To understand where case study fits into our present methodologies, its necessary to understand a brief history of the case study. In the first half of the twentieth century, case study was questioned as to its ability to explain a problem in general terms (Hamel, Dufour, Fortin, 1993, p. 20). In the 1930s the University of Chicago Department of Sociology was the leading proponent of the case study method. They were widely criticized, most notably by Columbia University, as lacking scientific rigor and prone to emotional or subjective judgments (Hamel et al, 1993 p.20). This paralleled a call for the social sciences to reach conclusions with methods more closely aligned with other scientific disciplines. It was the popular belief that social science research should be devoid of emotion and flights of intellectuality that might skew the verification process. Yet, it did not seem realistic to create mathematical models with repeatability based on a single case or even a few cases.
The debate over the validity, place, and use of case study as a research tool continues today. More highly refined methods of observation and examination of case situations have helped case study stand up to the test of time and resulted in its continued acceptance. More focused definitions of differing types of case study as a research tool have also aided the social science researcher reach conclusions with added assurance as to validity. But with the improved methods and greater study, the questions of verification and validation still linger.
Case Study as Theory Formulation
Case studies require that a comprehensive understanding of a given situation, or case, be arrived at by a process that requires an in-depth examination of all aspects of the situation being evaluated. This process is known as thick description (Conducting Case Studies, 2006). This includes the setting, the people involved, the location, and external political or social pressures. This thick data is then interpreted in context of the values, mores, and social interplay in an attempt to reach a valid conclusion. The result is a theory as to the causal relationships which is used as the basis for a hypothesis.
The validity of the theory is limited by the ability of the observer to gather accurate information as well as adequately uncover details no matter how minute they may appear. It does not have the luxury of the consistent testing relegated to scientific research rigors. According to Tellis, "It is a fact that case studies do not need to have a minimum number of cases, or to randomly "select" cases. The researcher is called upon to work with the situation that presents itself in each case."
It is primarily because case study is applicable to unique and individual situations that make it the preferred, if not only, path available in many applications. Medicine and Law were early adopters of case study and its application in education. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, and criminal justice have all been fields that have benefited from case study. These fields do not lend themselves to scientific examination, repeated study, or experimentation. The goal of case study is to form a hypothesis and determine its validity based on the evaluation of other cases.
Limitations of Case Study
Case study in the proper setting can be useful in determining what warrants further study. It is, however, restricted in its ability to examine, test and experiment to the degree that