Doing case studies

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A case study is an in-depth investigation of a single case or instance in a real context -- a single person, patient, group, event, community, program, policy, agency, organization, business, or other entity. It allows for detailed exploration of complex events or phenomena. The data involved are often gathered from observations, interviews, or other methods. A case study is an in-depth study of a real-life phenomenon, that can be informative to others in the field.

1 Rationale

Because it focuses on a single entity or subject, it is often done as an exploratory study, e.g., to identify a possible explanation or analysis, which can be studied further with other research methods. It is also used for more practical purposes, such as situations where a full academic analysis is not needed or practical, such as case studies of business and companies, for practical understanding of reasons for a company's success or failure. It can also be used to evaluate a program (e.g., an educational program, a government program or policy) based on established criteria for evaluation (such as an often-used model for evaluating programs) to assess the effectiveness of a program.

A case study can be an effective tool for creating business reports and for conducting business analysis. This can be valuable for students in a business program learning how to analyze companies. This is also valid for more senior workers in a company who are tasked with analyzing their company, its challenges, problems, or potential future directions. In fact, business analysis is an important field in business, and an important tool for companies' growth and success.

2 Steps

For conducting a case study, such as for my IW or Intermediate Writing course, the following steps are useful.

  1. Identify a well-defined case
  2. Formulate a specific research question
  3. Determine the research methods
  4. Collect empirical materials
  5. Describe the case
  6. Analyze and interpret data
  7. Evaluate solutions, outcomes, or recommendations

2.1 Identifying a well-defined case

This may involve doing background reading on a subject area to help identify a good, specific case. The case should be specific enough that it can be managed well in a single in-depth paper or report. Otherwise, the paper topic will become unmnanageable, and your paper will lack depth and coherence. The case should also be well defined, so that your research can be truly informative and novel for an intelligent reader, rather than simply rehashing familiar information or ideas.

2.1.1 Sample topic areas

It can help to first identify a general topic or area that you are interested in, such as:

  1. a company or business (of any country), or one of its activities (e.g., a merger, acquisition, expansion into a new market, marketing strategy)
  2. an organization, institute, or institution 
  3. a non-governmental organization (NGO), charity, non-profit organization, or community service organization  
  4. a governmental / intergovernmental organization (such as UNESCO, the UN, World Bank)
  5. a government agency
  6. a government program
  7. a school, university, or educational institution 
  8. a department or major of a particular university
  9. an educational program (at a particular school or educational institution, or from a particular organization or agency)
  10. a community service program
  11. an individual subject, e.g., a teacher or learner (educational study), an employee or manager (business study) or a patient (health study) - Note: This requires sufficient academic training and expertise, such as advanced research-oriented students who are familiar with qualitative research
  12. A particular teaching method or approach in a particular context (e.g., a particular EFL/ESL teaching method; how a particular type of literature is taught)
  13. The learning experiences of a particular group of students / learners (in a progam, major, department, or such a context)
  14. The experiences of a particular teacher / group of teachers at a particular educational institution
  15. The opinions or experiences of a particular group of consumers / users of a product, service, or company

2.1.2 Examples

It may help to search for some sources on a topic, and then identify a more specific focus. Your analysis might focus on one or more of the following types.

  • an evaluation (e.g., the effectiveness of a company, program, or activity)
  • a problem / solution or analysis of a problem or challenge that the entity has faced, is facing, or will likely face
  • a challenge (past, present, or likely future challenge) for this entity / program
  • an analysis, evaluation, or problem-solution paper based on a model (like the STAR model), theory, or framework in your field
  • reasons for an entity's success or failure (past or present)
  • the likely prospects of an entity or program, e.g., its potential for failure or success
  • suggestions for what a company or entity should do (e.g., for a specific challenge, or for its future)
  • an interview, survey or questionnaire study of a particular group of persons (e.g., students, teachers, stakeholders)

2.1.3 Searching for sources

Depending on the type of case study you are doing, you will want to find some sources to inform your research and to provide some informative background information on the topic. This will also help to identify a specific case for your study. Some possible sources include:

  1. Research articles from academic research journals
  2. Articles from trade magazines / journals. These are not popular periodicals, but publications for professionals in a particular industry or occupation. Examples would include professional magazines for those working in the film industry, food industry, IT / technology, psychology, higher education, language education, health care, aviation, or any other relevant profession.
  3. Business and business news periodicals, especially those that also carry good articles on analyzing particular issues and companies.
  4. Professional business magazines like 'Harvard Business Review'
  5. Publications for science news, health news, and such
  6. High-quality news sources, including those with good analytical articles by experts

Good sources can help with identifying a suitable case, and for the other steps in the process, as well as for writing up the paper or report. Besides Google, you can use an academic search engine, namely, Google Scholar (, or a regional academic search engine, such as RISS ( to search for academic research within Korea. For RISS, one has to be careful about some search results, such as a master's thesis (which lacks the credibility of other research sources), conference papers (which may be preliminary research, or research that has not been well peer-reviewed), or doctoral dissertations (which may be too heavy for a typical non-academic or non-expert to read well). For Google or Google Scholar, it can be helpful to know good search syntax to find sources more easily.

