Case Study Research Method in Psychology
Saul Mcleod, PhD
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester
Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
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Associate Editor for Simply Psychology
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education
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Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources and by using several different methods (e.g., observations & interviews).
The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.
The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events which are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.
The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.
Case studies are widely used in psychology, and amongst the best known were the ones carried out by Sigmund Freud, including Anna O and Little Hans .
Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.
Even today, case histories are one of the main methods of investigation in abnormal psychology and psychiatry.
This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.
There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.
The procedure used in a case study means that the researcher provides a description of the behavior. This comes from interviews and other sources, such as observation.
The client also reports detail of events from his or her point of view. The researcher then writes up the information from both sources above as the case study and interprets the information.
The research may also continue for an extended period of time, so processes and developments can be studied as they happen.
Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g., letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g., case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports).
The case study method often involves simply observing what happens to or reconstructing ‘the case history’ of a single participant or group of individuals (such as a school class or a specific social group), i.e., the idiographic approach .
The interview is also an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.
The data collected can be analyzed using different theories (e.g., grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, text interpretation, e.g., thematic coding).
All the approaches mentioned here use preconceived categories in the analysis, and they are ideographic in their approach, i.e., they focus on the individual case without reference to a comparison group.
Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.
- Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
- Provides insight for further research.
- Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.
Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.
Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.
Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.
Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.
The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).
- Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
- Researchers’ own subjective feeling may influence the case study (researcher bias).
- Difficult to replicate.
- Time-consuming and expensive.
- The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.
Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.
Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.
This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.
For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).
This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.
Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304
Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies
There is no doubt that case studies are a valuable and important form of research for all of the industries and fields that use them. However, along with all their advantages, they also have some disadvantages. In this article we are going to look at both.
Advantages of Case Studies
Case study method is responsible for intensive study of a unit. It is the investigation and exploration of an event thoroughly and deeply. You get a very detailed and in-depth study of a person or event. This is especially the case with subjects that cannot be physically or ethically recreated.
This is one of the biggest advantages of the Genie case. You cannot lock up a child for 13 years and deprive them of everything. That would be morally and ethically wrong in every single way. So when the opportunity presented itself, researchers could not look away. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about feral children.
Genie was a feral child. She was raised in completed isolation, with little human contact. Because of the abuse she withstood, she was unable to develop cognitively. From infancy she was strapped to a potty chair, and therefore never acquired the physicality needed for walking, running and jumping.
If Genie made a noise, her father beat her. Therefore, she learned to not make a noise. Once she was found, researchers studied her language skills, and attempted to find ways to get her to communicate. They were successful. While she never gained the ability to speak, she did develop other ways to communicate. However, the public soon lost interest in her case, and with that, the funds to conduct the study.
However, her case was extremely important to child development psychology and linguistic theory. Because of her, we know that mental stimulation is needed for proper development. We also now know that there is a "critical period" for the learning of language.
Developing New Research
Case studies are one of the best ways to stimulate new research. A case study can be completed, and if the findings are valuable, they can lead to new and advanced research in the field. There has been a great deal of research done that wouldn't have been possible without case studies.
An example of this is the sociological study Nickel and Dimed. Nickel and Dimed is a book and study done by Barbara Ehrenreich. She wanted to study poverty in America, and did so by living and working as a person living on minimum wage.
Through her experiment, she discovered that poverty was almost inescapable. As soon as she saved a little money, she was hit with a crisis. She might get sick, or her car might break down, all occurrences that can be destructive when a person doesn't have a safety net to fall back on.
It didn't matter where she lived or what she did. Working a minimum wage job gave her no chances for advancement or improvement whatsoever. And she did the experiment as a woman with no children to support.
This study opened a lot of eyes to the problem of the working poor in America. By living and working as the experiment, Ehrenreich was able to show first-hand data regarding the issues surrounding poverty. The book didn't end with any solutions, just suggestions for the reader and points for them to think about.
Using this case study information, new studies could be organized to learn better ways to help people who are fighting poverty, or better ways to help the working poor.
