Learning from Case Studies of Communication (USC)

Learning from Case Studies of Communication

Course Syllabus for ‘COMMUNICATION (COM) 303′

Annenberg School for Communication , University of Southern California

Spring Semester 2002 – Updated: January 10, 2002

[Originally developed and taught by W. H. Dutton in 1997 at the Annenberg School]

Instructor William H. Dutton, Professor of Communication, USC
Seminar T and Th, 9:30 am — 11:00 pm in ASC 232
Office Hours T and Th, 11-12 am in ASC 301 and by appointment
Web Address http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~wdutton/
Contact E-mail wdutton@usc.edu or telephone (213) 740-2759
Syllabus http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~wdutton/303_syllabus.html

Rationale: A Foot in the Door

Communication researchers in the social sciences and journalism use case studiesoften and to serve a wide variety of purposes. A case study can be used to explore atopic, illustrate a problem, describe an event or process, discover an explanation for asocial phenomenon and more. You can use case studies today and in the future — inwhatever career you pursue — to improve your understanding of the world ofcommunication. You are surrounded by cases in your everyday life and work.Understanding case research can help you get your ‘foot in the door’ of whatever event,process, place, business, or issue interests you in the field of communication.

While many students are taught the danger of generalizing from a single case, fewknow how to use a case to its fullest advantage. This course aims to do just that –show you how to wisely use and learn from case studies. Some questions we willexplore are: What is a case approach? What case(s) are meaningful to study? Howshould you conduct a case study? How can you best report on what you have learned?

The course will approach these and related issues by involving each student in theprocess of doing two ‘mini-case’ studies. Students will read about the art and science ofcase research, in addition to literature related to their case research. You will bepresented with examples of case research. Students will listen and learn from oneanother’s case research.

Course lectures and discussions will be aimed at introducing basic issues of case studyresearch, providing examples from the instructors own research and progressing eachof the mini-cases. In the process, students will be introduced to such methods asparticipant-observation, qualitative analysis, and historical case study research tounderstand various ways they can conduct case studies, and solve the many anddiverse problems they pose. The course will identify and discuss controversies overcase study methods, so that students can reflect critically on their own experience.

Case research is an entry point to virtually any problem or question. Students will learnhow cases can be used to address more general issues surrounding the status and roleof qualitative research in the social sciences and the ethics of research, as well as howresearch can be more usefully tied to policy and practice.

Requirements and Grading

Students should have an inquiring mind, and an interest in conducting a case study,which may involve getting out in the real world of the campus or community. There is noneed to have a case study chosen in advance. Half the fun and challenge of this courseis in choosing the best and most interesting mini-cases for yourself, and deliberating onthe best cases for other students to pursue. As a student, you will design a case studythat is relevant to your interests, whether in particular subjects or careers.

Grades will be based on the following:

A. Two Mini-Case Studies

Students will do two ‘mini-case’ studies. These are case studies that are scaled backfrom what would be optimal with more time and resources. The first will be based onthe study of some media artifact, such as a Web site, a TV commercial or a newspaperstory. The second will include, as a primary feature, the direct observation of somecommunication phenomenon. While the first could involve only desk research, thesecond would lead you out into the life of the campus or community. Each mini-caseshould include:

1. Statement of Problem, Question, or Issue: Each student will write a brief 100-200word statement of the problem, question, or issue that they will to pursue througha case study.

2. Design of Case. Students will write a brief 250-300 word description of the casestudy they would like to conduct, showing how its design relates to their researchquestion.

3. Human Subjects Approval. Each student must obtain approval for their studyfrom the School of Communication, which handles routine reviews for USC’sHuman Subject Review Panel. D

4. Case Study Report (Term Paper): Each student should write a short(approximately 2,500 word) report, including references, on their case study,which may include additional figures and appendices. This should be typed,double-spaced with one inch margins, and adhere to either Harvard or APA styleguidelines.

