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james harveyBeyond its publicised use in the Research Excellence Framework, James Harvey considers the wider role of the case study as a research method and underlines its often overlooked function as a tool for communicating with different audiences and stakeholders. The case study’s versatility and scope for reflection means the form is an accessible device for communicating research evidence to policy makers and reaching other important end-users of research findings. 

The humble case study is often overlooked as a powerful tool for analysis even though it very often forms the backbone of many of the working papers, briefs, summaries and reviews that we encounter in our work. Increasingly practitioners and researchers are being asked to develop case studies that support project evaluation or, as in the case of the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF), provide traceable evidence of impact. There are many specific examples of case studies, but at the most basic level, what exactly is the function of a case study?

The answer to that question will be different for every discipline. Case studies may describe a particularly interesting set of circumstances from which lessons can be learned; they may illustrate a particular theory or conceptual framework by reference to a specific example; or they may be used as a device for teaching purposes and publication of findings. In short, they are a dynamic and versatile means of storytelling for different purposes and audiences.

A case study is often a “story of change” or narrative that can be described in terms of an intensive analysis of a single process, person, event, program or project. Crucially, your evidence-rich narrative and analytical storytelling sculpts the overall format of the document, providing a fantastic platform for reaching your chosen audience. This versatility makes a good case study a powerful tool for bridging and influencing.

Evaluation and documentation are essential tools to deploy in any process and this includes development interventions and their underpinning research. Case studies give added value as a format for exploration and clarification to other practitioners. They are also an excellent tool for reflecting on an organisation’s own practices as they afford both the writer and reader a better understanding of outputs and outcomes, a chance to assess impact, and an opportunity to reflect back on theories of change (the latter being important for clarifying relationships between theory and practice).

The intended audience often has a major influence on how case studies are written and it is important to understand their needs. As a general rule, case studies should be:

  • Pitched at an appropriate level
  • Contain interesting and relevant information
  • Very concise, incisive and engaging
  • Easy to navigate, digest and extract information from

If we are thinking about informing the public, case studies using everyday language, and using a suitable narrative form, can be a very effective vehicle for describing a process and its outcomes. For audiences closer to our own practice (including stakeholders and funding bodies), a mix of background information, theory, outputs, and reflection on data gathering and actionable results may be the most effective format.

The data and materials chosen for any case study will have a major impact on the type of document written, the amount of “thick description” used in the narrative, and overall presentation (graphics, tables etc). Conversely the type of case study document one intends to write must be appropriate to the processes and methods used in the study or project. Keeping your intended audience in mind is essential for writing an influence footprint into the analysis.

An often overlooked reason for investing time in producing a case study is that they create bridges between researchers by explaining how the strategies, skills and values of people involved in a project influenced what happened. In this way, a case study can help us reach people that may want to collaborate with us, or we want to collaborate with. A well written case study helps disseminate ideas for appropriate research strategies using a mix of documentation from the intervention, outcome data, surveys and qualitative data such as interviews with beneficiaries, and the like. This can lead to many different perspectives being contained within the one document.

As a reflective tool, case studies are extremely beneficial for practitioner development given how they deepen our understanding of systems and processes. They also foster historical review and allow us to situate our research and chart developmental changes, often in a multi-contextual way. Finally, case studies inform vibrant scholarly discussion and are a versatile method for communicating research evidence to policy makers and reaching other important end-users of research findings.

This article was first published on Research to Action.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author
James Harvey
is an unaffiliated academic, researcher and project manager for CommsConsult Ltd, an international organisation that conducts impact evaluations and delivers communication services for development.

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