Why are we using case studies?

One of the troubling features of STS for those in the “traditional” disciplines (in my case: sociology) is not so much its theoretical movements towards multiplicity, heterogeneity, symmetry and the like, but the fact that STS is doing theory not in specialized texts or on specialized conferences, but in the form of case studies. This is not my observation alone. John Law in his “On Sociology and STS” felt the urge to tell his fellow sociologists:

STS writing is not only highly theorised, but also works on and in theory. Its core concerns often have to do with epistemology (the theory of knowledge), and (more recently) ontology, the character of the real (I will come to the latter below). In theory it might make its arguments in an abstract manner (and there are some signs of movement in this direction), but its major mode of self-expression, discovery and exegesis has usually been through case-studies. (629)

John gives two reasons for this: It is because in STS theory and data are created simultaneously  and, more importantly, it is because STS works basically on the assumption that “abstraction is only possible by working through the concrete” (630). I am not sure if I agree: the masses of more illustrative than really empirical cases (for example: Portuguese vessels, keys in Berlin and keychains in Hotels in Paris, “Grooms” on strike or sleeping policemen) suggest that it might be the other way round sometimes and that in STS sometimes theory comes before there is data and sometimes data comes before theory.

But maybe there are other reasons for our love for case studies and I wonder if they are both the reason for STS´s success and for its incommensurability with traditional sociology:

  1. Case studies are hybrids: they allow the blend of empirical detail, conceptual work and methodological experiments in a single text. Take Aramis: a story about innovation in public transport (empirically), an argument for the temporal and relational coalescence of sociotechnical projects (conceputally) and a search (literally, remember, it is a mystery story) for interdisciplinary forms of reflexivity. Or take Aircraft Stories: a story about a failed military aircraft, about “fractional coherence” and about the impossibility to capture this with one method.
  2. Case studies are boundary objects: they allow heterogeneous cooperation between different disciplines and therefore interdisciplinary projects in STS because they are “weakly structured in common use, and becoming strongly structured in individual use” (Star & Griesemer 1989: 393). Cases allow a conversation about something very concrete (although it might be interesting for different reasons in different disciplines) while they are open enough to also allow very specific theoretical arguments (hidden in the empirical details and therefore not that bothersome for those not interested in them)
  3. Case studies are partial: their incompleteness (because one can always find out more about the case and tell its story differently) is a refexive argument. When science is a practice of turning matters of concern into matters of fact, there is no use of presenting ones own work as if it is part of a repertoire of STS-matters-of-fact.

Still I wonder: Can we find other ways? Do we have to stick with cases? What if we have a theoretical point to make — are we supposed to “make a case” then? Or are there other ways?

This entry was posted in Methods, STS, Uncategorized and tagged , , by Jan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jan

Jan studied Sociology, Political Sciences and Computer Science. As a Research Group Leader at the MCTS in Munich he connects Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies by working on problems of social structure and infrastructures, human and non-human agency and discourse and material culture.

One thought on “Why are we using case studies?

  1. This insight that "STS is doing theory not in specialized texts or on specialized conferences, but in the form of case studies" is a viable statement; however, I think there is good ground, though seldom trodden, to use extant theories in STS (such as ANT) to tackle other theories in other areas of study such as political science, sociology, or psychology (I’m reviewing an article in ecological psychology right now about squaring ANT with some psychological theories). . Of course, Jan, that is what we did in our Actor-Network State paper; found a ready-made problem in another field, in our case, political sociology/political science, and showed (to the best of our ability) the utility of STS outside of STS. The idea,which is a comment that I think Bruno Latour made the very best, and very early on, was precisely that: the utility of STS must be at least partially found outside of STS..Certainly, that makes some ‘alternative’ space for what you’re talking about, right?


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