Citekey: @Yazan2015-wn

Yazan, B. (2015). Three Approaches to Case Study Methods in Education: Yin, Merriam, and Stake. The Qualitative Report, 20(2), 134–152. Retrieved from






Focusing on the landmark works of three prominent methodologists, namely Robert Yin, Sharan Merriam, Robert Stake, I attempt to scrutinize the areas where their perspectives diverge, converge and complement one another in varying dimensions of case study research. (p. 2)

However, it still does not have a legitimate status as a social science research strategy because it does not have well-defined and well-structured protocols (Yin, 2002), so emerging researchers who plan to utilize case study usually become confused “as to what a case study is and how it can be differentiated from other types of qualitative research” (Merriam, 1998, p. xi). (p. 3)

I will zero in on the ensuing works: Robert K. Yin’s Case Study Research: Design and Methods (2002), Sharan B. Merriam’s Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education (1998), and Robert E. Stake’s The Art of Case Study Research (p. 3)

I believe this paper would be most beneficial and fruitful by exposing novice researchers to a spectrum of different views and conceptualizations of case study that are provided by prominent research methodologists from differing vantage points. (p. 3)

In this paper, I endeavor to scrutinize the areas where these three perspectives diverge, converge and complement one another in varying dimensions of case study research. I am going to follow six categorical dimensions which the three scholars mostly converge upon in their seminal texts on case study method: Epistemological Commitments, Defining Case and Case Study, Designing Case Study, Gathering Data, Analyzing Data, and Validating Data. (p. 4)

Epistemological Commitments (p. 5)

Yin, Merriam and Stake have their own epistemic commitments which impact their perspectives on case study methodology and the principles and the steps they recommend the emerging researchers to adhere to while exploiting case study method in their research endeavors. (p. 5)

Yin demonstrates positivistic leanings in his perspective on case study. Crotty (1998) suggests that three notions are fundamental in positivistic orientation in research: objectivity, validity and generalizability. (p. 5)

Yin does not explicitly articulate his epistemological orientation in his text, but the way he approaches case study or research in general and the aspects he emphasizes most indicate that his philosophical stance is towards the positivistic tradition. For example, from a Yinian outlook, case study researcher is supposed to “maximize four conditions related to design quality: construct validity, internal validity, external validity, and reliability. How investigators deal with these aspects of quality control” (Yin, 2002, p. 19) is highly crucial in every step of the case study research. (p. 6)

Besides, Yin’s view on the dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative research traditions might be indicative of why he would rather not overtly touch upon his philosophical orientation. He argues against those who make distinctions between qualitative and quantitative orientations due to the irreconcilable philosophical disparities: “regardless of whether one favors qualitative or quantitative research, there is a strong and essential common ground between the two” (Yin, 2002, p. 15). (p. 6)

Stake allots a big part of a chapter in his text to the explication of the epistemological tradition to which he suggests qualitative case study researchers should cling. For he holds the claim that “How case study researchers should contribute to reader experience depends on their notions of knowledge and reality” (Stake, 1995, p. 100). From a Stakian viewpoint, constructivism and existentialism (non-determinism) should be the epistemologies that orient and inform the qualitative case study research since “most contemporary qualitative researchers hold that knowledge is constructed rather than discovered” (Stake, 1995, p. 99). Thus, he mainly conceives of the qualitative case study researchers as interpreters, and gatherers of interpretations which require them to report their rendition or construction of the constructed reality or knowledge that they gather through their investigation. (p. 6)

Merriam seems to be much closer to Stake’s viewpoint than Yin’s. From her perspective, the epistemology that should orient qualitative case study is constructivism since she maintains that “the key philosophical assumption upon which all types of qualitative research are based is the view that reality is constructed by individuals interacting with their social worlds” (Merriam, 1998, p. 6). (p. 6)

