RPP 17 1 Book Reviews

Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 17 (1) 1999

Book Reviews

Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical and Business Communication

Turk, C. and Kirkman, J, 1989, 2nd Ed, London: E & FN Spoon, £12.99, hard/soft back, 277pp. This book is essentially a manual on how to communicate effectively in writing. It gives detailed advice, for example:

  • when planning a piece of writing compose a target statement for yourself “outlining your objectives, audience, constraints and possible procedures” tell your readers the most important information first
  • use personal pronouns to avoid impersonal constructions.

My target statement for this review is “To help readers of Research, Policy and Planning decide if they will find Effective Writing useful”.The key principle is to make reading easy for your audience. We can get a good idea of how to do this by thinking about what features of writing make it difficult for us to read. Turk and Kirkman help us in this task with abundant examples of good and bad practice covering topics such as layout, style, introductions, summaries, tables and charts, minutes, memos and letters, writing instructions and using word processors.The authors identify tortured prose as a particular problem in science and technology because of the Latinate conventions Victorian scientists adopted. They contrast that style with an example of clear writing from Isaac Newton’s Optiks published in 1704. Undoubtedly some of these bad habits have leaked into social research writing and the world of large institutions such as local authorities. The plain language movement can be seen as a move back to the earlier simplicity of good technical writing. However, a problem for social researchers is that Effective Writing is specifically aimed at the scientific and technological communities and the examples are unremittingly from those worlds. Thus for instance we read about “adrenergic-cholinergic antagonism” and “use of expanded shales, clays and slates in structural lightweight concrete”. Whilst the points Turk and Kirkman make are always clear, the cumulative effect of this subject matter and vocabulary can be wearing.For those of us for whom clarity in writing is a constant struggle this is the sort of book we need to have on hand to consult from time to time. 1 found the style section useful as it identified and explained one of my (former) weaknesses – nominalisation. This is the habit of turning verbs into nouns and is associated with both the passive voice and the redundant use of general purpose verbs such as “carry out” and “undertake”. So, for example, “A survey of clients was carried out to.” is best replaced by “We surveyed clients to..” The authors base much of their advice about. vocabulary, word and sentence length and other aspects of style on research by themselves and others.Effective Writing was initially written in 1982, before word processors were widespread in the workplace, so this second edition has a welcome additional chapter on “Writing with a Computer”. While giving the advantages of using word processors it sensibly concludes that they do not remove the need for attention to the basic techniques of writing. There is, however, no discussion about the merits of various fonts and the best size of print to use to aid readability. Advice on these physical aspects of writing would have been useful. A separate section on tables and charts cites one of the merits of a table with horizontal but no vertical lines as being able to produce it on a typewriter “without taking the paper out and ruling it separately”. Our lives are far easier now with the Tables function on most word processors. Nonetheless the advice about the relative merits of open, semi-open and closed designs for tables is practical and perhaps especially needed given the vast range of formats that are just a mouse-click away. The authors also warn about the dangers of cutting and pasting without re-reading for sense.

This is a useful book that could benefit many social researchers. It would be particularly helpful for those who have only recently started to write outside the education system. It is also an invaluable source of advice on particular aspects of making a piece of writing easier for your audience to read.

Peter Keeble

London Borough of Barnet

Synthesizing Research: A Guide for Literature Reviews

Cooper, H M, 1998, 3rd Ed, London.. Sage Publications, £12.99, paperback, 201 pp.