Search syntax Function Example Explanation
OR Search for two terms at once classified OR secret documents nuclear Search for 'classified documents' or 'secret documents', plus 'nuclear'
"quotation marks" Search for a phrase (not for the individual words) "classified documents" nuclear Search for hits about 'classified documents' and 'nuclear'.
– (minus) Exclude a search term from the results -- exclude hits with a particular word "classified documents" ‑Trump nuclear Search for 'classified documents' and 'nuclear' but omit hits about Trump mishandling such documents.
site: Search for results on a particular website "quantum computing" research "" Search the IBM website for pages or documents on their quantum computing research.
site: Search for results on a domain "classified documents" nuclear


"classified documents" nuclear

Search for 'classified documents' and 'nuclear' on US government or US Navy web pages.

2.2 Research question

A good research question is specific and clear. This should be original, interesting, and unique, and not something that anyone could think of. It should be informative for an educated audience, and should present an original idea for your analysis. The paper and research question can be purely analysis, or a problem-solution paper. The research question can serve as the main thesis statement of the paper (say, in the introductory paragraph). Examples can be in a form of a specific wh-question, that is, a "who, what, when, where, or how" question, or occasionally, as a yes/no question, as in the following.

  • How did X do ___? / How is X doing ___?
  • How well did X do ___? / How well is X doing ___?
  • Why is X doing ___ / Why did X do ___?
  • What should X do?

You might come up with some fairly ideas like the following. These are not yet research questions, but can lead to a research question.

  • Company X's rise and grown in a particualr market; Company X's current strategy or peformance in a particular market; the success (and future) of product line X from Company Y
  • Business, management or leadership practices at Company / Entity X; the leadership and management style of Company X / Organization X
  • A particular degree program at a particular university
  • Problems with a community project in City X
  • Needs or problems of a particular agency (governmental / intergovernmental) or NGO
  • English-medium instruction program(s) at a particular university, or at universities in a particular country
  • How literature is taught in language departments at Korean universities
  • The life of a famous author (poet, novelist, etc.) and how his/her life shaped his/her writings
  • How a city or province can better promote itself, e.g., by attracting more tourism or businesses
  • How a particular university can improve its image, or attract more international students, or promote itself, or attract more research funds
  • How a particular university (or universities in one area or country) can better prepare students for the job market
  • A specific governmental policy or program
  • Focused interviews (e.g., consumers of a product, students in a school or program)
  • A group project of two or more people (in that case, the length requirement for the paper is per person)

The idea then needs to be formulated as a specific research question, like one of these.

  • How did AMD regain its market share in the consumer chip market?
  • How effectively has a particular community program helped prevent the spread of HIV in X City?
  • Why did the Microsoft Zune fail?
  • How can Mozilla regain its market share in the browser market?
  • How effectively is a particular program meeting the needs of its students?
  • What impact does marijuana use have on students at X community college?
  • Is company X's website well designed for customers who shop at their online store?

2.3 Research method

After identifying the research question, you will need to decide what research methods to use, and along with that, the type of empirical materials that you will use. You might use an existing model or framework to your data set. You might use a set of criteria that others have developed and use for evaluating cases, such as criteria for evaluating an educational program, or criteria for identifying signs of racist bias in a government policy. Your study may be purely exploratory, looking for trends, patterns, or likely factors in a case. Occasionally, you might consider different possible explanations and factors, and identify the most relevant or most likely one among many. These approaches can be summarized like so.

  • Deductive, e.g., applying a model, theory or framework
  • Interpretive / evaluative: applying a set of criteria
  • Exploratory, inductive
  • Abductive / inferential: Considering several different options, and then inferring or arguing for the best option or explanation, or most likely factor or cause

Additionally, you might decide to conduct interviews, surveys or questionnaires, which will overlap with the empirical materials below.

2.4 Empirical materials

You might examine websites, writings, or documents, for example, from the entity that you are analyzing, or other materials. Possible materials can include company websites, documents and reports (from a company or other entity), and interviews with relevant persons (that have been published, or are available online). These may be primary sources, if they are directly from the entity that you are researching. More secondary sources can include news reports, analytical articles from business or professional magazines, government reports on a topic, or academic research articles. Your sources can be descriptive or narrative texts, and can also include descriptive statistics, such as counts, averages, frequencies, percentages, and data like sales reports, sales figures, test scores, employment data, or such.

For some topics, you could conduct your own interviews, as long as you have enough understanding of the topic to ask good questions. For example, you could interview a manager of a company that you are examining. If you have enough knowledge of education and/or language learning, you could conduct interviews of new teachers for insights into the challenges they are facing as teachers; you could interview foreign students for insights into a specific type of cultural challenge they face; or you could interview students to understand why they have difficulty with a certain grammatical form in a language they are learning (if you have enough background in applied linguistics).

