While the term “case study” (or “case method”) is widespread in social methodology and media research, it is nevertheless a complex concept. McCartney (1970, 30) defines a case study as “a descriptive report analyzing a social unit as a whole (e.g. individual, family, organization, etc.) in qualitative terms.” With a different focus but in a comparable manner, Robert K. Yin defines a case study as “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (Yin 1994, 13).
In the case of working definitions like these, three main aspects become evident. The first is realizing that a case study is not a methodological choice of data collection and analyses but a choice of what is studied. A case study can combine completely different methods (qualitative and quantitative ones) and analytical approaches, but is defined by the circumstance of focusing on a case (or a number of cases) and is especially established in qualitative media research (being also the main focus of this article). Second, the term “case study” is rather vague as it can name either the process of doing research or the presented result. And, third, a main problem when doing case studies is the construction of the case borders.
Nature And Types Of Case Studies
All in all, case studies can be located in the tradition of quantitative as well as qualitative (media) research (Baur & Lamnek 2005, 241f.). Within quantitative (media) research case studies are considered as “exploratory research”. Based on this, further standardized research should be undertaken. The argument is that a higher number of cases allows more general conclusions than focusing on only one case. A more sophisticated understanding of case studies – which is outlined in this article – is established in qualitative (media) research. One can argue that each qualitative study is based on “cases” in the sense that an engagement with contextualized social phenomena is the foundation of qualitative research per se. Beside that, a more concrete understanding of the case study grasps research investigating specific cases separated from one another. The aim of these studies is either the “thick description” (Geertz) of a case or case research with the aim of making general (theoretical) conclusions.
Systematizing case studies, Robert E. Stake (1994, 437) has proposed to distinguish three types of case studies: (1) intrinsic, (2) instrumental, and (3) collective case studies. An intrinsic case study is undertaken because the researcher wants a better understanding of this particular case; the purpose is not theory building. An instrumental case study analyzes a particular case to provide insight into a more general issue or to redraw a generalization. The collective case study focuses on different cases to investigate a general phenomenon; in this sense, it is an instrumental study extended to several cases.
The Case Study In Qualitative Methodology
Focusing on case studies within the tradition of qualitative methodology, at least four aspects appear to be striking: (1) the history of case studies, (2) the problem of case definition, (3) the way case studies are undertaken, and (4) the question of generalization and theorization. While the considerations in this section address case study research in general, the examples are taken from media research or related to it.
First, focusing on the history of case studies, it becomes obvious that the case study approach has its foundations in the beginning of (modern) social and cultural research. Between the 1920s and 1950s it was already usual to contrast the “case study method” (the qualitative approach) with the “statistical method” (the quantitative one) (Platt 1992, 19, 41). Especially in the early days of American sociology, the case study approach was linked with the Chicago School, focusing on the personal meanings of people “involved” in a case. Locating media research in the wider context of social and cultural science, different classical work was undertaken as case studies; for example, the work of Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld or that within the Frankfurt School tradition. After a certain lack of interest in the late 1950s and 1960s – caused by a number of reasons, among them a fragmentation of the case study approach into different “qualitative research methods” – there is again increasing interest in case studies, especially in the context of theory formation (Glaser & Strauss 1967) and of policy/consultancy work (Yin 1994).
Second, each case study is confronted with the problem of defining a case. “Cases” can either be “single persons” (for example, the case of an interview partner) or – more usually – “social aggregates” or “cultural phenomena” like (media) organizations, (media) products, media events, interpretative communities, socio-cultural processes, etc. Especially when focusing on more complex cultural phenomena, each case study is confronted with the problem of demarcating “case” and “context.” As a case interacts with its context, it is not possible to make a clear distinction (Baur & Lamnek 2005, 244). Rather the “case” builds a kind of center for describing further contextualizing forces, which themselves take part in articulating the case. This aspect has a deep relation to methodological discussions in audience studies, where an ongoing contextualizing of media reception was criticized for loosening “the case” of specific reception practices or interpretative communities in a more general view on the everyday and its contexts.
