Creative Approach to Studying Social Problems: Lessons from a Popular Case Study

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Focus Research Social GoodThis post was originally part of a series to explore lessons learned from qualitative research articles published in 2017 SAGE journals. The article, “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe,” exemplifies a creative approach to studying and revealing hidden perspectives on a current social issue: racially-motivated hate crimes.

Case studies integrate multiple perspectives on a problem

Case studies integrate multiple perspectives to understand a problem

The term case study has many definitions. Case study can describe a type of research-based writing that is often used as an instructional tool. Or, it might refer generally to ways of looking at an example: “a case in point.” Case study as a research methodology is an approach used in qualitative or mixed methods studies.

Here are three definitions of case study methods:

The case centered approach that depends on multiple methods to address research objectives and characterized by the in-depth exploration of social phenomena that are real versus conceptual; represented by one or more cases; complex and multifaceted, including various interconnected elements; typically contemporary; and starting in their natural context. The case can be an individual, a group of people, and organization, an event, a program, or a process. (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, p. 350)

Case studies are analyses of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions or other systems which are studied holistically by one or more methods. The case that is the subject of the inquiry will be an instance of a class of phenomena that provides an analytical frame – an object – within which the study is conducted and which the case illuminates and explicates.  (Thomas & Myers, 2015, p. 4)

A study that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in-depth and in its real-world context. (Yin, 2014)

Given that a case study encompasses multiple perspectives, it is inherently multi-modal. When researchers choose a case study methodology, they design a study that typically incorporates a number of data collection methods and analytical frames through which they examine one or more particular cases. The case itself can be defined or “bounded” to describe something very narrow, such as an individual or event, or very broad, such as an organization or a process.

The flexible nature of this methodology may explain why case studies were the most frequently mentioned qualitative methodology in a search of SAGE journal articles published in 2017. The most frequently cited study discovered in this search was: “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe” (Doerr, 2017). Let’s look at this example using terms drawn from the above definitions.

The Case: A Contemporary Phenomenon

The case explores a ripped-from-the-headlines contemporary problem: the use of social media by far-right activists who want to inflame anti-immigrant sentiments. Within this broad phenomenon, the study was designed to investigate “how far-right political entrepreneurs forge alliances against immigration cross-nationally and cross-linguistically by creating posters and visual media able to reach new audiences in different countries” (p.4). Three nationalist parties from Switzerland, Germany, and Italy were studied; each party served as a bounded case.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was the primary case. Doerr notes, “What makes the SVP an interesting case for analysis is that its regular national poster campaigns, designed for a multilingual Swiss audience, were highly attractive to a broader, multilingual European audience of sympathizers” (p. 5). The SVP inspired other parties from Germany, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and from Italy the Lega Nord.


A Holistic View Using Multiple Methods

Doerr (2017) combined multimodal approaches of qualitative research to study the use and translation of visual cartoons. She defined translation is the study of the nonverbal and visual translation processes used within transnational, multilingual public spaces (p. 8). She combined the discourse historical approach (DHA) with

SVP Black Sheep Poster

SVP Black Sheep Poster

analysis of the visual composition of the cartoons.. She completed a series of steps with each case:

I explore first how the anti-immigration discourse by far-right groups figures within the color semiotics, visual aesthetic representations and texts (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006). Second, I look at the symbolic and iconographic meaning of ‘black sheep’ images in my data sample to consider their national historical context of creation, as well as patterns of translation and recontextualization within different national and local contexts (Richardson and Colombo, 2014). Third, I compare and contrast diverse sets of meanings found in different visual and/or discursive media and in the different national contexts in which my cases are embedded. (p. 11-12)

When discussing the conclusions, Doerr notes that this combination of multimodal analysis and DHA “has confirmed the efficiency of visual images as a media to translate racist discourse across different linguistic sub-publics” (p. 19).


