The Advantages and Limitations of Single Case Study Analysis

problems with single case studies

As Andrew Bennett and Colin Elman have recently noted, qualitative research methods presently enjoy “an almost unprecedented popularity and vitality… in the international relations sub-field”, such that they are now “indisputably prominent, if not pre-eminent” (2010: 499). This is, they suggest, due in no small part to the considerable advantages that case study methods in particular have to offer in studying the “complex and relatively unstructured and infrequent phenomena that lie at the heart of the subfield” (Bennett and Elman, 2007: 171). Using selected examples from within the International Relations literature[1], this paper aims to provide a brief overview of the main principles and distinctive advantages and limitations of single case study analysis. Divided into three inter-related sections, the paper therefore begins by first identifying the underlying principles that serve to constitute the case study as a particular research strategy, noting the somewhat contested nature of the approach in ontological, epistemological, and methodological terms. The second part then looks to the principal single case study types and their associated advantages, including those from within the recent ‘third generation’ of qualitative International Relations (IR) research. The final section of the paper then discusses the most commonly articulated limitations of single case studies; while accepting their susceptibility to criticism, it is however suggested that such weaknesses are somewhat exaggerated. The paper concludes that single case study analysis has a great deal to offer as a means of both understanding and explaining contemporary international relations.

The term ‘case study’, John Gerring has suggested, is “a definitional morass… Evidently, researchers have many different things in mind when they talk about case study research” (2006a: 17). It is possible, however, to distil some of the more commonly-agreed principles. One of the most prominent advocates of case study research, Robert Yin (2009: 14) defines it as “an empirical enquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident”. What this definition usefully captures is that case studies are intended – unlike more superficial and generalising methods – to provide a level of detail and understanding, similar to the ethnographer Clifford Geertz’s (1973) notion of ‘thick description’, that allows for the thorough analysis of the complex and particularistic nature of distinct phenomena. Another frequently cited proponent of the approach, Robert Stake, notes that as a form of research the case study “is defined by interest in an individual case, not by the methods of inquiry used”, and that “the object of study is a specific, unique, bounded system” (2008: 443, 445). As such, three key points can be derived from this – respectively concerning issues of ontology, epistemology, and methodology – that are central to the principles of single case study research.

First, the vital notion of ‘boundedness’ when it comes to the particular unit of analysis means that defining principles should incorporate both the synchronic (spatial) and diachronic (temporal) elements of any so-called ‘case’. As Gerring puts it, a case study should be “an intensive study of a single unit… a spatially bounded phenomenon – e.g. a nation-state, revolution, political party, election, or person – observed at a single point in time or over some delimited period of time” (2004: 342). It is important to note, however, that – whereas Gerring refers to a single unit of analysis – it may be that attention also necessarily be given to particular sub-units. This points to the important difference between what Yin refers to as an ‘holistic’ case design, with a single unit of analysis, and an ’embedded’ case design with multiple units of analysis (Yin, 2009: 50-52). The former, for example, would examine only the overall nature of an international organization, whereas the latter would also look to specific departments, programmes, or policies etc.

Secondly, as Tim May notes of the case study approach, “even the most fervent advocates acknowledge that the term has entered into understandings with little specification or discussion of purpose and process” (2011: 220). One of the principal reasons for this, he argues, is the relationship between the use of case studies in social research and the differing epistemological traditions – positivist, interpretivist, and others – within which it has been utilised. Philosophy of science concerns are obviously a complex issue, and beyond the scope of much of this paper. That said, the issue of how it is that we know what we know – of whether or not a single independent reality exists of which we as researchers can seek to provide explanation – does lead us to an important distinction to be made between so-called idiographic and nomothetic case studies (Gerring, 2006b). The former refers to those which purport to explain only a single case, are concerned with particularisation, and hence are typically (although not exclusively) associated with more interpretivist approaches. The latter are those focused studies that reflect upon a larger population and are more concerned with generalisation, as is often so with more positivist approaches[2]. The importance of this distinction, and its relation to the advantages and limitations of single case study analysis, is returned to below.

Thirdly, in methodological terms, given that the case study has often been seen as more of an interpretivist and idiographic tool, it has also been associated with a distinctly qualitative approach (Bryman, 2009: 67-68). However, as Yin notes, case studies can – like all forms of social science research – be exploratory, descriptive, and/or explanatory in nature. It is “a common misconception”, he notes, “that the various research methods should be arrayed hierarchically… many social scientists still deeply believe that case studies are only appropriate for the exploratory phase of an investigation” (Yin, 2009: 6). If case studies can reliably perform any or all three of these roles – and given that their in-depth approach may also require multiple sources of data and the within-case triangulation of methods – then it becomes readily apparent that they should not be limited to only one research paradigm. Exploratory and descriptive studies usually tend toward the qualitative and inductive, whereas explanatory studies are more often quantitative and deductive (David and Sutton, 2011: 165-166). As such, the association of case study analysis with a qualitative approach is a “methodological affinity, not a definitional requirement” (Gerring, 2006a: 36). It is perhaps better to think of case studies as transparadigmatic; it is mistaken to assume single case study analysis to adhere exclusively to a qualitative methodology (or an interpretivist epistemology) even if it – or rather, practitioners of it – may be so inclined. By extension, this also implies that single case study analysis therefore remains an option for a multitude of IR theories and issue areas; it is how this can be put to researchers’ advantage that is the subject of the next section.

Having elucidated the defining principles of the single case study approach, the paper now turns to an overview of its main benefits. As noted above, a lack of consensus still exists within the wider social science literature on the principles and purposes – and by extension the advantages and limitations – of case study research. Given that this paper is directed towards the particular sub-field of International Relations, it suggests Bennett and Elman’s (2010) more discipline-specific understanding of contemporary case study methods as an analytical framework. It begins however, by discussing Harry Eckstein’s seminal (1975) contribution to the potential advantages of the case study approach within the wider social sciences.

Eckstein proposed a taxonomy which usefully identified what he considered to be the five most relevant types of case study. Firstly were so-called configurative-idiographic studies, distinctly interpretivist in orientation and predicated on the assumption that “one cannot attain prediction and control in the natural science sense, but only understanding ( verstehen )… subjective values and modes of cognition are crucial” (1975: 132). Eckstein’s own sceptical view was that any interpreter ‘simply’ considers a body of observations that are not self-explanatory and “without hard rules of interpretation, may discern in them any number of patterns that are more or less equally plausible” (1975: 134). Those of a more post-modernist bent, of course – sharing an “incredulity towards meta-narratives”, in Lyotard’s (1994: xxiv) evocative phrase – would instead suggest that this more free-form approach actually be advantageous in delving into the subtleties and particularities of individual cases.

Eckstein’s four other types of case study, meanwhile, promote a more nomothetic (and positivist) usage. As described, disciplined-configurative studies were essentially about the use of pre-existing general theories, with a case acting “passively, in the main, as a receptacle for putting theories to work” (Eckstein, 1975: 136). As opposed to the opportunity this presented primarily for theory application, Eckstein identified heuristic case studies as explicit theoretical stimulants – thus having instead the intended advantage of theory-building. So-called p lausibility probes entailed preliminary attempts to determine whether initial hypotheses should be considered sound enough to warrant more rigorous and extensive testing. Finally, and perhaps most notably, Eckstein then outlined the idea of crucial case studies , within which he also included the idea of ‘most-likely’ and ‘least-likely’ cases; the essential characteristic of crucial cases being their specific theory-testing function.

Whilst Eckstein’s was an early contribution to refining the case study approach, Yin’s (2009: 47-52) more recent delineation of possible single case designs similarly assigns them roles in the applying, testing, or building of theory, as well as in the study of unique cases[3]. As a subset of the latter, however, Jack Levy (2008) notes that the advantages of idiographic cases are actually twofold. Firstly, as inductive/descriptive cases – akin to Eckstein’s configurative-idiographic cases – whereby they are highly descriptive, lacking in an explicit theoretical framework and therefore taking the form of “total history”. Secondly, they can operate as theory-guided case studies, but ones that seek only to explain or interpret a single historical episode rather than generalise beyond the case. Not only does this therefore incorporate ‘single-outcome’ studies concerned with establishing causal inference (Gerring, 2006b), it also provides room for the more postmodern approaches within IR theory, such as discourse analysis, that may have developed a distinct methodology but do not seek traditional social scientific forms of explanation.

Applying specifically to the state of the field in contemporary IR, Bennett and Elman identify a ‘third generation’ of mainstream qualitative scholars – rooted in a pragmatic scientific realist epistemology and advocating a pluralistic approach to methodology – that have, over the last fifteen years, “revised or added to essentially every aspect of traditional case study research methods” (2010: 502). They identify ‘process tracing’ as having emerged from this as a central method of within-case analysis. As Bennett and Checkel observe, this carries the advantage of offering a methodologically rigorous “analysis of evidence on processes, sequences, and conjunctures of events within a case, for the purposes of either developing or testing hypotheses about causal mechanisms that might causally explain the case” (2012: 10).

Harnessing various methods, process tracing may entail the inductive use of evidence from within a case to develop explanatory hypotheses, and deductive examination of the observable implications of hypothesised causal mechanisms to test their explanatory capability[4]. It involves providing not only a coherent explanation of the key sequential steps in a hypothesised process, but also sensitivity to alternative explanations as well as potential biases in the available evidence (Bennett and Elman 2010: 503-504). John Owen (1994), for example, demonstrates the advantages of process tracing in analysing whether the causal factors underpinning democratic peace theory are – as liberalism suggests – not epiphenomenal, but variously normative, institutional, or some given combination of the two or other unexplained mechanism inherent to liberal states. Within-case process tracing has also been identified as advantageous in addressing the complexity of path-dependent explanations and critical junctures – as for example with the development of political regime types – and their constituent elements of causal possibility, contingency, closure, and constraint (Bennett and Elman, 2006b).

Bennett and Elman (2010: 505-506) also identify the advantages of single case studies that are implicitly comparative: deviant, most-likely, least-likely, and crucial cases. Of these, so-called deviant cases are those whose outcome does not fit with prior theoretical expectations or wider empirical patterns – again, the use of inductive process tracing has the advantage of potentially generating new hypotheses from these, either particular to that individual case or potentially generalisable to a broader population. A classic example here is that of post-independence India as an outlier to the standard modernisation theory of democratisation, which holds that higher levels of socio-economic development are typically required for the transition to, and consolidation of, democratic rule (Lipset, 1959; Diamond, 1992). Absent these factors, MacMillan’s single case study analysis (2008) suggests the particularistic importance of the British colonial heritage, the ideology and leadership of the Indian National Congress, and the size and heterogeneity of the federal state.

Most-likely cases, as per Eckstein above, are those in which a theory is to be considered likely to provide a good explanation if it is to have any application at all, whereas least-likely cases are ‘tough test’ ones in which the posited theory is unlikely to provide good explanation (Bennett and Elman, 2010: 505). Levy (2008) neatly refers to the inferential logic of the least-likely case as the ‘Sinatra inference’ – if a theory can make it here, it can make it anywhere. Conversely, if a theory cannot pass a most-likely case, it is seriously impugned. Single case analysis can therefore be valuable for the testing of theoretical propositions, provided that predictions are relatively precise and measurement error is low (Levy, 2008: 12-13). As Gerring rightly observes of this potential for falsification:

“a positivist orientation toward the work of social science militates toward a greater appreciation of the case study format, not a denigration of that format, as is usually supposed” (Gerring, 2007: 247, emphasis added).

