Case Studies

This is the last stats blog of the semester (and hopefully my life), so I thought I’d write it about something I actually had an opinion on to start with! Case studies!

There’s been quite a few blogs about case studies and whether they’re any good, and I think they’ve taken a fair beating. Personally, I think a lot of research would either not have started or wouldn’t be going anywhere if it wasn’t for case studies. Of course, they have their disadvantages (like everything does);

  • Results from one case study can’t be generalised to a wider population
  • Generally too unethical to replicate
  • No control over environment, the case is studied purely in hindsight

Saying this, the disadvantages of a case study can often turn into an advantage;

  • studying one person/case means you can’t generalise the results, but it does mean that you get more detailed data
  • A lot of case studies can’t be replicated because it would be too unethical, but with case studies, we can still see the effects of a particular event that occurs naturally but would be too unethical to create. For example, sticking a metal pole through someone’s brain is an ethical no-no, but luckily for us (not so lucky for him…), this is exactly what happened to Phineas Gage (, and it gave researchers at the time something to go on when looking into what different parts of the brain are responsible for.
  • We have no control over the environment (because we don’t know what’s happening at the time, we just hear about it afterwards), but this means that it is completely natural, so in a way doesn’t that make the results a little bit more generalisable?

Obviously, there are endless discussions about what’s good and bad about case studies and which is more important (do you want detail or generalisability?), but in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Case studies have the ability to spark new research or give us more insight into topics that are too unethical to study, and for the control that case studies lack, follow up experiments based on said case study can make up for! Win-win for everyone, I suppose.

One case study that particularly got me on this pro-case study rant was the study of the ‘wild child’, Genie ( Anyone who did A-Level psychology probably already knows the details, but the general principle is that a child was brought up without any human contact – she couldn’t walk properly, speak and seemingly had no emotional attachments to anyone. The conditions she was brought up in were too unethical for any lab experiment to replicate, or even be remotely similar to, which is why I think (in this case especially) case studies are so useful. I found the study really interesting, and its worth having a look at if it’s the sort of thing you find interesting and you’d like to avoid all those assignments we have due in…




Comments on: "Case Studies" (9)

  1. Very nicely written blog. I particularly liked the fact that you looked at the disadvantages and turned them into the strong points of the case studies. I personally believe that case studies are necessary However in some cases they would not be suitable. E.g. Thierry et al.2007 found that the N170 stimulus is not face selective. In a question like this having ERP results of only one participant, in form of a graph of an average activity of the brain would tell you nothing. However there are cases which single cases which are extremely rare. You mentioned Phineas Gage, I believe it’s an excellent example as his condition was caused by an accident. But there were other patients with extreme brain lesions. E.g. Broca’s patient Leborgne, or Werkicke’s patient Tan. These single case studies are important as patients with such lesions are extremely rare. Therefore there would be no other way of testing them than a single case study.

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  3. You mentioned quite a few good points in your blog entry. I agree that case studies appear to be relatively specific and it can be difficult to generalise their results. However, case studies usually result out of accidental situations that are unethical to reproduce, but often greatly benefit science as you have pointed out by naming the Phineas Gage example. Another example for such unexpected discovery in applying a case study methodology is known as “The Beat Goes On”. In the process of helping a Parkinson’s patient to overcome some of his daily struggles, it was found that there is a strong connection between the auditory and motor systems. This discovery of music and rhythm enabling the upper body mobility in Parkinson’s patients has contributed richly to physical therapy treatment in the previous years to a great amount.
    Therefore, I suggest that the main strength of using case studies in psychological research lies in its ecological validity. It is hard to disagree that findings observed throughout this method are not true or life relevant since it has been studied in much depth. On the other hand, its major disadvantage is probably the lack of its scientifically credible method to future research.
    To conclude, case studies despise their limitations of being reproducible and generalizable; demonstrate to be helpful in particular to bring understanding to causes and origin of abnormal behaviour. As shown in Thigpen and Cleckley’s (1954) study on multiple personality with their patient Eve White.

  4. Nicely written, I happen to agree with you completely at the absolute usefulness of case studies, after all even if they aren’t generalizable they are still an example of a human condition we were previously unaware of, therefore how can they not be valuable. They create a point on reference or open our eyes to things we wouldn’t have been able to find out without them, think of Clive Wearing and Leborgne. I particularly enjoyed how you turned the proposed disadvantages to positive points, good work. Perhaps you could have mentioned more about real life validity, if it happens without the intervention of a researcher how much more valid could it get?

  5. I really liked reading your blog. A good take on turning disadvantages into advantages 🙂 I agree with you that case studies are very useful. I think so, because they provide such detailed and rich information about different cases. They cover a lot and so there is a lot to take out of them. I believe that case studies are a good tool for generating new ideas. They also allow researchers to investigate sometimes impractical or unethical situations. Talking about case studies, there are so many different types of them as well, which I think is an advantage. For example, there is an explanatory one, which is used to do causal investigations. There is also, exploratory case study, or the one that is used as a prelude to further research. Also, descriptive, intrinsic, collective and instrumental case studies should not be forgotten. Another good thing about case studies is that there are so many ways of getting the information needed. For example, we are not just talking about interviews here, but also documents, archival records, physical artefacts and observations. So, I think that there is a lot more in a case study than most people think of them.

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  7. Hey, great blog. However I have to disagree with you and say that case studies have no place in psychology. The reason for this is psychology is a science. One of the key tenants of a science is the ability to replicate an experiment. If a study cannot be replicated then it holds no scientific merit. The example you raise of Genie is fascinating, however as we can’t repeat the study (and rightly so) we have to say that any research conducted with Genie cannot be applied to the general population. Experiment in psychology need to follow the principle set out by Karl Popper on Falisifcation. Karl Popper stated that if a theory cannot be proved wrong then it is meaningless. And as we cannot disprove a case study like Genie it holds no scientific value.

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