Case Study

Case Studies are in-depth investigations of an individual or event. Clinicians use interviews, participant observations, and archival information (e.g., medical rhetorics) to develop robust portraits of others and the circumstances that led individuals to act.

Some Case Study researchers assume the method produces positivistic knowledge whereas others argue it produces postpositivistic knowledge.


The design of your case study is determined by your purpose.

Writers conduct case studies for many reasons. Interviews can play a role in helping you develop all of the projects presented in this book. Researchers employ interviews to achieve multiple purposes:

  • Oral histories; interview people who can tell stories about life in the past.
  • Expert testimonies; interview experts, such as famous inventors, entrepreneurs, political leaders, or trend-setters
  • Slice-of-life profiles; interview “man/woman on the street,” profiling the life of “ordinary people”
  • Memorable quotes; perhaps someone said something in a clever way that supports your work

Some researchers argue that their interviews of individuals can be used to generalize to broader populations. For example, an urban sociologist might interview gang members and then try to generalize to other gangs, other cities. In contrast, some researchers argue that interviews can only generate knowledge about individuals, that researchers who use interviews are simply telling stories.

Participant Construct Interview

A participant construct interview identifies perceptions or ideas that an individual may have about another person, activity, or construct. In other words, he or she could ask a group of employees to identify all of the things that a supervisor should do in the workplace, which would subsequently reveal information about employees’ perception of the role of the supervisor. A similar investigation of supervisors may yield a different set of information. These differences, the employee vs. the supervisor, concerning the same role, may identify a source of conflict in the workplace. A well-thought-out survey is a valuable tool in investigating social relationships.

Projective Interviews

Projective techniques sample people’s reactions to perilous situations or psychologically charged contexts. For example, the participant is placed in an artificial situation–such as a burning building–by being shown a picture or being engaged in a simulation and then asked to respond. This technique is beneficial for areas such as investigating spousal abuse or violence in the workplace.

Face-to-Face Interviews

It is imperative that you are thoroughly familiar with the interview questions, are relaxed, and present the questions in a nonthreatening manner. You may wish to practice interview techniques in a controlled environment. Videotaping the practice session provides an excellent opportunity for both researcher and interviewee to critique and standardize the interviewer’s performance.

By tape recording the interview, the interviewer has information that can expand and clarify the handwritten responses. The tape recorder will also capture a more complete response to open-ended questions. It also allows the researcher to replay the information should there be a question as to a particular response. Most importantly, for research data, independent evaluations of the same interview may be made.

Using a tape recorder also raises legal as well as ethical issues. The purpose of the recorder is to support your data collecting. The interviewee should be made aware of the purpose, restrictions, and disposition of the interview tapes. Ask the interviewee to sign a consent form (sample form at Figure 1). If the interviewee declines to sign the form, don’t record the interview.

An interviewer taking notes during an interview is a normal situation and is easily acceptable to most interviewees. The tape or video recorder may adversely influence the situation by placing additional stress on the interviewee. The interviewer can reduce the stress by creating a relaxed, practiced, and professional interview session.

Telephone Interviews

Telephone interviews are another common means of gathering information. The telephone interview is economical in terms of both time and money. Many people consider their time as a precious commodity and are more inclined to grant a telephone interview than to schedule an appointment for a face-to-face interview.

The nature of your research can also influence the appropriateness of the telephone interview. Although the vast majority of American homes and businesses have telephone service, it is still not universally true. If your research involves the socially or economically disenfranchised, then there is a high likelihood you will exclude individuals simply because they don’t have a telephone.

Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, Interviews

Increasingly, people are interviewing others online with computer-assisted interviews. You may find that you can gain access to someone online who otherwise would not have time to meet with with you. You can distribute a questionnaire by email, join someone in a chat space, or use an instant messenger service.

Types of Interview Questions

Ask Open, Closed, Hypothetical, and Mirror Questions

The questions you will ask are determined by the purpose of your research. As a result, be very clear in your own mind about what you hope to discover as a result of conducting the interview. The best way to develop solid questions is to freewrite as many as possible. By refining the purpose of your research and by sharing your questions with other people, you will be able to identify the ones that are most apt to uncover the information you need.

You may also find it useful to categorize the questions that you have freewritten according to the sort of information that the questions are likely to elicit. There are three major types of questions, each of which is suited to a particular part of the interview: open questions, closed questions, and hypothetical questions.

When to Ask Open-Ended Questions

At the beginning of the interview, you may wish to establish rapport by asking open-ended questions. Essentially, open questions allow an interviewee to say just about anything, thereby revealing his or her general attitudes and beliefs. For example, if you asked an accomplished business leader “What skills does a college graduate need to succeed in business?” he or she might talk for a half hour about leadership capabilities, writing skills, and a “can-do” attitude.