In summary, the various forms of single case study analysis can – through the application of multiple qualitative and/or quantitative research methods – provide a nuanced, empirically-rich, holistic account of specific phenomena. This may be particularly appropriate for those phenomena that are simply less amenable to more superficial measures and tests (or indeed any substantive form of quantification) as well as those for which our reasons for understanding and/or explaining them are irreducibly subjective – as, for example, with many of the normative and ethical issues associated with the practice of international relations. From various epistemological and analytical standpoints, single case study analysis can incorporate both idiographic sui generis cases and, where the potential for generalisation may exist, nomothetic case studies suitable for the testing and building of causal hypotheses. Finally, it should not be ignored that a signal advantage of the case study – with particular relevance to international relations – also exists at a more practical rather than theoretical level. This is, as Eckstein noted, “that it is economical for all resources: money, manpower, time, effort… especially important, of course, if studies are inherently costly, as they are if units are complex collective individuals ” (1975: 149-150, emphasis added).


Single case study analysis has, however, been subject to a number of criticisms, the most common of which concern the inter-related issues of methodological rigour, researcher subjectivity, and external validity. With regard to the first point, the prototypical view here is that of Zeev Maoz (2002: 164-165), who suggests that “the use of the case study absolves the author from any kind of methodological considerations. Case studies have become in many cases a synonym for freeform research where anything goes”. The absence of systematic procedures for case study research is something that Yin (2009: 14-15) sees as traditionally the greatest concern due to a relative absence of methodological guidelines. As the previous section suggests, this critique seems somewhat unfair; many contemporary case study practitioners – and representing various strands of IR theory – have increasingly sought to clarify and develop their methodological techniques and epistemological grounding (Bennett and Elman, 2010: 499-500).

A second issue, again also incorporating issues of construct validity, concerns that of the reliability and replicability of various forms of single case study analysis. This is usually tied to a broader critique of qualitative research methods as a whole. However, whereas the latter obviously tend toward an explicitly-acknowledged interpretive basis for meanings, reasons, and understandings:

“quantitative measures appear objective, but only so long as we don’t ask questions about where and how the data were produced… pure objectivity is not a meaningful concept if the goal is to measure intangibles [as] these concepts only exist because we can interpret them” (Berg and Lune, 2010: 340).

The question of researcher subjectivity is a valid one, and it may be intended only as a methodological critique of what are obviously less formalised and researcher-independent methods (Verschuren, 2003). Owen (1994) and Layne’s (1994) contradictory process tracing results of interdemocratic war-avoidance during the Anglo-American crisis of 1861 to 1863 – from liberal and realist standpoints respectively – are a useful example. However, it does also rest on certain assumptions that can raise deeper and potentially irreconcilable ontological and epistemological issues. There are, regardless, plenty such as Bent Flyvbjerg (2006: 237) who suggest that the case study contains no greater bias toward verification than other methods of inquiry, and that “on the contrary, experience indicates that the case study contains a greater bias toward falsification of preconceived notions than toward verification”.

The third and arguably most prominent critique of single case study analysis is the issue of external validity or generalisability. How is it that one case can reliably offer anything beyond the particular? “We always do better (or, in the extreme, no worse) with more observation as the basis of our generalization”, as King et al write; “in all social science research and all prediction, it is important that we be as explicit as possible about the degree of uncertainty that accompanies out prediction” (1994: 212). This is an unavoidably valid criticism. It may be that theories which pass a single crucial case study test, for example, require rare antecedent conditions and therefore actually have little explanatory range. These conditions may emerge more clearly, as Van Evera (1997: 51-54) notes, from large-N studies in which cases that lack them present themselves as outliers exhibiting a theory’s cause but without its predicted outcome. As with the case of Indian democratisation above, it would logically be preferable to conduct large-N analysis beforehand to identify that state’s non-representative nature in relation to the broader population.

There are, however, three important qualifiers to the argument about generalisation that deserve particular mention here. The first is that with regard to an idiographic single-outcome case study, as Eckstein notes, the criticism is “mitigated by the fact that its capability to do so [is] never claimed by its exponents; in fact it is often explicitly repudiated” (1975: 134). Criticism of generalisability is of little relevance when the intention is one of particularisation. A second qualifier relates to the difference between statistical and analytical generalisation; single case studies are clearly less appropriate for the former but arguably retain significant utility for the latter – the difference also between explanatory and exploratory, or theory-testing and theory-building, as discussed above. As Gerring puts it, “theory confirmation/disconfirmation is not the case study’s strong suit” (2004: 350). A third qualification relates to the issue of case selection. As Seawright and Gerring (2008) note, the generalisability of case studies can be increased by the strategic selection of cases. Representative or random samples may not be the most appropriate, given that they may not provide the richest insight (or indeed, that a random and unknown deviant case may appear). Instead, and properly used , atypical or extreme cases “often reveal more information because they activate more actors… and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (Flyvbjerg, 2006). Of course, this also points to the very serious limitation, as hinted at with the case of India above, that poor case selection may alternatively lead to overgeneralisation and/or grievous misunderstandings of the relationship between variables or processes (Bennett and Elman, 2006a: 460-463).

As Tim May (2011: 226) notes, “the goal for many proponents of case studies […] is to overcome dichotomies between generalizing and particularizing, quantitative and qualitative, deductive and inductive techniques”. Research aims should drive methodological choices, rather than narrow and dogmatic preconceived approaches. As demonstrated above, there are various advantages to both idiographic and nomothetic single case study analyses – notably the empirically-rich, context-specific, holistic accounts that they have to offer, and their contribution to theory-building and, to a lesser extent, that of theory-testing. Furthermore, while they do possess clear limitations, any research method involves necessary trade-offs; the inherent weaknesses of any one method, however, can potentially be offset by situating them within a broader, pluralistic mixed-method research strategy. Whether or not single case studies are used in this fashion, they clearly have a great deal to offer.


Bennett, A. and Checkel, J. T. (2012) ‘Process Tracing: From Philosophical Roots to Best Practice’, Simons Papers in Security and Development, No. 21/2012, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University: Vancouver.

Bennett, A. and Elman, C. (2006a) ‘Qualitative Research: Recent Developments in Case Study Methods’, Annual Review of Political Science , 9, 455-476.

Bennett, A. and Elman, C. (2006b) ‘Complex Causal Relations and Case Study Methods: The Example of Path Dependence’, Political Analysis , 14, 3, 250-267.

Bennett, A. and Elman, C. (2007) ‘Case Study Methods in the International Relations Subfield’, Comparative Political Studies , 40, 2, 170-195.

Bennett, A. and Elman, C. (2010) Case Study Methods. In C. Reus-Smit and D. Snidal (eds) The Oxford Handbook of International Relations . Oxford University Press: Oxford. Ch. 29.

Berg, B. and Lune, H. (2012) Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences . Pearson: London.

Bryman, A. (2012) Social Research Methods . Oxford University Press: Oxford.

David, M. and Sutton, C. D. (2011) Social Research: An Introduction . SAGE Publications Ltd: London.

Diamond, J. (1992) ‘Economic development and democracy reconsidered’, American Behavioral Scientist , 35, 4/5, 450-499.

Eckstein, H. (1975) Case Study and Theory in Political Science. In R. Gomm, M. Hammersley, and P. Foster (eds) Case Study Method . SAGE Publications Ltd: London.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006) ‘Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research’, Qualitative Inquiry , 12, 2, 219-245.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz . Basic Books Inc: New York.

Gerring, J. (2004) ‘What is a Case Study and What Is It Good for?’, American Political Science Review , 98, 2, 341-354.

Gerring, J. (2006a) Case Study Research: Principles and Practices . Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Gerring, J. (2006b) ‘Single-Outcome Studies: A Methodological Primer’, International Sociology , 21, 5, 707-734.

Gerring, J. (2007) ‘Is There a (Viable) Crucial-Case Method?’, Comparative Political Studies , 40, 3, 231-253.

King, G., Keohane, R. O. and Verba, S. (1994) Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research . Princeton University Press: Chichester.

Layne, C. (1994) ‘Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace’, International Security , 19, 2, 5-49.

Levy, J. S. (2008) ‘Case Studies: Types, Designs, and Logics of Inference’, Conflict Management and Peace Science , 25, 1-18.

Lipset, S. M. (1959) ‘Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy’, The American Political Science Review , 53, 1, 69-105.

Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge . University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

MacMillan, A. (2008) ‘Deviant Democratization in India’, Democratization , 15, 4, 733-749.

Maoz, Z. (2002) Case study methodology in international studies: from storytelling to hypothesis testing. In F. P. Harvey and M. Brecher (eds) Evaluating Methodology in International Studies . University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.

May, T. (2011) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process . Open University Press: Maidenhead.

Owen, J. M. (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace’, International Security , 19, 2, 87-125.

Seawright, J. and Gerring, J. (2008) ‘Case Selection Techniques in Case Study Research: A Menu of Qualitative and Quantitative Options’, Political Research Quarterly , 61, 2, 294-308.

Stake, R. E. (2008) Qualitative Case Studies. In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (eds) Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry . Sage Publications: Los Angeles. Ch. 17.

Van Evera, S. (1997) Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science . Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Verschuren, P. J. M. (2003) ‘Case study as a research strategy: some ambiguities and opportunities’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology , 6, 2, 121-139.

Yin, R. K. (2009) Case Study Research: Design and Methods . SAGE Publications Ltd: London.

[1] The paper follows convention by differentiating between ‘International Relations’ as the academic discipline and ‘international relations’ as the subject of study.

[2] There is some similarity here with Stake’s (2008: 445-447) notion of intrinsic cases, those undertaken for a better understanding of the particular case, and instrumental ones that provide insight for the purposes of a wider external interest.

[3] These may be unique in the idiographic sense, or in nomothetic terms as an exception to the generalising suppositions of either probabilistic or deterministic theories (as per deviant cases, below).

[4] Although there are “philosophical hurdles to mount”, according to Bennett and Checkel, there exists no a priori reason as to why process tracing (as typically grounded in scientific realism) is fundamentally incompatible with various strands of positivism or interpretivism (2012: 18-19). By extension, it can therefore be incorporated by a range of contemporary mainstream IR theories.

— Written by: Ben Willis Written at: University of Plymouth Written for: David Brockington Date written: January 2013

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Single-Case Design, Analysis, and Quality Assessment for Intervention Research

Michele a. lobo.

1 Biomechanics & Movement Science Program, Department of Physical Therapy, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA

Mariola Moeyaert

2 Division of Educational Psychology & Methodology, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY, USA

Andrea Baraldi Cunha

Iryna babik, background and purpose.

The purpose of this article is to describe single-case studies, and contrast them with case studies and randomized clinical trials. We will highlight current research designs, analysis techniques, and quality appraisal tools relevant for single-case rehabilitation research.

Summary of Key Points

Single-case studies can provide a viable alternative to large group studies such as randomized clinical trials. Single case studies involve repeated measures, and manipulation of and independent variable. They can be designed to have strong internal validity for assessing causal relationships between interventions and outcomes, and external validity for generalizability of results, particularly when the study designs incorporate replication, randomization, and multiple participants. Single case studies should not be confused with case studies/series (ie, case reports), which are reports of clinical management of one patient or a small series of patients.

Recommendations for Clinical Practice

When rigorously designed, single-case studies can be particularly useful experimental designs in a variety of situations, even when researcher resources are limited, studied conditions have low incidences, or when examining effects of novel or expensive interventions. Readers will be directed to examples from the published literature in which these techniques have been discussed, evaluated for quality, and implemented.


The purpose of this article is to present current tools and techniques relevant for single-case rehabilitation research. Single-case (SC) studies have been identified by a variety of names, including “n of 1 studies” and “single-subject” studies. The term “single-case study” is preferred over the previously mentioned terms because previous terms suggest these studies include only one participant. In fact, as will be discussed below, for purposes of replication and improved generalizability, the strongest SC studies commonly include more than one participant.

A SC study should not be confused with a “case study/series “ (also called “case report”. In a typical case study/series, a single patient or small series of patients is involved, but there is not a purposeful manipulation of an independent variable, nor are there necessarily repeated measures. Most case studies/series are reported in a narrative way while results of SC studies are presented numerically or graphically. 1 , 2 This article defines SC studies, contrasts them with randomized clinical trials, discusses how they can be used to scientifically test hypotheses, and highlights current research designs, analysis techniques, and quality appraisal tools that may be useful for rehabilitation researchers.

