Case Studies: What Types Get Published?

Categories: Other, Qualitative, Research Methods, Writing and Editing

Tags: , , , , ,

Case studies emerged as the most popular type of qualitative research published in SAGE journals in 2017. After that broad-brush assessment, I wondered what types of case studies, researchers were conducting and how they defined them. Did they use Robert Yin’s (2014) categories for case study types: single or multiple, holistic or embedded case designs (p. 50)? Did published researchers conduct descriptive, explanatory, or exploratory cases as Yin defines them? Or did they discuss one of the nine case approaches described by Malcolm Tight (2017)?

Did they discuss the ways they bounded their unique cases, and the conceptual framework and researcher roles, using Robert Stake’s classic work (1995)? Or, did these researchers develop some new interpretations of the case study methodology? Alas, after reviewing over 100 articles from 2017 with “case study” in the title, I am still wondering.

The vast majority of articles titled as case studies did not include any discussion of the type of case study or specific methodological foundations. Beyond the mention of “case study” in the title, researchers offered no further explanation about the type, or how they defined or bounded a particular case. Some mentioned other approaches such as “ethnographically inspired case study” (Virve, 2017), or “historical method” (Vesna & Ivana, 2017) which sound intriguing. However, no definitions, explanations, or references were given to provide the reader with some understanding about how the research was conducted.

After this review, I have more questions than answers. It appears that the term “case study” is being used to broadly describe a study that is conducted in an particular setting, such as a school or organization. It seems that many of these studies could also be termed “exploratory,” since they were not designed to fit within a specific methodology. It would also seem that editors and peer reviewers did not find the use of the term “case study” as indicative of a type of bounded inquiry Yin and Stake have mapped out as an approach to study contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context that is explored by triangulating multiple data sources.

What do you think? Has the term “case study” jumped the bounds that previously defined this kind of inquiry? Do we need new terminology? Or expanded methods sections in articles that allow for more detailed descriptions of the approaches used?


Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Vesna, Đ., & Ivana, V. (2017). The importance of documenting and including traditional wisdom in community-based ecotourism planning: A case study of the nature park ponjavica in the village of Omoljica (Serbia) SAGE Open, 7(1), 2158244016681048. doi:10.1177/2158244016681048

Virve, P. (2017). Bad enough ergonomics: A case study of an office chair. SAGE Open, 7(1), 2158244016685135. doi:10.1177/2158244016685135

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (Fifth ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

2 thoughts on “Case Studies: What Types Get Published?

  1. Janet – I agree. I think some researchers use “case study” rather loosely without defining the basis by which their research is deemed a “case study” and the particular methodological nuances of their approach. We talk a lot about Yin and Stake in Chapter 7 of our book “Applied Qualitative Research Design” (, and then propose a new way of thinking about case study design that incorporates the Yin and Stake typologies and perspectives. Ours is an “internal-external classification” which is based on the idea that the overarching differentiator in the Yin and Stake typologies is the extent to which case study outcomes are intended to tell the researcher something solely about the case itself (i.e., internalized to the case) or about something beyond the case (i.e., externalized, such as helping to build theory or understand a broad phenomenon). Thanks for raising this important issue.

Leave a Reply