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Writing a Case Study

Hands holding a world globe

What is a case study?

A Map of the world with hands holding a pen.

A Case study is: 

  • An in-depth research design that primarily uses a qualitative methodology but sometimes​​ includes quantitative methodology.
  • Used to examine an identifiable problem confirmed through research.
  • Used to investigate an individual, group of people, organization, or event.
  • Used to mostly answer "how" and "why" questions.

What are the different types of case studies?

Man and woman looking at a laptop

Note: These are the primary case studies. As you continue to research and learn

about case studies you will begin to find a robust list of different types. 

Who are your case study participants?

Boys looking through a camera

What is triangulation ? 

Validity and credibility are an essential part of the case study. Therefore, the researcher should include triangulation to ensure trustworthiness while accurately reflecting what the researcher seeks to investigate.

Triangulation image with examples

How to write a Case Study?

When developing a case study, there are different ways you could present the information, but remember to include the five parts for your case study.

Man holding his hand out to show five fingers.

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Encyclopedia of Case Study Research

  • Edited by: Albert J. Mills , Gabrielle Durepos & Elden Wiebe
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Publication year: 2010
  • Online pub date: December 27, 2012
  • Discipline: Anthropology
  • Methods: Case study research
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781412957397
  • Print ISBN: 9781412956703
  • Online ISBN: 9781412957397
  • Buy the book icon link

Reader's guide

Entries a-z, subject index.

Case study research has a long history within the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, dating back to the early 1920's. At first it was a useful way for researchers to make valid inferences from events outside the laboratory in ways consistent with the rigorous practices of investigation inside the lab. Over time, case study approaches garnered interest in multiple disciplines as scholars studied phenomena in context. Despite widespread use, case study research has received little attention among the literature on research strategies.

The Encyclopedia of Case Study Research provides a compendium on the important methodological issues in conducting case study research and explores both the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigmatic approaches. These two volumes focus on the distinctive characteristics of case study research and its place within and alongside other research methodologies.

Key Features

Presents a definition of case study research that can be used in different fields of study; Describes case study as a research strategy rather than as a single tool for decision making and inquiry; Guides rather than dictates, readers understanding and applications of case study research; Includes a critical summary in each entry, which raises additional matters for reflection; Makes case study relevant to researchers at various stages of their careers, across philosophic divides, and throughout diverse disciplines

Academic Disciplines; Case Study Research Design; Conceptual Issues; Data Analysis; Data Collection; Methodological Approaches; Theoretical Traditions; Theory Development and Contributions

From Case Study Research

Types of Case Study Research

Front Matter

  • Editorial Board
  • List of Entries
  • Reader's Guide
  • About the Editors
  • Contributors
  • Introduction

Reader’s Guide

Back matter.

  • Selected Bibliography: Case Study Publications by Contributing Authors
  • Case Study Research in Anthropology
  • Before-and-After Case Study Design
  • Action-Based Data Collection
  • Activity Theory
  • Case Study and Theoretical Science
  • Analytic Generalization
  • ANTi-History
  • Case Study Research in Business and Management
  • Blended Research Design
  • Bayesian Inference and Boolean Logic
  • Analysis of Visual Data
  • Actor-Network Theory
  • Chicago School
  • Case Study as a Teaching Tool
  • Case Study Research in Business Ethics
  • Bounding the Case
  • Authenticity and Bad Faith
  • Anonymity and Confidentiality
  • Colonialism
  • Authenticity
  • Case Study in Creativity Research
  • Case Study Research in Education
  • Case Selection
  • Author Intentionality
  • Case-to-Case Synthesis
  • Anonymizing Data for Secondary Use
  • Autoethnography
  • Constructivism
  • Concatenated Theory
  • Case Study Research in Tourism
  • Case Study Research in Feminism
  • Causal Case Study: Explanatory Theories
  • Archival Records as Evidence
  • Base and Superstructure
  • Critical Realism
  • Conceptual Argument
  • Case Study With the Elderly
  • Case Study Research in Medicine
  • Case Within a Case
  • Contentious Issues in Case Study Research
  • Chronological Order
  • Audiovisual Recording
  • Case Study as a Methodological Approach
  • Critical Theory
  • Conceptual Model: Causal Model
  • Collective Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Political Science
  • Comparative Case Study
  • Cultural Sensitivity and Case Study
  • Coding: Axial Coding
  • Autobiography
  • Dialectical Materialism
  • Conceptual Model: Operationalization
  • Configurative-Ideographic Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Psychology
  • Critical Incident Case Study
  • Dissertation Proposal
  • Coding: Open Coding
  • Case Study Database
  • Class Analysis
  • Epistemology
  • Conceptual Model in a Qualitative Research Project
  • Critical Pedagogy and Digital Technology
  • Case Study Research in Public Policy
  • Cross-Sectional Design
  • Ecological Perspectives
  • Coding: Selective Coding
  • Case Study Protocol
  • Existentialism
  • Conceptual Model in a Quantitative Research Project
  • Diagnostic Case Study Research
  • Decision Making Under Uncertainty
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Case Study Surveys
  • Codifying Social Practices
  • Contribution, Theoretical
  • Explanatory Case Study
  • Deductive-Nomological Model of Explanation
  • Masculinity and Femininity
  • Cognitive Mapping
  • Consent, Obtaining Participant
  • Communicative Action
  • Formative Context
  • Credibility
  • Exploratory Case Study
  • Deviant Case Analysis
  • Objectivism
  • Communicative Framing Analysis
  • Contextualization
  • Community of Practice
  • Frame Analysis
  • Docile Bodies
  • Inductivism
  • Discursive Frame
  • Comparing the Case Study With Other Methodologies
  • Historical Materialism
  • Equifinality
  • Institutional Ethnography
  • Healthcare Practice Guidelines
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: ATLAS.ti
  • Consciousness Raising
  • Interpretivism
  • Instrumental Case Study
  • Pedagogy and Case Study
  • Pluralism and Case Study
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: CAITA (Computer-Assisted Interpretive Textual Analysis)
  • Data Resources
  • Contradiction
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Explanation Building
  • Intercultural Performance
  • Event-Driven Research
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: Kwalitan
  • Depth of Data
  • Critical Discourse Analysis
  • Managerialism
  • Extension of Theory
  • Intrinsic Case Study
  • Exemplary Case Design
  • Power/Knowledge
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: MAXQDA 2007
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Critical Sensemaking
  • Falsification
  • Limited-Depth Case Study
  • Extended Case Method
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: NVIVO
  • Direct Observation as Evidence
  • North American Case Research Association
  • Functionalism
  • Multimedia Case Studies
  • Extreme Cases
  • Researcher as Research Tool
  • Concept Mapping
  • Discourse Analysis
  • Decentering Texts
  • Generalizability
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Congruence Analysis
  • Documentation as Evidence
  • Deconstruction
  • Paradigm Plurality in Case Study Research
  • Genericization
  • Participatory Case Study
  • Holistic Designs
  • Utilitarianism
  • Constant Causal Effects Assumption
  • Ethnostatistics
  • Dialogic Inquiry
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Indeterminacy
  • Content Analysis
  • Fiction Analysis
  • Discourse Ethics
  • Indexicality
  • Pracademics
  • Integrating Independent Case Studies
  • Conversation Analysis
  • Field Notes
  • Double Hermeneutic
  • Postcolonialism
  • Processual Case Research
  • Cross-Case Synthesis and Analysis
  • Postmodernism
  • Macrolevel Social Mechanisms
  • Program Evaluation and Case Study
  • Longitudinal Research
  • Going Native
  • Ethnographic Memoir
  • Postpositivism
  • Middle-Range Theory
  • Program-Logic Model
  • Mental Framework
  • Document Analysis
  • Informant Bias
  • Ethnography
  • Poststructuralism
  • Naturalistic Generalization
  • Prospective Case Study
  • Mixed Methods in Case Study Research
  • Factor Analysis
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Poststructuralist Feminism
  • Overdetermination
  • Real-Time Cases
  • Most Different Systems Design
  • Eurocentrism
  • Radical Empiricism
  • Plausibility
  • Retrospective Case Study
  • High-Quality Analysis
  • Iterative Nodes
  • Radical Feminism
  • Probabilistic Explanation
  • Re-Use of Qualitative Data
  • Multiple-Case Designs
  • Language and Cultural Barriers
  • Process Tracing
  • Single-Case Designs
  • Multi-Site Case Study
  • Interactive Methodology, Feminist
  • Multiple Sources of Evidence
  • Scientific Method
  • Spiral Case Study
  • Naturalistic Inquiry
  • Interpreting Results
  • Narrative Analysis
  • Front Stage and Back Stage
  • Scientific Realism
  • Reporting Case Study Research
  • Storyselling
  • Natural Science Model
  • Socialist Feminism
  • Rhetoric in Research Reporting
  • Number of Cases
  • Naturalistic Context
  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Statistical Generalization
  • Outcome-Driven Research
  • Knowledge Production
  • Nonparticipant Observation
  • Governmentality
  • Substantive Theory
  • Paradigmatic Cases
  • Method of Agreement
  • Objectivity
  • Grounded Theory
  • Theory-Building With Cases
  • Method of Difference
  • Over-Rapport
  • Hermeneutics
  • Theory-Testing With Cases
  • Multicollinearity
  • Participant Observation
  • Underdetermination
  • Multidimensional Scaling
  • Imperialism
  • Polar Types
  • Institutional Theory, Old and New
  • Problem Formulation
  • Pattern Matching
  • Personality Tests
  • Intertextuality
  • Quantitative Single-Case Research Design
  • Re-Analysis of Previous Data
  • Isomorphism
  • Quasi-Experimental Design
  • Regulating Group Mind
  • Questionnaires
  • Langue and Parôle
  • Quick Start to Case Study Research
  • Relational Analysis
  • Reflexivity
  • Layered Nature of Texts
  • Random Assignment
  • Replication
  • Life History
  • Research Framework
  • Reliability
  • Logocentrism
  • Research Objectives
  • Rival Explanations
  • Repeated Observations
  • Management of Impressions
  • Research Proposals
  • Secondary Data as Primary
  • Researcher-Participant Relationship
  • Means of Production
  • Research Questions, Types of Retrospective Case Study
  • Serendipity Pattern
  • Situational Analysis
  • Sensitizing Concepts
  • Modes of Production
  • Standpoint Analysis
  • Subjectivism
  • Multimethod Research Program
  • Socially Distributed Knowledge
  • Statistical Analysis
  • Subject Rights
  • Multiple Selfing
  • Theoretical Saturation
  • Native Points of View
  • Statistics, Use of in Case Study
  • Temporal Bracketing
  • Triangulation
  • Negotiated Order
  • Textual Analysis
  • Use of Digital Data
  • Network Analysis
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Utilization
  • One-Dimensional Culture
  • Visual Research Methods
  • Ordinary Troubles
  • Theory, Role of
  • Organizational Culture
  • Webs of Significance
  • Within-Case Analysis
  • Performativity
  • Phenomenology
  • Practice-Oriented Research
  • Primitivism
  • Qualitative Analysis in Case Study
  • Qualitative Comparative Analysis
  • Self-Confrontation Method
  • Self-Presentation
  • Sensemaking
  • Signifier and Signified
  • Sign System
  • Social-Interaction Theory
  • Storytelling
  • Structuration
  • Symbolic Value
  • Symbolic Violence
  • Thick Description
  • Writing and Difference

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Book cover

Principles of Social Research Methodology pp 313–321 Cite as

  • R. M. Channaveer 4 &
  • Rajendra Baikady 5  
  • First Online: 27 October 2022

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This chapter reviews the strengths and limitations of case study as a research method in social sciences. It provides an account of an evidence base to justify why a case study is best suitable for some research questions and why not for some other research questions. Case study designing around the research context, defining the structure and modality, conducting the study, collecting the data through triangulation mode, analysing the data, and interpreting the data and theory building at the end give a holistic view of it. In addition, the chapter also focuses on the types of case study and when and where to use case study as a research method in social science research.

