Case Study Research and the Grounded Theory Approach

Prof. Dr. Werner Patzelt

Case Study Research (CSR) deals with an individual case (for instance with an individual society, regime, party, group, person, or event), and seeks to understand this case thoroughly in terms of its structure, dynamics, and context (both diachronic and synchronic). Information can be gathered by qualitative or quantitative methods (or by any combination of them), and the overall approach can be inspired likewise by anthropology, sociology, political science, or historical research. The goal can be either to inspire inductive theory-building, or to test a given theory. And in either direction one can move from the analysis of a single case towards the comparative in-depth-analysis of two and more cases.

The challenges of CSR include: decision on the research purpose (exploratory vs. explanatory), choice of the basic approach (theory-building vs. theory testing), formation of research-guiding concepts / analytical frames (inductively vs. deductively), choice of case or cases (outlier, average, simply well-known …), basic empirical research strategy (qualitative vs. quantitative), time window (narrow vs. broad), comparative horizon (strictly one-case vs. open for “interesting contrasts”). 

During this first part of the two-week course, all the considerations will be worked through that go along with such decisions; exemplary case studies will be discussed; and research designs will be developed, preferably for case studies that are in line with participants’ pursued research interests. 

The Grounded Theory Approach (GTA) consists in quite specific and well-established rules for developing a theory out of data, i.e. for moving from description to a theory. The data, on which the “emerging” theory is to be grounded, can be provided by interviews, by ethnographic field research, by content analysis of relevant documents, or simply by an existing body of literature on the phenomenon under study. Put in blunt terms: GTA is a creative intellectual activity that generates new ideas and insights, and that offers an attractive alternative to testing and improving other researchers’ theories.

The workflow of GTA includes: collection of pertinent data, “coding” data (i.e.: making theoretical sense of them), stimulating “theoretical sensitivity” (by various intellectual procedures), developing categories (from codes, and by determining their “properties” and the “dimensions” thereof), memo-writing, sorting of codes and categories, diagramming, and fixing a “story line” for the emerging theory. 

During this second part of the two-week course, the logic of this workflow will be explained and its single steps will be trained, preferably based on data that have already been collected for research projects of the participants.   

Apparently, Case Study Research and the Grounded Theory Approach are distinctive ways of doing research. They follow different intentions and proceed in distinctive ways. But both have broad intersections. CSR may, for instance, attempt at building a “grounded theory”, and GTA may start with in-depth CSR of a social setting. Therefore it makes sense to first learn about the variety of the goals, approaches, and methods of CSR, and then to learn thoroughly about systematic inductive theory building, possibly based on results from CSR. After completion of this course, participants will be able to understand, and possibly even to practice, qualitative-inductive research as the complementary form of quantitative-deductive research, with due respect for both “games in town”.