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close this bookCreative Training - A User's Guide (IIRR, 1998, 226 pages)
close this folderMaking and using case studies
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View the documentMaking a case study
View the documentUsing a case study


Case studies use a storyline approach to document projects, processes, issues and events.


Making a case study


· existing documents that give background information
· optional: camera/video camera/tape recorder


Takes a few hours to several days


Making a case study can open 'a can of worms' since it may lead to the group/community identifying new problems. How will you deal with these? Avoid raising expectations that you cannot fulfill.

1. Decide as a group the focus of the case study. Is it an intention to explore an event, project or process in which the participants have played a part or is it to look at an issue that has affected their community or another community? Field trips can provide an excellent source to put together a case study (see Field Trips).

2. Ask the following important questions.

· What are the main issues that we want to draw out and explore in making this case study?

· Are we doing the case study just for our own learning or do we want it to be used later by other people? If so, who will these be and how will they use it?


If the case study touches on controversial issues, be aware that you may be placing individuals or whole communities in difficult or even dangerous positions. Make sure participants understand the implications of putting their views 'on record'. Some may wish to remain anonymous. Also be careful of libel; if you are going to make an accusation in a case study, make sure you can back it up.

3. Bring together all the background information needed. Decide what new information you need and how to get it, e.g., what places need to be visited and who are the people to be interviewed?

4. Work together to collect the new information. (Action Research offers useful advice on how to do this.)

5. Work with the participants in producing an outline of what has happened; this usually leads to heated debate. Ideally, anybody outside the group who had been interviewed should also be there. Try to draw out the views of all the participants. Reaching a consensus can be a lengthy but enlightening process. You might want to highlight the differences of opinion in your case studies, but be careful that the main points are not lost.

6. Discuss what medium you want to present your story line in, for example, written, video, drama, comic strip and photo story (a series of photos with captions and speech bubbles). You might be able to draw on legends and use dance, theater or mime particular to the participants or community (see Folkstorytelling).



Comic strip


Photo story

7. Ensure that the case study 'flows'. A possible framework for looking at a project is:

· Introduction, i.e., setting the scene.
· How the project was implemented, the event happened or the issue affected people.
· What is happening now?
· Conclusion, i.e., what we can draw out from this?


· The terms 'introduction' and 'conclusion' sound rather dry, so try to think of something else to call them in your actual case study. For example, "In the beginning was a sausage factory...."

· Include what went wrong when doing a case study on a project or process as this can often provide useful insights.

· A bit of humor will go a long way in making the case study enjoyable, so try to incorporate amusing anecdotes - and visual humor if making a video or a play.

8. Be prepared to have to go through various drafts in making the case study.

9. If the subject of the case study is people outside the group making the case study, give them a copy of the case study, credit their involvement, and keep them informed if the case study is being used elsewhere and the feedback it had.


In Loon, Bohol, Philippines, a high school student wrote a play script about a case of illegal fishing where the fisherfolk were caught using dynamite and ended up in prison. With very limited funding from a local organization, the drama was presented to over 300 people at the local fiesta. Local leaders, fisherfolks and many other people attended and so became aware of the dilemmas involved. Particularly effective was a scene that showed how distressed a fisherfolk's family was when he was arrested and imprisoned. The drama was videoed and is now used as a training tool with fisherfolk in the whole of Bohol.



People's Organizations for Social Transformation (POST), a network of community-based organization in Northern Philippines, wanted to produce case studies that would help their organizations understand how all their livelihoods were interlinked. For example, tailings from the mining in the mountains were polluting the coastal fishing areas, forcing fishers to migrate to the mountains in search of work in vegetable gardens.

The first case study was done with a fishing cooperative in La Union. At a community meeting, the history of the cooperative was discussed, leading to much debate. That night, one of the field workers produced a rough draft of the story for feedback from the others. The final comic strip was made by an artist in Baguio, drawing caricatures of the members of the people's organization based on photos. Copies were printed for all the organizations. The fisherfolks were pleased to see their story put into such a professional format. However, it might have been better for the artist to have gone to La Union and worked with the community to produce the final comic strip so that they would have learn these skills.

Using a case study


This takes up to one day.

Before the session

1. Choose a case study that is appropriate for the group and that will prompt the kind of discussion you plan to have. You may want to adapt a case study to make it culturally relevant. Do not be tempted to change too much or all the details will be lost.

