Reading different blogs it has come to my attention that case studies are getting quite a bad reputation. They are being deemed non-scientific and of questionable usefulness. In this blog I will look at both sides of the argument for case studies and see whether as a design it is still useful for the field of psychology.
- Case studies allow a lot of detail to be collected that would not normally be easily obtained by other research designs. The data collected is normally a lot richer and of greater depth than can be found through other experimental designs.
- Case studies tend to be conducted on rare cases where large samples of similar participants are not available. An example of this is the study of Phineas Gage by Harlow, J.M. This example also connects with the point above with the depth of data obtained. Cases of brain damage are quite minimal and it is extremely rare to find people with the exact same parts of the brain affected. To be able to gain knowledge of brain functions the damage between people have to be exact to ensure you are testing the right thing, this can generally only be done through case studies.
- Within the case study, scientific experiments can be conducted.
- Case studies can help experimenters adapt ideas and produce novel hypotheses which can be used for later testing.
- Knowledge! Again to Phineas Gage, his contributions to neuropsychology and the workings of the brain are invaluable.
- One of the main criticisms is that the data collected cannot necessarily be generalised to the wider population. This leads to data being collected over longitudinal case studies not always being relevant or particularly useful.
- Some case studies are not scientific. Freud used case studies for many of his theories or studies. Such examples are that of Anna O and Little Hans. Both of these are not scientific nor are they able to be generalised. This can be attributed to them being case studies, but also Freudian theory in general.
- Case studies are generally on one person, but there also tends to only be one experimenter collecting the data. This can lead to bias in data collection, which can influence results more than in different designs.
- It is also very difficult to draw a definite cause/effect from case studies.
Case studies also tend to collect mainly qualitative data. I have put this as neither an advantage or disadvantage of case studies, as this depends on your stance on qualitative data. If you look back a few blogs I have summarised my view of qualitative data. Mainly positive!
Overall, I think that case studies are an important and useful method of data collection, especially in cases of rare phenomena. It would be extremely unethical to go taking parts of peoples brains out just to make a larger sample size to use a different experimental design method. However, as data is collected on new cases I think it is important to always refer back to previous data in order to build on existing knowledge and ensure findings are as applicable to real life as possible.
Information about the limitations of your study are generally placed either at the beginning of the discussion section of your paper so the reader knows and understands the limitations before reading the rest of your analysis of the findings, or, the limitations are outlined at the conclusion of the discussion section as an acknowledgement of the need for further study. Statements about a study's limitations should not be buried in the body [middle] of the discussion section unless a limitation is specific to something covered in that part of the paper. If this is the case, though, the limitation should be reiterated at the conclusion of the section.
If you determine that your study is seriously flawed due to important limitations, such as, an inability to acquire critical data, consider reframing it as an exploratory study intended to lay the groundwork for a more complete research study in the future. Be sure, though, to specifically explain the ways that these flaws can be successfully overcome in a new study.
But, do not use this as an excuse for not developing a thorough research paper! Review the tab in this guide for developing a research topic. If serious limitations exist, it generally indicates a likelihood that your research problem is too narrowly defined or that the issue or event under study is too recent and, thus, very little research has been written about it. If serious limitations do emerge, consult with your professor about possible ways to overcome them or how to revise your study.
When discussing the limitations of your research, be sure to:
- Describe each limitation in detailed but concise terms;
- Explain why each limitation exists;
- Provide the reasons why each limitation could not be overcome using the method(s) chosen to acquire or gather the data [cite to other studies that had similar problems when possible];
- Assess the impact of each limitation in relation to the overall findings and conclusions of your study; and,
- If appropriate, describe how these limitations could point to the need for further research.
Remember that the method you chose may be the source of a significant limitation that has emerged during your interpretation of the results [for example, you didn't interview a group of people that you later wish you had]. If this is the case, don't panic. Acknowledge it, and explain how applying a different or more robust methodology might address the research problem more effectively in a future study. A underlying goal of scholarly research is not only to show what works, but to demonstrate what doesn't work or what needs further clarification.
Aguinis, Hermam and Jeffrey R. Edwards. “Methodological Wishes for the Next Decade and How to Make Wishes Come True.” Journal of Management Studies 51 (January 2014): 143-174; Brutus, Stéphane et al. "Self-Reported Limitations and Future Directions in Scholarly Reports: Analysis and Recommendations." Journal of Management 39 (January 2013): 48-75; Ioannidis, John P.A. "Limitations are not Properly Acknowledged in the Scientific Literature." Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 60 (2007): 324-329; Pasek, Josh. Writing the Empirical Social Science Research Paper: A Guide for the Perplexed. January 24, 2012. Academia.edu; Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation. Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com; What Is an Academic Paper? Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University.