Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

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Thematic Discussion: Case studies are Signposts for Recognition and Encouragement

Dear members,

In development, there is a tendency to seek out and write-up case studies. These show what has, or has not, worked in a specific context. A case study is value-neutral. It can be defined as:
An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used
There are different types of case studies found in the literature. On one hand, they are considered useful in research as they enable researchers to examine data at the micro level. As an alternative to quantitative or qualitative research, case studies can be a practical solution when a big sample population is difficult to obtain. On the other, they are also criticised for their inability to generalise their results.
The case study method of research has been criticised for its lack of rigour and the tendency for a researcher to have a biased interpretation of the data. The small sampling call into question reliability and generality. This method is sometimes dismissed as an exploratory tool. However, it remains popular particularly in studies of real-life situations governing social issues and problems. They also widely reported in literature. Case studies continue to be the darling of the development sector to illustrate success.
There appears to be a hierarchy of case studies. These start from examples to avoid, neutral, to those seen as desirable. The value judgements are ascribed for their process, players and outcomes. A document by the Food and Agriculture Organization shared on SuSanA ( forum.susana.org/media/kunena/attachment...plateFAOSept2016.pdf ) suggests templates for two kinds: good practices and promising practices.
A good practice is one that has been proven to work well and produce good results, and is therefore recommended as a model. It is a successful experience that has been tested and validated, in the broad sense, has been repeated and deserves to be shared, so that a greater number of people can adopt it.
A promising practice has a narrower definition. It is one that has achieved a high degree of success within a single setting, and the possibility of replication in the same setting is guaranteed. It has generated some quantitative data showing positive outcomes over a period of time. A promising practice has the potential to become a good practice over a period of time but does not yet have the research or replication to support wider adoption or upscaling. As such, a promising practice incorporates a process of continuous learning and improvement.
The India Sanitation Coalition is working on assimilating case studies on sanitation. It has developed a process for seeking these from its members, screening them and adding those selected to its database. The purpose, as is evident from the foregoing, is to help others with practical examples.
This discussion on best practices seeks to understand
  1. What is a best practice / case study? Who qualifies that? Can we use an alternate terminology for this kind of research. Girija Bharat, Director, Mu Gamma Consultants Pvt Ltd., is leading this topic. It will be open for your comments for a week, till 26th April
  2. How should these case studies be collected in an efficient way, who should validate, and what are the best possible ways of an extensive disseminated and its use for replication. Aprajita, Singh from PSI will lead this topic. It will be open for comments from 27th April to 4th May
  3. What are the current gaps in the learning for different stakeholders and how can a approach based on with well-documented case studies help in bridging this? How can it help in scaling up pilots, as India has many successful pilots of which only a few ever get replicated and scaled up? What could be the most profiting “produce to use” strategy for case studies? Which kind of knowledge products find utility with different stakeholders?
    Robin von Kippersluis from World Bank will be the lead. This topic will open on 5th May for a week
I hope you will find time to read and contribute to this discussion. We will use the interim summaries during the upcoming India Sanitation Conclave in New Delhi on 28-29 April.
With warm regards and high expectations.
Nitya
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

I am Girija Bharat, Director, Mu Gamma Consultants Pvt Ltd. We work in the development sector with focus on Water and Sanitation. We work as knowledge creator, knowledge customizer and knowledge connector, to promote green development. Our goal is to make the environment and society sustainable and in the process we bring to light important cases of sustainable development.

Case study research is an important building block of knowledge management and out endeavor has been to examine individual cases of good practice in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector, validate the cases from various sources by collecting empirical evidence, provide a holistic in-depth investigation in to the case and draw learning lessons. The learning lessons from each case provides interesting insights for scaling up as well as replication in other geographic locations having similar issues.
Case studies are investigations, in that they are based on knowledge and experience and involve the collection and analysis of data. By circumscribing the area of a study to a small number of units, the case study researcher is able to look in-depth at the issues in WASH sector. This findings would also generate insight into how the phenomenon actually occurs within a given situation. In the WASH sector, the sustainability aspect being vital for a case study to have relevance, the case needs to be studied over a period of time, that is, a longitudinal study in order to be insightful.

There are a number of interesting case studies happening on ground. But the field level staff finds it very cumbersome to put it in words and narratives. Hence there is a need to demystify case study research in a way that helps field staff participate, and builds their skills. A case study may or may not be a best practice and this warrants a nuanced discussion on some of the important aspects, such as:
What is a best practice / case study? Who qualifies that? Can we use an alternate terminology for this kind of research?
I look forward to an interesting discussion on the above mentioned questions. Three more sets of discussions will follow thereafter. Meanwhile, I would like to share two case study videos which our team at TERI had prepared in association with Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. One of the films is on triggering behaviour change for making ODF communities and the other film is on Solid Waste Management.