2. Familiarize yourself with the case study. Write discussion questions and try answering them yourself beforehand.

3. Make sure that any equipment required is working and that you know how to use it.


Some case studies can trigger strong emotions. Be aware of how participants may react to the case study you have chosen.

Errrh... How does this video player work?

During the session

1. Present the case study. If it is a written one, it may be best to hand out copies to all the participants but also ask someone - with a talent for storytelling - to read it out

2. Ask the participants to divide themselves into small groups of three to six and spend about 30 minutes discussing the case study, using a list of questions as a guide. People may be more confident about speaking in small groups. Ask them to write all their comments on a large sheet of paper.

Possible questions

· What is the case study about?

· How were the main issues or problems resolved? Would you have resolved them differently?

· How did the personalities of the people involved and their relationships to each other effect what happened?

· Were the views of any people left out from the case study?

· What did the case study not tell you, i.e., Where were the gaps?

· What do you think will happen next? (You could give participants just part of the case study, ask this question, and then show them the rest of the case study to see how their answers compare to what actually happened.)

· How does the case study relate to your own experiences in your work or life?

3. Ask the small groups to report back to the rest of the group. Take one idea from each group at a time for the others to discuss.

4. Ask the participants to further explore the case studies through activities. For example:

· Rewrite the case study from the perspective of one of the people featured in it.

· Have a debate where participants take on the role of different characters in the case study and discuss the program from their perspective.

· Perform a drama to explore a particular issue raised, e.g., the role of women in fish marketing.

· Produce a 'people sculpture' where participants use their bodies to produce a sculpture that symbolizes the main message of the case study, e.g., the need to work together. (This is a useful summing up exercise.)




Participants make their own mini-case studies

If the training is to last several days, there is time for participants to make and present their own mini-case studies, based on their own work or life. They can then share and get advice on these.


· They appeal to people's enjoyment of stories and so - if imaginatively presented -are a popular way of raising awareness.

· Because case studies are set in a particular situation, they are excellent for exploring dynamics among people.

· They can be an impetus for sharing information and forming networks between groups and communities. For example, a case study that describes how one community tackled drug abuse problems could be an inspiration to a community facing similar problems. The next stage could be for members of the two communities to meet up.

· They can be used to provide some distance in discussing delicate issues, e.g., domestic violence or illegal logging.


· Case studies give the illusion of being 'real' but actually only give a snapshot of reality. They highlight certain issues and ignore others that might have had a strong influence on the events described but were 'invisible' to the case study makers, e.g., that they live in a municipality where the local government is supportive of environmental projects.

· Case studies do not lend themselves to incorporate quantitative data. One solution to this is a supporting document containing the 'hard facts'.



Short dilemmas

You can use short dilemmas - drawn from actual situations - to encourage participants to consider issues that are likely to arise in their own lives. The following are four examples taken from a VSO training course for development workers, called 'Working with Communities'.

Your work involves forming women's groups to look at ways of setting up income-generating activities. Concentrating on one area of the town, you meet local women leaders who are very enthusiastic about the idea and decided to have an open meeting to find out what women themselves want. You are feeling quite anxious about the meeting as forming women's groups is a major component of your job. On the day of the meeting, five women turn up.

· How do you react to this situation?
· How could you have approached this differently?

2. You have been involved in setting up a number of village meetings to explore the issues which are of importance to women. Attendance has been good and already a number of interest groups have begun to form. You then hear from a neighbor that the local church leader is annoyed that people have dropped away from groups set up by the church since these new groups have been formed.

· How do you react to this situation?
· What are the main issues in this case?
· How could this have been approached differently?

3. You have attended three community meetings to look at ways of improving children's health. The meetings are well attended and there is a lot of enthusiasm and discussion about how things could be improved. However, the problem seems to be that nobody decides who is going to take responsibility for doing things and so, apart from the meetings, nothing else seems to happen.

· How do you react to this situation?
· What are the main issues in this case?

4. You have been involved in organizing a series of training sessions for farmers and have tried to work in a way that encouraged the farmers themselves to be involved in activities (such as group work, etc.). The sessions have gone well and you are starting to feel more confident about your work. However, a farmer who is attending a session for the first time refuses to participate in the role play activity and continuously interrupts other people to give his own viewpoint.

· How do you react to this situation?
· What are the main issues in this case?