  • Qualitative research approach
  • Social work research

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Department of Social Work, Central University of Karnataka, Kadaganchi, India

R. M. Channaveer

Department of Social Work, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

Rajendra Baikady

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  • Case Study | Definition, Examples & Methods

Case Study | Definition, Examples & Methods

Published on 5 May 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 30 January 2023.

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject, such as a person, group, place, event, organisation, 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 analyse the case.

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.

Prevent plagiarism, run a free check.

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

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.

If you find yourself aiming to simultaneously investigate and solve an issue, consider conducting action research . As its name suggests, action research conducts research and takes action at the same time, and is highly iterative and flexible. 

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

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 .

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

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 analyse 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.

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  • Open access
  • Published: 27 June 2011

The case study approach

  • Sarah Crowe 1 ,
  • Kathrin Cresswell 2 ,
  • Ann Robertson 2 ,
  • Guro Huby 3 ,
  • Anthony Avery 1 &
  • Aziz Sheikh 2  

BMC Medical Research Methodology volume  11 , Article number:  100 ( 2011 ) Cite this article

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The case study approach allows in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex issues in their real-life settings. The value of the case study approach is well recognised in the fields of business, law and policy, but somewhat less so in health services research. Based on our experiences of conducting several health-related case studies, we reflect on the different types of case study design, the specific research questions this approach can help answer, the data sources that tend to be used, and the particular advantages and disadvantages of employing this methodological approach. The paper concludes with key pointers to aid those designing and appraising proposals for conducting case study research, and a checklist to help readers assess the quality of case study reports.

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The case study approach is particularly useful to employ when there is a need to obtain an in-depth appreciation of an issue, event or phenomenon of interest, in its natural real-life context. Our aim in writing this piece is to provide insights into when to consider employing this approach and an overview of key methodological considerations in relation to the design, planning, analysis, interpretation and reporting of case studies.

The illustrative 'grand round', 'case report' and 'case series' have a long tradition in clinical practice and research. Presenting detailed critiques, typically of one or more patients, aims to provide insights into aspects of the clinical case and, in doing so, illustrate broader lessons that may be learnt. In research, the conceptually-related case study approach can be used, for example, to describe in detail a patient's episode of care, explore professional attitudes to and experiences of a new policy initiative or service development or more generally to 'investigate contemporary phenomena within its real-life context' [ 1 ]. Based on our experiences of conducting a range of case studies, we reflect on when to consider using this approach, discuss the key steps involved and illustrate, with examples, some of the practical challenges of attaining an in-depth understanding of a 'case' as an integrated whole. In keeping with previously published work, we acknowledge the importance of theory to underpin the design, selection, conduct and interpretation of case studies[ 2 ]. In so doing, we make passing reference to the different epistemological approaches used in case study research by key theoreticians and methodologists in this field of enquiry.

This paper is structured around the following main questions: What is a case study? What are case studies used for? How are case studies conducted? What are the potential pitfalls and how can these be avoided? We draw in particular on four of our own recently published examples of case studies (see Tables 1 , 2 , 3 and 4 ) and those of others to illustrate our discussion[ 3 – 7 ].

What is a case study?

A case study is a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context. It is an established research design that is used extensively in a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. A case study can be defined in a variety of ways (Table 5 ), the central tenet being the need to explore an event or phenomenon in depth and in its natural context. It is for this reason sometimes referred to as a "naturalistic" design; this is in contrast to an "experimental" design (such as a randomised controlled trial) in which the investigator seeks to exert control over and manipulate the variable(s) of interest.

Stake's work has been particularly influential in defining the case study approach to scientific enquiry. He has helpfully characterised three main types of case study: intrinsic , instrumental and collective [ 8 ]. An intrinsic case study is typically undertaken to learn about a unique phenomenon. The researcher should define the uniqueness of the phenomenon, which distinguishes it from all others. In contrast, the instrumental case study uses a particular case (some of which may be better than others) to gain a broader appreciation of an issue or phenomenon. The collective case study involves studying multiple cases simultaneously or sequentially in an attempt to generate a still broader appreciation of a particular issue.

These are however not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. In the first of our examples (Table 1 ), we undertook an intrinsic case study to investigate the issue of recruitment of minority ethnic people into the specific context of asthma research studies, but it developed into a instrumental case study through seeking to understand the issue of recruitment of these marginalised populations more generally, generating a number of the findings that are potentially transferable to other disease contexts[ 3 ]. In contrast, the other three examples (see Tables 2 , 3 and 4 ) employed collective case study designs to study the introduction of workforce reconfiguration in primary care, the implementation of electronic health records into hospitals, and to understand the ways in which healthcare students learn about patient safety considerations[ 4 – 6 ]. Although our study focusing on the introduction of General Practitioners with Specialist Interests (Table 2 ) was explicitly collective in design (four contrasting primary care organisations were studied), is was also instrumental in that this particular professional group was studied as an exemplar of the more general phenomenon of workforce redesign[ 4 ].

What are case studies used for?

According to Yin, case studies can be used to explain, describe or explore events or phenomena in the everyday contexts in which they occur[ 1 ]. These can, for example, help to understand and explain causal links and pathways resulting from a new policy initiative or service development (see Tables 2 and 3 , for example)[ 1 ]. In contrast to experimental designs, which seek to test a specific hypothesis through deliberately manipulating the environment (like, for example, in a randomised controlled trial giving a new drug to randomly selected individuals and then comparing outcomes with controls),[ 9 ] the case study approach lends itself well to capturing information on more explanatory ' how ', 'what' and ' why ' questions, such as ' how is the intervention being implemented and received on the ground?'. The case study approach can offer additional insights into what gaps exist in its delivery or why one implementation strategy might be chosen over another. This in turn can help develop or refine theory, as shown in our study of the teaching of patient safety in undergraduate curricula (Table 4 )[ 6 , 10 ]. Key questions to consider when selecting the most appropriate study design are whether it is desirable or indeed possible to undertake a formal experimental investigation in which individuals and/or organisations are allocated to an intervention or control arm? Or whether the wish is to obtain a more naturalistic understanding of an issue? The former is ideally studied using a controlled experimental design, whereas the latter is more appropriately studied using a case study design.

Case studies may be approached in different ways depending on the epistemological standpoint of the researcher, that is, whether they take a critical (questioning one's own and others' assumptions), interpretivist (trying to understand individual and shared social meanings) or positivist approach (orientating towards the criteria of natural sciences, such as focusing on generalisability considerations) (Table 6 ). Whilst such a schema can be conceptually helpful, it may be appropriate to draw on more than one approach in any case study, particularly in the context of conducting health services research. Doolin has, for example, noted that in the context of undertaking interpretative case studies, researchers can usefully draw on a critical, reflective perspective which seeks to take into account the wider social and political environment that has shaped the case[ 11 ].

How are case studies conducted?

Here, we focus on the main stages of research activity when planning and undertaking a case study; the crucial stages are: defining the case; selecting the case(s); collecting and analysing the data; interpreting data; and reporting the findings.

Defining the case

Carefully formulated research question(s), informed by the existing literature and a prior appreciation of the theoretical issues and setting(s), are all important in appropriately and succinctly defining the case[ 8 , 12 ]. Crucially, each case should have a pre-defined boundary which clarifies the nature and time period covered by the case study (i.e. its scope, beginning and end), the relevant social group, organisation or geographical area of interest to the investigator, the types of evidence to be collected, and the priorities for data collection and analysis (see Table 7 )[ 1 ]. A theory driven approach to defining the case may help generate knowledge that is potentially transferable to a range of clinical contexts and behaviours; using theory is also likely to result in a more informed appreciation of, for example, how and why interventions have succeeded or failed[ 13 ].

For example, in our evaluation of the introduction of electronic health records in English hospitals (Table 3 ), we defined our cases as the NHS Trusts that were receiving the new technology[ 5 ]. Our focus was on how the technology was being implemented. However, if the primary research interest had been on the social and organisational dimensions of implementation, we might have defined our case differently as a grouping of healthcare professionals (e.g. doctors and/or nurses). The precise beginning and end of the case may however prove difficult to define. Pursuing this same example, when does the process of implementation and adoption of an electronic health record system really begin or end? Such judgements will inevitably be influenced by a range of factors, including the research question, theory of interest, the scope and richness of the gathered data and the resources available to the research team.

Selecting the case(s)

The decision on how to select the case(s) to study is a very important one that merits some reflection. In an intrinsic case study, the case is selected on its own merits[ 8 ]. The case is selected not because it is representative of other cases, but because of its uniqueness, which is of genuine interest to the researchers. This was, for example, the case in our study of the recruitment of minority ethnic participants into asthma research (Table 1 ) as our earlier work had demonstrated the marginalisation of minority ethnic people with asthma, despite evidence of disproportionate asthma morbidity[ 14 , 15 ]. In another example of an intrinsic case study, Hellstrom et al.[ 16 ] studied an elderly married couple living with dementia to explore how dementia had impacted on their understanding of home, their everyday life and their relationships.

For an instrumental case study, selecting a "typical" case can work well[ 8 ]. In contrast to the intrinsic case study, the particular case which is chosen is of less importance than selecting a case that allows the researcher to investigate an issue or phenomenon. For example, in order to gain an understanding of doctors' responses to health policy initiatives, Som undertook an instrumental case study interviewing clinicians who had a range of responsibilities for clinical governance in one NHS acute hospital trust[ 17 ]. Sampling a "deviant" or "atypical" case may however prove even more informative, potentially enabling the researcher to identify causal processes, generate hypotheses and develop theory.

In collective or multiple case studies, a number of cases are carefully selected. This offers the advantage of allowing comparisons to be made across several cases and/or replication. Choosing a "typical" case may enable the findings to be generalised to theory (i.e. analytical generalisation) or to test theory by replicating the findings in a second or even a third case (i.e. replication logic)[ 1 ]. Yin suggests two or three literal replications (i.e. predicting similar results) if the theory is straightforward and five or more if the theory is more subtle. However, critics might argue that selecting 'cases' in this way is insufficiently reflexive and ill-suited to the complexities of contemporary healthcare organisations.

The selected case study site(s) should allow the research team access to the group of individuals, the organisation, the processes or whatever else constitutes the chosen unit of analysis for the study. Access is therefore a central consideration; the researcher needs to come to know the case study site(s) well and to work cooperatively with them. Selected cases need to be not only interesting but also hospitable to the inquiry [ 8 ] if they are to be informative and answer the research question(s). Case study sites may also be pre-selected for the researcher, with decisions being influenced by key stakeholders. For example, our selection of case study sites in the evaluation of the implementation and adoption of electronic health record systems (see Table 3 ) was heavily influenced by NHS Connecting for Health, the government agency that was responsible for overseeing the National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT)[ 5 ]. This prominent stakeholder had already selected the NHS sites (through a competitive bidding process) to be early adopters of the electronic health record systems and had negotiated contracts that detailed the deployment timelines.

