three approaches to case study research design Qualitative Research - Cindy Jones, Behzad Mansouri, & Shelly Melchior

There are typically three names associated with the field of Case Study Research within the field of Qualitative Inquiry - Robert Stake, Robert Yin, & Sharan Merriam.

Robert Stake is one of the seminal names in the field of Case Study Research.

Stake allows for a flexible design within Case Study Research.

Flexible Design - Allows researchers to make major changes even after they have moved from the design phase to the actual research phase of the process.

Stake believes in the EXCLUSIVE use of qualitative data sources in Case Study Research (Yazan, 2015, p. 149).

Qualitative case study researchers "exploit observation, interview, and document review as data gathering tools" (Yazan, 2015, p. 149).

"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).

Stake recommends two or three research questions that "help structure observation, interviews, and document review" (1995, p. 20), and believes that "the course of the study cannot be charted in advance" (1998, p. 22).

Stake's design is recommended for those qualitative researchers who are looking for a more flexible approach to the design, research, and reporting of their findings.

Robert Yin is also one of the top three names within the field of Case Study Research.

Yin refers to case study research design as "the logical sequence that connects the empirical data to a study's initial research questions and, ultimately to its conclusions" (2002, p. 20).

If you cannot design a research question that begins with "how" or "why" - then Yin is not the methodologist you should utilize in your research.

Yin advocates two types of case study designs:

A holistic design invokes a single unit of analysis, and an embedded design involving multiple units of analysis.

In other words, a case study can be about a person, an organization, a process, but it can hone in on one distinct, bounded area of study (single), OR it can be used to analyze multiple cases to look for similarities and differences allowing the researcher to analyze data from both within and across various situations.

There are five components to case study design according to Yin:

  • a study's questions
  • its propositions
  • its unit(s) of analysis
  • the logic linking the data to the propositions
  • and the criteria for interpreting the findings (Yazan, 2015, p. 149).

Yin is an advocate for the use of both Qualitative AND Quantitative data sources.

"a research design is a logical plan for getting from here to there, where here may be defined as the set of questions to be addressed, and there is some set of conclusions about these questions. Between here and there may be found a number of major steps, including the collection and analysis of relevant data"(Yin, 2018, p. 26).

Yin is considerably less flexible than Stake - placing "considerable emphasis on preparation of a detailed design at the outset of the research" and advising "that investigators make minor changes in the design after the they begin data collection.

From Yin's perspective, if changes are necessary, researchers are to go back to the first step of the conceptualization and start over to design the study" (Yazan, 2015, p. 140).

Sharan Merriam is the final of the Big Three. Her approach is much more user-friendly and easier to navigate than the others, even if her name is not as notable as that of Stake and Yin (though arguably it should be).

For Merriam, the case is "a thing, a single entity, a unit around which there are boundaries" (1998, p. 27). This means case study research can encompass a single person, a program, a group, a policy, and more (Yazan, 2015, p. 148).

In the design phase of case study research - Merriam sees the literature review as "an essential phase contributing to theory development and design" (Yazan, 2015, p. 148).

A thorough literature review prepares the researcher to create solid research questions.

Merriam outlines five steps of case study research design:

  • conducting the literature review
  • constructing the theoretical framework
  • identifying a research problem
  • crafting and sharpening research questions
  • selecting the sample (purposeful sampling) (Yazan, 2015 p. 149).

Merriam, like Stake, believes in the exclusive use of Qualitative data sources.

Merriam suggests using interviews, observations, and analyzing documents, and believes a qualitative case study researcher must acquire the necessary skills along with the following of outlined procedures in order to effectively do all three (Yazan, 2015, p. 149).

Hope you enjoyed this short look at the three different designs of case study research as created by the very names synonymous with this particular research method, Stake, Yin, and Merriam.

In the end, your design will reflect who you are as a researcher. Each name offers both benefits and drawbacks, and you may even find that it is necessary to use pieces of all three in order to produce your best work.

The best advice we can give you is that these experts didn't begin that way. They started just as you did, as we did, and so rely on foundational expertise, but the beauty of this process is that you remain as part of both process and product. What a beautiful thing that truly is.


Merriam, S. (1998). Case studies as qualitative research. In Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, pp. 26-43.

Stake, R. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Yazan, B. (2015). Three approaches to case study methods in education: Yin, Merriam, and Stake. The Qualitative Report, 20(3), pp.134-152.

Yin, R. (2018). Case study research and applications: Designs and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.