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What Is a Case Study?

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Psychology case study

Case studies involve looking at nearly every aspect of a subject's life.

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Definition:

A case study is an in-depth study of one person. Much of Freud's work and theories were developed through individual case studies.

In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes for behavior. The hope is that learning gained from studying one case can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective and it is difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

Types of Case Studies

  • Explanatory: Used to do causal investigations.

  • Exploratory: A case study that is sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses.

  • Descriptive: Involves starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.

  • Intrinsic: A type of case study in which the researcher has a personal interest in the case.

  • Collective: Involves studying a group of individuals.

  • Instrumental: Occurs when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.

Case Study Methods

  • Prospective: A type of case study in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.

  • Retrospective: A type of case study that involves looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then backwards at information about the individuals life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Sources of Information Used in a Case Study

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. The six major sources that have been identified by researchers (Yin, 1994; Stake, 1995) are:

  1. Direct observation: This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting. While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.

  2. Interviews: One of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involves structured survey-type questions, or more open-ended questions.

  3. Documents: Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc.

  4. Archival records: Census records, survey records, name lists, etc.

  5. Physical artifacts: Tools, objects, instruments and other artifacts often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

  6. Participant observation: Involves the researcher actually serving as a participant in events and observing the actions and outcomes.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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References:

Stake, R. (1995). The art of case research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

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