Constructing Grounded Theory

Charmaz, K. (2014) Constructing Grounded Theory

If you need a clear introduction to grounded theory, then you will find it here. Charmaz describes grounded theory’s genesis, and explains how to code, write and sort memos and engage in theoretical sampling. This second edition includes new material on interviewing and symbolic interactionism.

She supports what she is saying by referring to her own research and that of others working in diverse fields. She manages to convey the excitement of conducting a grounded theory study which will, I’m sure, make readers think how they can apply her techniques. Information is easy to locate as main points are presented throughout the text. This means that the reader can either read the text linearly or source what they want later.

It succeeds as a book about methods but it is much more than this. Charmaz skilfully situates grounded theory within its historical context by showing how Glaser and Strauss – the pioneers of this approach – were influenced by the ‘Columbia University positivism’ of Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton and the ‘Chicago school pragmatism and field research’ of sociologists such as Herbert Blumer. She devotes an entire chapter to symbolic interactionism – a ‘theoretical perspective that views human actions as constructing self, situation and society’. She also shows how her own ‘constructivist’ approach to grounded theory contrasts with that of ‘objectivist’ theorists who adopt the position of a neutral observer and consider that they are studying worlds which are entirely external to themselves. For Charmaz, meaning does not exclusively inhere in the data, which is a position which may be troubling to those who assume a clear separation between ‘facts’ and ‘values’.

Although convinced that symbolic interactionism and grounded theory are a ‘theory-method package’, she readily concedes that grounded theory may be used with other theoretical perspectives. As she would say, theoretical ‘purity fosters preconception’. Although one might think that her meditations on ontology and epistemology may be heavy going, her writing is simple and informal, and she always shows how her theoretical views connect to the practical business of doing research. These sections require careful study but are the most rewarding.

This is an excellent book. It is easy to read, gives lots of practical advice and is quite profound. If you are serious about studying the conceptual universes and the interior worlds of research participants in a way which recognises that the researcher is intimately involved in the construction and analysis of data, this is a book which will make you re-think how you conduct research.

Review originally published in Research Matters, September 2015

Managing & Sharing Data

Corti, L., Van den Eynden, V., Bishop, L., Woollard, M. (2014) Managing and sharing research data: a guide to good practice

This is a guide to best practice for researchers who want to supplement existing data management skills and those who want to develop data management skills for the first time.

Written by members of the UK’s Data Archive, the authors describe those skills which will be needed to ensure that data is open and reusable, and collected, stored and shared in ways which respect ethical practice and relevant legislation. The authors also make a convincing case for why data sharing is beneficial, and present counter arguments to some of the more common reasons which are given for not sharing data.

The authors introduce the reader to the research data life cycle and approaches to research data management planning as well as referring to specific skills and software which the researcher could usefully acquire. There are, for example, very clear introductions to version control systems and to the encryption of sensitive data using open source software. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about formatting and organising data, which contains a section on how to organise data files logically. The book is written in very clear prose making the more technical topics accessible to the non-specialist. Moreover, the text is supplemented by case studies, exercises and useful references as well as a website.

The authors manage to successfully combine a discussion of abstract topics such as metadata with grounded examples of how these topics could be applied in practice. For the purposes of this review, I read the text sequentially but I think that one could usefully refer to particular chapters or sections in order to fill specific knowledge gaps. Indeed, I found myself repeatedly returning to particular sections of the text to reinforce my understanding of key concepts.

To conclude, this book fills a gap in the market and will, I’m sure, be read by researchers in any discipline where data management skills are needed. I would recommend this book without hesitation. Well written, informative and, with its commitment to transparency and data sharing, commendable.

