Multi-method & Case-centered Research: When the Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts
August 19, 2013
Multi-method research enables the qualitative researcher to study relatively complex entities or phenomena in a way that is holistic and retains meaning. The purpose is to tackle the research objective from all the methodological sides. Rather than pigeonholing the research into a series of IDIs, focus groups, or observations, the multi-method approach frees the researcher into total immersion with the subject matter. Multi-method strategies are particularly relevant in case-centered research such as case studies and narrative research. For instance, a case study concerning a state-wide drug prevention program might include IDIs with the program staff and volunteers, observations of program activities, group discussions with program participants, and a review of administrative documents. Similarly, a narrative study to explore the manner in which 8th grade science is taught in the city schools might be designed to include many methods in order to frame the narrative environment such as: in-class teacher observations, teachers’ lived stories captured by way of IDIs or autobiographical “essays,” teachers’ daily journal entries concerning classroom activities, and visual images of the classes in progress. Although a single-method would provide insights on one aspect, it would fall short in giving the researcher a complete and realistic (i.e., broad and deep) picture of the drug-prevention program or 8th grade science. Yes, it is true that allowing science teachers to tell their stories would contribute important personal perspectives related to their teaching role, but this would ultimately deliver a shallow understanding compared to what the researcher could gain from enriching teachers’ stories by way of input from other contexts (e.g., in-class observations and daily journals).
A multi-method approach such as case study and narrative research are differentiated from other qualitative methods in many ways, a few include:
- The focus of the research design is on the case itself – the subject of inquiry, such as the state’s drug-prevention program or the teaching of 8th grade science – not the particular methods that are used to conduct the research.
- Each case in a case study or narrative research project is treated as a unit throughout all phases of the research. It is the case as an entity that is important to the researcher, not the categorical reduction of its elements.
- The subject matter and research objectives are typically complex. A case study of a non-profit organization, for instance, would have limited value if the qualitative researcher only explored one or two of the organization’s programs in one geographic location.
- Likewise, case-centered research embraces the diversity of events, people, and circumstances that define a particular case.
- The elements that make up the entity of a case-centered study are interrelated. Case research investigating employment practices at a large manufacturing company, for instance, would use various methods to look at the connections between many factors, including staff training and attitudes, outreach efforts, employment policies and benefits, union versus non-union opportunities, plant versus office working conditions, and the job pool.
Not unlike a fine wine, the case in case-centered research is made up of a complex web of interrelated facets, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Multi-method research examines these parts while not disturbing the whole.