‘Synthesizing Research’ is an introductory methods text on how to find, evaluate, and integrate existing studies into a unified report. It is aimed at social, behavioural, and medical scientists with a background in. basic research methods and statistics.The book aims to teach the reader how to integrate research according to scientific principles and rules. Having provided researchers with a practical approach for doing systematic literature reviews in two previous editions, this third edition has been thoroughly updated and revised to incorporate ways to make syntheses more resistant to criticism. The intended result is a research synthesis that can be replicated by others and can focus discussion on specific and testable areas of disagreement when conflict does exist.The author presents a five-stage process. The stages are: formulation of the problem to be reviewed; data collection; data evaluation – an assessment of the quality of previous studies; analysis and interpretation and presentation of results. Four examples, representing a broad spectrum of social science research, are used to illustrate the practical aspects of conducting rigorous research summaries. Although diverse, the topics are instructive and easy to follow without a large amount of background in the separate research areas.The critical premise underlying the methods described is that ‘the validity of conclusions based on research integrations cannot be taken for granted; validity must be evaluated against scientific standards.’ (p.2) The potential threats to validity associated with each stage of the research synthesis process are therefore examined in great detail. Cooper argues that each stage has a parallel in primary research and synthesists must meet the same rigorous methodological standards.Cooper claims that subjectivity in the analysis of research literature leads to scepticism about the conclusions of many syntheses. To address the problem, he incorporates quantitative methods into the process and has a chapter on statistical methods to synthesists in their work. This includes techniques for combining significance levels of independent findings and for combining effect sizes across findings.The author intends to convince the reader of the feasibility and desirability for social scientists to take a scientific approach to research syntheses. Such procedures are, for me, inevitable if social scientists wish to become more resistant to criticism and 1 think those writing research reports will find the book a useful guide for doing more effective – and efficient – literature reviews.

Alison Toogood

Independent Researcher

Methods of Life Course Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches

Giele, J and Elder, G., (Eds), 1998, London: Sage Publications, £17.99, paperback, 344pp.

This collection of papers is divided into sections on the history of this life course research; the practicalities of this sociological method and the most appropriate analytical perspectives when studying individuals, groups or societies as a whole. Life course research explains and draws conclusions about groups and individuals from an analysis of the key events and phases in their lives. It relies on obtaining information about people over time, often through longitudinal or panel studies. Giele and Elder identify three important elements of the life course mode of inquiry: life course (“the sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time”), generation (the embodiment of age norms in a particular age group depending on historical period) and age (physical, mental and perceptual changes that occur as people get older). These studies do not just gather people’s life histories, they put them into a wider context and examine the interaction between individuals, groups and society at large.An example of a life course study finding is that ‘women who graduated [from Wellesley College] in the 1930s married sooner and were less likely to become launched into careers than were women of either earlier of later cohorts’. Such knowledge can have important political and administrative implications. It is also an antidote to the ‘fallacy of cohort-centrism’, defined here as ‘erroneously assuming that members of all cohorts will grow older in the same fashion as members of our own cohort’.Although the contributors to the book are professional sociologists many of us are familiar with the approach. Some local authorities, for example, have sought to improve services by tracking what happens to adolescents once they leave local authority care or by looking at the factors which contribute to an older person’s decision to enter a residential home. Another example is the television series that has, since the fifties, updated us every seven years on the lives of its participants. We are getting a picture through this of patterns in the lives of a generation born after the war and of how these may depend on social and economic background.Several of the papers in this book draw an important distinction between retrospective and prospective life course research. The former picks a group of respondents and asks them about their past experiences and the latter picks a group and tracks them into the future. Scott and Alwin describe the pretty obvious respective merits of these approaches. One is comparatively cheap and yields quick results but at the expense of reliability. The other is more expensive, requires a long wait but is likely to yield more reliable data and is more flexible in that researchers can build new issues into the study as they become apparent.In one of the most interesting papers Dempster-McClain and Moen describe a variation that involved updating an earlier one-off study by tracking down the original participants. They conclude that, depending on the type of study and given enough time and resources, it is possible to achieve a virtual 100% success rate even after many.years. Of course things are different across the Atlantic and researchers there can call upon EQUIFAX, an organisation with 942 offices, one of whose main services is to find missing respondents. But there are useful tips in this article and it evokes “a sense of adventure, a desire to follow every lead..”Methods of Life Course Research is about methodology so the actual research findings, although fascinating, are mentioned only in passing. Whilst largely about American studies this will be an invaluable handbook for anyone wanting to find out about this way of working.

