Book Review: Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction, edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_social_science_research_in_NZThis is a very useful multi-authored collection that covers many aspects of social science research, but mostly from an academic perspective. The editors are both sociologists, and they appear to have already written a number of other books on the subject. However, Davidson has worked in the public sector and there is also an emphasis on applied social science research and policy analysis.

The focus is both very specific on methods for qualitative and quantitative analysis of empirical data, but also includes examples of research from academics and writers who are not, strictly speaking, social scientists. Indeed, apart from the study of Sociology there remains a small question of what exactly is ‘social science’. Students from across the humanities disciplines will gain from reading the book, but only some post-graduates will actually get to create their own empirical research projects.

Another way of putting the problem is that, if social science is defined broadly, it is rather obvious that most graduates will not get jobs as social scientists. The only positions as researchers appear to be in some government departments, unless one includes the type of public surveys that one of the authors is involved in for the private sector. Early in the introductory chapter the editors include a position statement from a former departmental official (now deceased) about what is required to be a policy analyst. In this she effectively states that social science methodology is only for academics.

The particular point about policy analysis was that it mixed up qualitative and quantitative methodology as required, depending on the policy problems to be solved, but also that the methodological distinction has no particular meaning. Yet, the authors maintain that there is a distinction which aligns with significant logics, based on inductive or deductive approaches. The deductive logic is aligned with quantitative analysis; and inductive logic involved the qualitative analysis of empirical material. The idea seems to be that the latter allows for theories to be tested once a qualitative assessment has been made; whereas deductive research begins from a strict form of research design in which a statistically significant sample of evidence is deemed to be important.

It is rather difficult to maintain this distinction between inductive and deductive research, especially given that so few academics really get their students to create formal empirical research projects. Most postgraduate research involves the student beginning with a literature review, based on international theories, and then adding some empirical material from published sources to buttress a preferred theoretical position. In other words, most academic research is deductive in logic, but based on pre-determined theoretical positions that academic supervisors expect students to follow.

But despite my misgivings about the content of the early chapters, there are still some significant approaches that are examined, and things to consider when any new empirical research is being considered. One of the most interesting is the chapter on research ethics by Lindsay McDonald, which refers to the study of the Canterbury earthquakes. Any participants in a research project, and particularly those who have experienced trauma, need to be clearly consenting to be in the project and especially if they can be identified in any way. Of course, there are many examples of health related research that has not had participants who have even been informed, let alone consented to being involved. Another aspect of research ethics can be seen via Jarrod Gilbert’s ethnographic fieldwork on gangs. It’s rather hard to see how to get ethical approval to participate in certain gang activities, just to maintain their trust: especially when it involves brawling with Russian sailors.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction
Edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408848

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