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3: The Use of Interview Data

3: The Use of Interview Data

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Case Studies 173

Figure 10.1 Developing Grounded Theory Through the Case Study Method

Research Begins


Grounded Theory

• Offer explanations for

the problem or issue

originally considered

• Compare your

explanations with those

current in the literature

Research Idea

• Consider some

problem or

issue for study


• Review and consider

your research

• Consider what the

findings mean

• Assess the implications for

the conceptual framework

• Seek disconfirming evidence

• Seek alternative


• Compare findings with

the literature


• Organize and code


• Place concepts into

conceptual frameworks

• Link data to research

themes and the


research question might be rather general, and the interview subjects would be selected from a pool of potentially

interchangeable members of the study population. In the

case study interview, the topic under study can be quite

focused, and each individual included in the study might

be chosen due to their particular connection to the case.

In one recent example, Susan Sullivan and Vivian

Shulman set out to examine a period of significant managed change in a New York City school district. The

changes were planned in response to new school mandates, and the researchers initially collected data from all

of the different schools in the district, as well as the central office. “When it became clear that the leadership of

the superintendent drove all district practices, we shifted

our focus to describing his particular style and its efficacy

in promoting systemic change” (Sullivan & Shulman,

2005, p. 124). The study was still about the school district

changes, but the focus shifted from studying a case of

negotiation among offices to a case of leadership under


• Review literature

• Determine single

or multiple cases

• Establish access plan

• Identify data-collection


• Consider analytic


Data Collection

• Use data-collection

plan from design

• Recognize the need

to be flexible

• Consider literature;

begin comparisons

and analysis as

data accrues

constraint in a time of transition. The principal datacollection method was one-on-one interviews with the

superintendent, his staff, teachers, and principals in the

affected schools.

The advantage of the case study over the individual

interview is demonstrated in this example. Sullivan and

Shulman spoke at length with the superintendent about

his education and leadership philosophies. But they were

able to triangulate their data by interviewing others

about the ways in which the superintendent attempted to

implement his philosophies. The additional data from the

district schools provided a real-life measure of the impact

of the district leadership on those who were responsible

for running the individual schools. Further, rather than

speaking with teachers or administrators about how

school districts operate, the researchers focused on the

specific teachers and administrators in that one district,

and asked questions that were also particular to that

one setting.

174 Chapter 10


Throughout the preceding paragraphs, the chief suggestions for information (data) gathering have been the

use of interviews and observation. As implied earlier,

however, all forms of qualitative research may constitute a case study. You should, therefore, be familiar with

the possible use of records concerning the subject. For

individuals, these may include birth, marriage, divorce,

property ownership, and educational records of the subject. For groups and associations, there may be meeting

minutes, documents of incorporation, and official publications. For either, you might include an assortment

of other more or less official documents such as police

actions, court records, evaluations, and so forth. All of

these official documents are potentially valuable sources

of information in a case study. As well, an individual

subject might have written personal documents, letters,

diaries, or blogs. Both individual and collective subjects

are likely to have created a trove of e-mails that can be

included in the study.

10.3.1: The Use of Personal Documents

The general use of personal documents is discussed

in Chapter 8. As suggested there, personal documents

involve any written record created by a person that concerned his or her experiences. The common types of documents classified under this label include autobiographies,

diaries and journals, letters, and memos written by a

subject in a research investigation. In addition, and given

the extent to which people use photographic and video

equipment today, these items may also serve as categories

of personal documents.

Autobiographical documents include a considerable

variety of written material. They may be published or

unpublished documents, cover an entire life span, or focus

on only a specific period in a subject’s life or even a single

event. Even a written confession to a crime may be seen by

some researchers as a type of autobiographical document.

Certain manifestos may serve as both personal statements

and confessions, though this is uncommon.

Diaries and journals also may arise in a number of

varieties. A diary may be kept with no purpose in mind

beyond the writer’s personal desire to maintain a record

of daily events. It may be maintained in order to provide

some therapeutic release or as a kind of log and chronological listing of daily events during new experiences, such

as an internship. Or, a diary or journal may be created at

the specific request of a researcher as a contribution to

some study. In the latter case, one may consider the material in a solicited document (see Chapter 8).

Letters provide an intriguing view into the life of

the author. Typically, letters are not created by the writer

with the intention of having them used by a researcher.

As a result, they frequently reflect the inner worlds of

the writer. They may record the writer’s views, values,

attitudes, and beliefs about a wide variety of subjects. Or,

they may describe the writer’s deepest thoughts about

some specific event or situation about which they report.

Historians have long seen the value of letters to document

events during the past. Letters written by military figures

and politicians, for example, may allow researchers to

better understand how and why certain battles have been

fought. Letters written by criminals such as serial killers

and bombers provide insight into how the culprit thinks

and potential explanations for their actions. Letters are

simply replete with potentially useful information.

The use of memoranda, including e-mails, has become

commonplace in virtually all organizational settings.