Review originally published in Research Matters, March 2015

Social Media & Survey Research

Hill, C.A., Dean E., Murphy J. (2014) Social media, sociality and survey research

This book has been written because of the writers’ awareness that declining response rates and inadequate sampling frames present a challenge to all social researchers who wish to collect survey data which is ‘accurate, timely and accessible’. Primarily written by researchers from RTI International, the book is a compendium of chapters which describe how the researchers have incorporated social media data into their research projects. The authors suggest that the book is intended for survey and market researchers, as well as students in survey methodology and market research and I agree that this book will be useful for this constituency.

The writers don’t argue for the replacement of the more familiar survey modes but suggest that postal, web-based and telephone surveys can be supplemented by the imaginative use of social media. Indeed, they recognise that social media data has its own limitations and does not fit easily into designs where precise estimates are needed.

The writers define social media as ‘a collection of websites and web-based systems that allow for mass interaction, conversation, and sharing among members of a network’ and refer to web 2.0 with its user generated content. The book covers a diverse range of topics which include how to predict sentiments and emotions using consistent methods, how to pre-test questionnaires use Skype and Second Life and how to develop innovative research by using social media to collect ideas from large groups of people. There is also a chapter on how to apply the principles of the games designer to market research so that participation in research is more enjoyable.

Athough very wide ranging, the book retains its coherence because it is organised around the idea of a ‘sociality hierarchy’ which can be broken down into broadcast, conversational and community levels. The authors also consistently avoid the use of technical language and include a useful set of references – many of which are downloadable – at the end of each chapter.

This book is a must read for any researcher who wants to make use of social media data; it is incisive, instructive, easy to read and, above all, fascinating.

Review originally published in Research Matters, June 2014

Social Network Analysis

Borgatti, S.P., Everett, M.G. and Johnson J.C. (2013) Analyzing social networks

This book takes the reader on a tour of key theoretical concepts in social network analysis. It is divided into four sections: introduction, research methods, core concepts and measures and a final section which deals with what the writers describe as ‘three cross-cutting chapters’ on ‘affiliation type data’, ‘large networks’ and ‘ego network data’. Although primarily theoretical, the book refers to interesting empirical work across the social sciences and health care in order to illustrate core concepts. It introduces readers to software – UCINET and NetDraw – which they can use to analyse and visualise network data but refers to a dedicated website for readers who require a software tutorial.

There is much to commend in this book. The authors provide a clear introduction to graph theory and matrix algebra for non-mathematicians. There is also an interesting introduction to core concepts like ‘centrality’, ‘sub-group’ and ‘equivalence’ and a fascinating discussion of how hypothesis testing is possible with network data when the assumptions of standard inferential tests are violated. The authors also provide invaluable advice on how best to lay out network diagrams in order to make interpretation easier.

However, I think that how information is presented may need to be reviewed. The authors assume that readers are familiar with research terminology without necessarily defining their terms. Although this is a reasonable assumption if the book is for established researchers, beginners may need to refer to an introductory research methods textbook in order to take full advantage of the material. Borgatti et al. also state that a sequential reading of each chapter isn’t needed although this suggestion doesn’t work for readers who assume that a book will begin with straightforward material before moving to advanced topics. A glossary would be useful.

This is an informative book for established social researchers with some prior exposure to social network analysis. Aspirant social network analysts may find the book a little too advanced.

Review originally published in Research Matters, March 2014

Discovering statistics using R

Field, A., Miles J., Field, Z. (2012) Discovering statistics using R

This book teaches statistics by using R – the free statistical environment and programming language. It will be of use to undergraduate and postgraduate students and professional researchers across the social sciences, including material which ranges from the introductory to the advanced. Divided into four levels of difficulty with ‘Level 1’ representing introductory material and ‘Level 4’ the most advanced material, it may be read from beginning to end or with reference to particular techniques. An understanding of the advanced material may require knowing the material in earlier chapters. There is a comprehensive glossary of specialised terms and a selection of statistical tables in the appendix. There is also material on the publisher’s companion website and on the principal author’s own web pages.

