Critical Evaluation of the Use of Case Study Research in Research


Critical Evaluation of the Use of Case Study Research in Research

Focusing on two articles: ‘Factors in absenteeism and presenteeism; life events and health event’ and ‘Servant Leadership at Heritage Bible College; a single case study’.

Executive Summary

Case study research is an inquiry into a particular phenomenon in an attempt to create insight. Case studies are categories as exploratory, explanatory or descriptive and each of them serves a particular purpose though limited in nature. This report seeks to critically evaluate the use of case study research through the analysis of two contemporary research articles. The analysed articles are; “Servant leadership at Heritage Bible College: a single-case study” by Bruce Winston and “Factors in absenteeism and presenteeism: life events and health events” by James MacGregor, J. Barton Cunningham and Natasha Caverley. The report first defines case study then proceeds to look at the significance of case study research in business and the limitations of the same. The report also evaluates two case studies by assessing their reliability, validity and generalisability and the relevance of case study approach. The findings indicate that case study research in imperative in business attributing to the fact that management research and marketing research are cores of business strategies. Additionally, it is used to guide decision making and in solving project related issues by managers. The analysis of the articles indicates that even though case study research has the limitation of being generalised, it is a valid and reliable method of research and can be used to build up on existent theories besides offering solutions to specific cases.

1. Introduction

Despite the varied application of the term case study (Tight, 2010), Robert Yin offers the standard definition as “an empirical inquiry about a contemporary phenomenon “case” set within its real-world context” (Yin, 2012, p. 4). Case study research has faced numerous criticisms across the various disciplines and despite its application across various academic disciplines, the method has been specifically questioned of its ability to be generalised over a wide area citing the issue of reliability (Taylor, Dossick and Garvin, 2011). In management, the use of case study research method has escalated leading to a proliferation of trailblazing concepts that have brought in unique insights. However, this has not prevented researchers from placing the case study method as a second option or even rejecting it entirely. For example, contemporary prestigious journals have recently published more works based on surveys and statistical methods (Mariotto, Zanni and Moraes, 2014). This report offers a critical evaluation on the use of case study as a method of research by using two contemporary case study research articles.

2. Analysis of case study in business research

2.1. Various categories of case studies available

Maoz (2004) identifies categories of case study research as single-case and comparative while Yin (2012) identifies them as exploratory, explanatory and descriptive. In Yin’s (2012) definition of exploratory case study, he points out that the fieldwork and data collection are done before the researcher defines the study questions and methodological stances that are supposed to be used. The justification of such is that this kind of case study has the objective of studying a social phenomenon in their natural form, that is, without trying to adjust to the questionnaires and methodologies. According to Maoz (2004), the exploratory case study is mean to elucidate an existent theory. Explanatory case studies, according to Andrew, Pedersen and McEvoy (2011), are meant to offer an answer as to how a certain scenario got to be or why a particular situation is, for example, how a certain competitive strategy leads to particular performance results. Descriptive case studies on the other hand offer specific insight into a particular case and become even more relevant if the case being studied is unique, exemplary, revelatory or typical (Yin, 2012). The single case study method, as elaborated by Maoz (2004), explores a single case against a particular theory or model or set of theories. Maoz (2004) goes on to explain the comparative case study as inquiry into different cases in order to examine certain theoretical aspects.

2.2.  Relevance of case study research in business management

It is imperative to a business that it understands the portfolio of its customers. In fact,  the understanding of customers is a matter of strategic concern for a firm. A firm’s understanding of its customers is part of the customer relationship management which essentially forms the basis of the firm’s customer management (Terho and Halinen, 2012). Case study, in definition, is an in-depth inquiry into a particular phenomenon with the aim of creating insight or developing particular theories (Yin, 2012). In addition, case study research’s subcategory such as the explanatory research seek to answer particular questions, that is, “how” and ”why ”. Case study has been relevant in business and management research and is currently paramount in answering specific issues that face businesses and their industries (Marschan-Piekkari and Welch, 2011).

The single-case-study research which is a method of case study is an important area in management research – a systematic inquiry into the field of management – attributing to the fact that it helps in the development of theories that are used at various managerial levels (Taylor, Dossick and Garvin, 2011). In addition, single-studies are focused on a particular scenario and thus can be useful in generating insight on a particular case. As research shows, single-case studies, among other case studies are often accepted due to their intrinsic value and not their ability to be generalised to a wider scenario (Stewart, 2012). This means that specific business situations can be evaluated and solved using case study, for example, reopening of a closed firm (Gerring, 2006). Explanatory case studies, also part of case study research, can be useful in evaluation of project implementation and project effects.