Contradicting Established Ideas or Theories
Oftentimes there are theories that may be questioned with case studies. For example, in the John/John case study, it was believed that gender and sexual identity were a construct of nurture, not nature.
John-John focused on a set of twin boys, both of whom were circumcised at the age of 6 months. One of the twin's circumcisions failed, causing irreparable damage to the penis. His parents were concerned about the sexual health of their son, so they contacted Dr. John Money for a solution.
Dr. Money believed that sexuality came from nurture, not nature, and that the injured baby, Bruce, could be raised as a girl. His penis was removed and he was sexually reassigned to become a girl. Bruce's name was changed to Brenda, and his parents decided to raise him as a girl.
In this case, Dr. Money was dishonest. He believed that gender could be changed, which has since been proven false. Brenda's parents were also dishonest, stating that the surgery was a success, when in fact that wasn't the case.
As Brenda grew up, she always acted masculine and was teased for it at school. She did not socialize as a girl, and did not identify as a female. When Brenda was 13 she learned the truth, and was incredibly relieved. She changed her name to David, and lived the rest of her life as a male.
This case proved that the general theory was wrong, and is still valuable, even though the study author was dishonest.
Giving New Insight
Case studies have the ability to give insight into phenomena that cannot be learned in any other way. An example of this is the case study about Sidney Bradford. Bradford was blind from the age of 10 months old, and regained his sight at the age of 52 from a corneal transplant.
This unique situation allowed researchers to better learn how perception and motion changes when suddenly given sight. They were able to better understand how colors and dimensions affect the human process. For what it is worth, Bradford continued to live and work with his eyes closed, as he found sight too stimulating.
Another famous study was the sociological study of Milgram.
Stanley Milgram did a study from 1960 to 1974 in which he studied the effects of social pressure. The study was set up as an independent laboratory. A random person would walk in, and agree to be a part of the study. He was told to act as a teacher, and ask questions to another volunteer, who was the learner.
The teacher would ask the learner questions, and whenever he answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give the learner an electric shock. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock would be increased by 15 volts. What the teacher didn't know was that the learner was a part of the experiment, and that no shocks were being given. However, the learner did act as if they were being shocked.
If the teachers tried to quit, they were strongly pushed to continue. The goal of the experiment was to see whether or not any of the teachers would go up to the highest voltage. As it turned out, 65% of the teachers did.
This study opened eyes when it comes to social pressure. If someone tells you it is okay to hurt someone, at what point will the person back off and say "this is not ok!" And in this study, the results were the same, regardless of income, race, gender or ethnicity.
This study opened up the sociological world of understanding the divide between social pressure and morality.
Disadvantages of Case Studies
Inability to Replicate
As demonstrated with the Genie case study, many studies cannot be replicated, and therefore, cannot be corroborated. Because the studies cannot be replicated, it means the data and results are only valid for that one person. Now, one could infer that that results of the Genie study would be the same with other feral children, without additional studies we can never be 100% certain.
Also, Genie was a white, American female. We do not know whether someone with a different gender, race or ethnicity would have a different result.
Key Term! Hawthorne Effect
The effect in which people change their behavior when they are aware they are being observed.
When conducting a case study, it is very possible for the author to form a bias. This bias can be for the subject; the form of data collection, or the way the data is interpreted. This is very common, since it is normal for humans to be subjective. It is well known that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, was often biased in his case histories and interpretations.
The researcher can become close to a study participant, or may learn to identify with the subject. When this happens the researcher loses their perspective as an outsider.
Any classification is not possible due to studying a small unit. This generalization of results is limited, since the study is only focusing on one small group. However, this isn't always a problem, especially if generalization is not one of the study's goals.
Case studies can be very time consuming. The data collection process can be very intensive and long, and this is something new researchers are not familiar with. It takes a long period of time to develop a case study, and develop a detailed analysis.
Many studies also require the authors to immerse themselves in the case. For example, in the Genie case, the lead researchers spent an abnormal amount of time with Genie, since so few people knew how to handle her. David Rigler, one of the lead researchers, actually had Genie live with him and his family for years. Because of this attachment, many questioned the veracity of the study data.
