case study. Researchers should tailor the design to suit the specific objectives of their study and adhere to ethical standards throughout the process.

What research philosophy suits Case Study research?

 Case study research is often associated with interpretivism and constructivism, making these research philosophies well-suited for this approach. However, the choice of research philosophy depends on the specific goals and nature of the research. Here are three research philosophies that are commonly associated with case study research:

  1. Interpretivism:
    • Characteristics: Emphasizes understanding the social world from the perspective of the participants, focusing on subjective meanings and interpretations.
    • Suitability for Case Studies: Case studies often involve in-depth exploration of specific cases in their natural context. Interpretivism aligns well with this approach as it allows researchers to capture the richness and complexity of individual experiences and the social context in which they occur.
  2. Constructivism:
    • Characteristics: Posits that reality is socially constructed, emphasizing the role of individuals in creating meaning and understanding.
    • Suitability for Case Studies: Case study research, with its focus on exploring how individuals or groups construct their realities within specific contexts, aligns with the constructivist philosophy. It allows researchers to investigate the dynamic interplay between individuals and their social environments.
  3. Pragmatism:
    • Characteristics: Emphasizes practical consequences and the use of mixed methods to address research questions. Pragmatists are concerned with what works best to solve a particular problem.
    • Suitability for Case Studies: Pragmatism can be suitable for case studies because it allows researchers to choose methods and approaches based on the specific goals of the research. Case studies often involve a holistic understanding of a phenomenon, and a pragmatic approach can incorporate both qualitative and quantitative methods as needed.

While interpretivism, constructivism, and pragmatism are commonly associated with case study research, it’s essential to recognize that researchers may adopt an eclectic approach, drawing on multiple philosophical perspectives to address the complexity of their research questions. The choice of research philosophy should align with the researcher’s goals, the nature of the research problem, and the desired depth of understanding.


Case Study research involves an in-depth investigation of a contemporary, real-life phenomenon in its context. It may focus on one person, a group, an organization, or an event. This research design is widely used in various disciplines, including but not limited to psychology, sociology, business, education, medicine, and social sciences. It offers a valuable method for exploring complex phenomena in their natural context and generating in-depth insights that can inform theory, practice, or policy.

The next blog post titled- “Case study research design and a step-by-step guide on how to develop it?, covers the following topics:

  1. Why do researchers select a Case Study research design?
  2. Is the Case Study research design qualitative or quantitative in nature?
  3. What are the most commonly used data collection methods in the case study research design?
  4. How to develop a Case Study?
  5. How many participants used to be engaged in a Case Study?
  6. What is the common form or structure of a Case Study?
  7. How long should be a Case Study?
  8. Who utilizes the Case Study research?
  9. Example of a Case Study research design in healthcare