Creswell Case Study Data Analysis

Volume 18, No. 1, Art. 19 – January 2017



Case Study Research: Foundations and Methodological Orientations

Helena Harrison, Melanie Birks, Richard Franklin & Jane Mills

Abstract: Over the last forty years, case study research has undergone substantial methodological development. This evolution has resulted in a pragmatic, flexible research approach, capable of providing comprehensive in-depth understanding of a diverse range of issues across a number of disciplines. Change and progress have stemmed from parallel influences of historical transformations in approaches to research and individual researcher's preferences, perspectives, and interpretations of this design. Researchers who have contributed to the development of case study research come from diverse disciplines with different philosophical perspectives, resulting in a variety of definitions and approaches. For the researcher new to using case study, such variety can create a confusing platform for its application. In this article, we explore the evolution of case study research, discuss methodological variations, and summarize key elements with the aim of providing guidance on the available options for researchers wanting to use case study in their work.

Key words: case study; method; methodology; nursing research; qualitative; research design; research

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. History and Evolution

3. Foundational Concepts

3.1 Definitions and descriptions

3.2 Methodology or method

3.3 Philosophical orientation

3.4 Philosophical variation

3.4.1 YIN: Realist—postpositivist

3.4.2 MERRIAM: Pragmatic constructivist

3.4.3 STAKE: Relativist—constructivist/interpretivist

4. Common Characteristics of Case Study Research

5. Conclusion

References

Authors

Citation

 

1. Introduction

Case study research has grown in reputation as an effective methodology to investigate and understand complex issues in real world settings. Case study designs have been used across a number of disciplines, particularly the social sciences, education, business, law, and health, to address a wide range of research questions. Consequently, over the last 40 years, through the application of a variety of methodological approaches, case study research has undergone substantial development. Change and progress have stemmed from parallel influences from historical approaches to research and individual researcher's preferences, perspectives on, and interpretations of case study research. Central to these variations is the underpinning ontological and epistemological orientations of those involved in the evolution of case study research. Researchers who have contributed to the development of case study research come from diverse disciplines and their philosophical underpinnings have created variety and diversity in approaches used. Consequently, various designs have been proposed for preparing, planning, and conducting case study research with advice on key considerations for achieving success. As a result, while case study research has evolved to be a pragmatic, flexible research approach, the variation in definition, application, validity, and purposefulness can create a confusing platform for its use. [1]

In this article, we examine each of these issues in turn, with the aim of improving our understanding of case study research and clarifying the requisite tenets to consider when designing a case study. We begin with an overview of the history and evolution of case study research, followed by a discussion of the methodological and philosophical variations found within case study designs. We end with a summary of the common characteristics of case study research and a table that brings together the fundamental elements that we found common in all case study approaches to research. [2]

2. History and Evolution

Case study research as a strategy for methodological exploration, according to FLYVBJERG (2011) "has been around as long as recorded history" (p.302). Contemporary case study research is said to have its origins in qualitative approaches to research in the disciplines of anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology (MERRIAM, 1998; SIMONS, 2009; STEWART, 2014). Historical examples of case study stem as far back as the early nineteenth century with the biography of Charles DARWIN (STEWART, 2014). Most attribute the origins of case study research to studies undertaken in anthropology and social sciences in the early twentieth century when lengthy, detailed ethnographic studies of individuals and cultures were conducted using this design (JOHANSSON, 2003, MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STEWART, 2014). Sociologists and anthropologists investigated people's lives, experiences, and how they understood the social and cultural context of their world, with the aim of gaining insight into how individuals interpreted and attributed meaning to their experiences and constructed their worlds (JOHANSSON, 2003; SIMONS, 2009). Such investigations were conducted in the natural setting of those experiences with results presented descriptively or as a narrative (MERRIAM, 2009). The most notable case studies include THOMAS and ZNANIECKI's (1958 [1918-1920]) study of Polish peasants in Europe and America and, the ethnographic work by MALINOWSKI (1913) in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia that spanned over several years (CRESWELL, HANSON, PLANO CLARK & MORALES, 2007; JOHANSSON, 2003; STEWART, 2014). [3]

With the emergence and dominance of positivism in science in the late 1940s and 1950s, quantitative methods became a popular focus for the social sciences. As a result, surveys, experiments, and statistical methods anchored in quantitative approaches were favored and considered more rigorous than qualitative designs (JOHANSSON, 2003). The dominance of research using experimental designs continued through the 1960s and 1970s with quantitative empirical results considered to be gold standard evidence. Case studies continued to be used during this time, however usually as a method within quantitative studies or referred to as descriptive research to study a specific phenomenon (MERRIAM, 2009). At the same time, case study research was often criticized for its inability to support generalizability and thus considered to provide limited validity and value as a research design (JOHANSSON, 2003; MERRIAM, 2009; STEWART, 2014). This context led to a philosophical division in research approaches: those supporting positivism and quantitative approaches and those aligned with qualitative methods embedded in constructivist and interpretivist paradigms. [4]

Antecedents of modern day case study research are most often cited as being conducted in the Chicago School of Sociology between the 1920-1950s (STEWART, 2014). Here, anthropologists practiced their methods on university cultures or by conducting lengthy case studies involving field-based observations of groups with the aim of understanding their social and cultural lives (CRESWELL et al., 2007; JOHANSSON, 2003; STEWART, 2014). Parallel to the use of case studies in anthropology, medicine and disciplines in the social sciences such as sociology, education and political science also embraced case study as a form of inquiry (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; BROWN, 2008; CRESWELL et al., 2007; GEORGE & BENNETT, 2005; GERRING, 2004; SIMONS, 2009; YIN, 2014). [5]

A second generation of case study researchers emerged with the advent of grounded theory methodology (GLASER & STRAUSS, 1967). Grounded theory "merged qualitative field study methods from the Chicago School of Sociology with quantitative methods of data analysis" (JOHANSSON, 2003, p.8), resulting in an inductive methodology that used detailed systematic procedures to analyze data. This renewed interest in qualitative methodology led to a revival in the use of case study in a number of disciplines (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; GEORGE & BENNETT, 2005; JOHANSSON, 2003; MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 1995). According to JOHANSSON (2003), Robert YIN followed this progress, and drawing on scientific approaches to research gained from his background in the social sciences, applied experimental logic to naturalistic inquiry, and blended this with qualitative methods, further bridging the methodological gap and strengthening the methodological quality of case study research. He presented a structured process for undertaking case study research where formal propositions or theories guide the research process and are tested as part of the outcome, highlighting his realist approach to qualitative case study research. While still qualitative and inductive, it was deterministic in nature with an emphasis on cause and effect, testing theories, and an apprehension of the truth (BROWN, 2008; YIN, 2014). [6]

Similarly, the uptake of case study research in the political sciences, particularly during the 1980's and 1990’s, led to a more integrated methodological approach with the aim of theoretical development and testing (GEORGE & BENNETT, 2005). The integration of formal, statistical, and narrative methods in a single study, combined with the use of empirical methods for case selection and causal inference, demonstrated the versatility of case study design and made a significant contribution to its methodological evolution (ibid.). Similarly, case studies in international relations integrated rigorous, standardized methods with statistical and formal methods, including qualitative comparative analysis and process tracing to improve understanding of world politics (BENNETT & ELMAN, 2007; GERRING, 2004; LEVY, 2007). According to GEORGE and BENNETT (2005) "scholars have formalized case study methods more completely and linked them to underlying arguments in the philosophy of science" (p.6). The continued use of case study to understand the complexities of institutions, practices, processes, and relations in politics, has demonstrated the utility of case study for researching complex issues, and testing causal mechanisms that can be applied across varied disciplines. [7]

Corresponding with these developments, in the 1970's, educational research embraced case study as a way to evaluate curriculum design and innovation (MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 1995). Methods were required that could be used to explore factors such as participants' perspectives and the influence of socio-political contexts on curriculum successes and failures (SIMONS, 2009). Development of case study research in education, focused on the need to determine the impact of educational programs and provide relevant evidence for policy and practice decisions that supported social and educational change in the United Kingdom and the United States (ibid.). The most significant contributors to this field were STAKE (1995, 2006) and MERRIAM (1998, 2009). STAKE (1995), an educational psychologist with an interest in developing program evaluation methods, used a constructivist orientation to case study. This resulted in placing more emphasis on inductive exploration, discovery, and holistic analysis that was presented in thick descriptions of the case. Similarly, MERRIAM (1998, 2009) used case study research to explore and evaluate educational programs. MERRIAM's approach emphasized defining and understanding the case through the products of inquiry and drew on the work of both YIN and STAKE. MERRIAM (2009) described case study research by its characteristics: particularistic, descriptive and heuristic, highlighting the purpose and qualitative nature of case study research, the focus on a specific entity and, the motivation to understand and describe the findings. Similar to STAKE (1995, 2006), MERRIAM (1998, 2009) was not as structured in her approach as YIN (2014), but promoted the use of a theoretical framework or research questions to guide the case study and organized, systematic data collection to manage the process of inquiry. [8]

Simple in theory yet complex in nature, the planning, preparation and execution of case study research has developed to a point where the continued application of case study research across a number of professions particularly education, health, and social sciences, has provided a unique platform for credible research endeavors. Case study research has grown in sophistication and is viewed as a valid form of inquiry to explore a broad scope of complex issues, particularly when human behavior and social interactions are central to understanding topics of interest (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; FLYVBJERG, 2011; GEORGE & BENNETT, 2005; LUCK, JACKSON & USHER, 2006; MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). [9]

In Figure 1, developed by JOHANSSON (2003) and adapted for this discussion, a summary of the evolution of case study across a timeline dating back to 1600 is displayed. Key contributors to case study research and major contextual influences on its evolution are included. As the figure highlights, early case studies were conducted in the social sciences. With the dominance of logical positivism from the 1940's through to the 1960's and 1970's case study methodology was viewed with skepticism and criticism. The development of grounded theory in the 1960's led to a resurgence in case study research, with its application in the social sciences, education, and the humanities. Over the last 50 years, case study has been re-established as a credible, valid research design that facilitates the exploration of complex issues.



