Case Study Methodologies

Type of psychology: Psychological methodologies Field of study: Descriptive methodologies

Case-study methodologies include a number of techniques for studying people, events, or other phenomena within their natural settings. Typically, case studies involve careful observations made over an extended period of time in situations where it is not possible to control the behaviors under observation. The results and interpretation of the data are recorded in narrative form.

Key concepts

• extraneous variable

• independent variable

• laboratory setting research

• naturalistic observation

• quasi-experiments

According to social scientist Robert Yin, case-study research is one of the most frequently misunderstood methods used to study behaviors. Yin, in his book Case Study Research: Design and Methods (1984), points out that misconceptions have come about because of the limited coverage that case-study research receives in the average textbook on research methods. In addition, most texts typically confuse the case-study approach with either qualitative research methods or specific types of quasi-experimental designs (experiments that do not allow subjects to be assigned randomly to treatment conditions).

Yin defines a case study as a method for studying contemporary phenomena within their natural settings, particularly when the behaviors under study cannot be manipulated or brought under the experimenter's control. Thus, unlike studies that are performed in the sometimes rigidly sterile laboratory setting (in which phenomena are studied in an artificial environment with rigorous procedures in place to control for outside influences), the case-study approach collects data where the behaviors occur, in real-life contexts. Although behavior in natural settings can lead to a wealth of data waiting to be mined, case-study methodology also has its drawbacks. Someone using this approach needs to recognize that the lack of control over extraneous variables can compound the difficulty associated with trying to identify the underlying variables that are causing the behaviors. Extraneous variables can be defined as those that have a detrimental effect on a research study, making it difficult to determine if the result is attributable to the variable under study or to some unknown variable not controlled for. Despite this concern, case-study methods are seen as valuable research tools to help unlock the mysteries behind events and behaviors. The approach has been used by psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, historians, and economists, to name a few.

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