On the project effects, case study can be used to explore the cause of project success or failure. For example, when a particular business project does not succeed, explanatory case study can offer an answer as to why it never succeeded. On the evaluation of a project, case study  can be used to explain what led to a particular case scenario in a project, such as diversion in implementation, and the information can be used in to similar projects to avoid the committing the same mistake (Morra and Friedlander, n.d.). As Gerring (2006) puts it, if well constructed, case study may allow one to peer in the realm of causality and find the immediate factors lying between a structural cause and the purported effect.

2.3.  Limitations of case studies in business management research

Case studies have had a lot of criticisms that focus mainly on its limitations. Firstly, case studies do have rigour. As Zainal (2007) notes, in numerous cases, the investigator in a case study is sloppy and allows ambiguous evidence and biased views to infiltrate and influence the findings. Secondly, case study can hardly be generalised in management because it uses a small number of subjects that compromise reliability. The main issue is often about the logic in generalizing a single case. In fact, Kotha (2011) in his book notes a description of case methodology as “microscopic” because of its limited sampling subjects. Another limitation is that case studies are often long and extensive and thus can produce too much data distributed over a long period of time, especially in ethnographic studies. If such data is not managed well and organised systematically, it can be interpreted wrongly (Zainal, 2007).

3. Critical evaluation of case studies

3.1. Case study on factors in absenteeism and presenteeism

The first article is titled “Factors in absenteeism and presenteeism; life events and health event” and is authored by James McGregor, J. Cunningham and Natasha Caverley. The aim of the paper is discussing the relationship of stressful life events and health related events with sickness absenteeism and presenteeism. Reliability, according to Rowley (2002), means demonstrating that operations of a study, for example the data collection, can be repeated in a different context with the same results. In this specific case, the researcher has used a sample of 362 respondents (of whom 237 responded) as a representative of a scenario of the entire workforce in the public service; which is large, and has restricted it to that specific time limit. Consequently, this case study can only be reliable in explaining similar cases (due to restricted sampling) in the specific time of study.

Validity is used in ensuring that the correct operational measures are used thus reducing the researcher’s subjectivity (Rowley, 2002). This particular research was exploratory and thus it intended to establish relationships among variables. To this end, the web based survey was conducted using open-ended questions and organisational data. Furthermore the research captured all the measures correctly which included absenteeism, presenteeism, health issues and work related stress. On absence/presence, for example, self-reported absence (from the survey done) and the recorded absence/presence matched. The researcher kept cross-checking this to avoid self-report bias. On health issues, several questions were designed and used to deduce the correct response. Lastly, the researcher used secure means of relaying feedback to ensure that each respondent gave a single feedback form. Therefore, the research is valid.

Generalisation of case study can only be claimed if the study has been based on a theory and thus contributes to the already established theory. Analytical generalisation is used in which case the specific theory used as the template of comparing the empirical evidence (Rowley, 2002). In the case study of factors in presenteeism and absenteeism, the empirical evidence is compared to theories that have been earlier developed. For example, one theory suggests that absenteeism is related to an employee perception of the associated costs and the case study proves this by offering evidence that employees were present only when the personal costs of absence were high. The same case is observed on the issue of job security. The researcher, furthermore, notes that the analyses of the evidence modify and extend the analysis of case studies that she had done before.

The use of case study research is appropriate for this research since it aims at drawing insight from a single case and using it to modify and add to existent theories. However, the research has limitations, as noted by the researcher, in that it only uses a single measure on presenteeism which fails to explain the nature of a sickness and the impact on productivity. Although this does not affect the overall results, as the researcher says, it make the research explanatory rather than causal.

3.2.  Case study on servant leadership at Heritage Bible College

The case study is titled “Servant Leadership at Heritage Bible College; a single case study”. The study was done by Bruce Winston. The study was meant to determine whether a leader was a servant and if the models were useful in explaining the servant-leader relationships the college. 13 employees and a single leader were involved. Reliability deals with the replicability of results attributing to consistency in the measurement instrument and the size of the sample (Yin, 2008). In this particular case, the researcher has addressed the reliability issue by applying triangulation. The methods he used to triangulate data include an in-depth interview, observations done over a two-year period of time and obtaining data from a servant-shepherd leadership indicator. Additionally data collection in case study relies crucially on the researchers understanding of the study’s propositions and in this case Winston uses Rardin’s Servant-Shepherd Leadership indicator a tool that he has recently completed training on its use.

