Since I'm looking at doing a case study for my thesis and we've been discussing Robert Yin in class, I borrowed his book entitled Case study research: Design and methods (2003) from the library. This book has been extremely useful in building the justification for a case study design and understanding/addressing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. When defining the research approach, Yin notes that: “a case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and context are not clearly evident. (p. 13)"
By pressing the importance of examining the phenomenon within its context, Yin contrasts case studies to, for example, experiments, where phenomena can be tested removed from their environment - in the laboratory context. This makes me thing of Walsham's synthesized framework, which many of us studied in INF1003. In Interpreting Information Systems in Organizations, Walsham suggests different points of entry for IS research, including examining context, content and processes. Walsham also wrote a detailed methodological article called "Doing interpretive research" (2006). Because interpretive IS research fits well with the case study approach defined by Yin, I think that the two authors complement each other well. Chapter 7 of Knight's Small scale research (2002) also gives very practical advice for data collection and interaction with the research subjects.
Interestingly, Yin notes the weakness of case studies, particularly single-case studies, which do not benefit from the comparative element of multi-case studies. He explains that, like single experiments, single-case studies are vulnerable to misinterpretation and access issues. This loops back to last week's post, in which I briefly discussed the importance of, and anxiety related to, obtaining appropriate access to the subjects in the case study. I do think, however, that Yin's six sources of data for case studies can address these problems - documentation, archival records, interviews, direct observation, participant observation. When studying online information systems, some of this data can be collected through interaction with the system itself and by accessing publicly available records.
Going back to the question of studying phenomena within their environments, I am also reminded of Bruno Latour's commentary on the separation between lab and field research in science, in Pandora's Hope. As an outsider, he is struck by the abstraction and subjectivity necessary for lab studies in botany. He explains that a plant sample, for example, has no meaning outside of the context in which it has evolved and that the recall of the field researcher is necessary to fill in that context. When using the case study approach, it may thus be possible to reduce the gap between the case itself and the researcher's abstraction and categorization, as it is never removed from its context.