Beware of the hidden pitfalls of using model cases in research

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Model cases: on canonical research objects and sites, Monika Krause (2021), University of Chicago Press

If the book didn’t already have a subtitle, On canonical research objects and sites, Monika Krause could have called it Model cases: on the metaphysics of the program. For his fascinating book is a review – if not a deconstructive analysis – of the two- or three-page document traditionally distributed in the first class of a college program but now typically displayed on classroom management systems like Blackboard.

The syllabus is the first intellectual site students encounter, and their creation is the activity in which teachers repeatedly repeat the notion of “model case”. Krause borrows this term from the biological sciences, where it means “privileged material research objects”.

The key words here are “privileged material” because, to use the example of a curriculum on English literature, they not only refer to the existence of the Elizabethan tragedy, but the much more important point on the subject. philosophical level, namely that Macbeth is the paradigmatic tragedy and that Virginia Woolf Towards the lighthouse is the sine qua non of the modern novel.

Just as Immanuel Kant famously made a distinction between the “thing in itself” and our limited sensory perception of it, Krause says that these exploration sites (remember the subtitle) are “generally not available for viewing. direct observation ”; the privileged material is a stand in, a sort of “trace” of an “epistemic target” which is the inaccessible goal.

(Krause might also have explained this by referring to particle physics, much of which cannot be observed but can be deduced from traces seen in gas-filled containers, for example.)

After writing that “the epistemic tradition is an object as conceptualized by a particular scholarly tradition,” Krause sets out to define such traditions and how they relate to model cases.

Although she does not cite Stanley Fish’s well-known concept of “interpretive community,” her argument follows much the same route. Biologist and evolutionary historian Scott F Gilbert provides Krause with a clear explanation – and, surprising to an academic, mercenary – an explanation of what “learned tradition” is after the cap and robe are removed.

For many researchers, getting their experimental organisms to be seen as a model system is an important goal. The recognition that her organization is a model system provides a platform on which to apply for funds, and she ensures membership in a community of like-minded researchers who have identified issues that the community deems important.

There has been a lot of lobbying for the status of a model system and the fear is that if your organism is not a recognized model (for example, mice or the fruit fly), you will be relegated to the backwaters of the research.

In the social sciences, things are much the same as in the sciences, where there are “fly people” or “smile people”. Part of what matters, Krause says, is “sponsorship,” the meaning of which remains for this abstract analysis as is the case in sport.

In the UK, for example, criminology was originally state sponsored but now “to a large extent [is] sponsored by student interest ”. In other words, tuition fees and grants to universities based on enrollment are now supporting what has become a popular department.

In addition to traditional state support for historiography (at least in its most patriotic forms), Krause notes more recent sponsors in the form of associations that lobby for Mormon history and Hungarian studies, for example example: the list, of course, can be extended.

Almost exactly halfway Model cases, Krause uses the textual story of James Joyce Odysseus explain how a community of academics creates a standard model case.

This novel too can serve as an object of epistemic research of the “modern novel” while the “specimen” (his word) examined is the physical history which allows variant readings and literary stories specific to this Joycian locality.

Included in this physical story are iterations of the manuscript and differences between the editions; because he knew it would go against UK obscenity laws, the first edition was published in France where typographers, many of whom did not speak English, made a myriad of mistakes (some of which fueled the scientific debate).

Finally, the community produces critical editions “and their correspondence system stabilizes the canonical representation of a text for many years to come,” she notes, citing Professor Grégoire Mallard, research director and professor of anthropology. and sociology at the Graduate Institute of International Studies. and development studies in Geneva.

Model cases are at the heart of the sociology of hiring for a number of reasons.

First, says Krause, because it’s easier for departments to argue that they lack, for example, a historian versed in Latin American history, than to convince a dean that the number of students divided by the number of teachers is too many per class.

Second, potential candidates present themselves in terms of sub-specialties because those categories are aimed at hiring committee members – so much so, in fact, that a member of such a committee can defend a candidate by saying : “Their work is perhaps not part of the sociology of the organization in the x style, but rather in the y style.