Possibility of Errors
Case study method may have errors of memory or judgment. Since reconstructing case history is based on memory, this can lead to errors. Also, how one person perceived the past could be different for another person, and this can and does lead to errors.
When considering various aspects of their lives, people tend to focus on issues that they find most important. This allows them to form a prejudice and can make them unaware of other possible options.
With small studies, there is always the question of ethics. At what point does a study become unethical? The Genie case was riddled with accusations of being unethical, and people still debate about it today.
Was it ethical to study Genie as deeply as she was studied?
Did Genie deserve to live out her life unbothered by researchers and academics trying to use her case to potentially further their careers?
At what point does the pursuit of scientific knowledge outweigh the right to a life free from research?
Also, because the researchers became so invested in the study, people questioned whether a researcher would report unethical behavior if they witnessed it.
Advantages and Disadvantages in Real-Life Studies
Two of these case studies are the Tylenol Scandal and the Genie language study.
Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of these two studies.
Genie – Advantages
Uniqueness of study – Being able to study a feral child is a rare occurrence.
Genie – Disadvantages
Ethics - The lead researcher David Rigler provided a home for Genie, and was paid for being a foster parent. This is often seen as unethical, since Rigler had a financial interest in Genie and her case.
Tylenol – Advantages
Uniqueness of study – What happened to Tylenol was very unique and rare. While companies face crisis all the time, a public health crisis of this magnitude is very unique.
Tylenol – Disadvantages
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Case studies are very detailed investigations of an individual or small group of people, usually regarding an unusual phenomenon or biographical event of interest to a research field. Due to a small sample, the case study can conduct an in-depth analysis of the individual/group.
Evaluation of case studies:
- Case studies create opportunities for a rich yield of data, and the depth of analysis can in turn bring high levels of validity (i.e. providing an accurate and exhaustive measure of what the study is hoping to measure).
- Studying abnormal psychology can give insight into how something works when it is functioning correctly, such as brain damage on memory (e.g. the case study of patient KF, whose short-term memory was impaired following a motorcycle accident but left his long-term memory intact, suggesting there might be separate physical stores in the brain for short and long-term memory).
- The detail collected on a single case may lead to interesting findings that conflict with current theories, and stimulate new paths for research.
- There is little control over a number of variables involved in a case study, so it is difficult to confidently establish any causal relationships between variables.
- Case studies are unusual by nature, so will have poor reliability as replicating them exactly will be unlikely.
- Due to the small sample size, it is unlikely that findings from a case study alone can be generalised to a whole population.
- The case study’s researcher may become so involved with the study that they exhibit bias in their interpretation and presentation of the data, making it challenging to distinguish what is truly objective/factual.
- Case Studies
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Are you intrigued by the ways psychologists investigate the multifaceted human mind? One of their crucial tools is case studies, particularly when studying rare or unusual phenomena, or processes unfolding over time. In this exploration, we'll guide you through what case studies are in psychology, illustrate them with distinct examples,…
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Are you intrigued by the ways psychologists investigate the multifaceted human mind? One of their crucial tools is case studies, particularly when studying rare or unusual phenomena, or processes unfolding over time. In this exploration, we'll guide you through what case studies are in psychology, illustrate them with distinct examples, and outline the detailed methodology behind them. Finally, we'll evaluate their effectiveness.
What are Case Studies Psychology?
Some of the most famous studies in psychology are case studies, which we will cover in this explanation. First, let's fully define what we mean by case studies. According to the American Psychological Association¹, case studies are:
A case study in psychology is an in-depth investigation of a single individual, family, event, or other entity. Multiple types of data (psychological, physiological, biographical, environmental) are assembled, for example, to understand an individual’s background, relationships , and behaviour
Case studies are a common research method used when exploring new research areas, as researchers want a detailed understanding of a new phenomenon. Case studies are occasionally used to form new theories, hypotheses or research questions.
