Hbr Case Study Methodology In Psychology

The case method is a teaching approach that uses decision-forcing cases to put students in the role of people who were faced with difficult decisions at some point in the past. In sharp contrast to many other teaching methods, the case method requires that instructors refrain from providing their own opinions about the decisions in question. Rather, the chief task of instructors who use the case method is asking students to devise and defend solutions to the problems at the heart of each case.[1]

Comparison with the casebook method of teaching law[edit]

The case method described in this article should not be confused with the casebook method used in law schools. While the case method calls upon students to take on the role of an actual person faced with difficult problem, the casebook method asks students to dissect a completed case-at-law. In other words, where the case method asks students to engage in acts of prospective synthesis, the casebook method requires them to engage in an exercise in retrospective analysis.[2]

Comparison with the "case study method"[edit]

The terms "case study method" and "case method" have long been used interchangeably. Of late, however, the meanings of the two expressions have begun to part ways. One cause of this divergence is the popularity of an approach, called the "case study method," in which the Socratic conversation is replaced by written reports and formal presentations.[3]

In the course of replacing the Socratic conversation with written reports and formal presentations, the "case study method" encourages students to augment the reading of case materials with their own research. This is in sharp contrast to the hard-and-fast rule of the "case method", which asks students to refrain from engaging in any sort of preparation that might "spoil" the case.

Decision-forcing cases[edit]

A decision-forcing case is a kind of decision game. Like any other kinds of decision games, a decision-forcing case puts students in a role of person faced with a problem (often called the "protagonist") and asks them to devise, defend, discuss, and refine solutions to that problem. However, in sharp contrast to decision games that contain fictional elements, decision-forcing cases are based entirely upon reliable descriptions of real events.

A decision-forcing case is also a kind of case study. That is, it is an examination of an incident that took place at some time in the past. However, in contrast to a retrospective case study, which provides a complete description of the events in question, a decision-forcing case is based upon an "interrupted narrative." This is an account that stops whenever the protagonist finds himself faced with an important decision. In other words, while retrospective case studies ask students to analyze past decisions with the aid of hindsight, decision-forcing cases ask students to engage problems prospectively. [4]

Criticisms of decision-forcing cases[edit]

In recent years, following corporate scandals and the global financial crisis, the case method has been criticized for contributing to a narrow, instrumental, amoral, managerial perspective on business where making decisions which maximise profit is all that matters, ignoring the social responsibilities of organisations.[5] It is argued that the case method puts too much emphasis on taking action and not enough on thoughtful reflection to see things from different perspectives. It has been suggested that different approaches to case writing, that do not put students in the ‘shoes’ of a manager, be encouraged to address these concerns. [6]

Role play[edit]

Every decision-forcing case has a protagonist, the historical person who was faced with the problem or problem that students are asked to solve. Thus, in engaging these problems, students necessarily engage in some degree of role play.

Some case teachers, such as those of the Marine Corps University, place a great deal of emphasis on role play, to the point of addressing each student with the name and titles of the protagonist of the case. (A student playing the role of a king, for example, is asked "Your Majesty, what are your orders?") Other case teachers, such as those at the Harvard Business School, place less emphasis on role play, asking students "what would you do if you were the protagonist of the case."[7]

Historical solution[edit]

After discussing student solutions to the problem at the heart of a decision-forcing case, a case teacher will often provide a description of the historical solution, that is, the decision made by the protagonist of the case. Also known as "the rest of the story", "the epilogue", or (particularly at Harvard University) "the 'B' case", the description of the historical solution can take the form of a printed article, a video, a slide presentation, a short lecture, or even an appearance by the protagonist.

Whatever the form of the description of the historical solution, the case teacher must take care to avoid giving the impression that the historical solution is the "right answer." Rather, he should point out that the historical solution to the problem serves primarily to provide students with a baseline to which they can compare their own solutions.

Some case teachers will refrain from providing the historical solution to students. One reason for not providing the historical solution is to encourage students to do their own research about the outcome of the case. Another is to encourage students to think about the decision after the end of the class discussion. "Analytic and problem-solving learning," writes Kirsten Lundgren of Columbia University, "can be all the more powerful when the 'what happened' is left unanswered.[8]

Complex cases[edit]

A classic decision-forcing case asks students to solve a single problem faced by a single protagonist at a particular time. There are, however, decision-forcing cases in which students play the role of a single protagonist who is faced with a series of problems, two or more protagonists dealing with the same problem, or two or more protagonists dealing with two or more related problems.

