Sunday, November 16, 2014


Lund, Christian  (2014)  Of What is This a Case? Analytical Movements in Qualitative Social Science Research. Human Organization 73(3):224-234.

I just read this article, and it is fantastic. Alison Rautman suggested it: Thanks, Alison! Yeah, maybe its weird to get excited about epistemology, but given the sorry state of argumentation in archaeology, we really need to talk more about epistemology. A good place to begin is with methods of case study analysis.

Many, or perhaps most, archaeological studies are examples of case study research. That is, we are analyzing a small number of cases in order to draw conclusions and make general points. In my previous post on case study research, I suggest that archaeologists would do well to pay attention to the methodological literature on case study research in the social sciences. Now, that is a rather large literature, and much of it applies only tangentially to the kinds of data and concepts we use in archaeology. I always suggest that people reading John Gerring's (2007) textbook as a very useful introduction that has relevance for archaeology. Now I will add Christian Lund's new paper.

Lund uses a simple and clear scheme to analyze a number of issues in case study research. Here is his basic scheme:
 Most of this brief article consists of discussion of how scholars move between the specific and the general, and between the concrete and the abstract, in the course of research. Lund uses examples form his own ethnographic research on political economy in Africa, but most of what he says has broad applicability to archaeology and history. Here are some of the relevant concepts:

“Generalization is an attempt to see resonance with events and processes, largely at the same level of abstraction but in different temporal or spatial contexts.”

Abstraction “is an attempt to identify inherent decontextualized qualities or properties in the studied events.”

Theorization “is about moving from observation of empirical events, through concepts, to be able to say something about the inherent qualities and dynamics in contexts other than the ones studied. That is, there is both an element of decontextualization or abstraction and an element of transfactual corroboration in the process.” (all, p.229)

Scholars move back and forth among these concepts, among the cells in the above table, in their efforts to make sense of their data. Here is how Lund fills out his scheme for his particular research project:

I got all sorts of ideas and insights from this article. Rather than laying it all out here, I will recommend that you read the paper. I will just mention two points made in the conclusions (p. 231):

  1. "It is the movement between [the cells] and their articulation that produces epiphanies and analytical knowledge"
  2. "To discuss one's work with others on a regular basis may be the most important practice to gradually hone in on the potentiality for generalization, abstraction, and theoretical of the case."
Go read this article, and then talk about your research with friends, colleagues, and family. It will help you develop insights and advances.

Gerring, John  (2007)  Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Lund, Christian  (2014)  Of What is This a Case? Analytical Movements in Qualitative Social Science Research. Human Organization 73(3):224-234.


Robert Mahaney said...

Thank you for the post! Two great resources to look into.

Matt Peeples said...

Another older book in a similar vein I've found useful is:

Ragin, C. C., and H. S. Becker(1992) What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.