Book Review: Model Cases: On Canonical Research Objects and Sites by Monika Krause
In Model cases: on canonical research objects and sites, Monika Krause explores how researchers select research objects and the consequences of these processes, with a particular focus on the social sciences. This highly informative book will encourage readers to reflect on collective research models and their role in collective knowledge production, writes Vera Linke.
Model cases: on canonical research objects and sites. Monica Krause. University of Chicago Press. 2021.
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What do we, as researchers, look at when we do research? This is the simple but effective question that underlies Monika Krause’s highly informative new book, Case models. Of course, there are many publications that reflect the methods used by scientists to collect and analyze data. Justifying one’s research design is, after all, an integral part of scientific reflexivity. Krause argues, however, that relatively little attention has been paid to how we select the research objects from which we derive our data and draw our conclusions.
Krause notes that in many disciplines, decisions about what to study accumulate into “privileged material research objects”—or “model cases,” as she calls them. For biologists, the fruit fly rather than the bee has become a model organism, and social scientists generally study the French Revolution rather than that of Haiti, or the city of Chicago rather than Atlanta. Once established in their disciplines, model cases appear as legitimate means of knowing more about the scientific object of interest (the “epistemic target”), whether it is the organism, the revolution or the city. Using examples from biology, the social sciences, and the humanities, Krause invites readers to consider how these privileged objects influence the production of knowledge in their respective fields of research.
The aim here is to promote an open debate exploring both the merits and the limits of research based on model cases. And if Krause’s book opens this debate by offering some suggestions on how model cases affect research, it is above all a call for more reflexivity. Krause argues that one can neither fully exploit the advantages of using model cases nor mitigate their disadvantages without thinking about collective research designs. And seeing that biologists have already developed traditions of thinking about their model systems, Krause – a sociologist herself – turns to the social sciences, which have made little use of their reliance on model cases to discuss the quality of their job.
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The book is full of remarkable observations, but I want to comment on three interesting points that permeate Krause’s analysis: first, how the “model case logic” relates to other case-selection logics; second, the particularity of the relationship of the social sciences to their research objects; and third, the normative implications that flow from thinking about model cases.
First, while biologists use model cases to determine research objects, Krause points to other paths such as cover logic (objects are meaningful because they have not been studied before) or d application (objects are opportunities to apply previous results). The relationship between these logics is not systematically discussed in the book, but chapters five and six do show the differences between model case logic and application logic. Krause traces, for example, what happens when our colleagues gain reputation and their findings are applied to new settings. The research objects that once formed the basis of their reflections – such as the laboratories of Bruno Latour – are no longer cases questioned and explored in new studies. The interest of research shifts from understanding scientific work through the case of laboratories to understanding other empirical cases or social structures in general through Latour’s terminology, which itself becomes a sort of point of obligatory passage.
A detailed follow-up discussion of this process would have been interesting to assess the effects of application logics, especially since there seem to be different varieties. In some cases, the laboratory remains present, but now takes on the role of a conceptual landmark or a metaphor. Admittedly, “not everyone is a” laboratory. Nevertheless, such approaches can easily reflect how conceptual ideas relate to specific material research objects. Another kind of application logic is, however, evident in Krause’s commentary on debates around Eurocentric and postcolonial social theory. Here she shows how the analyzes are generalized in such a way that the initial object of research – a very small number of selected countries – disappears into universalist statements which are then applied without taking into account and reflecting the material particularity of their origin.
Second, Case models uses examples from biology to question case selection practices in the social sciences. In Chapter 2, for example, Krause questions whether methodological debates about the “right” reasons for choosing a research object capture how case selection actually occurs. Using examples from biology, she contrasts this emphasis on strategy with the more mundane aspects of science, particularly the collective nature of research efforts, as well as external factors. Introducing the term “sponsored” research objects, Krause lists various factors that influence selection, providing examples from the social sciences. Here, the selection may be influenced by the degree of convenience of data retrieval; by publicly established schemes; by activists who protest against exclusion; or by attempts by certain research objects to sponsor themselves.
Unfortunately, Krause does not use this chapter to explore the impact of responsiveness in social science research on the use of model cases. Elsewhere in the book, she briefly mentions that the social sciences do not and cannot standardize their research objects to the same degree that biologists can. But it does not specify whether model cases can be enduring in the social sciences or whether responsiveness pushes the social sciences towards a combination of logics of coverage (e.g. an anti-privilege movement) and logics of application (such as a more covert approach). form of privileging research objects).
Third, the book’s conclusion deserves attention in itself, because it brings us to the normative question of what is “good science”. Throughout the book, Krause adds comments about “what more we need” and “what we have enough” in terms of case selection. These suggestions, while instructive, distract from the goal of weighing the benefits and limitations of working with model cases. But in the conclusion, Krause comments on the trade-offs between the different criteria of good science. It problematizes the collective objective of accumulation and opposes it to that of scientific conservation. If, as the latter supposes, “knowledge cannot be taken for granted once created”, then the social sciences should institutionalize reminders of cases (once covered but) currently less privileged, thus cultivating the diversity of material objects of research. . While one may remain critical of whether the book’s analysis justifies Krause’s normative conclusions, proposals such as the addition of teaching to the heretofore favored form of scholarly communication, research contributions original, will encourage readers to reflect on our line of work.
Case models is not a manual on how to justify your own research. It is a book that makes us reflect on the collective research patterns of which we are part. As such, it can be recommended to a wide range of readers: social scientists interested in a sociology of sociology; to graduate students who reflect on the reasons and consequences of selecting research objects; and academics reflecting on their role in the collective production of knowledge.
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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Vera Linke – Helmut Schmidt University
Vera Linke is a sociologist and post-doctoral research associate at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. In her doctoral thesis at the University of Bielefeld, she conducted a historical-sociological analysis of how insurance phenomena were categorized and assessed at the intersection of economic and political debates – using the model case of 19th century Britain. His current project focuses on the question of how small and medium organizations in the German and Swiss social sector deal with, interpret and use technological reforms.