How to do a case study

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods, but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing, comparing, evaluating and understanding different aspects of a research problem.

When to do a case study

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation. They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

Case study examples
Research questionCase study
What are the ecological effects of wolf reintroduction?Case study of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park
How do populist politicians use narratives about history to gain support?Case studies of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and US president Donald Trump
How can teachers implement active learning strategies in mixed-level classrooms?Case study of a local school that promotes active learning
What are the main advantages and disadvantages of wind farms for rural communities?Case studies of three rural wind farm development projects in different parts of the country
How are viral marketing strategies changing the relationship between companies and consumers?Case study of the iPhone X marketing campaign
How do experiences of work in the gig economy differ by gender, race and age?Case studies of Deliveroo and Uber drivers in London

Step 1: Select a case

Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions, you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

Unlike quantitative or experimental research, a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

Example of an outlying case study

In the 1960s the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was discovered to have extremely low rates of heart disease compared to the US average. It became an important case study for understanding previously neglected causes of heart disease.

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience or phenomenon.

Example of a representative case study

In the 1920s, two sociologists used Muncie, Indiana as a case study of a typical American city that supposedly exemplified the changing culture of the US at the time.

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Step 2: Build a theoretical framework

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework. This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

Step 3: Collect your data

There are many different methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews, observations, and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g. newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data.

Example of a mixed methods case study

For a case study of a wind farm development in a rural area, you could collect quantitative data on employment rates and business revenue, collect qualitative data on local people’s perceptions and experiences, and analyze local and national media coverage of the development.

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

Step 4: Describe and analyze the case

In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis, with separate sections or chapters for the methods, results and discussion. Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyze its meanings and implications.

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has an MLitt in English Literature and an MA in Gender Studies, so she's an expert at writing a great master's thesis. She has also been an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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