A sample of ways to spot the trends

Need to Know - Social Research - Essentials of Research Methods - Social Research Methodology - Reflections on Research
February 25, 2005

These books are a welcome addition to the battery of material available to students on social research. Two aim for the coveted spot of "main" undergraduate text for the research module. These are Lisa McIntyre's Need to Know and Matthew David and Carole D. Sutton's Social Research: The Basics . Janet Ruane's Essentials of Research Methods is less comprehensive but also written at an introductory level. It is best considered as back-up to a main text. As well as serving the needs of sociology specialists, these should be accessible to non-specialists.

Social Research Methodology by Roger Gomm and Reflections on Research by Nina Hallowell et al are better suited to the more advanced undergraduate and to postgraduates. However, Gomm provides quite a comprehensive - as well as a comparatively sophisticated - introduction to social science research methods. His book serves well as the core text for the research module that is increasingly a compulsory component of social science MAs. The more limited aim of Hallowell and her co-editors is to demonstrate through case studies that research in practice often does not fit theoretical projection. It is clearly a "further reading" book, albeit an interesting and instructive one.

The three basic texts have different and partly contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Two are written by American state university teachers and, for good and ill, it shows. Both Ruane and McIntyre write accessibly and use uncomplicated examples. American textbook authors have longer experience than British ones of writing for students of a wide, sometimes very wide, range of ability. Ruane is particularly adept at doing so. One recommendation on the book's back cover enthuses that she "has written the most lively and lucid introductory methods book I've ever read". I certainly found it effortless reading.

McIntyre's book lacks the zest of Ruane's but is more comprehensive. It has five useful appendices including two on areas covered only scantily by Ruane: "Working on the internet" and "Writing research reports". The exercises are more substantial and generally review, probe and test students' knowledge better. An instructor's manual/test bank is offered free of charge, although it is not stated if this is dependent on placing a minimum order. Whether these advantages justify the price tag of £28.99 - almost twice that of Ruane's book - is doubtful. Nevertheless, this is a sound and thorough presentation of research methods.

Another issue arises for a British readership with Ruane and McIntyre. Both tend to draw their examples of contemporary research from the US. This is more surprising in the case of McIntyre's volume because it is published in an international (as well as an American) edition. Both authors also tend to favour the US when constructing hypothetical examples or making cultural references.

Thus, Ruane exemplifies cluster sampling with reference to "graduating high-school seniors" in a given state. The terminology of the example is not incomprehensible to British students but it is not familiar either. This point should not be overstated. I do not intend to flutter the home flag but the issue of American colonisation of British higher education is now relevant when making educational choices.

Considered as a complete package, Social Research is a strong contender for the core text slot, although lecturers will want to compare it with their preferred established standard text. It scores well on its comprehensive content, including use of information technology; the number and appropriateness of its diagrams; and, not least in these days of impecunious students, its price.

The four sections of the book deal with starting research, designing and collecting data, data analysis and presenting research findings. Each section is divided into chapters preceded by a list of contents. Consequently, it is easy to dip into chapters or to read them consecutively. The book covers topics as diverse as "semiotics and narrative" and the use of computer software. My cavils are that the font size is small, the double columns per page make for a somewhat bundled look, and though the writing style is sufficiently clear, it is not quite of the quality of Ruane. I suggest David and Sutton be considered as a possible student purchase, in conjunction with a good library stock of McIntyre and particularly Ruane.

Reflections on Research and Social Research Methodology are more demanding than the general texts. Hallowell and her co-editors organise short, pithy accounts of research projects into thematic chapters covering emotions, self, others and control, and add helpful introductory and concluding chapters. The contributions demonstrate issues of practical compromise and personal judgement that arise in research and that students cannot be expected to anticipate. Collectively, they sustain the editors' contention that "research in the social sciences is first and foremost a moral activity".

Gomm's book is the most academically accomplished of the five. He is authoritative on the links between methodology and the choice of research methods and has a comprehensive command of complex research issues. Gomm, too, believes that social science research can change the world "for the better". In demonstrating that rigour rather than moralism is the key to achieving this goal, he makes his own fine and timely contribution.

Mike O'Donnell is senior lecturer in sociology, Westminster University.

Need to Know: Social Science Research Methods. First edition

Author - Lisa J. McIntyre
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Pages - 303
Price - £28.99
ISBN - 0 07 123258 3

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