What makes a case study?

This is the season when the undergraduate final-year students who I teach are working on their projects, and many of these projects are based around one or more case studies.  The idea of a case study is very well establshed as an approach to teaching in business and management, on the basis that potentially every management situation is slightly different, and by looking at a range of different situations, you will acquire the skills and understanding to deal with whatever challenges your subsequent career throws at you.

There is a lot of academic work around about when it is appropriate to use case studies, and how the observations from a case study can be applied more generally.  So it’s a complicated subject, but as is often the case there are a few relatively simple things to remember:

  • A case study doesn’t tell you anything about the prevalence of the effects or behaviour that you observe.  Think of it this way: when the Sun runs a story about somebody claiming benefits while living a luxurious lifestyle, this is a case study.  It tells you nothing about what proportion of people claiming benefits are indeed living luxurious lifestyles – merely tells you about one approach which somebody uses to do this.  Lest this looks like a dig at the tabloid press, the same point could be made about newspaper articles which focus on people who aren’t getting the benefits they deserve
  • You should be able to say something about why a case study is interesting, and also how the lessons could be applied in different contexts.  So (given the point above) James Blunt’s irritable open letter about his upbringing and career probably doesn’t say very much about social mobility, he makes an interesting point that boarding school and a spell in the army isn’t necessarily the best start for a career in pop music.  So you could read James Blunt’s career trajectory as a case study of a rather unusual post-military career
  • You really need to have some observations of how a case study might be ‘generalised’ even if the message is that your case study isn’t typcal.  So are there particular challenges that might be encountered in a different context?  If you are drawing on some management theory, are there ways in which the case fits, or doesn’t fit, the theory which might be reflected in different cases.

This guidance is particularly aimed at anybody writing up case studies as part of a taught degree in business or management, but of course might be relevant more widely than that.


One Response to “What makes a case study?”

  1. Bowen Feng Says:

    Thanks for posting this – a concise but very useful reference for students (such as myself) that will be relying heavily on case studies in my dissertation. Food for thought!

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