When to Ask Closed Questions

When you wish to limit an interviewee’s range of responses or pin him or her down to one answer, you should ask closed questions. “Do you believe that the university should require all students to be computer literate?” is an example of a closed question because it forces a “No,” “Yes,” “I don’t know,” or perhaps a “Well, yes, under these conditions . . .” sort of answer. Because people don’t like to be interrogated, however, limit the frequency of closed questions that you ask during an interview.

When to Ask Hypothetical Questions

Before conducting an interview, you may also wish to consider developing a few hypothetical questions. Although these sorts of questions are more commonly used in employment interviews, they also can be used profitably in a research interview. For example, if you were evaluating the circumstances under which students cheat on a test, you might ask, “If you were sure that you wouldn’t get caught and you needed a high score on a final exam to earn a passing grade, would you cheat?”

Strategies for Developing Interview Questions

Here are the strategies for developing useful interviewing questions:

  1. Closed questions: What specific information do you need?
  2. Open questions: What philosophical issues underlie your research? What two or three major questions do you need to ask to open up your interviewee to really communicate?
  3. Hypothetical questions: What creative situations can you devise to determine an interviewee’s true feelings and likely responses to various circumstances?

Turn Their Statement Into Your Question

You will find it useful to ask questions that essentially restate the interviewee’s last statement in question form. Because you want to keep the interviewee talking, these questions can be essential to illustrating your interest and attentiveness to his or her ideas. Here are a few examples:

Interviewee: So anyway, I think the old boy network is the biggest problem this hospital faces. These administrators are so entrenched that they cover each other’s tracks and hire incompetent technicians who won’t intimidate or rat on them for cheating on their vacation time.

Interviewer: So you think the biggest problem this hospital faces is the old boy network?

Interviewee: All of my friends cheat on tests, so l don’t see why I shouldn’t. I’ve plagiarized at least a half dozen essays this year alone. We’ve got quite a selection at the fraternity house.

Interviewer: Just a minute, John, I’m not sure I’m following you here. Are you saying that the fraternity house has copies of essays on file that you can use?

Finally, you should try to present your questions in a relaxed, conversational way. You can also show the interviewee that you are carefully listening by responding spontaneously to his or her remarks. Asking spontaneous questions—that is, questions that occur to you on the spot in response to the interviewee’s comments—allows you to demonstrate that you are curious about what the interviewee has to say. When you let go a little in your interview and give it the feeling of a discussion, the interviewee will probably be more willing to share.

Create Effective Ambience

Learn how to manage the interview successfully.

Since the interviewee is kind enough to set some time aside to meet with you, you in turn need to be flexible about where and for how long you meet and whether or not it is acceptable for you to tape-record the session. In general, you should try to conduct the interview away from as many distractions as possible. Establishing a climate of trust and support is difficult when the interviewee is bombarded with the daily distractions of professional life—such as phone calls, piles of messages, and pages of “to do” lists.

The Receptive Interviewer

Recognize that when people are “put on the spot,” many tend to freeze up. When they realize that their words are being put down “on the record,” even talkative people may tend to tighten up and withhold information. As a result, you need to be calm and relaxed and do more listening than talking. Remember, also, that your body invariably sends clear messages about whether you are bored or frustrated or annoyed by the interviewee’s comments. Rather than being quick to judge the interviewee’s comments and their usefulness to your report, try to focus your energy on being a receptive listener. Show tact in your responses and interject humor to put the interviewee at ease.

Tape Recording Interviews

If the interviewee doesn’t mind having the session taped, then you would be wise to pretest your recorder and insert fresh batteries. (Incidentally, some interviewers use two recorders to avoid the embarrassment of discovering too late that one didn’t work.) A second useful tip is to use microrecorders—that is, small recorders that use minicassettes—rather than obtrusive “boom boxes.” Finally, try to place the recorder out of the interviewee’s eyesight and avoid looking at it, discussing it, or checking to see whether or not it is working, so that it is forgotten as soon as possible. If you notice the interviewee appears distracted by the recorder, even though he or she has said it’s okay, you would be wise to stop using it and take careful notes instead.

When you begin the interview, it is important to shake the interviewee’s hand and greet him or her warmly. Smile and thank the person for his or her time and clarify the focus of the interview:

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Wilson. I appreciate your willingness to spend some time with me so that I can learn more about a career in mass communications.”

“Hi, John, it’s really good to see you again. Listen, I appreciate your help on this report I’m doing for English. Anyway, as I told you on the phone, I’m writing the report on how to select growth stocks, and since you’re an expert in money management, I was hoping that you could give some advice on handling money. Say, do you mind if I tape this session? If it bothers you, we don’t need to tape it, but it would help me write the report. In any case, if you like, I don’t have to use your name.”