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What Is a Case Study?
An in-depth study of one person, group, or event
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.
Verywell / Colleen Tighe
Benefits and Limitations
Types of case studies, how to write a case study.
A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in various fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.
The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.
While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .
A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.
One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:
- Allows researchers to collect a great deal of information
- Give researchers the chance to collect information on rare or unusual cases
- Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research
On the negative side, a case study:
- Cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
- Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
- May not be scientifically rigorous
- Can lead to bias
Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.
However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.
Case Study Examples
There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:
- Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
- Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
- Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.
Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.
This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.
There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:
- Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those living there.
- Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
- Explanatory case studies : These are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
- Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
- Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
- Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.
The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.
The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.
There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.
Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.
Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.
Where to Find Data
There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:
- Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
- Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
- Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
- Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
- Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
- Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.
Section 1: A Case History
This section will have the following structure and content:
Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.
Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.
Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.
Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.
Section 2: Treatment Plan
This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.
- Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
- Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
- Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
- Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.
This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.
When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research.
In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?
Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:
- Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, their name or a pseudonym.
- Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
- Remember to use APA format when citing references .
A Word From Verywell
Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.
If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.
Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .
Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100
Gagnon, Yves-Chantal. The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.
Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.
By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
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Case Study Research Method in Psychology
Saul Mcleod, PhD
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester
Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
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Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources and by using several different methods (e.g., observations & interviews).
The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.
The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events which are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.
The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.
Case studies are widely used in psychology, and amongst the best known were the ones carried out by Sigmund Freud, including Anna O and Little Hans .
Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.
Even today, case histories are one of the main methods of investigation in abnormal psychology and psychiatry.
This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.
There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.
The procedure used in a case study means that the researcher provides a description of the behavior. This comes from interviews and other sources, such as observation.
The client also reports detail of events from his or her point of view. The researcher then writes up the information from both sources above as the case study and interprets the information.
The research may also continue for an extended period of time, so processes and developments can be studied as they happen.
Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g., letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g., case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports).
The case study method often involves simply observing what happens to or reconstructing ‘the case history’ of a single participant or group of individuals (such as a school class or a specific social group), i.e., the idiographic approach .
The interview is also an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.
The data collected can be analyzed using different theories (e.g., grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, text interpretation, e.g., thematic coding).
All the approaches mentioned here use preconceived categories in the analysis, and they are ideographic in their approach, i.e., they focus on the individual case without reference to a comparison group.
Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.
- Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
- Provides insight for further research.
- Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.
Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.
Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.
Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.
Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.
The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).
- Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
- Researchers’ own subjective feeling may influence the case study (researcher bias).
- Difficult to replicate.
- Time-consuming and expensive.
- The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.
Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.
Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.
This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.
For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).
This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.
Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304
Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.
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Case studies are very detailed investigations of an individual or small group of people, usually regarding an unusual phenomenon or biographical event of interest to a research field. Due to a small sample, the case study can conduct an in-depth analysis of the individual/group.
Evaluation of case studies:
- Case studies create opportunities for a rich yield of data, and the depth of analysis can in turn bring high levels of validity (i.e. providing an accurate and exhaustive measure of what the study is hoping to measure).
- Studying abnormal psychology can give insight into how something works when it is functioning correctly, such as brain damage on memory (e.g. the case study of patient KF, whose short-term memory was impaired following a motorcycle accident but left his long-term memory intact, suggesting there might be separate physical stores in the brain for short and long-term memory).
- The detail collected on a single case may lead to interesting findings that conflict with current theories, and stimulate new paths for research.
- There is little control over a number of variables involved in a case study, so it is difficult to confidently establish any causal relationships between variables.
- Case studies are unusual by nature, so will have poor reliability as replicating them exactly will be unlikely.
- Due to the small sample size, it is unlikely that findings from a case study alone can be generalised to a whole population.
- The case study’s researcher may become so involved with the study that they exhibit bias in their interpretation and presentation of the data, making it challenging to distinguish what is truly objective/factual.
- Case Studies
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What Is a Case Study in Psychology?
