Case Studies

When someone talks about a ‘case’, always ask yourself ‘a case of what?’. Business researchers tend to treat each organization as a ‘case’ and, given their focus on business organizations, usually use the term ‘case study research’ as a synonym for qualitative research. If, like Howard Becker, you are interested in occupations, cases to study may range from dancehall musicians to student physicians. By contrast, if you are interested in childhood, a case may be a single child, a classroom or clinic, or a charity concerned with the welfare of children.

Recollections of working with Howard Becker’:

However, at least three nagging doubts may well remain. I list them below together with some soothing words about each.

  • My case may not be important. Here you are worried that the cases you are studying may be seen by others as ‘trivial’ or ‘not a real problem’. The famous ethnographer Howard Becker (1998) remarks that such criticisms have been made of his own work on several occasions. As he puts it: ‘Just as some people think tragedy is more important than comedy … some problems are seen as inherently serious and worthy of grownup attention, others as trivial, flyspecks on the wallpaper of life … mere exotica’ (1998: 92). There is a very good response to this kind of complaint, namely: what seems to be important is usually governed by little more than current fashions; who knows what might become important? Apparently trivial cases may, through, good analysis, turn out to have far-reaching implications.
  • I can only study the (part of the) case to which I have access. Don’t worry. In qualitative research, we do not need to assume that there is a ‘whole story’ to tell about anything. Just concentrate on what data you have and carefully analyse what it tells you.
  • I have so little data, just one case. This worries many beginning researchers. They needn’t worry. Even within a single case, comparison is not only possible but necessary. For instance, in my study of a childrens heart unit, I was constantly comparing different doctor-parent meetings (Silverman: 1987).

However, as Giampietro Gobo has pointed out, there is a danger of confusing quantitative researchers’ concept of a ‘case’ with qualitative researchers’ pursuit of instances. As he puts it:

The term ‘case’ is used ambiguously in ethnographic research. In surveys and discursive interviews, the cases correspond to the number of persons interviewed (the sample), who are usually interviewed only once. Indeed, it is rather rare for several interviews to be conducted with the same person (during a single piece of research). Hence statistical calculations and analyses of the interview texts are performed on cases.

Ethnographic research is very different. What is usually referred to as the ‘case’ (the organization or the group studied) is in fact the setting. The cases are instead the hundreds of instances (pertaining to rituals, ceremonials and routines) that the researcher observes, or the dozens of individuals that he or she meets dozens of times during his or her presence in the field. The researcher is not interested in the organization (or the group) per se but rather in the behaviours which take place within it. Consequently, in order not to create confusion with the other methodologies, it would be better in ethnographic research to abandon the term ‘case’ and replace it with that of ‘instance’. (Personal correspondence)

Gobo’s argument that qualitative research really deals with ‘instances’ rather than ‘cases’ takes much of the heat out of this discussion. It suggests three key points:

  • Identifying an organization as a ‘case’ can involve commonsense assumptions e.g. identifying an organization as a unitary entity and assuming that if you can’t get access you can’t study the organization [but why not study public available material e.g. company reports?]
  • In qualitative research, by contrast, we discover ‘cases’ of particular phenomena within a single organization [e.g. how decision-making or organizational identities are ‘framed’] and outside an organizational setting [e.g. tweets].
  • Good research aims to discover unexpected ‘cases’ and this gives us guidance as to what other cases we need to study [within this setting or in other settings].


Research design: How many cases do you need?

Students often ask me: How many interviews do I need? Remembering what they have been taught on quantitative methods courses, they are terrified that they may be torn to shreds for not having enough data.

Ultimately, the question ‘How many cases do I need?’ depends upon your research problem. Many qualitative researchers use purposive sampling to choose a case because it illustrates some feature or process in which they are interested. This does not provide a simple approval for any case we happen to choose. Rather, purposive sampling demands that we think critically about the parameters of the population we are studying and choose our sample case carefully on this basis. As Denzin and Lincoln put it: ‘Many qualitative researchers employ … purposive, and not random, sampling methods. They seek out groups, settings and individuals where … the processes being studied are most likely to occur’ (1994: 202).

