The case-study: misunderstandings and practical research

Case-study skepticism

When talking about my research and ideas for my PhD I have, a few times, seen people react with skepticism to one particular aspect: my planned use of case studies as a methodology. Probably due to my lack of a social science background, I have found this inbuilt mistrust of a research method hard to understand. I decided to do some reading around this issue, hoping that I would find that other people’s misgivings might well be ill placed, and that I would be bolstered by some case study kindred spirits.

In Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research Bent Flyvbjerg recognises a common opinion about case-study research: that a single case study cannot be used to generalise to a wider context. Whilst this is true, I am of the same opinion as Bent, in that I think this indicates a misunderstanding of the case-study, rather than a shortcoming. For me, the case-study is essential to my research, as it can provide the most practical, and as Bent describes, context-dependent knowledge. Without testing and analysing my ideas in context, I do not believe I could have confidence in their results. I wouldn’t use this knowledge to generalise, but to provide the necessary tried and tested results.

Essential practical research

When thinking about the research design that I might employ, I have always seen the case-study part as the bedrock of my work which I can build a theoretical framework from. My aim is to apply a set of impact methods and tools to different contexts, ie subject areas, in order to build a framework which can then be used by researchers from any discipline to increase and measure their social impact.

Customise, don’t generalise

I think the key thing to focus on here is that my framework will be designed with the intention that researchers can customise it: I am not using case studies to generalise across the board, but am using them to produce tried and tested methods that can then be applied where appropriate for the researcher. Hopefully, this combination of context-dependent case-studies and the customisable design of the framework, will make for a very practical and transferable toolkit.


A Merry Christmas PhD Summer School

PhD Christmas School

A bus-based revelation

I was reading a great post by @MillwoodMara on the @ThesisWhisperer blog this morning whilst en route to work on the dark, bumpy bus ride, and it got me thinking (which is no small feat at 7.30 am on a cold December morning). ┬áBeing a complete newbie to the PhD world, I haven’t really come across the concept of an academic summer school before, and all the name conjures up for me is images of sulky looking teenagers wishing they were at home with their friends instead of stuck at some Scout/Cubs-run organised ‘fun’ affair.

Academic summer schools

However @MillwoodMara explains that the grown up, academic version is a small (ish) group of academics, mainly PhD students, who come together over the summer to participate in discussion, workshops and debate. This sounds much more up my street! Unfortunately, they mostly seem to take place in America, which is a little far for me to travel.

My own personal PhD Christmas School

Not wanting to waste time sitting and sulking about how I couldn’t get involved, I decided the best course of action would be to run my own version of a summer school, albeit over my Christmas break, here on my blog. Yeay! I may be running it from my bedroom, and it may only have one delegate, but hopefully it will still help me to be productive and creative over my time off work, much like the proper summer schools in the US.

So this is how it’s going to work: the #PhdChristmasSchool will run from 19th December – 2nd January, and during these 2 weeks I will aim to post around six blog posts, each tackling a particular part of the PhD/research process. I will make sure to post them on Twitter using the hashtag, and hopefully some people will pick up on the hashtag and use it to hold discussions.

Most likely I will end up the only one in the discussions, but it will still be an interesting exercise, and will keep me focused over the Christmas break. (When I;’m not too busy eating my way through a ridiculous mountain of cheese, crackers and chocolate that is). So please do look out for the hashtag #PhDChristmasSchool and join in!