Figure 1: The history and evolution of case study research (JOHANSSON, 2003, p.7) [10]

3. Foundational Concepts

While over time the contributions of researchers from varied disciplines have helped to develop and strengthen case study research, the variety of disciplinary backgrounds has also added complexity, particularly around how case study research is defined, described, and applied in practice. In the sections that follow, the nature of this complexity in explored. [11]

3.1 Definitions and descriptions

There are a number of definitions and descriptions presented across the literature, which can create confusion when attempting to understand case study research. The most common definitions come from the work of YIN (2014), STAKE (1995), and MERRIAM (2009). YIN's two-part definition (2014) focuses on the scope, process, and methodological characteristics of case study research, emphasizing the nature of inquiry as being empirical, and the importance of context to the case. On the other hand, STAKE (1995) takes a more flexible stance and while concerned with rigor in the processes, maintains a focus on what is studied (the case) rather than how it is studied (the method). For STAKE case study research is "the study of the particularity and complexity of a single case, coming to understand its activity within important circumstances" (p.xi). MERRIAM (2009) includes what is studied and the products of the research when defining case study as: "... an in depth description and analysis of a bounded system" (p.40). Like STAKE, MERRIAM emphasizes the defining feature of case study research as being the object of the study (the bounded system; i.e., the case) adding that case study research focuses on a particular thing and that the product of an investigation should be descriptive and heuristic in nature. In discussing the proliferation of definitions (and subsequent confusion), FLYVBJERG (2011) contends that using a simple definition might be a more useful approach, citing the MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY's (2009) definition, as an example that captures the key requisites in the context of research: "an intensive analysis of an individual unit (as a person or community) stressing developmental factors in relation to environment" (p.103). These varied definitions stem from the researchers' differing approaches to developing case study methodology and often reflect the elements they emphasize as central to their designs. The diversity of approaches subsequently adds diversity to definition and description. [12]

3.2 Methodology or method

A further challenge to understanding case study research relates to it being referred to and used as both a methodology and a method. MILLS (2014) distinguishes methods as procedures and techniques employed in the study, while methodology is the lens through which the researcher views and makes decisions about the study. Given the variation in definitions and descriptions, referring to case study research as a methodology and/or a single method can be perplexing, misleading, and at times counterproductive (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; BOBLIN, IRELAND, KIRKPATRICK & ROBERTSON, 2013; FLYVBJERG, 2011). Furthermore, advocates of case study encourage the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods within their designs adding further obscurity to the question of methodology (MERRIAM, 1998; STAKE, 1995; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). [13]

The ambiguity about case study being either or both a methodology and method, is compounded by the terminology used in discussions about case study. Across the literature, case study is referred to as a methodology and a method, an approach, research and research design, research strategy, and/or a form of inquiry (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; BROWN, 2008; CRESWELL, 2014; GERRING, 2004; MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009, STAKE, 1995, 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). Often these terms are used interchangeably without definitional clarity. For example, YIN (2014) discusses case study research and in the context of presenting case study, refers to it as a research method while emphasizing the procedures used. He does not use the terms methodology or strategy. CRESWELL (2014) refers to case studies as a qualitative design, while others use the term case study (FLYVBJERG, 2011; STAKE, 1995, 2006; STEWART, 2014), qualitative case study (MERRIAM, 2009), or describe case study as an approach (SIMONS, 2009). This mixed use of terminology is confusing given the definitional separations between methodology and methods and the varied application of case study in research endeavors. [14]

Prominent case study researchers do however emphasize that an overarching methodology shapes a case study design and that multiple sources of data and methods can be used (MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014), thus providing the distinction between the two. This distinction accentuates the need for researchers to describe the particular underpinning methodology adopted and to clarify the alignment of chosen methods used with their philosophical assumptions and their chosen approach. Exploring the philosophical orientation of case study research and variations in different case study approaches can help to clarify these differences, and promote a better understanding of how to apply these principles in practice. [15]

3.3 Philosophical orientation

Many methodologies are aligned with specific philosophical positions that guide the research process. Case study, however, has a practical versatility in its agnostic approach whereby "it is not assigned to a fixed ontological, epistemological or methodological position" (ROSENBERG & YATES, 2007, p.447). Philosophically, case study research can be orientated from a realist or positivist perspective where the researcher holds the view that there is one single reality, which is independent of the individual and can be apprehended, studied and measured, through to a relativist or interpretivist perspective. A relativist or interpretivist perspective adopts the premises that multiple realities and meanings exist, which depend on and are co-created by the researcher (LINCOLN, LYNHAM & GUBA, 2011; YIN, 2014). This philosophical versatility provides the researcher with the opportunity to decide the methodological orientation used in the conduct of the case study (STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). Examples of this choice are discussed later where the philosophical variations of MERRIAM (2009), STAKE (1995), and YIN (2014) are explicated. [16]

In the context of healthcare research and specifically nursing, LUCK et al. (2006) describe case study research as "a bridge across paradigms" (p.103). As a result, some case study approaches are either quantitatively or qualitatively orientated while others encompass both qualitative and quantitative aims and methods (MERRIAM, 2009; MILES, HUBERMAN & SALDANA, 2014; YIN, 2014). DENZIN and LINCOLN (2011) emphasize the qualitative essence of case study, while acknowledging its evolution and fluidity with regard to accommodating varied ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies, and methods. This ability to accommodate a range of philosophical positions is seen as an advantage whereby case study enables the opportunity to design research that can be specifically tailored to the inherent complexity of the research problem (ANTHONY & JACK, 2009; CASEY & HOUGHTON, 2010; FLYVBJERG, 2011; FARQUHAR, 2012; LUCK et al., 2006; MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). [17]

Case study research is most often described as qualitative inquiry (CRESWELL, 2014; DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009; MILES et al., 2014; STAKE, 2006). Qualitative paradigms are broad and can encompass exploratory, explanatory, interpretive, or descriptive aims. Examples include narrative research, phenomenology, grounded theory, and ethnography (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2011). Each methodology is unique in approach depending on the ontological and epistemological stance, however all stem from the motivation to explore, seek understanding, and establish the meaning of experiences from the perspective of those involved (ibid.; see also MERRIAM, 2009). For this purpose, qualitative researchers can employ a broad scope of methods and interpretative practices in any one study, although they typically include observations, interviews, and analysis of participants' words (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009). DENZIN and LINCOLN (2011, pp. 8-10) summarize the characteristics of qualitative research into five key attributes:

  • reducing the use of positivist or post positivist perspectives;

  • accepting postmodern sensibilities;

  • capturing the individual's point of view;

  • examining the constraints of everyday life;

  • securing rich descriptions. [18]

These attributes are commonly exemplified in case study research. The fundamental goal of case study research is to conduct an in-depth analysis of an issue, within its context with a view to understand the issue from the perspective of participants (MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 2006, YIN, 2014). Like other forms of qualitative research, the researcher will seek to explore, understand and present the participants' perspectives and get close to them in their natural setting (CRESWELL, 2013). Interaction between participants and the researcher is required to generate data, which is an indication of the researcher's level of connection to and being immersed in the field. Because of this, constructivism and interpretivism commonly permeate the implementation of this research design. Methods used in case study to facilitate achieving the aim of co-constructing data most often include observations, interviews, focus groups, document and artifact analysis (MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 1995; 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). The researcher's perceptions and interpretations become part of the research and as a result, a subjective and interpretive orientation flows throughout the inquiry (CRESWELL, 2014). Subjectivity is openly acknowledged and to manage this, the researcher embraces a reflexive stance within the study, adopting methods such as memoing and journaling that support this position (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2011; MILES et al., 2014, STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). [19]

3.4 Philosophical variation

In choosing a methodological position, careful consideration of the different case study approaches is required to determine the design that best addresses the aim of the study, and that aligns with the researcher's worldview. The goal of this alignment is to engender coherence between the researcher's philosophical position, their research question, design, and methods to be used in the study (FARQUHAR, 2012; LUCK et al., 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). To assist in understanding and achieving this alignment, the qualitative case study approaches developed by YIN (2014), STAKE (1995) and MERRIAM (1998, 2009) are explored in the following sections. Examples are provided of how these researchers' philosophical orientation influences the application of case study in practice. [20]

3.4.1 YIN: Realist—postpositivist

YIN (2014) conceptualizes case study research as a form of social science. Post-positivism is evident in how he defines "case study as a form of empirical inquiry" (p.16). YIN himself describes his approach to case study as using a "realist perspective" (p.17) and focuses on maintaining objectivity in the methodological processes within the design. [21]

Postpositivist qualitative researchers conduct research that embraces the ideals of objectivity and the generalizability of results (ELLINGSON, 2011). The goal of a postpositivist researcher is to use science as a way to apprehend the nature of reality while understanding that all measurement is imperfect. Therefore, emphasis is placed on using multiple methods with triangulation to circumvent errors and understand what is happening in reality as close as possible to the "truth" (LINCOLN et al., 2011). The researcher will often categorize qualitative data to create quantitative data that can then be analyzed using statistical methods. Validity of research results are verified through the scrutiny of others and, as such, adherence to mechanisms that ensure rigor in data collection and analysis is vital. Furthermore, postpositivists accept that everyone is inherently biased in worldviews, which ultimately influence how the methods used are deployed. Interaction with research subjects therefore needs to be minimized and subjectivity managed to avoid biasing the results (ibid.). [22]

Embedded within YIN's (2014) case study design are the hallmarks of a postpositivist approach to research: seeking rival explanations and falsifying hypotheses, the capability for replication with a multiple case study design, the pursuit of generalizations (if required), minimizing levels of subjectivity, and the use of multiple methods of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis. While objectivity is a goal, YIN also recognizes the descriptive and interpretive elements of case study. According to YIN what makes case study research distinct from experimental studies is the case study is investigated in context, examined in its "real world setting" (p.16). Selection of cases is based on the purpose of the research and related to the theoretical propositions about the topic of interest. YIN suggests careful screening in the selection of cases to ensure specific relevance to the issues of interest and the use of replication logic: cases are chosen to produce anticipated contrasting findings (theoretical replication) or similar findings (literal replication). Precision, process, and practicality are core attributes of YIN's approach to case study. Design features are sequentially structured and motivated by empirical application. This positioning reflects the axiology of postpositivism where maintaining intellectual honesty, managing bias, and acknowledging limitations, coupled with meticulous data collection and accurate reporting are critical elements in the conduct of research (KILLAM, 2013; YIN, 2014). [23]

3.4.2 MERRIAM: Pragmatic constructivist

MERRIAM (1998) maintains a constructivist approach to case study research, whereby the researcher assumes that reality is constructed intersubjectively through meanings and understandings developed socially and experientially. Like YIN (2014), MERRIAM (1998, 2009) asserts that when information is plentiful and concepts abstract, it is important to utilize processes that help interpret, sort, and manage information and that adapt findings to convey clarity and applicability to the results. In this way, MERRIAM's perspective brings forth a pragmatic approach to constructivist inquiry. MERRIAM (2009) acknowledges case study research can use both quantitative and qualitative methods; however, when working on qualitative case studies, methods aimed at generating inductive reasoning and interpretation rather than testing hypothesis take priority. Cases are selected based on the research purpose and question, and for what they could reveal about the phenomenon or topic of interest. The aim is to provide a rich holistic description that illuminates one's understanding of the phenomena (MERRIAM, 1998). Interviews are the most common form of qualitative data collection, although MERRIAM does not stipulate prioritizing a particular method for data collection or analysis, she does emphasize the importance of rigorous procedures to frame the research process. Advocating for careful planning, development, and execution of case study research, MERRIAM (1998, 2009) discusses the pragmatic structures that ensure case study research is manageable, rigorous, credible, and applicable. Processes such as descriptive, thematic and content analysis, and triangulation are significant in ensuring the quality of a study, therefore, methods of data collection and analysis need to be organized and systematized with a detailed chain of evidence (MERRIAM, 2009). Theoretical frameworks or research questions are used and drawn from the literature or discipline (MERRIAM, 1998). According to BROWN (2008), Merriam's style brings forth a practical application of pluralistic strategies that guide pragmatic constructivist research to derive knowledge about an area of inquiry. [24]