In SC studies, measurements of outcome (dependent variables) are recorded repeatedly for individual participants across time and varying levels of an intervention (independent variables). 1 – 5 These varying levels of intervention are referred to as “phases” with one phase serving as a baseline or comparison, so each participant serves as his/her own control. 2 In contrast to case studies and case series in which participants are observed across time without experimental manipulation of the independent variable, SC studies employ systematic manipulation of the independent variable to allow for hypothesis testing. 1 , 6 As a result, SC studies allow for rigorous experimental evaluation of intervention effects and provide a strong basis for establishing causal inferences. Advances in design and analysis techniques for SC studies observed in recent decades have made SC studies increasingly popular in educational and psychological research. Yet, the authors believe SC studies have been undervalued in rehabilitation research, where randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are typically recommended as the optimal research design to answer questions related to interventions. 7 In reality, there are advantages and disadvantages to both SC studies and RCTs that should be carefully considered in order to select the best design to answer individual research questions. While there are a variety of other research designs that could be utilized in rehabilitation research, only SC studies and RCTs are discussed here because SC studies are the focus of this article and RCTs are the most highly recommended design for intervention studies. 7

When designed and conducted properly, RCTs offer strong evidence that changes in outcomes may be related to provision of an intervention. However, RCTs require monetary, time, and personnel resources that many researchers, especially those in clinical settings, may not have available. 8 RCTs also require access to large numbers of consenting participants that meet strict inclusion and exclusion criteria that can limit variability of the sample and generalizability of results. 9 The requirement for large participant numbers may make RCTs difficult to perform in many settings, such as rural and suburban settings, and for many populations, such as those with diagnoses marked by lower prevalence. 8 To rely exclusively on RCTs has the potential to result in bodies of research that are skewed to address the needs of some individuals while neglecting the needs of others. RCTs aim to include a large number of participants and to use random group assignment to create study groups that are similar to one another in terms of all potential confounding variables, but it is challenging to identify all confounding variables. Finally, the results of RCTs are typically presented in terms of group means and standard deviations that may not represent true performance of any one participant. 10 This can present as a challenge for clinicians aiming to translate and implement these group findings at the level of the individual.

SC studies can provide a scientifically rigorous alternative to RCTs for experimentally determining the effectiveness of interventions. 1 , 2 SC studies can assess a variety of research questions, settings, cases, independent variables, and outcomes. 11 There are many benefits to SC studies that make them appealing for intervention research. SC studies may require fewer resources than RCTs and can be performed in settings and with populations that do not allow for large numbers of participants. 1 , 2 In SC studies, each participant serves as his/her own comparison, thus controlling for many confounding variables that can impact outcome in rehabilitation research, such as gender, age, socioeconomic level, cognition, home environment, and concurrent interventions. 2 , 11 Results can be analyzed and presented to determine whether interventions resulted in changes at the level of the individual, the level at which rehabilitation professionals intervene. 2 , 12 When properly designed and executed, SC studies can demonstrate strong internal validity to determine the likelihood of a causal relationship between the intervention and outcomes and external validity to generalize the findings to broader settings and populations. 2 , 12 , 13

Single Case Research Designs for Intervention Research

There are a variety of SC designs that can be used to study the effectiveness of interventions. Here we discuss: 1) AB designs, 2) reversal designs, 3) multiple baseline designs, and 4) alternating treatment designs, as well as ways replication and randomization techniques can be used to improve internal validity of all of these designs. 1 – 3 , 12 – 14

The simplest of these designs is the AB Design 15 ( Figure 1 ). This design involves repeated measurement of outcome variables throughout a baseline control/comparison phase (A ) and then throughout an intervention phase (B). When possible, it is recommended that a stable level and/or rate of change in performance be observed within the baseline phase before transitioning into the intervention phase. 2 As with all SC designs, it is also recommended that there be a minimum of five data points in each phase. 1 , 2 There is no randomization or replication of the baseline or intervention phases in the basic AB design. 2 Therefore, AB designs have problems with internal validity and generalizability of results. 12 They are weak in establishing causality because changes in outcome variables could be related to a variety of other factors, including maturation, experience, learning, and practice effects. 2 , 12 Sample data from a single case AB study performed to assess the impact of Floor Play intervention on social interaction and communication skills for a child with autism 15 are shown in Figure 1 .

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An example of results from a single-case AB study conducted on one participant with autism; two weeks of observation (baseline phase A) were followed by seven weeks of Floor Time Play (intervention phase B). The outcome measure Circles of Communications (reciprocal communication with two participants responding to each other verbally or nonverbally) served as a behavioral indicator of the child’s social interaction and communication skills (higher scores indicating better performance). A statistically significant improvement in Circles of Communication was found during the intervention phase as compared to the baseline. Note that although a stable baseline is recommended for SC studies, it is not always possible to satisfy this requirement, as you will see in Figures 1 – 4 . Data were extracted from Dionne and Martini (2011) 15 utilizing Rohatgi’s WebPlotDigitizer software. 78

If an intervention does not have carry-over effects, it is recommended to use a Reversal Design . 2 For example, a reversal A 1 BA 2 design 16 ( Figure 2 ) includes alternation of the baseline and intervention phases, whereas a reversal A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 design 17 ( Figure 3 ) consists of alternation of two baseline (A 1 , A 2 ) and two intervention (B 1 , B 2 ) phases. Incorporating at least four phases in the reversal design (i.e., A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 or A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 A 3 B 3 …) allows for a stronger determination of a causal relationship between the intervention and outcome variables, because the relationship can be demonstrated across at least three different points in time – change in outcome from A 1 to B 1 , from B 1 to A 2 , and from A 2 to B 2 . 18 Before using this design, however, researchers must determine that it is safe and ethical to withdraw the intervention, especially in cases where the intervention is effective and necessary. 12

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An example of results from a single-case A 1 BA 2 study conducted on eight participants with stable multiple sclerosis (data on three participants were used for this example). Four weeks of observation (baseline phase A 1 ) were followed by eight weeks of core stability training (intervention phase B), then another four weeks of observation (baseline phase A 2 ). Forward functional reach test (the maximal distance the participant can reach forward or lateral beyond arm’s length, maintaining a fixed base of support in the standing position; higher scores indicating better performance) significantly improved during intervention for Participants 1 and 3 without further improvement observed following withdrawal of the intervention (during baseline phase A 2 ). Data were extracted from Freeman et al. (2010) 16 utilizing Rohatgi’s WebPlotDigitizer software. 78

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An example of results from a single-case A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 study conducted on two participants with severe unilateral neglect after a right-hemisphere stroke. Two weeks of conventional treatment (baseline phases A 1, A 2 ) alternated with two weeks of visuo-spatio-motor cueing (intervention phases B 1 , B 2 ). Performance was assessed in two tests of lateral neglect, the Bells Cancellation Test (Figure A; lower scores indicating better performance) and the Line Bisection Test (Figure B; higher scores indicating better performance). There was a statistically significant intervention-related improvement in participants’ performance on the Line Bisection Test, but not on the Bells Test. Data were extracted from Samuel at al. (2000) 17 utilizing Rohatgi’s WebPlotDigitizer software. 78

A recent study used an ABA reversal SC study to determine the effectiveness of core stability training in 8 participants with multiple sclerosis. 16 During the first four weekly data collections, the researchers ensured a stable baseline, which was followed by eight weekly intervention data points, and concluded with four weekly withdrawal data points. Intervention significantly improved participants’ walking and reaching performance ( Figure 2 ). 16 This A 1 BA 2 design could have been strengthened by the addition of a second intervention phase for replication (A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 ). For instance, a single-case A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 withdrawal design aimed to assess the efficacy of rehabilitation using visuo-spatio-motor cueing for two participants with severe unilateral neglect after a severe right-hemisphere stroke. 17 Each phase included 8 data points. Statistically significant intervention-related improvement was observed, suggesting that visuo-spatio-motor cueing might be promising for treating individuals with very severe neglect ( Figure 3 ). 17

The reversal design can also incorporate a cross over design where each participant experiences more than one type of intervention. For instance, a B 1 C 1 B 2 C 2 design could be used to study the effects of two different interventions (B and C) on outcome measures. Challenges with including more than one intervention involve potential carry-over effects from earlier interventions and order effects that may impact the measured effectiveness of the interventions. 2 , 12 Including multiple participants and randomizing the order of intervention phase presentations are tools to help control for these types of effects. 19

When an intervention permanently changes an individual’s ability, a return to baseline performance is not feasible and reversal designs are not appropriate. Multiple Baseline Designs (MBDs) are useful in these situations ( Figure 4 ). 20 MBDs feature staggered introduction of the intervention across time: each participant is randomly assigned to one of at least 3 experimental conditions characterized by the length of the baseline phase. 21 These studies involve more than one participant, thus functioning as SC studies with replication across participants. Staggered introduction of the intervention allows for separation of intervention effects from those of maturation, experience, learning, and practice. For example, a multiple baseline SC study was used to investigate the effect of an anti-spasticity baclofen medication on stiffness in five adult males with spinal cord injury. 20 The subjects were randomly assigned to receive 5–9 baseline data points with a placebo treatment prior to the initiation of the intervention phase with the medication. Both participants and assessors were blind to the experimental condition. The results suggested that baclofen might not be a universal treatment choice for all individuals with spasticity resulting from a traumatic spinal cord injury ( Figure 4 ). 20

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An example of results from a single-case multiple baseline study conducted on five participants with spasticity due to traumatic spinal cord injury. Total duration of data collection was nine weeks. The first participant was switched from placebo treatment (baseline) to baclofen treatment (intervention) after five data collection sessions, whereas each consecutive participant was switched to baclofen intervention at the subsequent sessions through the ninth session. There was no statistically significant effect of baclofen on viscous stiffness at the ankle joint. Data were extracted from Hinderer at al. (1990) 20 utilizing Rohatgi’s WebPlotDigitizer software. 78

The impact of two or more interventions can also be assessed via Alternating Treatment Designs (ATDs) . In ATDs, after establishing the baseline, the experimenter exposes subjects to different intervention conditions administered in close proximity for equal intervals ( Figure 5 ). 22 ATDs are prone to “carry-over effects” when the effects of one intervention influence the observed outcomes of another intervention. 1 As a result, such designs introduce unique challenges when attempting to determine the effects of any one intervention and have been less commonly utilized in rehabilitation. An ATD was used to monitor disruptive behaviors in the school setting throughout a baseline followed by an alternating treatment phase with randomized presentation of a control condition or an exercise condition. 23 Results showed that 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity decreased behavioral disruptions through 90 minutes after the intervention. 23 An ATD was also used to compare the effects of commercially available and custom-made video prompts on the performance of multi-step cooking tasks in four participants with autism. 22 Results showed that participants independently performed more steps with the custom-made video prompts ( Figure 5 ). 22

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An example of results from a single case alternating treatment study conducted on four participants with autism (data on two participants were used for this example). After the observation phase (baseline), effects of commercially available and custom-made video prompts on the performance of multi-step cooking tasks were identified (treatment phase), after which only the best treatment was used (best treatment phase). Custom-made video prompts were most effective for improving participants’ performance of multi-step cooking tasks. Data were extracted from Mechling at al. (2013) 22 utilizing Rohatgi’s WebPlotDigitizer software. 78

Regardless of the SC study design, replication and randomization should be incorporated when possible to improve internal and external validity. 11 The reversal design is an example of replication across study phases. The minimum number of phase replications needed to meet quality standards is three (A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 ), but having four or more replications is highly recommended (A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 A 3 …). 11 , 14 In cases when interventions aim to produce lasting changes in participants’ abilities, replication of findings may be demonstrated by replicating intervention effects across multiple participants (as in multiple-participant AB designs), or across multiple settings, tasks, or service providers. When the results of an intervention are replicated across multiple reversals, participants, and/or contexts, there is an increased likelihood a causal relationship exists between the intervention and the outcome. 2 , 12