Decision-forcing staff rides[edit]

A decision-forcing case conducted in the place where the historical decisions at the heart of the case were made is called a "decision-forcing staff ride." Also known as an "on-site decision-forcing case", a decision-forcing staff ride should not be confused with the two very different exercises that are also known as "staff rides": retrospective battlefield tours of the type practiced by the United States Army in the twentieth century and the on-site contingency planning exercises (Stabs Reisen, literally "staff journeys") introduced by Gerhard von Scharnhorst in 1801 and made famous by the elder Hellmuth von Moltke in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

To avoid confusion between "decision-forcing staff rides" and staff rides of other sorts, the Case Method Project at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, has adopted the term "Russell Ride" to describe the decision-forcing staff rides that it conducts. The term is an homage to Major GeneralJohn Henry Russell Jr.,USMC, the 16th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and an avid supporter of the applicatory method of instruction. [9]

Sandwich metaphors[edit]

Decision-forcing cases are sometimes described with a system of metaphors that compares them to various types of sandwiches. In this system, pieces of bread serve as a metaphor for narrative elements (i.e. the start, continuation, or end of an account) and filling of the sandwich serves as a metaphor for a problem that students are asked to solve.

A decision-forcing case in which one protagonist is faced with two problems is thus a "triple-decker case." (The bottom piece of bread is the background to the first problem, the second piece of bread is both the historical solution to the first problem and the background to the second problem, and the third piece of bread is the historical solution to the second problem.) Similarly, a decision-forcing case for which the historical solution is not provided (and is thus a case with but one narrative element) is an "open-face" or "smørrebrød" case.[10]

A decision-forcing case in which students are asked to play the role of a decision-maker who is faced with a series of decisions is sometimes called a "White Castle" or "slider" case.[11]

Case materials[edit]

Case materials are any materials that are used to inform the decisions made by students in the course of a decision-forcing case. Commonly used case materials include articles that were composed for the explicit purpose of informing case discussion, secondary works initially produced for other purposes, historical documents, artifacts, video programs, and audio programs.

Case materials are made available to students at a variety times in the course of a decision-forcing case. Materials that provide background are distributed at, or before, the beginning of the class meeting. Materials that describe the solution arrived at by the protagonist and the results of that solution are passed out at, or after, the end of the class meeting. (These are called "the B-case", "the rest of the story", or "the reveal.") Materials that provide information that became available to the protagonist in the course of solving the problem are given to students in the course of a class meeting. (These are often referred to as "handouts.") [12]

Case materials may be either "refined" or "raw." Refined case materials are secondary works that were composed expressly for use as part of decision-forcing cases. (Most of the case materials that are available from case clearing houses and academic publishers are of the refined variety.) Raw case materials are those that were initially produced for reasons other than the informing of a case discussion. These include newspaper articles, video and audio news reports, historical documents, memoirs, interviews, and artifacts.[13]

Published case materials[edit]

A number of organizations, to include case clearing houses, academic publishers, and professional schools, publish case materials. These organizations include:

The narrative fallacy[edit]

The presentation of a decision-forcing case necessarily takes the form of a story in which the protagonist is faced with a difficult problem. This can lead to "the narrative fallacy", a mistake that leads both case teachers and the developers of case materials to ignore information that, while important to the decision that students will be asked to make, complicates the telling of the story. This, in turn, can create a situation in which, rather than engaging the problem at the heart of the case, students "parse the case materials." That is, they make decisions on the basis of the literary structure of the case materials rather than the underlying reality. [14]

Techniques for avoiding the narrative fallacy include the avoidance of standard formats for case materials; awareness of tropes and clichés; the use of case materials originally created for purposes other than case teaching; and the deliberate inclusion of "distractors" - information that is misleading, irrelevant, or at odds with other information presented in the case.

Purpose of the case method[edit]

The case method gives students the ability to quickly make sense of a complex problem, rapidly arrive at a reasonable solution, and communicate that solution to others in a succinct and effective manner. In the course of doing this, the case method also accomplishes a number of other things, each of which is valuable in its own right. By exciting the interest of students, the case method fosters interest in professional matters. By placing such things in a lively context, the case method facilitates the learning of facts, nomenclature, conventions, techniques, and procedures. By providing both a forum for discussion and concrete topics to discuss, the case method encourages professional dialogue. By providing challenging practice in the art of decision-making, the case method refines professional judgement. By asking difficult questions, the case method empowers students to reflect upon the peculiar demands of their profession.[15]

In his classic essay on the case method ("Because Wisdom Can't Be Told"), Charles I. Gragg of the Harvard Business School argued that "the case system, properly used, initiates students into the ways of independent thought and responsible judgement." [16]

Incompatible objectives[edit]

While the case method can be used to accomplish a wide variety of goals, certain objectives are at odds with its nature as an exercise in professional judgement. These incompatible objectives include attempts to use decision-forcing cases to:

  • provide an example to be emulated
  • paint a particular person as a hero or a villain
  • encourage (or discourage) a particularly type of behavior
  • illustrate a pre-existing theory

Thomas W. Shreeve, who uses the case method to teach people in the field of military intelligence, argues that "Cases are not meant to illustrate either the effective or the ineffective handling of administrative, operational, logistic, ethical, or other problems, and the characters in cases should not be portrayed either as paragons of virtue or as archvillains. The instructor/casewriter must be careful not to tell the students what to think—they are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with wisdom. With this method of teaching, a major share of the responsibility for thinking critically about the issues under discussion is shifted to the students, where it belongs." [17]


Case materials are often emblazoned with a disclaimer that warns both teachers and students to avoid the didactic, hortatory, and "best practices" fallacies. Here are some examples of such disclaimers:

This case is intended to serve as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either the effective or ineffective handling of a situation.