Third, current methodological publishing focuses particularly on organizing case studies. Undertaking case studies in a more focused sense is at least in two points different from other procedures in qualitative (media) research. Concerning case selection, two approaches can be distinguished (Stake 1994, 446). While “intrinsic case studies” begin with an already identified case (based on a striking feature or – in commercial media research – on a research mission), in “instrumental” and “collective” case studies, normally the cases are selected by the researcher. This can either be done in a theory forming/ inductive frame (Glaser & Strauss 1967) or in deductive relation to a theory that defines specific cases and needs to be tested/differentiated (Platt 1992, 45; Yin 1994). In all of these approaches, case studies are oriented on a research question, anchoring the case study research in the perspective of a specific academic discipline (Stake 1994, 440). Further, arranging case studies is based on the triangulation of different methods. As case studies are not defined by a specific procedure of research but by a specific focus on a case, very different methods of “data collection” and “data analysis” are combined in current case studies. Nevertheless, these different methods are used in a qualitative frame as far as the aim of the case study is a (more) differentiated understanding of the specific case(s) and theory formation (Krotz 2005). This is typical for case studies in media research, too, where it is common to triangulate very different methods either for a more “thick description” of the case or for a more sophisticated theoretical conclusion.
A final point that is important for a general understanding of case studies in the tradition of qualitative methodology is the discussion about generalization and theorization. As already discussed, case studies are both descriptively and theoretically oriented. The argument is either to focus on something particular – an approach whose relevance is justified by the widespread neglect of the particular in (media) research – or to undertake research for a “grounded” way of theory formation/testing, which cannot be undertaken in another manner. Irrespective of in which approach case studies are oriented, in current qualitative methodological discourse they are understood as a procedure of their own: not functioning as a kind of “exploratory research,” whose “range” and “generalizability” has to be proofed by quantitative/standardized studies with a wider main unit, but as a kind of research to produce also generalizable and theoretical knowledge that cannot be achieved in any other way.
“Case Studies” In Current Media Research
As the discussed examples show, case studies are common in current qualitative media research. Especially when focusing on audience studies and appropriation research, it becomes obvious that a lot of far-reaching research focuses on specific cases in detail. For example, Herman Bausinger’s classical considerations on the relation between media, technology, and everyday life are based on the research of one case, the family Meier. Studies on the cases of different social groups are also the reference point of other early research on media appropriation, especially in the tradition of gender studies. But also, current efforts to argue for a more comprehensive cultural studies orientation in media research are especially oriented on cases along the “circuit of culture.” Most of these studies are not “intrinsic case studies” but focus on specific cases as a starting point for (theoretically oriented) research. In doing so, they show the outstanding significance cases have for qualitative media research: research in that tradition takes up with (a number of ) single cases and has the aim of investigating these cases as exhaustively as possible to make their meaning structures and patterns accessible for further, critical theorizing. For this, the data sample of research is not defined in advance but in the process of researching these cases, and qualitative data can be combined with quantitative.
Three tendencies in the use of case studies in current qualitative media research can be observed. First, the potential of case studies was underlined during the past decade, especially by research on media events integrating qualitative and quantitative data. Media events show exemplarily how far our present media cultures are marked by outstanding incidents (9/11, Live 8, public funerals, etc.), which demand detailed analyses. Research like this is not just a description of something exceptional but an important foundation to understand our increasingly mediatized presence.
Second, in all, one can ascertain a theoretical orientation in current case studies within qualitative media research. While there may be “intrinsic” motivations for researching specific cases – like outstanding media events – such research is especially undertaken to make more general conclusions or for theory formation (Krotz 2005). One can understand this as an indicator of an increasing theoretical discourse in media research, which lies beyond the deductive/hypothesis-testing paradigm of much standardized media research and is more aimed at material-based enhancements of theoretical discourse. This is the point where media and cultural theory meet each other.
Third, while case studies are a general moment of qualitative media research, a remarkable number of them understand research on specific cases – and not along predefined categories and samples – as a way of critical reflection. The underlying idea of this argument is that case studies make it possible to bring into academic discourse “voices” and “particularities” that are normally excluded in media research. The critical potential of case studies, then, lies in the trajectory of taking specificities seriously while still contextualizing them in wider connections like power relations. These three points show that case studies are an inherent part of current media research. In this, an “intrinsic” orientation on specific cases is increasingly combined with a critical focus on theory development.
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