Participatory case study work: What it is, how it functions and our adaptations to the approach

Participatory case study work

What it is, how it functions and our adaptations to the approach

Sion Williams and John Keady


This opening chapter will establish the parameters of what constitutes participatory case study work in ageing studies by drawing upon and modifying the work of Reilly (2010). We will map the key features, principles and practices of participatory' case study work and locate its position within the broader tradition and approaches of case study. The roots of participatory case study work will be aligned to Paul Freire’s contribution and the importance of engaging participants, groups and/or communities in all phases of case study work and research process, from design to dissemination. We will focus on the key dynamics of doing participatory case study work and our adaptations to the approach, including the language used to describe the participants in the study which we position as the academic co-researcher and participant co-researcher(s). Further adaptations include the vision and values necessary to reach the authentic voice and the operationalisation of the ‘stepping model’ to showcase how these roles operate in practice. Finally, the chapter will explore the outcomes and impacts leading from participatory case study work focused on locating the ‘authentic voice’ of participant co-researchers. This centres on dynamic processes that are responsive to change and context yet also situationally grounded. As such, outcomes are primarily framed as a personal and/or a collective theory with opportunities for action through learning within, and far beyond, the particular context of the participatory case study work.

Locating case study work

We can, and I think must, look upon human life as chiefly a vast interpretive process in which people, singly and collectively, guide themselves by defining the objects, events and situations which they encounter.

(Bhrmer. 1956 cited in Detrziu, 1988, p.l)

Initially, before exploring the key features of participatory case study work, it is important to pause and reflect on what can be viewed as the bovtndaries of case study work and consider how the field is positioned and understood. With reference to Blumer’s writing, Denzin (1988) describes the essence of qualitative work as a complex interpretive process that forms part of the ‘research act’. This, in many respects, underpins the use of case study work in a qualitative context, centred on an attempt to understand the complexity of human life and its interpretive process through the lens of the case as a bounded system (Stake, 2000) or bounded phenomenon (Mabry, 2008), examined in the form of a single or a multiple set of cases. The position adopted by Stake (2005) is helpful in locating the nature of case study work as a common way to do qualitative inquiry yet best viewed as not a ‘methodological choice’ (p.443). Although pursued using a range of analytical approaches ranging from the hermeneutic to mixed methods, the case is centre stage as the ‘prime referent’ (Stake, 2005, p.444). However, for Stake (2005), the position of the researcher is also central with regards to the case, acknowledging the human condition: ‘If case study research is more humane or in some ways transcendent, it is because the researchers are so, not because of the methods’ (p.443).

Within the breadth of case study work, its development has resulted in a wide range of applications operating across a range of disciplines from psychology to anthropology (Yin, 2018). For instance, Gening (2017) utilises both a quantitative and qualitative form of analysis amidst what can be seen as an ‘ambiguous design’ (p.xx) and Yin (2014; 2018) develops a highly flexible approach to using case study in a variety of contexts. Yet, case work and case study may be positioned within a deeply qualitative frame of reference, embedded in a naturalistic and interpretivist approach, including addressing inequality in power relations and structures such as within critical ethnography (Mabiy, 2008). Indeed, Stake (1998) highlights how the concept of a case study is fraught with debate and a degree of pluralism, especially when it is combined with a range of adopted positions about how to define what is understood as the ‘case’. As Stake (1998) goes on to suggest, a case may be ‘simple or complex’ (p.87) as well as involve a focus on more than one case study, although ‘each case study is a concentrated inquiry into a single case’ (p.87).

At the core is the intrinsic case as a starting point and the balancing of studying the particular and then mapping how the particular may relate, either as small steps or more substantively towards wider generalisation. This outcome will depend upon the purpose of the study in focusing exclusively on the single case or reflecting on the intrinsic as a platform for understanding a wider phenomenon as part of a collective set of cases (Stake, 1998). In this way, case study work represents either an intensive focus on a single case or set of cases and these may ‘shed light on a larger population of cases’ (Gening, 2017, p.28). However, for Stake (2005), as a starting point, case study work is primarily centred on designing a study to ‘optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it’ (p.443).

The majority of case study research is interested in the particular, the intrinsic case, and understanding the case within its wider context and based on a ‘thick description’ leading to learning (Stake, 2005). Nonetheless, within case study work, comparison is a key feature shaped by the researcher’s stance as to how they approach case work. Consequently, a more qualitative or quantitative style of case study sets different boundaries around the comparative frame of reference, delineating the degree of cross-case analysis that builds on the witliin-case reflection (Stake, 2005). As part of the canon of case study work, Robext K. Yin and Robert E. Stake have been prominent exponents of its values and both have mapped its key features and ways of advancing the field (Baxter and Jack, 2008). Moreover, both Yin and Stake have built on the principles and characteristics of case study work, outlining how to approach case study design as well as its implementation. As such, these authors delineate the nature of single or multiple case study work, extending across its framing as either descriptive, exploratory or explanatory (Yin, 2014). In a similar way, Stake (2000; 2005) details the nuances of intrinsic, instrumental and collective case study types, shaped by a puxpose centred on predominately understanding the paiticular or examining a wider, more general perspective. Overall, therefore, case study work may contribute through its reporting to advancing knowledge and its transfer, depending upon the researcher’s puipose and design. It may also extend beyond detailing ‘human experience’, refine theory' and inform policy (such as in evaluation case studies) and provide a basis for ‘refining action options and expectations’ (Stake, 2005, p.460).

The long-standing criticism of case study has often emphasised its limitations as being solely exploratoxy in nature, without sufficient regard for its explanatoxy power (Yin, 2018). However, Yin (2018) challenges the erosive set of claims against case study work, focused on its rigour. Indeed, the work of Yin (2014) has signalled the scope, utility and flexibility of case study work across single and multiple cases, ranging from descriptive, exploratory to explanatory designs. As a result, the texts by Yin provide a lich resource for researchers with a scaffolding of guidance, methods, tools and techniques since ‘doing case study research remains one of the most challenging of all social science endeavours’ (Yin, 2018, p.3).

Arguably, amidst the diversity and pluralism of case study research, the arena of qualitative work has not been ‘ frilly explored’ (Yin, 2018, p. 18), a theme reiterated by Gening (2017). Yin (2018) suggests that case study remains problematic as a ‘type of qualitative research’ (p.18) due to the context of defining the case, triangulation across diverse sources and the role of quantitative data. The scope of case study work bey'ond thick description or observational data is also seen as a challenge to its positioning as a qualitative approach, supporting the assertion that case study is framed as a separate entity from qualitative research, as evidenced in the discipline of psychology (Yin, 2018). However, Creswell and Poth (2017) emphasise the utility and importance of case study as pait of the repertoire of approaches within qualitative research. Yet, ‘The Art of Case Study Research’ was first published by Robert E. Stake in the mid-1990s, highlighting the opportunities for a deeply qualitative enterprise and delineated a framework for practice centred on intrinsic, instrumental and collective cases (Stake, 1995). This was subsequently followed by a plethora of similar writing (Stake, 1998; 2000; 2005;

2006) that develops the qualitative agenda. Arguably, the arena of qualitative case study work presents an opportunity to provide a depth of understanding where there are ‘instances of greater complexity’ (Mabry, 2008, p.214) and it is in this space that participatory case study work exists and to which we will return a little later in the chapter.

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