Case Study Writing Strategies

This is a tale of the two approaches I took to writing up case study research based on fieldwork and qualitative coding.

When I started writing up my dissertation case studies, I really had no idea how to do it. I’d read plenty of case studies but never tried to emulate them. I did, however, have a handy-dandy theoretical framework that needed to be worked into the findings.

I had three cases to report and more than enough data. Multiple case studies are typically used for comparative purposes, meaning that not only does this research design require writing up the individual cases, but also a cross-case comparison. I ended up writing four chapters to cover all of that material, with about 184 pages for the three cases and around 50 pages for the cross-case comparison.

I started off by writing up the case that had the most data – might as well get the big one out of the way, right? I wish I’d taken the reverse approach so that I would have saved some work when I found that my first try at writing up a case fell flat!

Method 1: Theoretical Framework Laundry List

I was told to be thorough in my dissertation writing. That may have been a mistake on my advisor’s part, as the final document was over 400 pages long, but I was determined to be as methodical and thorough as I could.

I started off by structuring my case description by the theoretical framework that I had developed. I went through every code in my framework and pulled out illustrative quotes that I organized under each heading, and then wrote up what I found for each concept in the framework. Even with rich and interesting empirical data to draw upon, however, it was deadly dull. It turned into a horrific laundry list in which readers became lost, much like one of those freaky hedge mazes you see in horror movies. It was ponderous and really soporific.

Repeating that two more times for the cases? No way. It was extremely slow and laborious writing, jerky and discordant, and there was no way I could meet my writing deadlines with that strategy. Fortunately, my writing group set me straight and offered suggestions of alternative structures. I listened, as one should when others are kind enough to read through drafts of heavy academic material and give thoughtful comment thereupon. Then I started over.

Method 2: Semi-Structured Thematic Template

I started over by cutting the chapter into strips and then physically coding and rearranging them into themes. Suddenly, there was a story and a flow to the material!

The first draft of the case study, cut into shreds and reassembled into a new structure.

It was done in a day. I remembered (just in time) to mark each strip of paper with the page number from which the material originated so that I could find it in the digital document to cut and paste. The process of cutting, pasting, and smoothing over transitions took another couple of days. I had every theoretical concept covered, and the material took on a much more palatable and interesting shape.

As I wrote the next two cases up, I started again with quotes, retrieving them systematically and writing up notes on the insights gleaned from them. Next, I organized them thematically rather than by conceptual framework constructs. It was easy to write the material that connected the quotes into a (mostly) coherent story, and much more interesting as the writing process generated more insights. I actually had fun with a lot of that writing!

I structured each case study chapter to start with sections providing the history and organizational setting of the case, an overview of the technologies and participation processes, and then continued from there with the thematic sections. At the end of each chapter, I included a summary with the main themes from each case and linked the highlights back to the research questions and constructs therein.

The overly-structured approach to writing a case study was painful and frustrating, but going with my intuition (while remaining steadfastly systematic) produced better results much faster. It also reduced repetition from linking concepts together and made those relationships much clearer. I expect every researcher will have to figure out an individual writing strategy, but it’s valuable to remember that the first approach may not be the best, and taking a different tack does not mean throwing out all the work you’ve already done.

The strategy for constructing the case comparison chapter, however, was a different matter entirely and a story for another day.

Postdoc Plans

Those who follow me on Twitter (@AndreaWiggins) already heard the good news: I’ve accepted a postdoc offer with DataONE!

I’ll work with Bill Michener at the University of New Mexico (in Albuquerque, NM), but will be physically stationed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (in Ithaca, NY – about an hour from my house), where I’ll be co-advised by Rick Bonney. The position will last for 2 years, assuming I do alright in year 1, and I’ll be starting in August 2012.

I’ll be working on issues related to data management in citizen science, technical writing for DataONE, and my own research – publishing from my dissertation and getting some new projects under way. A particularly brilliant aspect of this position is that my co-advisors are gold-star grantwriters, both with millions of dollars of grant awards to their names.