Peter Keeble

London Borough of Barnet

Comparative Social Research: Supplement 2, Normative Social ActionSciulli, D. (Ed), 1996, London: JAI Press, £49.95, hardback, 240 pp.

This book contains selected papers from the 31st Congress of the International Institute of Sociology on the ways in which individuals and groups act in relation to normative constraints as opposed to purely rational calculation around self interests. It is a generally rewarding collection of essays on interpretive and theoretical themes that touch a number of cultural and historical sites. It is organised in five parts.

Three chapters look at popular sentiment and community memory around key historical events and examine how groups compete for control over the collective memory in order to assert their own position in contemporary culture. Beckenbach’s chapter on German re-unification and the re-emergence of xenophobia with its Nazi trappings, offers a valuable insight into aspects of German collective memory and attitudes towards ,outsiders’. While marshalling important sociological insights into the significance of cultural memory the authors do not shirk from criticising their own methodological weaknesses, in that traditional empirical methods do not easily, if at all, capture or mark the boundaries of collective image and vision. However, the importance of such enquiry cannot be underestimated in that community memory holds within it the capacity to both integrate and marginalise others.Part Two provides a useful contrast from different cultural and organisational domains, again with an emphasis on the influence of the normative in social structure. Of particular interest is Stehr’s chapter on the way families in advanced societies can be stratified not only by wealth but by social competencies vis a vis the exploitation of financial opportunities, avoiding risks to health and capacity to voice challenge to state or corporate expertise. Such capacities define the ‘successful’ family especially when they pass on this cultural capital to their offspring. Weait’s chapter on compliance and authority within organisations offers some illumination into the uncertain role and relevance of regulators within large systems and how their influence waxes and wanes depending upon environmental pressures for adaptation and survival.Part three continues with an examination of norms in relation to intellectual production, group membership and discipline boundary. It includes chapters on graduate socialisation into comparative disciplinary ‘worlds’, the exchange of ideas in early sociology and a particularly interesting chapter by Goldman on the emergence and significance of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre within French intellectual discourse.Part Four offers comparative research into contemporary social problems around group labelling and perceptions and chapters address environmental damage, race and aids, and ethnic conflict. Perhaps the most compelling is the examination of group norms and typifications by St Jean into aids and immigration in the US, wliich demonstrates how an official view can evolve and sustain itself despite the fact that more informed calculations of risk suggest the implausibility of such official views.The book concludes with two chapters on the family. The first is a fascinating historical overview of household structure, life course and family cycle and how this has reacted to and in turn influenced social change. The second offers a useful analysis of US working class families and their normative ideals around family selfhelp and solidarity, which to function effectively assumes a minimum material base. The erosion of this via welfare reforms (ie cuts) in state and federal government support undermines a search for ‘social honour’, that is, family stability and respectability, and as we all know, norms cannot guarantee civil society when thresholds of physical security become breached or threatened.This is a useful collection of substantive research and theory but with relatively little emphasis upon methods. it is certainly a helpful resource for any student of culture, the group and collective sentiment. Its broad sociological and topical scope is a strength and weakness and its appeal will perhaps lie more with a readership allied to a traditional sociology of knowledge. Those looking for greater policy and practice insights that might conceivably arise from such research into norms and action as well as those wedded to a more radical project around social transformation will need to search elsewhere. This is a text about the normative character of group and institutional life, it is scholarly, relevant, a useful comparative source for that unfinished dissertation, but with no overt message for policy and research practice more generally.

Andrew Pithouse

Cardiff University

Methodological Issues in Comparative Social Science, Volume 16: Comparative Social Research Brochmann, G., Engelstad, F., Kalleberg, R., Leira, A. and Mjoset, L. (Eds), 1997, London.. JAI Press, £49.95, hardback, 288 pp.

