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By Roger Oakeley

The case study has become a staple in the development diet of those seeking to evaluate and learn from development experience. This is by no means accidental. Case study-based research provides a powerful means of understanding the non-linear, complex process that defines most development experience. It is also an effective and digestible method of presenting results and tracing the impact of intervention approaches, decision-making and actions on development outcomes.

But, like many development tools, in the wrong hands the case study is often misused and misinterpreted. As ODI point out in Using case studies to untangle complexity and learn from progress ,”…case study analysis has its limitations and potential biases, and should be interpreted in a way that complements other forms of analysis.”. Considerable variation exists in the quality of case studies according to the planning and preparation that goes into them but also the motivation and objectives of those who write them. The ‘case study’ now denotes a broad spectrum of products, from the substantive and objectively written academic research product to the thin, glossy contractor/INGO promotional piece and everything in between.

How then should a serious would-be case study author set about ensuring his/her research leads to a case that is credible rather than incredible and which adds value rather than vacuity to development discourse? In this age of on-line decision tools, albeit at the risk of turning a complex decision-making process into a ‘tick-box’ exercise, I thought a simple questionnaire may be of use to the indecisive amongst us. Answering the following 10 questions – with due honesty and integrity – might just help you decide whether or not you have a valid case study to offer.

Circle the number in brackets against the answer that most accurately reflects your situation.

Your Aim

1. What made you first consider writing a case study?
a) You have a website that needs content (1)
b) You have a line manager who needs content (2)
c) You want to understand what is working and what isn’t (3)

2. Who do you regard as your primary audience?
a) Your donor (1)
b) Other researchers (2)
c) Development practitioners and policy makers (3)

Your Methodology

3. Do you have a pre-defined research framework? 
a) Yes – it needs to be finished before I go on leave (1)
b) Yes – I’ve drafted a set of questionnaires and interview schedules (2)
c) I have a basic research plan and a set of research questions to answer (3)

4. Do you have a clear hypothesis you will be testing? 
a) Yes – that our standard programme format fits perfectly in any context (1)
b) Yes – in fact several have emerged from the analysis so far (2)
c) Yes – it was this question that inspired the case to begin with (3)

5. What is your primary source of information?
a) Our grant recipients (1)
b) Project reports (2)
c) I am using multiple sources (3)

6. How will you ensure your data source(s) are robust?
a) By insisting they (our grant recipients) answer honestly and objectively (1)
b) Giving priority to participatory research methodologies (2)
c) Triangulating data whenever possible (3)

Your Results

7. Are you able to attribute change to your project?
a) In the absence of a counterfactual, its 100% (1)
b) Genuine attribution is a pipe-dream (2)
c) I have a credible theory of change I aim to prove or disprove (3)

8. Which tense do you intend to write in? 

a) Future (1)
b) Present perfect progressive (2)
c) Past (3)

9. What is your key metric for sustainability?

a) Funding has been secured for a project extension (1)
b) We’ve introduced the approach in all our other projects (2)
c) We have data on the processes of behavioural change and wider system response (3)

Your Lessons

10. Do clear lessons emerge from the case?
a) Yes. It is clear that our project is worth promoting (1)
b) Yes. But it’s more important the reader draws their own conclusion (2)
c) Yes. The experience is interpreted through a set of lessons and tentative recommendations (3)

Congratulations! You’ve finished. For each answer you circled a corresponding number. Add those numbers together to get your total score.


10 – 16
You’ve not got much to say of any depth or substance, and as a result have a potentially massive audience out there in the development field amongst those too busy or cowed to think. Out of interest, have you considered a career in tabloid journalism?

17 – 23
You have a few useful points to make and you seem to have a knack for pleasing a broad range of audiences and agendas, but you do also lack the courage of your convictions. You may already work for a donor agency, but have you considered a career in politics?

24 – 30
You have some valid learning worth sharing with the wider development field. Your audience may be small and somewhat select, but one worth your effort reaching out to. It sounds like you are in the right career…don’t give up on your case.

For those of you still enthused to put pen to paper (score notwithstanding!), the above exercise has hopefully provided a few morsels of food for thought. The case study remains a potentially valuable and credible tool for development learning so long as that value and credibility is given due consideration beforehand rather than as an afterthought. Would-be authors are strongly encouraged to reflect on the why (aim), the who (audience), the how (method and measurement) and, perhaps most importantly, the so what (lessons) before taking up the case study challenge. For the reflective amongst you, I look forward to the read. Good luck!

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