Methods in Action: Teaching Using Case Studies

Janet Salmons

Janet Salmons

Long a staple of business schools, the case study has shown an affinity for teaching research methodology, too. Just ask MethodSpace’s own Janet Salmons, who in addition to being a blogger here is the dissertation chair and qualitative methodologist for Walden University, co-director of Path to Publishing – and the author of the SAGE Research Methods case “How to Use Cases in Research Methods Teaching: An Author and Editor’s View.” (PDF here)

Given those credentials, and others, such as writing the new SAGE Publishing book Doing Qualitative Research Online, we asked Salmons to answer some questions about using research methods cases for this latest installment of the Methods in Action blog series. (And don’t forget her webinar based on her new book – it’s archived here.)

Methods in ActionHere she answers questions centered on what exactly a research methods case is and shares some tips on using them. In future blog posts she promises to discuss why it’s still necessary to make an original contribution while studying cases and some of the questions that prospective case writers should be consider.

I suspect we all have an intuitive sense of what a case study in research methods might be, but perhaps you could give us a standard definition so we’re all on the same page.

The term case study is used in a variety of ways. Qualitative and mixed methods researchers use case study methodologies to design and conduct research, and they may call the presentation of their findings a case study. Case studies are widely used in teaching, and such cases are constructed to highlight particular problems, leaving conclusions to the reader. Instructional cases are organized in a way that invites the students to take the roles of the players in the narrative description of a real or simulated situation (Ellet, 2007). They implicitly embed the question: “How would you handle this situation?” From the perspectives of players in the case — as manager and employee, for example — students can explore decision-making in a way that takes into account the complexities of the immediate organization as well as the economic, social or global context. Such learning experiences allow students to gain insights and problem-solving skills not possible to acquire by simply reading an account of a problem and how it was resolved.

Interested in SAGE Research Methods Cases? Click here!

Research methods cases can be defined as a narrative account of the conduct of an actual study from the perspective of the researcher (Salmons, 2014). A good methods case shows alternatives and options the researcher has considered, a rationale for choices made, and descriptions of how the design was implemented. A good methods case reveals the researcher’s decision-making processes — including in-the-moment decisions about how to address problems that emerge when the inquiry does not go as planned. Rather than present a flawless face, as one might do in a journal article, research cases show the wrinkles that are inevitable when a clean design encounters the very messy real world.

Typically, methods texts focus on a specific stage or area of research: we see books on research design, specific data collection methods such as interviews or surveys, or data analysis techniques. It is up to the reader to figure out which pieces he or she needs to assemble and how to put the pieces together. Research cases are different because they perform a realistic study and illustrate how the pieces fit— or don’t — when the research is conducted. Cases go beyond showing alignment of design elements to include real issues with participants, research settings or field sites, ethics, technology, and other critical success factors.

And could you describe the ‘case ecosystem,’ since there seem to range from really short ones a full class could dissect in one sitting and long ones you could spend a semester or more examining?

We can look at the ‘case ecosystem’ in the context of a course. How do elements of the case intersect with and relate to other requirements? Are we using the case to look at the method in action broadly, or to understand the method in a disciplinary context such as health, education, sociology, or business? Is the case simply one of many readings or the basis for a series of assignments and discussions? The seven-step case analysis process could be the basis for individual or team projects that involve additional reading and analysis of the epistemologies, methodologies, methods, as well as relevant literature on the research problem presented in the case see my article here.

Authors who are developing case studies for instruction may have different purposes in mind. Some may want to illustrate a specific research stage or activity, such as preparing for an interview or recruiting participants. Others may want to describe how all the complex parts of a study come together, from designing and planning the study, getting ethics and other approvals, through publishing the results. More complex cases could be examined over an entire semester, with inter-related individual, team, and/or class assignments.

Case studies seem like a pretty common tool in teaching business. Do they differ in teaching research methods?

Cases are used in business courses often become the basis for a type of experiential role play involving a group of students. That is, students may take the position of a person in the case, in order to play out and examine each perspective on decisions or actions. For example, if we are studying talent management practices for handling employees during a merger of two companies, I might select a case that includes upper management (those who planned and negotiated the merger), middle managers from both companies (some of whom may lose their jobs), human resources professionals (who have to carry out layoffs), and employees. By taking the part of one of those “characters,” students can explore the complexities and cascading impacts of decisions made at the top. The group might be asked to develop a plan that achieves the merger in a way that builds a common culture and avoids ongoing resentments.

Research cases could be taught using similar instructional methods. Let’s say we have a case that depicts a situation where the organization serving as the research setting does not cooperate or fulfill the agreement, or where there is a conflict between the researcher and his or her research supervisor or manager, or where research participants are unwilling to share the kinds of experiences the researcher intended to study. These perspectives could similarly be explored and mined for lessons relevant to the novice researcher.

However, as laid out in the seven-step case analysis process, case studies can serve as a springboard for additional reading, design exercises, team projects, and/or group discussion.

Does using cases push me a little too far away from theory, since by definition this is an applied use? Or is that the benefit?

Actually, research cases provided an excellent way to understand the importance of theory in empirical research. Students have the opportunity to see how theoretical constructs help us to understand and interpret the entire process from design through analysis. Research cases can encourage us to look through a theoretical lens — what can we learn from this particular inquiry that might help us refine, update, or even refute the theory used to underpin the study?

Case authors would do well to include the theoretical constructs that guided their research, and to invite readers to think more deeply about the potential significance of the theoretical contribution of the study.



Ellet, W. (2007). The case study handbook: How to read, discuss, and write persuasively about cases. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Salmons, J. (2014). What are research methods cases and how might they be used? Retrieved from London:

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