A Whistle in the fields

Kachre se Kamai (Earn from Waste)


Regards
Girija
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Dear all,

Thanks Girija for a thought-provoking statement. As you say, case studies are investigations. I've found they bring out both the ordinary, every-day events, as well as capturing the extraordinary. The first kind of case studies that encapsulate the ordinary are most useful. I say this because those are what you find most common and people relate to them closely.

For example, community-led approaches to sanitation are being used in many states. There is a template for this. But what is striking is when events from one village such as the morning follow-up rounds are shared across a block and others take strength from the fact this is the current way of doing things. In other words, even a mundane case study becomes a pointer to what is an acceptable method.

Take another example of digging pits for toilets. Pictures of the process can be case studies that can be shared around to help guide others.

So while they are useful for research case studies are also useful as examples for mass consumption. Hope this helps stir the pot with some ideas.

Regards
Nitya
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Dear Members,
The motive behind documentation is the force that drives result.For example if an agency has to spend money and show progress they usually try to hire a person that give them what they want.A truly honest person is not their choice.Hence there are very few people who make their sponsor/funder unhappy.
If some agency wants to know the truth their first intention should be to hire honest person that tells the truth.
What is research is to find out truth irrespective of methodologies used in research.What the agencies want is to project what they wanted to achieve is achieved.Hence we see so many documentation,when we check the truth we find very little is achieved.
Best regards,
Abhishek
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Dear all,

I am reposting excerpts from a comment from Nipun Vinayak, the Mission Director of the Swachh Bharat Mission. You can read the original on his blog, wordpress.com/read/blogs/82690141/posts/360 .

A discussion is on in the SuSanA ( Sustainability Sanitation Alliance) regarding nature and utility of case studies for sanitation. The subject assumes importance in the context of establishment of RALUs ( Rapid Action Learning Units) in rural sanitation sector – although they are in the nascent stage and need much strengthening. Another relevant background is establishment of a Knowledge Management portal ‘Swachha Sangraha’ by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation – www.swachhsangraha.in – wherein States/districts now have a facility to upload their good practices (as a video, document, ppt).

So what is a best practice/ case study. Any study that captures a principle leading to achievement of desirable and sustainable outcomes at scale in a short period of time. Capturing of principle may be more important than capturing a practice. In a district, the administration does ODF Olympics – group sports events in which only open defecation free villages can participate ; the sports events are deliberately conducted in villages that are non ODF : to make them jealous; by not allowing them to participate. In the instant case, the practice is conduct of sports event. But what are the underlying principle(s) ? The underlying principles include
  • Leadership and initiative by a champion
  • Fostering collective spirit – only group sports were chosen to further gel the ODF community and enhance their team spirit required for sustainabilty.
  • Positive discrimination and enhancing competition, by disallowing non-ODF villages from participating
  • Flexibility to the district to take decisions
  • Productive engagement of village-level motivators in people engagement activities (and not bureaucratic work alone!)
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Dear All,

It is good to know of the interest on the topic of case studies and its design and its relevance. I am a planner and with the perspective of planning, following are my views.

Case study is a method and is a methodology. In social science research is normally used for building theories and testing theories. Case studies can be used for both. However, I feel that its major contribution is in communication i.e. dissemination of practice - its 'good' and its 'bad'. The limitation of case study approach in my view is that whether a case has exemplary value is known only posteriori. The exemplary value needs to be explained for justifying the choice of the case. A clear line of discovery of the case normally will assert its value. The value of "case" also can be asserted by mentioning what it is not! In a case study approach 'data' is not important but 'assertions' seem to be important that does not come from statistics but from analysis.

Flyvbjerg (1998) mentions the triple goal that most authors seem to have pursued with their case based research. Case studies, he argues, are useful when the researcher aims to study
the dynamic relationship between rationality and power; in planning and, more generally, modern democracy at work.
tell a story that will elicit critical thinking and action on the part of readers; and
look at planning (or any other disciplines) from a novel perspective.

Other disciplines like policy, public administration, organisational/management studies, political science, etc. too; may find case studies useful for above aims.

"Case studies" for communication, advocacy and dissemination may be an umbrella term that encompasses lessons learned, success stories, best practices, etc. I think we need to differentiate between documenting/ disseminating "best practices" and studying "case/s". In my view, a case study will have following characters.

1. Intensive Study
2. Indepth Examination
3. Systematic way for collection, analysis, reporting
4. Understanding why and What?
5. Generating and Testing Hypothesis
6. Involvement of Stakeholders in identification of variables
7. Ratifies data/numbers

While "best practices" may have the key characteristics as follows.
1. Replicable/adaptable
2. Proven process (within a geographical location)
3. Reflect the process
4. Community owned & tested procedures
5. Tested innovations

The reasons best practices are useful to generate are that they sustain over a period of time, provide a road map for expansion/scaling up, saves time by giving knowledge for future replication and by way of sharing knowledge provides options and choices.

