Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Researching Society and Culture

Clive Seale (editor)
Sage Publications: London
0 7619 5277 2 (pb); 0 7619 5277 2 (hb)
£14.99 (pb); £45.00 (hb)
x + 350 pp.

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There already exists a plethora of books designed to introduce students to the differing methods and debates around undertaking social research. How then can a new volume like this, made up of contributions from present and former members of the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College, win space for itself through offering something distinct in this crowded marketplace?

This book is pitched as a value for money 'under one cover' (p. 3) guide to the principle methods used to research society and culture, eliding the traditional distinction made by volumes that seek to present an introduction to social research, and those that present approaches to understanding culture, that have reflected the division between the social sciences and cultural studies. This elision is represented as in part stemming from the make up of the department at Goldsmiths and the variety of interests and backgrounds that the staff in that department possess.

A key strength of the volume is the range of issues it covers. It is organised into three parts. Firstly, 'Philosophy, Methodology and History', which includes amongst others, chapters by David Lazar introducing the philosophy of social science, Heather Brunskell on feminist methodology, Fran Tonkiss on the history of the social survey and Josep Llobera on historical and comparative research. The second part 'Beginning Research', provides chapters setting out some of the dilemmas and concerns around the relationship between research and social policy, and social theory, and a useful chapter by Moira Kelly on writing a research proposal, an area I have not previously seen covered in similar volumes. Thirdly, by far the lengthiest part is titled 'Doing Research'. This includes chapters on a range of issues around undertaking quantitative research, through to chapters for example by Clive Seale on qualitative interviewing, David Walsh on doing ethnography, Don Slater on analysing cultural objects, David Silverman on analysing conversation, and Les Black on the practices of reading and writing as fundamental to the research process. Sections presenting discussion exercises for each chapter and a glossary are also included.

Such range is very helpful to someone coming ot think about these ideas for the first time. The chapters are able to include sections on issues as distinct and unobvious as 'The uses of emotion' (pp. 19 - 21), statistical reasoning, content analysis as an approach to understanding media output and exploring The Pickwick Papers as a research source.

However the depth in which material is covered remains throughout the book significantly limited. Whilst the basics of each issue are presented, these are rarely gone beyond. This may seem an obvious and somewhat unfair criticism to make of a volume of this kind. However my concern is that this encourages a tendency to view the approaches presented in oversimplified terms that damages the understanding of them and their application, and may prejudice students at an early stage of their thinking about such ideas.

To take one example of this, in the chapter on developments in social theory, 'post- modernism' and 'post-structuralism' (pp. 34 - 6) are reduced in such a way that can be seen to fundamentally damage the complexity of them. Furthermore, they are described with an implicit hostility. A supposed tie between post-modernism, Nietzsche and Nazism (p. 35) is alluded to, that fails to sufficiently explore or support the seriousness of such a suggestion, and which seems out of place in a volume such as this.

Andrew Hill
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998