The main strength of this book is that it presents a lot of information in an accessible, engaging and irreverent way. The style is informal with interesting excursions into the history of statistics and psychology. There are entertaining references to research papers which illustrate the methods explained, and are also very entertaining. The authors manage to pull off the Herculean task of teaching statistics through the medium of R. This is an achievement when one considers that R can be difficult to use for researchers who have never manipulated data from the command line. Another plus point is that the authors describe how to ‘extend’ R’s capabilities with ‘packages’. This is a massive time saver for any researcher who does not know which package is required in order to extend R’s base system to conduct a particular test. Field et al. also succeed in placing many of the statistical procedures to which they allude within the framework of the ‘general linear model’ giving the book a sense of theoretical coherence.

But I think that the book would have benefited from an explanation of how R fits into the wider ‘tool chain’ of public domain programs which can be used to produce a publication-ready paper. Moreover, some of the exemplars of R code may not work or may be illustrative of deprecated techniques but the principal author is maintaining an errata file on his own website. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to students, academics and applied researchers. Although heavily weighted towards the interests of psychological researchers, it would not be too difficult to transfer the techniques to a different area of expertise. All in all, an invaluable resource.

Review originally published in Research Matters, December 2013

Is Freelance Journalism Obsolete?

Cohen, N.S. (2016) Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age.

At a time when, to quote Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs’ and freelancing is becoming a permanent way of working for many creative workers, the publication of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age could not be timelier.

Writers’ Rights is a ‘study of the working conditions of freelance journalists’ in English-speaking Canada, the USA and the UK, an account of the context in which freelance journalists work and an assessment of the organisational strategies which they have used to deal with their economic circumstances and powerlessness vis-à-vis publishers (6). Under the term ‘freelance journalist’, Cohen – a former one herself – includes reporters as well as producers of non-fiction of all types, including features and corporate material. The study is based on the author’s own online survey of 206 Canadian freelance journalists in 2010, semi-structured interviews with staff and organisers within journalistic organisations and an interdisciplinary literature review (19-20).

Cohen begins by describing the working conditions of freelance journalists, which have deteriorated markedly with the arrival of digital journalism. Although one could argue that journalists are now living in a ‘golden age’ because of the explosion of online publications, Cohen provides a convincing exposé of worsening working conditions, including low or non-existent fees relative to colleagues on permanent contracts, inconsistent payment schedules, exclusion from social benefits due to the self-employed status of the freelance worker and the aggressive pursuit of copyright by publishers that leads to writers surrendering their  ‘moral right’ to be recognised as the author of a work via a byline.

In short, it is becoming very difficult to earn a living as a freelance journalist. Indeed, other sources would seem to corroborate Cohen’s assessment.  As a recent survey for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) shows, the mean salary of freelance journalists in the UK is £19,499 per annum (5), with 44 per cent reporting that they earn less than £15,000 per year (6).

But why should the comparative immiseration of freelance journalists matter? For Cohen, it matters because the way in which freelance journalists are paid influences the types of journalism that are produced. Where freelance journalists are paid by the word, per feature or work on a pro bono basis in order to establish their brand, investigative journalism, freelance war reporting or in-depth feature writing become prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by Project Word of freelance investigative reporters hammers the point home by reporting that 55 per cent of survey respondents ‘failed to recoup their expenditures from story revenue, grants, or donations’ (5). Cohen is therefore correct to argue that ‘journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life’ (7), and that its viability as a practice is being seriously compromised by the ways in which journalists are remunerated for their work.

Cohen is also persuasive when describing how falling payments for freelance work can lead to the fusion of work and leisure time as writers strive to maximise every hour of the day to create value (128). The representation of the journalist as a worker who is always tuned in to the possibility of a saleable story may be an ideal type – if of the negative variety. By contrast, the NCTJ survey shows that 43 per cent of respondents were working part time and 87 per cent thought that their hours were reasonable (5). The NCTJ survey respondents also didn’t tend to view their freelance status as an unwanted interlude between one permanent contract and another, with 82 per cent reporting that they were not seeking to leave freelance journalism (6). However, apparently contradictory survey results from other sources do not necessarily invalidate Cohen’s assessment of the economic plight of freelance journalists. As she herself acknowledges, freelance journalists can be characterised by variation in terms of their earnings, working experiences and levels of job satisfaction (15).

