Case study research and causal inference
Green J., Hanckel B., Petticrew M., Paparini S., Shaw S.
Case study methodology is widely used in health research, but has had a marginal role in evaluative studies, given it is often assumed that case studies offer little for making causal inferences. We undertook a narrative review of examples of case study research from public health and health services evaluations, with a focus on interventions addressing health inequalities. We identified five types of contribution these case studies made to evidence for causal relationships. These contributions relate to: (1) evidence about system actors’ own theories of causality; (2) demonstrative examples of causal relationships; (3) evidence about causal mechanisms; (4) evidence about the conditions under which causal mechanisms operate; and (5) inference about causality in complex systems. Case studies can and do contribute to understanding causal relationships. More transparency in the reporting of case studies would enhance their discoverability, and aid the development of a robust and pluralistic evidence base for public health and health services interventions. To strengthen the contribution that case studies make to that evidence base, researchers could: draw on wider methods from the political and social sciences, in particular on methods for robust analysis; carefully consider what population their case is a case ‘of’; and explicate the rationale used for making causal inferences.