By: Author Explore Psychology
Categories Research Methods
A case study is a research method used in psychology to investigate a particular individual, group, or situation in depth . It involves a detailed analysis of the subject, gathering information from various sources such as interviews, observations, and documents.
In a case study, researchers aim to understand the complexities and nuances of the subject under investigation. They explore the individual’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences to gain insights into specific psychological phenomena.
This type of research can provide great detail regarding a particular case, allowing researchers to examine rare or unique situations that may not be easily replicated in a laboratory setting. They offer a holistic view of the subject, considering various factors influencing their behavior or mental processes.
By examining individual cases, researchers can generate hypotheses, develop theories, and contribute to the existing body of knowledge in psychology. Case studies are often utilized in clinical psychology, where they can provide valuable insights into the diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes of specific psychological disorders.
Case studies offer a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of complex psychological phenomena, providing researchers with valuable information to inform theory, practice, and future research.
Case Study Examples
Case studies in psychology provide real-life examples that illustrate psychological concepts and theories. They offer a detailed analysis of specific individuals, groups, or situations, allowing researchers to understand psychological phenomena better. Here are a few examples of case studies in psychology:
This famous case study explores the effects of a traumatic brain injury on personality and behavior. A railroad construction worker, Phineas Gage survived a severe brain injury that dramatically changed his personality.
This case study helped researchers understand the role of the frontal lobe in personality and social behavior.
Conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson, the Little Albert case study aimed to demonstrate classical conditioning. In this study, a young boy named Albert was conditioned to fear a white rat by pairing it with a loud noise.
This case study provided insights into the process of fear conditioning and the impact of early experiences on behavior.
Genie’s case study focused on a girl who experienced extreme social isolation and deprivation during her childhood. This study shed light on the critical period for language development and the effects of severe neglect on cognitive and social functioning.
These case studies highlight the value of in-depth analysis and provide researchers with valuable insights into various psychological phenomena. By examining specific cases, psychologists can uncover unique aspects of human behavior and contribute to the field’s knowledge and understanding.
Types of Case Studies
Psychology case studies come in various forms, each serving a specific purpose in research and analysis. Understanding the different types of case studies can help researchers choose the most appropriate approach.
Descriptive Case Studies
These studies aim to describe a particular individual, group, or situation. Researchers use descriptive case studies to explore and document specific characteristics, behaviors, or experiences.
For example, a descriptive case study may examine the life and experiences of a person with a rare psychological disorder.
Exploratory Case Studies
Exploratory case studies are conducted when there is limited existing knowledge or understanding of a particular phenomenon. Researchers use these studies to gather preliminary information and generate hypotheses for further investigation.
Exploratory case studies often involve in-depth interviews, observations, and analysis of existing data.
Explanatory Case Studies
These studies aim to explain the causal relationship between variables or events. Researchers use these studies to understand why certain outcomes occur and to identify the underlying mechanisms or processes.
Explanatory case studies often involve comparing multiple cases to identify common patterns or factors.
Instrumental Case Studies
Instrumental case studies focus on using a particular case to gain insights into a broader issue or theory. Researchers select cases that are representative or critical in understanding the phenomenon of interest.
Instrumental case studies help researchers develop or refine theories and contribute to the general knowledge in the field.
By utilizing different types of case studies, psychologists can explore various aspects of human behavior and gain a deeper understanding of psychological phenomena. Each type of case study offers unique advantages and contributes to the overall body of knowledge in psychology.
How to Collect Data for a Case Study
There are a variety of ways that researchers gather the data they need for a case study. Some sources include:
- Directly observing the subject
- Collecting information from archival records
- Conducting interviews
- Examining artifacts related to the subject
- Examining documents that provide information about the subject
The way that this information is collected depends on the nature of the study itself
In a prospective study, researchers observe the individual or group in question. These observations typically occur over a period of time and may be used to track the progress or progression of a phenomenon or treatment.