3.4.3 STAKE: Relativist—constructivist/interpretivist

STAKE (1995, 2006) has an approach to case study research that is qualitative and closely aligned with a constructivist and interpretivist orientation. While having a disciplined approach to the process and acknowledging that case study can use quantitative methods, STAKE's approach is underpinned by a strong motivation for discovering meaning and understanding of experiences in context. The role of the researcher in producing this knowledge is critical, and STAKE emphasizes the researcher's interpretive role as essential in the process. An interpretative position views reality as multiple and subjective, based on meanings and understanding. Knowledge generated from the research process is relative to the time and context of the study and the researcher is interactive and participates in the study. In terms of epistemology, STAKE argues that situation shapes activity, experience, and one's interpretation of the case. For STAKE (2006), to understand the case "requires experiencing the activity of the case as it occurs in its context and in its particular situation" (p.2). The researcher attempts to capture her or his interpreted reality of the case, while studying the case situationally enables an examination of the integrated system in which the case unfolds. Similar to YIN (2014) and MERRIAM (2009), a case or cases are selected for what they can reveal about topic of interest and depend on the aim and conditions of the study. A case is selected because it is interesting in itself or can facilitate the understanding of something else; it is instrumental in providing insight on an issue (STAKE, 2006). [25]

For STAKE, multiple sources and methods of data collection and analysis can be used, however, interviews and observations are the preferred and dominant data collection method. In seeking understanding and meaning, the researcher is positioned with participants as a partner in the discovery and generation of knowledge, where both direct interpretations, and categorical or thematic grouping of findings are used. STAKE (1995) recommends vignettes—episodes of storytelling—to illustrate aspects of the case and thick descriptions to convey findings, a further illustration of his constructivist and interpretivist approach to case study research. [26]

BROWN (2007) suggests the three approaches used by these seminal researchers rest along a quantitative-qualitative continuum where the postpositivist methodology of YIN (2014) sits at one end, STAKE's interpretivist design (1995, 2006) sits at the other end and MERRIAM (1998, 2009) who as a pragmatic constructivist draws on the elements of both, rests toward the center. BROWN (2008) sums up the influences of each, saying that "case study research is supported by the pragmatic approach of Merriam, informed by the rigour of Yin and enriched by the creative interpretation described by Stake" (p.9). While some may argue that mixing qualitative and quantitative methods could threaten the veracity of the research (BOBLIN et al., 2013; SANDELOWSKI, 2011), MERRIAM's approach demonstrates that when the integrity of the design is robust, methodological flexibility can be accommodated. [27]

4. Common Characteristics of Case Study Research

Despite variation in the approaches of the different exponents of case study, there are characteristics common to all of them. Case study research is consistently described as a versatile form of qualitative inquiry most suitable for a comprehensive, holistic, and in-depth investigation of a complex issue (phenomena, event, situation, organization, program individual or group) in context, where the boundary between the context and issue is unclear and contains many variables (CRESWELL, 2014; FLYVBJERG, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). Case study research can be used to study a range of topics and purposes (SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 2006; STEWART, 2014) however, the essential requisite for employing case study stems from one's motivation to illuminate understanding of complex phenomena (MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). Primarily exploratory and explanatory in nature, case study is used to gain an understanding of the issue in real life settings and recommended to answer how andwhy or less frequently what research questions (FLYVBJERG, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009; SIMONS, 2009; STAKE, 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN 2014). [28]

Defining the case (unit of analysis or object of the study) and bounding the case can be difficult as many points of interest and variables intersect and overlap in case study research. Developing research questions and/or propositions to select the case, identify the focus, and refine the boundaries is recommended to effectively establish these elements in the research design (MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). Bounding the case is essential to focusing, framing, and managing data collection and analysis. This involves being selective and specific in identifying the parameters of the case including the participant/s, location and/or process to be explored, and establishing the timeframe for investigating the case (MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). [29]

The use of multiple methods to collect and analyze data are encouraged and found to be mutually informative in case study research where together they provide a more synergistic and comprehensive view of the issue being studied (FLYVBJERG, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; YIN, 2014). How the methods are used will vary and depend on the research purpose and design, which is often a variation of a single or multiple case study research design. Interviews and focus groups, observations, and exploring artifacts are most commonly employed to collect and generate data with triangulation of methods and data, however, this is not exclusive. [30]

The fundamental elements of case study research (Table 1) are evident in the approaches of MERRIAM (2009), STAKE (1995, 2006), and YIN (2014) as well as other case study researchers who have contributed to the development and discussion of case study research (CRESWELL, 2013, 2014; FLYVBJERG, 2011; GEORGE & BENNETT, 2007; MILES et al., 2014; SIMONS, 2009). These elements delineate case study from other forms of research and inform the critical aspects of the research design and execution.

Element

Description

The case

Object of the case study identified as the entity of interest or unit of analysis

Program, individual, group, social situation, organization, event, phenomena, or process

A bounded system

Bounded by time, space, and activity

Encompasses a system of connections

Bounding applies frames to manage contextual variables

Boundaries between the case and context can be blurred

Studied in context

Studied in its real life setting or natural environment

Context is significant to understanding the case

Contextual variables include political, economic, social, cultural, historical, and/or organizational factors

In-depth study

Chosen for intensive analysis of an issue

Fieldwork is intrinsic to the process of the inquiry

Subjectivity a consistent thread—varies in depth and engagement depending on the philosophical orientation of the research, purpose, and methods

Reflexive techniques pivotal to credibility and research process

Selecting the case

Based on the purpose and conditions of the study

Involves decisions about people, settings, events, phenomena, social processes

Scope: single, within case and multiple case sampling

Broad: capture ordinary, unique, varied and/or accessible aspects

Methods: specified criteria, methodical and purposive; replication logic: theoretical or literal replication (YIN, 2014)

Multiple sources of evidence

Multiple sources of evidence for comprehensive depth and breadth of inquiry

Methods of data collection: interviews, observations, focus groups, artifact and document review, questionnaires and/or surveys

Methods of analysis: vary and depend on data collection methods and cases; need to be systematic and rigorous

Triangulation highly valued and commonly employed

Case study design

Descriptive, exploratory, explanatory, illustrative, evaluative

Single or multiple cases

Embedded or holistic (YIN, 2014)

Particularistic, heuristic, descriptive (MERRIAM, 1998, 2009)

Intrinsic, instrumental, and collective (STAKE, 1995, 2006)

Table 1: Case study elements and descriptors [31]

A final, critical point when conducting case study research is the importance of careful preparation and planning, coupled with the development of a systematic implementation structure (FLYVBJERG, 2011; MERRIAM, 2009; STAKE, 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). As discussed earlier, ensuring the alignment of philosophy and methodology with the research purpose and methods employed underpins a rigorous research process (STEWART, 2014). Clarity in this alignment is fundamental to ensuring the veracity of the research and depends on the design developed. During this process, researchers are encouraged to "logically justify their philosophical position, research design and include a coherent argument for inclusion of varying research methods" (LUCK et al., 2006, p.107). Study propositions, theory, research or issue questions work as a conceptual framework and need to align with the case to guide the design and determine methods of data collection and analysis (STAKE, 2006; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). Maintaining meticulous records and a systematic chain of evidence over the duration of the study is critical; as is being able to access, present and explain procedures supports the ethical integrity and rigor of the research and findings (MERRIAM, 2009; STEWART, 2014; YIN, 2014). Collective alignment of these elements articulates a justifiable framework for the research study and cultivates trustworthiness and the validity, reliability and credibility of the research findings. [32]

Considering these fundamental elements and common approaches to case study research, the definition from CRESWELL et al. (2007) seems to best capture the full depth and breadth of case study concepts and descriptions. The authors describe case study as "a methodology, a type of design in qualitative research, an object of study and a product of the inquiry" (p.245). They conclude with a definition that collates the hallmarks of key approaches and represents the core features of a case study:

"Case study research is a qualitative approach in which the investigator explores a bounded system (a case) or multiple bounded systems (cases) over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information (e.g., observations, interviews, audiovisual material, and documents and reports) and reports a case description and case-based themes" (ibid.). [33]

5. Conclusion

Since the 1980's a broad scope of case study approaches have developed. This range accentuates the flexibility of case study research as a distinct form of inquiry that enables comprehensive and in-depth insight into a diverse range of issues across a number of disciplines. While differences exist in some areas, commonalities are evident that can guide the application of a case study research design. Key contributors to the development of case study agree that the focus of a case study is the detailed inquiry of a unit of analysis as a bounded system (the case), over time, within its context. The versatility of case study research to accommodate the researcher's philosophical position presents a unique platform for a range of studies that can generate greater insights into areas of inquiry. With the capacity to tailor approaches, case study designs can address a wide range of questions that ask why, what, and how of an issue and assist researchers to explore, explain, describe, evaluate, and theorize about complex issues in context. Outcomes can lead to an in-depth understanding of behaviors, processes, practices, and relationships in context. Professions including the social sciences, education, health, law, management, business, and urban planning have embraced case study research, demonstrating these outcomes. Ongoing application of and sound debate about the value, validity, and capability of case study research have strengthened the efficacy of case study approaches as powerful forms of qualitative research. [34]

References

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Bennett, Andrew & Elman, Colin (2007). Case study methods in the international relations subfield. Comparative Political Studies, 40(2), 170-195. doi: 10.1177/0010414006296346

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Creswell, John W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Authors

Helena HARRISON, MN(Ed) is a PhD candidate in the College of Healthcare Sciences, Division of Tropical Health and Medicine, James Cook University, Australia. Her research interests include undergraduate and postgraduate nurse education with her current study focusing on the practice readiness of new graduate registered nurses in Australia.

Contact:

Helena Harrison

Nursing, Midwifery & Nutrition
College of Healthcare Sciences
Division of Tropical Health and Medicine
James Cook University
Angus Smith Drive, Douglas, QLD, Australia 4811

E-mail: helena.harrison@jcu.edu.au

 

Melanie Birks, PhD is professor and Head of Nursing, Midwifery and Nutrition at James Cook University, Australia. Her research interests are in the areas of accessibility, innovation, relevance and quality in nursing education.

Contact:

Melanie Birks

Nursing, Midwifery & Nutrition
College of Healthcare Sciences
Division of Tropical Health and Medicine
James Cook University
Angus Smith Drive, Douglas, QLD, Australia 4811

Tel: +61-7- 4781- 4544

E-mail: melanie.birks@jcu.edu.au

 

Richard Franklin, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the College of Public Health, Medical & Veterinary Sciences at James Cook University. Richard's public health projects have explored injury prevention and safety promotion and focused areas of farm safety, rural safety, occupational health and safety, falls, disasters, health promotion, and alcohol and aquatic safety. Richard's research interests include translating evidence into practice, epidemiological, program and product evaluation, surveillance and using mixed methods research for solving real world problems.

Contact:

Richard Franklin

Public Health & Tropical Medicine
Building 41, Room 213
College of Public Health, Medical & Veterinary Sciences
Division of Tropical Health and Medicine
James Cook University
Angus Smith Drive, Douglas, QLD, Australia 4811

Tel: +61-7- 4781 5939

E-mail: Richard.franklin@jcu.edu.au

 

Jane Mills, PhD is professor and Pro Vice Chancellor of the College of Health at Massey University in New Zealand. Her research interests are primary health care, public health and health systems strengthening.