It is also important to consider in advance the likely burden and risks associated with participation for those who (or the site(s) which) comprise the case study. Of particular importance is the obligation for the researcher to think through the ethical implications of the study (e.g. the risk of inadvertently breaching anonymity or confidentiality) and to ensure that potential participants/participating sites are provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice about joining the study. The outcome of providing this information might be that the emotive burden associated with participation, or the organisational disruption associated with supporting the fieldwork, is considered so high that the individuals or sites decide against participation.

In our example of evaluating implementations of electronic health record systems, given the restricted number of early adopter sites available to us, we sought purposively to select a diverse range of implementation cases among those that were available[ 5 ]. We chose a mixture of teaching, non-teaching and Foundation Trust hospitals, and examples of each of the three electronic health record systems procured centrally by the NPfIT. At one recruited site, it quickly became apparent that access was problematic because of competing demands on that organisation. Recognising the importance of full access and co-operative working for generating rich data, the research team decided not to pursue work at that site and instead to focus on other recruited sites.

Collecting the data

In order to develop a thorough understanding of the case, the case study approach usually involves the collection of multiple sources of evidence, using a range of quantitative (e.g. questionnaires, audits and analysis of routinely collected healthcare data) and more commonly qualitative techniques (e.g. interviews, focus groups and observations). The use of multiple sources of data (data triangulation) has been advocated as a way of increasing the internal validity of a study (i.e. the extent to which the method is appropriate to answer the research question)[ 8 , 18 – 21 ]. An underlying assumption is that data collected in different ways should lead to similar conclusions, and approaching the same issue from different angles can help develop a holistic picture of the phenomenon (Table 2 )[ 4 ].

Brazier and colleagues used a mixed-methods case study approach to investigate the impact of a cancer care programme[ 22 ]. Here, quantitative measures were collected with questionnaires before, and five months after, the start of the intervention which did not yield any statistically significant results. Qualitative interviews with patients however helped provide an insight into potentially beneficial process-related aspects of the programme, such as greater, perceived patient involvement in care. The authors reported how this case study approach provided a number of contextual factors likely to influence the effectiveness of the intervention and which were not likely to have been obtained from quantitative methods alone.

In collective or multiple case studies, data collection needs to be flexible enough to allow a detailed description of each individual case to be developed (e.g. the nature of different cancer care programmes), before considering the emerging similarities and differences in cross-case comparisons (e.g. to explore why one programme is more effective than another). It is important that data sources from different cases are, where possible, broadly comparable for this purpose even though they may vary in nature and depth.

Analysing, interpreting and reporting case studies

Making sense and offering a coherent interpretation of the typically disparate sources of data (whether qualitative alone or together with quantitative) is far from straightforward. Repeated reviewing and sorting of the voluminous and detail-rich data are integral to the process of analysis. In collective case studies, it is helpful to analyse data relating to the individual component cases first, before making comparisons across cases. Attention needs to be paid to variations within each case and, where relevant, the relationship between different causes, effects and outcomes[ 23 ]. Data will need to be organised and coded to allow the key issues, both derived from the literature and emerging from the dataset, to be easily retrieved at a later stage. An initial coding frame can help capture these issues and can be applied systematically to the whole dataset with the aid of a qualitative data analysis software package.

The Framework approach is a practical approach, comprising of five stages (familiarisation; identifying a thematic framework; indexing; charting; mapping and interpretation) , to managing and analysing large datasets particularly if time is limited, as was the case in our study of recruitment of South Asians into asthma research (Table 1 )[ 3 , 24 ]. Theoretical frameworks may also play an important role in integrating different sources of data and examining emerging themes. For example, we drew on a socio-technical framework to help explain the connections between different elements - technology; people; and the organisational settings within which they worked - in our study of the introduction of electronic health record systems (Table 3 )[ 5 ]. Our study of patient safety in undergraduate curricula drew on an evaluation-based approach to design and analysis, which emphasised the importance of the academic, organisational and practice contexts through which students learn (Table 4 )[ 6 ].

Case study findings can have implications both for theory development and theory testing. They may establish, strengthen or weaken historical explanations of a case and, in certain circumstances, allow theoretical (as opposed to statistical) generalisation beyond the particular cases studied[ 12 ]. These theoretical lenses should not, however, constitute a strait-jacket and the cases should not be "forced to fit" the particular theoretical framework that is being employed.

When reporting findings, it is important to provide the reader with enough contextual information to understand the processes that were followed and how the conclusions were reached. In a collective case study, researchers may choose to present the findings from individual cases separately before amalgamating across cases. Care must be taken to ensure the anonymity of both case sites and individual participants (if agreed in advance) by allocating appropriate codes or withholding descriptors. In the example given in Table 3 , we decided against providing detailed information on the NHS sites and individual participants in order to avoid the risk of inadvertent disclosure of identities[ 5 , 25 ].

What are the potential pitfalls and how can these be avoided?

The case study approach is, as with all research, not without its limitations. When investigating the formal and informal ways undergraduate students learn about patient safety (Table 4 ), for example, we rapidly accumulated a large quantity of data. The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted on the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources. This highlights a more general point of the importance of avoiding the temptation to collect as much data as possible; adequate time also needs to be set aside for data analysis and interpretation of what are often highly complex datasets.

Case study research has sometimes been criticised for lacking scientific rigour and providing little basis for generalisation (i.e. producing findings that may be transferable to other settings)[ 1 ]. There are several ways to address these concerns, including: the use of theoretical sampling (i.e. drawing on a particular conceptual framework); respondent validation (i.e. participants checking emerging findings and the researcher's interpretation, and providing an opinion as to whether they feel these are accurate); and transparency throughout the research process (see Table 8 )[ 8 , 18 – 21 , 23 , 26 ]. Transparency can be achieved by describing in detail the steps involved in case selection, data collection, the reasons for the particular methods chosen, and the researcher's background and level of involvement (i.e. being explicit about how the researcher has influenced data collection and interpretation). Seeking potential, alternative explanations, and being explicit about how interpretations and conclusions were reached, help readers to judge the trustworthiness of the case study report. Stake provides a critique checklist for a case study report (Table 9 )[ 8 ].


The case study approach allows, amongst other things, critical events, interventions, policy developments and programme-based service reforms to be studied in detail in a real-life context. It should therefore be considered when an experimental design is either inappropriate to answer the research questions posed or impossible to undertake. Considering the frequency with which implementations of innovations are now taking place in healthcare settings and how well the case study approach lends itself to in-depth, complex health service research, we believe this approach should be more widely considered by researchers. Though inherently challenging, the research case study can, if carefully conceptualised and thoughtfully undertaken and reported, yield powerful insights into many important aspects of health and healthcare delivery.

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We are grateful to the participants and colleagues who contributed to the individual case studies that we have drawn on. This work received no direct funding, but it has been informed by projects funded by Asthma UK, the NHS Service Delivery Organisation, NHS Connecting for Health Evaluation Programme, and Patient Safety Research Portfolio. We would also like to thank the expert reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback. Our thanks are also due to Dr. Allison Worth who commented on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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Sarah Crowe & Anthony Avery

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AS conceived this article. SC, KC and AR wrote this paper with GH, AA and AS all commenting on various drafts. SC and AS are guarantors.

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Crowe, S., Cresswell, K., Robertson, A. et al. The case study approach. BMC Med Res Methodol 11 , 100 (2011).

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Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Generalization and Replication–A Representationalist View

In this paper, we provide a re-interpretation of qualitative and quantitative modeling from a representationalist perspective. In this view, both approaches attempt to construct abstract representations of empirical relational structures. Whereas quantitative research uses variable-based models that abstract from individual cases, qualitative research favors case-based models that abstract from individual characteristics. Variable-based models are usually stated in the form of quantified sentences (scientific laws). This syntactic structure implies that sentences about individual cases are derived using deductive reasoning. In contrast, case-based models are usually stated using context-dependent existential sentences (qualitative statements). This syntactic structure implies that sentences about other cases are justifiable by inductive reasoning. We apply this representationalist perspective to the problems of generalization and replication. Using the analytical framework of modal logic, we argue that the modes of reasoning are often not only applied to the context that has been studied empirically, but also on a between-contexts level. Consequently, quantitative researchers mostly adhere to a top-down strategy of generalization, whereas qualitative researchers usually follow a bottom-up strategy of generalization. Depending on which strategy is employed, the role of replication attempts is very different. In deductive reasoning, replication attempts serve as empirical tests of the underlying theory. Therefore, failed replications imply a faulty theory. From an inductive perspective, however, replication attempts serve to explore the scope of the theory. Consequently, failed replications do not question the theory per se , but help to shape its boundary conditions. We conclude that quantitative research may benefit from a bottom-up generalization strategy as it is employed in most qualitative research programs. Inductive reasoning forces us to think about the boundary conditions of our theories and provides a framework for generalization beyond statistical testing. In this perspective, failed replications are just as informative as successful replications, because they help to explore the scope of our theories.


Qualitative and quantitative research strategies have long been treated as opposing paradigms. In recent years, there have been attempts to integrate both strategies. These “mixed methods” approaches treat qualitative and quantitative methodologies as complementary, rather than opposing, strategies (Creswell, 2015 ). However, whilst acknowledging that both strategies have their benefits, this “integration” remains purely pragmatic. Hence, mixed methods methodology does not provide a conceptual unification of the two approaches.

Lacking a common methodological background, qualitative and quantitative research methodologies have developed rather distinct standards with regard to the aims and scope of empirical science (Freeman et al., 2007 ). These different standards affect the way researchers handle contradictory empirical findings. For example, many empirical findings in psychology have failed to replicate in recent years (Klein et al., 2014 ; Open Science, Collaboration, 2015 ). This “replication crisis” has been discussed on statistical, theoretical and social grounds and continues to have a wide impact on quantitative research practices like, for example, open science initiatives, pre-registered studies and a re-evaluation of statistical significance testing (Everett and Earp, 2015 ; Maxwell et al., 2015 ; Shrout and Rodgers, 2018 ; Trafimow, 2018 ; Wiggins and Chrisopherson, 2019 ).

However, qualitative research seems to be hardly affected by this discussion. In this paper, we argue that the latter is a direct consequence of how the concept of generalizability is conceived in the two approaches. Whereas most of quantitative psychology is committed to a top-down strategy of generalization based on the idea of random sampling from an abstract population, qualitative studies usually rely on a bottom-up strategy of generalization that is grounded in the successive exploration of the field by means of theoretically sampled cases.

Here, we show that a common methodological framework for qualitative and quantitative research methodologies is possible. We accomplish this by introducing a formal description of quantitative and qualitative models from a representationalist perspective: both approaches can be reconstructed as special kinds of representations for empirical relational structures. We then use this framework to analyze the generalization strategies used in the two approaches. These turn out to be logically independent of the type of model. This has wide implications for psychological research. First, a top-down generalization strategy is compatible with a qualitative modeling approach. This implies that mainstream psychology may benefit from qualitative methods when a numerical representation turns out to be difficult or impossible, without the need to commit to a “qualitative” philosophy of science. Second, quantitative research may exploit the bottom-up generalization strategy that is inherent to many qualitative approaches. This offers a new perspective on unsuccessful replications by treating them not as scientific failures, but as a valuable source of information about the scope of a theory.

