Wilder Research Week: Caryn Mohr on Case Studies

Hello, I am Caryn Mohr, a Research Scientist at Wilder Research, a nonprofit human services research and evaluation group in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our work ranges from qualitative to quasi-experimental studies, and often involves multiple research methods. My recent work has afforded the opportunity to see the merits and challenges in conducting case study research.

Case studies take a comprehensive approach to understanding a complex phenomenon in its context. They typically employ qualitative research methods, but may also incorporate quantitative data. These in-depth explorations make important contributions to the broader research base.

Hot Tips:

  • Approach the study with rigor. Like their quantitative counterparts, case studies should be undertaken with an intentional design and in a systematic manner. Case study literature describes techniques which will enhance the study’s credibility. For example, tools such as member checking and triangulation by data source can be used to vet the data collected.
  • Carefully consider the researcher’s role. Case studies can present important considerations related to the researcher’s role and relationship to the subject and data sources. Lines of independence between researcher and subject may be less clear than in quantitative research. You may be heavily dependent on the subject for access to necessary resources, and the study’s purpose may not be evaluative. These considerations should be addressed in the study’s design.
  • Ensure adequate access to the case subject. If your case study centers on an organization, such as a school or program site, you may rely on key personnel for access to necessary resources such as documents or interviewees. It’s important to incorporate diverse perspectives, and the study will be strengthened by ensuring you have access to each source identified for the study.

Lessons Learned:

  • Qualitative methods take time. Case studies commonly use techniques such as interviews, observations, document review, and literature review. These can be time-consuming in both data collection and analysis, and by extension costly. For example, conducting a series of interviews might involve developing the interview protocol (or protocols), scheduling and conducting the interviews, vetting notes with the interview subjects, and analyzing a series of notes for key themes. Carefully considering the potential time and resources involved is important in planning a realistic timeline and budget.
  • Case studies can be complex. Case studies can involve complex considerations related to the study’s design, researcher’s role, and techniques involved. They should be carefully planned, starting with a clear understanding of the study’s purpose.

Rad Resources:

Two books I found helpful in designing a case study are Hancock and Algozzine’s Doing Case Study Research and Mabry’s chapter on “Case Study in Social Research” in Alasuutari, Bickman, and Brannen’s The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating with our colleagues from Wilder Research this week. Wilder is a leading research and evaluation firm based in St. Paul, MN, a twin city for AEA’s Annual Conference, Evaluation 2012. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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