This text, the most recent of 16 volumes published by the US journal, Comparative Social Researchfocuses on a continuing methodological dispute between case.and variable oriented approaches. The contributors engage in a spirited debate which goes to the very heart of sociological research – is the sociological project that of a Popperian nomothetic natural science with generalisation as its essential characteristic? If so, is the case based and descriptive realm of the qualitative, which claims no generalising capacity, more a category of historical, rather than social, science?

At the core of the debate lies the issue of theory in social science. In the first paper, Goldthorpe sets the scene by arguing that the aim of comparative social science theory must be the expression of generalisations that are not sensitive to time and context. There follows a lengthy disputation by a series of high priests of method o traverse, wearily in some cases, familiar ground on whether sociological research can uncover valid causal mechanisms irrespective of whether these are sought via big multivariate studies or small sample case studies. Some purists expound theory testing as the prime goal of social research and dismiss case based methods as engaged in representation rather than the pursuit of predictive models: the qualitative merely ‘re-conceptualises’ the world rather than creates a theory with explanatory power. Other, more ecumenical travellers, such as Ragin (pp.27-41), offer the view that case analysis is valuable in concept formation and the generation of ideas that can help theory development; likewise, case studies provide useful insight into possible multiple causation through in-depth knowledge of a substantive area (Reuschemeyer and Stephens, pp.66-70). Defenders of the case study observe that large scale variable oriented research is necessarily pre-fixed by sampling decisions and cannot reformulate or re-define its programme to examine emergent or unanticipated causal patterns.

Such claims and counter claims give vent to deeply held positions none of which seem likely to capitulate to opposing arguments, not least those that assert that we have yet to devise the methods that can truly demonstrate the presence and robustness of causal mechanisms: Here, the large scale comparative study of nations is criticised f& its ‘misplaced concreteness’ in attributing autonomy and boundary to societies in a global world where flows of capital, labour, technology and transactional structures have long undermined notion of state defined empirical enquiry. What is needed is a new comparative project that admits not only intentional action, but social networks, human improvisation, unanticipated consequences, indirect effects, the environment, indeed all possible accounts of the events at hand appear worthy of exploration in the view of some (see Tilley, pp.48-50). Such ambitious aims for sociology are challenged in a final paper by Goldthorpe (pp.128-130) who urges a more focused and modest ambition for sociological theory which entails the analysis of a limited field of variables that will allow probabilistic explanation of factors at work across a selected number of cases. He urges the transcendence and explanation of historical events by the separate development and testing of theory. Anything else is ultimately historical story-telling, valuable no doubt, but essentially a different intellectual enterprise from the author’s view of sociology’s essential mission.

For those enthused by, or inured to, epistemological skirmishing this is a meaty text with relatively little quarter given to scholarly opponents or to the reader unversed in this ancient combat. Happily, for those who are more interested in actual applications of large scale comparative designs there are some useful examples in relation to cross-national analysis (and the problems therein) provided in four well crafted papers that complete the volume. These comprise an analysis of European governments in the inter war years and their capacity to resist fascism; a comparative analysis of labour market mechanisms and their significance for economic well-being; educational attainment in Europe and the US and, lastly, the life course towards old age and independence in relation to deregulated market societies and more interventionist ones.

If you imagined that the ‘big debate’ on theory had long moved to the realm of discourse and narrative this text stands as evidence of a continuing preoccupation in mainstream sociology with that most compelling of questions – can theory inform a set of explanations derived from valid causal mechanisms that will allow reliable insight into our complex social affairs? In tackling this the text is probably a ‘must’ for complacent big N manipulators and likely to be essential reading for case study loyalists troubled by nagging doubts. For the dissertation survivor it is a useful source for that standard caveat in the methods chapter on ‘the limits of my methodology’. As for the rest, it is for none but the brave.

Andrew Pithouse

Cardiff University

Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research: Challenges and Rewards

Padgett D.K, 1998, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, £16.99, paperback, 192 pp.

