Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Case study

core definition

A case study is an intensive investigation of one particular individual, group, organisation, community, or setting.

explanatory context

Case studies provide data of a richness and detail that are difficult to obtain from broader surveys but at the cost of lack of generalisability. A case study explores a specific topic, institution or neighbourhood in depth and usually from a variety of perspectives.


A case study cannot provide reliable information aboutthe broader clss to which it belongs but it is often useful in the preliminary stages of an investigation. Case studies are used in circumstances where there is a shortage of resources or there is difficulty in gaining access to research subjects.


Case studies vary in type and include: a single individual (similar to a life history) or a group of people; particular events or situations; a specific organisation; a social institution; a neighbourhood; an national society or even a global process.


Many case study approaches use more than a single case in order to get some idea of the range of variability in the population under consideration. Cases are selected on the basis of theory or prior knowledge to represent contrasting examples. In some situations an extreme or critical case is selected to test a hypothesis.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) provides a useful guide that examines case studies. It starts with the following definition and then outlines different types of case studies, paraphrased below:

Case study refers to the collection and presentation of detailed information about a particular participant or small group, frequently including the accounts of subjects themselves. A form of qualitative descriptive research, the case study looks intensely at an individual or small participant pool, drawing conclusions only about that participant or group and only in that specific context. Researchers do not focus on the discovery of a universal, generalizable truth, nor do they typically look for cause-effect relationships; instead, emphasis is placed on exploration and description....

Illustrative Case Studies... are primarily descriptive studies.. [which] serve primarily to make the unfamiliar familiar and to give readers a common language about the topic in question.

Exploratory (or pilot) Case Studies... are condensed case studies performed before implementing a large scale investigation.

Cumulative Case Studies... serve to aggregate information from several sites collected at different times. The idea behind these studies is the collection of past studies will allow for greater generalization without additional cost or time being expended on new, possibly repetitive studies.

Critical Instance Case Studies... examine one or more sites for either the purpose of examining a situation of unique interest with little to no interest in generalizability, or to call into question or challenge a highly generalized or universal assertion...


Bruse Berg (1998, p. 212):

Case study methods involved systematically gathering enough information about a particular person, social setting, event, or group to permit the researcher to effectively understand how it operates or functions. It is not actually a data-gathering technique in itself, but a methodological approach that incorporates a number of data-gathering measures… [ Case studies]  maybe rather narrow in their focus, or may take a broad view on life and society. For example, an investigator may confine his or her examination to a single aspect of an individual's life such as a gang member's actions and behaviors in the gang. Or, the investigator might attempt to assess the whole social life of an individual and all of his or her background, experiences, rolls, and motivations, which affect his or her behavior in society.  Extremely rich, detailed, and in-debt information characterize the type of information gathered in a case study.  In contrast to this, even extensive large-scale survey research data may seem somewhat superficial in nature.


Psychology Glossary (undated) focuses on the individual:

A case study is one type of observational data collection technique in which one individual is studied in-depth in order to identify behavioral, emotional, and/or cognitive qualities that are universally true, on average, of others. Case studies often include face-to-face interviews, paper and pencil tests, and more.

associated issues


related areas

See also

critical case analysis



Berg, B.L., 1998, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Needham Heights, MA, Allyn and Bacon.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Case Studies available at , accessed 1 February 2013, still available 23 November 2019.

Psychology Glossary, undated, 'Case study' available at, accessed 1 February 2013, still available 23 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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