The following case study of people with type 2 diabetes shows some of the advantages and pitfalls of purposive sampling:

The effective management of type 2 diabetes mellitus is both complex and effortful, with daily blood glucose checking and medication taking, modifications to diet, and engagement in regular physical activity critical to health and well-being. The social environment of individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus is known to play a role in their adherence to treatment, and two models (health-related social control and health-related social support) have been shown to be particularly important in relation to partner or spouse behaviours. We carried out a qualitative investigation of these theoretical models in type 2 diabetes mellitus exploring their relevance to a wider social network. This case study highlights the various methodological and operational issues that we encountered in running this study. We discovered that qualitative methods could be used to test a theoretical model and that this is not just the province of quantitative statistical approaches. However, we also found that even with careful participant recruitment, using purposive sampling, bias can emerge which may affect the data in unexpected ways. Ultimately, the study adds to the body of literature regarding factors that influence treatment adherence in type 2 diabetes mellitus and highlights the fact that following treatment guidelines does not occur in a social vacuum-friends, relatives, and work colleagues can not only be powerful allies but also barriers to optimal diabetes control.


  • Think about how the type of recruitment chosen for your study can introduce potential sources of participant bias.
  • Make sure you understand what is meant by purposive sampling and how it is different from randomization citation.


Using semi-structured interviews: interview schedules or open-ended interviews?

Survey researchers use a predefined, fixed set of questions which are often derived from pre-tested measures used in other studies. This set of questions is usually known as a research protocol. When you have large samples and wish to use statistical tests of significance, fixing your questions can help to increase the reliability of your findings.

Some qualitative researchers follow quantitative researchers by sticking to a pre-prepared, structured set of questions. If you have ever tried to conduct a research interview, you will know that such pre-structuring, while helpful, only takes you so far. As one student comments:

Although the schedules include complete questions for the interviewees to answer, it was not the aim of the interviewing procedure to read these out verbatim. Throughout the interviews I adopted an in-depth semi-structured or ‘conversational’ interviewing style. The general aim was to encourage the respondents to speak personally and at length about their lives as doctoral students, while at the same time covering the issues which I was interested in as a researcher. There was a constant balance to be struck therefore between what was interesting to me and what was interesting to them, and as such the interviewer–interviewee relationship veered between impersonality and rapport. [Steven Stanley, Social Sciences, UK]

The kinds of problems to which Steven alludes are illustrated by the following case study of interviews with refugees.

This research methods case study aims to provide an insight on how to conduct semi-structured interviews with male refugees on their mental health and integration in the host country. Our starting point was that the literature in this field focuses mostly on refugees as a broad category and/or on refugee women and children and there is rather little information on male refugees’ mental health. As with other refugee populations, male refugees have been exposed to multiple pre- and post-migratory traumatic episodes; it was therefore essential for us to be aware and respectful of their situation. We also knew refugees find hard to talk to individuals who are considered to be in a position of authority, including researchers, and this also had to be considered in our study. We both have experience of working with vulnerable populations and we know that listening empathetically to participants’ stories can lead to vicarious trauma, so we both had a designated person to talk to after conducting the interviews. For this case study, we describe our rationale for using qualitative research with male refugees, how we designed and conducted the in-depth semi-structured interviews, the process of getting the ethical approval/consent, and how we analyzed and made sense of the data. Our aim is to provide an insight into how to conduct research with this population to gain rich data that can help to understand and support them.


  • Be clear about your rationale for conducting in-depth individual semi-structured interviews.
  • Plan the various steps you they need for designing and conducting this type of research.
  • Think about what is involved in approaching organizations from where can recruit participants.
  • Address the ethical issues of interviewing people from different backgrounds.


Using semi-structured interviews: learning how to conduct an interview

There are no recipes for successful open-ended interviews. But there are two ways of proceeding which give you more hope of success.

  • Don’t ask your research question directly

Thoughtless researchers sometimes present their main research question directly to the respondents themselves. This causes two problems. First, as is well known in quantitative surveys, if respondents are made fully aware of your research interest, this can affect their responses. Second, it can lead to lazy research in which careful data analysis is simply replaced by reporting back what people have told you.

  • Pilot your interview schedule

It is often sensible to try out different styles of questioning prior to your main study. This kind of piloting is a feature of most kinds of good research – both qualitative and quantitative.

