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Welcome to the tutorial “Top case study for your empirical thesis – 5 steps to success“. The case study is a method of qualitative empirical research. It is used to examine a case in detail and to look at it from different perspectives. Due to their comparatively low organizational effort, case studies are often used in student theses. Are you too planning to use a case study in your bachelor or master thesis? Then this tutorial will do you a great service by introducing you to the subject matter quickly and without much effort. In just a few minutes you will know what steps you need to take to successfully conduct a case study.
Understanding case studies
Before we present you with the individual main steps to conduct a case study yourself, some background information is necessary for a better understanding. So what is a case study all about? A case study focuses on a case with the aim of understanding and explaining it, gaining new insights and clarifying open questions.
However, the object of investigation of case studies does not necessarily have to be a single case. Often the object of investigation of case studies is a complex of several cases. In addition, a case can itself consist of several parts. These parts are called units of analysis or objects of analysis.
Depending on the research interest, a case can be a person, a group, an organization, a place or an event. As a general rule, however, the object of a case study is a phenomenon that can be empirically observed in the present and that occurs in a certain context or in a certain environment. In this way, case studies make it possible to understand complex interrelationships such as developments, causal relationships and process flows in the overall context and to draw conclusions that are relevant to theory and practice.
Depending on the objective of the study, a case study can be descriptive, explanatory, or exploratory. The descriptive case study aims to fully capture and describe a phenomenon and its specific context in order to represent a state of affairs already described in theory. An explanatory case study is about explaining and justifying practical experiences based on theoretical assumptions.
The exploratory case study is concerned with determining specific theoretical questions and hypotheses in more detail in order to expand and further develop an existing theoretical framework.
Depending on whether only one single case or several cases are investigated, a further distinction is made between single-case studies and multiple-case studies.
In single-case studies, the study object consists of a single case, for example, a typical, representative or unique case. They serve to question theoretical statements or to generate new insights into phenomena that have not been researched before.
Multiple-case studies are comparative case studies. The aim here is to look at several individual cases, each studied in a different context, and compare them with each other in order to identify commonalities and differences.
Single- or multiple-case studies can be further subdivided according to units of analysis. In this context, a distinction is made between holistic case studies and embedded case studies.
Holistic case studies are those in which only one unit of analysis is analyzed within the context of the particular case, without going into detail about individual issues.
Embedded, integrated case studies deal with multiple units of analysis per case. An example of an embedded single-case study would be, for example, the study of several departments in a company, with the departments representing the individual units of analysis and the company representing the case.
Carrying out a case study step by step
With this background knowledge, we can now turn our attention to the process and execution of a case study. Overall, a case study is divided into five phases, namely: Definition of the research goal, selection of the case, literature research, description of the case study, and analysis and evaluation. Each phase is associated with several work steps.
The first step is to define the research goal. This means that you must first decide whether your case study should be descriptive, explanatory or exploratory. According to the goal of your study, you then formulate a clear and precise research question. Your question can take the form of a “how“ question or a “why“ question. Furthermore, you formulate the research question either in a case-specific way – for example, "How does Facebook advertising affect the customer behavior of smartphone customers? – or in a general manner – for example, "How does social media advertising affect the purchasing behavior of electronics customers?“.
Depending on your guiding question, you then select the case or cases for your study. You determine whether you will conduct a single-case study or a multiple-case study as well as a holistic or embedded case study. A suitable case study is characterized by the fact that it is unusual or atypical, enables new insights or approaches to solutions, and can be used to critically question existing assumptions.
After case selection, the next step is to relate the case to appropriate theories from the relevant literature. In this way, you create a theoretical frame of reference for your analysis. For this purpose, you conduct a literature search and familiarize yourself with the current state of research. In doing so, you will look for thematically similar studies as well as general theories that contribute to the basic understanding of the phenomenon.
Subsequently, the focus is on the detailed description of the case or cases. Here it is important to ensure the comprehensibility of the case study for outside parties. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly describe all relevant details and if necessary distinguish your case study from other cases. This also includes naming and describing the data collection methods used. This means, for example, interviews, direct or participatory observation, content analysis of documents and archive data, or the use of technical equipment. If your case is an event, it is also useful to create a timeline at this point.
The final step is to analyze and evaluate the case on the basis of the data collected. Even though there is no standard procedure for this, some evaluation techniques have proven effective. The analysis usually starts with pattern matching. This strategy involves identifying common patterns in your data material and comparing them with each other in order to derive new insights on this basis.
You then interpret the results with reference to your research question. In accordance with your research objective, you will verify or falsify hypotheses that have been established in this context, explain the phenomena studied, discover causal relationships and form new hypotheses. In doing so, you also draw on the theories you found during the literature research.
To prepare the results, it is a good idea to use illustrations such as flowcharts or bar charts, tables and explanatory text.
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