The case study as a research method in clinical psychology

Describe… (ao1)

  • an in-depth study or one individual or small group, e.g. Bradshaw’s Carol or Lavarenne’s “Thursday Group”
  • the person or small group are usually interesting or unusual in some specific way, e.g. a group of patients who a re trialing a particular therapy.
  • case studies are often retrospective write ups which make a point or provide an example
  • they may be longitudinal, following the course of a disorder or a treatment for example.
  • different research methods including observation, interview, questionnaire, standardised test etc are used to collect the data; this is called method triangulation; researchers try to identify common themes from the findings of their different measures
  • the case history details the background of the person or small group under scrutiny and provides context
  • much of the data may be qualitative but some may also be quantitative as well
  • Case studies take an ideographic approach meaning they build a detailed picture that helps us to understand how this one person or one small group constructs their understanding of the world; this is in contrast to the nomothetic approach which involves quantitative data meaning inferential statistics can be used to test hypothesis (sceintific approach)

Evaluate… (ao3)


  • The case study can be a comprehensive way of studying psychological phenomena-
    • the degree of detail and quantity of data collected means they may provide a better reflection of the issue being studied;
    • in comparison with laboratory experiments they provide greater insight into the range of individual differences seen within a data set
    • ideographic methods which look at individual differences can provide hypotheses which it might be possible to test in more scientific ways in the future
  • The case study can provide valid data
    • The person is studied within the context of their family and natural environment; findings have increased ecological validity; they are not contrived or artificial in any way
    • The data collected is not restricted in any way; when the researcher reveals something interesting, every opportunity can be followed up and further measurements taken unlike an experiment, questionnaire or structured interview
    • the use of method triangulation and collection of both qualitative and quantitative data means that weaknesses of one type of data or method are counteracted by the strengths of the other type of data and methods used, making for more meaningful, useful and accurate findings.
  • Although some claim that case studies are unscientific due to the weaknesses outlined below they do use research methods which are reliable such as standardised tests and questionnaires;
    • if another person was to conduct the tests on the person being studied at the same point then it is likely that the findings would be consistent


  • Generalisation is highly limited, if not impossible
    • The study reflects the uniqueness of one individual and thus generalisation to others may be unjustified (think about individual differences in the ways our brains work due to neuroplasticity which takes place in interaction with our own unique environmental experiences.
  • Reliability difficult to prove
    • Replication may be difficult as exact circumstances are impossible to recreate
    • As it is difficult to show demonstrate the reliability of the findings, some would say this limits their usefulness and renders the study unscientific

Let’s Revise


  1. Carefully read this information again and create five multi-choice questions
  2. Swap your questions with a friend and test yourselves
  3. Now create a ‘fill in the gaps’ activity by deleting words and putting them into a box at the end of the document
  4. Swap your fill in the gaps with a friend and test yourselves again.
  5. Create a flashcard for case studies as used in psychology; do as much as you can from memory but don’t take a mistake on your card!
  6. Now answer the following question- allow yourself about 15 minutes:

Practice Question: Assess the usefulness of case studies as research method in clinical psychology (8 marks)

Challenge yourself:  Compare the use of case studies and experiments as research methods in psychology (8)

This handout forces you to integrate what you know about Lavarenne and /or Bradshaw to root your points clearly in clinical psychology. This is critical for Paper 2: case-studies-in-clinical-1