The Quantitative Strategy–Numbers and Functions

Quantitative science is about finding valid mathematical representations for empirical phenomena. In most cases, these mathematical representations have the form of functional relations between a set of variables. One major challenge of quantitative modeling consists in constructing valid measures for these variables. Formally, to measure a variable means to construct a numerical representation of the underlying empirical relational structure (Krantz et al., 1971 ). For example, take the behaviors of a group of students in a classroom: “to listen,” “to take notes,” and “to ask critical questions.” One may now ask whether is possible to assign numbers to the students, such that the relations between the assigned numbers are of the same kind as the relations between the values of an underlying variable, like e.g., “engagement.” The observed behaviors in the classroom constitute an empirical relational structure, in the sense that for every student-behavior tuple, one can observe whether it is true or not. These observations can be represented in a person × behavior matrix 1 (compare Figure 1 ). Given this relational structure satisfies certain conditions (i.e., the axioms of a measurement model), one can assign numbers to the students and the behaviors, such that the relations between the numbers resemble the corresponding numerical relations. For example, if there is a unique ordering in the empirical observations with regard to which person shows which behavior, the assigned numbers have to constitute a corresponding unique ordering, as well. Such an ordering coincides with the person × behavior matrix forming a triangle shaped relation and is formally represented by a Guttman scale (Guttman, 1944 ). There are various measurement models available for different empirical structures (Suppes et al., 1971 ). In the case of probabilistic relations, Item-Response models may be considered as a special kind of measurement model (Borsboom, 2005 ).

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Constructing a numerical representation from an empirical relational structure; Due to the unique ordering of persons with regard to behaviors (indicated by the triangular shape of the relation), it is possible to construct a Guttman scale by assigning a number to each of the individuals, representing the number of relevant behaviors shown by the individual. The resulting variable (“engagement”) can then be described by means of statistical analyses, like, e.g., plotting the frequency distribution.

Although essential, measurement is only the first step of quantitative modeling. Consider a slightly richer empirical structure, where we observe three additional behaviors: “to doodle,” “to chat,” and “to play.” Like above, one may ask, whether there is a unique ordering of the students with regard to these behaviors that can be represented by an underlying variable (i.e., whether the matrix forms a Guttman scale). If this is the case, we may assign corresponding numbers to the students and call this variable “distraction.” In our example, such a representation is possible. We can thus assign two numbers to each student, one representing his or her “engagement” and one representing his or her “distraction” (compare Figure 2 ). These measurements can now be used to construct a quantitative model by relating the two variables by a mathematical function. In the simplest case, this may be a linear function. This functional relation constitutes a quantitative model of the empirical relational structure under study (like, e.g., linear regression). Given the model equation and the rules for assigning the numbers (i.e., the instrumentations of the two variables), the set of admissible empirical structures is limited from all possible structures to a rather small subset. This constitutes the empirical content of the model 2 (Popper, 1935 ).

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Constructing a numerical model from an empirical relational structure; Since there are two distinct classes of behaviors that each form a Guttman scale, it is possible to assign two numbers to each individual, correspondingly. The resulting variables (“engagement” and “distraction”) can then be related by a mathematical function, which is indicated by the scatterplot and red line on the right hand side.

The Qualitative Strategy–Categories and Typologies

The predominant type of analysis in qualitative research consists in category formation. By constructing descriptive systems for empirical phenomena, it is possible to analyze the underlying empirical structure at a higher level of abstraction. The resulting categories (or types) constitute a conceptual frame for the interpretation of the observations. Qualitative researchers differ considerably in the way they collect and analyze data (Miles et al., 2014 ). However, despite the diverse research strategies followed by different qualitative methodologies, from a formal perspective, most approaches build on some kind of categorization of cases that share some common features. The process of category formation is essential in many qualitative methodologies, like, for example, qualitative content analysis, thematic analysis, grounded theory (see Flick, 2014 for an overview). Sometimes these features are directly observable (like in our classroom example), sometimes they are themselves the result of an interpretative process (e.g., Scheunpflug et al., 2016 ).

In contrast to quantitative methodologies, there have been little attempts to formalize qualitative research strategies (compare, however, Rihoux and Ragin, 2009 ). However, there are several statistical approaches to non-numerical data that deal with constructing abstract categories and establishing relations between these categories (Agresti, 2013 ). Some of these methods are very similar to qualitative category formation on a conceptual level. For example, cluster analysis groups cases into homogenous categories (clusters) based on their similarity on a distance metric.

Although category formation can be formalized in a mathematically rigorous way (Ganter and Wille, 1999 ), qualitative research hardly acknowledges these approaches. 3 However, in order to find a common ground with quantitative science, it is certainly helpful to provide a formal interpretation of category systems.

Let us reconsider the above example of students in a classroom. The quantitative strategy was to assign numbers to the students with regard to variables and to relate these variables via a mathematical function. We can analyze the same empirical structure by grouping the behaviors to form abstract categories. If the aim is to construct an empirically valid category system, this grouping is subject to constraints, analogous to those used to specify a measurement model. The first and most important constraint is that the behaviors must form equivalence classes, i.e., within categories, behaviors need to be equivalent, and across categories, they need to be distinct (formally, the relational structure must obey the axioms of an equivalence relation). When objects are grouped into equivalence classes, it is essential to specify the criterion for empirical equivalence. In qualitative methodology, this is sometimes referred to as the tertium comparationis (Flick, 2014 ). One possible criterion is to group behaviors such that they constitute a set of specific common attributes of a group of people. In our example, we might group the behaviors “to listen,” “to take notes,” and “to doodle,” because these behaviors are common to the cases B, C, and D, and they are also specific for these cases, because no other person shows this particular combination of behaviors. The set of common behaviors then forms an abstract concept (e.g., “moderate distraction”), while the set of persons that show this configuration form a type (e.g., “the silent dreamer”). Formally, this means to identify the maximal rectangles in the underlying empirical relational structure (see Figure 3 ). This procedure is very similar to the way we constructed a Guttman scale, the only difference being that we now use different aspects of the empirical relational structure. 4 In fact, the set of maximal rectangles can be determined by an automated algorithm (Ganter, 2010 ), just like the dimensionality of an empirical structure can be explored by psychometric scaling methods. Consequently, we can identify the empirical content of a category system or a typology as the set of empirical structures that conforms to it. 5 Whereas the quantitative strategy was to search for scalable sub-matrices and then relate the constructed variables by a mathematical function, the qualitative strategy is to construct an empirical typology by grouping cases based on their specific similarities. These types can then be related to one another by a conceptual model that describes their semantic and empirical overlap (see Figure 3 , right hand side).

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Constructing a conceptual model from an empirical relational structure; Individual behaviors are grouped to form abstract types based on them being shared among a specific subset of the cases. Each type constitutes a set of specific commonalities of a class of individuals (this is indicated by the rectangles on the left hand side). The resulting types (“active learner,” “silent dreamer,” “distracted listener,” and “troublemaker”) can then be related to one another to explicate their semantic and empirical overlap, as indicated by the Venn-diagram on the right hand side.

Variable-Based Models and Case-Based Models

In the previous section, we have argued that qualitative category formation and quantitative measurement can both be characterized as methods to construct abstract representations of empirical relational structures. Instead of focusing on different philosophical approaches to empirical science, we tried to stress the formal similarities between both approaches. However, it is worth also exploring the dissimilarities from a formal perspective.

Following the above analysis, the quantitative approach can be characterized by the use of variable-based models, whereas the qualitative approach is characterized by case-based models (Ragin, 1987 ). Formally, we can identify the rows of an empirical person × behavior matrix with a person-space, and the columns with a corresponding behavior-space. A variable-based model abstracts from the single individuals in a person-space to describe the structure of behaviors on a population level. A case-based model, on the contrary, abstracts from the single behaviors in a behavior-space to describe individual case configurations on the level of abstract categories (see Table 1 ).

Variable-based models and case-based models.

From a representational perspective, there is no a priori reason to favor one type of model over the other. Both approaches provide different analytical tools to construct an abstract representation of an empirical relational structure. However, since the two modeling approaches make use of different information (person-space vs. behavior-space), this comes with some important implications for the researcher employing one of the two strategies. These are concerned with the role of deductive and inductive reasoning.

In variable-based models, empirical structures are represented by functional relations between variables. These are usually stated as scientific laws (Carnap, 1928 ). Formally, these laws correspond to logical expressions of the form

In plain text, this means that y is a function of x for all objects i in the relational structure under consideration. For example, in the above example, one may formulate the following law: for all students in the classroom it holds that “distraction” is a monotone decreasing function of “engagement.” Such a law can be used to derive predictions for single individuals by means of logical deduction: if the above law applies to all students in the classroom, it is possible to calculate the expected distraction from a student's engagement. An empirical observation can now be evaluated against this prediction. If the prediction turns out to be false, the law can be refuted based on the principle of falsification (Popper, 1935 ). If a scientific law repeatedly withstands such empirical tests, it may be considered to be valid with regard to the relational structure under consideration.

In case-based models, there are no laws about a population, because the model does not abstract from the cases but from the observed behaviors. A case-based model describes the underlying structure in terms of existential sentences. Formally, this corresponds to a logical expression of the form

In plain text, this means that there is at least one case i for which the condition XYZ holds. For example, the above category system implies that there is at least one active learner. This is a statement about a singular observation. It is impossible to deduce a statement about another person from an existential sentence like this. Therefore, the strategy of falsification cannot be applied to test the model's validity in a specific context. If one wishes to generalize to other cases, this is accomplished by inductive reasoning, instead. If we observed one person that fulfills the criteria of calling him or her an active learner, we can hypothesize that there may be other persons that are identical to the observed case in this respect. However, we do not arrive at this conclusion by logical deduction, but by induction.

Despite this important distinction, it would be wrong to conclude that variable-based models are intrinsically deductive and case-based models are intrinsically inductive. 6 Both types of reasoning apply to both types of models, but on different levels. Based on a person-space, in a variable-based model one can use deduction to derive statements about individual persons from abstract population laws. There is an analogous way of reasoning for case-based models: because they are based on a behavior space, it is possible to deduce statements about singular behaviors. For example, if we know that Peter is an active learner, we can deduce that he takes notes in the classroom. This kind of deductive reasoning can also be applied on a higher level of abstraction to deduce thematic categories from theoretical assumptions (Braun and Clarke, 2006 ). Similarly, there is an analog for inductive generalization from the perspective of variable-based modeling: since the laws are only quantified over the person-space, generalizations to other behaviors rely on inductive reasoning. For example, it is plausible to assume that highly engaged students tend to do their homework properly–however, in our example this behavior has never been observed. Hence, in variable-based models we usually generalize to other behaviors by means of induction. This kind of inductive reasoning is very common when empirical results are generalized from the laboratory to other behavioral domains.

Although inductive and deductive reasoning are used in qualitative and quantitative research, it is important to stress the different roles of induction and deduction when models are applied to cases. A variable-based approach implies to draw conclusions about cases by means of logical deduction; a case-based approach implies to draw conclusions about cases by means of inductive reasoning. In the following, we build on this distinction to differentiate between qualitative (bottom-up) and quantitative (top-down) strategies of generalization.

Generalization and the Problem of Replication

We will now extend the formal analysis of quantitative and qualitative approaches to the question of generalization and replicability of empirical findings. For this sake, we have to introduce some concepts of formal logic. Formal logic is concerned with the validity of arguments. It provides conditions to evaluate whether certain sentences (conclusions) can be derived from other sentences (premises). In this context, a theory is nothing but a set of sentences (also called axioms). Formal logic provides tools to derive new sentences that must be true, given the axioms are true (Smith, 2020 ). These derived sentences are called theorems or, in the context of empirical science, predictions or hypotheses . On the syntactic level, the rules of logic only state how to evaluate the truth of a sentence relative to its premises. Whether or not sentences are actually true, is formally specified by logical semantics.