Contact:

Jane Mills

College of Health
Massey University
Private Bag 102904
North Shore Auckland, New Zealand, 0745

Tel.: +64 9 414 0800 extn 49087

E-mail: J.Mills1@massey.ac.nz

Citation

Harrison, Helena; Birks, Melanie; Franklin, Richard & Mills, Jane (2017). Case Study Research: Foundations and Methodological Orientations [34 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(1), Art. 19,
http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1701195.

Volume 7, No. 1, Art. 21 – January 2006

The Use of Qualitative Content Analysis in Case Study Research

Florian Kohlbacher

Abstract: This paper aims at exploring and discussing the possibilities of applying qualitative content analysis as a (text) interpretation method in case study research. First, case study research as a research strategy within qualitative social research is briefly presented. Then, a basic introduction to (qualitative) content analysis as an interpretation method for qualitative interviews and other data material is given. Finally the use of qualitative content analysis for developing case studies is examined and evaluated. The author argues in favor of both case study research as a research strategy and qualitative content analysis as a method of examination of data material and seeks to encourage the integration of qualitative content analysis into the data analysis in case study research.

Key words: case study research, content analysis, qualitative content analysis, qualitative research

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research?

2. Research Question, Aim and Structure of the Paper

2.1 Cognitive interest and research question

2.2 Aim, structure and scope of the paper

3. Case Study Research

3.1 The case study as a research strategy

3.2 Designing case studies

3.3 Conducting case studies

3.3.1 Collecting evidence

3.3.2 Analyzing case study evidence

3.3.3 Reporting case studies

4. Content Analysis

4.1 Classical content analysis

4.2 Qualitative content analysis

4.2.1 Excursus: qualitative research

4.2.2 Philipp MAYRING's approach

4.2.3 Quality criteria and validation issues

5. The Use of Qualitative Content Analysis in Case Study Research

5.1 Mixed methods and triangulation

5.2 Case study research and qualitative content analysis

5.2.1 Openness and ability to deal with complexity

5.2.2 Theory-guided analysis

5.2.3 Integration of context

5.2.4 Integration of different material/evidence

5.2.5 Integration of quantitative steps of analysis

5.3 Limitations of qualitative content analysis

6. Outlook

Acknowledgments

Notes

References

Author

Citation

 

1. Introduction: Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research?

There has been an ongoing debate on the appropriateness of different approaches and methods in social research. As a matter of fact, many authors point to the heated discussions, sometimes even "wars" (the so-called "paradigm war"), between the adherents of quantitative (so-called "QUANs") and qualitative research (so-called "QUALs") designs (e.g. BRANNEN, 1992, pp.3-5; BRYMAN, 2004, pp.452-454; HAMMERSLEY, 1992, pp.39-41; KELLE, 2001, [1]-[5]; TASHAKKORI & TEDDLIE, 1998, pp.3-13). One main characteristic of this dispute seems to be the dichotomous way in which qualitative and quantitative research (methods) were presented as well as the resulting strict contraposition of the two (cf. also BRYMAN, 1992, pp.57-59)1). CASSELL and SYMON (1994) for instance give the following list of defining characteristics for qualitative research:

"a focus on interpretation rather than quantification; an emphasis on subjectivity rather than objectivity; flexibility in the process of conducting research; an orientation towards process rather than outcome; a concern with context—regarding behaviour and situation as inextricably linked in forming experience; and finally, an explicit recognition of the impact of the research process on the research situation" (p.7). [1]

On the one hand, this definition puts forth the main points of what qualitative research is about, but it also demonstrates how it is positioned or tries to position itself in contrast to quantitative research. NEUMAN (1997) goes even further by stating that there are basically two categories of data collection techniques: quantitative and qualitative (p.30). While the first means collecting data in the form of numbers the second means collecting data in the form of words or pictures (ibid.). This is of course only a very superficial and over-simplified assumption of the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research methods. [2]

Moreover, qualitative research methods have often faced acceptance problems and academic and disciplinary resistances, which are partly due to the politics embedded in this field of discourse (cf. e.g. DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2000, p.7): qualitative researchers are called journalists, or soft scientists, and their work is termed unscientific, or only exploratory, or subjective. However, great efforts have also been made to reconcile both sides (or, where not possible, at least to soothe the dispute), thus providing the opportunity to exploit the advantages of both approaches and opening the way for synergy effects (e.g. MAYRING, 2001, [3]-[9]; TASHAKKORI & TEDDLIE, 1998, pp.16ff). These attempts share the conception that qualitative and quantitative methods should be viewed as complementary rather than as rival camps (JICK, 1979, p.602). This has led to the appearance of mixed method approaches and the use of triangulation (e.g. BRYMAN, 2004, pp.454ff.; CRESWELL, 2003, pp.208ff.; JICK, 1979, p.602; cf. also Section 5.1). Besides, in the course of the last century (especially the second half of it), the development of qualitative methods showed impressive advances and results, thus helping to gain more acceptance not only in the field of social research (cf. e.g. MAYRING, 2002, pp.9-18). [3]

This paper also aims at helping to overcome the strict contraposition of qualitative and quantitative research. As the following sections will show, the combination and mixing of different research methods bears an enormous potential for the advancement of social research. [4]

2. Research Question, Aim and Structure of the Paper

This section presents the research question underlying the analysis and discussion in the following sections and gives a short outline of the paper, explaining its aim, structure and scope. [5]

2.1 Cognitive interest and research question

Since its development in the beginning of the 1980s, MAYRING's qualitative content analysis has achieved popularity (TITSCHER, MEYER, WODAK & VETTER, 2000, p.62). However, this qualitatively oriented approach to content analysis—a discipline traditionally dominated by quantitative methods—has mainly been discussed and used within the German-speaking scientific community and does not seem to have attracted as much attention internationally as it actually deserves2). In fact, GLÄSER and LAUDEL (2004) contend that qualitative content analysis is hardly used (p.44) and TITSCHER et al. (2000) in their bibliometric survey of the prominence of methods text analysis come to a similar conclusion as far as method literature citations are concerned (pp.217-218). However, when analyzing the frequency of keywords considerable deviations from the citation analysis turned up: a marked dominance of qualitative (and also quantitative) content analysis (TITSCHER et al., 2000, pp.219-221). [6]

Case studies are widely used in organizational studies and across the social sciences, and there is some suggestion that the case study method is increasingly being used and with a growing confidence in the case study as a rigorous research strategy in its own right (cf. e.g. HARTLEY, 1994, p.208; HARTLEY, 2004, p.323). STAKE (2000) concurs, suggesting that case studies have become "one of the most common ways to do qualitative inquiry" (p.435). However, there have also been traditional prejudices against case study strategy in such a way that case studies have been viewed as a less desirable form of inquiry for instance (cf. e.g. YIN, 2003a, pp.10-11). Besides, it was claimed that case studies lack in rigor and reliability and that they do not address the issue of generalizability in contrast to quantitative methods (HARTLEY, 1994, p.208). [7]

The author argues in favor of both case study research as a research strategy—trying to disprove the critiques just mentioned—and qualitative content analysis as a method of examination of data material. At the same time he seeks to encourage the integration of qualitative content analysis into the important step of data analysis in case study research. [8]

Therefore, the research question which is to be answered in the course of this paper is the following: What is the contribution qualitative content analysis can make as a method of text analysis (for interpreting interview transcripts and other documents) in case study research? Or, put more generally: What is the contribution of using qualitative content analysis as an interpretation and analysis method for developing case studies? [9]

2.2 Aim, structure and scope of the paper

This paper aims at exploring and discussing the possibilities of applying qualitative content analysis as a (text) interpretation method in case study research3). First, case study research as a research strategy within qualitative social research is briefly presented. Then, a basic introduction to (qualitative) content analysis as an interpretation and analysis method for text documents—especially the transcripts of qualitative interviews—and other data material is given, with the focus on Philipp MAYRING's approach to qualitative content analysis. Finally, the use of qualitative content analysis for conducting case study research is examined and evaluated. [10]

Since this paper only aims to serve as the starting point for a more thorough discussion of the application of qualitative content analysis for case study research, the scope is rather narrow. Providing only an introduction to the theoretical argument, the need for further theoretical discussion as well as the empirical testing of the argument is obvious. Besides, due to the limited scope of this paper and my own research interests, the focus will mainly be on organizational and managerial research, even though both qualitative content analysis as well as case study research can be used in a much wider range of research fields (see also Sections 3. and 4.2). [11]

3. Case Study Research

Case studies are widely used in organizational studies and across the social sciences, and there is some suggestion that the case study method is increasingly being used and with a growing confidence in the case study as a rigorous research strategy in its own right (cf. e.g. HARTLEY, 1994, p.208; HARTLEY, 2004, p.323). STAKE (2000) concurs, suggesting that case studies have become "one of the most common ways to do qualitative inquiry," but at the same time concedes that "they are neither new nor essentially qualitative" (p.435). In any case, quoting one of the most prominent experts in case study research, Robert K. YIN, we can say that "[u]sing case studies for research purposes remains one of the most challenging of all social science endeavors" (YIN, 2003a, p.1, original emphasis). [12]

This section gives a brief overview of case study research. As the word research implies, the subject of interest here are research case studies. These must be distinguished from teaching case studies—i.e. case studies as a pedagogical device—which are widely used particularly in business and law schools (cf. e.g. HARTLEY, 2004, p.324; REMENYI, MONEY, PRICE and BANNISTER, 2002, pp.2-4; YIN, 2003a, p.2). The main points of case study research are presented only as far as they seem to be relevant for the analysis of the research question (see 2.1). Given this purpose and the scope of the paper, this brief description can by no means serve as an introduction to case study research. For an extensive review and analysis of case study research reference should be made to the state-of-the-art literature (e.g. GILLHAM, 2000; GOMM, HAMMERSLEY & FOSTER, 2000; HAMEL, 1993; STAKE, 1995; YIN, 2003a). [13]

3.1 The case study as a research strategy

According to YIN (2003a, p.2) "the distinctive need for case studies arises out of the desire to understand complex social phenomena" because "the case study method allows investigators to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events," such as organizational and managerial processes, for example. In fact, case studies seem to be the preferred strategy when "how or "why" questions are being posed, when the investigator has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context (YIN, 1981, p.59, 2003a, pp.2, 5-10). In such a setting, a case study would be an explanatory one (ibid.). Depending on the type of research question posed, the extent of control an investigator has over actual behavioral events, and the degree of focus on contemporary as opposed to historical events, there are also exploratory and descriptive case studies (YIN, 2003a, pp.1, 3-10)4). In contrast to this, STAKE (2000) identifies three types of case studies—intrinsic, instrumental, and collective—with the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental (a collective case study is instrumental study extended to several cases) addressing the degree to which the focus is on the unique or the generalizable features of the case research (pp.437-438, cf. also HARTLEY, 2004, p.326). As a matter of interest, a common concern about case studies put forward by their critics is that they provide little basis for scientific generalization (YIN, 2003a, p.10). YIN's (2003a) answer to this:

"case studies […] are generalizable to theoretical propositions and not to populations or universes. In this sense, the case study […] does not represent a 'sample', and in doing a case study, your goal will be to generalize theories (analytical generalization) and not to enumerate frequencies (statistical generalization)" (p.10). [14]

Before we take a look at the individual steps in the process of conducting case study research, it is now time to deliver a definition of what case study research actually is. HARTLEY (2004), for instance, states that case study research "consists of a detailed investigation, often with data collected over a period of time, of phenomena, within their context," with the aim being "to provide an analysis of the context and processes which illuminate the theoretical issues being studied" (p.323). In this respect, it is important to note that case studies have an important function in generating hypotheses and building theory (cf. e.g. EISENHARDT, 1989; HARTLEY, 1994, p.211; HARTLEY, 2004, p.325). Finally, YIN (2003a, pp.13-14) offers a more detailed and technical definition of case studies:

  • "A case study is 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

  • The case study inquiry

    • copes with the technically distinctive situation in which there will be many more variables of interest than data points, and as one result

    • relies on multiple sources of evidence, with data needing to converge in a triangulating fashion, and as another result

    • benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions to guide data collection and analysis". [15]

Given this definition it might be important to note that a case study is not a method but a research strategy (cf. e.g. HARTLEY, 2004, p.323; TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.43)5). Or, put differently: "[c]ase study is not a methodological choice but a choice of what is to be studied. By whatever methods, we choose to study the case" (STAKE, 2000, p.435). As matter of fact, case study as a research strategy comprises an all-encompassing method, which means that a number of methods may be used—either qualitative, quantitative or both (cf. e.g. HARTLEY, 2004, p.324; YIN, 2003a, pp.14-15). Therefore, a case study cannot be defined through its research methods, but rather in terms of its theoretical orientation and interest in individual cases (HARTLEY, 2004, p.324; STAKE, 2000, p.435). Besides, case study research design can be used with other research strategies to address related research questions in different phases of a research project, and yet a further strategy would be to start with exploratory case study research and then to test the emerging findings in wider survey-based research (HARTLEY, 1994, p.215, 2004, pp.326-327). [16]

To sum up, let us once again cite HARTLEY (2004):

"Case study research is a heterogeneous activity covering a range of research methods and techniques, a range of coverage (from single case study through carefully matched pairs up to multiple cases), varied levels of analysis (individuals, groups, organizations, organizational fields or social policies), and differing lengths and levels of involvement in organizational functioning" (p.332). [17]

3.2 Designing case studies

According to HARTLEY (2004) research design is "the argument for the logical steps which will be taken to link the research question(s) and issues to data collection, analysis and interpretation in a coherent way" (p.326, cf. also YIN, 2003a, pp.19-21). YIN (2003a, p.21-28) identifies the following five components of research design as especially important for case studies:

  • A study's questions;

  • its propositions, if any;

  • its unit(s) of analysis;

  • the logic linking of the data to the propositions;

  • the criteria for interpreting the findings. [18]

Subsequently, it will be helpful to consider whether the case study will be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory and a key decision to be made is whether the research will be based on a single case study or on multiple cases (HARTLEY, 2004, p.326). However, going into greater detail concerning these issues would be beyond the scope of this paper. [19]

Furthermore, for case studies, theory development as part of the design phase is essential, whether the ensuing case study's purpose is to develop or test theory, with theory development taking place prior to the collection of any case study data being an essential step in doing case studies (YIN, 2003a, pp.28-29). However, depending on the depth and range of the extant literature, the initial focus of the case study may be quite focused or broad and open-ended. Therefore and because the case study strategy is ideally suited to exploration of issues in depth and following leads into new areas of new constructions of theory, the theoretical framework at the beginning may not be the same one that survives to the end (HARTLEY, 2004, p.328). Besides, theory development does not only facilitate the data collection phase of the ensuing case study, the appropriately developed theory also is the level at which the generalization of the case study results will occur. This role of theory has been characterized by YIN (2003a) as "analytic generalization" and has been contrasted with a different way of generalizing results, known as "statistical generalization" (pp.31-32, cf. also above, Section 3.1, and also HARTLEY, 2004, p.331). [20]

Last but not least, a major issue in designing case study research is the maximization of conditions related to design quality, i.e. the criteria for judging the quality of research designs. The four conditions or tests are (cf. e.g. YIN, 2003a, pp.19, 33-39):

  • Construct validity;

  • internal validity;

  • external validity;

  • reliability. [21]

A detailed explanation of these concepts can be found in numerous textbooks on social science methods (e.g. ATTESLANDER, 2003; BRYMAN, 2004; CRESWELL, 2003; DIEKMANN, 2003) and would go beyond the scope of this paper. However, these issues will be addressed again in Section 4.2.3 in relation to quality criteria for qualitative content analysis. [22]

3.3 Conducting case studies

This section will give a short overview of the main steps in undertaking case studies, drawing mainly from YIN (2003a)'s seminal work on case study research. [23]

3.3.1 Collecting evidence

According to YIN (2003a) there are six possible sources of evidence for case studies: documents, archival records, interviews, direct observation, participant-observation, and physical artifacts (pp.83, 85-96). Indeed, the case study's unique strength is "its ability to deal with a full variety of evidence—documents, artifacts, interviews, and observations" (YIN, 2003a, p.8). Case studies do not imply the use of a particular type of evidence and they can be done using either qualitative or quantitative evidence (or both) (EISENHARDT, 1989, pp.534-535; YIN, 1981, p.58; see also above, Section 3.1). Nevertheless, while quantitative data often appears in case studies, qualitative data usually predominates (PATTON & APPELBAUM, 2003, p.60). [24]

YIN (2003a, pp.83, 97-105) contends that the benefits from these six sources can be maximized if three principles are followed:

  • Use of multiple sources of evidence;

  • creation of a case study database;

  • maintaining a chain of evidence. [25]

Finally, YIN (2003a, pp.78-80) recommends conducting a pilot case study as a final preparation for data collection. This will help to refine the data collection plans with respect to both the content of the data and the procedures to be followed. [26]

GILLHAM (2000) also sees the use of multiple sources of evidence as a "key characteristics of case study research" (p.2) because "[a]ll evidence is of some use to the case study researcher: nothing is turned away" (p.20). As another fundamental characteristics he puts forth that "you do not start out with a priori theoretical notions" (ibid., original emphasis). [27]

3.3.2 Analyzing case study evidence

According to HARTLEY (1994, 2004) data collection and analysis are "developed together in an iterative process," which can be a strength as it allows for theory development which is grounded in empirical evidence (p.220; p.329). Besides, a careful description of the data and the development of categories in which to place behaviors or process have proven to be important steps in the process of analyzing the data. The data may then be organized around certain topics, key themes or central questions, and finally the data need to be examined to see how far they fit or fail to fit the expected categories (ibid.). [28]

YIN (2003a) maintains that data analysis consists of "examining, categorizing, tabulating, testing, or otherwise recombining both quantitative and qualitative evidence to address the initial propositions of a study" (p.109). In general, "data analysis means a search for patterns in data" (NEUMAN, 1997, p.426). NEUMAN (1997, pp.426ff) states that once a pattern is identified, it is interpreted in terms of a social theory or the setting in which it occurred and that the qualitative researcher moves from the description of a historical event or social setting to a more general interpretation of its meaning. In fact, "the ultimate goal of the case study is to uncover patterns, determine meanings, construct conclusions and build theory" (PATTON & APPELBAUM, 2003, p.67). According to YIN (2003a, pp.111-115) there are three general analytic strategies for analyzing case study evidence:

  • Relying on theoretical propositions;

  • thinking about rival explanations;

  • developing a case description. [29]

He contends that any of these strategies can be used in practicing five specific techniques for analyzing case studies: pattern matching, explanation building, time-series analysis, logic models, and cross-case synthesis (YIN, 2003a, pp.109, 116-137). [30]

Finally, checking the findings with the case study participants can be a valuable part of the analysis and can enhance validity (HARTLEY, 2004, p.330). Besides, the analyzing of data is enhanced by reference to the existing literature and using this to raise questions about whether the researcher's findings are consistent with or different from extant research (ibid.). [31]

3.3.3 Reporting case studies

In a final step—or a final series of steps—the results and findings of a case study need to be brought to closure. This step is called reporting, with numerous forms of reports being available, and the typical case study report being a lengthy narrative (YIN, 1981, p.64, 2003a, p.141). STAKE (2000, p.436) notes that a "case study is both a process of inquiry about the case and the product of that inquiry," namely the report. [32]

4. Content Analysis

This section provides a brief introduction to qualitative content analysis as a (text) analysis method for qualitative social research. The presentation will focus on qualitative content analysis as it was developed by Philipp MAYRING in Germany (see Section 4.2.2), with other approaches being touched only marginally (see Section 4.2.2.3). At the end of this section, quality criteria and validation issues relevant for qualitative content analysis will be highlighted (see Section 4.2.3). [33]

4.1 Classical content analysis

According to TITSCHER et al. (2000), content analysis is "the longest established method of text analysis among the set of empirical methods of social investigation" (p.55). However, there does not seem to exist a homogenous understanding of this method at present, but originally the term "referred only to those methods that concentrate on directly and clearly quantifiable aspects of text content, and as a rule on absolute and relative frequencies of words per text or surface unit" (TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.55). Later, the concept was extended to include all those procedures which operate with categories, but which seek at least to quantify these categories by means of a frequency survey of classifications (ibid.). [34]

According to BABBIE (2001), content analysis can be defined as "the study of recorded human communications" (p.304). It is "essentially a coding operation," with coding being "the process of transforming raw data into a standardized form" (BABBIE, 2001, p.309). In fact, RYAN and BERNARD (2000) see content analysis as one of the "major coding traditions" (p.780). They contend that "coding forces the researcher to make judgments about the meanings of contiguous blocks" and that coding is "the heart and soul" of (whole) text analysis (ibid.). According to them, classical content analysis "comprises techniques for reducing texts to a unit-by-variable matrix and analyzing that matrix quantitatively to test hypotheses" and the researcher can produce a matrix by applying a set of codes to a set of qualitative data (e.g. written texts etc), with the assumption being that the codes of interest have already been discovered and described beforehand (RYAN & BERNARD, 2000, p.785). More will be said on the topic of coding in Sections 4.2.2.3 and 4.2.3. [35]

The development of content analysis is fundamentally connected to the development of mass media and international politics and content analysis has gained significance in the first half of the twentieth century with the dramatic expansion of mass communication (MAYRING, 2002, p.114; TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.55). In fact, the theoretical basis of the first moves towards analyses of contents was Harold D. LASSWELL's model of mass communication, and later on also the news transmission model of SHANNON and WEAVER (TITSCHER et al., 2000, pp.56-57). But even before that, different approaches to analysis and comparison of texts in hermeneutic contexts (e.g. Bible interpretations), early newspaper analysis, graphological procedures and even Freudian dream analysis can be seen as early precursors of content analysis (MAYRING, 2000a, [6]). According to GILLHAM (2000), the "essence of content analysis is identifying substantive statements—statements that really say something" (p.71, original emphasis). BERELSON (1971) defined content analysis like this: "Content analysis is a research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication" (p.18). [36]

