Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Studies

Reading different blogs it has come to my attention that case studies are getting quite a bad reputation. They are being deemed non-scientific and of questionable usefulness. In this blog I will look at both sides of the argument for case studies and see whether as a design it is still useful for the field of psychology.

Advantages

  • Case studies allow a lot of detail to be collected that would not normally be easily obtained by other research designs. The data collected is normally a lot richer and of greater depth than can be found through other experimental designs.
  • Case studies tend to be conducted on rare cases where large samples of similar participants are not available. An example of this is the study of Phineas Gage by Harlow, J.M. This example also connects with the point above with the depth of data obtained. Cases of brain damage are quite minimal and it is extremely rare to find people with the exact same parts of the brain affected. To be able to gain knowledge of brain functions the damage between people have to be exact to ensure you are testing the right thing, this can generally only be done through case studies.
  • Within the case study, scientific experiments can be conducted.
  • Case studies can help experimenters adapt ideas and produce novel hypotheses which can be used for later testing.
  • Knowledge! Again to Phineas Gage, his contributions to neuropsychology and the workings of the brain are invaluable.

 

Disadvantages

 

  • One of the main criticisms is that the data collected cannot necessarily be generalised to the wider population. This leads to data being collected over longitudinal case studies not always being relevant or particularly useful.
  • Some case studies are not scientific. Freud used case studies for many of his theories or studies. Such examples are that of Anna O and Little Hans. Both of these are not scientific nor are they able to be generalised. This can be attributed to them being case studies, but also Freudian theory in general.
  • Case studies are generally on one person, but there also tends to only be one experimenter collecting the data. This can lead to bias in data collection, which can influence results more than in different designs.
  • It is also very difficult to draw a definite cause/effect from case studies.

 

Case studies also tend to collect mainly qualitative data. I have put this as neither an advantage or disadvantage of case studies, as this depends on your stance on qualitative data. If you look back a few blogs I have summarised my view of qualitative data. Mainly positive!

Overall, I think that case studies are an important and useful method of data collection, especially in cases of rare phenomena. It would be extremely unethical to go taking parts of peoples brains out just to make a larger sample size to use a different experimental design method. However, as data is collected on new cases I think it is important to always refer back to previous data in order to build on existing knowledge and ensure findings are as applicable to real life as possible.

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19 responses to “Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Studies”

  1. leylaosman says :

    i like the insight into case studies you have given but i picked up that you missed out one vital problem with them which is attrition. People are more likely to leave studies if longlitudinal (which case studies usually are), which leaves the study incomplete and can be frustrating for the researcher.

    You also mentioned on qualitative data, which i agree is rich and indepth however hard to operationalise which can affect the validity of the study. Another problem with qualitative data is that like in Little Han’s experiment, Freud wrote it up from memory after the sessions which can mean vital parts are left out but also its his own interpretation resulting in experimenter bias and once again affecting reliability and validity. On the other hand though, cause studies allow a relationship to build between participant and researcher, which can result in the participant being more honest and opening up- increasing validity of results.

    In conclusion I do not think case studies are bad, as i feel they have given us an insight into some of the most complicated people/illnesses/cases. For example Thigpen and Cleckly’s, (1954) who studied a 25year old woman with Multiple Personality disorder. “They used self report with the patient and her family, hypnosis, observation, EEG tests and a number of psychometric and projective tests including, memory tests, ink blot tests and intelligence tests” which resulted in both qualitative and quantitative data. However like many studies, they are reterospective aspects where the participant is asked to recall past events which may result into the participant leaving parts out or forgetting things affecting reliability of study.

  2. psychjs1 says :

    An important point relating to case studies I think is important to mention is that they apply a range of different research methods within the research procedure. For example; observations, interviews and questionnaires are all used as was seen in the case of David Reimer into gender development (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972)*. This range of different research methods can be seen as a strength as this particular case study, using methods such as detailed descriptions, observations and interviews longitudinally strongly contradicted the idea of gender being shaped by the environment which in turn led to an increase in psychological knowledge about gender. However, each method hosts its own advantages and disadvantages. Observations are subjective and are flawed by demand characteristics if the participant knows they are being watched (covert observation). Demand characteristics and in particular social desirability bias are severe limitations in self-report measures and interviews as participants wish to look good in front of the experimenter.

    However, there are also many more limitations specific to the case study method. Case studies simply describe the behaviours observed in the cases but fail to explain the underlying mechanisms of behaviours. Usually, researchers list detailed information about the participant such as age, gender and background but offer little or in most case no explanation of these variables.