On the semantic level, formal logic is intrinsically linked to set-theory. For example, a logical statement like “all dogs are mammals,” is true if and only if the set of dogs is a subset of the set of mammals. Similarly, the sentence “all chatting students doodle” is true if and only if the set of chatting students is a subset of the set of doodling students (compare Figure 3 ). Whereas, the first sentence is analytically true due to the way we define the words “dog” and “mammal,” the latter can be either true or false, depending on the relational structure we actually observe. We can thus interpret an empirical relational structure as the truth criterion of a scientific theory. From a logical point of view, this corresponds to the semantics of a theory. As shown above, variable-based and case-based models both give a formal representation of the same kinds of empirical structures. Accordingly, both types of models can be stated as formal theories. In the variable-based approach, this corresponds to a set of scientific laws that are quantified over the members of an abstract population (these are the axioms of the theory). In the case-based approach, this corresponds to a set of abstract existential statements about a specific class of individuals.

In contrast to mathematical axiom systems, empirical theories are usually not considered to be necessarily true. This means that even if we find no evidence against a theory, it is still possible that it is actually wrong. We may know that a theory is valid in some contexts, yet it may fail when applied to a new set of behaviors (e.g., if we use a different instrumentation to measure a variable) or a new population (e.g., if we draw a new sample).

From a logical perspective, the possibility that a theory may turn out to be false stems from the problem of contingency . A statement is contingent, if it is both, possibly true and possibly false. Formally, we introduce two modal operators: □ to designate logical necessity, and ◇ to designate logical possibility. Semantically, these operators are very similar to the existential quantifier, ∃, and the universal quantifier, ∀. Whereas ∃ and ∀ refer to the individual objects within one relational structure, the modal operators □ and ◇ range over so-called possible worlds : a statement is possibly true, if and only if it is true in at least one accessible possible world, and a statement is necessarily true if and only if it is true in every accessible possible world (Hughes and Cresswell, 1996 ). Logically, possible worlds are mathematical abstractions, each consisting of a relational structure. Taken together, the relational structures of all accessible possible worlds constitute the formal semantics of necessity, possibility and contingency. 7

In the context of an empirical theory, each possible world may be identified with an empirical relational structure like the above classroom example. Given the set of intended applications of a theory (the scope of the theory, one may say), we can now construct possible world semantics for an empirical theory: each intended application of the theory corresponds to a possible world. For example, a quantified sentence like “all chatting students doodle” may be true in one classroom and false in another one. In terms of possible worlds, this would correspond to a statement of contingency: “it is possible that all chatting students doodle in one classroom, and it is possible that they don't in another classroom.” Note that in the above expression, “all students” refers to the students in only one possible world, whereas “it is possible” refers to the fact that there is at least one possible world for each of the specified cases.

To apply these possible world semantics to quantitative research, let us reconsider how generalization to other cases works in variable-based models. Due to the syntactic structure of quantitative laws, we can deduce predictions for singular observations from an expression of the form ∀ i : y i = f ( x i ). Formally, the logical quantifier ∀ ranges only over the objects of the corresponding empirical relational structure (in our example this would refer to the students in the observed classroom). But what if we want to generalize beyond the empirical structure we actually observed? The standard procedure is to assume an infinitely large, abstract population from which a random sample is drawn. Given the truth of the theory, we can deduce predictions about what we may observe in the sample. Since usually we deal with probabilistic models, we can evaluate our theory by means of the conditional probability of the observations, given the theory holds. This concept of conditional probability is the foundation of statistical significance tests (Hogg et al., 2013 ), as well as Bayesian estimation (Watanabe, 2018 ). In terms of possible world semantics, the random sampling model implies that all possible worlds (i.e., all intended applications) can be conceived as empirical sub-structures from a greater population structure. For example, the empirical relational structure constituted by the observed behaviors in a classroom would be conceived as a sub-matrix of the population person × behavior matrix. It follows that, if a scientific law is true in the population, it will be true in all possible worlds, i.e., it will be necessarily true. Formally, this corresponds to an expression of the form

The statistical generalization model thus constitutes a top-down strategy for dealing with individual contexts that is analogous to the way variable-based models are applied to individual cases (compare Table 1 ). Consequently, if we apply a variable-based model to a new context and find out that it does not fit the data (i.e., there is a statistically significant deviation from the model predictions), we have reason to doubt the validity of the theory. This is what makes the problem of low replicability so important: we observe that the predictions are wrong in a new study; and because we apply a top-down strategy of generalization to contexts beyond the ones we observed, we see our whole theory at stake.

Qualitative research, on the contrary, follows a different strategy of generalization. Since case-based models are formulated by a set of context-specific existential sentences, there is no need for universal truth or necessity. In contrast to statistical generalization to other cases by means of random sampling from an abstract population, the usual strategy in case-based modeling is to employ a bottom-up strategy of generalization that is analogous to the way case-based models are applied to individual cases. Formally, this may be expressed by stating that the observed qualia exist in at least one possible world, i.e., the theory is possibly true:

This statement is analogous to the way we apply case-based models to individual cases (compare Table 1 ). Consequently, the set of intended applications of the theory does not follow from a sampling model, but from theoretical assumptions about which cases may be similar to the observed cases with respect to certain relevant characteristics. For example, if we observe that certain behaviors occur together in one classroom, following a bottom-up strategy of generalization, we will hypothesize why this might be the case. If we do not replicate this finding in another context, this does not question the model itself, since it was a context-specific theory all along. Instead, we will revise our hypothetical assumptions about why the new context is apparently less similar to the first one than we originally thought. Therefore, if an empirical finding does not replicate, we are more concerned about our understanding of the cases than about the validity of our theory.

Whereas statistical generalization provides us with a formal (and thus somehow more objective) apparatus to evaluate the universal validity of our theories, the bottom-up strategy forces us to think about the class of intended applications on theoretical grounds. This means that we have to ask: what are the boundary conditions of our theory? In the above classroom example, following a bottom-up strategy, we would build on our preliminary understanding of the cases in one context (e.g., a public school) to search for similar and contrasting cases in other contexts (e.g., a private school). We would then re-evaluate our theoretical description of the data and explore what makes cases similar or dissimilar with regard to our theory. This enables us to expand the class of intended applications alongside with the theory.

Of course, none of these strategies is superior per se . Nevertheless, they rely on different assumptions and may thus be more or less adequate in different contexts. The statistical strategy relies on the assumption of a universal population and invariant measurements. This means, we assume that (a) all samples are drawn from the same population and (b) all variables refer to the same behavioral classes. If these assumptions are true, statistical generalization is valid and therefore provides a valuable tool for the testing of empirical theories. The bottom-up strategy of generalization relies on the idea that contexts may be classified as being more or less similar based on characteristics that are not part of the model being evaluated. If such a similarity relation across contexts is feasible, the bottom-up strategy is valid, as well. Depending on the strategy of generalization, replication of empirical research serves two very different purposes. Following the (top-down) principle of generalization by deduction from scientific laws, replications are empirical tests of the theory itself, and failed replications question the theory on a fundamental level. Following the (bottom-up) principle of generalization by induction to similar contexts, replications are a means to explore the boundary conditions of a theory. Consequently, failed replications question the scope of the theory and help to shape the set of intended applications.

We have argued that quantitative and qualitative research are best understood by means of the structure of the employed models. Quantitative science mainly relies on variable-based models and usually employs a top-down strategy of generalization from an abstract population to individual cases. Qualitative science prefers case-based models and usually employs a bottom-up strategy of generalization. We further showed that failed replications have very different implications depending on the underlying strategy of generalization. Whereas in the top-down strategy, replications are used to test the universal validity of a model, in the bottom-up strategy, replications are used to explore the scope of a model. We will now address the implications of this analysis for psychological research with regard to the problem of replicability.

Modern day psychology almost exclusively follows a top-down strategy of generalization. Given the quantitative background of most psychological theories, this is hardly surprising. Following the general structure of variable-based models, the individual case is not the focus of the analysis. Instead, scientific laws are stated on the level of an abstract population. Therefore, when applying the theory to a new context, a statistical sampling model seems to be the natural consequence. However, this is not the only possible strategy. From a logical point of view, there is no reason to assume that a quantitative law like ∀ i : y i = f ( x i ) implies that the law is necessarily true, i.e.,: □(∀ i : y i = f ( x i )). Instead, one might just as well define the scope of the theory following an inductive strategy. 8 Formally, this would correspond to the assumption that the observed law is possibly true, i.e.,: ◇(∀ i : y i = f ( x i )). For example, we may discover a functional relation between “engagement” and “distraction” without referring to an abstract universal population of students. Instead, we may hypothesize under which conditions this functional relation may be valid and use these assumptions to inductively generalize to other cases.

If we take this seriously, this would require us to specify the intended applications of the theory: in which contexts do we expect the theory to hold? Or, equivalently, what are the boundary conditions of the theory? These boundary conditions may be specified either intensionally, i.e., by giving external criteria for contexts being similar enough to the ones already studied to expect a successful application of the theory. Or they may be specified extensionally, by enumerating the contexts where the theory has already been shown to be valid. These boundary conditions need not be restricted to the population we refer to, but include all kinds of contextual factors. Therefore, adopting a bottom-up strategy, we are forced to think about these factors and make them an integral part of our theories.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that bottom-up generalization may be more adequate in many psychological studies. Apart from the pitfalls associated with statistical generalization that have been extensively discussed in recent years (e.g., p-hacking, underpowered studies, publication bias), it is worth reflecting on whether the underlying assumptions are met in a particular context. For example, many samples used in experimental psychology are not randomly drawn from a large population, but are convenience samples. If we use statistical models with non-random samples, we have to assume that the observations vary as if drawn from a random sample. This may indeed be the case for randomized experiments, because all variation between the experimental conditions apart from the independent variable will be random due to the randomization procedure. In this case, a classical significance test may be regarded as an approximation to a randomization test (Edgington and Onghena, 2007 ). However, if we interpret a significance test as an approximate randomization test, we test not for generalization but for internal validity. Hence, even if we use statistical significance tests when assumptions about random sampling are violated, we still have to use a different strategy of generalization. This issue has been discussed in the context of small-N studies, where variable-based models are applied to very small samples, sometimes consisting of only one individual (Dugard et al., 2012 ). The bottom-up strategy of generalization that is employed by qualitative researchers, provides such an alternative.

Another important issue in this context is the question of measurement invariance. If we construct a variable-based model in one context, the variables refer to those behaviors that constitute the underlying empirical relational structure. For example, we may construct an abstract measure of “distraction” using the observed behaviors in a certain context. We will then use the term “distraction” as a theoretical term referring to the variable we have just constructed to represent the underlying empirical relational structure. Let us now imagine we apply this theory to a new context. Even if the individuals in our new context are part of the same population, we may still get into trouble if the observed behaviors differ from those used in the original study. How do we know whether these behaviors constitute the same variable? We have to ensure that in any new context, our measures are valid for the variables in our theory. Without a proper measurement model, this will be hard to achieve (Buntins et al., 2017 ). Again, we are faced with the necessity to think of the boundary conditions of our theories. In which contexts (i.e., for which sets of individuals and behaviors) do we expect our theory to work?

If we follow the rationale of inductive generalization, we can explore the boundary conditions of a theory with every new empirical study. We thus widen the scope of our theory by comparing successful applications in different contexts and unsuccessful applications in similar contexts. This may ultimately lead to a more general theory, maybe even one of universal scope. However, unless we have such a general theory, we might be better off, if we treat unsuccessful replications not as a sign of failure, but as a chance to learn.

