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

Being a Scholar in the Digital Era

Daniels, J., Thistlethwaite, P. (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has described professors as ‘some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world’ who nonetheless, in the majority of cases, ‘just don’t matter in today’s great debates’. Provocative? Perhaps. Anti-intellectual? I don’t believe so; although one could perhaps more charitably argue that some academics may have inadvertently marginalised themselves, either because they don’t know enough about alternative modes of digital media – podcasts, blogs, twitter, altmetrics and so forth – or because they reject these modes of communication due to the association between digital technology and the marketisation of higher education.

For anyone who falls into either of these categories, a possible solution could be to read Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaites’s new book, which argues that scholars should move from scholarly practices associated with the pre-internet age to what they characterise as ‘digital scholarship’. What is meant by this is the subject of Being a Scholar in the Digital Era, but in broad terms the authors advocate open models of knowledge production and dissemination between academic and non-academic partners using the most appropriate digital technologies to maximise the impact and dissemination of research.

The book is most definitely not a technical treatise, which is a point in its favour if the intention is to persuade readers who may be intimidated by digital technology to avail of these tools in their own work. What they do instead is describe how digital technologies have been used in their own and others’ research, providing copious references for readers who want to know the technical detail.

But why should scholars become ‘digital scholars’? In short, what’s the problem? For Daniels and Thistlethwaite,  the current social science publishing landscape is populated by a small sub-set of publishers, university presses with highly specialist and therefore very small print runs and similarly specialist journals that are not accessible to anyone without access to a university library. Moreover, such a model of publication, with its infinitesimally small readership, is no longer sensible or rational in an age of ‘comparatively cheap, digital production and distribution of scholarly work’ (4).

In contrast, what the authors envisage is a situation where academics use digital platforms to co-produce research with community activists and communications professionals like journalists, film and documentary makers. One particularly noteworthy example that the authors refer to is Morris Justice: A Public Science Project in the Bronx, New York City, where researchers worked with residents to ‘create an active social media campaign in solidarity with court cases, legislation, and community organizing’ (23). What is particularly noteworthy is the way in which the Morris Justice project and an artists’ collective employed ‘spectacular messaging’ using a light projector to project survey results onto an apartment building (23).

One interesting consequence of Daniels and Thistlethwaites’ approach is that the ubiquity of digital publishing platforms like WordPress means that the traditional litmus test of research quality is no longer publication but the response produced by the readership (4). But will opening academic work to open peer review produce research that is rejected by more conventional academics? Daniels and Thistlethwaite don’t believe so, and they buttress their case with reference to a number of persuasive examples. They refer, for example, to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book on Planned Obsolescence, which was published in draft form in open peer review before being conventionally published by an academic press (3).

In a similar vein, the authors contend that it is possible to conduct research which is academically respectable, has impact on policy and a wide readership. One only has to recall that the ‘Reading the Riots’ study of the summer riots in England in 2011  –  which Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe as ‘a hybrid form of social science research and investigative journalism’ (25)  –  had a combined radio and television audience of over 30 million people on ‘first phase launch day’ and that the study led to the publication of conventionally peer-reviewed publications too (Newburn 2015).

Unsurprisingly, the authors are particularly persuasive advocates of digital scholarship when they concentrate on learning gained from their own involvement with the recently concluded JustPublics@365: a project designed to bring academics, journalists and activists together to ‘address social justice issues through the use of social media’ (18). Beginning in January 2013 at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), the JustPublics@365 team members aimed to create information that had an impact outside of academia but which was robust from a scholarly perspective. Referring to their work across areas as diverse as ‘stop and frisk’ (31) the ‘public health alternatives to criminalising drug use’ (32) and disability studies (35), Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe how they used podcasts, project blogs and downloadable eBooks to ‘open up knowledge’ beyond the academy. One particularly noteworthy example is the Social Media Toolkit, which will be of use to academics who may, as the project website says, be ‘perplexed about how to share their research’ with people beyond the university.

The authors are not, however, mere utopians who regard digital technology as an unqualified blessing. On the contrary, they argue that tools like massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not delivered on their potential to open up learning to students without a history of prior educational attainment (39-48). Moreover, they are also fully aware of the link between impact measurements and the rise of ‘audit culture’ (115).

This is an excellent book that offers a concise and well-written description of how digital technology has been used to produce robust and genuinely impactful research. The book is short and, in spite of the fact that its focus is on digital scholarship in North American contexts, it will appeal to anyone who has been inspired by scholar-activists like W.E.B. Du Bois or C Wright Mills (24), but who would like to know how to become a scholar-activist in the digital era. The authors are also particularly good when charting the ‘convergence’ between disciplines and practices – academia, activism and journalism – that have been conventionally regarded as discrete. All things considered, this book is a fascinating and accessible read.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books and LSE Impact of the Social Sciences, December 2016

Creative Research Communication

Wilkinson, C., Weitkamp, E. (2016) Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice

The philosopher A.C. Grayling has characterised academics as specialists in a small area of intellectual endeavour who publish their research in journals for other specialists in a language that is often inaccessible to the uninitiated (2004, 100). One could be more charitable and concede that academics do try to communicate beyond the circle of their academic peers, but that communication outside of academia can be difficult and perplexing due to the sheer number of options available. So where should the researcher who wants to get their message ‘out there’ begin? Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp’s book, Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, could be one possible starting point.

