Case studies are histories and accounts of campaigns and events which includes lessons and insights that can be applied more broadly. At their best they provide inspiration while helping us to hone in on the finer points of activism. This article provides tips for writing case studies that provide campaigners with opportunities to learn from their peers and the past.
Orienting your focus at the beginning
To help orient your research it’s good to start out by identifying your case study’s scope and what you broadly want to achieve. Whether you’re writing up a case study based on your own experiences or those of others, the following can be useful things to consider at the outset:
- Why focus on this particular campaign or event?
- Who is your audience?
- Who will be involved in creating the case study? Will it primarily be one or a few researchers, a collective effort with or by those who were involved, etc?
- Will this serve as an example to support other resources? Will it be used as part of training? Or will it be a standalone case study?
- What do you want your audience to get out of reading your work?
- Are you looking to share key lessons, to inspire people, to capture an important moment, and/or to demonstrate the advantages and challenges of campaigning in general?
- Can the situation you’re documenting, or aspects of it, serve as a model for others and/or be used to spark thought and debate about particular tactics, strategies and approaches?
- Where are you hoping the case study will be published? Given this, as well as your goals and audience, is there a particular format or length you should be aiming for and how will this affect the type and amount of information you’ll aim to locate?
Things to cover in a case study
You may not want, need or be able to cover all of these, but elements that can provide readers with a useful guide or example include:
- What were the campaign’s initial goals and how were they arrived at? Did they change over time and if they did, under what circumstances?
- What was the political context in which activists were operating? Who and what was in their favour, and who and what were they up against?
- Were campaigners able to do research and preparation before the campaign kicked off and what tools, ideas and resources guided them?
- What was the history of the event or campaign in terms of its launch and how it unfolded?
- What activities did the group undertake, how were they decided upon, and what effects did they have? How did potential and existing allies and opponents respond?
- Did campaigners change the way they were doing things along the way and how did this effect the campaign and its outcomes?
- Were there any particular turning points or crucial moments in the campaign?
- At what points did key decisions have to be made?
- What were the options, and how and why were certain ones selected?
- What occurred because of them?
- In hindsight, was there anything campaigners wish they had done differently, or think were alternative options that might have been effective?
- What were the overall outcomes of the campaign, both in terms of achieving its stated goals but also in terms of how it affected those directly involved and broader communities, whether it led to further action and built movement capacity, etc?
- What did people learn from the campaign in terms of activism but also about themselves, the group/s they worked with, the process of social change, etc? What do they think is most important that others learn from their experiences?
The following are sources that will typically help you to map out the campaign, identify key points within it and accurately document the aspects of the event or campaign to help your audience make informed decisions in the future:
- Campaign websites
- Social media
- Interviews with campaigners
- Materials from campaigners’ personal collections
- Mainstream news reports (if these are paywalled then free membership of a local or state library will often provide you with access)
- Alternative media
- The National Library of Australia’s Trove collection, and similar websites in other countries, allows anyone to locate and search older Australian newspapers, see which Australian libraries hold books and other materials, source Australian images online, and more
- State and university library collections and archives
There are many different ways to write a case study. Case studies can be as short as a few paragraphs or as long as a book. Some start with a chronology or recap of campaign events and then focus in on specific events, insights and lessons. Others interweave key points into an overall history.
Some case studies are written as outside observations, sometimes quoting campaigners with pull out quotes, while others are completely told in the voices and opinions of those involved. Some make use of footnotes or citations while others have links or mention sources in the text. Others include a list of sources and campaign links at the end.
The Commons has a Campaign Case Study Template if you would like help in getting started.
Case Study Examples in the Commons Library
Examples from the Commons Library of case studies in a range of formats include:
- Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGA UP) campaigns against tobacco advertising, Australia, 1978-1994
An essay with a list of useful links at the end.
- Gurindji Land Rights Struggle: Case study & training guide
An essay combined with a training exercise.
- Naming an Advocacy Campaign
This article about a skill uses a series of short case studies at the end to illustrate key points.
- Rights for Moms [Bravo Za Mama]: Serbian campaign case study
An example of a case study summary based around headings with a longer version available as a download.
- Behind the scenes of Sunrise’s volunteer-led phone bank program
This skills focused case study combines headings and dot points.
- Thanks But No Tanks: Learnings from Disrupt Land Forces [Brisbane: 2021]
Produced shortly after the protest it documents, this report includes numerous photos and images blended in with lessons and quotes from those involved.
- James Price Point/Walmadan: A Huge Win
This case study includes pull quotes from participants and ends with a list of “keys to success”.
- Always look on the bright side of life: The AIDEX ’91 story
This book length oral history combines text with lengthy quotes from a range of protesters to create a narrative and draw out lessons.
- Marriage Equality Timeline and Reflection
A brief campaign timeline with links to articles about the campaign from different participants and commentators.
- How defeating Keystone XL built a bolder, savvier climate movement
A magazine style article telling the story of the campaign.
- Five Lessons from Fair Agenda’s Campaigns for Abortion Care in Australia
A speech delivered to a conference emphasising key lessons.
- Winning Long-game, Collaborative, Grassroots Campaigns: The WA Forest Campaign Experience.
An article based on a conference speech.
- Australian Rainforest Action Groups Boycott Malaysian Rainforest Timber.
An example of the short case studies included in the Global Nonviolent Action Database. All GNVAD case studies follow a similar format with headings and categorisation, see the full version of this article in the database.
Examples of other Case Study Databases
- Environmental Justice Atlas
Environmental Justice Atlas Example – Closure of coal mine in Australia – Alcoa coal in Anglesea
- Global Nonviolent Action Database
Global Nonviolent Action Database Example – Franklin River Campaign
Participedia Example – Raising minimum wage in the US
Where possible include some images as these not only break up the text but can also provide an insight into how things were set up and carried out. Seek permission from the creator and provide a caption for the source.
Regardless of whether you were involved or not in the events being documented you should consider how to make sure that the case study is reflective of those who were and of the diversity of ideas and opinions that were involved. Where possible this will involve using a variety of sources, but having different people check and comment on your draft can be valuable, and is vital when they are directly quoted.
If you come across very divergent accounts then detail and explore them as this will benefit and extend the usefulness of the account. Don’t be afraid to focus on points of disagreement and tension within campaigns as well as difficulties they faced, mistakes that were made and how people thought they could have done things better. It’s not helpful to pass judgement but neither is it useful to pretend that every campaign is a smooth-running series of victories or that every problem has a simple solution.
The most useful case studies are those that blend the high and low points with an exploration of the tensions and challenges. Considering how these were addressed will be crucial for others if they find themselves in a similar situation.
Share your case studies
The Commons Library would love to share your case studies. If you’re considering doing one or have work you’d like us to share then please get in touch.
Here are some resources to help –
- Campaign Case Study Template
- Tips on writing accessible and engaging article
- Conducting Interviews for Articles, Research & More
- Writing for the Commons Social Change Library