Author Contributions

MB conceived the original idea and wrote the first draft of the paper. MS helped to further elaborate and scrutinize the arguments. All authors contributed to the final version of the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We would like to thank Annette Scheunpflug for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

1 A person × behavior matrix constitutes a very simple relational structure that is common in psychological research. This is why it is chosen here as a minimal example. However, more complex structures are possible, e.g., by relating individuals to behaviors over time, with individuals nested within groups etc. For a systematic overview, compare Coombs ( 1964 ).

2 This notion of empirical content applies only to deterministic models. The empirical content of a probabilistic model consists in the probability distribution over all possible empirical structures.

3 For example, neither the SAGE Handbook of qualitative data analysis edited by Flick ( 2014 ) nor the Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research edited by Leavy ( 2014 ) mention formal approaches to category formation.

4 Note also that the described structure is empirically richer than a nominal scale. Therefore, a reduction of qualitative category formation to be a special (and somehow trivial) kind of measurement is not adequate.

5 It is possible to extend this notion of empirical content to the probabilistic case (this would correspond to applying a latent class analysis). But, since qualitative research usually does not rely on formal algorithms (neither deterministic nor probabilistic), there is currently little practical use of such a concept.

6 We do not elaborate on abductive reasoning here, since, given an empirical relational structure, the concept can be applied to both types of models in the same way (Schurz, 2008 ). One could argue that the underlying relational structure is not given a priori but has to be constructed by the researcher and will itself be influenced by theoretical expectations. Therefore, abductive reasoning may be necessary to establish an empirical relational structure in the first place.

7 We shall not elaborate on the metaphysical meaning of possible worlds here, since we are only concerned with empirical theories [but see Tooley ( 1999 ), for an overview].

8 Of course, this also means that it would be equally reasonable to employ a top-down strategy of generalization using a case-based model by postulating that □(∃ i : XYZ i ). The implications for case-based models are certainly worth exploring, but lie beyond the scope of this article.

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Home » Quantitative Research – Methods, Types and Analysis

Quantitative Research – Methods, Types and Analysis

Table of Contents

What is Quantitative Research

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is a type of research that collects and analyzes numerical data to test hypotheses and answer research questions . This research typically involves a large sample size and uses statistical analysis to make inferences about a population based on the data collected. It often involves the use of surveys, experiments, or other structured data collection methods to gather quantitative data.

Quantitative Research Methods

Quantitative Research Methods

Quantitative Research Methods are as follows:

Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research design is used to describe the characteristics of a population or phenomenon being studied. This research method is used to answer the questions of what, where, when, and how. Descriptive research designs use a variety of methods such as observation, case studies, and surveys to collect data. The data is then analyzed using statistical tools to identify patterns and relationships.

Correlational Research Design

Correlational research design is used to investigate the relationship between two or more variables. Researchers use correlational research to determine whether a relationship exists between variables and to what extent they are related. This research method involves collecting data from a sample and analyzing it using statistical tools such as correlation coefficients.

Quasi-experimental Research Design

Quasi-experimental research design is used to investigate cause-and-effect relationships between variables. This research method is similar to experimental research design, but it lacks full control over the independent variable. Researchers use quasi-experimental research designs when it is not feasible or ethical to manipulate the independent variable.

Experimental Research Design

Experimental research design is used to investigate cause-and-effect relationships between variables. This research method involves manipulating the independent variable and observing the effects on the dependent variable. Researchers use experimental research designs to test hypotheses and establish cause-and-effect relationships.

Survey Research

Survey research involves collecting data from a sample of individuals using a standardized questionnaire. This research method is used to gather information on attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals. Researchers use survey research to collect data quickly and efficiently from a large sample size. Survey research can be conducted through various methods such as online, phone, mail, or in-person interviews.

Quantitative Research Analysis Methods

Here are some commonly used quantitative research analysis methods:

Statistical Analysis

Statistical analysis is the most common quantitative research analysis method. It involves using statistical tools and techniques to analyze the numerical data collected during the research process. Statistical analysis can be used to identify patterns, trends, and relationships between variables, and to test hypotheses and theories.

Regression Analysis

Regression analysis is a statistical technique used to analyze the relationship between one dependent variable and one or more independent variables. Researchers use regression analysis to identify and quantify the impact of independent variables on the dependent variable.

Factor Analysis

Factor analysis is a statistical technique used to identify underlying factors that explain the correlations among a set of variables. Researchers use factor analysis to reduce a large number of variables to a smaller set of factors that capture the most important information.

Structural Equation Modeling

Structural equation modeling is a statistical technique used to test complex relationships between variables. It involves specifying a model that includes both observed and unobserved variables, and then using statistical methods to test the fit of the model to the data.

Time Series Analysis

Time series analysis is a statistical technique used to analyze data that is collected over time. It involves identifying patterns and trends in the data, as well as any seasonal or cyclical variations.

Multilevel Modeling

Multilevel modeling is a statistical technique used to analyze data that is nested within multiple levels. For example, researchers might use multilevel modeling to analyze data that is collected from individuals who are nested within groups, such as students nested within schools.

Applications of Quantitative Research

Quantitative research has many applications across a wide range of fields. Here are some common examples:

  • Market Research : Quantitative research is used extensively in market research to understand consumer behavior, preferences, and trends. Researchers use surveys, experiments, and other quantitative methods to collect data that can inform marketing strategies, product development, and pricing decisions.
  • Health Research: Quantitative research is used in health research to study the effectiveness of medical treatments, identify risk factors for diseases, and track health outcomes over time. Researchers use statistical methods to analyze data from clinical trials, surveys, and other sources to inform medical practice and policy.
  • Social Science Research: Quantitative research is used in social science research to study human behavior, attitudes, and social structures. Researchers use surveys, experiments, and other quantitative methods to collect data that can inform social policies, educational programs, and community interventions.
  • Education Research: Quantitative research is used in education research to study the effectiveness of teaching methods, assess student learning outcomes, and identify factors that influence student success. Researchers use experimental and quasi-experimental designs, as well as surveys and other quantitative methods, to collect and analyze data.
  • Environmental Research: Quantitative research is used in environmental research to study the impact of human activities on the environment, assess the effectiveness of conservation strategies, and identify ways to reduce environmental risks. Researchers use statistical methods to analyze data from field studies, experiments, and other sources.

Characteristics of Quantitative Research

Here are some key characteristics of quantitative research:

  • Numerical data : Quantitative research involves collecting numerical data through standardized methods such as surveys, experiments, and observational studies. This data is analyzed using statistical methods to identify patterns and relationships.
  • Large sample size: Quantitative research often involves collecting data from a large sample of individuals or groups in order to increase the reliability and generalizability of the findings.
  • Objective approach: Quantitative research aims to be objective and impartial in its approach, focusing on the collection and analysis of data rather than personal beliefs, opinions, or experiences.
  • Control over variables: Quantitative research often involves manipulating variables to test hypotheses and establish cause-and-effect relationships. Researchers aim to control for extraneous variables that may impact the results.
  • Replicable : Quantitative research aims to be replicable, meaning that other researchers should be able to conduct similar studies and obtain similar results using the same methods.
  • Statistical analysis: Quantitative research involves using statistical tools and techniques to analyze the numerical data collected during the research process. Statistical analysis allows researchers to identify patterns, trends, and relationships between variables, and to test hypotheses and theories.
  • Generalizability: Quantitative research aims to produce findings that can be generalized to larger populations beyond the specific sample studied. This is achieved through the use of random sampling methods and statistical inference.

Examples of Quantitative Research

Here are some examples of quantitative research in different fields:

  • Market Research: A company conducts a survey of 1000 consumers to determine their brand awareness and preferences. The data is analyzed using statistical methods to identify trends and patterns that can inform marketing strategies.
  • Health Research : A researcher conducts a randomized controlled trial to test the effectiveness of a new drug for treating a particular medical condition. The study involves collecting data from a large sample of patients and analyzing the results using statistical methods.
  • Social Science Research : A sociologist conducts a survey of 500 people to study attitudes toward immigration in a particular country. The data is analyzed using statistical methods to identify factors that influence these attitudes.
  • Education Research: A researcher conducts an experiment to compare the effectiveness of two different teaching methods for improving student learning outcomes. The study involves randomly assigning students to different groups and collecting data on their performance on standardized tests.
  • Environmental Research : A team of researchers conduct a study to investigate the impact of climate change on the distribution and abundance of a particular species of plant or animal. The study involves collecting data on environmental factors and population sizes over time and analyzing the results using statistical methods.
  • Psychology : A researcher conducts a survey of 500 college students to investigate the relationship between social media use and mental health. The data is analyzed using statistical methods to identify correlations and potential causal relationships.
  • Political Science: A team of researchers conducts a study to investigate voter behavior during an election. They use survey methods to collect data on voting patterns, demographics, and political attitudes, and analyze the results using statistical methods.

How to Conduct Quantitative Research

Here is a general overview of how to conduct quantitative research:

  • Develop a research question: The first step in conducting quantitative research is to develop a clear and specific research question. This question should be based on a gap in existing knowledge, and should be answerable using quantitative methods.
  • Develop a research design: Once you have a research question, you will need to develop a research design. This involves deciding on the appropriate methods to collect data, such as surveys, experiments, or observational studies. You will also need to determine the appropriate sample size, data collection instruments, and data analysis techniques.
  • Collect data: The next step is to collect data. This may involve administering surveys or questionnaires, conducting experiments, or gathering data from existing sources. It is important to use standardized methods to ensure that the data is reliable and valid.
  • Analyze data : Once the data has been collected, it is time to analyze it. This involves using statistical methods to identify patterns, trends, and relationships between variables. Common statistical techniques include correlation analysis, regression analysis, and hypothesis testing.
  • Interpret results: After analyzing the data, you will need to interpret the results. This involves identifying the key findings, determining their significance, and drawing conclusions based on the data.
  • Communicate findings: Finally, you will need to communicate your findings. This may involve writing a research report, presenting at a conference, or publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. It is important to clearly communicate the research question, methods, results, and conclusions to ensure that others can understand and replicate your research.

When to use Quantitative Research

Here are some situations when quantitative research can be appropriate:

  • To test a hypothesis: Quantitative research is often used to test a hypothesis or a theory. It involves collecting numerical data and using statistical analysis to determine if the data supports or refutes the hypothesis.
  • To generalize findings: If you want to generalize the findings of your study to a larger population, quantitative research can be useful. This is because it allows you to collect numerical data from a representative sample of the population and use statistical analysis to make inferences about the population as a whole.
  • To measure relationships between variables: If you want to measure the relationship between two or more variables, such as the relationship between age and income, or between education level and job satisfaction, quantitative research can be useful. It allows you to collect numerical data on both variables and use statistical analysis to determine the strength and direction of the relationship.
  • To identify patterns or trends: Quantitative research can be useful for identifying patterns or trends in data. For example, you can use quantitative research to identify trends in consumer behavior or to identify patterns in stock market data.
  • To quantify attitudes or opinions : If you want to measure attitudes or opinions on a particular topic, quantitative research can be useful. It allows you to collect numerical data using surveys or questionnaires and analyze the data using statistical methods to determine the prevalence of certain attitudes or opinions.

