Using Social Theory : Thinking Through Research

Pryke, Michael, Rose, Gillian and Whatmore, Sarah
Sage Publications, London

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Cover of book Using social theory challenges the researcher to reflect on the research process and on various decisions to be taken in its course. The book does not offer tips and tricks but wants to encourage the young researcher to think and act independently.

The book originated from the Human Geography Research Methods programme at the Open University, a surprising origin for a book that heavily draws on sociological traditions such as postmodernism and pragmatism. Part I discusses the basis of every research project, the posing of questions. Part II deals with fieldwork while part III turns to the writing process. Every part is introduced and concluded by one of the editors and closes with suggestions for further reading. Keywords at the margins together with sufficient space for own notes underline its textbook character.

In the first chapter John Allen sets the course by criticising the idea of a world of facts out there that only have to be detected and reported by the industrious researcher. Rather he sees language 'as a tool for redescription' (18) that allows the researcher to think differently about the world.

Nigel Clark demands for originality in research. Writing is not just descriptive but itself inventive. With Deleuze he argues that research is there to 'make sense out of things that occur in order to release or realize their potential' (33). Clark then shows how a particular configuration of events together with a receptive attitude enables a researcher to 'invent' a research problem that is both fascinating and relevant.

Part one closes with Gillian Rose's chapter on how philosophical positions and the formulation of questions are connected. She demonstrates this by Luce Irigaray's treatment of difference and otherness in formulating questions. While these chapters stress the significance of ongoing reflection Rose concludes that ultimately one has to pin down, at least provisionally, a research question before entering the field.

To explain how we produce data for analysis is the aim of the chapters four to six. Doreen Massey holds that '"the field" is not out there waiting to be discovered' (77) but already defined and the task of the researcher is to re-discover and re-construct it. The challenge is to create new ideas from encounters in fieldwork.

Sarah Whatmore stresses that research is unavoidably an intervention that leads to a 'co-fabrication or "working together" with those whom we are researching' (90). She suggests with Isabelle Stengers that every researcher has to put his work 'at risk' of being redefined by the 'field' in order to preserve its plurality of meanings. This leads to the challenging idea that the objects of research might be given the 'opportunity to redefine the terms of what it is that is being interrogated' (98). In closing this section Nigel Thrift interprets research ethics as a mere rite of passage and argues for better judgement instead of slavish obedience to formal ethical codes.

Part three focuses on writing and rhetoric. More than simply writing up results the production of the report itself is a part of the process of interpretation that asks for reflexivity (Nick Bingham). In one of the best chapters of the book Mike Crang argues that 'bringing things together in new ways' (143) in analysis creates a tension between forcing the material into a grid and letting it surprise the researcher. Finally, referring to the audience, Michael Pryke claims that ultimately the research act depends on persuasion.

Throughout the book the authors explore the borders of a positivist understanding of social sciences. Sometimes, however, the use of metaphoric language, repeated calls for originality and reflexivity together with vagueness of conclusions work against its purpose as a textbook. The book is not so much 'a road map for the practice', as the cover suggests, but an intensive reflection on the production of knowledge and scientific practices that might help researchers to develop their own road maps. As such the book is useful for students, but it has also, limited, value for methodologists.

Peter Hilger
University of Helsinki