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.

Qualitative Research: Why Do Participant Observation?

Writing up the case studies for my dissertation research on citizen science has required taking some time for reflection on the experience of doing qualitative research. I used a comparative case study methodology approach with fieldwork methods that included data collection through interviews, documents, and participant observation.

Participant observation, in particular, is time consuming and challenging. Retrospectively, however, I couldn’t imagine doing this research without participant observation, particularly for my “intensive” case, eBird. Why?

Here are a couple snippets of the case study that explain what fieldwork contributed to the study:

“My participant observation in eBird involved birding, monitoring and participating in birding listservs, recording my own usage of eBird over time, and attending meetings at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This experience was an integral part of this research. While I am not an ‘average’ eBirder, I match its new user demographics in terms of gender, memberships with related institutions, birding equipment owned, and level of education (nearly a third of new eBird users have a postgraduate degree.) At the time that I began fieldwork, I was younger than most new users of eBird and had no birding experience whatsoever.

Genuine participation in eBird meant that I had to learn how to bird. While I put up a bird feeder in my backyard in February 2009 when I first became interested in citizen science, I could identify only a handful of the most visible species in my area prior to participating in eBird. Learning to bird required a substantial time investment in learning how to identify wild birds, and additional investment in binoculars, field guides, audio recordings of bird calls, and backyard bird feeding supplies. As I developed basic bird identification skills and came to enjoy birding as a pastime for its own merits, I added time (and expense) to my business travels so that I could go birding in new and exotic locations. Field notes related to these birding experiences were made periodically throughout this study.”

What this translate to: birding is hard! It was much more difficult than I initially expected, and a lot more expensive.

“All of these forms of participation and observation contributed to substantially strengthening the research. I experienced the common challenges and triumphs of developing bird identification skills, learned the vocabulary of birding, and developed the same fascination with both birds and keeping lists of them that is typical of birders. Perhaps most telling in this respect, others started to describe me as an “avid birder” and friends began to come to me with questions about birds. It was a transformative experience that provided a deep appreciation of birders’ interests and enthusiasm for eBird. As a fellow birder, I now understand why each new feature elicits such excitement and gratitude from the birding community.

Following multiple email listservs provided a more thorough understanding of the broader context of the birding community and contextualized the community practices that interviewees discussed. In addition, many aspects of the birding experience are universal, and these interactions demonstrated that my that my birding and eBirding experiences are not unique.

A final benefit of participation was developing a genuine appreciation of the pleasure of birding. My daily life has been enriched by a heightened awareness of birds in my surroundings, and the rewards of birding – and more specifically, eBirding – continue to motivate me to further explore the world around me.”

What this translates to: I understand the context of this case in a way that would have been simply impossible without participant observation. And I had fun with it as well – how could I ask for anything more?

Oh yeah, let’s not forget – I got a postdoc out of it too. Not half bad, plus I have a pretty respectable life list after only a year and a half: 281 species, and counting!

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!