Reflections on Research: the Realities of Doing Research in the Social Sciences

Hallowell, Nina , Lawton, Julia and Gregory, Susan
Open University Press, Buckingham
0335213103 / 033521309X

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Cover of book This book, edited by Nina Hallowell, Julia Lawton and Susan Gregory, assembles accounts from established researchers, largely based in the field of health care, who reflect on the 'perils, pitfalls, and pleasures'(p.2) of doing research. Reflections on setting up research projects, gaining access to subjects, negotiating the interview process, generating data and disseminating findings are outlined. Key themes include: the emotion work involved in doing research; the influence of the self and others on the research out come, and issues of control. Illuminating what can go wrong, and offering ideas how to put things right, this book is a refreshing read, innovative in its structure and informative in its content. A slim volume of 156 pages, the six chapters consist of a series of vignettes from 43 contributors, each chapter 'top and tailed' by the editors with a brief and useful introduction and summary.

The first section sets the tone, as the editors reflect on the book's inception, outlining how they tackled the project, and what they learned from the experience. Chapter Two's focus is the emotional work involved in undertaking research. Although emphasising pleasurable aspects of the process, this section demonstrates the emotional 'downside' of doing research. Accounts identify the consequences of attempting too many interviews in a limited period, describe the unexpected turn that interviews may take, and consider the notion of disengagement as one emerges from the field. Overall, this section is especially helpful for new or isolated researchers, revealing that emotion work is integral to the process of data gathering.

The next focus of attention is the issue of identity in the research process. This chapter illustrates how researchers negotiate self in an attempt to engage participants. The vignettes range from deliberations about what to wear during interviews, to more fundamental concerns of cultural and racial difference and the associated practical and ethical complexities of the interactive process. Role conflict is identified as a core dilemma, where one needs to find a balance between one's integrity as a researcher, and as a human being. This is illustrated in accounts of both ethnographic and interview studies which offer insight into the difficulties of being a detached interviewer or observer, whilst maintaining empathy and holding political views and social values. Ultimately, this section draws on contributors' accounts to address fundamental ethical questions about the interactive process of gathering data.

Chapter Four features research as 'a collaborative endeavour' (p.70), and the associated negotiations this involves. It is broadly organised around 3 sections. First, it illustrates how gatekeepers regulate entrance to the research field. Contributors offer their experiences of gaining ethical approval, and problems of access to, and recruitment of, research participants. Second, the accounts reveal both the challenges and benefits of working with others, illustrating some of the problems of working together, and suggesting essential qualities for successful teamwork. The final part of the chapter focuses on the control of dissemination of findings. Three researchers' reflect on their experiences with the media to show how difficulties emerge even after the research process appears to be over. Overall, this chapter highlights that research is a matter of ongoing negotiation and flexibility.

Chapter Five considers the concept of control in a range of ways. It highlights particular challenges of physical environments and personal safety, as well as the dilemmas of losing control in an interview situation, for example, when the interviewee may be distressed or non-cooperative. This section illustrates above all the uncertainty of the research process, the importance of flexibility, and the need to 'be prepared' for anything. Lastly, the editors note how the accounts convey the importance of shared control between the researchers and the subjects.

The final chapter pinpoints how the vignettes are more than interesting learning experiences, based on 'scrapes' which the contributors have found themselves in, and attempted to extricate themselves from. Ultimately, the editors emphasize the main theme of the book: 'that research in the social sciences is first and foremost a moral activity' (p.142) as they highlight the inextricable link between practical concerns and ethical considerations. The book ends with a brief and useful checklist of 'handy tips' to consider when conducting research.

I really enjoyed this book. It offers the reader a window onto the'real stuff'of social science research, in an accessible way, and combines this with a commitment to ethical concerns. Ultimately, it identifies research as a moral as well as a practical activity. Overall, a great read, and a useful resource for both students and researchers in the social sciences, as well as those with a particular interest in research ethics.

Anne Townsend
The University of Glasgow