Obviously, classical content analysis is essentially a quantitative method with the core and central tool being its system of categories (cf. also Section 4.2.2.3). The simplest type of evaluation consequently consists of counting the numbers of occurrences per category (assuming there is a relationship between frequency of content and meaning). Besides, different indices which correlate two separate measurements and contingencies, more complex procedures can also be used for analysis (TITSCHER et al., 2000, pp.57-61). [37]

4.2 Qualitative content analysis

According to TITSCHER et al. (2000, p.62), in the 1950s a controversy about research strategies in content analysis was setting off. BERELSON's book "Content analysis in communication research" (first published 1952) was the first compendium of the methods and goals of quantitative content analysis which had been developed up to that time, and which concentrated on assessment on the basis of frequency analyses (BERELSON, 1971). KRACAUER's 1952 article "The challenge of qualitative content analysis" can be seen as a critical reaction to BERELSON's book (KRACAUER, 1952). He contended that the quantitative orientation neglected the particular quality of texts and that it was important to reconstruct contexts. According to him, it is not by counting and measuring that "patterns" or "wholes" in texts can be demonstrated but by showing the different possibilities of interpretation of "multiple connotations" (GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 2004, p.192; KRACAUER, 1952, pp.637f.; cf. also TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.62). MAYRING (2000a, [6]) even speaks of "a superficial analysis without respecting latent contents and contexts, working with simplifying and distorting quantification." These critiques finally led to the development of qualitative approaches to content analysis (e.g. ALTHEIDE, 1996; MOSTYN, 1985; RITSERT, 1972; RUST, 1980; WITTKOWSKI, 1994). [38]

RITSERT (1972, pp.19-31), for instance, criticized that especially the following four aspects are not taken into account appropriately by quantitative content analysis:

  • The context of text components;

  • latent structures of sense;

  • distinctive individual cases;

  • things that do not appear in the text. [39]

MAYRING's qualitative content analysis tries to overcome these shortcomings of classical quantitative content analysis by applying a systematic, theory-guided approach to text analysis using a category system (cf. e.g. MAYRING, 2002, p.114; see also below Sections 4.2.2.2 and 4.2.2.3). In fact, qualitative content analysis claims to synthesize two contradictory methodological principles: openness and theory-guided investigation (GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.3). [40]

BRYMAN (2004) states that qualitative content analysis is "probably the most prevalent approach to the qualitative analysis of documents" and that it "comprises a searching-out of underlying themes in the materials being analyzed" (p.392). Being a little bit more specific he defines qualitative content analysis in the following way:

"An approach to documents that emphasizes the role of the investigator in the construction of the meaning of and in texts. There is an emphasis on allowing categories to emerge out of data and on recognizing the significance for understanding the meaning of the context in which an item being analyzed (and the categories derived from it) appeared" (BRYMAN, 2004, p.542). [41]

However, this seems to be rather the description of a general approach to analyzing documents qualitatively. In contrast to this, MAYRING's qualitative content analysis is not only an approach to analyzing documents but also a sophisticated and concretely described method at the same time. [42]

4.2.1 Excursus: qualitative research

Before presenting MAYRING's qualitative content analysis, a short overview of the basic assumptions and definitions of qualitative research will be given. [43]

"Qualitative research is many things to many people" (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2000, p.8). This statement of DENZIN and LINCOLN (2000) in their handbook of qualitative research already shows the breadth of the term qualitative research and the multitude of its methods, but also the vagueness of this concept. In fact, as it cuts across disciplines, fields and subject matters, a "complex, interconnected family of terms, concepts and assumptions surround the term qualitative research" (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2000, p.2, original emphasis). Thus, a clear and concise definition of qualitative research can hardly be found. [44]

The "word qualitative implies an emphasis on the qualities of entities and on processes and meanings that are not experimentally examined or measured (if measured at all) in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency" (DENZIN & LINCOLN, 2000, p.8, original emphasis). CASSELL and SYMON (1994, p.1) judge qualitative methods to be very appropriate to research questions focusing on organizational processes, outcomes, and trying to understand both individual and group experiences of work. According to them, organizational dynamics and change are major areas of interest in organizational research, and only qualitative methods are sensitive enough to allow the detailed analysis of change, while quantitative methods are only able to "assess that a change has occurred over time but cannot say how (what processes were involved) or why (in terms of circumstances and stakeholders)" (CASSELL & SYMON, 1994, p.5). [45]

Generally, it can be said that qualitative techniques emerge form phenomenological and interpretive paradigms, with the emphasis being on constructivist approaches where there is no clear-cut objectivity or reality (CASSELL & SYMON, 1994, p.2). This has important implications on what is perceived to be the nature of knowledge, with the qualitative paradigm negating the existence of objectively true knowledge and proposing an interpretive approach to social knowledge, which recognizes that "meaning emerges through interaction and is not standardized from place to place or person to person" (RUBIN & RUBIN, 1995, p.31). [46]

According to CASSELL and SYMON (1994, p.4), qualitative research is "less likely to impose restrictive a priori classifications on the collection of data," and thus research is "less driven by very specific hypotheses and categorical frameworks and more concerned with emergent themes and idiographic descriptions." This is also why, according to the qualitative research paradigm, it is only in the course of doing field research that one can find out which (research) questions can reasonably be asked and it is only at the end that the researcher will know which questions can be answered by a study (LUEGER, 2000, p.51). Therefore, qualitative methods are often used when the field of research is yet not well understood or unknown and aim at generating new hypotheses and theories, while quantitative methods are frequently used for testing hypotheses and evaluating theories (cf. e.g. ATTESLANDER, 2003, pp.83-85; GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.2; KELLE, 1994, pp.41-52; MAYRING, 2003, pp.20-23). [47]

Based on this background it should not be too difficult to grasp DENZIN and LINCOLN’s (2000) generic definition of qualitative research:

"Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. At this level, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or to interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them" (p.3). [48]

4.2.2 Philipp MAYRING's approach

This section offers a short introduction to the main points of MAYRING's qualitative content analysis. Its development (Section 4.2.2.1), basic ideas (Section 4.2.2.2), procedures (Section 4.2.2.3) and quality criteria (Section 4.2.3) will be presented subsequently. [49]

4.2.2.1 Development

MAYRING's concept of qualitative content analysis was developed in the 1980s in a longitudinal study about psycho-social consequences of unemployment, when about 600 open-ended interviews yielded more than 20,000 pages of transcripts, which had to be analyzed in a qualitatively oriented way (cf. MAYRING, 2000a, [1]). Since then MAYRING's works seem to have become standard literature on qualitative content analysis and some regularly appear in new editions (e.g. MAYRING, 2002 [first published 1990], 2003 [first published 1983]). The main idea in the development of MAYRING's approach is "to preserve the advantages of quantitative content analysis as developed within communication science and to transfer and further develop them to qualitative-interpretative steps of analysis" (MAYRING, 2000a, [2]). [50]

According to TITSCHER et al. (2000), MAYRING's qualitative content analysis "has achieved popularity" (p.62), while at the same time it has become difficult to separate it from other methods of text analysis, particularly those oriented towards ethnographic methods or grounded theory (p.55). [51]

4.2.2.2 Basic ideas

The object of (qualitative) content analysis can basically be any kind of recorded communication, i.e. transcripts of interviews/discourses, protocols of observation, video tapes, written documents in general etc. However, not only the manifest content of the material is analyzed, but also so-called latent content as well as formal aspects of the material (MAYRING, 2000b, pp.468-469, 2000a, [4]). Given this background, MAYRING (2000a) offers the following definition of qualitative content analysis: "an approach of empirical, methodological [sic!] controlled analysis of texts within their context of communication, following content analytical rules and step by step models, without rash quantification" ([5]). [52]

Obviously, the strength of qualitative content analysis is that it is strictly controlled methodologically and that the material is analyzed step-by-step. Central to it is a category system which is developed right on the material employing a theory-guided procedure. By using this category system, the aspects, which are to be filtered from the material, are defined (MAYRING, 2002, p.114). TITSCHER et al. (2000) put it like this:

"The core and central tool of any content analysis is its system of categories: every unit of analysis must be coded, that is to say, allocated to one or more categories. Categories are understood as the more or less operational definitions of variables." (p.58)6) [53]

Above, we said that qualitative content analysis aims to preserve the advantages of quantitative content analysis but at the same time apply a more qualitative text interpretation (see Section 4.2.2.1). MAYRING (2003, pp.42-46) emphasizes the following central points:

  • Fitting the material into a model of communication: It should be determined on what part of the communication inferences shall be made, to aspects of the communicator (his experiences, opinions, feelings), to the situation of the text production, to the socio-cultural background, to the text itself or to the effect of the message.

  • Systematic, rule-based analysis: The material is to be analyzed step by step, following rules of procedure, devising the material into content analytical units.

  • Categories in the center of analysis: The aspects of text interpretation, following the research questions, are put into categories, which were carefully founded and revised within the process of analysis (feedback loops).

  • Subject-reference instead of technique: instead of merely being a set of techniques for text analysis, the connection to the concrete subject of analysis is a very important point for qualitative content analysis. This implies that the procedures of content analysis cannot be fixed but have to be adapted depending on the subject and its context.

  • Verification of the specific instruments through pilot studies: Due to the subject-reference, fully standardized methods are abstained from. That is why the procedures need to be tested in a pilot study. Inter-subjective verifiability is a case in point here.

  • Theory-guided analysis: Technical fuzziness of qualitatively oriented research needs to be balanced by theoretical stringency. This means that the state-of-the-field of the respective research subject as well as subjects closely related are required to be taken into account and integrated into the analysis.

  • Inclusion of quantitative steps of analysis: Quantitative analyses are especially important when trying to generalize results. As a matter of fact, this notion of triangulation to argue in favor of an integration of qualitative and quantitative methods is not limited to content analysis but has been raised by many researchers (cf. e.g. DIEKMANN, 2003, p.18; KELLE, 2001, [6]; MAYRING, 2001; cf. also Section 5.1).

  • Quality criteria of reliability and validity (see also Section 4.2.3): The procedure has the pretension to be inter-subjectively comprehensible, to compare the results with other studies in the sense of triangulation and to carry out checks for reliability. [54]

This rule-based approach of qualitative content analysis is supposed to guarantee that the whole empirical basis is systematically dealt with and that the analysis is reproducible to a certain extent (GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, pp.2-5). As a matter of fact, it is this kind of systematics what distinguishes content analysis from more interpretive, hermeneutic processing of text material (MAYRING, 2002, p.114). [55]

4.2.2.3 Method and procedures

The seven components of content analysis listed above (see Section 4.2.2.2) form the basis for a qualitatively oriented procedure of text interpretation (MAYRING, 2000a, [8]). Consequently, MAYRING has developed a sequential model of qualitative content analysis and puts forward three distinct analytical procedures which may be carried out either independently or in combination, depending on the particular research question (MAYRING, 2002, p.115, 2003, pp.42-99; TITSCHER et al., 2000, pp.62-64):

  • Summary: attempts to reduce the material in such a way as to preserve the essential content and by abstraction to create a manageable corpus which still reflects the original material. For this the text is paraphrased, generalized or abstracted and reduced.