As an emerging educational researcher , epistemologically I position myself much closely subscribed to constructivist paradigm. I conceive knowledge as being socially constructed and emerging from peoples’ social practices; therefore, I conceptualize social reality as being generated and constructed by people and existing largely within people’s minds. I believe that research endeavors are geared towards seeking “for culturally derived and historically situated interpretations of the social life-world” (Crotty, 1998, p. 67). Due to this philosophical stance, I find myself epistemologically discordant with Yin and much more consonant with Merriam and Stake. (p. 7)

Defining Case and Case Study (p. 7)

Yin (2002) defines case as “a contemporary phenomenon within its real life context, especially when the boundaries between a phenomenon and context are not clear and the researcher has little control over the phenomenon and context” (p. 13). (p. 7)

From a Stakian view of case study, a precise definition of cases or case studies is not possible since it is highly likely that the accurate definition of cases or studies he can come up with will not be aligned with the definition that the users of case study in other disciplines make. As for the definition of case, Stake (1995) agrees with Louis Smith’s (1978) rendition: researchers should view case as “a bounded system” and inquire into it “as an object rather than a process” (p. 2). He himself depicts some of the attributes of case in his conceptualization: case is “a specific, a complex, functioning thing,” more specifically “an integrated system” which “has a boundary and working parts” and purposive (in social sciences and human services) (p. 2). (p. 8)

Moreover, Stake mentions four defining characteristics of qualitative research which are valid for qualitative case studies as well: they are “holistic”, “empirical”, “interpretive” and “emphatic”. (p. 8)

For Merriam (1998) , the defining characteristic of case study research is the delimitation of the case. Her definition is in line with Smith’s (1978) view of case as a bounded system and Stake’s view of case as an integrated system. She sees “the case as a thing, a single entity, a unit around which there are boundaries” (p. 27). Then, case can be a person, a program, a group, a specific policy and so on, which represent a lot more comprehensive list than Yin’s and Stake’s. In Merriam’s view which is influenced by Miles and Huberman’s (1994) understanding of “the case as a phenomenon of some sort occurring in a bounded context” (cited in Merriam, 1998, p. 27), as long as researchers are able to specify the phenomenon of interest and draw its boundaries or “fence in” what they are going to inquire, they can name it a case. In short, the definition she presents is broader than Yin’s and Stake’s and provides flexibility in utilizing qualitative case study strategy to research a much wider array of cases. (p. 8)

As for the definition of case study research, Merriam conceives qualitative case study as “an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon such as a program, an institution, a person, a process, or a social unit” (p. xiii). (p. 8)

Designing Case Study (p. 9)

Yin places a great emphasis on the design of the case study as the subtitle of his book suggests. As I mentioned while describing the purpose of his book, he has observed that case study does not have a “codified design” like the other research strategies social scientists employ, which is the reason why some investigators do not grant it the merits as a notable research method. In other words, he concludes that “Unlike other research strategies, a comprehensive “catalog” of research designs for case studies has yet to be developed” (Yin, 2002, p. 19) and he obviously commits himself to this development. (p. 9)

Defining design essentially as “the logical sequence that connects the empirical data to a study’s initial research questions and, ultimately, to its conclusions,” (p. 20) Yin (2002) suggests four types of design that case study researchers can make use of. They include single holistic design, single embedded design, multiple holistic design and multiple embedded design. Holistic designs require one unit of analysis, whereas embedded designs require multiple units of analysis. (p. 9)

From a Yinian perspective, case study research design is comprised of five components: a study’s questions; its propositions, if any; its unit(s) of analysis; the logic linking the data to the propositions; and the criteria for interpreting the findings. While designing the inquiry, the researcher is supposed to make sure that these components are cohesive to and consistent among each other. (p. 9)

Yinian perspective (p. 9)

Yin Shi :) (p. 9)

As another point about Yin’s rendition of case study design, he suggests measuring the quality of the design against four criteria which include construct validity, internal validity, external validity, and reliability. (p. 9)

Contrary to Yin who suggests a really tight and structured design for case study method, Stake argues for a flexible design which allows researchers to make major changes even after they proceed from design to research. The only initial design he suggests concerns the issues and issue questions, which will lead to the design of the research questions. (p. 9)

