A Practical Guide to Research Methods by Catherine Dawson

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A Practical Guide to Research Methods by Catherine Dawson

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A decent overview of the complete research process in social sciences for those who have no or little formal training in research methodology, clear, practical and usable. A good starting point for budding or causal researchers.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 169 Date: August 2007
Publisher: How To Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1845282301

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Before I review the actual book, I feel I need to deal with the what I think is the biggest problem with A Practical Guide to Research Methods. It's external to the book itself and to do with a lack of clear indication of who the book is for: because it certainly is not for anyone who needs to put together research projects quickly and effectively as the back cover blurb claims.

Firstly, and possibly stating the obvious, the Guide deals with study of people, or more precisely - their behaviours, attitudes, interactions and similar - in other words subjects covered by broadly understood social science. It would be of little use to anybody working in natural sciences, technology or even history or literature (though the chapters on writing a proposal, doing background research and reporting results might still have some useful pointers).

Secondly, the guide singularly fails to mention experimental studies and thus would be of only qualified usefulness to researchers in psychology, where experimental methodology is often the preferred method of investigation (though it does depend on the speciality and subject matter). But then students of psychology should be taught extensive methodology courses and shouldn't need such a basic book at all.

And thirdly, considering the very breadth of the subject that the Guide tackles and the book's relatively short length of 170 pages, individual topics are covered rather briefly. I was actually quite impressed by how much useful information those 170 pages contain. Still, most of it is fairly basic and deals with relatively small scale research and thus would benefit readers who have either none or little formal training in research methodology: members of community groups and local charities, public sector employees engaged in running local services and, most of all, undergraduate students facing their first research project or dissertation, particularly in subjects with a more practical angle (social work, education and similar).

Within the above context, the Guide provides a very accessible, common-sense and competent overview of the whole (social) research process: from the very conception of the project, choice of methods, writing the proposal, preparing questionnaires and topic guides, conducting the background research and the fieldwork to data analysis and reporting.

The language is accessible and clear and the Guide benefits from a good selection of case-study like examples and extensive use of comparison tables, bullet-points, check-lists and summaries.

I liked the realistic approach: Dr Dawson recognises that many research projects will be conducted because somebody was simply told to undertake one by their boss or tutor and she provides useful tips on maintaining motivation, maintaining the required institutional format and reporting with the audience in mind.

I cannot, however, agree with the suggestion that personal preferences and inclinations should in any significant way guide or influence the choice of research method. The choice of method has to be determined by the aims of the project. However much a budding researcher dislikes number crunching, qualitative research will not answer a "How many?" question, and however much another one might shy away from face to face interviewing, a standardised postal questionnaire will not allow for an in-depth exploration of reasons and emotional dynamics of human behaviour. For a person feeling unable to apply the most appropriate method, reformulating the problem or contracting out (delegating) part of the project would be a much better choice.

I cannot praise the Guide highly enough for stressing the importance of the initial thinking and planning process. The notion of five W's of why, what, when, who and where is a very useful one, and it was explained and explored well; with summarising the research in a short statement a great way to make sure that the researcher knows what they are actually doing - and what for.

Among the suggested "whys?" of research an important one was missed. Outside purely academic context, most of research is conducted to aid decision making: it's crucial not only in marketing but also in social policy or pretty much any other "real life" application. Considering the decision(s) that the research will aid should be a fundamental principle in research design.

In the context of academic projects, the notion of research as a process of testing hypotheses was only very lightly touched upon, and I believe is too important an idea not to devote more attention to it.

The chapters on writing the proposal, choosing qualitative versus quantitative methodology, background research and sampling were good, though I would have liked to see more stress put on biases that can result from non-response and selection of respondents who volunteer to take part.

I liked the practical chapters on data gathering: interviewing, focus groups and observations. They were full of excellent practical tips which will help to avoid many pitfalls and common mistakes.

The section on questionnaire design was good on layout, ordering, piloting and pointed out many of the most common and most damaging problems with questions, though I would have liked to see more stress on avoiding unbalanced questions and answer categories as it's one of the most frequent ways "leading" questions are created.

Many students and practitioners of social disciplines will need to design and conduct a research project at some point. Anybody baffled by the task will find an overview of the process and the practical tips provided in the Guide eminently useful, and the book certainly provides a good starting point for budding researchers, especially as there are numerous pointers to further reading throughout.

The review copy was sent to the Bookbag by the publisher - thank you!

Magda Healey worked as a market and opinion researcher for eight years, designing, analysing and reporting quantitative and qualitative studies on subjects ranging from beer consumption to childcare services, advertising effectiveness to sexual behaviour, substance abuse to customer satisfaction, brand image to ethnic stereotypes. Magda has a BSc/MSc in psychology and co-authored several articles on trait attribution and moral judgements. She believes that research methodology is not only crucial for the integrity and validity of academic research but also for commercial and social applications as decisions are rarely better than the information they are based on. She taught social psychology and IT skills to undergraduates and SPSS and questionnaire design to junior researchers in the research agency.

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