Purpose of Quantitative Research

The purpose of quantitative research is to systematically investigate and measure the relationships between variables or phenomena using numerical data and statistical analysis. The main objectives of quantitative research include:

  • Description : To provide a detailed and accurate description of a particular phenomenon or population.
  • Explanation : To explain the reasons for the occurrence of a particular phenomenon, such as identifying the factors that influence a behavior or attitude.
  • Prediction : To predict future trends or behaviors based on past patterns and relationships between variables.
  • Control : To identify the best strategies for controlling or influencing a particular outcome or behavior.

Quantitative research is used in many different fields, including social sciences, business, engineering, and health sciences. It can be used to investigate a wide range of phenomena, from human behavior and attitudes to physical and biological processes. The purpose of quantitative research is to provide reliable and valid data that can be used to inform decision-making and improve understanding of the world around us.

Advantages of Quantitative Research

There are several advantages of quantitative research, including:

  • Objectivity : Quantitative research is based on objective data and statistical analysis, which reduces the potential for bias or subjectivity in the research process.
  • Reproducibility : Because quantitative research involves standardized methods and measurements, it is more likely to be reproducible and reliable.
  • Generalizability : Quantitative research allows for generalizations to be made about a population based on a representative sample, which can inform decision-making and policy development.
  • Precision : Quantitative research allows for precise measurement and analysis of data, which can provide a more accurate understanding of phenomena and relationships between variables.
  • Efficiency : Quantitative research can be conducted relatively quickly and efficiently, especially when compared to qualitative research, which may involve lengthy data collection and analysis.
  • Large sample sizes : Quantitative research can accommodate large sample sizes, which can increase the representativeness and generalizability of the results.

Limitations of Quantitative Research

There are several limitations of quantitative research, including:

  • Limited understanding of context: Quantitative research typically focuses on numerical data and statistical analysis, which may not provide a comprehensive understanding of the context or underlying factors that influence a phenomenon.
  • Simplification of complex phenomena: Quantitative research often involves simplifying complex phenomena into measurable variables, which may not capture the full complexity of the phenomenon being studied.
  • Potential for researcher bias: Although quantitative research aims to be objective, there is still the potential for researcher bias in areas such as sampling, data collection, and data analysis.
  • Limited ability to explore new ideas: Quantitative research is often based on pre-determined research questions and hypotheses, which may limit the ability to explore new ideas or unexpected findings.
  • Limited ability to capture subjective experiences : Quantitative research is typically focused on objective data and may not capture the subjective experiences of individuals or groups being studied.
  • Ethical concerns : Quantitative research may raise ethical concerns, such as invasion of privacy or the potential for harm to participants.

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  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research | Differences, Examples & Methods

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research | Differences, Examples & Methods

Published on April 12, 2019 by Raimo Streefkerk . Revised on June 22, 2023.

When collecting and analyzing data, quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings. Both are important for gaining different kinds of knowledge.

Common quantitative methods include experiments, observations recorded as numbers, and surveys with closed-ended questions.

Quantitative research is at risk for research biases including information bias , omitted variable bias , sampling bias , or selection bias . Qualitative research Qualitative research is expressed in words . It is used to understand concepts, thoughts or experiences. This type of research enables you to gather in-depth insights on topics that are not well understood.

Common qualitative methods include interviews with open-ended questions, observations described in words, and literature reviews that explore concepts and theories.

Table of contents

The differences between quantitative and qualitative research, data collection methods, when to use qualitative vs. quantitative research, how to analyze qualitative and quantitative data, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about qualitative and quantitative research.

Quantitative and qualitative research use different research methods to collect and analyze data, and they allow you to answer different kinds of research questions.

Qualitative vs. quantitative research

Quantitative and qualitative data can be collected using various methods. It is important to use a data collection method that will help answer your research question(s).

Many data collection methods can be either qualitative or quantitative. For example, in surveys, observational studies or case studies , your data can be represented as numbers (e.g., using rating scales or counting frequencies) or as words (e.g., with open-ended questions or descriptions of what you observe).

However, some methods are more commonly used in one type or the other.

Quantitative data collection methods

  • Surveys :  List of closed or multiple choice questions that is distributed to a sample (online, in person, or over the phone).
  • Experiments : Situation in which different types of variables are controlled and manipulated to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Observations : Observing subjects in a natural environment where variables can’t be controlled.

Qualitative data collection methods

  • Interviews : Asking open-ended questions verbally to respondents.
  • Focus groups : Discussion among a group of people about a topic to gather opinions that can be used for further research.
  • Ethnography : Participating in a community or organization for an extended period of time to closely observe culture and behavior.
  • Literature review : Survey of published works by other authors.

A rule of thumb for deciding whether to use qualitative or quantitative data is:

  • Use quantitative research if you want to confirm or test something (a theory or hypothesis )
  • Use qualitative research if you want to understand something (concepts, thoughts, experiences)

For most research topics you can choose a qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approach . Which type you choose depends on, among other things, whether you’re taking an inductive vs. deductive research approach ; your research question(s) ; whether you’re doing experimental , correlational , or descriptive research ; and practical considerations such as time, money, availability of data, and access to respondents.

Quantitative research approach

You survey 300 students at your university and ask them questions such as: “on a scale from 1-5, how satisfied are your with your professors?”

You can perform statistical analysis on the data and draw conclusions such as: “on average students rated their professors 4.4”.

Qualitative research approach

You conduct in-depth interviews with 15 students and ask them open-ended questions such as: “How satisfied are you with your studies?”, “What is the most positive aspect of your study program?” and “What can be done to improve the study program?”

Based on the answers you get you can ask follow-up questions to clarify things. You transcribe all interviews using transcription software and try to find commonalities and patterns.

Mixed methods approach

You conduct interviews to find out how satisfied students are with their studies. Through open-ended questions you learn things you never thought about before and gain new insights. Later, you use a survey to test these insights on a larger scale.

It’s also possible to start with a survey to find out the overall trends, followed by interviews to better understand the reasons behind the trends.

Qualitative or quantitative data by itself can’t prove or demonstrate anything, but has to be analyzed to show its meaning in relation to the research questions. The method of analysis differs for each type of data.

Analyzing quantitative data

Quantitative data is based on numbers. Simple math or more advanced statistical analysis is used to discover commonalities or patterns in the data. The results are often reported in graphs and tables.

Applications such as Excel, SPSS, or R can be used to calculate things like:

  • Average scores ( means )
  • The number of times a particular answer was given
  • The correlation or causation between two or more variables
  • The reliability and validity of the results

Analyzing qualitative data

Qualitative data is more difficult to analyze than quantitative data. It consists of text, images or videos instead of numbers.

Some common approaches to analyzing qualitative data include:

  • Qualitative content analysis : Tracking the occurrence, position and meaning of words or phrases
  • Thematic analysis : Closely examining the data to identify the main themes and patterns
  • Discourse analysis : Studying how communication works in social contexts

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.

  • Chi square goodness of fit test
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Research bias

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

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

In mixed methods research , you use both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods to answer your research question .

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods .
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.

There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis , but they all share five steps in common:

  • Prepare and organize your data.
  • Review and explore your data.
  • Develop a data coding system.
  • Assign codes to the data.
  • Identify recurring themes.

The specifics of each step depend on the focus of the analysis. Some common approaches include textual analysis , thematic analysis , and discourse analysis .

A research project is an academic, scientific, or professional undertaking to answer a research question . Research projects can take many forms, such as qualitative or quantitative , descriptive , longitudinal , experimental , or correlational . What kind of research approach you choose will depend on your topic.

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case study approach in quantitative research

The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

case study approach in quantitative research

  • Introduction and overview
  • What is qualitative research?
  • What is qualitative data?
  • Examples of qualitative data
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Mixed methods
  • Qualitative research preparation
  • Theoretical perspective
  • Theoretical framework
  • Literature reviews

Research question

  • Conceptual framework
  • Conceptual vs. theoretical framework

Data collection

  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research

What is a case study?

Applications for case study research, what is a good case study, process of case study design, benefits and limitations of case studies.

  • Ethnographical research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

Case studies

Case studies are essential to qualitative research , offering a lens through which researchers can investigate complex phenomena within their real-life contexts. This chapter explores the concept, purpose, applications, examples, and types of case studies and provides guidance on how to conduct case study research effectively.

case study approach in quantitative research

Whereas quantitative methods look at phenomena at scale, case study research looks at a concept or phenomenon in considerable detail. While analyzing a single case can help understand one perspective regarding the object of research inquiry, analyzing multiple cases can help obtain a more holistic sense of the topic or issue. Let's provide a basic definition of a case study, then explore its characteristics and role in the qualitative research process.

Definition of a case study

A case study in qualitative research is a strategy of inquiry that involves an in-depth investigation of a phenomenon within its real-world context. It provides researchers with the opportunity to acquire an in-depth understanding of intricate details that might not be as apparent or accessible through other methods of research. The specific case or cases being studied can be a single person, group, or organization – demarcating what constitutes a relevant case worth studying depends on the researcher and their research question .

Among qualitative research methods , a case study relies on multiple sources of evidence, such as documents, artifacts, interviews , or observations , to present a complete and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. The objective is to illuminate the readers' understanding of the phenomenon beyond its abstract statistical or theoretical explanations.

Characteristics of case studies

Case studies typically possess a number of distinct characteristics that set them apart from other research methods. These characteristics include a focus on holistic description and explanation, flexibility in the design and data collection methods, reliance on multiple sources of evidence, and emphasis on the context in which the phenomenon occurs.

Furthermore, case studies can often involve a longitudinal examination of the case, meaning they study the case over a period of time. These characteristics allow case studies to yield comprehensive, in-depth, and richly contextualized insights about the phenomenon of interest.

The role of case studies in research

Case studies hold a unique position in the broader landscape of research methods aimed at theory development. They are instrumental when the primary research interest is to gain an intensive, detailed understanding of a phenomenon in its real-life context.

In addition, case studies can serve different purposes within research - they can be used for exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory purposes, depending on the research question and objectives. This flexibility and depth make case studies a valuable tool in the toolkit of qualitative researchers.

Remember, a well-conducted case study can offer a rich, insightful contribution to both academic and practical knowledge through theory development or theory verification, thus enhancing our understanding of complex phenomena in their real-world contexts.

What is the purpose of a case study?

Case study research aims for a more comprehensive understanding of phenomena, requiring various research methods to gather information for qualitative analysis . Ultimately, a case study can allow the researcher to gain insight into a particular object of inquiry and develop a theoretical framework relevant to the research inquiry.

Why use case studies in qualitative research?

Using case studies as a research strategy depends mainly on the nature of the research question and the researcher's access to the data.

Conducting case study research provides a level of detail and contextual richness that other research methods might not offer. They are beneficial when there's a need to understand complex social phenomena within their natural contexts.

The explanatory, exploratory, and descriptive roles of case studies

Case studies can take on various roles depending on the research objectives. They can be exploratory when the research aims to discover new phenomena or define new research questions; they are descriptive when the objective is to depict a phenomenon within its context in a detailed manner; and they can be explanatory if the goal is to understand specific relationships within the studied context. Thus, the versatility of case studies allows researchers to approach their topic from different angles, offering multiple ways to uncover and interpret the data .

The impact of case studies on knowledge development

Case studies play a significant role in knowledge development across various disciplines. Analysis of cases provides an avenue for researchers to explore phenomena within their context based on the collected data.

case study approach in quantitative research

This can result in the production of rich, practical insights that can be instrumental in both theory-building and practice. Case studies allow researchers to delve into the intricacies and complexities of real-life situations, uncovering insights that might otherwise remain hidden.

