Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" and disciplinary myopia

In college, I took a course in French classical drama, and one of the few things I still recall is a quote from Molière's play, "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." The protagonist discovers, to his astonishment, that he can speak prose:

"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):

Gerring, John
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.


Archeoten. said...

Great post

Another aspect in these “speech games” is that end up becoming from dialects to self-suficient "languages", and this creates a new scenario of disengagement from reallia of one same object, and finally the confinemend in the paradigm or disciplinary ecological-niche made that these dialectal myopia tends to evolve to a stage of ontological blindness.

Perhaps another relevant metaphor might be that of the fable of the the 5 indian wise blind men trying to describe the same elephant touching each one only your limited part of the same holistic whole. Perhaps the problem of the indian blind men of the fable was that they speaking different language and no comunication is possible of the partial esperience of each one, or may be that the problem would be a different disciplinary curricula (?) ;-)

Michael E. Smith said...

This disciplinary myopia also extends to cultural anthropology. Two examples: John Gerring's book (see the original post) was reviewed in American Anthropologist (2008, by David Shulman). I eagerly read the review, expecting that Shulman would relate case study research in other fields to anthropological methods. But no, his review focuses only on the book, with not a word on how it relates to anthropology.

Example 2: I've been looking around in a multi-volume set, Encyclopedia of Social Measurement (Elsevier, 2005), which has pretty broad coverage in the social sciences. There is an article by cultural anthropologist Jack Glazier called "case study." It is about ethnographic research. But does he relate ethnography or case studies to the (quite large) case study literature in other fields? Nope.

Alex 'Rex' Golub said...

Social anthropology has been worried about case studies for some time -- especially in the Manchester tradition, which shared some of the same epistemological problems as the "What is a Case" bunch you cite below. Try "Case and Situation Analysis" by Clyde Mitchell and "Ethnographic Data in British Social Anthropology". For an overview see "The Manchest School" ed. by Evans and Handelman. I think the much earlier collection "Craft of Social Anthropology" has some stuff on this issue.

These folks have a (somewhat attenuated) connection with Michael Burrawoy, whose wrote a book (actually a collection of essays) entitled "The Extended Case Method".

I think there are connections across disciplines here (there are 2 long collections of proceedings from NSF conferences on method, one by Lamont and the other on Ragin, which include anthros IIRC). I think it's a bit unfair to claim that cultural anthropologists are 'myopic' -- I think if you poke around in the literature more deeply you might be better able to see these connections.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Rex- Thanks, this makes much more sense. I shouldn't make such hasty judgments without really digging deeper (although, hey, what are blogs for anyway, if not for shooting from the hip?). I guess I got my hopes up from those two pieces I mentioned in my comment, but then I was disappointed to see the authors ignore possible connections between anthropology and the broader social science literature.

Alex 'Rex' Golub said...

Well I know that finding out that there is a literature out there takes away the ability to be grouchy about your discipline, which I know is important to you.... ;)

If you need citations on 'analytic induction' let me know.

I do think you are correct that anthropology has not articulated with these topics the way it could, mostly because it does ethnography for different reasons than the sociologists, and as a result worries about different things. Sadly, validity doesn't matter if you're not interested in explanation. These days increasingly our connection with archaeology seems to be turning 'anthropological archaeology' into anthropology, instead of making socioculturals worry more about the bread and butter issues archaeologists face. At least the stuff that I read.

Michael E. Smith said...


I'm not at all surprised that ethnographers have considered these issues of method and theory, but I guess I'm disappointed that such work gets carried out in relative isolation from other social sciences.