This case study provides an overview of a student’s experience of conducting interviews with people with dementia and their caregivers. The research presented here was conducted as part of my PhD which focused on caregivers’ motivations for providing care, the meaning they find in caregiving, and their relationship with the person with dementia. I was also interested in exploring the perspective of the person with dementia on these issues. To explore these topics, my PhD incorporated both qualitative and quantitative methods; this case study focuses on the qualitative study. This case study provides a brief overview of the areas my research focused on before outlining the process I went through to conduct these interviews. The case study examines some of the challenges of involving people with dementia in research and how research methodologies can be adapted to facilitate the involvement of people with dementia. This case study also explores the issues surrounding conducting interviews with both the person with dementia and the caregiver. Finally, in this case study, I provide some ‘tips’ for conducting interviews based on my research experiences.


  • Think through the processes involved in designing a research study.
  • Understand the challenges of conducting interviews with people with learning difficulties and their caregivers.


Analysing qualitative data: thematic analysis

Students often obsess about issues of access and asking the right questions. Ultimately, however, the most important issue in assessing their research is the quality of the data analysis. The only way to work out whether an analytic approach works for you is to try it out on your data. This means that you should try out different methods of data analysis as soon as possible.

One commonly used method is thematic analysis. The following case study applies thematic analysis to a digital dataset.

This case study is based on the research conducted by the authors in partnership with Kooth, a U.K.-based online counselling provider. Kooth provides a range of services for young people aged 11–25, including static and live online forums that allow young people to discuss issues around mental health. To gain an understanding of how young people engage with these online forums, and to gain an insight into how the forums provide peer-to-peer support for young people, a qualitative research project was devised. This case study provides readers with an overview of the project before moving on to consider a number of methodological and ethical issues. Considerations of the methodological approach undertaken in this research include working with external organizations, the challenges of completing a qualitative project online, conducting thematic analysis on transcripts of forum data, and using NVivo software for qualitative analysis. Furthermore, this chapter reflects upon broader issues such as the quality control of online qualitative research, the benefits and challenges of online forums for research purposes, including using real-world data in research, and the ethical considerations of using online forums and how these can differ to more traditional offline qualitative research. This case study then provides the readers with a brief critical discussion of the implications of the research and some final reflections from the research team regarding the completion of this phase of the study.


Use this case study to:

  • Understand methodological issues associated with collecting qualitative data via online forums.
  • Gain an understanding of thematic analysis as undertaken in this research.
  • Gain an insight into the ‘ups and downs’ of being a qualitative researcher.
  • Consider the benefits and challenges associated with external organizations providing real-world data for research.


Working with focus groups

Sue Wilkinson has described focus group methodology as ‘deceptively simple’ (2011: 168). It is a way of collecting qualitative data that involves:

  • Recruiting a small group of people (often between six and eight) who usually share a particular characteristic (e.g. mothers of children under two; sufferers of a particular illness).
  • Encouraging an informal group discussion (or discussions) ‘focused’ around a particular topic or set of issues. This could be, for example, young women sharing experiences of dieting, single parents evaluating childcare facilities, or fitness instructors comparing and contrasting training regimes.
  • The discussion is usually based on the use of a schedule of questions. This is sometimes followed by use of some kind of stimulus material (visual or otherwise) for discussion. A wide range of more structured ‘exercises’, including ranking, rating, card sorting or use of vignettes, is sometimes used.

The following case study describes the experiences of a novice researcher in conducting focus groups with high school students to learn about their participation in a high school dropout prevention program. The dropout prevention program was a partnership among the high school, the local state university, and the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association. The program consisted of academic mentoring and tutoring from local university student-teachers, as well as financial and logistical support from the Phoenix Suns. While prior analyses of the dropout prevention program indicated it was effective in increasing students’ academic achievement and decreasing students’ dropout rates (Dialynas, 2015), the Suns, along with the high school administration, wanted to ensure the program was not just effective but was also meeting the perceived needs of the students, student-teachers, and high school teachers involved. Thus, this research involved surveying the student-teachers and high school teachers and conducting focus groups with the actual dropout prevention program student participants. This account discusses participant sampling, question generation, and discussion facilitation, as well as challenges encountered and practical lessons learned.


  • Be clear about how using a focus group fits your research question.
  • Recognize common pitfalls and assumptions that hinder effective focus group facilitation, along with strategies to remedy such issues.
  • Consider how you are going to analyse your focus group data (e.g. through thematic analysis, discourse analysis, grounded theory, etc).


