02 November 2009

On the reality of research practice

"Research Confidential" is an edited volume of papers by young researchers with the subtitle, "Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have", and hence ought to be on the reading-list for every Research Methods course. The text-books rarely engage with the hassles and practical hold-ups which often seem to take up more time in the course of a research project than the substantive material itself.

The institutions which insist on approval by two separate ethics committees for a student simply to pilot the phrasing of questionnaire items on a few colleagues. The important interviewee who goes on holiday and can't be reached within the time-scale of the project. Even the critical book which has gone missing from the library. The choice of the wrong significance test. The misunderstood instructions on a questionnaire rubric. Chasing up non-responses to the extent of creating active refusals to respond. Not realising the recorder batteries have run down, or how much vibration the microphone has picked up from the vacuum cleaner in the room next door. Nonsense results because you trusted SPSS to deliver the goods without ever checking what it was actually doing. As well, of course, as being stumped by the definitive study in the area published just as you get round to the first draft of your own.

I'm not sure whether these and many more are covered, but they are the reality, and unless Research Methods courses engage with them, they portray a false picture of the researcher's experience. Indeed, the sheer existence of such a book, acknowledging the hidden cock-ups, is an important recognition that practice is always messier than theory, and that you shouldn't believe anyone who maintains otherwise.