    When applying this particular research procedure it is extremely important for the researcher’s to consider the well fair of the individual being studied and therefore case studies are regulated by ethical guidelines. Participants are very likely to experience negative feelings of upset and anxiety when discussing and reflecting upon sensitive aspects of their life in an interview procedure. Similarly, psychological distress may arise from self-report measures such as questionnaires and reflective journals and diary entries. In order to protect participants against psychological harm researchers need to adopt a sensitive manner when dealing with participants. Researchers also need to abide by the other ethical principles of confidentiality, anonymity and debriefing. If the researchers remain sensitive and professional throughout the case by offering debriefing and psychological help throughout then ethics should not cause too much of an issue.

    *http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GhbVFjIaN0

  3. psud0b says :

    i think one of the main disadvantages of case studies which you haven’t mentioned is that they’re all retrospective and rely on the word of the patient. for example, if someone suffers a brain injury which results in them losing a certain ability (maybe a change in personality), you have to rely on them (or people close to them) to tell you what their personality was like before the injury. This isn’t very scientific and possibly unreliable (if they were a horrible person, are they likely to say that, or is their family likely to say that about them?). This puts researchers in a very uncertain situation, before they have even started to study the individual. however, if the case is novel and unheard of, it can be a really good starting point for further research – like the case of phineas gage, who was possibly the first to show a personality change after a brain injury. Still, this case is in no way better than any others, but it gave researchers the idea to study this in more detail, in better controlled environments which then leads to the progress of research in a a particular area.

  4. stach22 says :

    I think that case studies are a great way into developing a research question for future research that could then be generalised. For example, say you are a clinical psychologist and one of your patients displays interesting symptoms- this could then be further explored through a case study and then from this further research with others could be conducted and with this being a scientific and include a large sample of participant could then have much higher generalisablilty.

  5. columsblog says :

    I think we spend far to much time looking at Case studies when we are being taught psychology. Even though case studies do have their advantages particularly in Neuro-psychology where we study people with lesions on their brain, Psychology should always focus on having a large group of participants as possible to make sure your results are as reliable as possible. Case studies can be used to draw up research questions, however if psychology insist on calling itself a science it should be as scientific as possible in its methodology.

  6. iamjackscompletelackofsurprise says :

    I agree that Case studies do indeed have their place within Pscyhological research. They provdie a great deal of information about the participant or the area in which the psychologist was interested in dealing with.

    However one point, that seems to be a recurring comment, that you breifly mentioned is the fact that case studies are greatly opened to interpretation/observer bias. Psychologists who are exploring the effects trying to prove their theories are correct, are unfortunately more likely to interpret results so that they prove their theories are correct. Especially when its easy to interpret things one way and many others would interpret it another.

    So in conclusion to this brief comment; case studies are important and provide excellant detail, howerver their main flaw which makes them undesirable to many researchers is the potential bias from the researchers as you covered in your blog.

  7. Cavtini says :

    Nice blog, well summarised with giving both sides to an obviously popular subject. I would say I definatly believe case studies are essential to creating theory and crossing new boundries. They are predominatly qualitative but can lead on to quantative studies once a hypothesis has been formed, these sorts of hybrid studies are the future in my opinion. But of course some case studies are very rare and hard to generalise, but lets not forget how ground breaking they can be aswell. Think of Broca’s patient Leborgne (Tan) if it werent for his very rare lession we would probably wouldnt have the vast array of information on speech production we have today, it would be safe to say we might still be some years behind on what we are now. So yes in some cases case studies are hard to generalise but others open up new insight. I enjoyed the way you managed to put your own opinion on the matter in aswell:) good work!

  8. notwilliam says :

    Another downside of case studies is that there will only ever be one datapoint which makes statistical analysis basically impossible. Since case studies are generally used on a single specific behaviour, they are not repeatable and as such are not reliable.

  9. the WHO says :

    You have pointed out lots of advantages and disadvantages of case studies, there are also ethical issues, observations and interviews are typically used in case study research to gather data, so the ethical issues are broadly the same (e.g. privacy, consent, risk of harm, etc). In addition, the researcher needs to take care that the level of intrusion that may occur when carrying out detailed research on a single individual or small group does not render the study unethical.

    Beside the above point, I would also like to state that sometimes several case studies are studies which may referred as multiple case studies. Freud, for example, created his theory of the unconscious in the basis of studying multiple cases of patients he labelled as ‘hysterical’. Each case study is selected on the basis of what it might contribute to a developing pool of data, so that patterns may emerge over time.

    Thank you.

  10. John soko says :

    Case study are a good study.

  11. Louise dlamini says :

    It was a good finding to speak, and applicable to knowledge

  12. adijat bello says :

    i totally agree with u…bigtime…

  13. gilbert says :

    am in love with a case study

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