Ethnography and participant observation I

Student researchers face four difficult issues when doing fieldwork:

  • Access
  • Narrowing down your research problem
  • Deciding whether one case is enough
  • Recording observations.

Three simple ways of managing these issues are available:

  • Be open about the limitations of your study.
  • Show how your narrowing down even within a single setting has been rigorously conducted.
  • Emphasize that qualitative researchers treat single cases as crucial in attempting to refute initial hypotheses.

The following ethnographic case study discusses the process of conducting research that analyzed the impact of an organized movement for marijuana policy reform in Texas. This is an example of inductive case study research. The primary methods of data collection were participant observation and semi-structured interviews. These data sources were triangulated with review of relevant documents, including organization material, legislative decisions, and media coverage. The relationship between participant observation and interview research, the benefits and challenges of each, and the relevance of these data collection tools to the study of the marijuana movement in Texas are discussed.


When you have read this case, you should be able to

  • Describe the benefits and limitations of participant observation in case study research
  • Discuss the role of a theoretical framework in defining a research problem and analysing your data.


Organizational ethnographies

Organizational ethnography is a multi-method approach (observation, interviewing, document analysis, examination of the use of artefacts) whose pivotal feature is participant or non-participant observation of actions and practices in natural settings. The term organization can refer to the everyday practices and routines of action going on within such a social structure (‘ethnography in organization’), or the term and observations in the field can be linked to social theories of organization (‘ethnography of organization’).

This case study is an example of organizational qualitative research in action. It studies the link between how violence (in particular bullying) is constructed on an everyday basis by organizational members and organizational practices developed and implemented to counter and respond to forms of violence, with a focus on policies and education and training programs. The research process is discussed beginning with choices of methodologies and methods and how they guided the researcher in answering their central research question. Also discussed are: finding an organization and gaining access, ethical considerations and challenges encountered, and how they were dealt with. As a pedagogical tool, this case will help other researchers and students learn how to carry out a research project related to organizations, choose and use methods, recognize challenges, and develop solutions as they design and carry out their projects within organizations:


When you do organizational ethnography, you must consider:

  • The different strands of organizational ethnography, some more theory-guided and some more data-guided.
  • How modern organizations and their environments are changing and the impact of new technologies.
  • The cluster of practical questions arising in such research when it comes to field access, informant relations, research ethics, data collection and writing ethnography.
  • The relative slowness of such research, because the researcher him- or herself has to be socialized in the field.


Grounded theory

As I have argued throughout this book, rigorous, theoretically-guided data analysis is crucial to the success of any research project. One way to proceed is by using Grounded Theory.

Classic grounded theory involves the generation of a theory from data, while remaining open to the ideas emergent from the data in question. This case study details a classic grounded theory study into countering violent extremism practitioners. After providing some context for the study in question, this case study details the significant elements that mark a grounded theory study (here specifically a classic grounded theory as opposed to another version of grounded theory), in particular coding, constant comparison, theoretical sampling, and memo writing. Outlining the ways in which these procedures were approached in this study, some of the difficulties along the way are also considered. Ultimately, grounded theory offers a creative, open, and flexible set of procedures for a researcher to follow. It is focused on participant perspectives, conceptualizing rather than describing their main concern and the manner in which they go about resolving this concern. As such, it moves beyond individual perspectives to the identification of underlying patterns, raising these perspectives to an abstract level of conceptualization. It is the benefits of grounded theory, its openness in particular, that can cause difficulties for the novice researcher. Some of these are detailed here, along with practical advice and suggestions for dealing with these issues.


Use this case to:

  • Learn the principles underlying the classic grounded theory methodology, and the manner in which these are applied within a classic grounded theory study.
  • Identify and evaluate classic grounded theory research.
  • Differentiate classic grounded theory from other research methods, and compare the different approaches.
  • Think about the benefits and difficulties of using classic grounded theory.


Narrative research

The vast majority of contemporary qualitative research is category-centred rather than case-centered. In the former – grounded theory is a familiar example – detail and specificity slip away in favor of general statements about the phenomenon of interest. Interview data are fractured into segments that are coded thematically—into conceptual categories—that are then grouped and compared to similar segments from other interviews. The goal is to generate theoretical concepts inductively, that is, generalizations about human processes that hold across individual participants.