I was struck by an irony on reading this book. Qualitative methodology – loosely understood – is almost certainly the methodology of choice for the majority of social workers dipping their toes into research practice for the first time. Yet qualitative social work research monographs are thin on the ground, and qualitative methodology books written by social work academics can be counted on the fingers of one hand.The author writes mainly for first time qualitative researchers and uses a text book style. She offers a ,practical, “how tJ approach’ while clearly not wishing to be prescriptive. She describes her book as ‘more of a conversation than a cookbook’ (p.xii). In ten concise chapters she discusses the process of doing qualitative research and reflects on what is meant by qualitative research, the researcher as instrument, ethical issues, the tension between rigour and relevance, and the virtues of combining qualitative and quantitative methods.Her stance is clear. She rejects the ‘arid detachment of the postmodern movement’ (p.7) for its political neutrality. She favours neither activist nor advocacy positions in social work research. A recurring theme is her concern about the ‘erosion of rigour that comes with the loss of critical distance’ (p. 11). She defends the traditional values of critical thinking, a sceptical stance, the exposure of the ironies of claim and reality, and the researcher as demystifier. She is a methodological pragmatist whilst sustaining a realist commitment to rigour and objectivity.Her readiness to stand by unfashionable commitments is perhaps the most valuable aspect of this book. 1 warmed to her desire to attack myths ‘both critical and laudatory’ (p. 17). She does not cite Howard Becker’s critique of sentimentality in social research, but she would clearly assent. She is also willing to criticise the currently popular practice of arguing an analogy between research practice and social work practice. While acknowledging some similarities between the two, her main thrust is that there are ‘crucial differences … ignored at the researcher’s peril’ (p.13). Her conclusion is uncompromising. ‘Qualitative research is incompatible with the practice mandate when the practitioner is also the researcher. I can see no satisfactory way to combine the two roles … It is better to design qualitative studies of practice than to attempt qualitative studies in practice’ (pp.37, 143).Her emphases are a valuable corrective. And yet more needs to be said. While there is an internal consistency to her position, there are glaring gaps in her treatment which are difficult to accept in an introductory text. For example, whatever her own position on advocacy research, any introductory text on qualitative social work research must give consideration to developments in participatory research and arguments for emancipatory research practice. Yet these are entirely absent from this book. In addition, her pragmatism leaves her far too sanguine regarding the potential for multi-method research that combines qualitative and quantitative approaches. While she probably reflects the ‘establishment’ view of American social work, her ‘best Of both worlds’ approach neglects the inevitable – and enriching – dialectic resulting from the appreciation that paradigm positions continue to shape research strategy.

Padgett has written a book that can safely be used on introductory methods courses for social workers – but not without the counterweight of more rounded discussions of the issues facing social work researchers who seek to be both relevant and rigorous.

Dr lan Shaw

Cardiff University

Social Services: Working Under Pressure

Balloch, S., McLean, J and Fisher, M (Eds), 1999, Bristol: Policy Press, £16.99, paperback, 236pp.

This is an important research text from the National Institute of Social Work, in which the editors ensure that chapter formats are consistent and clear in their display of key findings from workforce studies carried out in the UK (apart from Wales) between 1992-1996. The book offers a valuable baseline against which to measure the occupational development of social work and social care over the coming years. Areas covered include job satisfaction, training, stress, violence, mobility, gender, ethnicity and race, job responsibilities and many other variables that configure the daily experience of staff working in social services departments. The findings are built on a firm empirical platform comprising a stratified sample of around 2000 respondents in. management, field social work, residential care and home care, each interviewed, through a panel survey, twice over 15 months to two years. The sample drawn from 11 departments across Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, does not claim to be representative of the 190+ SSD’s in the UK but the analysis gathers impressive weight by careful presentation, by contextualisation within supporting research and by frequent comparative reference to health and other relevant occupations.

