Toward a Public Sociological Method – The Extended Case

By Josh Tuttle

There is no “true” sociological method.  Quantitative and qualitative methods are equally valid, as each depicts social structure from a different, yet legitimate perspective.  By the same token, there is no “true” method for public sociology. Certain methods may be more instrumental for the purposes of the public sociologist, however.  I believe I may have stumbled upon one of these methods.

I was recently introduced to Michael Burawoy’s “extended case” method.  In a very basic sense, the extended case method uses participant observation to connect individual experiences with larger structural and historical forces in a reflexive dialectic.  Unlike other approaches to participant observation, such as grounded theory, the extended case allows a public sociologist to inform their fieldwork with a pre-existing theory – which is extremely helpful when combating ongoing social problems and inequalities. In short, this is not a method that accumulates knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Another strength of the extended case is it’s affinity for mixed methods.  While Burawoy clearly argues for a reflexive brand of sociological inquiry, the extended case allows a public sociology to mix positive and reflexive methods to form a mutually reinforcing relationship.  Consider the positive method of scientific inquiry.  The positivist philosophy maintains that research must be conducted at arm’s length.  Therefore, the researcher must be isolated from the  subject to ensure that scientific observation is not contaminated by a number of different biases.

A glaring contradiction exists in positivist philosophy, however, especially when considering positivism in the social sciences.  It is impossible to disconnect from a research subject when they exist within the same metaphysical and physical space as the researcher.  Therefore, a researcher is unable to step outside of the parameters of society, and is powerless to the biases that exist within social structure and necessarily within the researcher, as such.

Reflexive methods attempt to avoid this conundrum by requiring the researcher to accept his/her place in society.  Biases are accepted as a natural human condition, and research is conducted in a dialectical relationship: researched interacting with the researcher in a mutually influential relationship.  The possibility for disruption is an obvious methodological weakness, however.  How can a researcher keep from objectifying and dominating the researched in the field?  Such a disruption alters the routine of a social world, causing observations to lack clarity.

Combining positivist and reflexive methods counteracts the shortcomings of both methods, however.  The extended case method allows for such a combination, as a researcher can use the supposed detachment of positivism to counteract the influence of reflexive science, and vice-verse.  Furthermore, the use of the extended case method allows public sociologist to transcend the typical critique of public sociology: the lack of methodological vigor.  For surely a mixed method approach allows for the triangulation of data, a feature that many traditional sociological projects lack.

Joshua Tuttle is a doctoral student of public sociology at George Mason University.  His thesis was quantitative examination of the effects of race, gender, and socioeconomic status on Roman Catholic religious commitment.  His research interests include religion, social inequality, and globalization.  Public sociology projects that he has worked on include the Wilmington’s Youth Enrichment Zone and the Feast Downeast Project.

This article originally appeared in Josh’s blog, Sociology for the People, on Apr6, 2012

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Posted on April 15, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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