Thursday, December 8, 2011
"Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" and disciplinary myopia
"Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it!"
(Act II, scene 4: "Par ma foi, il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose, sans que j'en susse rien.")
I have recently had such a Molière moment. I have been reading works on research methods in political science and sociology (in preparation for a proposal where a group of us will have to make an argument for the value of comparative research ancient cities that will satisfy sociologists and political scientists). It looks like what we are doing is called "case study research" in those fields. I was excited (and daunted) to find a large methodological literature on case study research, and I have started rooting around in that literature. I can now exclaim, with the same pride as Molière's protagonist:
"Good heavens! For more than thirty years I have been doing case study research without knowing it."
In the non-anthropological social sciences, case-study research is presented as an alternative to the dominant quantitative-statistical methodological emphasis. The latter focuses on comparisons of variables across numerous cases, whereas the case-study approach uses much smaller samples and focuses on the cases.
So how is this helpful for archaeology? From one perspective, a familiarity with this literature will help me explain archaeological research to audiences in other disciplines. But more importantly, the case study literature has methodological insights that can help archaeologists design and carry out comparative research that is more rigorous and convincing. Topics discussed in that literature include sampling, case selection, constructing indicators, causal inferences, different sources of bias, and the like. In archaeology, methodological topics like this are discussed in print most commonly in the holocultural approach promoted by Peter Peregrine and others (see the journal Cross-Cultural Research). That body of work, and its related theme within sociocultural anthropology, is an example of variable-focused research. Why don't we have more of a methodological literature in archaeology for case-based comparative research? Addressing this lack was one of the reasons for publishing The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies (although we don't use the term "case study research" in that book).
So why hasn't someone linked up archaeology with this body of research before now? (Case study research is part of a larger, very interesting, and relevant field, that of social science history and historical sociology). I can better understand why social scientist methodologists have ignored archaeology, than why archaeologists have ignored broader trends in the social sciences. Well, it is the end of the semester, and I don't have time to rant and rave about this like I might be tempted to. Later, when I have read more of the case-study literature, I may write a methodological paper about how it relates to archaeology. In the meantime, I have found this paper a good intro to some of the issues:
Kiser, Edgar and Steve Pfaff
2010 Comparative-Historical Methodology in Political Sociology In Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, edited by Kevin T. Leight and J. Craig Jenkins, pp. 571-587. Springer, New York.
In a quick perusal of a number of books and edited collections, this one looks the best to me (that is, broadest and most relevant to archaeology):
2007 Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge University Press, New York.
I am a fan of Gerring's research in social science methods. Check out his website; it has most of his articles posted, descriptions of his book, book reviews, papers in progress, all kinds of good things. If you study ancient empires, you need to read Gerring et al 2011 on direct and indirect control.
Here are a few more works on case-based research in sociology and political science:
Byrne, David, and Charles C. Ragin (editors)
2009 The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods. Sage, London.
Ragin, Charles C.
1997 Turning the Tables: How Case-Oriented Research Challenges Variable-Oriented Research. Comparative Social Research 16:27-42.
Ragin, Charles C., and Howard S. Becker
1992 What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Ragin has also published a number of more recent methodological books on the topic.