Stake gives important advice about the initiation of the two types of case studies: “for intrinsic case study, case is dominant; the case is of highest importance. For instrumental case study, issue is dominant; we start and end with issues dominant” (Stake, 1995, p. 16). (p. 10)

Although Stake (1995) does not suggest a specific point during the research process when data collection and analysis should start, his advice about research questions indicates that case study researchers need a set of two or three sharpened or evolved issue questions (research questions) that will “help structure the observation, interviews, and document review” (p. 20). (p. 10)

Stake’s obvious flexibility in terms of case study design stems from his adoption of the notion of “progressive focusing” which Parlett and Hamilton (1972) first put forward. This notion builds upon the assumption that “the course of the study cannot be charted in advance” (cited in Stake, 1998, p. 22), which Yin would definitely oppose. (p. 10)

Merriam’s (1998) text includes a chapter entitled “Designing the study and selecting a sample,” which complements not only Stake’s rendition of qualitative research design but also Yin’s well-structured case study design. She presents very informative and clear guidelines and advice regarding the review of the relevant literature for the construction of the theoretical framework that will guide the inquiry. Neither Yin’s nor Stake’s parts on case study design include such guidelines and advice. (p. 10)

Merriam (1998) presents step by step the process of designing qualitative research in a rather detailed fashion. Her discussion includes conducting literature review, constructing a theoretical framework, identifying a research problem, crafting and sharpening research questions, and selecting the sample (purposive sampling). Merriam’s approach in case study design is close neither to Yin’s nor Stake’s; it is a combination of both approaches. (p. 10)

Gathering Data (p. 11)

All three scholars contend that it is incumbent upon the case study researchers to draw their data from multiple sources to capture the case under study in its complexity and entirety. As for the tools to gather data, the epistemological tradition they are subscribed to influence their selection and how they conceive the entire data gathering process. Yin becomes the advocate of the combination of quantitative and qualitative evidentiary sources because he views them equally instrumental, whereas Stake and Merriam suggest exclusive use of qualitative data. (p. 11)

His emphasis on the planning of case study pertains to the caution he recurrently states: “In actuality, the demands of a case study on your intellect, ego, and emotions are far greater than those of any other research strategy. This is because the data collection procedures are not routinized” (Yin, 2002, p. 58). While delineating the preparation for data collection, Yin capitalizes on the desired skills of case study investigator, training for a specific case study, the development of a protocol for the investigation, the screening of the case study nominations (making the final decision regarding the selection of the case), and the conduct of a pilot study. (p. 11)

From a Yinian perspective, case study research should rest upon multiple sources of evidence, with data needing to converge in a triangulating fashion, and benefit from prior development of theoretical propositions to guide data analysis and collection. Yin suggests the researchers make use of six evidentiary sources: documentation, archival records, interviews, direct observations, participant observation and physical artifacts, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. (p. 11)

Data gathering in Stakian outlook is extremely disparate from Yin’s account. For instance, as opposed to Yin who argues for the exact planning for every step of the inquiry, Stake (1995) argues “There is no particular moment when data collection begins” (p. 49) since data collection can lead to some fundamental alterations in the inquiry process. (p. 12)

Although not as emphatic as Yin’s account, Stake’s account highlights the significance of the skills that researchers need in order to carry out a qualitative research. They include “Knowing what leads to significant understanding, recognizing good sources of data, and consciously and unconsciously testing out the veracity of their eyes and robustness of their interpretations. It requires sensitivity and skepticism” (Stake, 1995, p. 50). (p. 12)

In her perspective on data collection, Merriam (1998) continues attending to the disparities between quantitative and qualitative research, which is mostly because the primary focus in her book is qualitative research in general. However, when compared to a Stakian qualitative case study approach, Merriam’s account provides more extensive and comprehensive guidance for the data collection procedures. (p. 12)