This decision-forcing case is an exercise designed to foster empathy, creativity, a bias for action, and other martial virtues. As such, it makes no argument for the effectiveness of any particular course of action, technique, procedure, or convention.

This case is intended to serve as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either the effective or ineffective handling of a situation. Its purpose is to put the student in the shoes of the decision-maker in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situations and the decisions made.

Use of the case method in professional schools[edit]

The case method is used in a variety of professional schools. These include the:

University of Fujairah- MBA Program

See also[edit]



  • Corey, Raymond (1998), Case Method Teaching, Harvard Business School 9-581-058, Rev. November 6, 1998. 
  • Gudmundsson, Bruce Ivar (2014), Decision-Forcing Cases(PDF), Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA. 
  • Hammond, J.S. (2002), Learning by the case method(PDF), HBS Publishing Division, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA 
  • Herreid, Clyde Freeman (2005), "Because Wisdom Can't Be Told: Using Case Studies to Teach Science", Peer Review (Winter 2005). 
  • Lundgren, Kirsten (2012), The Case Method: Art and Skill. 
  • McNair, Malcolm P., ed. (1954), The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff, New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  • Siddiqui, Zehra (2013), How to write a case study(PDF), William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor, MI. 

Case Study Method

Saul McLeod published 2008

Case studies are in-depth investigations of a single person, group, event or community. Typically, data are gathered from a variety of sources and by using several different methods (e.g. observations & interviews). The research may also continue for an extended period of time, so processes and developments can be studied as they happen.

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e. the patient’s personal history).

The case study method often involves simply observing what happens to, or reconstructing ‘the case history’ of a single participant or group of individuals (such as a school class or a specific social group), i.e. the idiographic approach. Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

The case study is not itself a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies. Amongst the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are observations of a person’s daily routine, unstructured interviews with the participant herself (and with people who know her), diaries, personal notes (e.g. letters, photographs, notes) or official document (e.g. case notes, clinical notes, appraisal reports). Most of this information is likely to be qualitative (i.e. verbal description rather than measurement) but the psychologist might collect numerical data as well.

The data collected can be analyzed using different theories (e.g. grounded theory, interpretative phenomenological analysis, text interpretation, e.g. thematic coding) etc. All the approaches mentioned here use preconceived categories in the analysis and they are ideographic in their approach, i.e. they focus on the individual case without reference to a comparison group.

Case studies are widely used in psychology and amongst the best known were the ones carried out by Sigmund Freud. He conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses. 

Freud's most famous case studies include Little Hans (1909a) and The Rat Man (1909b). Even today case histories are one of the main methods of investigation in abnormal psychology and psychiatry. For students of these disciplines they can give a vivid insight into what those who suffer from mental illness often have to endure.

Case studies are often conducted in clinical medicine and involve collecting and reporting descriptive information about a particular person or specific environment, such as a school. In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual. The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual's past (i.e. retrospective), as well as to significant events which are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

In order to produce a fairly detailed and comprehensive profile of the person, the psychologist may use various types of accessible data, such as medical records, employer's reports, school reports or psychological test results. The interview is also an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person's friends, parents, employer, work mates and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist, i.e. someone with a professional qualification. There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e. abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

The procedure used in a case study means that the researcher provides a description of the behavior. This comes from interviews and other sources, such as observation. The client also reports detail of events from his or her point of view. The researcher then writes up the information from both sources above as the case study, and interprets the information.

Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always make clear which information is factual description and which is an inference or the opinion of the researcher.

Strengths of Case Studies

  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways. Research which only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension to experience which is so important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person's life are related to each other. The method is therefore important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e. humanistic psychologists).

Limitations of Case Studies

  • Can’t generalize the results to the wider population.
  • Researchers' own subjective feeling may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time consuming.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group we can never be sure whether the conclusions drawn from this particular case apply elsewhere. The results of the study are not generalizable because we can never know whether the case we have investigated is representative of the wider body of "similar" instances

Because they are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e. descriptive) data a lot depends on the interpretation the psychologist places on the information she has acquired. This means that there is a lot of scope for observer bias and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit the particular theories about behavior (e.g. Little Hans). This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.


Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der "Rattenmann"). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE, 10: 151-318.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Case study method. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/case-study.html

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