Memos may contain strictly work-related information or

casual insider jokes and communications. They may reflect

the tone and atmosphere of a work setting, as well as the

potential level of anxiety, stress, and morale of the writers.

Moreover, they may even show the research aspects of

the workplace culture or work folkways. Also, they may

contain information relevant to understanding the general

organizational communications network used in the setting, the leadership hierarchy, various roles present in the

setting, and other structural elements. Thus, a memorandum can provide an interesting self-disclosing aspect of

its creator, or various aspects of a group or organization,

when used as data in a case study.

Photographic and video equipment has become so

commonplace, and oversharing so common, that many

people now regularly record and publish their lives

and the lives of their family members in this manner. It

becomes important, therefore, for researchers to consider

how these items may illustrate various aspects of the

subject’s life and relationships. This may involve stepping

back and examining an entire photograph in terms of what

it shows in general; it may include an examination of the

expressions of people shown in a picture; it could involve

consideration of where a picture or video was taken or

recorded such as on a vacation, in the home, or at a party;

or it may involve determination of the reason the photograph or video was created—as a simple family record to

commemorate some situation, to have as a keepsake, to

document some event or situation, to brag, to entertain,

and so forth.

The literal value of personal documents as research

data is frequently underestimated in contemporary

research texts and courses. Although such documents

are certainly extremely subjective in their nature, this

data should not be viewed as a negative or, in this case,

even as some sort of limitation or shortcoming. It is the

very fact that these documents do reflect the subjective

views and perceptions of their creators that makes them


useful as data in a case study. It is precisely through this

subjectivity that these documents provide information

and insight about the subject that might not be captured

through some other more pedestrian data-collection


10.4: Intrinsic, Instrumental,

and Collective Case


10.4 Classify three types of case studies

Stake (1994, 1995) suggests that case studies can be usefully

classified into three different types: intrinsic, instrumental,

and collective.

Intrinsic case studies are undertaken when a researcher

wants to better understand a particular case. It is not

undertaken primarily because it represents other cases or

because it illustrates some particular trait, characteristic, or

problem. Rather, it is because of its uniqueness or ordinariness that a case becomes interesting (Creswell, 1998, 2007;

Stake, 1994, 2000). The role of the researcher is not to understand or test abstract theory or to develop new or grounded

theoretical explanations; instead, the intention is to better

understand intrinsic aspects of the particular child, patient,

criminal, group, organization, event, or whatever the case

may be (Munhall, 2007). The case may generate findings

or stimulate ideas that will be applicable to other cases, but

the intrinsic case study is not performed for those reasons.

Erikson’s case study of the Buffalo Creek flood started off

that way. The study needed to be done because something

important had happened there.

Instrumental case studies provide insights into an issue

or refine a theoretical explanation, making it more generalizable (Creswell, 2002; Stake, 1994). In an instrumental

case study, the researcher focuses on a single issue or concern and identifies a single case to illustrate this item of

focus or concern (Creswell, 2007). In these situations, the

case actually becomes of secondary importance, playing

a supportive role (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). The details of

the case provide a background against which the larger

research interests will play out. Instrumental case studies

are often investigated in depth, and all aspects and activities are detailed but not simply to elaborate the case per

se. Instead, the intention is to help the researcher better

understand some external theoretical question, issue, or

problem. Instrumental case studies may or may not be

viewed as typical of other cases. However, the choice of a

particular case for study is made because the investigator

believes that his or her understanding about some other

research interest will be advanced.

Case Studies 175

Stake (1994, 2000) also points out that because researchers often have multiple interests, there is no solid line drawn

between intrinsic and instrumental studies. In fact, a kind

of “zone of combined purpose separates them” (Stake, 1994,

p. 237). My study of the origins and development of the field

of organized collective action in response to HIV/AIDS in

New York City (Lune, 2007) began in that combined zone.

I viewed the AIDS example as an important case of collective action, but it took a while to define what factors defined

this case or made it comparable to other cases.

Collective case studies (Stake, 1994, 2000, 2005) are

also known as multiple-case studies, cross-case studies,

comparative case studies, and contrasting case studies

(Gerring, 2006; Merriam, 2001). Collective case studies

involve extensive study of several instrumental cases,

intended to allow better understanding, insight, or perhaps improved ability to theorize about a broader context. Yin (2003a) argues that multiple cases may be

selected in order to try replicating insights found in

individual cases or to represent contrasting situations.

Regardless of one’s purpose, Yin (2003a, p. 46) indicates

that multiple-case studies are frequently “considered

more compelling, and the overall study is therefore

regarded as more robust.”

In each of these three approaches, the validity of the

research hinges on how we address the question, “What

is this a case of?” Researchers interested in important but

uncommon events might well choose a comparative case

study approach in order to gather relatively large amounts

of related data on their topic despite its lack of frequency.