Case Studies Examples in Psychology Research
Phineas Gage is a famous example of a case study. Researchers wanted to understand the effects of the accident on his cognitive functions and behaviours. Not many people survive such an injury, so this was an opportunity to examine how the brain deals with significant damage.
Phineas had an accident at work where a metal rod went through his skull and pierced through his frontal lobe (front part of the brain ).
After the accident, Gage was observed and completed several cognitive and psychometric tests over a long time. The case study aimed to see if and how damage to the frontal lobe may cause behavioural changes.
The case study results showed that Gage initially had a decline in cognitive abilities. However, over time these started to increase. The researchers noted that Gage's intelligence returned to a 'normal level'. Gage's friends stated that his personality had changed and that he was no longer the same person; he became vulgar and aggressive.
This is an important finding in psychology. It shows that other brain areas may take over and compensate for deficiencies caused by brain damage. But, there may be a limit to how much or what skills and attributes can be compensated for.
As Phineas Gage's case was unique and his conditions could not be replicated using the experimental method (against ethical standards of research), a case study was the only appropriate method to use. The research was also explorative as little was known about the frontal lobe's function. Therefore, it may have been difficult to form hypotheses.
Hypotheses are formed based on existing knowledge; researchers cannot randomly make a hypothesis based on what they think will happen. Researchers do not believe that this is a scientific way to theorise research.
Case Study Methodology
When conducting a case study, the first step is forming a hypothesis. These hypotheses aim to identify research areas and concepts that the researcher is interested in.
This is different to experimental research as experimental research tends to define and state expected results. In contrast, the case study's hypotheses may be broader.
Next, the researcher will identify the best method that should be used to measure the variables that the researcher is interested in. When doing case studies, sometimes multiple research methods can be used.
This concept is known as triangulation.
A case study may use questionnaires and interviews when researching mental health in indigenous people.
As with all forms of research, the next stage is data analysis once the research has been conducted. As case studies may use various research methods , the type of analysis used depends on which method is used. The case studies aim to provide in-depth knowledge. Therefore, case studies favour qualitative research, such as unstructured interviews and observations. Open-ended questions allow for further exploration, as is used in qualitative research.
Case studies also sometimes use quantitative research methods. Therefore statistical analyses may also be used in case studies.
The final stage of the case study methodology is to report the data. Case studies usually produce qualitative data.
Qualitative data is non-numerical, detailed findings.
Case studies are usually written in the form of detailed reports. The report should include all the findings found throughout the study and how these were measured.
Evaluation of Using Case Studies
Let's now discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using case studies in research.
Advantages of using case studies
The advantages of case studies are:
- It provides detailed qualitative data that allows researchers to understand phenomena. This can help researchers uncover new concepts that can be later investigated in controlled environments (the experimental method).
- It is typically considered explorative research. For example, when researchers do not know much about a phenomenon, a case study is used to help derive hypotheses that will be used in later research.
- it can be used to research unique situations which are usually gatekept by ethical issues.
Researchers cannot physically harm participants to observe what happens to them. Case studies are useful to investigate this.
Phineas Gage suffered brain damage due to an accident, presenting an opportunity to researchers to investigate the effects of such damage on the brain. This would otherwise be impossible, as researchers cannot damage a person's brain intentionally to find out what happens as a result (fortunately for us!)
Disadvantages of using case studies
The disadvantages of using case studies are:
- They are extremely difficult to replicate. So, it is difficult to compare the results from a case study to another study; therefore, this research design has low reliability.
- It uses a small, selective sample the results are usually not generally representative of the population. Therefore, the results tend to be non-generalisable.
- It can be quite time-consuming to carry out and analyse case studies.
Case Studies Psychology - Key Takeaways
- Case studies are a type of research design that is used when a researcher is investigating a single person, group or event/phenomenon.
- A case study in psychology is Phineas Gage; a case study was used because his conditions were unique and could not be replicated due to ethical issues. In addition, little was still known about the research area.
- Case studies can be used to collect both qualitative and quantitative data, however, they are quite useful for qualitative research.
- researchers can get an in-depth understanding, it can be used to help direct future research and it can be used to research unique situations or characteristics of people that cannot be replicated.