A retrospective case study involves looking back on a phenomenon. Researchers typically look at the outcome and then gather data to help them understand how the individual or group reached that point.
Benefits of a Case Study
Case studies offer several benefits in the field of psychology. They provide researchers with a unique opportunity to delve deep into specific individuals, groups, or situations, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of complex phenomena.
Case studies offer valuable insights that can inform theory development and practical applications by examining real-life examples.
One of the key benefits of case studies is their ability to provide complex and detailed data. Researchers can gather in-depth information through various methods such as interviews, observations, and analysis of existing records.
This depth of data allows for a thorough exploration of the factors influencing behavior and the underlying mechanisms at play.
Additionally, case studies allow researchers to study rare or unique cases that may not be easily replicated in experimental settings. This enables the examination of phenomena that are difficult to study through other psychology research methods .
By focusing on specific cases, researchers can uncover patterns, identify causal relationships, and generate hypotheses for further investigation.
Case studies can also contribute to the general knowledge of psychology by providing real-world examples that can be used to support or challenge existing theories. They offer a bridge between theory and practice, allowing researchers to apply theoretical concepts to real-life situations and vice versa.
Case studies offer a range of benefits in psychology, including providing rich and detailed data, studying unique cases, and contributing to theory development. These benefits make case studies valuable in understanding human behavior and psychological phenomena.
Limitations of a Case Study
While case studies offer numerous benefits in the field of psychology, they also have certain limitations that researchers need to consider. Understanding these limitations is crucial for interpreting the findings and generalizing the results.
Lack of Generalizability
One limitation of case studies is the issue of generalizability. Since case studies focus on specific individuals, groups, and situations, applying the findings to a larger population can be challenging. The unique characteristics and circumstances of the case may not be representative of the broader population, making it difficult to draw universal conclusions.
Researcher bias is another possible limitation. The researcher’s subjective interpretation and personal beliefs can influence the data collection, analysis, and interpretation process. This bias can affect the objectivity and reliability of the findings, raising questions about the study’s validity.
Case studies are often time-consuming and resource-intensive. They require extensive data collection, analysis, and interpretation, which can be lengthy. This can limit the number of cases that can be studied and may result in a smaller sample size, reducing the study’s statistical power.
Case studies are retrospective in nature, relying on past events and experiences. This reliance on memory and self-reporting can introduce recall bias and inaccuracies in the data. Participants may forget or misinterpret certain details, leading to incomplete or unreliable information.
Despite these limitations, case studies remain a valuable research tool in psychology. By acknowledging and addressing these limitations, researchers can enhance the validity and reliability of their findings, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior and psychological phenomena.
While case studies have limitations, they remain valuable when researchers acknowledge and address these concerns, leading to more reliable and valid findings in psychology.
Alpi KM, Evans JJ. Distinguishing case study as a research method from case reports as a publication type . J Med Libr Assoc . 2019;107(1):1-5. doi:10.5195/jmla.2019.615
Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011;11:100. Published 2011 Jun 27. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100
Paparini S, Green J, Papoutsi C, et al. Case study research for better evaluations of complex interventions: rationale and challenges . BMC Med . 2020;18(1):301. Published 2020 Nov 10. doi:10.1186/s12916-020-01777-6
Willemsen J. What is preventing psychotherapy case studies from having a greater impact on evidence-based practice, and how to address the challenges ? Front Psychiatry . 2023;13:1101090. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2022.1101090
Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.
The use of case studies in Psychology
October 13, 2011.
‘A case study involves an in-depth investigation of a single case.’ – (Advanced Psychology, Child Development, Perspectives and Methods).
Case studies are used widely across the field of psychology. They are used in branches such as clinical psychology, educational psychology, cognitive psychology and occupational psychology. Case studies do not always have to be the study of an individual person, the case could be a department within a business, however they are normally used to get a detailed analysis of one particular individual.