Randomization should be incorporated in SC studies to improve internal validity and the ability to assess for causal relationships among interventions and outcomes. 11 In contrast to traditional group designs, SC studies often do not have multiple participants or units that can be randomly assigned to different intervention conditions. Instead, in randomized phase-order designs , the sequence of phases is randomized. Simple or block randomization is possible. For example, with simple randomization for an A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 design, the A and B conditions are treated as separate units and are randomly assigned to be administered for each of the pre-defined data collection points. As a result, any combination of A-B sequences is possible without restrictions on the number of times each condition is administered or regard for repetitions of conditions (e.g., A 1 B 1 B 2 A 2 B 3 B 4 B 5 A 3 B 6 A 4 A 5 A 6 ). With block randomization for an A 1 B 1 A 2 B 2 design, two conditions (e.g., A and B) would be blocked into a single unit (AB or BA), randomization of which to different time periods would ensure that each condition appears in the resulting sequence more than two times (e.g., A 1 B 1 B 2 A 2 A 3 B 3 A 4 B 4 ). Note that AB and reversal designs require that the baseline (A) always precedes the first intervention (B), which should be accounted for in the randomization scheme. 2 , 11

In randomized phase start-point designs , the lengths of the A and B phases can be randomized. 2 , 11 , 24 – 26 For example, for an AB design, researchers could specify the number of time points at which outcome data will be collected, (e.g., 20), define the minimum number of data points desired in each phase (e.g., 4 for A, 3 for B), and then randomize the initiation of the intervention so that it occurs anywhere between the remaining time points (points 5 and 17 in the current example). 27 , 28 For multiple-baseline designs, a dual-randomization, or “regulated randomization” procedure has been recommended. 29 If multiple-baseline randomization depends solely on chance, it could be the case that all units are assigned to begin intervention at points not really separated in time. 30 Such randomly selected initiation of the intervention would result in the drastic reduction of the discriminant and internal validity of the study. 29 To eliminate this issue, investigators should first specify appropriate intervals between the start points for different units, then randomly select from those intervals, and finally randomly assign each unit to a start point. 29

Single Case Analysis Techniques for Intervention Research

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) single-case design technical documentation provides an excellent overview of appropriate SC study analysis techniques to evaluate the effectiveness of intervention effects. 1 , 18 First, visual analyses are recommended to determine whether there is a functional relation between the intervention and the outcome. Second, if evidence for a functional effect is present, the visual analysis is supplemented with quantitative analysis methods evaluating the magnitude of the intervention effect. Third, effect sizes are combined across cases to estimate overall average intervention effects which contributes to evidence-based practice, theory, and future applications. 2 , 18

Visual Analysis

Traditionally, SC study data are presented graphically. When more than one participant engages in a study, a spaghetti plot showing all of their data in the same figure can be helpful for visualization. Visual analysis of graphed data has been the traditional method for evaluating treatment effects in SC research. 1 , 12 , 31 , 32 The visual analysis involves evaluating level, trend, and stability of the data within each phase (i.e., within-phase data examination) followed by examination of the immediacy of effect, consistency of data patterns, and overlap of data between baseline and intervention phases (i.e., between-phase comparisons). When the changes (and/or variability) in level are in the desired direction, are immediate, readily discernible, and maintained over time, it is concluded that the changes in behavior across phases result from the implemented treatment and are indicative of improvement. 33 Three demonstrations of an intervention effect are necessary for establishing a functional relation. 1

Within-phase examination

Level, trend, and stability of the data within each phase are evaluated. Mean and/or median can be used to report the level, and trend can be evaluated by determining whether the data points are monotonically increasing or decreasing. Within-phase stability can be evaluated by calculating the percentage of data points within 15% of the phase median (or mean). The stability criterion is satisfied if about 85% (80% – 90%) of the data in a phase fall within a 15% range of the median (or average) of all data points for that phase. 34

Between-phase examination

Immediacy of effect, consistency of data patterns, and overlap of data between baseline and intervention phases are evaluated next. For this, several nonoverlap indices have been proposed that all quantify the proportion of measurements in the intervention phase not overlapping with the baseline measurements. 35 Nonoverlap statistics are typically scaled as percent from 0 to 100, or as a proportion from 0 to 1. Here, we briefly discuss the Nonoverlap of All Pairs ( NAP ), 36 the Extended Celeration Line ( ECL ), the Improvement Rate Difference ( IRD) , 37 and the TauU and the TauU-adjusted, TauU adj , 35 as these are the most recent and complete techniques. We also examine the Percentage of Nonoverlapping Data ( PND ) 38 and the Two Standard Deviations Band Method, as these are frequently used techniques. In addition, we include the Percentage of Nonoverlapping Corrected Data ( PNCD ) – an index applying to the PND after controlling for baseline trend. 39

Nonoverlap of all pairs (NAP)

Each baseline observation can be paired with each intervention phase observation to make n pairs (i.e., N = n A * n B ). Count the number of overlapping pairs, n o , counting all ties as 0.5. Then define the percent of the pairs that show no overlap. Alternatively, one can count the number of positive (P), negative (N), and tied (T) pairs 2 , 36 :

Extended Celeration Line (ECL)

ECL or split middle line allows control for a positive Phase A trend. Nonoverlap is defined as the proportion of Phase B ( n b ) data that are above the median trend plotted from Phase A data ( n B< sub > Above Median trend A </ sub > ), but then extended into Phase B: ECL = n B Above Median trend A n b ∗ 100

As a consequence, this method depends on a straight line and makes an assumption of linearity in the baseline. 2 , 12

Improvement rate difference (IRD)

This analysis is conceptualized as the difference in improvement rates (IR) between baseline ( IR B ) and intervention phases ( IR T ). 38 The IR for each phase is defined as the number of “improved data points” divided by the total data points in that phase. IRD, commonly employed in medical group research under the name of “risk reduction” or “risk difference” attempts to provide an intuitive interpretation for nonoverlap and to make use of an established, respected effect size, IR B - IR B , or the difference between two proportions. 37

TauU and TauU adj

Each baseline observation can be paired with each intervention phase observation to make n pairs (i.e., n = n A * n B ). Count the number of positive (P), negative (N), and tied (T) pairs, and use the following formula: TauU = P - N P + N + τ

The TauU adj is an adjustment of TauU for monotonic trend in baseline. Each baseline observation can be paired with each intervention phase observation to make n pairs (i.e., n = n A * n B ). Each baseline observation can be paired with all later baseline observations (n A *(n A -1)/2). 2 , 35 Then the baseline trend can be computed: TauU adf = P - N - S trend P + N + τ ; S trend = P A – NA

Online calculators might assist researchers in obtaining the TauU and TauU adjusted coefficients ( ).

Percentage of nonoverlapping data (PND)

If anticipating an increase in the outcome, locate the highest data point in the baseline phase and then calculate the percent of the intervention phase data points that exceed it. If anticipating a decrease in the outcome, find the lowest data point in the baseline phase and then calculate the percent of the treatment phase data points that are below it: PND = n B Overlap A n b ∗ 100 . A PND < 50 would mark no observed effect, PND = 50–70 signifies a questionable effect, and PND > 70 suggests the intervention was effective. 40 The percentage of nonoverlapping (PNDC) corrected was proposed in 2009 as an extension of the PND. 39 Prior to applying the PND, a data correction procedure is applied eliminating pre-existing baseline trend. 38

Two Standard Deviation Band Method

When the stability criterion described above is met within phases, it is possible to apply the two standard deviation band method. 12 , 41 First, the mean of the data for a specific condition is calculated and represented with a solid line. In the next step, the standard deviation of the same data is computed and two dashed lines are represented: one located two standard deviations above the mean and the other – two standard deviations below. For normally distributed data, few points (less than 5%) are expected to be outside the two standard deviation bands if there is no change in the outcome score due to the intervention. However, this method is not considered a formal statistical procedure, as the data cannot typically be assumed to be normal, continuous, or independent. 41

Statistical Analysis

If the visual analysis indicates a functional relationship (i.e., three demonstrations of the effectiveness of the intervention effect), it is recommended to proceed with the quantitative analyses, reflecting the magnitude of the intervention effect. First, effect sizes are calculated for each participant (individual-level analysis). Moreover, if the research interest lies in the generalizability of the effect size across participants, effect sizes can be combined across cases to achieve an overall average effect size estimate (across-case effect size).

Note that quantitative analysis methods are still being developed in the domain of SC research 1 and statistical challenges of producing an acceptable measure of treatment effect remain. 14 , 42 , 43 Therefore, the WWC standards strongly recommend conducting sensitivity analysis and reporting multiple effect size estimators. If consistency across different effect size estimators is identified, there is stronger evidence for the effectiveness of the treatment. 1 , 18

Individual-level effect size analysis

The most common effect sizes recommended for SC analysis are: 1) standardized mean difference Cohen’s d ; 2) standardized mean difference with correction for small sample sizes Hedges’ g ; and 3) the regression-based approach which has the most potential and is strongly recommended by the WWC standards. 1 , 44 , 45 Cohen’s d can be calculated using following formula: d = X A ¯ - X B ¯ s p , with X A ¯ being the baseline mean, X B ¯ being the treatment mean, and s p indicating the pooled within-case standard deviation. Hedges’ g is an extension of Cohen’s d , recommended in the context of SC studies as it corrects for small sample sizes. The piecewise regression-based approach does not only reflect the immediate intervention effect, but also the intervention effect across time:

i stands for the measurement occasion ( i = 0, 1,… I ). The dependent variable is regressed on a time indicator, T , which is centered around the first observation of the intervention phase, D , a dummy variable for the intervention phase, and an interaction term of these variables. The equation shows that the expected score, Ŷ i , equals β 0 + β 1 T i in the baseline phase, and ( β 0 + β 2 ) + ( β 1 + β 3 ) T i in the intervention phase. β 0 , therefore, indicates the expected baseline level at the start of the intervention phase (when T = 0), whereas β 1 marks the linear time trend in the baseline scores. The coefficient β 2 can then be interpreted as an immediate effect of the intervention on the outcome, whereas β 3 signifies the effect of the intervention across time. The e i ’s are residuals assumed to be normally distributed around a mean of zero with a variance of σ e 2 . The assumption of independence of errors is usually not met in the context of SC studies because repeated measures are obtained within a person. As a consequence, it can be the case that the residuals are autocorrelated, meaning that errors closer in time are more related to each other compared to errors further away in time. 46 – 48 As a consequence, a lag-1 autocorrelation is appropriate (taking into account the correlation between two consecutive errors: e i and e i –1 ; for more details see Verbeke & Molenberghs, (2000). 49 In Equation 1 , ρ indicates the autocorrelation parameter. If ρ is positive, the errors closer in time are more similar; if ρ is negative, the errors closer in time are more different, and if ρ equals zero, there is no correlation between the errors.

