Using a case study approach to analyse data

Vanessa May

July 2010, 2:49 minutes

In these clips, Vanessa May talks about her experience of analysing data from a life story archive for a project on lone motherhood. Her initial plan for analysing the data was to do a thematic (cross-sectional) analysis, but in the end a case by case analysis worked better, opening up a different way of conceptualising lone motherhood which gave a richer understanding of lived experience.


May, V (2010) Using a case study approach to analyse data [Video] 

Why did you use a case study approach in your analysis?

I decided to do this because - it was quite a practical reason - I had a very small number of cases. I was using data from a life story collection to study the life stories of lone mothers, and in the end there were only 17 life stories from lone mothers in the collection. I started out by doing what most sociologists do when they are analysing this kind of data: a cross-sectional analysis where you take bits of text where people are talking about a particular topic. So, for example, I would take bits of text where the women were writing about the financial or emotional aspects of lone motherhood, or talking about their children, and I would take these bits of text and try to analyse them and make sense of them as a whole in terms of that topic. And, not surprisingly, that didn't work out very well! I decided to take a different approach and analyse each life story as a case study and that did work out a lot better.

What effect did using this approach have?

I think it had a profound effect on the kind of findings and the kind of knowledge created from the study. Doing the cross-sectional analysis means that we're analysing bits of text out of context, so we're not trying to understand the person we're trying to understand that topic. In my case, what I was trying to do was understand each person and understand their sense of self and how lone motherhood fits in their sense of self. I found that lone motherhood, rather than being a defining identity for a lot of these women, was an identity that was being applied to them from the outside. And I think that this is something that studies of lone motherhood don't really talk about enough. So the focus of my study shifted from studying different aspects of lone motherhood, to studying lone motherhood as a phenomenon within these women's lives.

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