By contrast, in case-centred research – practiced in oral history, auto/biographical studies and narrative inquiry – the investigator preserves and interrogates particular instances and sequences of action, the way participants negotiate language and narrative genres in conversations, and other unique aspects of a ‘case,’ which could be an individual, family, community, group, organization, or other unit of social life.

This case study highlights tips and practical tools that researchers can use in a narrative inquiry, particularly in sociological research. Narratives are one way people make sense of their experiences. They are constituent of social interactions within the complex processes of meaning-making in social experiences. The case answers three questions: Why are stories important in sociological research? How can we conduct successful narrative interviews? How should we analyze the stories collected? Examples are chosen from a narrative analysis of social encounters; specifically, from my research with German-born Berliners of Turkish descent.


By the end of this case, you should be able to

  • Develop an understanding of what narrative methodologies are, and what their strengths and limitations are
  • Develop an awareness of the difficulties in maintaining ethical requirements such as anonymity and confidentiality while conducting narrative inquiry
  • Recognize the distinctive features of conducting narrative interviews, including the importance of conducting initial meetings and collecting impromptu narratives through particular ways of asking questions
  • Understand what a narrative unit is, identify such units in actual interviews, and develop an understanding of how to analyze collected narratives


Discourse analysis

As noted in this book, DA is quite heterogeneous and it is, therefore, difficult to arrive at a clear definition of it. Here is one authoritative version:

DA has an analytic commitment to studying discourse as texts and talk in social practices … the focus is … on language as … the medium for interaction; analysis of discourse becomes, then, analysis of what people do. One theme that is particularly emphasized here is the rhetorical or argumentative organization of talk and texts; claims and versions are constructed to undermine alternatives. (Potter, 2004: 203)

Potter suggests that this has given DA three unifying assumptions:

Anti-realism: DA is resolutely against the assumption that we can treat accounts as true or false descriptions of ‘reality’. As Potter puts it: ‘DA emphasizes the way versions of the world, of society, events, and inner psychological worlds are produced in discourse.’

Constructionism: DA is concerned with ‘participants’ constructions and how they are accomplished and undermined’ (see the tip that follows).

Reflexivity: DA considers ‘the way a text such as this is a version, selectively working up coherence and incoherence, telling historical stories, presenting and, indeed, constituting an objective, out-there reality’. (Potter, 2004: 202)

The case study below explores the challenges associated with researching a stigmatized topic (women’s experiences of smoking during pregnancy). It is based on a collaboration between the two authors and formed part of the first author’s PhD research. It focusses on three methodological strategies that offered more creative options used to explore women’s experiences of stigma: (1) moving to online spaces; (2) utilizing multiple sources of data for qualitative analysis; and (3) changing the frame of the study through discourse analysis.


By the end of this case, you should be able to

  • Identify the methodological challenges involved in doing research on stigmatized topics
  • Explain the value of reflecting on the various stages of the research process and how this can enhance an analysis
  • Assess the utility of discourse analysis and the opportunities offered by this approach
  • Describe the value of including multiple sources (e.g., media accounts) of data in an analysis


Conversation analysis

The basic idea of CA is that the most elementary context in which a turn at talk occurs is the immediately preceding turn at talk. It is a default assumption in human conduct that a current action should be, and normally will be, responsive to the immediately prior one. Indeed persons have to engage in special procedures (e.g., ‘Oh by the way…’) to show that a next action is not responsive to the prior.

CA investigates interaction by examining the practices which participants use to construct it. CA methods for isolating and studying interactional practices have a good deal in common with the method of analytic induction, and in particular the constant comparative method and the search for deviant cases

This case study provides an overview of a conversation analysis study that examines how the management of talk is accomplished by a chairperson in a teachers’ meeting. The case describes each of the various steps of the conversation analysis study from deciding on an initial research focus to collecting, transcribing, and analyzing the data. It also offers practical advice for doing conversation analysis and suggestions for alternative conversation analysis research foci. Finally, post-reading exercises are provided to encourage the reader to conduct his or her own conversation analysis study.