Validity in case study is supposed to establish whether a study measures what it is supposed to measure (Rowley, 2002). This particular study is single-case and exploratory in nature since it tries to create an insight on the validity of Patterson’s and Winston’s servant leadership models at HBC. The researcher has used the single-case approach suggested by Yin in designing the conduct of the study; in a real-life context. Besides this, the researcher has used the Patterson’s and Winston’s models to guide in collection of data. In this case, therefore, the subjectivity of the researcher is limited since he has largely relied on theories guiding the similar case studies to design and conduct the research.

The case study on servant leadership at Heritage Bible College is a single case study and as observed earlier in this report, the main critics of case studies question the logic of generalizing a single case (Zainal, 2007). In addition, generalisation can only be claimed in the scenario where a case is adding to a specific theory having been conducted by reliance on the particular theory. However, the researcher in this particular case had this is in mind and has expressly indicated that results are focused on the Patterson’s and Winston’s models as theories and not on the generality of other cases purporting the existence of servant leadership. The study concludes by supporting the use of the aforementioned models in assessing the existence of servant leadership.

The relevance or case study research in this research is due to the fact that a single-scenario is being analysed. As the researcher notes, the research was intended first to analyse the HBC case and then to contribute to theories on Patterson and Winston models. It thus cannot be generalised to other cases on servant leadership. Another limitation that the author brings out is the fact that this case was done in a Christian setup and that future research should explore secular environments to establish whether HBC non-profit Christian education compromised the results.

4. Conclusion

Case study research has its own share of criticisms that mainly disapprove the generalisation of single cases over a wide context (Kothari, 2011). However, this does not rule out the importance of case studies in assessing specific cases and scenarios and offering internally valid data. In the case studies above, the results from the studies may be difficult to generalise to other situations, especially due to restricted sampling but it is evident that both contribute positively to existent theories. Moreover, the author on the servant leadership at HBC case study recognises shortcomings of case studies in general and specifically in his case and offers an insight that can be applied in future research to eliminate bias. This credits the use of case study as a method of research despite its limitations.

5. References

Andrew, D., Pedersen, P. and McEvoy, C. (2011) Research methods and design in sport management. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Bhattacharyya, D. (2009) Research Methodology. New Delhi, India: Excel Books India.

Gerring, J. (2006) Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kotha, B. (2011) Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques. 2nd ed. New Delhi, India: New Age International.

MacGregor, J., Barton Cunningham, J. and Caverley, N. (2008) ‘Factors in absenteeism and presenteeism: life events and health events’, Management Research News, 31(8), pp.607-615.

Maoz, Z. (2004) Multiple paths to knowledge in international relations. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Mariotto, F., Zanni, P. and Moraes, G. (2014) ‘What is the use of a single-case study in management research?’, Rev. adm. empres., 54(4), pp.358-369.

Marschan-Piekkari, R. and Welch, C. (2011) Rethinking the case study in international business and management research. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Morra, L. and Friedlander, A. (n.d.) Case studies Evaluation. Washington DC: World Bank, pp.1-21.

Rowley, J. (2002) Using Case Studies in Research’, Management Reserach news, 25(1), pp.16-27.

Stewart, J. (2012) ‘Multiple-case Study Methods in Governance-related Research’, Public Management Review, 14(1), pp.67-82.

Taylor, J., Dossick, C. and Garvin, M. (2011) ‘Meeting the Burden of Proof with Case-Study Research’, Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 137(4), pp.303-311.

Terho, H. and Halinen, A. (2012) ‘The Nature of Customer Portfolios: Towards New Understanding of Firms’ Exchange Contexts’, Journal of Business-to-Business Marketing, 19(4), pp.335-366.

Tight, M. (2010) ‘The curious case of case study: a viewpoint’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 13(4), pp.329-339.

Winston, B. (2004) ‘Servant leadership at Heritage Bible College: a single-case study’, Leadership & Org Development J, 25(7), pp.600-617.

Yin, R.K. (2008). Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 4th edition. London: SAGE Publishing.

Yin, R. (2012) Applications of case study research. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Zainal, Z. (2007) ‘Case study as a research method’, Jurnal Kemanusiaan, 9, pp.1-6.

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