Finding Multiple Sources of Data in Case Study Research

Qualitative Methodology

A case study is a common research design choice for graduate students conducting qualitative research. Case study designs tend to not be as laborious and time consuming as ethnography or grounded theory, and they are robust enough to help researchers address many different types of research questions. However, a defining feature of case studies is that multiple sources of data need to be gathered and analyzed. This requirement catches many students off guard; some students will make it as far as their Institutional Review Board (IRB) application without knowing exactly what pieces of data to collect besides interviews. As such, identifying and finding multiple data sources can be a significant hurdle to overcome in the completion of your dissertation. Here we provide a few points of guidance on finding multiple sources of data.

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For most case studies, the primary source of data will be participant interviews. Figuring out what to collect in addition to the interview data is the challenge. Stake (1995) discussed two other potential sources of data for case study research: observation and document review. Observations can be done of individuals within the case in their natural setting. For example, if you were conducting a case study on teachers within a specific school, you might observe them in the classroom, at faculty meetings, or during other school functions. Note that observations are not the same thing as notes taken during interviews. As Stake (1995) noted, interviews are guided by the researcher, whereas observations involve taking notes and documenting unguided, naturally-occurring events.

The second additional source of data is document review. Documents can be reports, newspaper articles, pamphlets, correspondences, or written records of events within the case you are studying. Going back to the teacher example, some potential documents that you could gather in such a study might include minutes from faculty meetings, academic achievement reports, or school newsletters. It is important to note that academic journal articles, such as the articles that you describe in your literature review, are not considered data.

Your research topic and the specific case you are studying will dictate exactly what kinds of observations you can do and what kinds of documents you can collect. One of the most effective ways to identify multiple sources of data is to have discussions with your community partners (i.e., the individuals or organizations you are working with to recruit participants) to determine what possibilities exist. You will also need to draw upon your own knowledge of the topic to determine what kinds of data will provide the best information to help you answer your research questions.

The final issue you need to consider is exactly how many sources of data you are required to have. Technically, you need at least two sources of data for a case study. However, your dissertation chair, committee members, or school may require at least three data sources.

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Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Sage.