Ethnographic Observation

Nippert-Eng. (2015) Watching Closely: A Guide to Ethnographic Observation

Books on research methodology can be written in a dry, unengaging and inaccessible style which severely curtails their readership. After even a cursory reading of Watching Closely: A Guide to Ethnographic Observation, it becomes very clear that this book differs markedly from the more usual methodological fare. Not only is the book written – I think successfully – for a very diverse audience that includes students and practitioners across the social and behavioural sciences, but it also focuses on the ‘craft’ of being a fieldworker.

Christena Nippert-Eng – a sociologist and Professor of Informatics at Indiana University – not only shows how to conduct ethnographic observation, but also exhorts the reader to get out into the world to do fieldwork for themselves. The book is therefore both a pedagogical text which explains how fieldwork should be done, and a fieldwork companion, which the researcher can carry with them and reuse irrespective of their level of experience. The author does of course recognise that one can collect data using conversation and participation, but her focus is on observational data because of the dearth of skills in this area. This is an assessment with which I am inclined to agree.

Watching Closely is divided into three parts: ‘Getting Ready’, ‘The Exercises’ and ‘Moving Forward’. Part One tells the reader how to use the book and about the author’s philosophy of fieldwork, which she herself characterises as one of moderate social constructivism (19). Modelling the book on a ‘fine arts or studio course’ (5), the emphasis is on exercises in the second part, which focuses on particular concepts and allows the reader to practise their data collection, analytic and report-writing skills. Part Three then brings the book to a close by offering advice on what one should do in order to develop as a fieldworker.

As the second part forms the core of the book, I’ll give the reader some idea of what is involved. Nippert-Eng advocates ‘concept driven’ fieldwork (36), with a particular focus on ‘time’ and ‘space’ and, where possible, on non-human animals. Her preference for the non-human subject is reasonable as she is trying to inspire readers to observe attentively rather than to ascribe motivations to behaviours, which would perhaps be the case when studying human subjects. The nine exercises therefore encourage the reader to use the author’s toolkit of concepts to make sense of data in the field.

Prior to doing each exercise, Nippert-Eng invites us to think sociologically. In the second exercise on ‘temporal mapping’, for example, she provides a short but fascinating discussion of the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ time, with reference to the work of the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, as a prelude to asking the student to construct a ‘temporal map’ of their own. This involves selecting a body part of the animal being observed and ‘describing its movements’ with reference to time (87). The reader is then encouraged to write up a report of the exercise before reading the ‘Post-Exercise Discussion’ and the ‘Mechanics of this Exercise’ sections. The student then follows a similar process in the third exercise –  again on ‘temporal mapping’ –  with the objective being to extend their understanding of the concept of temporality by taking account of duration, sequence, pulse, repetition and cyclicality (120).

Although this discussion of the exercises may seem abstract, nothing could be further from the truth as Nippert-Eng grounds her advice with concrete references to her own field of study: namely, the gorillas of Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago. Readers are also encouraged to refer to sample responses to each of the exercises on a dedicated companion website. Indeed, I was captivated by this feature of the book due to the imaginative, creative and insightful ways in which each student presents their findings. The author really manages to convey the excitement of conducting research in the field. Not only will anyone who reads this book and completes the exercises improve their ability to collect observational data, but they will also come away from the text itching to do their own research.

Moreover, the decision to limit discussion to a small subset of problems is wise if one considers that inexperienced researchers can often feel overwhelmed by the amount of data which is available. The problems are also well chosen because they provide the researcher who does not have a clear focus with conceptual hooks which they can use to think about the problems that interest them before going out into the field. Each exercise also carefully builds on what has gone before. Nippert-Eng is therefore sensitive to the challenges posed by ethnographic research.

