The Case Study Method


Case studies are intensive analyses of an individual unit.  Case studies are different from experiments, observations and survey in two different respects: 1) Their idiographic nature, in the respect that they involve making a detailed study of single individuals or instances of something for example a family. 2) The second aspect is it is qualitative data, as opposed to quantitative data. Whilst the numerical measurements are not excluded the emphasis is upon description rather than figures.

Case study methods have been used extensively in psychology for many many years. Amongst the well known users is Sigmund Freud. Freud and other psycho-analysts employed case studies in their compilation of case histories of the patients they treated. An example of one of Freud’s case studies is Little Hans, Hans was the son of one of Freud’s friends (a doctor who was interested in Freud’s work). Hans was terrified of horses and especially afraid of being bitten by one. Freud theorised that in his unconscious mind he had incestuous desires for his mother but was afraid that his father would find out and castrate him as punishment. On a conscious level he expressed his anxiety as a fear of horses which symbolised his father as of biting which symbolised his father. This was then backed with detailed evidence, for example he particularly feared white horses with blinkers and black around the mouth-his father had a black moustache and glasses. It is these case studies that derives theories of personality and the oedipus concept.

Some strengths of the case study method are the fact they are so detailed, case studies allow the study of all aspects of an individual case rather than just being concerned with a few measurable characteristics. There is a greater chance that insights might be gained into the nature of behaviour, which might well be missed in other methods of study. Furthermore the descriptions of qualitative data are another advantage, case studies are based more upon description and upon qualitative data, than upon measurement. It is therefore less likely to ignore areas of behaviour which cannot be easily measured.

As with any method of data collection there are also weaknesses. Firstly is the generalizability, because the case study method deals with only one or possibly a few individuals studied in great depth, it is not easy to generalise findings to other people. The results of a study of one individual are really only valid in the case of that individual. Great caution should be taken when generalising to other individuals. Secondly the subjectivity of case studies is a further disadvantage, because they are based on the analysis of qualitative rather than quantitative data, it is in the hands of researchers alone. They are also responsible for deciding what to include in their descriptions and what to omit. This makes it easy for the researchers to leave out what does not support his or her theory.  An example of this again is Freud, he was the sole analyst, observer and interpreter of his own observations. It was therefore up to him to interpret what he observed in a way which would support his ideas about the oedipal concepts, which is a major criticism of his work.

Overall case studies are a very effective method of data collection that provide data that is very rich in description that explores areas of behaviour that quantitative data fails to account for however; information does need to be treated with caution when trying to generalise information.


13 responses »

  1. You’ve presented a good argument both for and against case studies 🙂 but I wonder, have you considered further implications of using case studies in psychology. As you point out there are limitations to case studies, I just wanted to mention that case studies can be very good for establishing new variables that can later be studied in a bigger scale study. For example, the Bruce Reimer case study by Dr Money found that it was not possible to change a persons’ gender by creating a particular environment. This one study was able to show that nature too plays a significant role in gender development. This then led to further studies into the development of gender… So case studies aren’t all bad.
    However, one limitation I will mention is that, as you said, case studies simply describe behaviours but fail to determine the underlying factors that explain behaviour. Yes, this does mean that the data is very detailed- that is, it’s a descriptive method and not an exploratory one. Without the control of the laboratory setting we cannot draw conclusions about cause and effect relationships as we can’t explain the behaviour. And one more limitation of case studies is that they rely quite heavily on retrospective data, and as a result the issue of human memory comes into play. Memory isn’t always the most reliable of things which unfortunately makes case studies that use this method less reliable too.

  2. Very good interesting blog. Case studies are very useful when studying difficult or unique subjects. For example Thigpen and Cleckley’s study on Multiple Personality Disorder (1) . Although it was a case study, there was a large number of qualitative research through questionnaires but also quantitative through EEG examinations psychometric and projective tests- which help increase validity of study. In this particular study, the case study was useful in building up a in depth understanding of the individual, which can be used to aid this disorder. Another strength of both this study and yours, is that it provided very rich data analysis very various different tests.

    However, retrospective outlook is usually used, where the individual has to look back over certain areas of their life. This can be deceiving either deliberately through social desirability or just simply forgetting things which can lead to unreliability of data. Another weakness of longitudinal case studies is that if the participant decides to drop out, there is no other participants to fall back on which means all the qualitative and quantitative data gathered is invalid and unfinished.

    In conclusion, case studies do have limitations and problems with generalizability, but are extremely useful when looking at limited areas of psychology when participants are hard to get hold of.

