Case Study And Ethnographic Study Ideas


The authors present how to construct a mini-ethnographic case study design with the benefit of an ethnographic approach bounded within a case study protocol that is more feasible for a student researcher with limited time and finances. The novice researcher should choose a design that enables one to best answer the research question. Secondly, one should choose the design that assists the researcher in reaching data saturation. Finally, the novice researcher must choose the design in which one can complete the study within a reasonable time frame with minimal cost. This is particularly important for student researchers. One can blend study designs to be able to use the best of each design that can mitigate the limitations of each as well. The authors are experienced ethnographers who currently chair dissertation committees where a student has chosen a mini-ethnographic case study design.


Culture, Ethnography, Mini-Ethnography, Case Study Design, Triangulation, Data Saturation

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Patricia Fusch is contributing faculty in the DBA and Ph.D. in Management programs at Walden University. Her research focuses on leadership, manufacturing, women in business; ethnographic design, case study design, change management initiatives, focus group facilitation, and organizational development. Dr. Fusch has experience as a performance improvement consultant in the public and private sector. Her publications can be found in The Qualitative Report, The International Journal of Applied Management and Technology, and in The Journal of Social Change. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to:

Dr. Gene Fusch is the Lead Methodologist in the Walden University DBA program. His career has spanned both the education and business arenas. As an educator, he has chaired doctoral committees and helped numerous executive-level students pursue their learning goals. In addition to teaching, Dr. Fusch was the project manager for the National Resource Center for Materials Science Education; principal investigator for a National Science Foundation project in composites manufacturing for the marine and aerospace industries; site director and professor for several Southern Illinois University extension programs; and associate dean of technology for Bellingham Technical College. He has written articles for several peer-reviewed and professional publications on performance, human resource development, and return-on-investment strategies. He also co-authored a management book on organizational performance interventions. Dr. Fusch has worked with numerous organizations as a leadership and organizational performance consultant. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to:

Dr. Lawrence R. Ness is contributing faculty at Walden University and specializes in the areas of IT Management, Business Administration, and Doctoral Research. His research focuses on information technology management strategies towards increased effectiveness and business alignment. Dr. Ness has extensive corporate experience in the area of information technology management and has successfully chaired over 70 doctoral dissertation graduates. Dr. Ness is Founder of Dissertation101 Mentoring Services, LLC. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: or at

Recommended APA Citation

Fusch, P. I., Fusch, G. E., & Ness, L. R. (2017). How to Conduct a Mini-Ethnographic Case Study: A Guide for Novice Researchers. The Qualitative Report, 22(3), 923-941. Retrieved from


In this chapter Creswell guides novice researchers (us) as we work through the early stages of selecting a qualitative research approach. The text outlines the origins, uses, features, procedures and potential challenges of each approach and provides a great overview. Why identify our approach to qualitative inquiry now? To offer a way of organizing our ideas and to ground them in the scholarly literature (69). The author includes a chart on page 104 that provides a convenient comparison of major features.



In contrast to the other approaches, narrative can be a research method or an area of study in and of itself. Creswell focuses on the former, and defines it as a study of experiences “as expressed in lived and told stories of individuals” (70). This approach emerged out of a literary, storytelling tradition and has been used in many social science disciplines.

Narrative researchers collect stories, documents, and group conversations about the lived and told experiences of one or two individuals. They record the stories using interview, observation, documents and images and then report the experiences and chronologically order the meaning of those experiences. Other defining features are available on p. 72.

These are the primary types of narrative:

  • Biographical study, writing and recording the experiences of another person’s life.
  • Autoethnography, in which the writing and recording is done by the subject of the study (e.g., in a journal).
  • Life history, portraying one person’s entire life.
  • Oral history, reflections of events, their causes and effects.

For all of the research approaches, Creswell first recommends determining if the particular approach is an appropriate tool for your research question. In this case, narrative research methodology doesn’t follow a rigid process but is described as informal gathering of data.

The author provides recommendations for methodologies on pps 74-76 and introduces two interesting concepts unique to narrative research: 1) Restorying is the process of gathering stories, analyzing them for key elements, then rewriting (restorying) to position them within a chronological sequence. 2) Creswell describes a collaboration that occurs between participants and researchers during the collection of stories in which both gain valuable life insight as a result of the process.