  • Explication: involves explaining, clarifying and annotating the material. As a first step a lexico-grammatical definition is attempted, then the material for explication is determined, and this is followed by a narrow context analysis, and a broad context analysis. Finally an "explicatory paraphrase" is made of the particular portion of text and the explication is examined with reference to the total context.

  • Structuring: corresponds more or less to the procedures used in classical content analysis and is also viewed as the most crucial technique of content analysis, the goal of which is to filter out a particular structure from the material. Here the text can be structured according to content, form and scaling. The first stage is the determination of the units of analysis, after which the dimensions of the structuring are established on some theoretical basis and the features of the system of categories are fixed. Subsequently definitions are formulated and key examples, with rules for coding in separate categories, are agreed upon. In the course of a first appraisal of the material the data locations are marked, and in a second scrutiny these are processed and extracted. If necessary the system of categories is re-examined and revised, which necessitates a reappraisal of the material. As a final stage the results are processed. [56]

Obviously, the central part of the process—structuring—is derived from classical content analysis, because here, too, units of coding and evaluation are set up and arranged in a schema of categories (TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.64). However, the basic difference between classical content analysis and structuring within qualitative content analysis is the development and use of the coding agenda7). In contrast to this, GLÄSER and LAUDEL (2004)—who have modified MAYRING's approach after experiencing problems when putting the method to practice—contend that the core and central part of the process is what they call "extraction" (p.194). However, "extraction" seems to be closely related to MAYRING's structuring since it literally means the extraction of the relevant information from the text by the means of using a category system. Thus, the material is reduced and a new basis of information separate from the original text comes into existence (ibid.). The main difference to MAYRING's approach lies in the handling of the category system. GLÄSER and LAUDEL (1999; 2004) criticize that the closed, ex ante determined category system is only adapted to the empirical material in a first process cycle with only part of the texts—a procedure they disqualify as methodologically arguable and technically too elaborate (p.5; p.193). Therefore they argue in favor of a theory-based category system, which is more open and can be changed during extraction when relevant information turns up but does not fit into the category system. Both the dimensions of existing categories can be modified and new categories can be designed. Since the category system can now be adjusted at any point of the analysis, the trial cycle becomes redundant (GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.10, 2004, p.195). However, it is important to mention that GLÄSER and LAUDEL (1999) might have misunderstood MAYRING's qualitative content analysis as having to follow all procedures described by him. It is actually a package of techniques from which the analyst can chose and then adapts to his research question8). [57]

Figure 1 shows the basic proceeding of qualitative content analysis from the initial theory to the final analysis and interpretation.



Figure 1: Basic proceeding of qualitative content analysis (Source: Author based on GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.4) [58]

Going into greater detail, this process of MAYRING's qualitative content analysis can also be divided into nine different stages (MAYRING, 2003, pp.42-99; TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.64):

  • Determination of the material;

  • analysis of the situation in which the text originated;

  • the formal characterization of the material;

  • determination of the direction of the analysis;

  • theoretically informed differentiation of questions to be answered;

  • selection of the analytical techniques (summary, explication, structuring);

  • definition of the unit of analysis;

  • analysis of the material (summary, explication, structuring);

  • interpretation [59]

Among the procedures of qualitative content analysis MAYRING (2000a, [8]) hallmarks the following two approaches as central to developing a category system and finding the appropriate text components as a result: inductive category development and deductive category application. [60]

Inductive category development

Quantitative content analysis does not provide satisfactory answers to the question where the categories are derived from, and how the system of categories is developed. But within the framework of qualitative approaches it is essential to develop the aspects of interpretation—the categories—as closely as possible to the material, and to formulate them in terms of the material. As a result, procedures of inductive category development were compiled (MAYRING, 2000a, [9], [10]). The steps of inductive category development are displayed in Figure 2.



Figure 2: "Step model of inductive category development" (Source: MAYRING, 2000a, [11]) [61]

The main idea of the procedure is to formulate a criterion of definition, derived from the theoretical background and the research question, which determines the aspects of the textual material taken into account. Following this criterion the material is worked through and categories are deduced tentatively and step by step. Within a feedback loop the categories are revised, eventually reduced to main categories and checked in respect to their reliability (MAYRING, 2000a, [12]). [62]

Inductive category development belongs to the procedure of summary (MAYRING, 2003, pp.74-76). Or, put the other way round: the technique of content analytical summary can be used furthermore for an inductive category development (MAYRING, 2002, p.115). [63]

Deductive category application

Deductive category application works with previously formulated, theoretically derived aspects of analysis, which are brought into connection with the text. The qualitative step of analysis consists of a methodologically controlled assignment of the category to a passage of text (MAYRING, 2000a, [13]). Figure 3 shows the steps of deductive category application.



Figure 3: "Step model of deductive category application" (Source: MAYRING, 2000a, [14]) [64]

According to MAYRING (2000a, [15]; 2001, [15]) the main idea here is to give explicit definitions, examples and coding rules for each deductive category, determining exactly under what circumstances a text passage can be coded with a category. Finally, those category definitions are put together within a coding agenda. [65]

4.2.3 Quality criteria and validation issues

Any kind of social research asserts its claims to fulfill certain quality criteria for measuring and collecting data. It is widely accepted that measurement or the methods of measurement should be as objective, reliable and valid as possible (cf. e.g. DIEKMANN, 2003, p.216). In fact, the research strategy that is regularly pursued in content analysis is governed by these traditional criteria of validity and reliability, where the latter is a precondition for the former (but not vice versa) (TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.65). Since arguments concerning the content are judged to be more important than methodical issues in qualitative analysis, validity takes priority over reliability (MAYRING, 2003, p.45). However, according to MAYRING (2003, p.109), concerning content analyses that have been conducted up to now, there is a dearth in statements about the reliability and validity of the results achieved. Two specific problems of content analysis that are often discussed in this context are problems of inference and problems of reliability (TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.65):

  • Problems of inference relate to the possibility of drawing conclusions, on the one hand, about the whole text on the basis of the text sample and, on the other hand, about the underlying (theoretical) constructs such as motives, attitudes, norms, etc., on the basis of the text. As a result, inference in content analysis confines itself only to specific features of external and internal validity.

  • Problems of reliability: here, particular attention is paid to the trustworthiness of the coding. The so-called inter-coder reliability shows to what extent different coders agree in the coding of the same text and intra-coder reliability explains how stable the coding of one coder is. [66]

Because of the problems of reliability, the coding of texts is usually assigned to multiple coders so that the researcher can see whether the constructs being investigated are shared and whether multiple coders can reliably apply the same codes (MAYRING, 2003, p.110; RYAN & BERNARD, 2000, p.785). Apart from inter-coder reliability, in his seminal work on qualitative content analysis, MAYRING (2003, pp.111-115) discusses the following specific quality criteria for content analysis according to KRIPPENDORF (2004, pp.214-216, 318-338):

  • Validity

    • Material-oriented

      • Semantic validity

      • Sampling validity

    • Result-oriented

      • Correlative validity

      • Predictive validity

    • Process-oriented

  • 2. Reliability

    • a. Stability

    • b. Reproducibility

    • c. Accuracy

Semantic validity relates to the meaning reconstruction of the material, and is expressed in the appropriateness of the category definitions, the key examples and the rules for coders. Sampling validity refers to the usual criteria for precise sampling and correlative validity refers to the correlation with some external criterion (e.g. the results of other methods like test, experiment or observation). Predictive validity can only be used as a quality criterion if predictions can reasonably be made from the material (in this case verification is usually easy and significant). Construct validity relates, for instance, to previous success with similar constructs, established models and theories, and representative interpretations. Stability refers to whether the same results are obtained in a renewed application of the analytical tool to the same text and reproducibility is the extent to which the analysis achieves the same results under different circumstances, for instance with different coders. It can be measured through inter-coder reliability for which a range of measures and indices have been developed. Finally, accuracy assumes stability and reproducibility and denotes the extent to which the analysis meets a particular functional standard (KRIPPENDORFF, 2004, pp.214-216, 318-338; MAYRING, 2003, pp.111-115; cf. also TITSCHER et al., 2000, pp.65-66). [67]

MAYRING (2003) additionally notes another quality criterion that has gained in significance recently: communicative validation (p.112). The main idea behind this concept is to discursively achieve mutual consent and accordance about the results of the analysis between the researchers and the researched. [68]

Last but not least, a further criterion is generalizability, which refers to "the degree to which the findings are applicable to other populations or samples" (RYAN & BERNARD, 2000, p.786). Thus, it draws on the degree to which the original data were representative of a larger population (ibid). [69]

KRIPPENDORFF (2004) identifies the following four sources of error that may lead to a lack of reliability (pp.211ff, cf. also MAYRING, 2003, p.115; TITSCHER et al., 2000, p.66):

  • Features of the units of evaluation: It will be examined whether the problem locations, where there is some disagreement about coding, differ systematically from the material.

  • Properties of individual categories: The question is whether instances of disagreement are particularly common with particular categories.

  • Differentiation of categories: It will be checked whether the distinctions between categories are too fine.

  • Properties of the coders: If the lack of reliability cannot be attributed to a), b), or c), then the problem is usually with the coders and may perhaps be solved by more careful selection, more thorough training, shorter operation periods, etc. [70]

Finally, MAYRING (2003, p.115) proclaims the need for a content analytical theory of errors in order to establish a systematic compilation of quality criteria. The further development of new quality criteria calls for an analysis of where and what kind of other errors can be made or occur in (conducting) content analysis (ibid). [71]

5. The Use of Qualitative Content Analysis in Case Study Research

"[E]mpirical research advances only when it is accompanied by theory and logical inquiry and not when treated as a mechanistic or data collection endeavor" (YIN, 2003a, p.xv).