Similarly, you can conduct surveys or questionnaires and administer them to a group of people. You may want to do close-ended questions, which require objective answers (yes/no, or rate something on a scale from 1-7), which you can add up to create descriptive statistics -- counts, frequencies, percentages, or averages. More likely, for such a study, you may want to do open-ended questions, where participants can provide open, free-form responses, in their own words, e.g., in sentences or paragraphs. You can do a combination of closed and open-ended questions. You can do these on paper, online, or as interviews. For interview questions, you can also ask follow-up questions when their answers raise more questions.

For interview and survey questions, your questions should have a clear rationale. The questions should relate to your research question, or to the theory, model or framework you are using, if you are using one. The questions need to be specific to be of value, and should not be overly mundane or obvious questions. But open-ended questions may need to allow some room for people to respond well.

2.4.1 Materials for business case studies

Students can find data and information on particular companies or industries business case studies from original sources and professional sources that provide expert analysis and information, such as these.

Company websites
Students can start by visiting the official websites of companies they are interested in. Company websites often provide detailed information about their history, mission, products or services, financial reports, and other relevant data. This information can provide a comprehensive understanding of the company's operations and strategies.
Annual reports
Many publicly traded companies publish annual reports, with detailed information about their financial performance, market position, competitive landscape, and future plans. These reports are usually available on company website, or through regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for U.S.-based companies.
Industry reports and market research
Industry reports from reputable research firms and market research data can provide insights into specific industries. Reports often cover market trends, key players, competitive analysis, consumer behavior, and future growth prospects. Some companies such as IBISWorld, Statista, and offer industry reports and market research data, but these business analysis companies may charge money for access to their reports.
Business news and publications
Business news outlets and publications provide in-depth coverage of industries and companies. Websites like Bloomberg, Reuters, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal offer news articles, analysis, interviews, and opinion pieces that can provide information and analyses of current business developments in domestic and international business.
Government and regulatory websites
Government agencies and regulatory bodies often provide public information on companies, industries, and market trends. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers data on employment, wages, and industry outlooks, while the US Census Bureau provides demographic and economic data. Regulatory agencies like the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates financial markets in the US) offer access to company filings, including financial statements and annual reports.
Academic databases
Many universities provide access to academic databases such as JSTOR, ProQuest, or EBSCOhost, which offer scholarly articles, research papers, and case studies on various academic and business topics. By searching for companies and business terminology, oen can find academic research and analyses of specific companies, industries, trends, or business concepts.
Professional associations and trade organizations
Professional associations and trade organizations related to specific industries often publish reports, white papers, and industry analyses. These would include any professional field or trade, such as higher education, primary / secondary education, tourism industries, agriculture, government administration, technology and IT fields, engineering fields, agriculture, health and medical fields, and numerous others. Examples include the American Marketing Association (AMA), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), or the International Association of Hospitality Financial Management (IAHFM).
Professional / trade journals
Various professional and trade organizations publish regular periodicals, known as professional or trade journal, with articles by experts and leaders in their fields. These would be considered professional sources. Depending on the type of field and periodical, the information may be original first-hand information, detailed information on companies and industries, and insights and analyses by experts working in those fields. See the page on professional sources for examples.

2.5 Describe, analyze, interpret

Your paper or report should present sufficient background on the topic or the subject of your study. Previously published research or analytical articles will probably be cited and used as sources for this.

Then a separate section will provide a detailed description of your case and your data, such as a detailed description of the company or program, and a detailed description of the relevant aspects that you are examining. For surveys or interviews, you may report descriptive statistics, or more likely, discussion and summary of the open-ended responses, including important themes or factors that emerge from their responses. When you summarize or quote open-ended responses, you need to interpret or comment on their responses (you should not just quote or report what they said and move on).

Depending on the type of empirical data, you may analyzing it by applying a model, framework, theory, or set of criteria. You might look at the data for trends or themes that emerge from the data.

2.6 Evaluation or recommendations

This may be part of your analysis, or it could be a separate section, depending on your topic. Your paper may be purely analytical, or might be a problem-solution paper, with suggestions or recommendations.

In some cases, you may be evaluating a case, such as the effectiveness of a program, and your conclusions will be explained in detail. You might draw conclusions about how a program or company can or should be improved. You might draw conclusions about what will happen if a company continues its course. You can discuss likely outcomes, say, if a company adopts a certain strategy, and/or outcomes if they do not do so. You might make recommendations and discuss their likely outcome.

3 Paper or report

Your paper or report will likely have most or all the elements described above as distinct sections or subsections. Likely, the paper structure will tend to have these components, though the exact order can vary.

  • Introduction and research question
  • Background info
  • Empirical / research materials (and possibly, the research methods)
  • Description of your case
  • Analysis / interpretation
  • Recommendations, evaluation, and/or conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Appendix: If you conduct a survey / questionnaire or interviews, or used similar research materials, the questions should be included in an appendix.

4 See also

  1. Rashid Y, Rashid A, Warraich MA, Sabir SS, Waseem A. Case Study Method: A Step-by-Step Guide for Business Researchers. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. January 2019. http://doi:10.1177/1609406919862424
  2. Informal case study examples (Hoffman Marketing Coummunications)
  3. Case studies
  4. Case study examples
  5. Professional sources