After the scrutiny of the three different perspectives on case study, it seems to me as an emerging investigator that Yin’s and Merriam’s accounts on data collection in case study complement each other. The combination of Yin’s three principles and Merriam’s comprehensive guidance for data collection procedures would benefit me most. (p. 13)

Analyzing Data (p. 13)

The epistemological stances of the three methodologists seem to have impacted their approach to data analysis in case study, as well. (p. 13)

Yin’s (2002) definition of analysis “consists of examining, categorizing, tabulating, testing, or otherwise recombining both quantitative and qualitative evidence to address the initial propositions of a study” (p. 109), which is compatible with his opposition to the bifurcation between quantitative and qualitative research. (p. 13)

Yin describes both general strategies and specific strategies. Researchers are supposed to apply the former into each one of the latter. Then, he suggests researchers stick to four overriding principles to press for high quality analysis. (p. 13)

Yin addresses his criteria for quality research, namely validity and reliability, while discussing the analytic procedures in case study. All the techniques and strategies he suggests are conducive to enhancing validity and reliability during analysis. From a Yinian perspective, researchers control these criteria through well-defined and well-structured data analysis procedures. Yin seems to assume that through the analytic steps and techniques he describes, researchers are able to reach the objective truth about the case or the most approximated one. This assumption obviously reflects the philosophical tradition he is coming from. (p. 13)

Stake (1995) defines analysis as “a matter of giving meaning to first impressions as well as to final compilations” (p. 71) (p. 13)

Stake describes two strategic ways to analyze data: Categorical Aggregation and Direct Interpretation, which he presents as two general strategies to handle case study data. Then, he presents specific techniques for finding the patterns which is an essential part of the two general strategies. However, he recognizes that these strategies do not constitute the right way to conduct case study analysis and he adds that “Each researcher needs, through experience and reflection, to find the forms of analysis that work for him or her” (Stake, 1995, p. 77). (p. 14)

Merriam discusses analytic techniques and data management in qualitative research before she exemplifies the special features of case study method in the three sample inquiries. Her model of qualitative data analysis for case study seems to be mostly complementary not only for Stake’s but also Yin’s rendition of case study. First of all, she defines data analysis as “the process of making sense out of the data. And making sense out of data involves consolidating, reducing, and interpreting what people have said and what the researcher has seen and read – it is the process of making meaning” (Merriam, 1998, p. 178). (p. 14)

Second, Merriam expounds upon the simultaneous data collection and analysis, which Stake briefly mentions. (p. 14)

Third, Merriam devotes a section to the strategies to manage data which complement both Yin’s and Stake’s account. Especially those novice researchers who want to make use of a computer software program to handle the data would find this section of the chapter quite useful. (p. 15)

Validating Data (p. 15)

Yin explains (construct, internal and external) validity and reliability in traditional sense at the outset of his text prior to describing the procedures of case study design and deems them as the criteria to judge the quality of the research. He repeatedly reminds the (p. 15)

Stake discusses the issues regarding validation of the gathered data in a chapter called “Triangulation.” (p. 15)

Moreover, Stake’s constructivist epistemology evinces itself in his view of data validation, which is opposed to Yin’s (2002) view. (p. 16)

Merriam’s view on data validation manifests her epistemic commitments, too. She notes “One of the assumptions underlying qualitative research is that reality is holistic, multidimensional, and ever-changing; it is not a single, fixed, objective phenomenon waiting to be discovered, observed, and measured as in quantitative research” (Merriam, 1998, p. 202). (p. 16)

Merriam observes that applying data validation criteria into an inquiry which is conducted by researchers who are coming from a totally different and opposing epistemology is “something of a misfit” (Merriam, 1998, p. 206). Therefore, she summarizes how qualitative methodologists conceive of these notions and what alternatives they present. Then, she provides techniques or strategies which qualitative researchers can use so as to enhance validity and reliability in the sense they are conceptualized in qualitative tradition. (p. 16)

Conclusion (p. 17)

Wrapping up the juxtaposition of three case study approaches, I present a table (See table 1), which can best serve to provide an overall synthesized assessment of those approaches. (p. 17)

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