Across-case effect sizes

Two-level modeling to estimate the intervention effects across cases can be used to evaluate across-case effect sizes. 44 , 45 , 50 Multilevel modeling is recommended by the WWC standards because it takes the hierarchical nature of SC studies into account: measurements are nested within cases and cases, in turn, are nested within studies. By conducting a multilevel analysis, important research questions can be addressed (which cannot be answered by single-level analysis of SC study data), such as: 1) What is the magnitude of the average treatment effect across cases? 2) What is the magnitude and direction of the case-specific intervention effect? 3) How much does the treatment effect vary within cases and across cases? 4) Does a case and/or study level predictor influence the treatment’s effect? The two-level model has been validated in previous research using extensive simulation studies. 45 , 46 , 51 The two-level model appears to have sufficient power (> .80) to detect large treatment effects in at least six participants with six measurements. 21

Furthermore, to estimate the across-case effect sizes, the HPS (Hedges, Pustejovsky, and Shadish) , or single-case educational design ( SCEdD)-specific mean difference, index can be calculated. 52 This is a standardized mean difference index specifically designed for SCEdD data, with the aim of making it comparable to Cohen’s d of group-comparison designs. The standard deviation takes into account both within-participant and between-participant variability, and is typically used to get an across-case estimator for a standardized change in level. The advantage of using the HPS across-case effect size estimator is that it is directly comparable with Cohen’s d for group comparison research, thus enabling the use of Cohen’s (1988) benchmarks. 53

Valuable recommendations on SC data analyses have recently been provided. 54 , 55 They suggest that a specific SC study data analytic technique can be chosen based on: (1) the study aims and the desired quantification (e.g., overall quantification, between-phase quantifications, randomization, etc.), (2) the data characteristics as assessed by visual inspection and the assumptions one is willing to make about the data, and (3) the knowledge and computational resources. 54 , 55 Table 1 lists recommended readings and some commonly used resources related to the design and analysis of single-case studies.

Recommend readings and resources related to the design and analysis of single-case studies.

Quality Appraisal Tools for Single-Case Design Research

Quality appraisal tools are important to guide researchers in designing strong experiments and conducting high-quality systematic reviews of the literature. Unfortunately, quality assessment tools for SC studies are relatively novel, ratings across tools demonstrate variability, and there is currently no “gold standard” tool. 56 Table 2 lists important SC study quality appraisal criteria compiled from the most common scales; when planning studies or reviewing the literature, we recommend readers consider these criteria. Table 3 lists some commonly used SC quality assessment and reporting tools and references to resources where the tools can be located.

Summary of important single-case study quality appraisal criteria.

Quality assessment and reporting tools related to single-case studies.

When an established tool is required for systematic review, we recommend use of the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) Tool because it has well-defined criteria and is developed and supported by leading experts in the SC research field in association with the Institute of Education Sciences. 18 The WWC documentation provides clear standards and procedures to evaluate the quality of SC research; it assesses the internal validity of SC studies, classifying them as “Meeting Standards”, “Meeting Standards with Reservations”, or “Not Meeting Standards”. 1 , 18 Only studies classified in the first two categories are recommended for further visual analysis. Also, WWC evaluates the evidence of effect, classifying studies into “Strong Evidence of a Causal Relation”, “Moderate Evidence of a Causal Relation”, or “No Evidence of a Causal Relation”. Effect size should only be calculated for studies providing strong or moderate evidence of a causal relation.

The Single-Case Reporting Guideline In BEhavioural Interventions (SCRIBE) 2016 is another useful SC research tool developed recently to improve the quality of single-case designs. 57 SCRIBE consists of a 26-item checklist that researchers need to address while reporting the results of SC studies. This practical checklist allows for critical evaluation of SC studies during study planning, manuscript preparation, and review.

Single-case studies can be designed and analyzed in a rigorous manner that allows researchers strength in assessing causal relationships among interventions and outcomes, and in generalizing their results. 2 , 12 These studies can be strengthened via incorporating replication of findings across multiple study phases, participants, settings, or contexts, and by using randomization of conditions or phase lengths. 11 There are a variety of tools that can allow researchers to objectively analyze findings from SC studies. 56 While a variety of quality assessment tools exist for SC studies, they can be difficult to locate and utilize without experience, and different tools can provide variable results. The WWC quality assessment tool is recommended for those aiming to systematically review SC studies. 1 , 18

SC studies, like all types of study designs, have a variety of limitations. First, it can be challenging to collect at least five data points in a given study phase. This may be especially true when traveling for data collection is difficult for participants, or during the baseline phase when delaying intervention may not be safe or ethical. Power in SC studies is related to the number of data points gathered for each participant so it is important to avoid having a limited number of data points. 12 , 58 Second, SC studies are not always designed in a rigorous manner and, thus, may have poor internal validity. This limitation can be overcome by addressing key characteristics that strengthen SC designs ( Table 2 ). 1 , 14 , 18 Third, SC studies may have poor generalizability. This limitation can be overcome by including a greater number of participants, or units. Fourth, SC studies may require consultation from expert methodologists and statisticians to ensure proper study design and data analysis, especially to manage issues like autocorrelation and variability of data. 2 Fifth, while it is recommended to achieve a stable level and rate of performance throughout the baseline, human performance is quite variable and can make this requirement challenging. Finally, the most important validity threat to SC studies is maturation. This challenge must be considered during the design process in order to strengthen SC studies. 1 , 2 , 12 , 58

SC studies can be particularly useful for rehabilitation research. They allow researchers to closely track and report change at the level of the individual. They may require fewer resources and, thus, can allow for high-quality experimental research, even in clinical settings. Furthermore, they provide a tool for assessing causal relationships in populations and settings where large numbers of participants are not accessible. For all of these reasons, SC studies can serve as an effective method for assessing the impact of interventions.


This research was supported by the National Institute of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (1R21HD076092-01A1, Lobo PI) and the Delaware Economic Development Office (Grant #109).

Some of the information in this manuscript was presented at the IV Step Meeting in Columbus, OH, June 2016.

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  • Perspective
  • Published: 22 November 2022

Single case studies are a powerful tool for developing, testing and extending theories

  • Lyndsey Nickels   ORCID: 1 , 2 ,
  • Simon Fischer-Baum   ORCID: 3 &
  • Wendy Best   ORCID: 4  

Nature Reviews Psychology volume  1 ,  pages 733–747 ( 2022 ) Cite this article

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  • Neurological disorders

Psychology embraces a diverse range of methodologies. However, most rely on averaging group data to draw conclusions. In this Perspective, we argue that single case methodology is a valuable tool for developing and extending psychological theories. We stress the importance of single case and case series research, drawing on classic and contemporary cases in which cognitive and perceptual deficits provide insights into typical cognitive processes in domains such as memory, delusions, reading and face perception. We unpack the key features of single case methodology, describe its strengths, its value in adjudicating between theories, and outline its benefits for a better understanding of deficits and hence more appropriate interventions. The unique insights that single case studies have provided illustrate the value of in-depth investigation within an individual. Single case methodology has an important place in the psychologist’s toolkit and it should be valued as a primary research tool.

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The authors thank all of those pioneers of and advocates for single case study research who have mentored, inspired and encouraged us over the years, and the many other colleagues with whom we have discussed these issues.

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Nickels, L., Fischer-Baum, S. & Best, W. Single case studies are a powerful tool for developing, testing and extending theories. Nat Rev Psychol 1 , 733–747 (2022).

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Research Design in Business and Management pp 141–170 Cite as

Single Case Research Design

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This chapter addresses the peculiarities, characteristics, and major fallacies of single case research designs. A single case study research design is a collective term for an in-depth analysis of a small non-random sample. The focus on this design is on in-depth. This characteristic distinguishes the case study research from other research designs that understand the individual case as a rather insignificant and interchangeable aspect of a population or sample. Also, researchers find relevant information on how to write a single case research design paper and learn about typical methodologies used for this research design. The chapter closes with referring to overlapping and adjacent research designs.

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Neag School of Education

Educational Research Basics by Del Siegle

Single subject research.

“ Single subject research (also known as single case experiments) is popular in the fields of special education and counseling. This research design is useful when the researcher is attempting to change the behavior of an individual or a small group of individuals and wishes to document that change. Unlike true experiments where the researcher randomly assigns participants to a control and treatment group, in single subject research the participant serves as both the control and treatment group. The researcher uses line graphs to show the effects of a particular intervention or treatment.  An important factor of single subject research is that only one variable is changed at a time. Single subject research designs are “weak when it comes to external validity….Studies involving single-subject designs that show a particular treatment to be effective in changing behavior must rely on replication–across individuals rather than groups–if such results are be found worthy of generalization” (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2006, p. 318).

Suppose a researcher wished to investigate the effect of praise on reducing disruptive behavior over many days. First she would need to establish a baseline of how frequently the disruptions occurred. She would measure how many disruptions occurred each day for several days. In the example below, the target student was disruptive seven times on the first day, six times on the second day, and seven times on the third day. Note how the sequence of time is depicted on the x-axis (horizontal axis) and the dependent variable (outcome variable) is depicted on the y-axis (vertical axis).


Once a baseline of behavior has been established (when a consistent pattern emerges with at least three data points), the intervention begins. The researcher continues to plot the frequency of behavior while implementing the intervention of praise.


In this example, we can see that the frequency of disruptions decreased once praise began. The design in this example is known as an A-B design. The baseline period is referred to as A and the intervention period is identified as B.


Another design is the A-B-A design. An A-B-A design (also known as a reversal design) involves discontinuing the intervention and returning to a nontreatment condition.


Sometimes an individual’s behavior is so severe that the researcher cannot wait to establish a baseline and must begin with an intervention. In this case, a B-A-B design is used. The intervention is implemented immediately (before establishing a baseline). This is followed by a measurement without the intervention and then a repeat of the intervention.


Multiple-Baseline Design

Sometimes, a researcher may be interested in addressing several issues for one student or a single issue for several students. In this case, a multiple-baseline design is used.

“In a multiple baseline across subjects design, the researcher introduces the intervention to different persons at different times. The significance of this is that if a behavior changes only after the intervention is presented, and this behavior change is seen successively in each subject’s data, the effects can more likely be credited to the intervention itself as opposed to other variables. Multiple-baseline designs do not require the intervention to be withdrawn. Instead, each subject’s own data are compared between intervention and nonintervention behaviors, resulting in each subject acting as his or her own control (Kazdin, 1982). An added benefit of this design, and all single-case designs, is the immediacy of the data. Instead of waiting until postintervention to take measures on the behavior, single-case research prescribes continuous data collection and visual monitoring of that data displayed graphically, allowing for immediate instructional decision-making. Students, therefore, do not linger in an intervention that is not working for them, making the graphic display of single-case research combined with differentiated instruction responsive to the needs of students.” (Geisler, Hessler, Gardner, & Lovelace, 2009)


Regardless of the research design, the line graphs used to illustrate the data contain a set of common elements.


Generally, in single subject research we count the number of times something occurs in a given time period and see if it occurs more or less often in that time period after implementing an intervention. For example, we might measure how many baskets someone makes while shooting for 2 minutes. We would repeat that at least three times to get our baseline. Next, we would test some intervention. We might play music while shooting, give encouragement while shooting, or video the person while shooting to see if our intervention influenced the number of shots made. After the 3 baseline measurements (3 sets of 2 minute shooting), we would measure several more times (sets of 2 minute shooting) after the intervention and plot the time points (number of baskets made in 2 minutes for each of the measured time points). This works well for behaviors that are distinct and can be counted.

Sometimes behaviors come and go over time (such as being off task in a classroom or not listening during a coaching session). The way we can record these is to select a period of time (say 5 minutes) and mark down every 10 seconds whether our participant is on task. We make a minimum of three sets of 5 minute observations for a baseline, implement an intervention, and then make more sets of 5 minute observations with the intervention in place. We use this method rather than counting how many times someone is off task because one could continually be off task and that would only be a count of 1 since the person was continually off task. Someone who might be off task twice for 15 second would be off task twice for a score of 2. However, the second person is certainly not off task twice as much as the first person. Therefore, recording whether the person is off task at 10-second intervals gives a more accurate picture. The person continually off task would have a score of 30 (off task at every second interval for 5 minutes) and the person off task twice for a short time would have a score of 2 (off task only during 2 of the 10 second interval measures.

I hope this helps you better understand single subject research.

I have created a PowerPoint on Single Subject Research , which also available below as a video.

I have also created instructions for creating single-subject research design graphs with Excel .

Fraenkel, J. R., & Wallen, N. E. (2006). How to design and evaluate research in education (6th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Geisler, J. L., Hessler, T., Gardner, R., III, & Lovelace, T. S. (2009). Differentiated writing interventions for high-achieving urban African American elementary students. Journal of Advanced Academics, 20, 214–247.

