Lighting a Path to Guide Case-Centered Research Design: A Six-Step Approach

Elliot Mishler coined the term “case-centered research” to refer to the research approach that preserves the “unity and coherence” of research participants through the data collection and well-lit-pathanalysis process. Fundamental to case-centered research is its focus on complex social units (or “cases”) in their entirety as well as the emphasis on maintaining the cohesiveness of the social unit(s) throughout the research process. As discussed in Research Design Review back in 2013, two important examples of case-centered approaches are case study research and narrative research.

The complexity and need for cohesion in case-centered research present unique design challenges. Indeed, quality outcomes from case study and narrative research are the result of a well-defined process that guides the researcher from the initial conceptualization phase to data collecting in the field. Although the specifics within the process will vary from study to study, there exists an optimal design flow when implementing the case-centered research approach.

The appropriate path in case-centered designs, leading to data collection, involves the following six basic phases or steps*:

1. Establishing priorities. By establishing research priorities, the researchers contribute greatly to the ultimate “success” of the overall process as well as the final outcomes. The research team should identify priorities by addressing a series of questions such as, Are we only interested in a specific case or in using the case to say something more broadly about a larger population of cases? What is the role of theory development and the need for replication in conjunction with the research objective?

2. Determining the need for and conducting a literature review. A review of the literature can serve a very important function when the research focus is beyond the case itself, i.e., the goal is to extend, confirm, or deny existing theory or hypotheses. In this instance, a literature review helps form the theoretical framework that will steer design and implementation of the research, e.g., helping to identify the specific factors or variables that are closely associated with the research issue.

3. Selecting a single case or multiple cases. The research team may opt for a single case study, for example, when the focus of interest is on an isolated issue or entity, e.g., the physician-patient interaction at one city hospital or the lived experience of a victim of domestic violence. A multiple case approach, on the other hand, is appropriate when the objective of the research is to extend a theory or say something about the broader population segment, e.g., life stories from gifted students to understand the factors that contribute to their and similar students’ drive to succeed.

4. Determining the unit(s) and variable(s) of analysis. There are two levels of specificity that researchers need to consider related to the data collection process: (1) the unit(s) of analysis represents the primary aspect of a case that will be the focus of investigation (e.g., gifted students’ life stories) and (2) the variable(s) of analysis are subcategories within the units of analysis that guide researchers in their examination of the units (e.g., signs of creativity before and after the first grade in school).

5. Identifying the appropriate methods. Case-centered research utilizes multiple qualitative methods. Case study research frequently involves on-site observation (i.e., ethnography) and in-depth interviews (IDIs), while narrative research leans heavily on the unstructured IDI. Both, however, also incorporate other methods and data sources such as document reviews, imagery artifacts (e.g., students’ completed exams), and video diaries.

6. Preparing for the field. There are a number of considerations that need to be addressed to prepare for data collection in the field. These include: developing the appropriate tools (e.g., IDI guide, observation grid); determining the role of each research team member; determining what, if any, problems exist in gaining access to the participants; obtaining informed consent; and initiating preliminary interaction with participants to begin building rapport.

* Adapted from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015. New York: Guilford Press)

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