It is therefore vital that the role of social research as a means of providing understanding of our society and its dilemmas is reiterated. The need for domestically-grown methodologically and ethically well-equipped UK researchers and evaluators is as high as ever. Well-designed and effectively carried out research can uncover and explore the underlying concerns of the changing UK society with its diverse populations and individuals, and can provide guidance on how to tackle these ethically, robustly and strategically.
This is exactly why the second edition of Helen Kara’s book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, is so important. Its title speaks for itself: the book is designed as a guide for overworked, underpaid and stressed practitioners and students directly or indirectly involved in research in academic, public and voluntary communities of practice. Not only is this book a well-written and clear methodological, ethical and time-management guide, it also triggers self-reflection, boosts confidence and transmits the author’s contagiously positive outlook to its readers. In addition, it provides tips on how to organise time effectively and to maintain a work-life balance: see, for example, Chapter Five on ‘Managing your Research and Evaluation Project’.
The structure of the book is clearly laid out in the table of contents, making it easy to navigate. The first two chapters pose a few big ‘Why’ and ‘What’ questions, and set the tone of the book as a reference guide, a roadmap and a conversational partner rather than a lecturer dictating a set of iron-clad rules to their students. The questions posed are: ‘why do research at all?’; ‘what is research?’; ‘what does it mean to be a researcher?’; and ‘what are the ‘‘traits’’ of a good researcher?’
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The latter question is in line with the Aristotelian ‘virtue’ logic inherent in any profession and based on ‘practical wisdom’ (see S. J. Banks, 2010): it is not only about ‘what I ought to do’ but also about ‘what I ought to be’ (Edwin DuBose et al, 1994). Kara lists some common qualities of researchers and evaluators, such as being ‘determined, intelligent, reflective, self-aware, organised, meticulous’. The list can go on, but it is a good start. A comprehensive glossary at the end of the book also provides a clear reference point to the reader who may want to revisit certain issues. Further reading subsections at the end of each chapter give a brief synopsis of each recommended book, which is another tremendous time-saving tool.
Chapter Ten deals with writing for research and evaluation projects. This can be a painful and time-consuming process, but need not be so with proper planning and useful ‘tips’ provided by the author. Table 10.2 synthesises the general structure of written research outputs, including academic projects and research or evaluation reports. It is a rare occasion that ‘grey literature’ and academic theses appear together in one place, and that the often exaggerated structural differences between them are ‘demystified’.
A welcome addition to the second edition is a brief discussion of ontology (how the world is known) and epistemology (how we can learn more about the world) in Chapter Three. Table 3.1 on page 48 supplies the reader with a logical visual guide to key methodologies, ontologies and epistemologies that often subconsciously influence the choice of methods for a particular project. It is well-laid out and easy to grasp. The presented progression from positivist to transformative methodologies is useful for self-reflection when formulating research questions and selecting appropriate methods to answer them, both for researchers and for research and evaluation commissioners.
Kara provides snappy descriptions of each method, and how and when each could be most effectively applied. Most of the contemporary research methods are presented: action research; evaluation; mixed methods; arts-based research; and digitally mediated research. In addition to online search engines, open assess journals and repositories, the author also discusses the use of social media in research and its caveats, potential biases as well as its ethical and methodological advantages and disadvantages.
The discussion here is thought-provoking: in the context of the revolutionary explosion of virtual communication, there has been a worrying tendency to substitute the concept of ‘social research’ with that of ‘social media research’. The role of social media in research is specifically addressed in Chapter Seven, which is devoted to secondary data. Logically and theoretically, this is the right place for it. Social media is a useful and often invaluable research tool and data source. However, it is still a secondary source of data for answering specific questions posed by live researchers rather than a distinct research methodology. Nevertheless, a separate subsection entitled ‘research based on social media’ could have been a welcome addition to the earlier section on ‘digitally mediated research’ provided in Chapter Three. This could have attracted the immediate attention of the reader seeking clarification regarding the role of social media in contemporary social research.
The as-yet unresolved issue of the best way of collecting informed consent for research using social media is also well illustrated by Kara through a vivid example of a published experiment on exposure to emotional content of Facebook users in 2014. Whereas the research followed Facebook data-use policy, users felt that they had not provided consent for their data to be used in the particular research exercise. The editor of the journal where the article about the research had been published had to print an ‘expression of concern’ about the ethical standing of the research. This discussion follows on nicely from the previously addressed issues of ‘virtue’ ethics principles, such as reflectivity, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness and empathy provided as early as Chapter One.
Generally, despite it being ‘offline’, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners stimulates interactive learning and professional development. It talks to the reader directly using clear, non-threatening and witty language. Exercises provided at the end of each chapter offer questions that the reader can answer through self-reflection and through revisiting previous sections: there are no ‘solutions’ provided at the back of the book. The exercises thus nurture reflexivity and extend the thought process beyond the cover. In addition to providing research and methodology guidance, the book is a great tool for continuous learning and could be recommended to researchers and evaluation practitioners at any stage of their career.