Now, let me disabuse you of the notion that I’m doing a postdoc because I couldn’t get a faculty job. Au contraire. I won’t go into any details, but suffice it to say, I had other options. Other very attractive options that I’m sad to pass up for the moment. Nonetheless, I expect the institutions that I’ve targeted for the next stage in my career (after the postdoc, that is) will still be there in two years, and I have it on good authority that several of them will still be hiring. I just hope they’ll be hiring for what I do.

This postdoc will provide a unique opportunity for skill development and practical impact, and it’s a one-time deal. I really enjoy the people I’ll be working with, and I’m excited about the contributions I can make to DataONE.

Research-Life Balance

There’s no such thing. Well, maybe there is, but a lot of researchers probably don’t realize it.

I’ve been told several times by my learned elders that the best way to have a happy life as a researcher is to blur the line between work and play. The problem with this wisdom is that I can always tell the difference between work and play: some things are fun, and some are not. Things that I don’t really consider play include: reviewing papers, revising papers, articulation work (the work you have to do in order to do your real work), coordinating, logistics, transcription, data cleaning, grading – need I go on? There’s plenty more where that came from.

I can sort of relate to this research-as-play concept, however, since I’ve always loved doing analysis and I enjoy qualitative data collection. I like hearing people’s stories when I interview them. I like writing papers, for the most part, and I really like presenting. I like designing courses and working with students. Perhaps I’m just a little too literal when I question the idea that one should not experience the work-play dichotomy as such, but not all parts of research, or of the academic enterprise, are all that much fun. I just can’t find much fun in hammering out workshop logistics, for example, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few days.

But from another angle, I’ve been incredibly successful in blurring the line between research and play. The leisure activities that I most enjoy include spending time outdoors, hiking, photography, and now that I’ve taken it up for my dissertation research, birding. The topic of my research – technologies supporting public participation in scientific research – therefore lends itself very well to mixing business and pleasure.

My research requires me to spend time birdwatching, gardening, and hiking: next month I’ll be wrapping up my fieldwork by going on a wildflower hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This experiential  approach (participant observation) helps me better understand how citizen science projects work, and it’s fun! Not just a little bit fun, but a lot of fun!

For example, today I dallied on my walk home from campus – in the rain – because I stumbled into a patch of warblers. I spent an hour spotting 9 species of warblers and an Indigo bunting, instead of zipping home in the usual 13 minutes. It was really exciting since it means 5 additions to my life list of birds, and they were beautiful creatures. Then I had to spend another hour with my field guides verifying my identifications of the birds. All of that is part of my research. Of course, I do have to take extensive field notes – not exactly fun per se – and spend oodles of time analyzing the experiences, but at least it’s something I can enjoy in the moment, and that pleasure is relevant to the research as well.

Enjoying my research is not accidental. When I chose a dissertation focus, I selected a topic that I’m passionate about, that capitalizes on my skills, and that offers endless variety. This is not a research topic I’m going to find boring by the time I defend my dissertation, and I’ve been working in this area for a little over two years. I did not pick this topic solely because I want to hang out in National Parks. I chose it because I think it’s really important: technology allows more and more people to become directly involved in doing science, which both enriches their lives and makes a substantial impact on what science can achieve. Every time I stop doing it long enough to think about it, I’m excited about my research.

People often respond to my description of my dissertation work by saying things like, “I should change my research focus so I can go hiking for my dissertation,” but the specifics of my fieldwork are atypical for my field. And the fieldwork is not the whole story; like nearly all of my colleagues, I spend substantially more time at a computer than I do in the field. Systematically analyzing the mountains of data produced by 5 days of hiking in the mountains is going to take many, many hours, and not all of that will be much (any?) fun. That’s just how research works.

But my fieldwork photos are going to make some awesome dissertation defense slides!