Book Review: Research Methods for Community Change

I recently reviewed Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach by Randy Stoecker for SAGE Methodspace. Although we haven’t posted book reviews on this blog before, I thought that the author’s candid discussion of the messiness of research might be interesting to some of you.

If you have read my other posts about research methods and doing fieldwork, you’ll already know that my expectations for fieldwork and what I actually experienced were rather different. Challenging as it was at the time, in retrospect I’m thankful that things turned out as they did. Once I started to fully appreciate the messiness of research, I stopped trying to cut-and-paste standard research methods – which were wholly inappropriate – and started to look for methods that were more conducive to the type of research I really wanted to do.

Taking this path isn’t easy, and there are plenty of people who will tell you you’re doing it ‘wrong’. I’m also coming to realise that there are several of us out here. And with that in mind, Stoecker’s book offers some good points of reflection for determining whether you might want to embrace research in all of its messiness too.

Stoecker, R. (2013). Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach. Second Edition. London: SAGE. 

As the author points out in the Preface to this book, “community engagement” has become very fashionable of late. Private sector companies, universities and international NGOs alike have jumped on this particular bandwagon. But to what effect? And, perhaps more importantly, what is the “community engagement” experience like for communities themselves?

I am going to take a chance now, and hope that the other person reviewing this book for Methodspace will discuss the particular research model that Stoecker advocates.  The agenda presented here is an important one. Regardless of research context or topic, a strong case can be made for offering something substantive to people who agree to participate in academic research rather than simply extracting ‘data’ from them.

However, what struck me most about this book was the author’s extraordinary candor in discussing the messiness of social science research. Research methods courses and textbooks alike provide (often highly prescriptive) accounts of how to conduct surveys, interviews and focus groups. Deliberately or not, they create expectations that the sterile, clinical conditions enjoyed by our counterparts in the hard sciences will prevail in the field as well. In my experience at least, this is very rarely true.

So, it came as a very welcome surprise to learn that Stoecker does not subscribe to what he calls the “cookbook model of research”. Indeed, the distinction that he makes at the end of Chapter 1 between data collection techniques and models of research sets the tone for the remainder of the book. In other words, the chapters that follow read less like an instruction manual (or traditional methods book) and more like a guide to reflexive practice.

I particularly appreciate the “Loose Gravel” sections that appear toward the end of each chapter. In these sections, Stoecker pointedly revisits the research-is-messy theme by drawing attention to sticking points likely to crop up in particular situations. Moreover, these issues are often presented as questions for the reader to consider in the context of his/her own research, rather than pre-determined answers. ‘Loose gravel’ issues range from researcher bias and community identification to preferred solutions and analysis paralysis. Stoecker warns of the dangers researchers face at different junctures and bluntly discusses where research can go badly wrong. Many – if not most – of these ‘loose gravel’ issues are highly relevant to social science research generally, regardless of whether it overtly supports community change or not.

This book is not for everyone. While Stoecker discusses his project-based approach in considerable detail, the nuts and bolts of implementing this type of research are left largely up to you. Novice researchers, particularly those comfortable with the rigid requirements of traditional academic research, may find the book’s lack of answers frustrating. For experienced (and audacious!) researchers, however, it is definitely worth a read.

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