Research without the jargon

Surveying the Social World

June 7, 2002

One of the most important recent developments in the social sciences and related fields is the systematic review, critical appraisal and synthesis of research evidence. In addition to "evidence-based medicine", we now have "evidence-based education", "evidence-based psychotherapy" and "evidence-based policy and practice".

Anyone who has conducted a systematic review knows, however, that progress is often impeded by the poor quality of research reports and papers. It is not just that research questions are not well thought out or that the methods are not appropriate. Often the report is so badly written that you cannot be sure what the researchers did. Against this background, I would recommend this book, written in refreshingly clear and readable English, to all social-science students grappling with the daunting task of embarking on a survey.

As the authors state early on, "too many surveys are poorly designed, badly executed and incorrectly analysed". Both novice researchers and the more experienced could benefit from dipping into this text, which is filled with practical advice and illustrated by an extended example from the authors'

own experience. The first chapter, titled "Why survey", covers not only the usual "What is a survey?" and "Methods of data collection" but also a section on "Critiques of surveys" and even "Responses to the critiques", before a final section on "Research ethics".

This book contains an important chapter on "Selecting samples", covering topics such as "Probability sampling strategies", sample size and sample error. This chapter alone should be required reading for all social-science students and, indeed, for any intelligent reader of a daily newspaper. Later chapters, including "Planning your project", "Collecting your samples" and "Presenting your findings", address the needs of the individual or small group conducting a survey on a limited budget. The final section, "Presenting your findings", opens with an example of a jargon-packed and virtually unreadable extract from a research report. Alas, this type of writing is ubiquitous in the social sciences.

Buy this book for yourself, your student, your supervisor. And read it before you even plan your survey.

Caroline Selai is academic postgraduate coordinator, Institute of Neurology, University College London.

Surveying the Social World

Author - Alan Aldridge and Ken Levine
ISBN - 0 335 20241 1 and 20240 3
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 196

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