Cohen’s account of what it is like to be a freelance journalist is understandably influenced by the concepts she uses, which are drawn from Marxist political economy. Although she recognises that many freelance journalists conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, she argues that they do not, in most cases, accumulate capital or own the means of production which are vital ‘in order to bring products to market’ (26). For Cohen, journalists occupy a contradictory class location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie at the economic level and between the working class and the bourgeoisie at the intellectual level (35). In other words, many freelance journalists may endure penury, but identify with the objectives of the publisher.

Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, the book concludes by making the argument that freelance journalists can improve their economic situation by mass unionisation. In order to buttress her argument, Cohen refers to the Canadian experience, which shows that writers’ organisations can make tangible gains for their members. She therefore references a number of organisations including a literary agency (the Canadian Writers Group), a professional association (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and a union (the Canadian Media Guild) that have indeed secured improvements for their members. The collective agreements that the Canadian Media Guild have secured with a range of employers is one noteworthy example as is their affiliation with the 700,000 member strong Communication Workers of America.

However, what is clear is that attempts by freelance journalists to organise collectively have been hampered by the sheer number of writers’ organisations. Cohen recognises this by identifying the different attitudes that freelance journalists have towards collective organisation. Should a writers’ organisation be a professional association offering services to its members like a mutual society? Or should it be a literary agency representing the most prominent writers? Or should the organisation be a union and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of a mass membership base? Cohen plumps for the latter option (230-31). Although she is correct to suggest that creating a large union might be possible, I’m less convinced that an organisation of this type would survive in the medium to long term for the reasons Cohen herself recognises: freelance journalists are a diverse group with differing aspirations and ideological positions that are not necessarily compatible. How, for example, could a union hold together a membership that includes journalists who identify as small business people and writers who think of themselves as creative workers with an affiliation to the labour movement? Yes, one could argue that the entrepreneurial language that some journalists use masks the reality of the power imbalance between freelance journalists and publishers, but the fact that some journalists regard themselves as entrepreneurs must surely influence the types of collective organisations that they join.

Although I’m less optimistic than Cohen about the possibilities for organising such a diverse range of creative workers within a super union, Writers’ Rights is an invaluable addition to the literature on self-employment in general and freelance journalism in particular. Lucid, informative and passionate in arguing that freelance journalists can both defend their profession and produce journalism which enriches the democratic debate, this book will be read by practising journalists and students of the media alike.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, March 2017

Bridge of Words

Schor, E. (2016) Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

Readers of Hong Kong Review of Books will, no doubt, be familiar with some of the great works of Chinese literature. Think, for example, of Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin,  Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Ba Jin’s semi-autobiographical novel The Family. What will be much less well-known is that these three classics of  Chinese and world literature have also been translated into Esperanto — the international language  originally constructed in the late nineteenth-century as an easy-to-learn second language for everyone.

Mention of the word ‘Esperanto’ usually meets with a number of responses which can range from complete indifference to condescending disdain. Esther Schor’s new book Bridge of Words:  Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language is therefore a welcome addition to the literature in this field which may help to disperse the thick cloud of ignorance which so often envelops the subject.

In a book which lucidly blends memoir, biography and history, Schor introduces the reader to the life of Dr L. L. Zamenhof — a polyglot Jewish opthalmologist who was born in 1859 in Białystok in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Mention of Zamenhof’s Jewish identity perhaps gives a clue to the circumstances which led him to ‘invent’ a language. He was born in a multilingual milieu speaking Russian and Yiddish at home, using Polish and German for business and chanting Hebrew in the synagogue. But he also lived in a part of the world where the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had led to pogroms against Jewish people and where different ethnic groups effectively lived parallel lives. However, because he was born into the cosmopolitan Jewish bourgeoisie (his father Marcus was a censor for the Tsarist regime), Zamenhof certainly had the cultural and linguistic tools needed to design a language which, he felt, could reduce inter ethnic tension.

