Today I received my copy of The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods from I began to scan the introduction "Case-Based Methods: Why We Need Them; What They Are; How to Do Them" by David Byrne. As I expected the editors and authors of this collection see themselves as social scientists. They explicitly reject, however, the conventional "search for universals, a.k.a. nomothetic laws" view of what social science involves, while at the same time also rejecting a "nothing here but particulars" hermeneutic stance. They agree with Danermark, et al,

....first, that science should have generalizing claims. Second, the explanation of social phenomena by revealing the causal mechanisms that produce them is the fundamental task of research.

That said, they continue a few sentences later,

First, we want to make it clear that generalizing is not the same as universalizing. It is important to be able to develop an understanding of causation that goes beyond the unique instance — the object of ideographic inquiry. however, it is just as important to be able to specify the limits of that generalization. We cannot establish universal laws in the social sciences. There is no valid nomothetic project. We hope to demonstrate here that case-based methods help us both to elucidate causation and to specify the range of the applicability of our account of causal mechanism. The emphasis on the plural form of mechanism in the preceding sentence is very important. It is not just that different mechanisms operate to produce, contingently in context, different results. It is rather than different mechanism may produce the same outcome — the complete antithesis of the form of understanding that is implicit in, and foundational to, traditional statistical modeling's search for the — that is to say the universal, always and everywhere, nomothetic —model that fits the data.

It would be very easy for anthropologists preoccupied with their own internecine quarrels to ignore the developments described in this book as merely sociological and, thus, of no interest to anthropologists. This would be, in my estimation, a great mistake. If there is any enthusiasm for the venture, I will from time to time post selected passages from what I read in this book in hopes of provoking productive discussion.

Waiting for feedback (not, I hope, for Godot).

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John, this looks quite interesting. The first few pages of the book are available on Amazon's website, so I'm going to take a look.

By all means, feel free to post the snippets you find interesting! Without violating fair use, of course. :-)
Just to be perfectly clear, the proper citation for the book is

Byrne, David and Charles C. Ragin (2009) The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods. The previously quoted material is from the Introduction "Case-Based Methods: Why We Need Them; What They Are; How to Do Them" by David Byrne, pp. 1-2.

Further exploration reveals that Chapter 1 "Complexity and Case" by David L. Harvey should be of particular interest to Huon Wardle, since it begins with a discussion of "fundamental issues of social ontology," pp. 15-16.

I have been eyeing the book on Amazon for a few days now, debating on whether to plunk down the dollars for it. It does sound like a worthwhile read.
In "Complexity and Case," Chapter 1 of Case-Based Methods David L Harvey notes that, ,while case studies have long kindled the sociological imagination, they have frequently been criticized on methodological and epistemological grounds. Much less attention has been paid, however, to issues of social ontology, i.e., to the elemental properties of the entities treated as cases. He writes,

Three levels of ontological interest are germane to sociological inquiry: (1) philosophical ontology, (2) scientific ontology, and (3) sociological ontology. Philosophical ontology deduces from the structure of speculative thought the fundamental nature of the entities that constitute our everyday world. Scientific ontologies are nested within philosophical ontologies to the extent that they flesh out the local details of a terrain in a way philosophical ontology cannot.... Finally, social ontologies are nested within scientific ontologies in that they deal with the elemental entities and dynamics sociohistorical formations must exhibit if they are to sustain themselves over time. (Op.cit, pp. 15-16)

As I read this passage, I note how Western researcher-centric it is. It invites us to imagine a thinker recapitulating the development of European thought, from philosophy to science to social science. He begins by critically assessing entities imagined in his commonsense cosmology, proceeds to re-imagine them in light of scientific knowledge, and, finally, considers what additional factors must be considered if the entities in question are "sociohistorical formations." There is no consideration here that others in different times and places might start from radically different philosophical ontologies of the sort that anthropologists might discover in their analyses of non-Western cosmologies, let alone any willingness to take these seriously by considering how they might alter the scientific and social ontologies presumed to be embedded in them.
I am now reading Chapter 3 "Reflexivity, Realism and the Process of Casing" by Bob Carter and Alison Sealy. This chapter introduces an example of stratified ontology associated with the philosopher of science R. Bhaskar: the empirical, the actual, and the real. To illustrate the concept, Carter and Sealy use the example of the rising and setting Sun (the empirical), which might be attributed to the Sun traveling around the Earth. We know, however, that the Earth travels around the Sun (the actual) and that this is because of gravitation (the real).

Note the relationship here: the empirical is included in the actual; the actual is included in the real; the real encompasses the actual; the actual encompasses the empirical. To me, this is an interesting set of distinctions, largely because it introduces a third term, the actual, into the conventional binary opposition between the empirical (the world we perceive through our senses) and the real (the underlying reality described by science).

Then, however, I try to imagine how this scheme plays out in, for example, the practice of Daoist magic. There are instances where it might apply. A client is feeling shaken due to a recent motorcycle accident (the empirical); the accident was caused by an angry spirit — the healer suggests Tai-sui, the god of the year (actual?); Why Tai-sui? Because the eight characters that define the client's horoscope indicate a conflict with the god of the year, based on calculations involving the fundamental forces in traditional Chinese cosmology, the yin and yang, the five elements, the 10 heavenly stems and the 12 earthly branches (the real??). My question marks, however, indicate a growing unease. Is the relationship of the fundamental forces in traditional Chinese cosmology to the collision with the god of the year the same as that of the law of gravity to the Earth's orbit around the Sun? Does the collision with the god of the year stand in the same relationship to the motorcycle accident as the Earth going round the Sun does to the purely empirical possibility that the Sun goes around the Earth? Now I feel on shaky ground.

I could, of course, escape from my unease by making an epistemological move, dismissing the Chinese case as nonsense unsupported by proper scientific research. Or, I might instead, embrace it and begin to ask how the chain of causal connections assumed by the Daoist healer differs concretely from the chain of connections assumed by Bhaskar and, then, Carter and Sealy. What are the entities involved? How are they supposed to affect each other? That sort of question.



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