The book’s most detailed exegesis focuses on the development of sociological theory. As a result of the study by sociological historian Raewyn Connell, Southern theory, Krause describes how, until the 1920s, there were no canonical sociological texts; sociologists have instead used the “collective and indexed contributions of all those who have[d] participated ”in their projects.

The transformation of “colleagues” into “authors” occurred when a certain group of writers, such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, became objects of study in themselves; the first doctoral thesis on Durkheim was written in the 1930s.

In 1958-59, the centenary of Durkheim’s birth saw lectures, special issues of journals and new translations of his work. In the decades that followed, the secondary literature on important figures like Weber and Durkheim led to reviews devoted to them and to an abstraction of their method which was called “theory.”

One of the problems with “theory,” Krause shows in the book’s last chapter, “The Model Cases of Global Knowledge,” is that because it is abstract, it is also assumed to be generalizable.

Indeed, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu complained, as Krause notes, that “as a general rule, the non-French interpreters of my work, both anthropologists and sociologists, have offered a reading limited to the purely theoretical dimension. . This has often led them to ignore its properly empirical dimension ”and its anchoring in French history and society.

So, according to Krause, whatever their value, the model cases and the theory that flows from them (and supports them from below) have led academics to make a number of false equivalences. Ironically, these equivalences, which function as metaphors, according to Krause, often end up recapitulating the very Eurocentric imperialist ways of thinking that anthropologists, sociologists and literary critics have set out to undermine.

Expressions such as “First the West, then the rest” are less, according to Krause, that a question of really delimiting the reality of economic development, for example, than of imposing a Eurocentric heading drawn from cases. European models based on data from the rest of the world. . The French Revolution is the standard by which other revolutions are discussed, while that of Haiti ends in a footnote.

(Here it is worth pointing out a strange gap in the arguments of Krause and many other writers who note how more important the events of 1789 are in the history of revolutions than 1776. Undoubtedly, the reason is is that, unlike the American Revolution who was on the other side of the Atlantic, the French Revolution was at the heart of Europe and quickly engulfed the continent.)

Likewise, according to Krause, because of the archives teeming with documents prepared for the Raj, for much of the post-colonial theory, India becomes the model case for South Asia. This has the unintended consequence of seeing India through the Imperial lens and then moving to see the whole region through British glasses. Likewise, there are favorite South American countries and those which are almost ignored.

Shortly before the end of the book, Krause picks up on Louisiana State University professor Suzanne Marchand’s demonstration of how even a thinker as subtle as the late Edward Said, whose Orientalism (1978) is a founding work of post-colonial studies, ignores the specificity of its alleged object of study.

Said, notes Marchand, followed Michel Foucault and focused on the rhetoric of ancient writers, artists, novelists and scholars writing about the Orient (Middle East). Thus, he misses, at least in the case of the German scientists of the nineteenth century, facts on the ground in German universities which are of much more than antiquary interest.

Indeed, the analysis that Krause sketches is precisely the kind of questioning that would deconstruct a program in a post-colonial studies classroom that not take into account how model cases are products of academic politics, the vagaries of publishing, sponsorship and personal predilection.

Marchand, writes Krause, “focuses narrowly on scholarly practices [in German universities] and emphasizes the roots of German Orientalism in the study of ancient languages ​​”. German scholars were “inspired by disputes within universities, and defended and developed their interests in India, Turkey and Persia in part against those who thought only Greek, Latin and Hebrew were important.”

According to Krause, Marchand “suggests that through their opposition to theology within the humanities, certain orientalists have at times created genuine intellectual openings and” provided at least some of the necessary tools “to construct post-imperialist worldviews” .

A program designed with Krause’s analysis in mind may be too much for students, who, especially on the first day of class, want practical questions answered. But such a schedule would tell students something even more important than the topics to be covered, the books to read, the date of homework, and the date they will complete halfway through. It would reveal the complexity of their domain and would have the subtlety of MC Escher’s famous staircase painting, Relativity.


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