Consequently, after flirting with Zionism in Moscow and Warsaw, Zamenhof was ready to begin his ambitious project. On the assumption that existing languages were just too difficult for most people to learn, he developed a language with a stock of words drawn from an international lexicon and a regular grammar with almost no exceptions to its basic rules. Particularly useful was the ‘agglutinative’ nature of the language whereby Zamenhof created roots with meanings which could be changed by adding a prefix or a suffix. Indeed, the agglutinative character which Zamenhof gave to the language was a stroke of genius because it meant that one could build up a large vocabulary from a relatively small word hoard.

Schor also shows how Zamenhof effectively set the language free by refusing to become the arbiter of how Esperanto should develop. In contrast to the autocratic control which Johann Martin Schleyer — the creator of Volapük —tried to exercise over his language project, Zamenhof’s approach was different. As Schor says, “unlike most language inventors, Zamenhof renounced the privileges of a creator…He is the only language inventor on record ever to cede his language to its users….” Zamenhof’s language was consequently published in 1887 in a Russian textbook  known by Esperantists as First Book or  Unua Libro using the nom de plume ‘Doktoro Esperanto’.  As readers will no doubt have guessed, this nom de plume — Esperanto — became the name which has been associated with the language ever since. Needless to say, translations of the book followed into other languages.

But Schor’s account of the genesis and subsequent history of the language is not unequivocally glowing. Indeed, she entertainingly describes the conflict between Esperanto speakers over the movement’s purpose, reforms to the language and inevitable personality clashes between people with strong convictions. In parts, so much of the book reads like the story of a vaguely leftist and ineffective groupuscule for progressive polyglots. The flipping back and forth between history and Schor’s account of her Esperanto studies and her worldwide Esperanto congresses attendance also makes the historical chronology difficult to follow at times.

Yet the interweaving of memoir with history does work because Schor manages to combine an account of the facts of the matter with emotive and insightful pen portraits of individual Esperantists. Moreover, Schor tells us that in well over a century of existence, the Esperanto movement — primarily organised around the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) — has established a translation programme, created original works of literature, built relationships  with the UN and UNESCO and established a small but vibrant transnational speech community.

Though Schor never unequivocably says that the Esperanto movement has failed, one could argue that Esperantists have patently failed to persuade the peoples and governments of the world to use the language as a universal lingua franca. Such a view of Esperanto and its speakers would be premature. Although English remains the international language of the moment, there is no reason to suppose that this will remain so in the future and, in any case, there is little evidence for the view that English — or any other large globally dispersed language — is spoken to an advanced level by anyone outside of its native speaker community or a comparatively small group of transnational elites.

Schor therefore leaves the reader with the impression that the community of Esperanto speakers  is a small but global collection of people in diaspora. What could transform Esperanto into a language spoken by millions is the increased uptake of teaching opportunities which have, in many cases, moved to the internet, combined with acquired prestige for the language among the governing elites. Insofar as the internet is concerned, Schor refers to the websites lernu! and Duolingo which have proved to be very popular. Although Humphrey Tonkin — “an eminent man of letters in the Esperanto world and a professor emeritus of English Renaissance literature” — notes that Zamenhof may have inadvertantly created a language which is even less prestigious than the Yiddish which was spoken in the streets of Białystok, mass uptake of the language may concentrate the minds of the powerful. One only has to recall that Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, gave a speech in Esperanto at a Conference on international language policy in July 2016 to see that the tide may be making an unusual turn in favour of Esperanto.

Review originally published in Hong Kong Review of Books, December 2016