Workshop: Mieke Bal on case study

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 | Events, General, Theory

Monday and Tuesday afternoon this week I attended a two-day workshop at HIO with Mieke Bal, a cultural theorist and critic based in Amsterdam. The theme of the workshop was the case study, and “how to move beyond the particularity of single-object studies”. The problem of the case study is that of generalisation from one single event, as the specific can never be generalized. The case study should not be the only type of study in a discipline. However, it can be used as a tool for polemics: it can challenge the discipline, the repetitive work, and our prejudices and ideas. I suspect this is a rather unconventional view of the case study. Here are some of the core concepts that were discussed:


Abduction is an alternative to generalisation. Mieke described this as “abducting a work for another purpose”. Rather than generalizing from one case, we go back and forth between different cases. Going from the case, the observable fact, we end up with a possible cause, a hypothetical explanation. This is different from deduction (going from cause to consequence) and induction (going from the particular to the general). Abduction is also a space for creative thinking, and knowledge is seen as provisional rather than fixed.

Theoretical object

As an alternative to the notion of the case, Mike proposes the concept of theoretical object. This is an artwork or something else that obliges to do theory. The theoretical object poses theoretical terms, it produces theory through triggering people’s minds, and it necessitates reflection on theory itself. As the work exists in time, it is always in becoming. The theorizing is therefore dynamic and ongoing. The becoming of the work surpasses the moment of making, so that the intentions of the artist or designer are irrelevant. When we look for an object to analyse, we must therefore look for one that raises questions. We should also remember that the theoretical object is another subject to which we are responsible, even though (or precisely because) it doesn’t speak back.

Choosing a theoretical object does not have to mean choosing only one object in isolation. Rather, it is fruitful to dynamically juxtapose different objects in a series, so that they complete each other, and constitute a field for discussing certain general concepts. In research by design, this would mean including the result of my own design production as a work amongst other works, and reflect on how they all relate to the concepts.

The singular vs. the particular

The particular has a one-to-one relationship between the individual and the event. Consequently, it is not necessarily relevant beyond the particular situation. The singular however, has a relation to generality, and can be shared. The particular can be transformed into the singular, and the singular can transform into another singularity. The case study should focus on the singular, not the particular.

Subjectivity vs. intersubjectivity

In research, there is a need to move beyond the subjective, as we need to know that what we do is  relevant not only for ourselves. However, according to Mieke, the opposite of the subjective is not the objective, but the intersubjective. The intersubjective is what is shared by more than one conscious mind, as we are all subjects involved in culture. As culture continuously expands and changes, there is no end to this kind of knowledge.

Performance vs. performativity

According to Mieke Bal, performance and performativity are two distinct concepts, still they are not separate as they are always an aspect of one another. Performance is the act of executing something from memory, as a skilled and thoughtful production, playing a role. Performativity is the unique occurrence of an act in itself, here and now, in the unique present. In her book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (2002: 183), she writes, “the elements of present and past in memory are what specifically distinguish performance and performativity”.

Bal, Mieke (2002) Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.

Why am I blogging this? The seminar gave me new insights that will be relevant to my work, and I believe some of these concepts could be interesting for others doing design research as well.

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2 Comments to Workshop: Mieke Bal on case study

Ángel Sanabria
June 3, 2009

I apollogize because of my english, that isn't so well.
Your distinction beetwen "singular" and "particular" in research is very interesting. But I think it must be just the contrary (¿inverse?). "Particular" is in relation with "General", is a derivation of the general. "Singular" is rather the "single" and even the "odd" or "unmatched". Like in differential ecuations solutions:
"A general solution of an n-th order equation is a solution containing n arbitrary variables, corresponding to n constants of integration. A particular solution is derived from the general solution by setting the constants to particular values, often chosen to fulfill set 'initial conditions or boundary conditions'. A singular solution is a solution that can't be derived from the general solution." (Wikipedia)

Jon Olav
July 15, 2009

Thank you for your comment.
I was simply referring to what Mieke Bal presented, and I am not claiming to define the meaning of the ‘singular’ and the ‘particular’. It might be that these concepts are used differently in the natural science and the humanities. I agree that these terms are a bit confusing and may easily get mixed.

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