Types of case studies

In qualitative research , a case study is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the nature of the research question and the specific objectives of the study, researchers might choose to use different types of case studies. These types differ in their focus, methodology, and the level of detail they provide about the phenomenon under investigation.

Understanding these types is crucial for selecting the most appropriate approach for your research project and effectively achieving your research goals. Let's briefly look at the main types of case studies.

Exploratory case studies

Exploratory case studies are typically conducted to develop a theory or framework around an understudied phenomenon. They can also serve as a precursor to a larger-scale research project. Exploratory case studies are useful when a researcher wants to identify the key issues or questions which can spur more extensive study or be used to develop propositions for further research. These case studies are characterized by flexibility, allowing researchers to explore various aspects of a phenomenon as they emerge, which can also form the foundation for subsequent studies.

Descriptive case studies

Descriptive case studies aim to provide a complete and accurate representation of a phenomenon or event within its context. These case studies are often based on an established theoretical framework, which guides how data is collected and analyzed. The researcher is concerned with describing the phenomenon in detail, as it occurs naturally, without trying to influence or manipulate it.

Explanatory case studies

Explanatory case studies are focused on explanation - they seek to clarify how or why certain phenomena occur. Often used in complex, real-life situations, they can be particularly valuable in clarifying causal relationships among concepts and understanding the interplay between different factors within a specific context.

case study approach in quantitative research

Intrinsic, instrumental, and collective case studies

These three categories of case studies focus on the nature and purpose of the study. An intrinsic case study is conducted when a researcher has an inherent interest in the case itself. Instrumental case studies are employed when the case is used to provide insight into a particular issue or phenomenon. A collective case study, on the other hand, involves studying multiple cases simultaneously to investigate some general phenomena.

Each type of case study serves a different purpose and has its own strengths and challenges. The selection of the type should be guided by the research question and objectives, as well as the context and constraints of the research.

The flexibility, depth, and contextual richness offered by case studies make this approach an excellent research method for various fields of study. They enable researchers to investigate real-world phenomena within their specific contexts, capturing nuances that other research methods might miss. Across numerous fields, case studies provide valuable insights into complex issues.

Critical information systems research

Case studies provide a detailed understanding of the role and impact of information systems in different contexts. They offer a platform to explore how information systems are designed, implemented, and used and how they interact with various social, economic, and political factors. Case studies in this field often focus on examining the intricate relationship between technology, organizational processes, and user behavior, helping to uncover insights that can inform better system design and implementation.

Health research

Health research is another field where case studies are highly valuable. They offer a way to explore patient experiences, healthcare delivery processes, and the impact of various interventions in a real-world context.

case study approach in quantitative research

Case studies can provide a deep understanding of a patient's journey, giving insights into the intricacies of disease progression, treatment effects, and the psychosocial aspects of health and illness.

Asthma research studies

Specifically within medical research, studies on asthma often employ case studies to explore the individual and environmental factors that influence asthma development, management, and outcomes. A case study can provide rich, detailed data about individual patients' experiences, from the triggers and symptoms they experience to the effectiveness of various management strategies. This can be crucial for developing patient-centered asthma care approaches.

Other fields

Apart from the fields mentioned, case studies are also extensively used in business and management research, education research, and political sciences, among many others. They provide an opportunity to delve into the intricacies of real-world situations, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of various phenomena.

Case studies, with their depth and contextual focus, offer unique insights across these varied fields. They allow researchers to illuminate the complexities of real-life situations, contributing to both theory and practice.

case study approach in quantitative research

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Understanding the key elements of case study design is crucial for conducting rigorous and impactful case study research. A well-structured design guides the researcher through the process, ensuring that the study is methodologically sound and its findings are reliable and valid. The main elements of case study design include the research question , propositions, units of analysis, and the logic linking the data to the propositions.

The research question is the foundation of any research study. A good research question guides the direction of the study and informs the selection of the case, the methods of collecting data, and the analysis techniques. A well-formulated research question in case study research is typically clear, focused, and complex enough to merit further detailed examination of the relevant case(s).


Propositions, though not necessary in every case study, provide a direction by stating what we might expect to find in the data collected. They guide how data is collected and analyzed by helping researchers focus on specific aspects of the case. They are particularly important in explanatory case studies, which seek to understand the relationships among concepts within the studied phenomenon.

Units of analysis

The unit of analysis refers to the case, or the main entity or entities that are being analyzed in the study. In case study research, the unit of analysis can be an individual, a group, an organization, a decision, an event, or even a time period. It's crucial to clearly define the unit of analysis, as it shapes the qualitative data analysis process by allowing the researcher to analyze a particular case and synthesize analysis across multiple case studies to draw conclusions.


This refers to the inferential model that allows researchers to draw conclusions from the data. The researcher needs to ensure that there is a clear link between the data, the propositions (if any), and the conclusions drawn. This argumentation is what enables the researcher to make valid and credible inferences about the phenomenon under study.

Understanding and carefully considering these elements in the design phase of a case study can significantly enhance the quality of the research. It can help ensure that the study is methodologically sound and its findings contribute meaningful insights about the case.

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Conducting a case study involves several steps, from defining the research question and selecting the case to collecting and analyzing data . This section outlines these key stages, providing a practical guide on how to conduct case study research.

Defining the research question

The first step in case study research is defining a clear, focused research question. This question should guide the entire research process, from case selection to analysis. It's crucial to ensure that the research question is suitable for a case study approach. Typically, such questions are exploratory or descriptive in nature and focus on understanding a phenomenon within its real-life context.

Selecting and defining the case

The selection of the case should be based on the research question and the objectives of the study. It involves choosing a unique example or a set of examples that provide rich, in-depth data about the phenomenon under investigation. After selecting the case, it's crucial to define it clearly, setting the boundaries of the case, including the time period and the specific context.

Previous research can help guide the case study design. When considering a case study, an example of a case could be taken from previous case study research and used to define cases in a new research inquiry. Considering recently published examples can help understand how to select and define cases effectively.

Developing a detailed case study protocol

A case study protocol outlines the procedures and general rules to be followed during the case study. This includes the data collection methods to be used, the sources of data, and the procedures for analysis. Having a detailed case study protocol ensures consistency and reliability in the study.

The protocol should also consider how to work with the people involved in the research context to grant the research team access to collecting data. As mentioned in previous sections of this guide, establishing rapport is an essential component of qualitative research as it shapes the overall potential for collecting and analyzing data.

Collecting data

Gathering data in case study research often involves multiple sources of evidence, including documents, archival records, interviews, observations, and physical artifacts. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of the case. The process for gathering data should be systematic and carefully documented to ensure the reliability and validity of the study.

Analyzing and interpreting data

The next step is analyzing the data. This involves organizing the data , categorizing it into themes or patterns , and interpreting these patterns to answer the research question. The analysis might also involve comparing the findings with prior research or theoretical propositions.

Writing the case study report

The final step is writing the case study report . This should provide a detailed description of the case, the data, the analysis process, and the findings. The report should be clear, organized, and carefully written to ensure that the reader can understand the case and the conclusions drawn from it.

Each of these steps is crucial in ensuring that the case study research is rigorous, reliable, and provides valuable insights about the case.

The type, depth, and quality of data in your study can significantly influence the validity and utility of the study. In case study research, data is usually collected from multiple sources to provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the case. This section will outline the various methods of collecting data used in case study research and discuss considerations for ensuring the quality of the data.

Interviews are a common method of gathering data in case study research. They can provide rich, in-depth data about the perspectives, experiences, and interpretations of the individuals involved in the case. Interviews can be structured , semi-structured , or unstructured , depending on the research question and the degree of flexibility needed.


Observations involve the researcher observing the case in its natural setting, providing first-hand information about the case and its context. Observations can provide data that might not be revealed in interviews or documents, such as non-verbal cues or contextual information.

Documents and artifacts

Documents and archival records provide a valuable source of data in case study research. They can include reports, letters, memos, meeting minutes, email correspondence, and various public and private documents related to the case.

case study approach in quantitative research

These records can provide historical context, corroborate evidence from other sources, and offer insights into the case that might not be apparent from interviews or observations.

Physical artifacts refer to any physical evidence related to the case, such as tools, products, or physical environments. These artifacts can provide tangible insights into the case, complementing the data gathered from other sources.

Ensuring the quality of data collection

Determining the quality of data in case study research requires careful planning and execution. It's crucial to ensure that the data is reliable, accurate, and relevant to the research question. This involves selecting appropriate methods of collecting data, properly training interviewers or observers, and systematically recording and storing the data. It also includes considering ethical issues related to collecting and handling data, such as obtaining informed consent and ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of the participants.

Data analysis

Analyzing case study research involves making sense of the rich, detailed data to answer the research question. This process can be challenging due to the volume and complexity of case study data. However, a systematic and rigorous approach to analysis can ensure that the findings are credible and meaningful. This section outlines the main steps and considerations in analyzing data in case study research.

Organizing the data

The first step in the analysis is organizing the data. This involves sorting the data into manageable sections, often according to the data source or the theme. This step can also involve transcribing interviews, digitizing physical artifacts, or organizing observational data.

Categorizing and coding the data

Once the data is organized, the next step is to categorize or code the data. This involves identifying common themes, patterns, or concepts in the data and assigning codes to relevant data segments. Coding can be done manually or with the help of software tools, and in either case, qualitative analysis software can greatly facilitate the entire coding process. Coding helps to reduce the data to a set of themes or categories that can be more easily analyzed.

Identifying patterns and themes

After coding the data, the researcher looks for patterns or themes in the coded data. This involves comparing and contrasting the codes and looking for relationships or patterns among them. The identified patterns and themes should help answer the research question.

Interpreting the data

Once patterns and themes have been identified, the next step is to interpret these findings. This involves explaining what the patterns or themes mean in the context of the research question and the case. This interpretation should be grounded in the data, but it can also involve drawing on theoretical concepts or prior research.

Verification of the data

The last step in the analysis is verification. This involves checking the accuracy and consistency of the analysis process and confirming that the findings are supported by the data. This can involve re-checking the original data, checking the consistency of codes, or seeking feedback from research participants or peers.

Like any research method , case study research has its strengths and limitations. Researchers must be aware of these, as they can influence the design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of case study research can also guide researchers in deciding whether this approach is suitable for their research question . This section outlines some of the key strengths and limitations of case study research.

Benefits include the following:

  • Rich, detailed data: One of the main strengths of case study research is that it can generate rich, detailed data about the case. This can provide a deep understanding of the case and its context, which can be valuable in exploring complex phenomena.
  • Flexibility: Case study research is flexible in terms of design , data collection , and analysis . A sufficient degree of flexibility allows the researcher to adapt the study according to the case and the emerging findings.
  • Real-world context: Case study research involves studying the case in its real-world context, which can provide valuable insights into the interplay between the case and its context.
  • Multiple sources of evidence: Case study research often involves collecting data from multiple sources , which can enhance the robustness and validity of the findings.

On the other hand, researchers should consider the following limitations:

  • Generalizability: A common criticism of case study research is that its findings might not be generalizable to other cases due to the specificity and uniqueness of each case.
  • Time and resource intensive: Case study research can be time and resource intensive due to the depth of the investigation and the amount of collected data.
  • Complexity of analysis: The rich, detailed data generated in case study research can make analyzing the data challenging.
  • Subjectivity: Given the nature of case study research, there may be a higher degree of subjectivity in interpreting the data , so researchers need to reflect on this and transparently convey to audiences how the research was conducted.

Being aware of these strengths and limitations can help researchers design and conduct case study research effectively and interpret and report the findings appropriately.

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