It may be mentioned that "case studies" are generalisable but the "best practices" may not be generalisable as the rigour of writing 'best practices' in my views is limited.

Lastly, normally case studies do not tell about failures, shortcomings, missed opportunities, and crises; but they sometimes yield the best lessons.

Regards,

Alka
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Thanks Alka for sharing your insights. The points you have mentioned are very pertinent. I agree that in most of the cases, the case studies are the ones which have been successful. The unsuccessful case studies have important lessons embedded in them but in almost all instances, they are not documented.

Best,

Girija
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Thanks Nipun for sharing your knowledge, insights and wisdom. Much appreciate!

Best,

Girija
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

I think Abishek made some really good points here:

The motive behind documentation is the force that drives result.For example if an agency has to spend money and show progress they usually try to hire a person that give them what they want.A truly honest person is not their choice.Hence there are very few people who make their sponsor/funder unhappy.

At SuSanA, we had an intensive period during about 2009-2012 where we (=SuSanA secretariat at GIZ) did a heap of work on "case studies of sustainable sanitation projects".
They are available here (94 of them):
www.susana.org/en/resources/case-studies

Looking at this thematic discussion, perhaps they should have been called "project descriptions" rather than "case studies".

In any case, when I reviewed those documents during that time, I tried really hard to make them neutral - not gloating!

We added into the template a section on "long-term impacts" and that was always the hardest section to fill in.

By the way, the template is here as a Word document if anyone wants to use it:
www.susana.org/en/resources/case-studies/details/2259

We put there for Section 11 on Practical experiences and lessons learnt:

Description of experiences (acceptance of technologies, technical aspects, scale of impact on the stakeholders involved, gender issues, mistakes made, lessons learnt, etc. Also include analysis of occurred problems, challenges, constraints and recommendations for future activities.

Remember if any mistakes were made, these are the best lessons for others to avoid making the same mistakes. So it is interesting to hear about all the good and bad things with the project.


We also pointed out in Section 12 about long-term impacts:

Example text:
With regards to long-term impacts of the project, the main expected impact of the project is improved public health (e.g. reduced rate of diarrhoea incidences in children). It is planned to assess this at the end of the project in late 2012.


Another tool that SuSanA provides is the project database:
www.susana.org/en/resources/projects

SuSanA partners have the option to provide details about their projects here. However, as people write about their own projects, again it might be hard to stay objective and neutral. If we could establish a culture of honesty and learning from mistakes, that would be very awesome. But it's hard! (this Forum can help with that, too)

Regards,
Elisabeth

P.S. Speaking of admitting and documenting failures, you might find this Wikipedia article interesting which is based on work started by Susan Davis:
Failures of water supply and sanitation systems
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Failures_of_water_...d_sanitation_systems

See also here on the Forum: forum.susana.org/component/kunena/183-mo...ow-also-on-wikipedia

Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
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(see: www.susana.org/en/resources/projects/details/127 )
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Re: Fwd: Thematic Discussion on case studies. Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Referring to:

1. What is a best practice / case study? Who qualifies that? Can we use an alternate terminology for this kind of research. Girija Bharat, Director, Mu Gamma Consultants Pvt Ltd., is leading this topic. It will be open for your comments for a week, till 26th April


In my view, a case study is where a best practices has been tried and tested – delivered intended result. Further, the result has been to be sustained in a given conditions. I think the terminology is Ok but ‘what best practice was followed to achieve what’ is the Key. A best practice is also about optics – demonstration /visibility is important. Perhaps, that is a condition for choosing a best practice to showcase for scaling up.

Regards SR
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Re: Defining the Scope of Case Study Research - What is a best practice?

Dear All,

I am reading your contributions with great interest!

Allow me to add a few thoughts:

1) A good or best practice (on sanitation) can be described in my view in different ways - and many of you provided definitions. For me an important component of a best practice is that something has not only worked in one location or context, but has been tested/proven to work in different settings - and hence offers opportunities for replication at larger scale. In short: best practices are (at least in part) replicable.

2) Another term that is often used (and confused) may be: 'Lessons Learnt'. Lessons can be drawn in different ways; such as from quantitative research or from more qualitative research such as a case study. But lessons are also learned every day in day-to-day life and dealing with (sanitation) challenges. These local lessons are not necessarily all captured in case studies. They are also not necessarily tested to work in different settings. A lesson can also be about 'how not to do something'. In sanitation there are various important lessons learned at the village, block and district level that are worth sharing and trying out in other places, to make the country open defecation free.

3) The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation - as Nitya mentioned - has launched the Swachh Sangraha portal. More and more local lessons and solutions on sanitation can be found there, 'waiting' for further testing and replication and as a source of knowledge and inspiration. Are they case studies? Are they lessons? Are they research? Are they a mix of all of these? Are they automatically replicable? I may post on this a bit more later, with your permission, but they are definitely inspiring ...

Best, Robin
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