The authors contend that this book has been written for ‘public engagement practitioners, policymakers, science communication students and those based in research settings who are seeking to communicate to and engage others with their research’ (14). This is an assessment with which I agree, as Wilkinson and Weitkamp have written a text that is extremely easy to read and therefore accessible to both non-academics and academics across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. The authors almost always eschew jargon, adding to the appeal of the book, and the sections on theory usefully complement rather than crowd out the practical advice that they offer to the reader. Wilkinson and Weitkamp also make a persuasive case for the view that it is possible to present research to a lay audience which does not distort the complexity and nuance of scholarly endeavour.

The authors’ key message is therefore an optimistic one: academics can maintain high standards whilst at the same time recognising the diverse needs of an often very plural audience. The use of the word ‘creative’ in the book’s title should also reassure those readers who may be under the impression that research communication involves the use of an invariable and universally applicable set of procedures. On the contrary, Wilkinson and Weitkamps’ reservations about metrics, together with their injunction that readers should ‘engage in ways that work for you as an individual researcher’ (10), will no doubt be reassuring to all.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section introduces the reader to ‘the context of research communication’ (15). What then follows is a fascinating if concise description of the role of research communication over a four-hundred-year period, which describes the process of research professionalisation, the creation of learned societies, public lectures and the role of museums and exhibitions. Brief references are made to such august institutions as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the Lunar Society and Mechanics’ Institutes. I particularly enjoyed the historical tour and would have appreciated more detail, although I recognise that the authors are trying to chart a middle way between the theoretical and the practical.

The first part of the book ends with advice on how to include people in research as either participants or the audience of research. Again, the inclusion of this information is laudable as the authors stress that ‘the public’ should not be thought of as one homogenous group, but rather that ‘participants in research communication come from a variety of backgrounds, communities, experiences and perspectives’ so that ‘the idea of one exclusive and singular public is therefore problematic’ (34). Praiseworthy too is their recognition that the ‘deficit model’ – ‘whereby […] the perceived deficiencies in people’s knowledge around complex research areas created drivers for the receipt of increased information’ – is no longer adequate (39).

Lest all this seems excessively theoretical, the second part provides solid practical advice on face-to-face communication, artist-researcher collaborations, digital research communication, the use of social media and citizen-science projects as well as research which has been initiated by the community. Indeed, the authors manage to reference projects that illustrate their advice that are not only multi-disciplinary but trans-disciplinary. In short, there is sure to be something here which will wet the reader’s appetite. In particular, I thought that their advice on how to ‘pitch’ and write articles for newspapers and magazines was especially useful, although some detail on how to work with the traditional broadcast media would have been welcome too.

The authors also make information easy to find by availing of boxed-out sections that are interspersed throughout the text, whilst further grounding their advice by referring to real world case studies. Box 7.4, for example, provides ‘Top tips for academic bloggers’ (145), and case study 7.2 describes Science Circle – ‘a space to talk about research and education in the virtual world Second Life’ (156).  Useful references for further reading are also included at the end of each chapter and in a dedicated reference section, together with a plethora of relevant internet links.

Although obviously passionate about their subject, the authors are not dewy-eyed about the communication approaches which they discuss but, on the contrary, deal with a range of problems that may arise. Providing a space in which people can engage with research can have many benefits as the authors attest, including improving research quality, increasing public trust and awareness in research as well as making people more predisposed to being involved in future projects (174). However, engagement can be frustrating for those researchers who may not feel that they are setting agendas – particularly in highly specialised areas of research where it may be difficult for the public to understand the nature of a researcher’s work.  Conversely, the public may feel that engagement could be more accurately characterised as a one-directional information and communication exercise as opposed to an authentic two-directional partnership between different stakeholders, all of whom have some intellectual and emotional investment in the research project (173-75). Engagement therefore presents challenges for the researcher. The authors recognise this, and their pragmatism can only add credibility to the text.

The third and final part examines impact, ethics and dissemination. Wilkinson and Weitkamp introduce the reader to formative, process and summative evaluation, basic research methods, analytical techniques and free analysis programmes. Box 10.3 also includes invaluable information on evaluation frameworks (222). Their discussion then concludes with an examination of research impact, which will be of special interest to academics, although the authors convincingly problematise this concept rather than offer easy solutions. One only has to think of how difficult it would be to measure the existential, ‘transformative’ impact of the arts on the individual to appreciate that they have a point (228). This discussion will undoubtedly appeal to academics, service evaluators, policymakers and any reader of research. A similar comment applies to the chapter on ethics with its fascinating aside on the difficulties of informed consent in situations where the medium- to long-term impact of some research may be unknowable (238-39), whilst the final discussion on dissemination is equally engaging, with Box 12.4 providing a useful list of academic journals for research communicators (263).

Wilkinson and Weitkamp have managed to write a book that successfully blends the theoretical with the practical. They never talk down to the reader, and it is for this stylistic reason, as well as for the interesting, relevant content, that Creative Research Communication should be read by anyone with an interest in research. This is an excellent book that can be read from cover to cover or used as a reference text.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, September 2016