Real – World Context

The phenomenon of interest represented in these cases was studied in an all too real context. As Doerr explains, after the initial poster campaign by SVP a referendum to deport “foreign criminals“ was passed in 2010 and the parties who adopted these poster methods have emerged as influential power brokers within their respective countries. Because the posters were publicly distributed through social media and online journals, Doerr could observe the visual and text slogans in the milieu where they were being shared. She could look at the implications for “real” worlds where policies are made, and votes are counted. She was also able to look at implications for the “real” online world that for better or worse allows for immediate exchange of compelling messages across national and cultural borders.


What can we learn from this case study?

Other articles discovered in this 2017 literature search seem to use the term in a more colloquial way, that is, by calling the inquiry a “case study,” the researchers simply meant they were studying an example. In contrast, Doerr’s research illustrates the potential for case studies that are intentionally designed. By means of a methodological framework within which a variety of methods and theories can be synergistically melded, the researcher can investigate complex dimensions of social phenomena.

Another lesson is that visual approaches are increasingly important, as more contemporary communication occurs with images or media. Doerr was able to use visual analytics to dig for meanings that might not have been evident from other types of data. Indeed, she was able to discern messages that might have set off alarm bells if they had been communicated publicly with words. Using DHA, she could complement the visual approach with a probe into texts and translations. Given the increased use of visual exchange, this approach might be useful for studying a variety of other types of contemporary social phenomena.


Your thoughts? Have you conducted a case study? Feel free to use the comment area to share your experiences or add more examples of well-designed case studies.


Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design. New York: Guilford Press.

Thomas, G., & Myers, K. (2015). What is case study?The anatomy of the case study. London: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from doi:10.4135/9781473920156

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


One thought on “Creative Approach to Studying Social Problems: Lessons from a Popular Case Study

  1. Thanks for this poser Janet! I have given it some thought made it complex, tried to simplify, and want to offer a response, as a peer-reviewer and as a researcher/writer. As a peer reviewer I have seen manuscripts where the author(s) have said little about the nature of the case study method, as though there is a generic and general meaning to the term. Yet it was apparent that I was reviewing material where the researcher HAD made design and research decisions, and these were not apparent in the manuscript. So in the reviewers comments I asked for them, was backed up by the editor most of the time, but found that in subsequent resubmits the authors were giving minimal recounts of their research decisions or making apparent the scholarly nature of the theory and researcher-decisions they used and made.

    As a researcher and writer of research I have had to consider issues such as the word count and my ability to cut down on verbose first drafts; the multi-disciplinary nature and scope of the journal and my best guess as to what the journal expects of methods and methodology reporting; and the feedback from critical friends and peer-reviewers. Feedback has sometimes been to report the findings and discussion (because that is interesting to the audience) but slice back on the detail of the research design. Feedback has also suggested to be sparing of the disclosure of the messy difficult and emotional nature of ethnographic fieldwork, to not over-do the disclosure of realities of human experience of field work, especially as a female researcher “getting emotional” would not only distract the reader but project a lack of confidence in my capacity to create the rationale and logic of research decisions during design and during the process of researching………I am trying to be succinct but hope this is clear. I have had similar advice from critical friend reviews of oral presentations of research, or advised to do it (reveal some of the design features and messiness of real-world research) but make it crisp and fast and get on with revealing the exciting stuff, the findings and analysis! Oh and the call for MORE research and where the research gaps remain! And I am time-poor and racing for deadlines that seem to ZOOM up on me…..I am putting forward that the contexts and external pressures of reporting/writing research are part of trying to understand this obvious absence or bare-boned reporting of the process, methods, research decisions and so on in case study writing. I suspect too, that there are gaps in scholarship and quality of our research design, research conduct and writing up phases: that researchers work under enormous pressure to speed through research process. And also that as our practices shift, and as the pragmatic impact of the contexts impact on us, we may need either a clarion call for deeper scholarship and/or a vocabulary (shorthand perhaps) – e.g. “I did this, that and this, for further info see xyz”. When I have tried this denser succinct writing style, I have been advised not to assume a broad readership will understand……its been a pickle of a poser to consider as a research writer, as these were the manuscripts rejected by peer-reviewers. The pressures on under-representing methods and decisions come from many sources – in my experience. I’d appreciate your thoughts, and appreciate the chance to ponder the poser you put

    These experiences came back to me in the past few days of contemplating your post.

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