By the end of this case, you should be able to

  • Have a better understanding of conversation analysis
  • Understand ways to develop research foci
  • Understand ways to collect relevant data
  • Understand and carry out transcriptions
  • Analyze segments of authentic spoken discourse


Mixed methods

As we saw in Chapter 13, Tina O’Leary argues that mixing methods allows you to

  • Make most of the benefits of both quantitative and qualitative data
  • Move from numbers to meanings
  • Offer more than one way of looking at a situation
  • Make findings more credible through ‘triangulation’ of different data

The goal of the case study below was to understand how migrants and other refugees make decisions regarding onward migration, stay, or return in Greece and Turkey. We used a mixed-methods approach of a migrant to migrant survey and qualitative interviews. This case study explains the steps taken in the research practicalities to implement the project including the selection and training of fieldworkers, questionnaire programming, and survey checking. As refugees and other migrants are a vulnerable group, the informed consent process and the use of reciprocity within this study are discussed. The research analysis explores how the mixed-methods approach brought forth different components of the results. In the conclusion, key results and lessons learned are explored.


By the end of this case, you should be able to

  • Discuss the benefits of a mixed-methods approach
  • Identify the steps required to create a fieldwork team


Mixed methods and triangulation

Using mixed methods can involve you in intractable problems about where the ‘truth’ lies. Triangulation usually refers to combining multiple theories, methods, observers and empirical materials, to produce a more accurate, comprehensive and objective representation of the object of study. As I argued in Chapter 13, this kind of triangulation, which uses different datasets to find the true reading, is highly problematic. The different methods used can readily lead to contradictory findings because different methods construct different realities. For instance, if you have observed people at work, interviewing them as well does not give a deeper understanding of their activities. It simply gives you information about how they describe their work to a researcher. Ultimately, how we combine different datasets depends upon which research model we favour.

Starting with a reconstruction of the debate on triangulation and its purposes in social sciences, in the case that follows the technique of triangulation is clarified by conducting a critical analysis of the goals of integrating different data-collection instruments. In the second part, a practical example is cited of integration between two research techniques: surveys and focus groups. By applying this triangulation to an investigation on the perception of juvenile deviance, the advantages and limitations of this strategy are identified.


If you are thinking of using multiple methods, make sure you satisfy two criteria:

  • Such combination is appropriate to your research question[s]
  • The way you go about it fits your research model [e.g. Naturalist or Constructionist].


Internet research

The internet is now perhaps the prime site where words and pictures circulate. The internet not only collapses distance, it also can disrupt the way in which time is relevant to interaction. It is important to distinguish research studies which simply use the internet as a tool to gather data (e.g. online interviews) from studies of internet practices and social media networks as phenomena in their own right (e.g. the mechanics of online dating or chatrooms).

The case study below underlines how much of students’ researching and writing takes place on computers and the Internet. Many traditional forms of data (e.g., hard-copy writing artifacts) may no longer be sufficient to capture students’ writing activity. This case study shares experiences from a recent study using screen- and video-recording software (Camtasia Studio 6.0) to research students’ computer- and Internet-based writing. Particular strengths of such a method include the ability to capture disappearing or changing data, such as text that is later deleted; the ability to see correspondence between think-aloud utterances and online activity; and increased engagement and interest on the part of participants and audience members. Limitations and challenges include the fact that hard-copy documents are not easily captured in the recording, the need to strike a balance in terms of the volume of data and the unit of analysis, and the existence of the usual technical challenges that emerge when one works with technology.


By the end of this case, you should be able to

  • Know how computer-screen recordings can be used to capture data about students’ processes and strategies for working online/on computers
  • Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this approach
  • Consider how this approach might be used to address other research questions in related areas


Visual data

Emmison (2015) has argued that the vast bulk of visual social research falls into one of four principal modes or approaches.

  • The use of researcher produced visual materials – the researcher as photographer. The generation of photographic images, and to some extent film, has been the traditional mode of conducting visual research.
  • The analysis of existing materials. Visual research can be undertaken on the numerous existing images that are readily available.
  • The use of video technology – seeing social interaction in detail. By contrast, researchers, those working with the ethnomethodological tradition, see video’s potential as lying precisely in its ability to capture the embodied details of social life comprising everyday interactional conduct. In this tradition the use of video has been equated with the role that the microscope has played in the biological sciences.
  • Participant-centred approaches: recruiting the respondent in the analysis of visual materials. The defining feature of work in this approach is that it involves the research subjects actively participating at some point in the research process rather than remaining as passive objects for the researcher’s camera as in the earlier documentary tradition.

