Joanna Swann and John Pratt (eds) Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology, Continuum, London and New York, 2003
This book has some ambitious aims. One is to provide an introduction to research methods which is both practical and rigorous, equally relevant to policy research and high theory, and to ad hoc "on the job" data collecting and highly sophisticated research programs. Another is to bring together people with very different assumptions and methods to find how much they can communicate with each other when given the opportunity in a structured but non-confrontational setting.
The editors are admirers of Karl Popper and they use his ideas to frame the organisation of the book, however it is not necessary to accept any of his more controversial ideas to extract value from resulting discussion.
Part I is a short chapter by the editors explaining why they think the book makes a useful contribution. They aim to correct the most common kind of teaching about research methods which tends to promote an impression of competing or mutually exclusive methods, quantitative versus qualitative, for example, reflecting a positivist/scientist versus a non-science or humanistic approach.
"In addition, many texts ignore the messy aspects of doing research – the muddling through, and the constraints of time and limited resources. One consequence is that people who undertake various kinds of small-scale investigative activities...may not think of themselves as researchers, because what they do does not measure up to the canons presented in much of the literature".
This speaks to the situation of people in practical or service delivery situations where there are neither time nor resources for "proper" research. An example of this is the place where I work at present where there is a concern about a minor epidemic of abuse of a particular kind of drug and people want to exchange ideas on the most effective interventions. Obviously, well designed RCT (randomised controlled trials) would take years to design and implement, even after funds are found. The need here is to devise simple protocols that can be used by busy service-providers to record strategic items of information which can be collated to inform everyone who is working with this particular group.
Part II contains several chapters spelling out the rationale for some very different research traditions: the Popperian approach, the posmodern prisim, policy-oriented research, the critical (Frankfurt School) approach, research in the context of an alternative culture (New Zealand maori) and the "case study" approach.
To demystify the practices of research the contributors were asked to structure their presentations in a consistent manner: to explain why they do research, what they do, the rationale for the particular assumptions and methods that they use, and what kinds of outcomes they hope to see as a result of their research. A fair amount of esoteric jargon is deployed in some of these chapters and the editors have provided a glossary of technical terms at the end of the book to help people who may otherwise be
Part III contains the edited transcripts of dialogue between one or other of the editors and each of the other contributors. These are not as dramatic as one might expect from the polemics that one reads in literature where protagonists tear strips off other schools of thought. The editors may have been too conciliatory but still there are some passages of strong but polite disagreement.
Part IV is a wrap-up by the editors, summarising some principles of good research gleaned from the creative confrontation of their approach with the others. They sum up their principles in an acronym PRICE.
Care for others.
To conclude this brief notice, the book provides a very good presentation of alternative methods and programs. The protagonists get to strut their stuff in their own language and then they have to explain themselves to a Popperian interlocutor. It is hard for me to see this through the eyes of the naive beginners who are the intended audience, I think it works, but they will have the last word.