Phoenix-like, old ways are transformed

September 18, 2008

Research Methods for Cultural Studies

Editor: Michael Pickering

Edition: First

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Pages: 256

Price: £55.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780748625772 and 5789

Research Methods for Cultural Studies is important, and not in a self-congratulatory or pretentious way. It intervenes in cultural studies and offers a trajectory of improvement and potential for a paradigm that too frequently justifies a lack of methodological discussion with rhetorical flourish about inter- (and anti-) disciplinarity. Michael Pickering believes that this reticence to discuss methods is part of a "conscious dissociation from established academic disciplines". While an understandable stance, it only increases the angst-ridden (and shrill) question from students and researchers about how to "do" cultural studies. Too often, this confusion blocks the development of scholarship.

Few - very few - cultural studies textbooks explore methods. While fan-based studies and audience-oriented scholarship may deploy ethnography or participant observation, it is simply more interesting to probe and relish the intricacies of theory, entering debates about modernity, hybridity and convergence. The "why" of cultural studies has always been clear to practitioners. The "how" is more hazy.

This lack of attention to methods results in too many cultural studies academics deploying semiotics as a default intellectual setting. Textual analysis is cultural studies' version of Tourette's syndrome: when in doubt, list some binary oppositions, note an ideology and develop an argument. This "way of reading" a text is being undercut by the innovations in critical and media literacy theory and needs to be augmented and modernised. Pickering and his contributors offer options for students and scholars wishing to move away from this textual Tourette's.

The book is structured in five sections: lives and lived experience, production and consumption, quantity and quality, texts and pictures, and links with the past. Ten chapters are offered, each presenting a distinct method. While all provide insight and clarity, the strongest include Aeron Davis' "Investigating cultural producers" and Anneke Meyer's probe of the difficulties in researching cultural consumers by assessing the potential of interviews and focus groups. David Deacon, in "Why counting counts", shows how badly we have been managing statistics, accepting them without challenge or interrogation. A chapter that is both provocative and innovative is Sarah Pink's "Analysing visual experience". She offers a guide through the use of multiple visual and audio recorders in research.

Of great interest to those of us who work the seam between cultural studies and history are the chapters on memory by Emily Keightley and history by Michael Pickering. The attention to memory as a "popular experience" constructs innovative alignments between media and historiography.

Research Methods for Cultural Studies is a brilliant book. It is inspiring, challenging, stroppy, provocative and well written. It has punch and passion. Perhaps most powerfully expressed is Pickering's own belief in the importance of returning "experience" to cultural studies as a way to create fresh links between research and the researcher. If this anti-discipline discipline is to be re-fired, then a phoenix may be found in Research Methods for Cultural Studies.

Who is it for? Upper undergraduates, postgraduates and academics gain from reading this book. Because of the diversity of methods presented, a range of academic levels can be incorporated.

Presentation: A succinct, sharply written and engaging text. Chapters can be read in isolation or as part of a wider investigation of methods.

Would you recommend it? This is the best book that has been written on cultural studies methods.

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