Case studies in the field of education often eschew comparison. However, when scholars forego comparison, they are missing an important opportunity to bolster case studies’ theoretical generalizability. Scholars must examine how disparate epistemologies lead to distinct kinds of qualitative research and different notions of comparison. Expanded notions of comparison include not only the usual logic of contrast or juxtaposition but also a logic of tracing, in order to embrace approaches to comparison that are coherent with critical, constructivist, and interpretive qualitative traditions. Finally, comparative case study researchers consider three axes of comparison: the vertical, which pays attention across levels or scales, from the local through the regional, state, federal, and global; the horizontal, which examines how similar phenomena or policies unfold in distinct locations that are socially produced; and the transversal, which compares over time.
Lesley Bartlett and Frances Vavrus
Fiona Ell, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Mary Hill, Mavis Haigh, Lexie Grudnoff, and Larry Ludlow
Qualitative teacher education research is concerned with understanding the processes and outcomes of teacher preparation in ways that are useful for practitioners, policymakers, and the teaching profession. Complexity theory has its origin in the biological and physical sciences, where it applies to phenomena that are more than the sum of their parts—where the “higher order” form cannot be created by just putting together the pieces that it is made from. Complexity theory has moved to social science, and to education, because many social phenomena also seem to have this property. These phenomena are termed “complex systems.” Complexity theory is also a theory of learning and change, so it is concerned with how complex systems are learning and changing. This means that methods to investigate complex systems must be able to identify changes in the system, termed “emergence,” and must also account for change over time and the history of the complex system. Longitudinal designs that involve the collection of rich data from multiple sources can support understanding of how a complex system, such as teacher education, is learning and changing. Comparative analysis, narrative analysis, extended case studies, mapping of networks and interactions, and practitioner research studies have all been used to try to bring complexity theory to empirical work in teacher education. Adopting a complexity theory approach to research in teacher education is difficult because it calls into question many taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of research and what is possible to find. Linear, process-product thinking cannot be sustained in a complexity framework, and ideas like “cause,” “outcome,” “change,” and “intervention” all have to be re-thought. A growing body of work uses complexity thinking to inform research in teacher education.
The traditions of ethnography and participatory action research (PAR) have different roots and different priorities, but their trajectories have become entangled in educational research over the past halfcentury. In many ways, ethnography and PAR are compatible. Both make participants’ perspectives central to the research. Both rely primarily on qualitative methods. Both are ethically committed to appreciating cultural differences and promoting the welfare of the groups they work with. Taken together, each adds something important to the other: PAR offers ethnography a “stance toward research” that is more democratic and action-oriented than traditional ethnography; ethnography lends PAR legitimacy as a research approach. Nonetheless, differences between the two create contradictions and tensions when they are combined. While educational researchers remain enthusiastic about the potential of combining activism with cultural analysis, it is important not to collapse ethnography and participatory action research, or privilege one over the other, but to find productive ways to move forward with the tensions between them.
Case study researchers have traditionally focused on micro-level analysis of a “bounded” case, yet this approach has come under methodological scrutiny in a world where phenomena are rarely isolated from globalization’s expansive reach. Social science and policy-oriented research in particular are nearly always subject to local and global histories as well as socio-cultural, political, and economic trends. Furthermore, the experience of individuals, organizations, and institutions are often tangled in interconnected webs of influence, such that a case study that does not trace these underlying relationships is likely to be analyzing only the tip of a phenomenological iceberg. Hence critical scholars call for the need to repurpose traditional case study research methods to embrace shifting contextual factors that surround a research project at multiple levels. Comparative case study methods answer this call by making socio-cultural and political analysis an explicit part of the research process. They expand the researcher’s methodological lens by advancing the analysis of processes across three axes: the horizontal (through distinct research sites), the vertical (through scales; e.g., local vs national) and the transversal (over time; e.g., historically). The methodology is particularly useful for social science research and policy studies, where complex interactions between actors and institutions are tied to socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts. Teacher education research is an area where comparative case studies can potentially contribute to policy formulation. Using the example of case study research on teacher education in India, the comparative case study methodology is shown to be an effective research tool. Through insights into the socio-cultural and political context surrounding pedagogical reform, case study research can generate corrective measures to improve policy effectiveness.