Using case studies to untangle complexity and learn from progress

Research reports and studies
October 2012
Jakob Engel and Susan Nicolai
This Project Note examines what case studies can and cannot tell us about why improvements in well-being happen. It lays out methodological considerations for the use of case studies, including how they have been used by other development policy research projects, and how this has informed case study research in Development Progress.

Key messages:

  • Several recent public policy research projects, including ODI’s Development Progress, have used case study-based approaches and research designs to understand causes of progress in development. Case studies can elucidate historical processes and important decisions, providing analysis and guidance about how problems and constraints at the core of disappointing development outcomes were resolved.
  • While case studies can provide a clearer understanding of the main causal factors, decisions, and events that contribute to an outcome, case study analysis has its limitations and potential biases, and should be interpreted in a way that complements other forms of analysis.
  • Past case study research under Development Progress has demonstrated the importance of having a clear and transparent, yet pragmatic, process for case selection, developing a detailed research plan and overarching research questions, and of being cautious with causal claims and instead focusing on describing the sequence of decisions and events and their plausible contribution to an outcome.