Doing case studies

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A case study is an in-depth investigation of a single case or instance in a real context -- a single person, patient, group, event, community, program, policy, agency, organization, business, or other entity. It allows for detailed exploration of complex events or phenomena. The data involved are often gathered from observations, interviews, or other methods. A case study is an in-depth study of a real-life phenomenon, that can be informative to others in the field.

1 Rationale

Because it focuses on a single entity or subject, it is often done as an exploratory study, e.g., to identify a possible explanation or analysis, which can be studied further with other research methods. It is also used for more practical purposes, such as situations where a full academic analysis is not needed or practical, such as case studies of business and companies, for practical understanding of reasons for a company's success or failure. It can also be used to evaluate a program (e.g., an educational program, a government program or policy) based on established criteria for evaluation (such as an often-used model for evaluating programs) to assess the effectiveness of a program.

A case study can be an effective tool for creating business reports and for conducting business analysis. This can be valuable for students in a business program learning how to analyze companies. This is also valid for more senior workers in a company who are tasked with analyzing their company, its challenges, problems, or potential future directions. In fact, business analysis is an important field in business, and an important tool for companies' growth and success.

2 Steps

For conducting a case study, such as for my IW or Intermediate Writing course, the following steps are useful.

  1. Identify a well-defined case
  2. Formulate a specific research question
  3. Determine the research methods
  4. Collect empirical materials
  5. Describe the case
  6. Analyze and interpret data
  7. Evaluate solutions, outcomes, or recommendations

2.1 Identifying a well-defined case

This may involve doing background reading on a subject area to help identify a good, specific case. The case should be specific enough that it can be managed well in a single in-depth paper or report. Otherwise, the paper topic will become unmnanageable, and your paper will lack depth and coherence. The case should also be well defined, so that your research can be truly informative and novel for an intelligent reader, rather than simply rehashing familiar information or ideas.

Depending on the type of case study you are doing, you will want to find some sources to inform your research and to provide some informative background information on the topic. This will also help to identify a specific case for your study. Some possible sources include:

  1. Research articles from academic research journals
  2. Articles from trade magazines / journals. These are not popular periodicals, but publications for professionals in a particular industry or occupation. Examples would include professional magazines for those working in the film industry, food industry, IT / technology, psychology, higher education, language education, health care, aviation, or any other relevant profession.
  3. Business and business news periodicals, especially those that also carry good articles on analyzing particular issues and companies.
  4. Professional business magazines like 'Harvard Business Review'
  5. Publications for science news, health news, and such
  6. High-quality news sources, including those with good analytical articles by experts

2.1.1 Searching for sources

Good sources can help with identifying a suitable case, and for the other steps in the process, as well as for writing up the paper or report. Besides Google, you can use an academic search engine, namely, Google Scholar (, or a regional academic search engine, such as RISS ( to search for academic research within Korea. For RISS, one has to be careful about some search results, such as a master's thesis (which lacks the credibility of other research sources), conference papers (which may be preliminary research, or research that has not been well peer-reviewed), or doctoral dissertations (which may be too heavy for a typical non-academic or non-expert to read well).

For Google or Google Scholar, it can be helpful to know good search syntax to find sources more easily.

Search syntax Function Example Explanation
OR Search for two terms at once classified OR secret documents nuclear Search for 'classified documents' or 'secret documents', plus 'nuclear'
"quotation marks" Search for a phrase (not for the individual words) "classified documents" nuclear Search for hits about 'classified documents' and 'nuclear'.
– (minus) Exclude a search term from the results -- exclude hits with a particular word "classified documents" ‑Trump nuclear Search for 'classified documents' and 'nuclear' but omit hits about Trump mishandling such documents.
site: Search for results on a particular website "quantum computing" research "" Search the IBM website for pages or documents on their quantum computing research.
site: Search for results on a domain "classified documents" nuclear


"classified documents" nuclear

Search for 'classified documents' and 'nuclear' on US government or US Navy web pages.

2.2 Research question

A good research question is specific and clear. This should be original, interesting, and unique, and not something that anyone could think of. It should be informative for an educated audience, and should present an original idea for your analysis. The paper and research question can be purely analysis, or a problem-solution paper. The research question can serve as the main thesis statement of the paper (say, in the introductory paragraph). Examples can be in a form like the following.

  • How did X do ___? / How is X doing ___?
  • How well did X do ___? / How well is X doing ___?
  • Why is X doing ___ / Why did X do ___?
  • What should X do?

