On the case

flickr photo by Helene Valvatne Andas https://flickr.com/photos/helenevalvatneandas/6203704278 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m currently working on a longer document (which may need a couple of posts) which will outline my analysis strategy. As I read through Miles, Huberman and Saldaña (2014) to explore background material and underpinning concepts, the notion of the ‘case’ came up and it struck me that I’ve not yet articulated clearly what for me will constitute a case. Perhaps this is an extension of the omission I discussed in a previous post where I’ve also failed to mention what I’m conducting an ethnography of? Time to attempt put things right.

Miles, Huberman and Saldaña define a case as

a phenomenon of some sort occurring in a bounded context.

They list possible cases as being an individual, a role, a small group, an organisation, a space, a community, episodes or encounters (one-night stand, voting), an event, a period of time, a process, a culture, a nation. This set me wondering therefore what my case might be, and also returning to my perennial problem of what in my study provides the boundedness! But one step at a time.

My research is on teacher professional learning using Twitter, so starting at the front of the list of possible cases, mine could be the individual participants in my study; those who consented to being interviewed or producing audio arcs. I wonder though whether the second item in the list, ‘role’ might also be pertinent, since my research does focus on teachers. Perhaps then my cases are individuals in a particular role?

I could have chosen to focus on a group, such as the #mfltwitterati, who coalesce around that particular hashtag, although I suspect that if I had, I’d need to be devoting far more blog inches to discussions of what constitutes a group. Maybe they’re a community rather than a group? (Another deep discussion!).

Since Twitter also comes into the equation, I guess space could form a case for me, although does that then presuppose other spaces? Maybe, if was considering Facebook or Google Plus, or offline spaces … which in a sense, I am, but more as extensions from the point of entry – Twitter. So Twitter won’t be a case on this occasion. How about episodes, encounters or events? Arising from my observations potential candidates for cases have become apparent, but it would be difficult to know what those might be prior to ethnographic meanderings. A Twitter hashtag chat might be an event for example, although since they often take place on a regular basis, episode might be a more apt description. Use of Twitter by teachers at a conference might constitute an event for, or if something sparks from two (or more) individuals coming together, then that might identify as an encounter.

My case could be the process of learning, at least it could if I side-step the argument that it can also be considered an outcome … or both! People come to Twitter for a host of reasons and the research into Twitter covers a range of processes – spreading news, finding love, composing poetry, trolling. My interest is solely in learning, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a process as a case. Learning is a complex process composed of other processes (like seeking information, asking questions and engaging in dialogue), so I could usefully explore those more elemental processes as cases, then relate those findings to the whole.

Finally, I’ve neglected nation as a possible case (not appropriate here) and culture. I’m getting better at spotting the sociological red flags and, whilst it might prove an interesting approach – Can teachers on Twitter be considered a culture? – it’s not a direction I’m currently minded to take.

Having considered the people as participants and cases, and also different types of case which might arise within fieldwork, that leaves me with my final method – blog posts. Here I’ll be analysing the posts themselves, but also attempting to engage the authors in a dialogue using the comments feature. Which prompts me to consider where the case is here. A text isn’t mentioned in Miles, Huberman and Saldaña as a potential case, although documentary analysis is of course a common element within ethnographic research. Can a blog post be a case, or should that be reserved for the author? Is it even possible to separate them? Putting on my actor-network theory head for a moment, author and blog post form an association in which they bring each other into being – the post does not exist until the author ‘pens’ it, and the author is simply a person until they enact the process of authorship. They remain interwoven as readers engage with the post. If someone chooses to make a comment, the post cajoles the author into reading the comment and possibly even responding. The actor-network now expands as comment(s) and secondary author have been translated … and the wider network to which the new members belong may draw in others. I guess I’m (once more) leading towards pushing beyond the apparent boundedness of this as a case; a blog post and author (s and comments) are fluid, expand and often link out intertextually.

I began writing this post with a fairly clear idea of what a case was in general terms, and within the context of my study. I now find that by adopting an actor-network sensibility, I’ve blurred the lines and that my ‘cases’ are more likely to be constructs used to begin and conduct the process of analysis. They will expand, extend, flow and adapt, partly as dynamic entities in their own right, but partly through my attempts to better understand them. An observer effect, or actor-network at work?

Miles, M., Huberman, A., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis : A methods sourcebook (Edition 3.. ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

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