5. Case Study Presentation: Each student will develop a presentation of their casestudy. The presentation is based on an oral presentation to the class, which mayincorporate a short videotape, press release or Web page. If you excel in front ofgroups, try to extend your experience, such by creating a press release on thestudy or putting up a Web page.

B. Contribution to Class Discussion of Case Studies: In Class and On Line

Students are expected to be prepared, to complete various outside assignments andregularly contribute to discussion in class and online. I will ask students to periodicallysummarize and discuss the progress of their cases for the class, based on their’research logs’. Attendance is critical and therefore counts in your course grade. Thecourse may use Blackboard (TOTALe) to support discussion of student cases anddistributing course documents, such as notes from lectures. If so, students areexpected to use this facility and be aware of announcements and assignments online.

C. Examinations

Each student will take a mid-term and final examination over the assigned readings,course lectures and discussion. Exams will be essay type, but may include shortidentification questions, allowing students to choose two of four to six options on whichto write. They will test each student’s understanding of the case study approach, lectureand discussion, and the texts for this course.

The final will be held on 7 May from 11-1pm.

Grades will be based on the following:

Mid-term Examination 20 Feb 14
Media Mini-case 25 Feb 21
Observational Mini-case 25 April 25
Participation 10 Attendance & contribution
Final Examination 20 2 May

Unless changed, students must earn 90 points for an A, 80 for a B, 70 for a C.

Academic Integrity

The University is committed to maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct inall academic pursuits. Any student found responsible for plagiarism, fabrication,cheating on examinations, or purchasing papers, or other assignments, will receive afailing grade in the course and may be dismissed as a major in communication. See section 11 of Scampus .

Students with Disabilities and Academic Accommodations

Students requesting academic accommodations based on a disability are required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP when adequate documentation in filed. Please be sure the letter is delivered to Professor Dutton (or Ancuta Marza) as early in the semester as possible. DSP is open Monday-Friday, 8:30-5:00. The office is in Student Union 301 and their phone number is (213) 740-0776. For additional information, see the Web page of the Disabilities Services Program at http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/gateway/programs_services/ .


Required Reading :

Stake, R. E. (1995), The Art of Case Research (London: Sage).

Yin, R. K. (1994), Case Study Research , Second Edition (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage).

Recommended for Further Reading :

Diesing, P. (1971), Patterns of Discovery in the Social Sciences (New York: AldineAtherton), pp. 1-25; 142-303.

Wakeford, N. (2000), ‘New Media, New Methodologies: Studying the Web’ in Gauntlett,D. (ed.), Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age (London: Arnold): 31-41.

In addition, I have compiled a set of suggested further readings:

o selected case studies at


o readings and useful URLs on case study research at


o examples of topics explored by other students in this course at



1. Introduction to Course (January 8, 10)

Aims, objectives, requirements and grading

  • Introductions
  • Readings and reading expectations

Topics and tentative schedule

  • Cases students have conducted
  • Potential for one or more group projects
  • Developing a research log
  • Example of a phenomenon approached as a case: 911

Assigned Reading : Course syllabus; Stake (1995): xi-xv, Yin (1994): ix-xvii

Further Reading : Berger, A. (1991), Media Research Techniques (Newbury Park:Sage), chapter on ‘research logs’, pp. 15-22.

Assignment : Send an e-mail to wdutton@usc.edu with a 30-50 word biographicalsketch, noting your enrollment in COM 303.

2. A Case Study (January 15, 17)

  • What is a case study?
  • Types of case studies
  • How is each student organizing their research log?
  • The Harper School Case Study of Educational Reform

Assigned Reading : Stake (1995): 1-13, 137-60; Yin (1994): Chapter 1

Further Reading : Diesing, P. (1971), Patterns of Discovery in the SocialSciences (New York: Aldine Atherton), pp. 1-25.

Example for Discussion : We will discuss the case study presented in our coretext as another example of a possible approach to case study research. Whatthemes, patterns, or concepts emerge from this case? The instructor will also tryto describe or distribute sections of Lang, Kurt and Gladys Lang (1953), ‘TheUnique Perspective of Television and Its Effect’, American Sociological Review ,18(1), pp. 103-112, a case study of the McArthur Day Parade. The resonance ofthe theme of this case has been reflected so often since that you can see howgeneral themes of single cases can obtain validity over time.

