Stake Case Studies in Qualitative Inquiry

Stake, R. (2003). Case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Strategies of qualitative inquiry (2nd Ed.) (pp. 134 - 164). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Identification of the Case

  • Cases cannot be too broad. They are specific and bounded. Cases have patterns.
  • The focus is understanding the complexity of the case.
  • "...each case study is a concentrated inquiry into a single case (p. 136)."

Intrinsic and Instrumental Interest in Cases

  • Intrinsic case study: A case study is intrinsic "...if it is undertaken because, first and last, the researcher wants better understanding of this particular case (p. 136)." The motivation is personal.
  • Instrumental case study: A case study is instrumental "...if a particular case is examined mainly to provide insight into an issue or to redraw a generalization (p. 137)." An instrumental case study takes a supportive role to deepen our understanding of a larger issue. 
  • Collective case study is the study of multiple cases to understand a phenomenon.

Study of the Particular

  • The nature of case study does not lend itself to generalizability unless it is a collective case study.
  • Since the goal of case study is to seek particularity: "The search for particularity competes with the search for generalizability (p. 140)."
  • "Their designs aim the inquiry toward understanding of what is important about that case within its own world, which is seldom the same as the worlds of researchers and theorists (p. 140)."
  • Contexts and Situations

    • Case studies, as a form of qualitative research are contextually based, which cannot and should not be avoided.
  • Organizing Around Issues

    • The conceptual structure of case study is thematic and the research questions should reflect this structure.
  • Storytelling

    • The researcher decides what and how the (case) story is told: "More will be pursued than was volunteered. Less will be reported than was learned (p. 144)."
    • A case must be understood, and it is this necessity to understand that determines the amount included in the telling.
    • External political forces, such as funding agencies, audience, and promotion, influenced the amount included in the telling.

Learning From the Particular Case

  • Two ways to tell or teach a case: "Teaching didactically, the researcher teaches what he or she has learned. Arranging for what educationists call discovery learning, the researcher provides material for readers to learn, on their own, things the teacher does not know as well as those he or she does know (p. 145)."
  • Naturalistic generalization: "Enduring meanings come from encounter, and are modified and reinforced by repeated encounter (p. 145)."
  • Knowledge Transfer From Researcher to Reader

    • During reading, the reader unconsciously connects the case to previous cases in order to compare and generalize. "People find in case reports certain insights into the human condition, even while being well aware of the atypicality of the case. They may be too quick to accept the insight. The case researcher needs to provide grounds for validating both the observation and generalization (p. 147)."
  • Triangulation
  • Comparisons

    • Comparison can detract from the case's particularity.
    • "Readers with intrinsic interest in the case learn more of it directly from the description, not ignoring comparisons with other cases but not concentrating on comparisons (p. 147)."
    • ""The conceptions of most naturalistic, holistic, ethnographic, phenomenological case studies need accurate description and subjective, yet disciplined, interpretation; a respect and curiosity for culturally different perceptions of phenomena; and empathic representation of local settings - all blending (perhaps clumped) within a constructivist epistemology (p. 149)."

Arrangements for the Study

  • Case study work is reflective


  • "When the case is too large for one researcher to know well or for a collective case study, teaming is an important option. The method requires integrated, holistic comprehension of the case, but in the larger studies, no one individual can handle the complexity (p. 151)."

Case Selection

  • The selected case should contain a balance between typicality and opportunity to learn.
  • Atypicality trumps typicality because the opportunity to learn is greater than the tie to representativeness.
  • Cases Within the Case

    • To select a case, identify attributes of interest first. 
    • Selection should ensure variety without compromising.
  • Ethics

    • "Qualitative researchers are guests in the private spaces of the world. Their manners should be good and their code of ethics strict (p. 154)."


  • "The major conceptual responsibilities of the qualitative case researcher are as follows:

    • 1. Bounding the case, conceptualizing the object of study;
    • 2. Selecting phenomena, themes, or issues - that is, the research questions - to emphasize;
    • 3. Seeking patterns of data to develop the issues;
    • 4. Triangulating key observations and bases for interpretation; 
    • 5. Selecting alternative interpretations to pursue;
    • 6. Developing assertions or generalizations about the case (p. 155)."
  • "Case studies are of value for refining theory and suggesting complexities for further investigation, as well as helping to establish the limits of generalizability (p. 156)."