Case studies provide in-depth analyses into the case through its use of questionnaires, structured interviews and observational methods. As a result of these methods, qualitative data can be collected which can be more useful in aiming to find new evidence to support or disprove a theory, as it provides information in greater detail. Case studies can also be longitudinal which allows information to be gathered over a period of time and can therefore show changes in behaviour or thoughts over the set period. Many psychological approaches use case studies in their research, such as in the Psychodynamic approach, Behaviourist approach and the Humanistic approach. In the Psychodynamic approach, Sigmund Freud who was the founder of the approach, is known for using many case studies in his research. One case study he used was ‘Rat Man’ where the patient was being treated by Freud for an obsessive fantasy where his close relatives would suffer horrific punishments involving rats. Freud concluded that the patients thoughts were due to his conflicting feelings of love and aggression towards these particular relatives which stemmed from punishments for the patient’s sexual experiences in infancy.
Although the case study provided a lot of information and insight into the case, it is argued that the published findings were greatly manipulated by Freud to support his theory. This is a known problem with case studies, as the researcher can become particularly biased toward the case as they are working with the patient usually for months, and therefore can publish biased results based on whether or not they like the patient and whether or not the findings support the theory. Another issue with case studies is that replication is extremely difficult as the information given in the original study will never directly match that in a follow up study. This makes the results unreliable and so they cannot be generalised to the wider target population.
Case studies are extremely useful in order to gain very detailed accounts from individual cases which are important in psychology. The detailed information within the case studies is invaluable for contributing to support or disprove theories within the field of psychology. Although they cannot be replicated or generalised, the results are valid and they provide greater information for further research to try and expand upon.
Pennington, McLoughlin, Smithson, Robinson, Boswell (2003) Advanced Psychology – Child Development, Perspectives and Methods: Hodder Arnold.
psychology.about.com – http://psychology.about.com/od/cindex/g/casestudy.htm
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7 Responses to “The use of case studies in Psychology”
In addition to providing detailed qualitative data, case studies also allow researchers to collect information about rare, naturally occurring psychological conditions, which it would be unethical to induce or manipulate within a controlled experiment. Consequently, it is not unusual for individuals who have been victims of surgical accidents or childhood abuse to be studied in this way; for example, in the case study of Genie. Throughout the first thirteen years of her life, Genie suffered severe social isolation that significantly limited her cognitive development. As a result, she never progressed beyond the acquisition of basic language skills; even following extensive teaching by linguists. This case study therefore provided the researchers with a greater understanding of the critical periods involved in language development. However, the researchers became too involved in her life, to the extent that Genie even lived with the researchers who were studying her for four years; therefore preventing the findings from being objective. For this reason, it can be argued that case studies are not a scientific form of methodology because the effects of the independent variable cannot be separated from the impact of uncontrolled extraneous variables.
References: Gleitman, Psychology (Eighth Edition)
Case studies can give us very detailed accounts into specific situations, but they cannot always be trusted. For example, in the subject of privation two major case studies were analysed but had conflicting results – The case study on Genie who spent her first 13 years of life locked in a room found that after considerable education and assistance her language skills failed to reach normal adult level and social skills remained limited. However another case study on some twins who spent their first 7 years locked in a cellar obtained normal behaviour by age 14 and by 20 they had above average intelligence and had excellent relationships with their foster family. There is no way for us to determine whether this difference in learning ability is due to Genie possibly having a learning disorder, or whether it is to do with the length of time spent in privation or the presence of another human. These case studies give us an idea of the effects of privation but they cannot be generalised to every child who has experienced privation.