Narrative research involves collecting extensive information from participants; this is its primary challenge. But ethical issues surrounding the stories may present weightier difficulties, such as questions of the story’s ownership, how to handle varied impressions of its veracity, and managing conflicting information. For further reading on the activities of narrative researchers Creswell recommends Clandinin and Connelly’s Narrative Inquiry (2000).


Phenomenology is a way to study an idea or concept that holds a common meaning for a small group (3-15) of individuals. The approach centers around lived experiences of a particular phenomenon, such as grief, and guides researchers to distill individual experiences to an essential concept. Phenomenological research generally hones in on a single concept or idea in a narrow setting such as “professional growth” or “caring relationship.”

The evolution of phenomenology from its philosophical roots with Heidegger’s and Sartre’s writing often emerges in current researchers’ exploration of the ideas (77). In contrast to the other four approaches, phenomenology’s tradition is important for establishing themes in the data. In addition to its relationship to philosophy, another key phenomenology feature is bracketing, a process by which the researcher identifies and sets aside any personal experience with the phenomena under study (78).

Phenomenology has two main subsets. Hermeneutic, by which a researcher first follows his/her own abiding concern or interest in a phenomenon; then reflects upon the essential themes that constitute the nature of this lived experience; describex the phenomenon; crafts an interpretation and finally mediates the different resultant meanings. The second type, transcendental, is more empirical and focused on a data analysis method outlined on page 80.

Cresswell favors a systematic methodology outlined by Moustakas (1994) in which participants are asked two broad, general questions: 1) What have you experienced in terms of the phenomenon? 2) What context of situations have typically influenced your experiences of the phenomenon? For some researchers, the author believes phenomenology may be too structured. He also mentions the additional challenge of identifying a sample of participants who share the same phenomenon experience.

Creswell recommends two sources for further reading on phenomenology: Moustakas’s Phenomenological Research Methods (1994) and van Manen’s Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy (1990).


Grounded theory seeks to generate or discover a theory-a general explanation– for a social process, action or interaction shaped by the views of participants (p. 83). One key factor in grounded theory is that it does not come “off the shelf” but is “grounded” from data collected from a large sample. Creswell recommends an approach to this qualitative research prescribed by Corbin & Strauss (2007).

The author describes several defining features of grounded theory research (85). The first is that it focuses on a process or actions that has “movement” over time. Two examples of processes provided include the development of a general education program or “supporting faculty become good researchers.” An important aspect of data collection in this research is “memoing.” In which the researcher “writes down ideas as data are collected and analyzed,” usually from interviews.

Data collection is best be described as a “zigzag” process of going out to the field to gather information and then back to the office to analyze it and back out to the field. The author discusses various ways of coding the information into major categories of information (p. 86).

Another approach to grounded theory is that of Charmaz (2006). Creswell notes that Charmaz “places more emphasis on the views, values, belief, feelings, assumptions and ideologies of individuals than on the methods of research.” (p. 87)

The author states that this is a good design to use when there isn’t a theory available to “explain or understand a process.” (p. 88). Creswell further notes that the research question will focus on “understanding how individuals experience the process and identify steps in the process” that can often involve 20 to 60 interviews.

Some challenges in using this design is that the researcher must set aside “theoretical ideas or notions so that the analytic, substantive theory can emerge.” (p. 89) It is also important that the researcher understand that the primary outcome of this research is a “theory with specific components: a central phenomenon, causal conditions, strategies, conditions and context, and consequences,” according to Corbin & Strauss’ (p. 90). However, if a researcher wants a less structured approach the Charmaz (2006) method is recommended.


Ethnography is a qualitative research design in which the unit of analysis is typically greater than 20 participants and focuses on an “entire culture-sharing group.” (Harris, 1968). In this approach, the “research describes and interprets the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs, and language” of the group. The method involves extended observations through “participant observation, in which the researcher is immersed in the day-to-day lives of the people and observes and interviews the group participants.” (p. 90).

Creswell notes that there is a lack of orthodoxy in ethnographic research with many pluralistic approaches. He lists a number of other researchers (p.91) but states that he draws on Fetterman’s (2009) and Wolcott’s (2008a) approaches in this text.