Del Siegle, Ph.D. University of Connecticut [email protected]

Revised 02/28/2015

problems with single case studies

Single case studies. An introduction


  • 1 Medical Department C, Herlev University Hospital, Denmark.
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The limitations of conventional group comparative therapeutic trials are discussed. They include: the heterogeneity problem (due to biological variations within the sample) and the extrapolation problem (i.e. the problem of external validity). These problems may to some extent be overcome by multiple cross-over studies in a single patients. Such studies may be useful in selected cases in daily clinical work, but could also be used for detecting treatment effects in rare diseases. Usually, it is necessary to measure the clinical effect by means of clinical scores, for which reason ranking methods must be used. The statistical significance may be judged by means of a permutation test. The risk of committing a type II error in single patient studies is usually high.

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  • What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

What Is a Case Study? | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on May 8, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on June 22, 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. Case studies are commonly used in social, educational, clinical, and business research.

A case study research design usually involves qualitative methods , but quantitative methods are sometimes also used. Case studies are good for describing , comparing, evaluating and understanding different aspects of a research problem .

Table of contents

When to do a case study, step 1: select a case, step 2: build a theoretical framework, step 3: collect your data, step 4: describe and analyze the case, other interesting articles.

A case study is an appropriate research design when you want to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about a specific real-world subject. It allows you to explore the key characteristics, meanings, and implications of the case.

Case studies are often a good choice in a thesis or dissertation . They keep your project focused and manageable when you don’t have the time or resources to do large-scale research.

You might use just one complex case study where you explore a single subject in depth, or conduct multiple case studies to compare and illuminate different aspects of your research problem.

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Once you have developed your problem statement and research questions , you should be ready to choose the specific case that you want to focus on. A good case study should have the potential to:

  • Provide new or unexpected insights into the subject
  • Challenge or complicate existing assumptions and theories
  • Propose practical courses of action to resolve a problem
  • Open up new directions for future research

TipIf your research is more practical in nature and aims to simultaneously investigate an issue as you solve it, consider conducting action research instead.

Unlike quantitative or experimental research , a strong case study does not require a random or representative sample. In fact, case studies often deliberately focus on unusual, neglected, or outlying cases which may shed new light on the research problem.

Example of an outlying case studyIn the 1960s the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was discovered to have extremely low rates of heart disease compared to the US average. It became an important case study for understanding previously neglected causes of heart disease.

However, you can also choose a more common or representative case to exemplify a particular category, experience or phenomenon.

Example of a representative case studyIn the 1920s, two sociologists used Muncie, Indiana as a case study of a typical American city that supposedly exemplified the changing culture of the US at the time.

While case studies focus more on concrete details than general theories, they should usually have some connection with theory in the field. This way the case study is not just an isolated description, but is integrated into existing knowledge about the topic. It might aim to:

  • Exemplify a theory by showing how it explains the case under investigation
  • Expand on a theory by uncovering new concepts and ideas that need to be incorporated
  • Challenge a theory by exploring an outlier case that doesn’t fit with established assumptions

To ensure that your analysis of the case has a solid academic grounding, you should conduct a literature review of sources related to the topic and develop a theoretical framework . This means identifying key concepts and theories to guide your analysis and interpretation.

There are many different research methods you can use to collect data on your subject. Case studies tend to focus on qualitative data using methods such as interviews , observations , and analysis of primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspaper articles, photographs, official records). Sometimes a case study will also collect quantitative data.

Example of a mixed methods case studyFor a case study of a wind farm development in a rural area, you could collect quantitative data on employment rates and business revenue, collect qualitative data on local people’s perceptions and experiences, and analyze local and national media coverage of the development.

The aim is to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of the case and its context.

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In writing up the case study, you need to bring together all the relevant aspects to give as complete a picture as possible of the subject.

How you report your findings depends on the type of research you are doing. Some case studies are structured like a standard scientific paper or thesis , with separate sections or chapters for the methods , results and discussion .

Others are written in a more narrative style, aiming to explore the case from various angles and analyze its meanings and implications (for example, by using textual analysis or discourse analysis ).

In all cases, though, make sure to give contextual details about the case, connect it back to the literature and theory, and discuss how it fits into wider patterns or debates.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

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A case study research paper examines a person, place, event, condition, phenomenon, or other type of subject of analysis in order to extrapolate  key themes and results that help predict future trends, illuminate previously hidden issues that can be applied to practice, and/or provide a means for understanding an important research problem with greater clarity. A case study research paper usually examines a single subject of analysis, but case study papers can also be designed as a comparative investigation that shows relationships between two or more subjects. The methods used to study a case can rest within a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-method investigative paradigm.

Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010 ; “What is a Case Study?” In Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London: SAGE, 2010.

How to Approach Writing a Case Study Research Paper

General information about how to choose a topic to investigate can be found under the " Choosing a Research Problem " tab in the Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper writing guide. Review this page because it may help you identify a subject of analysis that can be investigated using a case study design.

However, identifying a case to investigate involves more than choosing the research problem . A case study encompasses a problem contextualized around the application of in-depth analysis, interpretation, and discussion, often resulting in specific recommendations for action or for improving existing conditions. As Seawright and Gerring note, practical considerations such as time and access to information can influence case selection, but these issues should not be the sole factors used in describing the methodological justification for identifying a particular case to study. Given this, selecting a case includes considering the following:

  • The case represents an unusual or atypical example of a research problem that requires more in-depth analysis? Cases often represent a topic that rests on the fringes of prior investigations because the case may provide new ways of understanding the research problem. For example, if the research problem is to identify strategies to improve policies that support girl's access to secondary education in predominantly Muslim nations, you could consider using Azerbaijan as a case study rather than selecting a more obvious nation in the Middle East. Doing so may reveal important new insights into recommending how governments in other predominantly Muslim nations can formulate policies that support improved access to education for girls.
  • The case provides important insight or illuminate a previously hidden problem? In-depth analysis of a case can be based on the hypothesis that the case study will reveal trends or issues that have not been exposed in prior research or will reveal new and important implications for practice. For example, anecdotal evidence may suggest drug use among homeless veterans is related to their patterns of travel throughout the day. Assuming prior studies have not looked at individual travel choices as a way to study access to illicit drug use, a case study that observes a homeless veteran could reveal how issues of personal mobility choices facilitate regular access to illicit drugs. Note that it is important to conduct a thorough literature review to ensure that your assumption about the need to reveal new insights or previously hidden problems is valid and evidence-based.
  • The case challenges and offers a counter-point to prevailing assumptions? Over time, research on any given topic can fall into a trap of developing assumptions based on outdated studies that are still applied to new or changing conditions or the idea that something should simply be accepted as "common sense," even though the issue has not been thoroughly tested in current practice. A case study analysis may offer an opportunity to gather evidence that challenges prevailing assumptions about a research problem and provide a new set of recommendations applied to practice that have not been tested previously. For example, perhaps there has been a long practice among scholars to apply a particular theory in explaining the relationship between two subjects of analysis. Your case could challenge this assumption by applying an innovative theoretical framework [perhaps borrowed from another discipline] to explore whether this approach offers new ways of understanding the research problem. Taking a contrarian stance is one of the most important ways that new knowledge and understanding develops from existing literature.
  • The case provides an opportunity to pursue action leading to the resolution of a problem? Another way to think about choosing a case to study is to consider how the results from investigating a particular case may result in findings that reveal ways in which to resolve an existing or emerging problem. For example, studying the case of an unforeseen incident, such as a fatal accident at a railroad crossing, can reveal hidden issues that could be applied to preventative measures that contribute to reducing the chance of accidents in the future. In this example, a case study investigating the accident could lead to a better understanding of where to strategically locate additional signals at other railroad crossings so as to better warn drivers of an approaching train, particularly when visibility is hindered by heavy rain, fog, or at night.
  • The case offers a new direction in future research? A case study can be used as a tool for an exploratory investigation that highlights the need for further research about the problem. A case can be used when there are few studies that help predict an outcome or that establish a clear understanding about how best to proceed in addressing a problem. For example, after conducting a thorough literature review [very important!], you discover that little research exists showing the ways in which women contribute to promoting water conservation in rural communities of east central Africa. A case study of how women contribute to saving water in a rural village of Uganda can lay the foundation for understanding the need for more thorough research that documents how women in their roles as cooks and family caregivers think about water as a valuable resource within their community. This example of a case study could also point to the need for scholars to build new theoretical frameworks around the topic [e.g., applying feminist theories of work and family to the issue of water conservation].

Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. “Building Theories from Case Study Research.” Academy of Management Review 14 (October 1989): 532-550; Emmel, Nick. Sampling and Choosing Cases in Qualitative Research: A Realist Approach . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013; Gerring, John. “What Is a Case Study and What Is It Good for?” American Political Science Review 98 (May 2004): 341-354; Mills, Albert J. , Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Seawright, Jason and John Gerring. "Case Selection Techniques in Case Study Research." Political Research Quarterly 61 (June 2008): 294-308.

Structure and Writing Style

The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In applied social sciences disciplines [e.g., education, social work, public administration, etc.], case studies may also be used to reveal best practices, highlight key programs, or investigate interesting aspects of professional work.

In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.

I.  Introduction

As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study . The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:

  • What is being studied? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis [the case] you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
  • Why is this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
  • What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
  • How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.

Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.

II.  Literature Review

The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and  enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address . This includes synthesizing studies that help to:

  • Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated . This would involve summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
  • Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable . Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to investigate the research problem and the underlying research questions.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study . If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your use of a case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies . This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research . Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
  • Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill . Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!] . Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in relation to explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.

III.  Method

In this section, you explain why you selected a particular case [i.e., subject of analysis] and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that constitutes your case study.

If your subject of analysis is an incident or event . In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be a rare or critical event or it can focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: a) when did it take place; b) what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; and, c) what were the consequences of the event in relation to the research problem.

If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experiences they have had that provide an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of their experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using them as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem [e.g., why is one politician in a particular local election used to show an increase in voter turnout from any other candidate running in the election]. Note that these issues apply to a specific group of people used as a case study unit of analysis [e.g., a classroom of students].

If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, historical, cultural, economic, political], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, explain why you are studying Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?]. If applicable, describe what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [e.g., prior research suggests Echo Park has more homeless veterans].

If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut off? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.

NOTE:   The choice of the case or set of cases to study cannot appear random. Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should clearly support investigation of the research problem and linked to key findings from your literature review. Be sure to cite any studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for examining the problem.

IV.  Discussion

The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your analysis of the case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is common to combine a description of the results with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:

Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.

Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.

Relate the Findings to Similar Studies No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.

Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings Remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations revealed by the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research if that is how the findings can be interpreted from your case.

Acknowledge the Study's Limitations You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here .

Suggest Areas for Further Research Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.

V.  Conclusion

As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and any need for further research.

The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1) reiterate the main argument supported by the findings from your case study; 2) state clearly the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.

Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:

  • If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
  • If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
  • Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.

Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in or the preferences of your professor, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented as it applies to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.

Problems to Avoid

Overgeneralization One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were engaged with social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.

Failure to Document Limitations No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study , you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood more in terms of managing access rather than preserving access to a scarce resource.

Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis that leave the reader questioning the results.

Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Gerring, John. Case Study Research: Principles and Practices . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education . Rev. ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998; Miller, Lisa L. “The Use of Case Studies in Law and Social Science Research.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 14 (2018): TBD; Mills, Albert J., Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Putney, LeAnn Grogan. "Case Study." In Encyclopedia of Research Design , Neil J. Salkind, editor. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010), pp. 116-120; Simons, Helen. Case Study Research in Practice . London: SAGE Publications, 2009;  Kratochwill,  Thomas R. and Joel R. Levin, editors. Single-Case Research Design and Analysis: New Development for Psychology and Education .  Hilldsale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992; Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London : SAGE, 2010; Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods . 6th edition. Los Angeles, CA, SAGE Publications, 2014; Walo, Maree, Adrian Bull, and Helen Breen. “Achieving Economic Benefits at Local Events: A Case Study of a Local Sports Event.” Festival Management and Event Tourism 4 (1996): 95-106.

