Friday, February 13, 2009

Week 6: Case Studies

In composition and communication studies we argue and fight over the subjectivity of things like assessment, “good” versus “poor” writing, and the degree effectiveness of rhetoric and persuasion (among, obviously, many other things that we argue about…) Subjectivity creates a challenging quagmire within fairly abstract fields such as English, writing, public speaking, and other forms of human communication. Unlike scientific inquiry, where generalizable answers often reign in importance, humanities-based inquiry must develop understanding through much less generalized information. Hence, our need for case studies and qualitative research. While much of the information gathered from case studies is rarely generalizable, and much too difficult and expensive to acquire in mass quantities, it can nonetheless be very valuable—insightful and influential. Thus, when we approach questions about pedagogy, assessment, and effectiveness of writing, qualitative case studies are not only appropriate, but very necessary. They do, after all, spark a series of questions that continue investigation into difficult and complex questions.

The selection of subjects for such studies should invariably correlate with the research questions at hand. Considering Flower and Hayes’ research on pregnant pauses, it would have made little sense, for example, to only choose novice writers to determine where and how pauses affect the overall quality of writing. Likewise, in Flower, Hayes, and Swarts’ research design, choosing subjects with little or no advanced education or workplace experience would have likely produced much less useful results. One thing that is clear, though, is that when we write up a research report, we must clearly define who our subjects are. Without this descriptive information, it is difficult for the reader to lend credibility and usefulness to the results.

The most complicated—and important—component of qualitative research is defining an effective and reliable method of collecting and coding data. While there is no one correct method—it will change depending on the project—there are myriad of ways to do it incorrectly. Again, it is critical that the methodology be VERY clearly defined and the results elaborated on. The research must be tried and tested or supported by previous studies that have proved effective coding strategies. This was the major problem of Brandt’s research project about literacy and economic change. Because little was mentioned about research methodologies and the coding of variables, her information ultimately feels unsupportive and useless—merely interesting stories. It becomes clear that her findings could prove just the opposite if she merely selected two different people under different socio, political, and economic circumstances to interview.

Generalizations and case studies don’t often find congruence. At least not to broad generalizations over very large populations. That is not to say, however, that what is learned from a case study doesn’t produce valuable results. What is learned from a case study, if it followed strict and effective research methodologies, can be applied and practiced in order to continue learning how to achieve better results. Case studies are important to humanities and social sciences because they present insight into the complexity of the human being that must be studied in order to move forward in our understanding of any of the fields contained within.


  1. Good post. What I always like about your post is your critical insights into the topics you discuss. You have nicely demonstrated how qualitative research (case studies) is useful for investigating issues in the humanities, especially in studying phenomena like composing and communication. Similarly, your post gives a clear window to the major ideas discussed in the readings.

  2. Curtis, thanks for such a lucid post. It's nice to read over a skillful handling of the readings when trying to recall what the heck I read two days ago (Two days doesn't sound like a lot, but...well, you're taking the same courses I am; I'm starting to slip into utopian readings of gesture in Lauer and Asher). Your discussion of subject selection and coding were particularly helpful, particularly the emphasis on coding being critical to the process. Still, "useless"? You surprised me with this one. I'm assuming you meant "useless in this context." Because aren't those portraits in Brandt still "useful" in the same way as any good story, any good walk outside your normal walk? If not, that pitches a lot overboard (memoirs, many documentary films, folklore, etc.). Again, I'm guessing you're speaking in terms of scientific study. But if you're not, I'd love to chat. I got a great story for you.