Saturday, February 14, 2009

Case in Point

The first case study I remember reading is "Shut Those Thick Lips!" A Study of Slum School Failure by Gerry Rosenfeld.  The book was given to me by an anthropologist with whom I was team teaching.   A label marked it as from the "Case Studies in Education and Culture" series; otherwise, I might not have labeled it that myself.  It attempts to convey the disadvantage done to students in an impoverished, urban school, concluding that there is a perpetual exchange of condemnatory typing between teacher and student, student and teacher.  The teacher thinks the kids will never learn.  The students think the teacher is out to get them.  

Being written in the seventies about the sixties, the book's thesis drew attention.  It described the difference of these "slum" schools in a new way.  From reading Lauer and Asher, I can graft onto this the language of variables.  Rosenfeld's purpose was to describe them.  L & A would add that descriptions raise questions for future research.  While this more precise definition of case studies fits with Rosenfeld, I remember, also, the highly rhetorical nature of his questions.  He was clearly invested in them, in a different way than say Flower, Hayes, and Swarts, whose "provocative question" wonders how widely we should apply their "scenario principle"(a revision method that relies on a human-centered network) (56).  I don't mean to undermine questions proposed in either study; rather, I too am attempting to describe the variable of their difference.  

For Rosenfeld that seems to be his sense of advocacy.  His audience needs to take notice of his question.  Whereas Brandt's descriptions of Midwestern dairy farmers are rich with detail, Rosenfeld's descriptions are designed to evoke an emotional response.  One gets a sense of this strategy simply from his title.  He will reveal an injustice, an atrocity.  Part of his commitment emerges from his involvement as a teacher at the school being studied.  Brandt, Flower et al. have much more apparent critical distance; but, then again, perhaps not.  Flower is, likewise, a teacher of the subject she studies.

We have been asked to reflect on both the appropriate purposes of case studies and the kinds of generalizations possible.  Rosenfeld, paired with the readings we were assigned, has led me to these questions for future study:

-Is the kind of description that belongs to narrative—one which does not seek to submerge the signifiers of its rhetorical design—appropriate for case study?

-How much can a case study appeal to pathos before the study becomes something different, something we must seek another label for?  When does it disqualify itself?

-Is an author's complicity in the case being studied inversely proportionate to the level of generalization possible?

-To what extent can social justice be a part of one's purpose?  Does a case study become inappropriate with this as its starting point?

Brandt offers a perspective that seems to be important when approaching these questions.  His close analysis, he claims, is not, like Flower and Hayes, to "predict particular outcomes, but to understand better the struggles that economic transformations bring to the pursuit of literacy.  With this knowledge, educators might be in a better position to find ways to compensate for tears in the social fabrics that these transformations leave behind" (377).  The passage is remarkable for two reasons: first, it is a naked call for empathy; second, it would deploy this empathy as a restorative tool, as a means of achieving social justice.  If this is an acceptable purpose for case studies, perhaps, then, the questions that remain are just a matter of language.


  1. As usual, Anthony, I find your commentary and insight very helpful. In particular, I'm pleased with how you blur the lines between case study and rhetorical analysis. For instance, in the Brandt piece, the appeals to pathos are overt. Your question, to what extent can social justice be a part of one's purpose, seems to imply perhaps an issue in researcher objectivity? To this I'd suggest the concept of objectivity is largely a myth. Perhaps our focus should instead become to what degree can we afford not to list social justice as a part of our purpose. Given that I'm not sure we can really be clear on how to operationalize this variable with any semblence of validity, I'm more concerned with whether social justice can be a purpose rather than whether it should be. Again - an enjoyable post.


  2. I thought that you raised some very interesting questions in this post. Your analysis of the narrative approaches taken in some case studies is certainly worth looking into in more detail. My first inclination would be to answer yes to your first question; that narrative description IS appropriate for case study. However as your other questions get at, this type of description certainly changes things, and makes the study less generalizable and perhaps less reliable in many people's eyes.

  3. Well, I haven't read Rosenfeld, but I understand that even in the midst of a case study as qualitative research, it is difficult to distance oneself emotionally from the process - particularly if it concerns children in "slum schools." I do admit, however, that I would probably find it suspect in terms of its data analysis if the emotion was not girded with strong analysis. Perhaps I am getting used to dry research, but there is something appealing in the very nature of stepping away from the research in order to analyze it, and perhaps, as you mentioned with Flower and Hayes, one can then use the empathy that comes from the analysis as a "restorative tool" for achieving social justice.