Packing your cases


What constitutes “a case” in your research and how does that case get constructed and compared? What is the relationship of humans to the myriad of non-humans in choosing and comparing cases? Does this change as you get stuck into the practices of research and working with your materials?

A lot of the books, guides, training and software for doing qualitative research makes a lot of assumptions about cases for comparison. There’s usually an assumption that it will be people and that they will have fixed “properties” or “attributes” such as gender, socioeconomic group or profession. If we were to redraw that to encompass all those non-humans and their agencies how would that shift our ideas of what a case is and what cases do?


As I have read about rather than ‘done’ ANT (irony alert), I will answer the question slightly differently. My perception of research about learning that involves technology is that it often takes a focus on what is provided rather than the learning. In following the human actors as well as the technology ones, ANT could help to avoid restricting the focus on the official provided intervention and maybe reveal what happens beyond the educational gaze.


This is just at the level of impressions or maybe just where we are to start with but I have the more or less opposite take on what mostly happens. I would welcome more interest in technology as such. Networked Learning discussions can quite quickly move to ignoring technology or claiming that the topic includes situations where there is no technology or at least so ancient that it is hardly noticed. It seems very rare for research to conclude with something that could become a tech product. Maybe this is just the UK. Maybe it should not be a concern anyway. But I would like a scope that included the possibility.


Hey Steve,

A case? These are seriously tough questions.

I like Becker’s approach. He is a pretty clever sociologist who admits to ANT influences. He writes:

Everything present in or connected to a situation I want to understand should be taken account of and made use of. If it’s there, it’s doing something, however unimportant that thing seems, no matter how unobtrusive it is.

Becker, H. S. (2014). What about Mozart? What about murder? : reasoning from cases (Kindle ed.). Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

So perhaps situation is a better label for the stuff we are interested in?



Continuing the discussion from Packing your cases:

Tough yes - but important too! I think some of this comes from my current experiences with running “training” in CAQDAS software and the almost knee-jerk assumption and encoding of cases = people = attribute data = comparing people in say NVivo.

These approaches can be shifted to non-human actors e.g. considering documents as actors (for which i really like Lindsey prior’s book )
and also Coffey and Atkinson’s chapter ( to help shift out of an assumption that social research = interviewing people. (I’m also a fan of Terrie-Lynn Thompson’s idea of interviewing objects ( )

Your proposal seems to be one closely aligned with multi-sited ethnographies and Strathern’s notions of cutting the network.

Situation certainly seems to make the idea of case a much more dynamic and connected rather than isolated and individualised one - definitely one to work with!

Atkinson, P., & Coffey, A. (2004). Analysing documentary realities. Qualitative research, 56-75.


Wondering about your approach to this, @cj13; if cases need to be bounded by the researcher, how would you approach bounding one if you are using ANT to guide your work given the endless connection of networks?

Not trying to Becker you into a corner, but just musing aloud here, so to speak :wink:


(PS, thanks for recommending yet one more book I now have ordered and somehow, magically, need time to read!!)


While I no longer photo copy texts, and never made them available online, it seems others may not share this notion. Alas.



Hi Jeffrey,

The phrase that leaps out is

If cases need to be bounded by the researcher

Why do they? Bruno reckons that you let the actors tell you when to stop.

Perhaps the best way in is to ask the question: What’s going on here? Now the word here does suggest some sort of limiting of the researcher’s gaze but what she/he is really after are the practices which enact the various realities of the situation. So it’s not the case that the researcher with the god’s eye says, “I need to work out what’s going on here.”, but rather, what is being done in the performative sense? To take examples from Law’s work: how are salmon being done? how is mad cow disease being done? how is the train wreck being done? etc.

I think that it is useful to skip ahead a bit and read the paper he did on syncretism which I think I, or others have mentioned previously:

Law, J., Afdal, G., Asdal, K., Lin, W.-y., Moser, I., & Singleton, V. (2014). Modes of syncretism: Notes on noncoherence. Common Knowledge, 20(1), 172-192. Retrieved from

Looking for boundaries is, to me, an instance of what they call a bias for purity, for neatness, tidiness. The job is not to tidy things by slapping boundaries around stuff but to ask better questions, like given all these different realities being enacted, how does it hang together, if in effect it does? When stuff appears coherent, unitary, smooth, work is being done (practices) so that it appears that way. That’s really interesting. What is dull are accounts that represent a single reality that coheres and makes sense. Hence the title, I think, making a mess with method. :slight_smile:

And if you want a paper that does a nice job gesturing to the infinite regress that I suspect is behind your question, then his paper on collateral realities is a gem. Also not bad model of how to write a paper by attending a conference presentation :slight_smile:

Law, J. (2012). Collateral Realities. In F. D. Rubio & P. Baert (Eds.), [i]The Politics of Knowledge[/] (pp. 156-178). London: Routledge.

Hope that helps. Not sure I am connecting or just shooting the breeze :slight_smile:


I should have added that boundaries and cases in the limiting sense belong to representationalism, a one world world, a single reality. The performative ANT via Law, Mol and many others now explore the notion of practices enacting realities, i.e. realities as outcomes or effects of what is done. Orthodox social science inquiry is pretty much aligned to the opposite ontological assumptions. So, to me, the boundary question belongs to the latter mode of inquiry.


As I am catching up with my reading over the holidays, I finally read your last reply, @cj13, and am not entirely sure what you mean. I know we are well after our week’s discussion (as if open online discussions can really be bounded, so to speak), though I am wondering if you can elaborate on this?