More specifically:

  • How did AMD regain its market share in the consumer chip market?
  • How effectively has a particular community program helped prevent the spread of HIV in X City?
  • Why did the Microsoft Zune fail?
  • How can Mozilla regain its market share in the browser market?
  • How effectively is a particular program meeting the needs of its students?
  • What impact does marijuana use have on students at X community college?
  • Is company X's website well designed for customers who shop at their online store?

2.3 Research method

After identifying the research question, you will need to decide what research methods to use, and along with that, the type of empirical materials that you will use. You might use an existing model or framework to your data set. You might use a set of criteria that others have developed and use for evaluating cases, such as criteria for evaluating an educational program, or criteria for identifying signs of racist bias in a government policy. Your study may be purely exploratory, looking for trends, patterns, or likely factors in a case. Occasionally, you might consider different possible explanations and factors, and identify the most relevant or most likely one among many. These approaches can be summarized like so.

  • Deductive, e.g., applying a model, theory or framework
  • Interpretive / evaluative: applying a set of criteria
  • Exploratory, inductive
  • Abductive / inferential: inferring the best option or explanation, or most likely factor or cause

Additionally, you might decide to conduct interviews, surveys or questionnaires, which will overlap with the empirical materials below.

2.4 Empirical materials

You might examine websites, writings, or documents, for example, from the entity that you are analyzing, or other materials. Possible materials can include company websites, documents and reports (from a company or other entity), and interviews with relevant persons (that have been published, or are available online). These may be primary sources, if they are directly from the entity that you are researching. More secondary sources can include news reports, analytical articles from business or professional magazines, government reports on a topic, or academic research articles. Your sources can be descriptive or narrative texts, and can also include descriptive statistics, such as counts, averages, frequencies, percentages, and data like sales reports, sales figures, test scores, employment data, or such.

For some topics, you could conduct your own interviews, as long as you have enough understanding of the topic to ask good questions. For example, you could interview a manager of a company that you are examining. If you have enough knowledge of education and/or language learning, you could conduct interviews of new teachers for insights into the challenges they are facing as teachers; you could interview foreign students for insights into a specific type of cultural challenge they face; or you could interview students to understand why they have difficulty with a certain grammatical form in a language they are learning (if you have enough background in applied linguistics).

Similarly, you can conduct surveys or questionnaires and administer them to a group of people. You may want to do close-ended questions, which require objective answers (yes/no, or rate something on a scale from 1-7), which you can add up to create descriptive statistics -- counts, frequencies, percentages, or averages. More likely, for such a study, you may want to do open-ended questions, where participants can provide open, free-form responses, in their own words, e.g., in sentences or paragraphs. You can do a combination of closed and open-ended questions. You can do these on paper, online, or as interviews. For interview questions, you can also ask follow-up questions when their answers raise more questions.

For interview and survey questions, your questions should have a clear rationale. The questions should relate to your research question, or to the theory, model or framework you are using, if you are using one. The questions need to be specific to be of value, and should not be overly mundane or obvious questions. But open-ended questions may need to allow some room for people to respond well.

2.5 Describe, analyze, interpret

Your paper or report should present sufficient background on the topic or the subject of your study. Previously published research or analytical articles will probably be cited and used as sources for this.

Then a separate section will provide a detailed description of your case and your data, such as a detailed description of the company or program, and a detailed description of the relevant aspects that you are examining. For surveys or interviews, you may report descriptive statistics, or more likely, discussion and summary of the open-ended responses, including important themes or factors that emerge from their responses. When you summarize or quote open-ended responses, you need to interpret or comment on their responses (you should not just quote or report what they said and move on).

Depending on the type of empirical data, you may analyzing it by applying a model, framework, theory, or set of criteria. You might look at the data for trends or themes that emerge from the data.

2.6 Evaluation or recommendations

This may be part of your analysis, or it could be a separate section, depending on your topic. Your paper may be purely analytical, or might be a problem-solution paper, with suggestions or recommendations.

In some cases, you may be evaluating a case, such as the effectiveness of a program, and your conclusions will be explained in detail. You might draw conclusions about how a program or company can or should be improved. You might draw conclusions about what will happen if a company continues its course. You can discuss likely outcomes, say, if a company adopts a certain strategy, and/or outcomes if they do not do so. You might make recommendations and discuss their likely outcome.

3 Paper or report

Your paper or report will likely have most or all the elements described above as distinct sections or subsections. Likely, the paper structure will tend to have these components, though the exact order can vary.

  • Introduction and research question
  • Background info
  • Empirical / research materials (and possibly, the research methods)
  • Description of your case
  • Analysis / interpretation
  • Recommendations, evaluation, and/or conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Appendix: If you conduct a survey / questionnaire or interviews, or used similar research materials, the questions should be included in an appendix.

4 See also

  1. Case studies