Writing Tip

At Least Five Misconceptions about Case Study Research

Social science case studies are often perceived as limited in their ability to create new knowledge because they are not randomly selected and findings cannot be generalized to larger populations. Flyvbjerg examines five misunderstandings about case study research and systematically "corrects" each one. To quote, these are:

Misunderstanding 1 :  General, theoretical [context-independent] knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical [context-dependent] knowledge. Misunderstanding 2 :  One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development. Misunderstanding 3 :  The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process, whereas other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building. Misunderstanding 4 :  The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Misunderstanding 5 :  It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies [p. 221].

While writing your paper, think introspectively about how you addressed these misconceptions because to do so can help you strengthen the validity and reliability of your research by clarifying issues of case selection, the testing and challenging of existing assumptions, the interpretation of key findings, and the summation of case outcomes. Think of a case study research paper as a complete, in-depth narrative about the specific properties and key characteristics of your subject of analysis applied to the research problem.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12 (April 2006): 219-245.

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Types of Case Studies

There are several different types of case studies, as well as several types of subjects of case studies. We will investigate each type in this article.

Different Types of Case Studies

There are several types of case studies, each differing from each other based on the hypothesis and/or thesis to be proved. It is also possible for types of case studies to overlap each other.

Each of the following types of cases can be used in any field or discipline. Whether it is psychology, business or the arts, the type of case study can apply to any field.


The explanatory case study focuses on an explanation for a question or a phenomenon. Basically put, an explanatory case study is 1 + 1 = 2. The results are not up for interpretation.

A case study with a person or group would not be explanatory, as with humans, there will always be variables. There are always small variances that cannot be explained.

However, event case studies can be explanatory. For example, let's say a certain automobile has a series of crashes that are caused by faulty brakes. All of the crashes are a result of brakes not being effective on icy roads.

What kind of case study is explanatory? Think of an example of an explanatory case study that could be done today

When developing the case study, the researcher will explain the crash, and the detailed causes of the brake failure. They will investigate what actions caused the brakes to fail, and what actions could have been taken to prevent the failure.

Other car companies could then use this case study to better understand what makes brakes fail. When designing safer products, looking to past failures is an excellent way to ensure similar mistakes are not made.

The same can be said for other safety issues in cars. There was a time when cars did not have seatbelts. The process to get seatbelts required in all cars started with a case study! The same can be said about airbags and collapsible steering columns. They all began with a case study that lead to larger research, and eventual change.


An exploratory case study is usually the precursor to a formal, large-scale research project. The case study's goal is to prove that further investigation is necessary.

For example, an exploratory case study could be done on veterans coming home from active combat. Researchers are aware that these vets have PTSD, and are aware that the actions of war are what cause PTSD. Beyond that, they do not know if certain wartime activities are more likely to contribute to PTSD than others.

For an exploratory case study, the researcher could develop a study that certain war events are more likely to cause PTSD. Once that is demonstrated, a large-scale research project could be done to determine which events are most likely to cause PTSD.

Exploratory case studies are very popular in psychology and the social sciences. Psychologists are always looking for better ways to treat their patients, and exploratory studies allow them to research new ideas or theories.

Multiple-Case Studies or Collective Studies

Multiple case or collective studies use information from different studies to formulate the case for a new study. The use of past studies allows additional information without needing to spend more time and money on additional studies.

Using the PTSD issue again is an excellent example of a collective study. When studying what contributes most to wartime PTSD, a researcher could use case studies from different war. For instance, studies about PTSD in WW2 vets, Persian Gulf War vets, and Vietnam vets could provide an excellent sampling of which wartime activities are most likely to cause PTSD.

If a multiple case study on vets was done with vets from the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq War, and it was determined the vets from Vietnam had much less PTSD, what could be inferred?

Furthermore, this type of study could uncover differences as well. For example, a researcher might find that veterans who serve in the Middle East are more likely to suffer a certain type of ailment. Or perhaps, that veterans who served with large platoons were more likely to suffer from PTSD than veterans who served in smaller platoons.

An intrinsic case study is the study of a case wherein the subject itself is the primary interest. The "Genie" case is an example of this. The study wasn't so much about psychology, but about Genie herself, and how her experiences shaped who she was.

Genie is the topic. Genie is what the researchers are interested in, and what their readers will be most interested in. When the researchers started the study, they didn't know what they would find.

They asked the question…"If a child is never introduced to language during the crucial first years of life, can they acquire language skills when they are older?" When they met Genie, they didn't know the answer to that question.


An instrumental case study uses a case to gain insights into a phenomenon. For example, a researcher interested in child obesity rates might set up a study with middle school students and an exercise program. In this case, the children and the exercise program are not the focus. The focus is learning the relationship between children and exercise, and why certain children become obese.

What is an example of an instrumental case study?

Focus on the results, not the topic!

Types of Subjects of Case Studies

There are generally five different types of case studies, and the subjects that they address. Every case study, whether explanatory or exploratory, or intrinsic or instrumental, fits into one of these five groups. These are:

Person – This type of study focuses on one particular individual. This case study would use several types of research to determine an outcome.

The best example of a person case is the "Genie" case study. Again, "Genie" was a 13-year-old girl who was discovered by social services in Los Angeles in 1970. Her father believed her to be mentally retarded, and therefore locked her in a room without any kind of stimulation. She was never nourished or cared for in any way. If she made a noise, she was beaten.

When "Genie" was discovered, child development specialists wanted to learn as much as possible about how her experiences contributed to her physical, emotional and mental health. They also wanted to learn about her language skills. She had no form of language when she was found, she only grunted. The study would determine whether or not she could learn language skills at the age of 13.

Since Genie was placed in a children's hospital, many different clinicians could observe her. In addition, researchers were able to interview the few people who did have contact with Genie and would be able to gather whatever background information was available.

This case study is still one of the most valuable in all of child development. Since it would be impossible to conduct this type of research with a healthy child, the information garnered from Genie's case is invaluable.

Group – This type of study focuses on a group of people. This could be a family, a group or friends, or even coworkers.

An example of this type of case study would be the uncontacted tribes of Indians in the Peruvian and Brazilian rainforest. These tribes have never had any modern contact. Therefore, there is a great interest to study them.

Scientists would be interested in just about every facet of their lives. How do they cook, how do they make clothing, how do they make tools and weapons. Also, doing psychological and emotional research would be interesting. However, because so few of these tribes exist, no one is contacting them for research. For now, all research is done observationally.

If a researcher wanted to study uncontacted Indian tribes, and could only observe the subjects, what type of observations should be made?

Location – This type of study focuses on a place, and how and why people use the place.

For example, many case studies have been done about Siberia, and the people who live there. Siberia is a cold and barren place in northern Russia, and it is considered the most difficult place to live in the world. Studying the location, and it's weather and people can help other people learn how to live with extreme weather and isolation.

Location studies can also be done on locations that are facing some kind of change. For example, a case study could be done on Alaska, and whether the state is seeing the effects of climate change.

Another type of study that could be done in Alaska is how the environment changes as population increases. Geographers and those interested in population growth often do these case studies.

Organization/Company – This type of study focuses on a business or an organization. This could include the people who work for the company, or an event that occurred at the organization.

An excellent example of this type of case study is Enron. Enron was one of the largest energy company's in the United States, when it was discovered that executives at the company were fraudulently reporting the company's accounting numbers.

Once the fraud was uncovered, investigators discovered willful and systematic corruption that caused the collapse of Enron, as well as their financial auditors, Arthur Andersen. The fraud was so severe that the top executives of the company were sentenced to prison.

This type of case study is used by accountants, auditors, financiers, as well as business students, in order to learn how such a large company could get away with committing such a serious case of corporate fraud for as long as they did. It can also be looked at from a psychological standpoint, as it is interesting to learn why the executives took the large risks that they took.

Most company or organization case studies are done for business purposes. In fact, in many business schools, such as Harvard Business School, students learn by the case method, which is the study of case studies. They learn how to solve business problems by studying the cases of businesses that either survived the same problem, or one that didn't survive the problem.

Event – This type of study focuses on an event, whether cultural or societal, and how it affects those that are affected by it. An example would be the Tylenol cyanide scandal. This event affected Johnson & Johnson, the parent company, as well as the public at large.

The case study would detail the events of the scandal, and more specifically, what management at Johnson & Johnson did to correct the problem. To this day, when a company experiences a large public relations scandal, they look to the Tylenol case study to learn how they managed to survive the scandal.

A very popular topic for case studies was the events of September 11 th . There were studies in almost all of the different types of research studies.

Obviously the event itself was a very popular topic. It was important to learn what lead up to the event, and how best to proven it from happening in the future. These studies are not only important to the U.S. government, but to other governments hoping to prevent terrorism in their countries.

Planning A Case Study

You have decided that you want to research and write a case study. Now what? In this section you will learn how to plan and organize a research case study.

Selecting a Case

The first step is to choose the subject, topic or case. You will want to choose a topic that is interesting to you, and a topic that would be of interest to your potential audience. Ideally you have a passion for the topic, as then you will better understand the issues surrounding the topic, and which resources would be most successful in the study.

You also must choose a topic that would be of interest to a large number of people. You want your case study to reach as large an audience as possible, and a topic that is of interest to just a few people will not have a very large reach. One of the goals of a case study is to reach as many people as possible.

Who is your audience?

Are you trying to reach the layperson? Or are you trying to reach other professionals in your field? Your audience will help determine the topic you choose.

If you are writing a case study that is looking for ways to lower rates of child obesity, who is your audience?

If you are writing a psychology case study, you must consider whether your audience will have the intellectual skills to understand the information in the case. Does your audience know the vocabulary of psychology? Do they understand the processes and structure of the field?

You want your audience to have as much general knowledge as possible. When it comes time to write the case study, you may have to spend some time defining and explaining terms that might be unfamiliar to the audience.

Lastly, when selecting a topic you do not want to choose a topic that is very old. Current topics are always the most interesting, so if your topic is more than 5-10 years old, you might want to consider a newer topic. If you choose an older topic, you must ask yourself what new and valuable information do you bring to the older topic, and is it relevant and necessary.

Determine Research Goals

What type of case study do you plan to do?

An illustrative case study will examine an unfamiliar case in order to help others understand it. For example, a case study of a veteran with PTSD can be used to help new therapists better understand what veterans experience.

An exploratory case study is a preliminary project that will be the precursor to a larger study in the future. For example, a case study could be done challenging the efficacy of different therapy methods for vets with PTSD. Once the study is complete, a larger study could be done on whichever method was most effective.

A critical instance case focuses on a unique case that doesn't have a predetermined purpose. For example, a vet with an incredibly severe case of PTSD could be studied to find ways to treat his condition.

Ethics are a large part of the case study process, and most case studies require ethical approval. This approval usually comes from the institution or department the researcher works for. Many universities and research institutions have ethics oversight departments. They will require you to prove that you will not harm your study subjects or participants.

This should be done even if the case study is on an older subject. Sometimes publishing new studies can cause harm to the original participants. Regardless of your personal feelings, it is essential the project is brought to the ethics department to ensure your project can proceed safely.

Developing the Case Study

Once you have your topic, it is time to start planning and developing the study. This process will be different depending on what type of case study you are planning to do. For thissection, we will assume a psychological case study, as most case studies are based on the psychological model.

Once you have the topic, it is time to ask yourself some questions. What question do you want to answer with the study?

For example, a researcher is considering a case study about PTSD in veterans. The topic is PTSD in veterans. What questions could be asked?

Do veterans from Middle Eastern wars suffer greater instances of PTSD?

