Research Methods for Information Research

5. Other Methods

5.5 Constructing case studies

The first question is ‘What type of case study?’ Robert Stake14 makes a useful distinction between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ case studies. An intrinsic case study is one where you are seeking better understanding of the particular case for its own sake. Instrumental case studies treat each case as an example of the type of behaviour being studied, to help understand the wider picture. For LIS research purposes the focus is likely to be on particular services or information handling activities and the approach will probably involve fusing together several instrumental cases into a service case study.

The main decisions to be made when producing a service case study are which cases to base them on, how to collect the stories and how to amalgamate them without losing focus or balance.

Choosing your cases

You will first have to determine what is the core of the story you are trying capture. If you are not sure you may want to ask service managers what issues and questions they are trying to learn about or answer. It is important to ensure that you hear from different voices in different service settings. You will have to decide whether you want to focus on good practice or on the full range of levels and types of provision. Both approaches can be legitimate (and both have been used in major research studies on the impact of libraries) but it is important to make clear which approach has been chosen, how the choice was made and why.

If you concentrate on best practice you will be able to see what success looks like and how greater impact can be achieved. On the other hand, looking closely at variations between how ‘the best and the rest’ operate should help to show what the best providers are doing differently. This should then give a focus for further work aimed at finding out how much these difference contribute to overall service impact.

It is important to encourage service managers to report the problems they encountered as part of their stories. Most people are reluctant to share their problems, even if they have been overcome. This tendency is often made worse by an assumption that managerial reports should focus on the outcomes of an initiative rather than the process of getting there.

However, we can probably learn more from what goes wrong than from what appears to work well. If you want to get the full picture:

  • emphasise to everyone that the aim is to strengthen the service not to apportion blame for any problems encountered
  • invite anonymous reporting of problems and potential solutions by setting up small group discussions at any appropriate meeting followed by anonymised feedback of the problems and solutions discussed in each group
  • try to get more than one version of the story back from each case study site (but remember that people may decide to compare stories and agree a version).

Collecting the service stories

When you have decided where to focus you will need to get people to tell their stories. Some things to bear in mind when are:

  • make sure that you listen to or get evidence from the ‘right people’ who can give you the information that is relevant to the elements of the story that interest you most.
  • Service managers will probably need help in giving you stories that will be useful. Not everyone is a natural story teller and people working in organisations may not see their own activity as in any way interesting or innovative, even if other people think it is. Even if they are comfortable in telling their story they will probably need to know what kind of story you want. You should be able to get over any problems here by offering a framework of key questions or a workshop to help people get to grips with writing their case study.
  • alternatively, you may prefer to centralise the collection activity by calling potential story tellers together in a focus group. People can then be encouraged to recount their stories to each other, pool the results and compare the different experiences described (in other words to combine storytelling with editing the narratives). This type of event requires careful facilitation to ensure that everyone contributes fully.
  • a variety of methods can be used to collect cases: in-depth interviews, document reviews, or web-based story collection can all be used.
  • it is important to get reports of what went wrong (and what was done in response) as well as what worked well. Story tellers should be prompted to identify any problems or issues that they encountered as well as to say what will continue to get in the way of success.
  • stories do not always have to be told entirely in words. Diagrams, pictures and photographs can all provide powerful testimony as an adjunct to the written word or sometimes as an alternative ‘voice’.

Turning the stories into a service case study

There are several possible ways of turning the cases into case studies:

  • treat each story as a service case study in its own right – if you choose this route you may like to offer some structure to your story-tellers by suggesting headings under which to organise their cases (and to indicate an ideal length for each section).
  • use outside help to turn the cases into case studies – ask a researcher to synthesise the cases into a service case study.
  • take on the synthesizing task yourself - the guiding principle here is to focus on the stories not on how you would like them to be. Read the cases closely or listen carefully to the stories and make sure that all the key features of each story are taken into account in the case studies.
  • use a collaborative approach to constructing case studies - bring together the people who provided the original cases and get them to help edit them into service case studies.

Whatever approach you choose, make sure that you provide an opportunity for the people who give you the cases to review and provide feedback on your drafts of the story.

14. Stake, R.E. Standards-based and responsive evaluation Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage 2004.