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Case Study Design: Definition, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Qualitative Research
  • 1:26 Case Studies
  • 4:05 Strengths & Limitations
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Often, research involves looking at large numbers of people. But sometimes, researchers want to look at just a few people in-depth. In this lesson, we'll examine case studies and their strengths and limitations.

Qualitative Research

Mel is a psychologist who is interested in studying creativity. She wants to know why some people are so creative, and how individuals can develop their own creativity further. What makes a person creative? What is it about the human mind that allows certain people to think outside the box? What circumstances lead to creativity?

All of these are good questions for Mel to ask. But how should she answer those questions? How should she do psychological, scientific research on creativity? There are many types of research in psychology. One major type is qualitative research, which involves looking in-depth at non-numerical data.

For example, Mel can look at creativity by examining the process by which artists create. What do they have in common? Perhaps Mel notices that great creative thinkers all have a special place in their homes, like a chair or a room, where they can go and think without being interrupted. If this is the case, then Mel might produce a theory that having a special place to think without interruption makes people more creative.

There are many ways to gather qualitative data. Let's look closer at one of those ways, case studies, and its strengths and limitations.

Case Studies

Let's say that Mel decides to study creative people who are highly successful. She wants to know the process they use to come up with creative works. She convinces a very famous and creative businessman to let her shadow him for several months. She can observe and interview him and get a feel for what his life is like.

Mel is putting together a case study, or detailed analysis of a single person or group and its relationship to a phenomenon. For example, Mel wants to look in-depth at the businessman and his relationship to creativity. She's interested in seeing what makes him creative.

Case studies are often done in the subject's real-world context, which gives researchers a good view of what they are really like. Documents, observations, and interviews can all be sources of information for a case study. There are generally three reasons that people perform case studies:

  1. As pilot research: If Mel is interested in doing larger, non-case-study research on creativity, she might start with a few case studies to see if she can see patterns beginning to emerge and to figure out the best way to do further research. This process is called pilot research.

  2. To develop new theories: Often, case studies lead to new theories about psychological phenomena, either through pilot research or through case studies on their own. For example, through her case study, Mel may notice that the businessman always does his best thinking early in the morning. She might develop a theory that early morning is the best time for creativity. Her theory can then be tested with non-case-study research.

  3. To challenge traditional theories: Science isn't perfect; there was a time when scientists believed that the world was flat and that the sun revolved around it. Now, of course, we know better. Scientific theories are always being challenged and modified. Case studies are sometimes used to challenge traditionally held scientific theories.

For example, perhaps there is a well-established theory that creative people all have some type of mental illness. If Mel's case study of her businessman shows that he is creative and does not have any signs of mental illness, then her case study is challenging the traditional theory.

You might notice that all three of the reasons for case study research are linked to each other. For example, pilot research might challenge traditional theories, which might in turn lead to the development of new theories. Though it's not necessary for all three to happen for each case study, often more than one of the reasons are present in case study research.

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