Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Terri Ulmer

Chapter 2 | Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches

Case Study

The cases we offer in this book focus on disciplinary development—on disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization. These are cases of persons becoming journalists, rhetoricians, creative writers, nurses, and engineers.

A qualitative case study approach was selected because of the way it allows for close, careful, detailed, fine-grained examination of people and their literate activities. A case study approach is useful for capturing the complexity of literate activity and for developing a sense of the participant’s understanding of their literate actions in the world. Case study approaches have frequently been used in studies of disciplinary development (Beaufort, 2004, 2007; Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman, 1988; Chiseri-Strater, 1991; Haas, 1994; Herrington & Curtis, 2002; Prior, 1998). However, many of these cases have been designed, analyzed, and interpreted through the lens of the dominant trope of discourse communities.

Much of the conceptual work of case study research involves a key first step of defining the case. This involves a series of interpretive moves designed to determine, as precisely as possible, what aspects of the person’s life will be studied and which will not (Stake, 1995, 2008; Yin, 2009), with the goal of configuring the object of inquiry as “a specific, unique, bounded system” (Stake, 2008, p. 121). Discussing the interpretive work involved in defining or “bounding” the case, Stake (2008) wrote, “It is common to recognize that certain features are within the system, within the boundaries of the case, and other features outside. In ways, the activity is patterned. Coherence and sequence are there to be found. Some outside features are significant as context” (p. 120). Stake (2008) acknowledged that making these determinations at the outset might not always be easy or straightforward, but asserted that however complicated, “Boundedness and activity patterns nevertheless are useful concepts for specifying the case” (p. 120).

It is instructive, in terms of the power of the structuralist assumptions about discourse, the person, and social worlds that Prior (1998, 2003) outlined, to consider how that sort of a priori framing would shape the bounding of a case of a person’s disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization. Because the assumptive framing already establishes disciplinary activity as discrete, homogeneous, and unified space, patterned by the shared rules of the community, the case would be located within the assumed borders of a particular disciplinary world, alleviating the need for the researcher to look elsewhere. Because the assumptive framing of structuralist practice already establishes disciplinary activity as discrete, homogeneous, and unified space, it offers up an already specific, unique, bounded disciplinary system ready to be investigated. In a methodological sense, structuralist assumptions do the work of bounding the case.

The cases we present in this book are not the result of that kind of a priori bounding. Grounded in the dialogic assumptions about discourse and the formation of persons and social worlds Prior (1998, 2003) outlined and mediated discourse theory, the cases we offer in this book are the product of locating people’s disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization among a heterogeneous nexus woven from histories of practice that reach beyond the assumed borders of a disciplinary space, and then working in a principled, systematic manner to determine the literate engagements those histories extend through. This is an important conceptual and methodological point.

Mediated discourse theory does not make a priori assumptions about which practices are mediating action, when and where the histories of those practices extend, in which representational media they might appear, or how a case of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization might be configured. It posits understanding those histories as a crucial issue.

Scollon (2001b) described the methodological goal of mediated discourse theory in these terms: “to arrive at a richer understanding of the history of the practice within the habitus of the participants in that particular social action” (p. 171). As such, it demands that inquiry address the following questions:

In this sense, our efforts toward understanding disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization involved the work of collecting and analyzing data to answer the following questions:

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