Although Case Studies have been largely criticised for not being scientific and for being unreliable, there are some instances where they have been incredibly beneficial to psychological theories. Classic case studies by Sigmund Freud such as Little Hans and Anna O have given psychologists information that has created what we know as psychology today. A less well known case study is that of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the findings from which were used to create and explain the ‘Bystander Effect’. This case study was carried out by Darley and Latane, after the murder of 28 year old Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death and then raped near her home in Queens, New York. Although Kitty’s screams were heard by her neighbours, not one of them intervened or tried to help. This lack of reaction from watching neighbours was so outrageous that it was reported in The New York Times. Prompted by this, John Darley and Bibb Latane decided to conduct research into diffusion of responsibility and the ‘Bystander effect’. Despite what is commonly believed, larger numbers of bystanders actually decrease the likelihood of someone stepping forward to help a victim. Reasons for this are believing that others will know what to do or believing that others will help. The Kitty Genovese case thus became a classic feature of social psychology textbooks. This is a clear example of a case study offering support for a theory; the reactions of the neighbours were completely natural and not forced. Although the results cannot be replicated, they offer detail and depth which cannot be created artificially.
Shotland & Straw (1976). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
New York Times, 1964-03-14(p. 26) Retrieved 2007-07-05.
Although case studies can’t be 100% relied on, they do generate valuable information that would have been unethical to have collected by artificial means. For example, the case study of David Reimer (Money, 1975). The aim of this study was to see whether is was possible to raise a boy as a girl as Money believed that people were born gender neutral. David Reimer, born as Bruce, underwent a routine circumcision, but during the surgery, his penis was almost completely burnt off. Money thought that the best thing to do would be to raise Bruce as a girl – Brenda. But Brenda was not happy being raised as a girl and when the truth came out, he went back to being male – David. At the end of Money’s experiment, he concluded that raising Brenda as a girl was a success and that gender was due to nurture, not nature. However, this does not seem to be the correct conclusion as David Reimer’s story seems to show the opposite, this suggests that nature may have the bigger influence over gender. This also supports the idea that researchers can be bias when investigating naturally occurring events so that the results fit their theories. This experiment could also never be replicated so it would be impossible to determine what other factors had an influence over the findings. So although case studies can bring helpful and valid ideas and results into the field, they can never be used to base a theory on as the studies are not reliable and could never be replicated.
Case studies make it very hard to achieve objective results as the process is so subjective, with all information given open to interpretation by the researcher. Maxwell, (1992) would suggest that the problem with qualitative research methods is achieving consistency. The results cannot be reliable if they do not constantly produce results which are high on validity. In most instances I would suggest this does not detract from the study, as the benefit of in depth detailed information outweighs the cost, however, it does mean that generalising results is much harder, and as you said, such case studies are used to gain more knowledge upon which research can be conducted. Case studies are a useful research method, but should never be relied upon.
Maxwell, J.A. (1992) Understanding and validity in research. http://her.hepg.org/content/8323320856251826/fulltext.pdf
A case study is an idiographic method that obtains in-depth and detailed study of an individual or a group and is often used due to unusual circumstances of the participant/s. The method was popularly used within the area of psychoanalysis. The main weakness of case studies is that they cannot provide credible evidence that one variable such as treatment affects another variable such as the problem behaviour.
Agreeing with ‘katashaw’, that although case studies shouldn’t be used to base theories on, they are highly important in giving valuable research to support or refute the theories. For example case studies such as HM, have been important in helping to develop theories, explaining the link between brain function and memory, in circumstances which would have been unethical to create artificially. In order to reduce HM’s epileptic fits, he had an operation to remove the majority of his hippocampus (associated with long term memory). After the operation, his personality stayed the same, however he suffered from severe anterograde amnesia (can’t make new memories) and partial retrograde amnesia (can’t remember things in the past), supporting the idea of the Multi-Store Model.
Another example in which case studies have been used to help psychologists understand memory is KF. Shallice & Warrington (1970) looked at KF, who had a motorbike accident, leaving him brain damaged. This had no effect upon his long term memory, but had a significant effect on parts of his short term memory; he forgot auditory information, rather than visual. This helped to support and develop the idea of the Working Memory Model.
These case studies allow psychologists to gain an in-depth knowledge and allow a complex interaction of factors to be studied. However, as well as generalisation being an issue, there can also be ethical issues, such as confidentiality, as because the cases are so unique, the individual is often easily identifiable.
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