These two books are more than routine additions to the growing number of introductions to social research. Both will break new ground for many students and less-experienced researchers. This is obviously the case for the collection of readings edited by Christine Hine, Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet , where the medium of research itself is relatively new and little theorised. The book is aimed at the authors' peers in higher education but its contents will doubtless be disseminated through modules from undergraduate level up.
Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein, and Nick Foard's A Short Introduction to Social Research is written for MA and PhD students and for colleagues unfamiliar with submitting research bids and papers. They write clearly but assume a level of theoretical sophistication beyond most undergraduates.
Henn et al mention in their introduction that their book took "a long time in coming". The good news is that it has been time well spent. The book is as accessible as one of the better Open University social science modules.
It is no surprise that the MA module on which the book is based was redeveloped as a distance-learning module. The book offers a battery of learning devices that support the text. Key definitions are boxed and - like the activities, lists, and diagrams - are well integrated with the text. Most chapters conclude with a research task and a recommended reading list. Many pages have a "split-screen" appearance. Far from producing a "cook-book" effect, this makes the text more diverse and interesting.
The intellectual substance of the text matches its pedagogical quality. The authors achieve thematic continuity and development, but chapters can be read as self-contained. They consistently link particular theories to particular methodologies and techniques that exemplify the various "logics" or paradigms of social research. In addition to the positivist/quantitative and interpretist/qualitative approaches, the authors introduce critical social research as a third approach to social inquiry. They exemplify critical social research with reference to feminism, to which they devote a chapter that includes a discussion of whether men can conduct feminist research effectively.
The inclusion of critical theory/research as an approach serves to indicate a feasible social scientific framework for student researchers who may want to express ethical perspective through their research. It is a minor cavil that there is little wider discussion of critical research, the origin of which lies partly in media analysis, a focus of continuing relevance.
Although the book lacks an index, there is a table of contents, and each chapter has an individual list at its head.
Whereas Henn et al cover mainly familiar terrain, Hine and contributors chart new space, or rather cyberspace. As Hine comments, there is limited cumulative experience in the use of the internet for social research. Through the discussion of case studies using the internet and Hine's own insightful comments, Virtual Methods significantly adds to the accumulation of professional knowledge.
The book is divided into two sections, "Research relationships and online relationships" and "Research sites and strategies". The first locates online research in the context of social interaction, albeit differently mediated than face-to-face interaction. Several ethnographic case studies emphasise the appropriateness of the internet for cultural research. A study of a sex workers' community indicates that the internet can be a particularly sensitive mode of inquiry.
The second section focuses on how internet sites are meaningfully constructed and how they might be researched and interpreted. Most contributors take the view that online and offline research are complementary and that, in some circumstances, it can be helpful to move between mediums. Nevertheless, the particular advantages and disadvantages of online research are well exemplified in the case studies and in Hine's summary discussions. The book largely achieves Hine's aim of demystifying internet-based research.
Virtual Methods adds much to the theory and concepts of such research. Hine refers to the field as the "sociology of cyber-social-scientific knowledge", but she notes that this is not "catchy". More likely to stick are "computer-mediated communication" and "web sphere", which refers to the social action and interaction involved in creating and using a site.
Mike O'Donnell is professor of sociology, Westminster University.
A Short Introduction to Social Research. First Edition
Author - Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein and Nick Foard
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 281
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 7619 4483 4 and 4484 2