Do younger soldiers have higher instances of PTSD?

Does the length of the tour effect the severity of PTSD?

Each of these questions is a viable question, and finding the answers, or the possible answers, would be helpful for both psychologists and veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Research Notebook

1. What is the background of the case study? Who requested the study to be done and why? What industry is the study in, and where will the study take place?

2. What is the problem that needs a solution? What is the situation, and what are the risks?

3. What questions are required to analyze the problem? What questions might the reader of the study have? What questions might colleagues have?

4. What tools are required to analyze the problem? Is data analysis necessary?

5. What is your current knowledge about the problem or situation? How much background information do you need to procure? How will you obtain this background info?

6. What other information do you need to know to successfully complete the study?

7. How do you plan to present the report? Will it be a simple written report, or will you add PowerPoint presentations or images or videos? When is the report due? Are you giving yourself enough time to complete the project?

The research notebook is the heart of the study. Other organizational methods can be utilized, such as Microsoft Excel, but a physical notebook should always be kept as well.

Planning the Research

The most important parts of the case study are:

1. The case study's questions

2. The study's propositions

3. How information and data will be analyzed

4. The logic behind the propositions

5. How the findings will be interpreted

The study's questions should be either a "how" or "why" question, and their definition is the researchers first job. These questions will help determine the study's goals.

Not every case study has a proposition. If you are doing an exploratory study, you will not have propositions. Instead, you will have a stated purpose, which will determine whether your study is successful, or not.

How the information will be analyzed will depend on what the topic is. This would vary depending on whether it was a person, group, or organization.

When setting up your research, you will want to follow case study protocol. The protocol should have the following sections:

1. An overview of the case study, including the objectives, topic and issues.

2. Procedures for gathering information and conducting interviews.

3. Questions that will be asked during interviews and data collection.

4. A guide for the final case study report.

When deciding upon which research methods to use, these are the most important:

1. Documents and archival records

2. Interviews

3. Direct observations

4. Indirect observations, or observations of subjects

5. Physical artifacts and tools

Documents could include almost anything, including letters, memos, newspaper articles, Internet articles, other case studies, or any other document germane to the study.

Archival records can include military and service records, company or business records, survey data or census information.

Research Strategy

Before beginning the study you want a clear research strategy. Your best chance at success will be if you use an outline that describes how you will gather your data and how you will answer your research questions.

The researcher should create a list with four or five bullet points that need answers. Consider the approaches for these questions, and the different perspectives you could take.

The researcher should then choose at least two data sources (ideally more). These sources could include interviews, Internet research, and fieldwork or report collection. The more data sources used, the better the quality of the final data.

The researcher then must formulate interview questions that will result in detailed and in-depth answers that will help meet the research goals. A list of 15-20 questions is a good start, but these can and will change as the process flows.

Planning Interviews

The interview process is one of the most important parts of the case study process. But before this can begin, it is imperative the researcher gets informed consent from the subjects.

The process of informed consent means the subject understands their role in the study, and that their story will be used in the case study. You will want to have each subject complete a consent form.

The researcher must explain what the study is trying to achieve, and how their contribution will help the study. If necessary, assure the subject that their information will remain private if requested, and they do not need to use their real name if they are not comfortable with that. Pseudonyms are commonly used in case studies.

Informed Consent

The process by which permission is granted before beginning medical or psychological research

A fictitious name used to hide ones identity

It is important the researcher is clear regarding the expectations of the study participation. For example, are they comfortable on camera? Do they mind if their photo is used in the final written study.

Interviews are one of the most important sources of information for case studies. There are several types of interviews. They are:

Open-ended – This type of interview has the interviewer and subject talking to each other about the subject. The interviewer asks questions, and the subject answers them. But the subject can elaborate and add information whenever they see fit.

A researcher might meet with a subject multiple times, and use the open-ended method. This can be a great way to gain insight into events. However, the researcher mustn't rely solely on the information from the one subject, and be sure to have multiple sources.

Focused – This type of interview is used when the subject is interviewed for a short period of time, and answers a set of questions. This type of interview could be used to verify information learned in an open-ended interview with another subject. Focused interviews are normally done to confirm information, not to gain new information.

Structured – Structured interviews are similar to surveys. These are usually used when collecting data for large groups, like neighborhoods. The questions are decided before hand, and the expected answers are usually simple.

When conducting interviews, the answers are obviously important. But just as important are the observations that can be made. This is one of the reasons in-person interviews are preferable over phone interviews, or Internet or mail surveys.

Ideally, when conducing in-person interviews, more than one researcher should be present. This allows one researcher to focus on observing while the other is interviewing. This is particularly important when interviewing large groups of people.

The researcher must understand going into the case study that the information gained from the interviews might not be valuable. It is possible that once the interviews are completed, the information gained is not relevant.

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Why Are So Many Venezuelans Going to the United States?

Unable to build safe or stable lives in other parts of South America, many people are making the perilous journey to the United States.

Two men traverse a river toward a border fence.

By Julie Turkewitz and Isayen Herrera

The reporters, based in Colombia and Venezuela, have spent years documenting the exodus from Venezuela.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have arrived at the United States border in the last two years, part of a historic wave of migrants headed north amid growing global crises.

But Venezuela has been in the midst of an economic and humanitarian crisis for roughly a decade.

Why are so many people going to the United States now?

Over the last year, we’ve interviewed hundreds of Venezuelans headed to the United States. The short answer is that people are exhausted by so many years of economic struggle, and global policies meant to change the situation have failed to keep them at home.

At the same time, social media has popularized the route to the United States, while a thriving people-moving business near the start of the journey has accelerated the pace of migration — even as a United Nations tally shows a record number of people dying on their way north.

Venezuela was once among the wealthiest countries in Latin America, its economy buoyed by profits from vast oil reserves — the largest proven reserves in the world — that supported celebrated universities, a respected public health system and a flourishing middle class.

But the economy crashed in the mid-2010s amid mismanagement of the oil sector by an authoritarian government claiming socialist ideals, now led by President Nicolás Maduro. Tough sanctions imposed by the United States in 2019 have exacerbated the situation.

For years Venezuelans have been scraping by, trying to feed their children on meager salaries, watching family members die of preventable diseases, waiting for hours in line for gasoline so they can take a trip to the hospital or the market.

An influx of dollars in recent years has landed mostly in the pockets of the wealthy and well-connected.

The average salary for a public-school teacher or nurse is roughly $3 a month, the average salary for a private sector employee is $160 — and the monthly cost to simply feed a family of four is $372, according to the Venezuelan Finance Observatory, a nonprofit organization.

Many parents are now raising children who have only known crisis, and making herculean efforts to simply put food on the table.

In our conversations, many Venezuelans said that they were willing to take enormous risks just to find a semblance of sanctuary for their families.

“Every day I get older and I have still not secured anything for them,” said Williams Añez, 42, speaking of his five children. Mr. Añez, a former supporter of Mr. Maduro’s party, spoke from a northern Colombian town that has become a gathering point for Venezuelans headed to the United States.

Why are Venezuelans going to the United States? Why not go elsewhere?

In the early days of the crisis, millions of Venezuelans migrated to other countries in South America. Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor, received the largest part of the exodus — more than two million people.

Colombia, with the support of the United States, offered a generous visa program meant to keep Venezuelans in South America. But wages in Colombia are very low. Mr. Añez, for example, migrated to Colombia, where he made just $5 a day cutting sugar cane.

Peru and Ecuador were other popular countries for Venezuelans seeking new homes. But both suffer similar wage issues. Ecuador is now struggling with rising drug trafficking violence and with common criminals who extort small business owners.

Unable to build safe or stable lives in South America, many Venezuelans are moving on to the United States.

Isn’t life improving in Venezuela?

Not really.

In the early days of the economic crisis, widespread scarcity made everyday goods difficult to find for nearly all Venezuelans. Today, food and medicine are more available, they are just too expensive for most citizens to afford.

Life in Venezuela has gotten better — for an extremely select number of people.

For everyone else, public schools have been gutted as investment has dried up, while a teacher strike over low wages has put educators in the streets and students out of the classroom.

The health care situation is dire. Public hospitals lack basic supplies and are overwhelmed. To enter a private clinic, patients are sometimes asked to pay as much as $1,000 in advance, and then a similar price for every day of care. Formerly middle class families now resort to websites like GoFundMe, forced to beg for money to treat life-threatening cancers and other conditions.

At the same time, the electricity and gasoline shortages that characterized the early days of the crisis continue because of the country’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Caracas, the capital, has suffered almost daily electricity cuts in the last year, while lines for subsidized gasoline last up to six hours. The situation beyond the capital is worse.

Alicia Anderson, 44, a nurse in a Caracas suburb, said that she makes about $5 a month at a public hospital, along with two monthly bonuses — $40 for food and $30 explained by Mr. Maduro as an effort to combat the country’s “economic war.”

She makes ends meet by caring for patients in their homes, selling food out of her house and participating in a community loan system.

Running water arrives about once a week, Ms. Anderson said, and on those days the family fills every bucket they have, to save for the future.

What is the journey like to the United States?

Visa requirements mean that many Venezuelans cannot simply fly.

Instead, they are taking a grueling land route from Caracas or other points of origin, moving on foot, and via bus, train and car all the way to the southern U.S. border.

One of the most dangerous legs is a jungle called the Darién Gap, which connects South and North America.

In the past, the jungle acted as a natural barrier, making northward migration difficult. But in 2021, Haitians fleeing chaos at home began to cross the forest in large numbers. Last year they were surpassed by Venezuelans.

Today, Venezuelans are the largest group crossing the Darién, according to the authorities in Panama, followed by Ecuadoreans and people from many other countries, including China, India and Afghanistan .

How does Venezuela’s government treat people still at home?

For nearly a decade, human rights activists have documented detailed allegations of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence orchestrated by the state authorities.

Since 2014, the year after Mr. Maduro took power, more than 15,700 people have been detained for political reasons, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit organization based in Caracas. At least 283 political prisoners are still in custody, the organization estimated in a March report .

For years, those held in custody say they have been treated in cruel and degrading ways, had limited access to a legal defense and often been detained with little or fabricated evidence. Rather than await justice, victims who are freed often choose to flee, increasing the U.S.-bound migration.

What role does the U.S. play in Venezuela’s demise?

The United States intensified economic sanctions on Venezuela in 2019, including a ban on oil imports, after having accused Mr. Maduro of fraud in the most recent presidential election. The goal was to force him from power.

Experts agree that sanctions hobbled the country’s oil industry. But they are split over how much the economic collapse was also caused by the corruption and mismanagement of the Venezuelan government.

“That these sanctions are still in place is a major impediment for the Venezuelan economy to be able to recover,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for International Crisis Group. “It is not the only factor.”

Francisco Rodríguez, a senior researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said he had found that sanctions and other foreign policy actions have played a central role in the country’s economic contraction since 2012 and are a major factor driving the exodus.

“If there had been no sanctions, Venezuela would still have suffered a major economic crisis,” said Mr. Rodríguez. “But by no means of the dimension of what we’ve seen.”

Will the situation change in Venezuela?

A presidential election is planned for next year. But many international observers are skeptical that the election will be free and fair, especially since the Maduro government has disqualified leading opposition candidates.

María Corina Machado, a former lawmaker, is currently the most popular candidate hoping to challenge Mr. Maduro in 2024. It is unclear how she will participate, though, as she is among the disqualified.

At a recent Machado campaign event in the state of Guárico, south of Caracas, a teacher named Josefina Romance stood in the audience.

With a new president, Ms. Romance said, “We are going to begin to rebuild.”

“And we will have the hope that private companies that left the country will come back,” she continued, “and that there will be sources of work — so that my children can return.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and Bianca Padró Ocasio from Lima, Peru.

Julie Turkewitz is the Andes bureau chief, covering Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, she was a national correspondent covering the American West. More about Julie Turkewitz


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