3. Steps in Conducting a Case Study: Creating a Spiral of Progress (Jan 22, 24)

There are a number of steps involved in completing a case study, but theycannot be taken in a neat, linear order. From the very first step, you mustanticipate later steps, and continually cycle back and forth to progress a casestudy. I will present a model to help you understand this process and alert you toother related models of case research.

  • Steps in Conducting a Case Study
  • The Galaxy IV Pager Blackout: An Illustration

Assigned Reading : Stake (1995): 35-48; Yin (1994): passim .

Further Reading : Diesing, P. (1971), Patterns of Discovery in the SocialSciences (New York: Aldine Atherton): 142-303.

4. That’s Interesting: Choosing a Research Problem or Question (Jan 29, 31)

What’s interesting to you? Students will come to class with events, problems,and issues drawn from their life on campus, work, the news, or other settings,ranging from the campus to foreign affairs. The class will discuss each problemor issue. Is it interesting to the class? What is important about the problem?What are the taken for granted assumptions or observations that might bequestioned?

Assigned Reading : Stake, R. (1995): 15-34.

Further Reading : Berger, Arthur A. (1996), Manufacturing Desire (NewBrunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers), 41-56. (’1984: The Commercial’)

5. Designing a Case Study (Feb 5, 7)

We will discuss case study designs, and use the research questions of studentsto illustrate how different designs might be used to pursue each question.

  • Moving from a problem or question to a case study
  • Selecting a case or cases
  • Moving back to the original question and refining your ideas

Assigned Reading : Yin (1994): Chapter 2.

Further Reading : Wakeford, N. (2000), ‘New Media, New Methodologies:Studying the Web’ in Gauntlett, D. (ed.), Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studiesfor the Digital Age (London: Arnold): 31-41.


6. Preparing and Planning for the Research (Feb 12, 14)

  • Planning
  • Brainstorming, outlining, anticipating all steps
  • Consulting literature
  • A case study protocol

Assigned Reading : Yin (1994): Chapter 3; Stake (1995): 49-57.

Further Reading : William H. Dutton and Jay G. Blumler. ‘The FalteringDevelopment of Cable Television in Britain,’ International Political ScienceReview , Vol. 9, No. 4, 1988, 279-303.

7. Human Subjects: Protecting Your Subjects and Gaining Approval (Feb 19)

  • Human Subjects Review
  • Protecting your subject and doing good social research
  • Getting the facts right
  • The reputation of a firm, individual or group
  • Libel

Assigned Reading : On the Web, go to USC’s site on ‘Research Involving HumanSubjects (at http://www.usc.edu/admin/provost/irb/). Read this page and lookover the site. Download an ‘Application for Human Subjects Review’ from http://www.usc.edu/admin/provost/irb/upc.html . You need to complete thisapplication and gain approval to complete this course. This application need notbe approved before field work begins, but you must obtain approval from theSchool of Communication, which processes student requests for USC.

Further Reading : Shaw, D., (1999), ‘Crossing the Line’, Los Angeles Times ,Monday, 20 December: Special Report. I will make copies available but you canalso read this story or download it from the Los Angeles Times Web site:< http://www.latimes.com > for a modest fee.


8. Getting Access: The Major Stumbling Block (Feb 21, 26)

We will look at general issues of getting access to a case, such as personal andethical considerations, but also look at specific instances and problems with eachstudent’s study.

Assigned Reading : Yin (1989): Chapter 3; Stake (1995): 57-60.

Further Reading : Draft of Dutton et al’s developing case study of the Tribune’sacquisition of the Times Mirror.

9. Observation, Collection of Evidence: Triangulation (Feb 28, March 5, 7)

  • Participant-observation
  • Interviewing
  • Surveys, counts
  • Content analysis

Assigned Reading : Yin (1989): Chapter 4; Stake (1995): 60-69; 107-20.