Some defining features of ethnographic research are listed on pages 91 and 92. They include that: it “focuses on developing a complex, complete description of the culture of a group, a culture-sharing group;” that ethnography however “is not the study of a culture, but a study of the social behaviors of an identifiable group of people;” that the group “has been intact and interacting for long enough to develop discernable working patterns,” and that ethnographers start with a theory drawn from “cognitive science to understand belief and ideas” or materialist theories (Marxism, acculturation, innovation, etc.)

Some types of ethnographies include “confessional ethnography, life history, autoethnography, feminist ethnography, visual ethnography,”etc., however, Creswell emphasizes two popular forms. The first is the realist ethnography-used by cultural anthropologists, it is “an objective account of a situation, typically written in the third-person point of view and reporting objectively on the information learned from participants.” (p. 93). The second is the critical ethnography in which the author advocates for groups marginalized in society (Thomas, 1993). This type of research is typically conducted by “politically minded individuals who seek through their research, to speak out against inequality and domination” (Carspecken & Apple, 1992). (p. 94).

The procedures for conducting an ethnography are listed on p. 94-96. One key element in these procedures is the gathering of information where the group works or lives through fieldwork (Wolcott, 2008a); and respecting the daily lives of these individuals at the site of study. Some key challenges in this type of research are that one must have an “understanding of cultural anthropology, the meaning of a social-cultural system, and the concepts typically explored by those studying cultures. Also, data collection requires a lot of time on the field. (p. 96)


In case study research, defined as the “the study of a case within a real-life contemporary context or setting” Creswell takes the perspective that such research “is a methodology: a type of design in qualitative research that may be an object of study, as well as a product of inquiry.” Further, case studies have bounded systems, are detailed and use multiple sources of information (p. 97). Creswell references the work of Stake (1995) and Yin (2009) because of their systematic handling of the subject.

The author draws attention to several features of the case study approach, but emphasizes a critical element “is to define a case that can be bounded or described within certain parameters, such as a specific place and time.” Other components of the research method include its intent-which may take the form of intrinsic case study or instrumental case study (p. 98); its reliance on in-depth understanding; and its utilization of case descriptions, themes or specific situations. Finally, researchers typically conclude case studies with “assertions” from their learning (p. 99).

The text touches on several types of case studies that can be differentiated by size, activity or intent and that can involve single or multiple cases (p.99). In instances of collective case study design where the researcher may use multiple case studies to examine one issue, the text recommends Yin (2009) logic of replication be used. Creswell goes on to point out that if the researcher wishes to generalize from findings, care needs to be taken to select representative cases. This could be useful, time-saving information for class members considering this method.

In outlining procedures for conducting a case study (p.100), Creswell recommends “that investigators first consider what type of case study is most promising and useful” and advocates cases that show different perspectives on a problem, process or event.” Data analysis can be holistic (considering the entire case) or embedded (using specific aspects of the case).

Some of the challenges of case study research are determining the scope of the research and deciding on the bounded system and determining whether to study the case itself or how the case illustrates an issue. In the instance of multiple cases, the author makes the somewhat counter intuitive assertion that “the study of more than one case dilutes the overall analysis” (p. 101).


Creswell gives an overview of the commonality of the five research methods (p. 102) before explaining key differences among more similar seeming types of research, e.g. narrative research, ethnography. Here the author underlines that “the types of data one would collect and analyze would differ considerably.” He uses the example of the study of a single individual to make his argument, recommending narrative research instead of ethnography, which has a broader scope and case study, which may involve multiple cases.

In considering differences, Creswell puts forth that the research methods accomplish divergent goals, have different origins and employ distinct methods of analyzing data – the author underlines the data analysis stage as being the most exaggerated point of difference (p. 103). The final product, “the result of each approach, the written report, takes shape from all the processes before it.

In Table 4.1 (p. 104) Creswell provides a framework table that contrasts the characteristics of the five qualitative approaches. Given its stated suitability for both “journal-article length study” and dissertation or book-length work, class members may find it a handy reference for the mini study assignment and beyond.

Tricia Chambers, Eric Lugo, Kathryn Lineberger

This entry was posted in Chapter Readings on by Kathryn.


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