Revolutions, for example, do not occur very often. A single

revolution can be rooted in a long and complex local history, and supported by myriad factors that can only be

found through a deep understanding of the global economy and political alignments. Yet, by comparing the French

Revolution of 1789 with the American Revolution of 1776 and

the Cuban Revolution of 1959, researchers can identify crucial

similarities and patterns that greatly help us to understand

revolutionary events. But, not so fast. Are these cases best

understood as cases of “revolution,” or would it be more

useful to call them cases of “successful revolutions”? After

all, there have been many failed revolutions as well, which

share many of the same precursors as the successful ones.

Does it make sense to include revolutions across generations,

or should we focus on cases of twentieth-century revolutions distinct from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century ones?

Researchers also need to decide on other defining characteristics for their cases. Are revolutions that overthrow autocracies

and install democracies significantly different from revolutions that go in the other direction? Are those that overthrow

democracies better characterized as coups? All of these challenges point to the importance of the conceptualization stage

of research design, as discussed in Chapter 2.

176 Chapter 10


10.5: Case Study Design


10.5 Classify four types of case study designs

According to Yin (1994, 2003a) and Winston (1997), there

are several appropriate designs for case studies: exploratory, explanatory, and descriptive. These categories, or

variations on them, are often used to distinguish among

the different orientations to any research. It is worthwhile

thinking about how each of these orientations plays out for

case study research.

10.5.1: Exploratory Case Studies

When conducting exploratory case studies, fieldwork

and data collection may be undertaken before defining

a research question. This type of study may be seen as a

prelude to a large social scientific study—which may or

may not in itself involve case studies. From our perspective, the study must have some type of organizational

framework that has been designed prior to beginning the

research. Others, however, such as Yin (2003b, p. 6), suggest that these exploratory case studies may follow “intuitive paths often perceived by others as sloppy.” But, as

Yin (2003b) also points out, the goal in these studies may

be justified when they seek to discover theory through

directly observing some social phenomenon in its natural

and raw form. The sort of exploratory study may be useful

as a pilot study, for example, when planning a larger, more

comprehensive investigation (Swanson & Holton, 2005).

Calling a study “exploratory” should not be an excuse

for failing to plan. The circumstances under which such an

approach would be valid include needing to respond quickly

to unanticipated events and, as suggested above, exploring a

topic or setting in order to design the follow-up research.

10.5.2: Explanatory Case Studies

Explanatory case studies are useful when conducting causal

studies or otherwise pursuing an inferential research question. Particularly in complex studies of organizations or

communities, one might desire to employ multivariate cases

to examine a plurality of influences. The explanatory case

study, then, attempts to discover and analyze the many

factors and conditions that can help us to build a causal

explanation for the case. We do this for theory development,

theory testing, and theory expansion. Theory development

case studies are useful when something new or unexpected

has occurred, and we can only begin to build a theoretical

model to explain it by comparison to other cases that might

be said to resemble our case. We know that some of these

other cases can help explain the new case, but we don’t yet

understand the uniqueness of the present case.

10.5.3: Descriptive Case Studies

With descriptive case explorations, the investigator presents

a descriptive theory that establishes the overall framework

for the investigator to follow throughout the study. What

is implied by this approach is the formation and identification of a viable theoretical orientation before enunciating

research questions (Hancock & Algozzine, 2006; Munhall,

2007). The investigator must also determine before beginning the research what exactly the unit of analysis in the

study will be. For example, if I define a particular disaster

as an “industrial” disaster and not a “natural” disaster or

an accident, then I am claiming that the kinds of factors that

tend to cause industrial disasters are better explanations

for the current case than the factors usually associated with

other types of failures or related problems. My case study

would be designed to measure the factors that I believe are

most relevant, and also to measure the factors that I think

are less relevant. I can then compare the influence of the

different measures to see how well my interpretation holds

against the other possibilities. Descriptive case studies differ

from explanatory ones in that we would be focused on the

uniqueness of the case and not try to develop an inferential

model that would necessarily be applied to other cases.

Jason Jensen and Robert Rodgers (2001, pp. 237–239)

offer a different typology of case studies. They recommend

distinguishing among “snapshot” case studies that occur

at one point in time, longitudinal studies conducted over

a fixed period of time, and “pre- and post-”event studies. They also identify comparative case studies in which

one focuses on the significant differences between two or

more otherwise comparable cases. Their typology also recognizes that case studies may use any combination of the

above. That is to say, just because we can distinguish types

of studies among different categories does not mean that

you have to commit to just one of those categories.

10.5.4: Designing Case Studies

Designing a case study is merely a special case of the problem of designing any study, as discussed in Chapter 2. All

studies begin with a research question, or problem to be

addressed. Most are designed around testable propositions

derived from theory and the existing research literature.

Whatever data-collection methodologies we adopt, all of

the primary data must concern the same unit of analysis.

In this context, the unit of analysis defines what the case

study is focusing on (what the case is), such as individuals,

a group, an organization, a city, and so forth. If we were

studying the response to an epidemic, for example, then

all of our data collection would be organized in terms of

conceptual variables that define that response, though our

background sources would certainly address other things

such as population dynamics, disease etiology, and the

social, economic, and cultural context of our case.

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