This section explores and discusses the possibilities of applying qualitative content analysis as a (text) interpretation method in case study research and thus tries to find an answer to the research question initially posed (see Section 2.1). [72]

5.1 Mixed methods and triangulation

The rising popularity of mixed methods approaches and the use of triangulation have already been mentioned briefly in the introduction of this paper. Having its origin in navigation, military strategy and (geodetic) surveying, the term triangulation in social research is used in a less literal sense to describe the use of multiple methods and measures of an empirical phenomenon (cf. e.g. BRANNEN, 1992; JICK, 1979; KELLE, 2001; TASHAKKORI & TEDDLIE, 1998; WOLFRAM COX & HASSARD, 2005 for an overview and review)9). According to WOLFRAM COX and HASSARD (2005), the implicit assumption in much of the social science literature on triangulation "is of developing a more effective method for the capturing and fixing of social phenomena in order to realize a more accurate analysis and explanation." (p.111) Just like multiple viewpoints allow for greater accuracy in geometry, (organizational) researchers "can improve the accuracy of their judgments by collecting different kinds of data bearing on the same phenomenon" (JICK, 1979, p.602). Data accumulated by different methods but bearing on the same issue are part of what is called the "multi-method approach": "Different methods have different strengths and weaknesses. If they converge (agree) then we can be reasonably confident that we are getting the true picture" (GILLHAM, 2000, p.13, original emphasis). In fact, the "effectiveness of triangulation rests on the premise that the weaknesses in each single method will be compensated by the counter-balancing strengths of another" (JICK, 1979, p.604). Therefore, triangulation "can potentially generate what anthropologists call "holistic work" or "thick description" (JICK, 1979, p.609). [73]

In the case of using qualitative content analysis in case study research, triangulation takes actually place on two different levels. On the first and more obvious level, data is triangulated by integrating different material and evidence (see Section 5.2.4)—often also collected by using various methods—as well as by integrating quantitative and qualitative steps of analysis (see Section 5.2.5). On second level, triangulation takes place by applying a method of analysis (qualitative content analysis) that has not been particularly developed for this purpose to a different research design (case study research). [74]

5.2 Case study research and qualitative content analysis

As was already shown in Section 3.1 the case study will provide a multi-dimensional perspective that may be used to create a shared view of the situation being studied (REMENYI et al., 2002, p.5). Therefore, case studies offer the "opportunity for a holistic view of a process" (PATTON & APPELBAUM, 2003, p.63). Besides, we also saw that case study research has a major function in generating hypotheses and build theory. EISENHARDT (1989) states that "[a]nalyzing data is the heart of building theory from case studies, but it is both the most difficult and the least codified part of the process" (p.539). In fact, a theory or theoretical framework first emerges through the inductive approach of studying an empirical case or object, not through a deductive process. "The key point is that before a theory can be validated, it must be constructed" (PATTON & APPELBAUM, 2003, p.65). As the author tried to demonstrate in Section 4.2.2, Philipp MAYRING's qualitative content analysis could be such an inductive approach and offers a range of rule-based procedures for a systematic analysis of data material. Hence, qualitative content analysis might be an appropriate analysis and interpretation method for case study research. As a matter of fact, its quantitative counterpart—classical content analysis—is repeatedly mentioned as a method of analyzing data in the context of conducting case study research (cf. e.g. YIN, 2003a, p.110). REMENYI et al. (2002) state that techniques such as content analysis may be used "to transform what is essentially qualitative evidence into some sort of quantitative evidence" (pp.5-6). Even though they concede that this is "not a particularly satisfactory approach," they claim that "it is not infrequently used" (REMENYI et al., 2002, p.6). [75]

In Section 4.2 we stated that MAYRING's qualitative content analysis tries to overcome these shortcomings of classical quantitative content analysis by applying a systematic, theory-guided approach to text analysis using a category system. Besides it preserves the advantages of quantitative content analysis but at the same time apply a more qualitative text interpretation. Therefore, it can be argued that qualitative content analysis could prove to be a useful tool for analyzing data material in case study research. In fact, the contribution of using qualitative content analysis in case study research will be demonstrated on the basis of the following points: [76]

5.2.1 Openness and ability to deal with complexity

One of the strengths of qualitative content analysis is the way it tries to synthesize openness—as claimed by the qualitative research paradigm—and theory-guided investigation—usually demanded by the hypothetical-deductive paradigm. In fact, despite this openness, qualitative content analysis is strictly controlled methodologically and the material is analyzed in a step-by-step process (see Section 4.2.2). It is this combination that fosters its strong ability to deal with complexity. Qualitative content analysis takes a holistic and comprehensive approach towards analyzing data material and thus achieves to (almost) completely grasp and cover the complexity of the social situations examined and social data material derived from them. At the same time, qualitative content analysis uses a rule-based and methodologically controlled approach in order to deal with the complexity and gradually reduce it. The procedures of summary, explication and structuring step-by-step reduce complexity and filter out the main points of analysis in an iterative process. Therefore, qualitative content analysis perfectly fits the credo of case study research: helping to understand complex social phenomena (see also Section 3.1). [77]

5.2.2 Theory-guided analysis

We just mentioned theory-guided analysis as one of the special strengths of qualitative content analysis (see above, Section 5.2.1). The important point here is the same as with case study research: "The central idea is that researchers constantly compare theory and data—iterating toward a theory which closely fits the data" (EISENHARDT, 1989, p.541). Besides, an essential feature of theory building is comparison of the emergent concepts, theory or hypotheses with the extant literature because tying the emergent theory to existing literature enhances the internal validity, generalizability, and theoretical level of theory building from case study research (EISENHARDT, 1989, pp.544-545). That is why GLÄSER and LAUDEL (1999, abstract) state that qualitative content analysis could be "an interesting form of data analysis for projects that aim to start from theory and contribute to it." [78]

Theory-guided analysis also offers the chance to compare and complement the primary data collected within the research project with secondary data. In fact, experts in social research recommend to conduct interpretations of results on two levels: interpretation of the results of one's own survey and comparative interpretation of results and conclusions of existing theories and research results (cf. e.g. ATTESLANDER, 2003, pp.329, 355; MAYRING, 2003, pp.109-115). This analysis of complementing secondary data can help to ensure the quality of content analysis, especially validity (MAYRING, 2003, p.109). [79]

5.2.3 Integration of context

One of the key features of qualitative content analysis in contrast to classical quantitative content analysis is that the context is also central to the interpretation and analysis of the material. In fact, it is not only the manifest content of the material that is important but also the latent content as well as formal aspects need to be taken into consideration (cf. also Section 4.2.2.2). This is again in order to achieve a holistic and comprehensive analysis of complex social phenomena. As we have seen in Section 3.1, "the key feature of the case study approach is not method or data but the emphasis on understanding processes as they occur in their context" (HARTLEY, 1994, p.227, 2004, p.332). Therefore, research questions about "how" and "why" rather than "what" or "how much" are best suited to the case study strategy (ibid.). [80]

5.2.4 Integration of different material/evidence

As shown above (Section 4.2.2.2), the object of qualitative content analysis can basically be any kind of recorded communication, i.e. transcripts of interviews/discourses, protocols of observation, video tapes, written documents in general etc. This means that in a comprehensive study which aims at analyzing different kinds of data material, the same method can be applied to different types of evidence—a major advantage not only from a pragmatic point of view, but also as far as quality criteria are concerned. Of course, case study research usually corresponds to such a comprehensive study. According to YIN (2003a) a major strength of case study data collection is the opportunity to use many different sources of evidence because the use of multiple sources of evidence in case studies allows an investigator to address a broader range of historical, attitudinal, and behavioral issues (YIN, 2003a, pp.97-98). In fact, GILLHAM (2000) states that case study "is a main method," within which different sub-methods are used: interviews, observations, document and record analysis, work samples etc (p.13, original emphasis). [81]

Furthermore, qualitative or expert interviews are a very common field of application for qualitative content analysis (cf. e.g. GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.5, 2004, p.44; MAYRING, 2003, p.46). According to YIN (2003a) one of the most important sources of case study information is the interview: "most commonly, case study interviews are of an open-ended nature, in which you can ask key respondents about the facts of a matter as well as their opinions about events" (YIN, 2003a, p.90, original emphasis). Therefore, qualitative content analysis offers a rule-based, theory-guided method for analyzing interview transcripts, just in the way it is required by the principles of case study research. [82]

Finally, MAYRING (2000a, [28]) contends that qualitative content analysis can be combined with other qualitative procedures. This is certainly a great advantage when dealing with various, heterogeneous types of data material. However, he fails to go into greater detail concerning this matter. [83]

5.2.5 Integration of quantitative steps of analysis

As was discussed above (Sections 4.2.2 and 5.2) qualitative content analysis preserves the advantages of classical quantitative content analysis, and thus also includes quantitative steps of analysis. These are especially important when trying to generalize results. According to GILLHAM (2000), "[c]ase study research does not equate qualitative (descriptive, interpretative) methods and data only. They are predominant, but quantitative data and its analysis can add to the overall picture" (p.80). According to JICK (1979), "[q]ualitative data and analysis function as the glue that cements the interpretation of multimethod results" (p.609). Moreover, the combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses has also been addressed in the field of case study research (see above, Sections 3.1 and 3.2). As has already been mentioned, many experts in the field of socio-scientific research suggest using and combining several methods—so-called triangulation or cross-examination—in order to obtain more valid results (see Sections 1. and 5.1). Especially the combination of qualitative methods and quantitative methods seems to be appropriate in order to gain deeper insight and a more general view of the object of research (cf. e.g. DIEKMANN 2003, p.18). In fact, triangulation by integrating different material/evidence as well as quantitative and qualitative steps of analysis, helps researchers to be more confident of their results and can also lead to a synthesis or integration of theories (cf. e.g. JICK, 1979 pp.608-609). [84]

5.3 Limitations of qualitative content analysis

According to TITSCHER et al. (2000) content analysis will always be used if communicative content is of greatest importance, if operational schemata of categories can be formulated in advance or if the analysis is concerned only with the lexicon of a text (p.66). The procedures of qualitative content analysis seem less appropriate, if the research question is highly open-ended, explorative, variable and working with categories would be a restriction, or if a more holistic, not step-by-step ongoing of analysis is planned (MAYRING, 2000b, p.474, 2000a, [27]). In fact, MAYRING (2002) recommends his qualitative content analysis in the case of theory-guided text analysis but rather not in the case of merely explorative-interpretive interpretation of the material (p.121). [85]

Furthermore, due to the fact that qualitative content analysis first extracts the relevant parts of the (text) material and then analyzes them (cf. also Section 4.2.2), it can only be used if the text itself is not the subject of examination (cf. e.g. GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, p.5, 2004, p.200). [86]

Last but not least, when using qualitative content analysis in case study research, one should be aware of the fact that "[r]eplicating a mixed-methods package […] is a nearly impossible task" (JICK, 1979, p.609). [87]

6. Outlook

This paper tried to explore and discuss the possibilities of using qualitative content analysis in case study research. It highlighted the strengths of qualitative content analysis as a method that achieves to respect the credos of openness and theory-guided analysis at the same time. In fact, with its rule-based logic and methodologically controlled step-by-step procedures of analysis it manages to combine the advantages of classical quantitative content analysis with a qualitatively oriented approach taking also context and other important points into consideration. Therefore, qualitative content analysis can be viewed as a comprehensive approach to data analysis, which seems to be especially suitable for case study research. It can certainly contribute to adding and enhancing rigor, validity and reliability of case study research. [88]

Nevertheless, qualitative content analysis is still a young discipline and further development and improvement might be advisable and appropriate as some of the amendments, critiques and limitations of MAYRING's approach show (see above Sections 4.2.3, 5.3 and also GLÄSER & LAUDEL, 1999, 2004). Besides, papers and essays in English are crucial to help qualitative content analysis gain attention and dissemination internationally as well. Last but not least, empirical testing and experience will be indispensable to ensure methodological and practical advances of this method. Therefore, the author strongly recommends all researchers who are conducting case studies to use and apply qualitative content analysis in their research endeavors. [89]

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Angelika SCHMIDT and Jürgen MÜHLBACHER for their kind support and advice. All mistakes are solely mine.

Notes

References

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