Case Study Research

A legal scholar who uses the term ‘case’ will probably first think of a legal case. From a socio-legal perspective, the understanding of this concept is, however, slightly different. Case study research is a methodology that is useful to study ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions in real-life.

Over the last forty years, researchers from sociology, anthropology and various other disciplines have developed the case study research methodology dramatically. This can be confusing for legal researchers. Luckily, both Webley and Argyrou have written an article on case study research specifically for legal researchers. Webley writes, for example, that this methodology allows us to know ‘how laws are understood, and how and why they are applied and misapplied, subverted, complied with or rejected’. Both authors rely upon the realist tradition of case study research as theorised by Yin. Yin defines the scope of a case study as: “An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context, when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident”.

Before you start collecting data for your case study, it is important to think about the theory and the concepts that you will want to use, as this will very much determine what your case will be about and will help you in the analysis of your data. You should then decide which methods of data collection and sources you will consult to generate a rich spectrum of data. Observations, legal guidelines, press articles… can be useful. Legal case study researchers usually also rely extensively on interviews. The meaning that interview participants give to their experiences with legal systems can uncover the influence of socio-economic factors on the law, legal processes and legal institutions.

Case studies strive for generalisable theories that go beyond the setting for the specific case that has been studied. The in-depth understanding that we gain from one case, might help to also say something about other cases in other contexts but with similar dynamics at stake. However, you need to be careful to not generalize your findings across populations or universes.