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BUS 625: Practical Economics : Writing a Case Study

Learn how to write a case study.

Topic Development

When beginning a writing assignment, topic development is essential step to writing a strong research paper of any type.  The Choosing a Research Topic library guide provides an overview of how to select a general research topic, and may be helpful in helping you identify a subject of analysis that can be investigated using a single case study design. 

However, identifying a case to investigate involves more than choosing the research problem.  A case study encompasses a problem contextualized around the application of in-depth analysis, interpretation, and discussion, often resulting in specific recommendations for action or for improving existing conditions.  


When selecting a case, consider the following:

  • Does the case represent an unusual or atypical example of a research problem that requires more in-depth analysis? 
    Cases often represent a topic that rests on the fringes of prior investigations because the case may provide new ways of understanding the research problem.  
  • Does the case provide important insight or illuminate a previously hidden problem? 
    In-depth analysis of a case can be based on the hypothesis that the case study will reveal trends or issues that have not been exposed in prior research, or will reveal new and important implications for practice. 
  • Does the case challenge and offer an counter-point to prevailing assumptions?
    Over time, research on any given topic can fall into a trap of developing assumptions based on outdated studies that are still applied to new or challenging conditions, or the idea that something should simply be accepted as common sense, even though the issue has not been thoroughly tested in current practice. 
  • Does the case provide an opportunity to pursue action leading to the resolution of a problem? 
    Another way to think about choosing a case to study is to consider how the results from investigating a particular case may result in findings that reveal ways in which to resolve an existing or emerging problem. 
  • Does the case offer a new direction for future research?
    A case study can be used as a tool for exploratory investigation that highlights a need for further examination of the research problem.  A case can be used when there are few studies that help predict an outcome or that establish a clear understanding about how best to proceed in addressing a problem. 

Structure and Writing Style

The purpose of a paper designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem, and in doing so, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. 

In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper.  However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of.

The key elements to organizing and writing a research paper include:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. Method
  4. Discussion
  5. Conclusion 

Read more about each element.  Click on a tab to begin. 

Introduction 

As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study.  The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem.  The two elements should be links. 

A good introduction answers the following questions:

  • What is being studied? 
    Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis (the case) you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand the knowledge and understanding of the problem. 
  • Why is this topic important to investigate? 
    Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem. 
  • What did we know about this topic before I did the study? 
    Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow.  If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the problem.  Describe why your case will be useful.  If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis. 
  • How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? 
    Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem. 

Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs.

II. Literature Review

The literature review for a case study is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper.  The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address. 

Synthesize subject that will help to:

  • Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated. 
    This would involve summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem.  If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important, for example, conditions have changed, prior studies were conducted too long ago, etc. 
  • Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable. 
    Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to investigate the research problem and the underlying research questions. 
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study.
    If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design.  Explain how your use of a case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.  
    This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research. 
    Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
  • Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill. 
    Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature. 
    This is very important.  Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in relation to explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.

III. Method

In this section, you explain why you selected a particular case and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem.  The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject analysis that constitutes your case study. 

If your case study looks at an incident or event.
The event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be a rare or critical event or it can focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis.

If your case study analyzes a person.  
Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experiences they have had that provide an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of their experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using them as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem.

If your case study analyzes a place.
In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem, such as physical, social, historical, cultural, economic, political, but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist.

If your case study analyzes a phenomenon. 
A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system.

Remember: The choice of the case or set of cases to study cannot appear random.  Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should clearly support investigation of the research problem and linked to key finding from your literature review.  Be sure to cite any studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for examining the problem. 

IV. Discussion 

The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your analysis of the case study.  The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:

  • Reiterate the research problem and state the major findings.

    Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.

  • Explain the meaning the findings any why they are important. 
    Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.

  • Relate the finding to similar studies. 
    No study is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.

  • Consider alternative explanations of the findings. 
    When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations revealed by the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research if that is how the findings can be interpreted from your case.

  • Acknowledge the study's limitations. 
    You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address.

  • Suggest areas for further research. 
    Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.

V. Conclusion 

As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and any need for further research.

The function of your paper's conclusion is to 1) reiterate the main argument supported by the findings from your case study; 2) state clearly the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.

Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate: 

  • If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
  • If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
  • Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.

Problems to Avoid

Overgeneralization

One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. 


Failure to Document Limitations

No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore,  you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. 


Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications

Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research.

Additional Resources

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This information was originally complied and presented by the librarians at the University of Southern California. The original material can be found in the research guide Writing a Case Study

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