Scott, D. & Usher, R. (2011) Researching Education

Scott, D. & Usher, R. (2011) Researching Education: Data Methods and Theory in Educational Inquiry, 2nd edition. London: Continuum.

I read this book on the recommendation of my not-yet-PhD-supervisor, and found it both thought-provoking and frustrating.  The authors take a critical view of research paradigms in general, but specifically in education and social sciences. It was a tough book to get through, as the authors approach their subject from an abstract, philosophical angle.  I am used to reading academic texts, but when reading this book I frequently had to stop and look things up to make sure that I really understood the concepts being explored. I found some chapters of the book to be much more lucid and helpful than others–perhaps each author wrote some of the chapters?

Rather than saying that I learned a lot from this book, I would say that the book made me think about many things from a different perspective, and that it helped me (un)clarify the approach I’m taking to developing a research question and design for my not-yet-PhD.  It’s definitely not a book to read in search of answers–the authors raise many questions and critique every idea they present–but I found it worth my while. I am not generally drawn to philosophy or to postmodernism, but I do like asking questions and thinking critically.

I pulled out this long quote as I think it gives a good idea of the authors’ approach in this book, and of the reasons why I found the book thought-provoking and useful.

“What is it, then, that we silently think when it comes to research? Obviously, this is a question that does not readily lend itself to a single answer.  One possible answer is to do with the tendency to assume that doing research is simply a matter of following the right procedures or methods.  This assumption, however, needs to be questioned because it misleadingly portrays research as mechanistic and algorithmic.  If we uncritically accept this portrayal, we forget that research is social practice and that it is therefore both embedded and embodied. Thus, one thing we can do in terms of becoming more aware of what we silently think is to recognize that research is not a technology but a practice, that it is not individualistic but social, and that there are no universal methods to be applied invariantly.”  (p. 10)

The authors present some theoretical stances on knowledge, research, and criticism; they examine and deconstruct existing paradigms; and they problematize pretty much every thing they mention. I appreciated and learned from this approach, but was left unsatisfied at the end. The volume never really gets around to re-constructing or supporting any approach; after so much de-constructing it almost felt as though one should just throw in the towel and abandon any attempt at research.   Research into education and social sciences (as well as hard sciences) is necessary, and I am not going to throw in the towel and give up–but I would have appreciated it if the authors’ had used more optimistic or pragmatist frame, rather than merely tearing everything down.  They do have a chapter on transgressive research, but I found this to be one of the most difficult and problematic chapters of the book.

Part 1: Knowledge and philosophy

The authors state that one of the principal goals of their work is to bring philosophical considerations to the forefront of discussions of research (p. 9-10), and they are specifically interested in the epistemology and ontology underlying research paradigms and methods.

I found this first section of the book to be the hardest reading, in that it presented a number of concepts and ideas that I had heard or engaged slightly with, but had never explored in depth. I definitely recommend them to anyone else who has not thought a lot about epistemology and ontology and philosophy in research.  I will need to read them again in a few months or years in order to make sure I have really understood and retained the information in them.  I recently read a chapter in another book that touched on some of the same subjects in the context of interpreting studies, and having read this book first helped me to better grasp the other article.

The chapters in this section focus on philosophical issues in research, critical approaches to research, and forms of reasoning.

Part 2: Strategies and Methods

This section has chapters on specific types of research methodologies, and explores the assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses of each one.  The examples and discussion refer to studies in education (this is the only part of the book that really seems to be about research in education rather than research in the social sciences in general; one shortcoming of the book for me was how little it actually discussed doing research in educational settings). The authors are British, so many of the examples refer to the British school system.

Chapter 7, on qualitative research design, case study, and theory building was one of the most useful for me in thinking about my own research design.  Pages 95-99 have a useful discussion of the (false?) opposition between quantity and quality in research data.  It provides a lot of food for thought, and I have been taking it into consideration as I try to put together a research plan for my own work.  The following chapters, on observation and on interviews, were also helpful to me.  The observation chapter gives guidance on creating instruments for use in observation and discusses how the instrument itself can affect the observation.

I am naturally disinclined to take up a sole theoretical stance and identify it as THE foundation of my thinking; I think (referring back to the chapter from Pocchacker on interpreting research that I posted about earlier this week) that I am at heart a pragmatist: I’m willing to make use of whatever works, and I can usually find some things I agree with and some things I disagree with in most models or theories. As one of the main points of this book is that the researcher must examine and make transparent her own biases and stances (rather than seeking to obviate or hide them), I think it will be important for me to clearly identify the theories and ideas that are influencing my research design and to explore these issues at all stages of my work.

Part 3: Themes and Issues

This section discusses ethics, evaluation and research (ie, the difference between research and evaluation of a program), criteria for evaluating research, and transgressive research.  This was the most disappointing section of the book for me, and the writing in this section is uneven in places.  It could have used a good editing for clarity and coherence.

The chapter on criteria for evaluating research is very philosophical and theoretical and did not (for me) provide concrete guidance; of course, the authors probably intended to do this–the problem could be re-stated as one of me wanting things from the authors that they were philosophically opposed to providing (or believe don’t exist). The chapter does present a range of philosophical considerations underlying the evaluation of research and possible criteria or frameworks that the authors consider more or less useful. It’s possible that if I came back to this chapter in a few years I would appreciate it differently; I have certainly had such experiences in the past, and will thus revisit it some time in the future.

The last chapter is on transgressive research.  I have to admit that as I read through the middle and last sections I expected this final chapter to be the one that tied together the authors’ arguments and criticisms and to provide a conclusion or stance from which they thought educational research could be productively carried out.  However, this was not the case. I suspect that perhaps post-modernism implies that no conclusion or new paradigm can be established?  I don’t necessarily require a neat/tidy conclusion–after all, as the whole book points out, theory and research and scientific enquiry are not neat and tidy–but I would appreciate some kind of conclusion or tying together of the various strands of critique introduced in the book.