8 junio, 2024

Case study: concept, features, how-to, examples

We explain what case studies consist of, their characteristics, objectives, how to do it and we give you several examples.

What is a case study?

A case study is a kind of investigation which consists of the detailed observation of a single subject or group with the goal of generalizing the results and knowledge obtained. They can be performed in numerous fields; health, education, psychology, social work, business, nursing, human rights, among others.

Case studies are part of qualitative research; that is, that research that focuses on studying a phenomenon in depth instead of using statistics to draw general conclusions. This type of research can be used for different purposes.

Some of the most common purposes are to create a theory before carrying out a more expensive study, to study unusual situations or to investigate in depth a phenomenon relevant to the researcher.

The techniques most used in the case studies are observation and the application of questionnaires, although we can find other methods depending on the discipline in which this research is carried out.

For example, an environmental institution or research group might ask: What are the effects of plastic pollution on whale shark reproduction? In this case, a case study would be «the effects of plastic pollution on the reproduction of the whale shark in the Caribbean Sea.» It can be seen that the study focuses on the whales of the Caribbean Sea, not on those that inhabit the oceans of the entire world.

Characteristics of a case study

A case study has several characteristics:

A specific case or situation is investigated

The most important characteristic of a case study is that it is an in-depth study of a specific situation, event or case, in such a way that its internal characteristics are mainly taken into account, but also the context in which it occurs.

Variation by discipline

Depending on the discipline in which this methodology is applied, a case can be defined in different ways.

For example, in psychology a patient with a certain type of mental disorder is usually considered a case; in anthropology a case can be a tribe that has not had contact with western society; in biology it can be a population of a certain species.

search for understanding

The main intention of a case study is to try to understand all the variables that influence the specific situation that is being studied and how they interact with each other. Although this methodology does not allow establishing causal relationships, it has the following advantages:

It is cheaper and logistically easier to perform, since it does not require very large populations or laboratory conditions.
It allows observing events that only occur naturally, and that cannot be reproduced at will. In this way, previous theories that were only hypothetical so far can be verified.
It helps to establish initial hypotheses to facilitate future research.
It allows to study a phenomenon in depth, so that more conclusions can be drawn about it.

What are the objectives of the case study?

In general, the most common objectives of a case study are the following:

Generalize the knowledge obtained to all similar cases.
Explore reality to later formulate a theory.
Describe what happens in the case.
Explain the causes that cause it.

Unlike many of the other types of research out there, the case study is inductive; that is, it goes from concrete situations to a general explanation.

However, in order to affirm a cause-effect relationship, it is necessary to supplement this type of research with another of a quantitative type.

How to do a case study? Methodology

The standard definition of case studies considers that they have five main phases:

1- Creation of a research question

The first step in conducting a case study is to ask a research question based on an observation by the researcher. For example:

How does pizza consumption affect childhood obesity?

2- Selection of the case

Second, it is necessary to find a relevant case for the researcher with which to answer the research question. In general, the researcher will choose a case that is relevant to their previous work, or they will choose to study a rare event that is suddenly available. For example:

Case study of the effect of pizza consumption on obesity in a local school in Mexico City.

3- Obtaining the data

After establishing the relevant research questions, the data collection phase begins. Through observation, questionnaires or interviews, the researcher will obtain as much information as possible about the situation he is studying.

In our example of the case study on childhood obesity, we would take data such as the frequency of pizza consumption, the weight of the children, the frequency of physical exercise, etc.

4- Analysis of the collected data

Since qualitative research, such as the case study, does not allow establishing a causal explanation, the data analysis will focus on comparing the research question with the data collected.

At this point, the researcher can decide if he believes that the data obtained can be extrapolated to other situations or not, in addition to pointing out possible avenues of investigation to learn more about the phenomenon studied.

In our example we would analyze the incidence of obesity in school children.

5- Creation of the report

Finally, once the data has been collected and analyzed, the researcher will explain the research process chronologically. In addition to talking about the most relevant situations, she will also tell how she has collected the data.

In this way, the researcher will be able to communicate to his readers what he has learned from the case, his conclusions and their validity.

Case study in psychology

In psychology, the case study is a type of research that is carried out especially in the field of mental illness.

Because it is unethical to create disorders in the laboratory in order to study them, researchers need to learn more about them by studying people who already have them.

In fact, who is considered by many to be the first modern psychologist, Sigmund Freud, based all his theories on the human mind on the study of the cases of patients who came to his office.

Examples of famous psychology case studies are Anna O’s and Little Albert’s.

Examples of case studies

phineas cage

Possibly the most famous case study example in history is that of Phineas Gage, a construction worker who suffered an accident while on a construction site. His skull was pierced by a steel bar that damaged part of his brain, but Gage managed to survive.

However, this man’s personality completely changed after the accident. Psychologists of the time were then able to study the effect that the parts of the brain damaged in the accident had on Phineas’s personality.

This type of research could not have been carried out in any other way, since the brain of a patient cannot be damaged in the laboratory to know the effects of each lesion.

For this reason, in its origins neuroscience was completely based on case studies, which made it possible to observe this type of phenomenon without having to intentionally harm any person.

Other examples

research question

What is the effect of confinement by Covid-19 on mental health?

Case study of the effects of confinement in a Mexico City neighborhood on mental health (stress, depression, anxiety).

How can active strategies be implemented for primary education?

Case study of a school in a Madrid neighborhood that promotes active strategies.

How does advertising on YouTube affect brand perception?

Case study of Nike campaigns on YouTube.

How does absolute social isolation affect childhood?

Case study of Victor de Aveyron, wild child who lived in France.


“Case Study Research Design”in: Explorable. Retrieved on: March 5, 2018 from Exporable: explorable.com.
neighborhood et al. «Study of cases». Report of the Autonomous University of Madrid. Recovered from uam.es
«Case Study» in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: March 5, 2018 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.
“Brain case study: Phineas Gage”in: Big Picture Education. Retrieved on: March 5, 2018 from Big Picture Education: bigpictureeducation.com.
«Case Study in Psychology» in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: March 5, 2018 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

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