It is not possible to do justice in this short review to the several contributors and the high standards of their collective ten chapters in this very readable book. The study gets going in Chapter Two with Toby Andrew’s creditable review of the routes into welfare work and the characteristics of mainly mature entrants arriving with a range of previous employment. Of particular interest here was the relatively higher rate of younger staff turnover In residential care and the likely consequences of this for recruitment costs and user dissatisfaction. The chapter makes ‘Important points about child and adult dependants that staff care for outside of work and the need for family friendly employment policies. The evident congruence around tasks and responsibilities across the panel and the positive implications of this for standard setting, training and qualification setting are convincingly detailed in Chapter Three by Susan Balloch and John McLean. They note the increasing toil of paperwork and overtime on what they find to be a stable, committed, resilient but pressured workforce. Such issues find further elaboration by John McLean in Chapter Four on satisfaction, stress, and control in the work place. Here, we obtain strong evidence of staff satisfied with working methods and the variety and challenge of work but significantly dissatisfied with promotion chances, time to do the job properly, deadlines and the frequent disruption of change. Stress featured prominently in management, field social work and residential care where long hours, workplace politics, change and uncertainty affected a majority at some time over the study period, males more than females and black staff more than white.

Jan Pahl’s illuminating Chapter Five on violence reveals that three quarters of those surveyed had been shouted at or insulted by users or their relatives. More disturbingly, high rates of physical violence in residential care (four times more likely than in management or field social work) were discovered, particularly in Scotland where over half reported attacks within the previous year. Overall, men were more likely to be attacked than women and although black and Asian staff did not appear to experience violence more than white staff where this did happen a racial focus was evident. Discrimination in its various guises features in Chapter Six with Barbara Davey’s revealing exposition that across the panel the majority of recent incidents of discrimination were about gender bias in the workplace, claimed by significantly more men than women. Amongst black and Asian staff, 10% complained about discrimination in getting or keeping a job and 27% claimed racism from colleagues or managers in the form of insults or racist language. White perpetrators were disproportionately women after adjusting for male/female distribution in the sample. In respect of women generally, Chapter Seven by Jay Ginn and Mike Fisher explores with care the disproportionate representation of men in senior positions. Traditional explanations for this are discussed and found wanting in a regression analysis that suggests the critical predictor of women achieving seniority is full-time service. Gender inequality in this context is cast as indirect and related to the domestic responsibilities shouldered by women which leads to their shorter average full time experience and average lower education and qualifications. The argument for more responsive employment practices in light of women’s experiences ‘s strongly and persuasively argued.Chapter Eight is especially topical in light of current reviews of social work training. Here, Susan Balloch analyses the marked disparity in qualified staff across areas and within groups. Of continuing concern is the majority of home care and residential employees who are unqualified and for whom neither education or relevant training appears to be readily available. Importantly however it is observed that in-service non-qualifying training compares well with other occupations. This lack of qualifications for the majority of social care staff surfaces in Chapter Nine by Linda Dolan and John McLean who examine job change. Here we find that home care and residential staff are much less likely to move for career progression than managers and field social workers, who were more likely to move for better jobs or because stress or dissatisfaction prompted a change. Overall, only a minority of the panel wished to leave or had actually left their job. There appeared to be a high level of commitment to social services work and where moves did occur many were within the same organisation or elsewhere in the wider social care field.

This snapshot of selected findings gives the barest hint of what is a landmark study in the history and structure of statutory welfare’s human resource. While we find the familiar and confirming there are innumerable fresh discoveries about the collective experience of staff in the 1990s, together with a summary of key human resource policy issues in the final chapter that will be of strong interest to a wide institutional and individual readership. As social service departments enter the next century, accompanied by recently announced ‘league tables’ and the increasing ratchet of external regulation and audit, it is to be hoped that our policy makers may derive from the evidence assembled in this study the need for more affirming and rewarding ways to retain and release the energies of a committed, versatile and resilient workforce.

Andrew Pithouse

Cardiff University