A common feature of virtually all existing modes of visual inquiry is that they focus in some way upon the generation, use and analysis of photographic and other forms of images. Perhaps this is unduly restrictive and visual inquiry needs to consider a range of other sources of data besides the two dimensional photographic image. An alternative approach would focus instead on the visible aspects of social life, and the contexts in which these are observed or encountered,

This case study explores the use of a participant-centred approach. Photo elicitation methodology and children’s photography is employed as a method of researching children’s early mathematical experiences and understandings. It comes from a PhD study which explored the experiences children have with, and understandings of, mathematics (specifically, measurement) as they transition to primary school. The study focused on the experiences children have in prior-to-school and out-of-school settings and how these experiences contribute to their measurement development. Children shared their experiences and understandings through drawings, photographs, and narratives which accompanied these visual representations. The study focusses on the use of children’s photography as a research method to elicit children’s experiences and understandings. The case shares both the strengths and challenges of using this method, giving examples from the PhD study. Although the PhD study focused on mathematics specifically, children’s photography is a method which could be utilized to explore children’s lives and learning more generally. As such, this case study presents a general discussion of photography as a method for researching with children, taking into account both the methodological and ethical considerations associated with this approach.


By the end of this case, you should be able to:

  • Recognize children’s photography as a valid method within a photo elicitation methodology for undertaking educational research with young children.
  • Compare and contrast differing views of children as research participants.
  • Understand the relationship between the visual and narrative components in the process of photo elicitation.
  • Examine both the strengths and challenges of children’s photography as a research method.


Ethical approval

Many qualitative researchers want to know the perceptions, beliefs and feelings of people. Using interviews and focus groups, they come into close contact with people who need to be fully informed, unharmed and guaranteed anonymity. On the internet, anonymity is difficult to guarantee. For example, some users have a writing style that is readily identifiable in their online community, so that the researcher’s use of a pseudonym does not guarantee anonymity. Also, search engines are often capable of finding statements used in published qualitative research reports. The potential harm to individuals, relationships, families and careers is not to be dismissed lightly.

However, you should not assume that people always want to be anonymous.

  • In an oral history study by Patrick Brindle, participants regarded their interview as public testimony and stated that they were looking forward to seeing their names in print. When Brindle suggested that he would have to change their names and hide their identity interviewees became quite upset, and one of them said that she would not have let me interview her if her identity was to be concealed.
  • Similarly, in a study of white anti-racists by Edna O’Brien, participants didn’t want to be anonymous. O’Brien asked advisor about this, and he said as long as I had it documented that they gave me permission to use their real names, he didn’t think it would be a problem.

Both studies illustrate how qualitative research needs to be adaptable, and that following ‘standard protocol’ will not always work best depending on the topic and context of the data you need to obtain.

The following case study illustrates your need to think critically about apparently universal ethical standards such as anonymity.

This case study outlines some of the difficulties encountered in obtaining ethical approval for a study into women and pornography using participatory research methods. My research, the Living with Porn(ography) Project, explores women’s experiences of pornography. It aims to develop a sociological understanding of what pornography means for women, and how they think and feel about it, by looking at their lived experiences. I have designed this project around the principles of co-research and, by working with a specially convened group of women, it is being conducted according to the methodology of participatory research. In keeping with these commitments, the study has been structured to facilitate the women’s ownership of their contribution to the project. Consistent with this approach, the anonymity of those participating in the research was conceived of as an optional, as opposed to an automatic, condition. This stance was one of the key issues that led to my application to the University of Sheffield twice being subject to compulsory changes following an unfavourable opinion. This case study will discuss the application process in detail and explore the tensions that arose between the ethics of participatory research and the traditional ethical principles guiding sociological research. I will discuss the nature of this ethical friction and how it was resolved. This case will encourage critical examination of the standard ethical considerations and norms that inform the planning and review of research proposals. It will consider how those pursuing participatory research can develop good ethical practices toward all those involved in their work.


  • Think carefully in your study about who are you trying to protect. For instance, there was nothing to stop Brindle from tampering with what his informants had told him, knowing that there could be no comeback from a respondent who was anonymized.

A critical question in applying ethical principles to your research design is always: who benefits?