Background: Two main pathways exist for the development of knowledge in clinical homeopathy. These comprise clinical trials conducted primarily by university-based researchers and cases reports and homeopathic "provings" compiled by engaged homeopathic practitioners. In this paper the relative merits of these methods are examined and a middle way proposed. This consists of the "Formal Case Study" (FCS) in which qualitative methods are used to increase the rigour and sophistication with which homeopathic cases are studied. Before going into design issues this paper places the FCS in an historical and academic context and describes the relative merits of the method.
Discussion: Like any research, the FCS should have a clear focus. This focus can be both "internal", grounded in the discourse of homeopathy and also encompass issues of wider appeal. A selection of possible "internal" and "external" research questions is introduced. Data generation should be from multiple sources to ensure adequate triangulation. This could include the recording and transcription of actual consultations. Analysis is built around existing theory, involves cross-case comparison and the search for deviant cases. The trustworthiness of conclusions is ensured by the application of concepts from qualitative research including triangulation, groundedness, respondent validation and reflexivity. Though homeopathic case studies have been reported in mainstream literature, none has used formal qualitative methods--though some such studies are in progress.
Summary: This paper introduces the reader to a new strategy for homeopathic research. This strategy, termed the "formal case study", allows for a naturalistic enquiry into the players, processes and outcomes of homeopathic practice. Using ideas from qualitative research, it allows a rigorous approach to types of research question that cannot typically be addressed through clinical trials and numeric outcome studies. The FCS provides an opportunity for the practitioner-researcher to contribute to the evidence-base in homeopathy in a systematic fashion. The FCS can also be used to inform the design of clinical trials through holistic study of the "active ingredients" of the therapeutic process and its clinical outcomes.