- they lack reliability and generalisability and are time-consuming and expensive.
1. VandenBos, G. R. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology . American Psychological Association.
Frequently Asked Questions about Case Studies Psychology
--> what is a case study.
Case studies are a type of research design that is used when a researcher is investigating a single person, group or event/phenomenon.
--> What are some examples of case studies?
Some examples of case studies that are famous in psychology are:
- Patient H.M (brain damage and memory)
- Phineas Gage (brain damage and personality and cognitive skills)
- Genie (deprivation and development)
--> What are case studies used for?
Case studies are used to get in-depth information about a phenomenon. It is usually used as a design when doing explorative research such as trying to form theories, hypotheses or, research questions.
--> What is the most famous case study in psychology?
An infamous case study is Phineas Gage. He had an accident in which a rod went through his frontal lobe (front part of the brain). He survived the accident but he showed a decline in cognitive abilities and his personality changed.
--> Why are case studies important in research?
Case studies are important in research because:
- can gather data from multiple people and get differing perspectives
- allows in-depth understanding that may be difficult to find in quantitative research
- researchers can investigate unique situations that may not be able to be replicated because of ethical issues
Final Case Studies Psychology Quiz
Case studies psychology quiz - teste dein wissen.
What is a case study?
Case studies are a type of research design that is used when a researcher is investigating a single person, group or event/phenomenon. This research method collects in-depth data on either of these.
Which of the following are reasons that case studies are used in research?
They are always better than laboratory settings
Why was a case study used to investigate Phineas Gage?
As Phineas Gage's case was unique and his conditions could not be replicated using the experimental method (against ethical standards of research) a case study was the only appropriate method to use. As little was known about the function of the frontal lobe the research was also explorative. Therefore, it may have been difficult to form hypotheses.
Typically case studies use various methods to collect data, true or false?
What is triangulation?
Triangulation is when researchers use multiple methods to collect data.
What type of data do case studies favour?
What is a typical structure that case studies use for writing reports?
A structure that researchers may follow to report a case study is that they may identify key themes or findings. Then, evidence of this is included such as an extract from a transcribed interview as evidence.
The data will likely include quantitative statistical data too
Case studies can use what forms of analysis?
What are the advantages of using case studies?
The advantages of using case studies are:
- researchers can get an in-depth understanding
- it can be used to help direct future research
- it can be used to research unique situations or characteristics of people that cannot be replicated
What are the disadvantages of using case studies?
- they lack reliability
- they lack generalisability
- it is time-consuming
- it can be expensive
Case studies collect qualitative data, true or false?
Case studies only investigate one person. Is this statement true?
No, sometimes it can be done on a group of people who share a trait.
Case studies are an investigation of a single individual, family, event, or other entity.
Case studies are considered explorative in nature.
Case studies can be used to research unique situations which are usually gatekept by issues.
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What Is a Case Study?
An in-depth study of one person, group, or event
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.
Verywell / Colleen Tighe
Benefits and Limitations
Types of case studies, how to write a case study.
A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in various fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.
The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.
While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .
A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.
One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:
- Allows researchers to collect a great deal of information
- Give researchers the chance to collect information on rare or unusual cases
- Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research
On the negative side, a case study:
- Cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
- Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
- May not be scientifically rigorous
- Can lead to bias
Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.
However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.
Case Study Examples
There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:
- Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
- Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
- Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.
Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.
This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.
There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:
- Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those living there.
- Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
- Explanatory case studies : These are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
- Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
- Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
- Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.
The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.
The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.
There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.
Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.
Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.
Where to Find Data
There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:
- Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
- Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
- Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
- Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
- Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
- Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.
Section 1: A Case History
This section will have the following structure and content:
Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.
Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.
Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.
Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.
Section 2: Treatment Plan
This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.
- Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
- Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
- Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
- Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.
This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.
When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research.
In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?
Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:
- Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, their name or a pseudonym.
- Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
- Remember to use APA format when citing references .
A Word From Verywell
Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.
If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.
Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .
Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100
Gagnon, Yves-Chantal. The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.
Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.
By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
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