Return to Group Dynamics Resource Page

Case Studies
Donelson R. Forsyth, University of Richmond

One of the best ways to understand groups, in general, is to understand one group, in depth. The case-study approach has a long and venerable tradition in all the sciences, with some of the greatest advances in thinking coming from case studies rather than from experiments or survey studies. The field of group dynamics, in particular, is checkered with case studies that have transformed the field: the case analyses conducted at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company (Landsberger, 1958; Mayo, 1945; Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939); Janis's studies of groups suffering from groupthink; William Foote Whyte's brilliant Street Corner Society; Newcomb's Bennington study are all major contributions to the field.

Case studies' disadvantages are, of course, often noted: the group studied may be unique, and the observer (most case studies involve observation) may be biased in his or her perceptions. Hypotheses can rarely be put to an objective test, and in some cases the analysis may not rise above mere description. But they have strengths as well. They are simple, direct, and to-the-point: By examining a group during its actual activities, you gain understanding of such groups in general. They are higher, in some cases, in external validity, and they can also be the crucible for more advanced theoretical analysis. Indeed, extending David B. Miller's comments about naturalistic observation to case studies of groups (1977, American Psychologist, Vol. 32, pp. 211-220), we find that case studies are useful because

  • they allow us to study groups, for their own sake
  • they serve as a "starting point for investigating certain behavioral phenomena and subsequently serve as a point of departure from which to develop a program of laboratory research" (Miller, p. 213);
  • they can serve to validate findings obtained in laboratory settings;
  • they provide us with a larger context for understanding groups as they form, develop, and disband in their natural settings;
  • they can, in some cases, provide the researcher with the opportunity to use his or her more traditional research tools, but in a naturally occuring situation.
There is no one correct way to carry out a case study, but the following suggestions are offered to maximize the method's strengths and minimize its weaknesses.

1. Identify a group for study. Groups are everywhere, and many of them are open to the public. You can also carry out a participant observation study, as well, although your analysis will more than likely be influenced by your unique position in the group. Most groups would be willing to let you attend their meetings if you explain you are a student of groups, and want to watch what goes on. Get consent, and don't put you or the group you study at risk in any way.

2. Become familiar with the group by studying its artifacts, products, and location. Try to gather, from resource materials or printed matter, a list of all members and their positions. Examine the physical location the group occupies, and try to determine where the group members live and work in relation to one another. You should know the group members' names (or, at least, have developed labels for the members if they are anonymous) and their positions before you try to describe a group's interaction. Be able to describe them as individuals.

3. Watch the group in action. Groups are, well, dynamic. It is difficult to watch a group interact and record all the relevant information. But you should note where individuals sit in relation to one another, who talks to and after whom, who talks the most and who talks the least, and you should try to categorize (in general terms) the content of the communication: e.g., who is making task- focused comments, who concentrates on socioemotional activities. You should try to be sensitive to nonverbal messages, and always, always, take notes. Expand the notes immediately after the observation.

4. Develop a conceptualization of your group. All good case studies go beyond describing the group--they also offer theoretical insights into groups, in general, by drawing out the theoretically interesting aspects of the group observed. Theories of group development, of structure, of status acquistion, of performance, abound, and can be applied to the group you are watching.

5. Generate a case study, which should take the form of a brief scientific paper. It is often appropriate to include an introduction, method, results, and discussion section.

6. If possible, supplement your observational information with quanitative information about the group. If you are interested in the group's structure, ask members to complete the SYMLOG. If you are interested in who interacts and who does not, then administer a shyness measure and examine the results. Do not, of course, let your desire for quantitative indices undermine your relationship with the group, or use measures that might be ethically questionnable.