The author also manages to combine a lot of very tangible advice with a style that poses questions which the reader is invited to solve for themselves. I thought, for example, that her discussion of the challenges posed by the attempt to collect observational time series data was particularly thought-provoking. In addition, the eclecticism of the scholarly sources on which she draws is truly impressive. The reference to the work of Scott McCloud on Understanding Comics may seem tangential, but it is exceptionally relevant when one remembers that Nippert-Eng is making a point about the importance of storytelling for researchers who wish to re-present their data effectively. The sheer breadth of the sources on which she draws is therefore a reminder of how researchers should work in an interdisciplinary way if they wish to truly leverage their data and understand the social world.

In short, this book is an exemplar of how books on research methodology can, and perhaps should, be written as Nippert-Eng combines solid instruction in the technicalities of ethnographic research with a set of useful exercises which will convince the reader that research is fun, insightful and a craft skill that one can acquire through practice.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books and LSE USA Politics and Policy March and April 2016.

Hard-to-Survey Populations

Tourangeau R, Edwards B, Johnson T.P., Wolter K.M. & Bates, N (Eds.) Hard to Survey Populations

This is an excellent book that fills a gap in the methodological literature. With contributions from some of the most notable practitioners of survey methodology in the world, this collection is exceptionally comprehensive. The book contains discussions of how to survey groups as diverse as people with intellectual disabilities, the homeless, political extremists and stigmatised groups, as well as a fascinating chapter on the challenges of surveying linguistically diverse populations. One should not therefore assume that this is a dry statistical tome; there is much here for the student, applied researcher and clinician who need a jargon-free introduction to this topic.

There are also discussions of sampling methods for the more methodologically inclined, including explanations of location sampling, which has been used to sample the homeless, nomads and immigrants. Some of the explanations of sampling strategies may however be difficult for readers who are not comfortable with mathematics with Part IV on sampling strategies being particularly challenging in this regard.

Each chapter is, however, self-contained with useful references for the reader who wishes to investigate any topic in more depth. A chapter-by-chapter reading of the book isn’t therefore necessary. The book may profitably be read either as a comprehensive introduction to hard-to-survey populations or as a reference text for those who are thinking about surveying a particular group.

In short, an indispensable resource for any psychologist – irrespective of specialism or level of expertise – who wishes to collect robust data about the lives of people who aren’t always given a voice.

Review originally published in The Psychologist, March 2015

The ESRC, 50 Years On

Walker, D. (2015) Exaggerated Claims? The ESRC, 50 Years On

This book looks at the role of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and its relationship with academics, non-university researchers, policy-makers and government.

David Walker, a journalist and former head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences, argues that the ESRC’s founders were inspired by a vision where policy and practice-relevant social science research would be produced by both university and non-university research centres. In contrast, what materialised, so Walker contends, is a council which often funds knowledge which is “antinomian, autistic and disconnected” from the other parts of the “state apparatus” which conduct research.

Walker does recognise that Michael Young and Andrew Shonfield – the first two chairs of the ESRC – were keen advocates of “social science as policy science”. He also convincingly argues that consumers of research do not necessarily give priority to academic work but rather make use of all information that is materially relevant to their field of interest. The implication of this view is that the focus of research projects should be less influenced by what researchers themselves find interesting and more influenced by a genuine, multidirectional partnership between the various constituencies who are interested in research.

This erudite, eminently quotable and thoroughly iconoclastic book tells the story of opportunities lost; it is not an account of unequivocal failure. It is also about much more than the ESRC, as Walker has issued a clarion call to all those who believe in interdisciplinary working.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 13:4 45, doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00943.x

Practical Guide: Logistic Regression

Hilbe, J. M. (2015) Practical Guide to Logistic Regression

This short book shows the reader how to model a binary response variable using basic logistic regression models – and despite its modest size, Joseph M. Hilbe manages to introduce the reader to logistic models with single or multiple predictors as well as to grouped and Bayesian logistic regression.

Hilbe suggests that the book would be appropriate for someone who has completed a basic course in statistics which includes linear regression. I would agree with this assessment, though I would also recommend working through an introductory tutorial on R. That said, this book is written in an exceptionally clear style which means that the reader can expect a treatment of the subject which is concise but comprehensible.