Further Reading : Handouts on the instructor’s study of DNet, such as: Dutton,William H., Anita Elberse, and Matthew Hale, ‘Information, Democracy and theInternet,’ Communications of the ACM , December, 1999, pp. 48-52.


10. Tools and Techniques for Qualitative Analysis (March 19, 21)

We will discuss a variety of computer-based tools for qualitative analysis, usingHeise’s Ethno as one specific example, and a use the instructor made of thistechnique in a study of Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network (PEN).Students are encouraged to search out related tools on the Web.

Assignment: Try to use Ethno2 at: http://www.indiana.edu/~socpsy/ESA/ or The Ethnograph at: http://www.qualisresearch.com/

Suggested Readings : Matthew, B., and Huberman, A. M. (1984), QualitativeData Analysis: A Sourcebook of New Methods (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage) andreview Scolari, a commercial source for software on qualitative data analysis andother techniques at www.scolari.com

Dutton, W. H. and Guthrie, K. ‘An Ecology of Games: The Political Constructionof Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network,’ Informatization and the PublicSector , Vol. 1, No. 4, (1991): 1-24.

11. Analysis of Observations and Field Notes (March 26, 28, April 2, 4)

The most difficult aspect of case research might well be the movement fromconcrete observations to more general themes, concepts, and patterns. How todo this, and how to validate and gain confidence in the outcome of this processwill be the general topic of our discussion.

  • Field notes
  • Sketching patterns and relationships
  • Grounded theory
  • Reliability and validity in case research

Assigned Reading : Yin (1994): Chapter 5; Stake (1995): 71-90.

Recommended Reading : Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1967), The Discoveryof Grounded Theory (New York: Aldine Publishing Company), sections onconstructing grounded theory.

Further Reading : Dutton, W. H., and Lin, Wan-Ying (2001, Forthcoming), ‘Usingthe Web in the Democratic Process: The Web-Orchestrated ‘Stop the Overlay’Cyber-Campaign’, European Review , Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. forthcoming.

12. Developing New Concepts; Refining Old Concepts (April 9, 11)

Some of the major contributions of case studies and other qualitative researchare concepts that pull together the many and complex findings of a study in asimple and general way. Good typologies and sensitizing concepts can bring thereader into a case and provide a framework for developing a more cumulativeunderstanding of social phenomena.

  • themes and patterns
  • typologies
  • sensitizing concepts
  • concretizing concepts

Assigned Reading : Review readings from the semester and pull out examples ofa) typologies, b) sensitizing concepts, c) concretizing concepts, d) themes, ande) patterns of processes.

Further Reading : Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. (1985), Modeling asNegotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process (Norwood, NJ: Ablex): 77-99.

13. Reporting on a Case Study (16 April)

Many elements of style and composition are important to the report of a casestudy, but case studies also raise particularly difficult problems of reducing data,and providing the reader a true sense of what you’ve learned from theexperience of doing the case research.

  • Basic structure and outline of the report
  • Level of detail
  • Features of a well-written report

Assigned Reading : Yin (1994): Chapter 6; Stake (1995): 121-36.

14. Defining and Reaching Audiences: Users and Beneficiaries (18 April)

  • Trickle-down models of dissemination
  • New paradigms for research production and utilization
  • Audiences, media, press releases, mailing lists, sound bites

Assigned Reading : Stake (1995): 91-106.

Further Reading : W. Dutton (1994), `Trickle-Down Social Science: A PersonalPerspective,’ Social Sciences , 22, January, p. 2.


15. Summary and Presentations: Case Studies (23, 25 April)

Your second mini-case will be presented this week and we will use thesepresentations to discuss some of the major strengths and weaknesses of thisapproach. Case studies are often the focus of debate in the social sciences.Some debates are across paradigms, while others raise more fundamentalmethodological issues for case researchers. All are instructive.

16. Final Examination (7 May 2000, 11am-1pm)

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