    1) Thigpen, C.H. & Cleckley, H. (1954) A case of multiple personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 135-51

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  4. I agree that case studies are very important and although some would argue that we should not use them because the data is not generalisable to others. However I think that sometimes it is important to take a step back form numbers and cause and effects and take a real in depth insight. I think case studies takes in the appreciation of the complexity of humanity and will not just look at one aspect of why a particular behaviour has occurred but will look at many different aspects such as family history, past experiences, individuals thoughts and feelings etc.

    Case studies can also be used as a basis for further quantitative research, for example researchers can test the reliability of a findings in a case study by conducting it under a more controlled environment to see if it is applicable to a particular target population. Surely by combining the two can only strengthen and make the findings both more reliable and valid.

    case studies are especially used for unusual circumstances. Every now and then an unusual case will come along that experimenter would not be able to test the effects under experimental conditions. For example a case study of a young girl who was locked away from society and interaction with other humans by her father until she was eventually released. Although this is an awful thing to happen it gave psychologists a deep insight into the importance of interaction and the need for a loving environment. It also gave us understanding into the importance of language development prior to puberty.

    Case studies has many advantages in the world of psychology and like all designs have their limitations. However has led to many positive outcomes in psychology such as client centered therapy. Humanistic theorists such as Rogers would argue that no one knows the individual better then the individual themselves and therefore a client centered therapy works around the individual helping themselves.

  5. Hello, I really enjoyed reading your blog! I would just like to add that I believe that case studies are also extremely useful for cases in which scientists couldn’t possible study in another way (for example, cases of brain damage and the resulting behaviours – this couldn’t be researched in a regular laboratory experiment – Looking forward to your next blog!

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  7. According to Willig (2008) results from one case study can never be generalized to other cases in any direct way. However, the results of case studies can be used to develop theories which could attribute to the explanation of a phenomenon in the future cases.
    You mentioned that one of the disadvantages of the case study is that it is less subjective, however Campbell (1975) argues that subjectivism applies to all methods and not only to qualitative studies. Moreover, Wieviorka (1992) claims the case study has its own rigor which is not less strict than the rigor of quantitative studies.

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  10. With regards to case studies there are a lot of pro’s and con’s towards them however I believe that it depends on the focus of using a case study as to whether it is effective. When you want to start a full blown study that may be expensive and a bit of an ‘out there’ topic, using a case study may be on of the best ways to sway the big suits who need to approve you funding or generally your allowance to carry on with a bigger sample population. By using this method it also may cover your back with the reliability of the hypothesis if you are not quite sure as to what you are testing and what the outcome of your hypothesis will be then a case study may give you a hint in the right direction. So they do have their uses.
    Further more with case studies, I believe that the fact that even though they have mainly qualitative data collection with observations etc, that the use of diagrams and statistic as well reinforces any of the con’s to qualitative data and therefore makes the use of case studies a strong candidate for data collection.

  11. Fantastic blog, I remember studying the Little Hans case at A Level and the way Freud conducted his case study I believe was negative. As you said Freud was the sole analyst and the interpreter of his own observations. Freud suggests that the fear of horses was a symbolic fear of his father. However there were other explanations, Hans had once seen a horse fall down in the street and thought it was dead; this had happened very shortly after attending a funeral and he was beginning to question his parents about death. Could this explanation be related to his fear of horses? Also Hans father used leading questions when talking to Hans ‘When the horse fell down did you think of your daddy?’ With Hans responding ‘Perhaps. Yes. It’s possible’. This sort of question was seen as manipulating, the father was getting the answer he wanted. A better question would have been ‘what did you think when the horse fell down?’ It has also been suggested that Hans father could have exaggerated the illness or symptoms of Hans to Freud, this is known as munchausen by proxy syndrome (MBPS). This syndrome sounds more than likely when we are faced with the fact that Freud only met Hans once.

    Overall this study did give me negative impression of case studies, they can be biased, not generalisable and they cannot be replicated. Also in the case of Hans second hand information was used from probably a biased father. However despite this if they are conducted correctly, case studies can be of an advantage. They provide highly detailed data and are defiantly more insightful.

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  13. Case studies are always a weird one for me to analyse. When a lot of people think of case studies they think of Freudian times which leads them to a conclusion of it being unscientific and not a good method to have in Psychology. However, case study research has changed unrecognisably since then and is now a valid method of collecting research. Although generablilty is seen as a problem, case studies are successfully used on people who’s behaviour is not generalisable anyway, and has been very useful in criminal and forensic psychology ( to allow them to pick out other individuals who are likely to commit similar crimes.

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