An additional selling point of this text is that it introduces new R functions which can be applied in one’s own work, as well as equivalent SAS and Stata code. The provision of complete code in the book and on a dedicated website will also be of benefit to readers who wish to spend more time learning about logistic regression models than hacking code.

Indeed, the emphasis on understanding logistic regression modelling rather than on the mechanistic application of techniques is one of the great strengths of the book. Anyone who reads this book will therefore feel that they have a good understanding of this subject which can be consolidated both by analysis of their own data and by further reading.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance,13:2 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00885.x

Social Physics: A New Science

Pentland, A. (2014) Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread  – the Lessons from a New Science

Alex Pentland’s book is a hugely readable introduction to “social physics”, which the author defines “as a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behaviour on the other”. In contradistinction to what the author defines as conventional “individual-centric economic and policy thinking”, Pentland suggests that the primary drivers of cultural evolution in our wired world are “social learning” and “social pressure”.

Pentland entertainingly describes a range of studies which he and colleagues have conducted that are both interesting and counterintuitive. He shows, for example, how equal “conversational turn-taking” is the most important factor in predicting “group intelligence”. Other studies focus on trading and the determinants of political opinion. Indeed, there seems to be nothing which is outside of the purview of social physics.

But Pentland’s enthusiasm for his subject carries an overtone of hubris. For Pentland, constructs like “market”, “class” and “capital” should be replaced by the concepts he outlines in the book. Moreover, he gives a very partial interpretation of history since the Enlightenment, which is puzzling because he simultaneously extols the virtues of Adam Smith and John Locke while suggesting that conventional economic concepts are redundant.

In order to gain a more nuanced view of what drives cultural, social and economic evolution, my advice would be to imagine Pentland in a dialogue with economists, historians, sociologists and philosophers and then to form your own view of the truth of the claims made in this book.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 12:6 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00871.x

SSD for R and Single-Subject Data

Auerbach, C., Zeitlin, W. (2014) SSD for R: An R Package for Analyzing Single-Subject Data

This work is short but, in spite of its brevity, Charles Auerbach and Wendy Zeitlin’s book describes how to analyse single-subject data using their own package, SSD for R. They introduce its functions as well as providing advice on how to analyse baseline and intervention phase data.

I thought that their discussion of serial dependency was particularly well done, as was their emphasis on how to use SSD for R to visualise data. Other chapters provide introductions to statistical testing and to the analysis of group data.

Readers should note that the book does not deal with single-subject methodology in any depth, so additional resources will be needed in order to make best use of the package. Fortunately, the authors include useful references for those who need information on specific research designs.

R newbies may need to read an introductory R text as the book’s scope is understandably restricted to providing information about the package. But Auerbach and Zeitlin write well and the content does not demand much in the way of prior statistical knowledge or IT skills.

Statisticians may not need to avail themselves of this book, but practitioners who are working in applied disciplines such as social work, psychology and medicine will find it very appealing.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 12:4 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00846.x

The Wellbeing of Nations

Allin, P., Hand, D.J. (2014) The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive and Measurement 

This book shows how it is possible to measure national wellbeing, as well as explaining the motivation for doing so. With a title which pays homage to Adam Smith’s classic, The Wealth of Nations, Allin and Hand explain why it is important to move beyond economic measures like GDP in order to measure wellbeing – an objective in which they succeed admirably.

By drawing on research from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, economics, psychology, social policy and journalism, the authors convincingly argue that one can measure wellbeing. Indeed, their assessment is a welcome antidote to the scepticism of those who believe that economic measures are all that matter.

One might imagine that this book will primarily appeal to official statisticians, who may be tasked with collecting national wellbeing data, but such a view would be unwarranted.

Admittedly, there is much discussion of the role of national statistics offices, and much of the book seems to be a dialogue between the authors and prominent theorists, with the recommendations of the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi Commission being particularly noteworthy throughout.

However, this book will appeal to a broad audience. Although there are brief discussions of technical topics like measurement theory, the book will be useful to researchers across a range of disciplines and the interested general reader.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 12:3 44{45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00833.x