My review of Hepburn and Bolden’s superb Transcribing for Social Research is available in the December issue of Research Matters magazine. This book is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about the nuts and bolts of Jeffersonian transcription.
Illman, J. (2016) Handling the Media: Communications and Presentation Skills for Healthcare Professionals
This book is primarily for healthcare professionals who may not know how to communicate with the media or who may be reluctant to do so. Written by an experienced medical writer, the book shows how the interests of journalists differ from those of healthcare professionals, while emphasising that the relationship between these two groups need not be an antagonistic one.
Because journalists will be interested in stories which are novel, universally appealing and controversial, the author argues that healthcare workers should engage with the media in order to avoid misrepresentation. But to engage successfully, communication skills need to be honed.
John Illman consequently offers concrete advice on how to respond to requests for a media interview and how to prepare for the interview once accepted. Particularly insightful is his discussion of “bridging” techniques, which are used to acknowledge and to respond constructively to difficult questions. This is an important skill to master where the agendas of the interviewer and the interviewee differ.
Useful guidance is also given on how to prepare and deliver presentations and how to use social media to communicate effectively. The advice on writing for the press and on pitching an outline of an article to an editor is similarly good and will appeal to readers who want to make medical journalism their career.
This is an excellent book. There is some theory in relation to journalistic balance, bias and law, but the focus is practical. It is well written and will certainly encourage the reader to believe that they can use the media to communicate with a non‐specialist public.
Review originally published in Reviews Significance , 14:2 45 doi
My review of David Abernathy’s book Using Geodata and Geolocation in the Social Sciences has been published in the February 2018 issue of Significance magazine – the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association. Why not take a look?
Hammersley, M. (2014) The limits of social science. Causal explanation and value relevance
In this short book, Hammersley argues for a social science which eschews grand theorising in favour of the explanation of social phenomena. Drawing inspiration from Max Weber and referring to a range of social theorists and philosophers, Hammersley encourages social scientists to re-think what they are actually doing as researchers in order to create a social science which generates knowledge which is both reliable and valid. Some readers might, of course, reply that there are no problems with social research as an intellectual endeavour, but Hammersley’s purpose seems to be to awake us from our slumbers. This is a task in which he partially succeeds. Hammersley is not, for example, opposed to causal analysis in the social sciences, but argues that we should raise our game by adopting ‘within-case and cross-case analysis’. He also prioritises explanation over theorising with the proviso that ‘all purpose’ explanations are not possible because explanations are ‘always answers to particular questions’. He also argues that value conclusions cannot be derived from evidence, and offers convincing arguments why this might be the case. The consequence of Hammersley’s position is that social research should be limited to making ‘factual’ statements rather than ‘value’ claims. Although much of the book is theoretical, the author grounds his views by referring to social mobility research and to work on the English riots of 2011.
What I most enjoyed about this book is that Hammersley encourages the reader to think hard about social research practice. He is, for example, unconvinced by the view that there is a direct relationship between research and policy outcomes. On the contrary, he says that the relationship is ‘highly mediated and contingent’. Moreover, he recognises that different social science disciplines employ different methods of explanation. One has only to think of the very different approaches of the experimental psychologist and of the historian to appreciate that he has a point. But such explanatory pluralism in the social sciences has a disturbing consequence. If there is no agreed threshold which all social scientists have to meet in order to generate valid and reliable knowledge, then how do these disciplines differ from vocations like investigative or data journalism? In addition, Hammersley draws a sharp distinction between ‘facts’ which are of interest to the social scientist and ‘value claims’ which should be of interest to policymakers and think tanks. If true, it is very hard to see how social researchers can make the case for funding their work in a cultural environment which does not recognise that knowledge has value in itself. Hammersley recognises this point but does not offer any solutions.
This book is not a paean to social science as it is currently practised and will be, to use Hammersley’s own word, a ‘deflationary’ read for some. If, however, you want to read something which may question your preconceptions, this book is a good place to begin.
Review originally published in Research Matters, December 2015
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
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
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