Book Reviews (14.2)

Published 15/06/2016
Type Review
Author(s) Anne Robinson, Jake Phillips
Corresponding Authors

Paul Ransome (2013) Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. pp.200. £23.99 (pbk). ISBN: 0230202217

Paul Ransome’s book represents a critical and throughout effort to stimulate the reader to reflect about how Ethics, Theory, and Values interact and interplay with the wider socio, historical, and political context. This book is very well structured and exhaustive, and with the very much needed intellectual honesty to make the debate both constructive and inspiring. This book would be beneficial for researchers at any stage of their career and should be a compulsory reading for every academic research method course.

Social research is inevitably connected or influenced by social or personal values and, as researchers, a certain dose of critical thinking and reflexivity is essential. There is nothing wrong to have a starting ‘value position’ or to be entangled in this web of social values; rather, Ransome’s well-supported thesis is that independent and ‘aseptic’ forms of social research are a mirage. The best social researchers can do is to recognise the values and ideals they hold and use them as a point of strength, rather than a limitation or weakness of their own research methodology.

The book is well-structured and, although each chapter could be read on its own, it is best appreciated in its whole: the main thesis of the book is accurately build up from chapter one till the end, bringing in examples from the research world (e.g. Chapter 2 on the Social Research and Professional Codes of Ethics), providing the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings to engage in this critical debate (Chapters 1, 3,4, 5). Chapter 6 enters into the specifics of Action Research and its relevance in the wider debate of the book. Chapter 7 instead looks at how research can be used and affect the social policy. The final chapter is a great conclusion to the whole book, and builds upon the previous chapters to support the reader in the final considerations about the role of the researcher in the wider socio-historical and political panorama.

In particular, the first chapter sets the basis for the whole book by articulating the concept of value and the social theories which underlie them. Ransome describes social research and the underlying values as the effort to reconcile the values drawn from the strong society thesis and the strong individual thesis. The main point of the chapter is that the researchers are the middle persons between society and academia and, because of that, they ought to develop a sense of intellectual (and moral) honesty.

This thesis permeates the book and the following chapters further develop and extend on it. Ransome does a great job in chapter 2 by exposing how the research ethics is actually influenced by and should take in consideration potent social factors like authority, the relationship between participants, the experience of the researcher, and the need to take responsibility for one’s own decisions. Social researchers do not act in a social and ethical vacuum rather, they should consider the welfare and wellbeing of the persons they research as well as the research/professional community which they belong to. This debate is done with a truly admirable intellectual honesty which transpires in the book. For example, Ransome states: “However robust the codes of professional and ethical practice are, social researchers continually need to consider their own positions as social researcher” and that “ultimately it is the personal conscience of the social researcher that moderates ethical research activity” (p.53 italics in the original).

The following chapters discuss the specific cases of evaluation research, and the role of evaluation research in the wider ethical and value debate. Once again, Ransome does the right thing and critically examines the differences in the two approaches, and the advantages and disadvantages of both. His conclusion is that they both have their reasons to be and, in the setting up of the research, one should have clear in mind what their differences are, so that expectations are not disappointed. In fact, while social research responds to specific questions which are framed in a specific socio-historical debate, research evaluations live in a separate and limited time frame. The honesty in setting up the research helps managing expectations and understanding what can be gathered from specific forms of research.

In conclusion, the book of the late Paul Ransome is a great book. He has been virtuously capable of take on the challenge of embarking in the enterprise of discussing ontological, epistemological and methodological issues in a very much needed discussion. It is inevitable to appreciate the highly readability of the book as well as the masterful writing craft of the author in leading the reader through a set of concepts and reasoning otherwise difficult to grasp. It is strongly recommended that every social researcher should read this book at least once: to mature the type of conscience which is most needed to conduct honest and high quality social research.

Fabio Tartarini, Doctoral Researcher, Institute of Criminology, Cambridge

Gillian Rose (2016) London: Sage. pp. 432. £32.99 (pbk) ISBN 978-1-4739-4890-7
Dawn Manney (2016) Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 152. £29.99 (pbk) ISBN 978-1-138-02432-8

Visual methods are not greatly used in the study of crime, although arguably they have a great deal to offer criminological researchers, particularly those interested in drawing out new and fresh accounts of individual experiences. Gillian Rose’s classic text, now in its fourth edition, is, of course, a broad introductory sweep across the field, while Dawn Mannay focuses rather more on participatory approaches and the creation of images and personal narratives. The two complement each other in interesting ways and certainly together, along with the work of Claudia Mitchell (2011), should hugely advance the case for the use of visual methods in the social sciences and humanities.

What is immediately apparent from both texts is that ‘visual research’ refers to a wide range of approaches and techniques from simple drawing to reviews of mass images available on line. The focus of interest may vary as well, and Rose takes the reader through research examples involving the reaction to visual materials, analysis of found images, and dominant discourses (in this case with particular reference to museums, art galleries and their visitors). Indeed she sets out a critical visual methodology across 4 sites relating to production, the image itself (for example, its intended meaning), its circulation and what she terms ‘audiencing’. The model is further refined by overlaying three different aspects or modalities – technological, compositional and social, by which she means ‘the range of economic, social and political relations, institutions and practices that surround an image and through which it is seen and used’ (Rose, 2016: 26).

This model provides a framework for Rose’s journey through the diversity of visual methods and analyses. She even suggests that researchers might read the book selectively, concentrating on particular sites or modalities according to their interests and intentions in terms of conducting visual research. While this may be a pragmatic choice for some, it would be a shame to miss the breadth of discussion and the range of research studies presented throughout the book, which are fascinating in themselves, irrespective of their usefulness in developing future research. That said, Rose does clearly intend her work to be of practical use and it is a clear and effective introduction across the field, outlining the relevance of visual materials within cultural studies, humanities and social sciences. I must also note that the book has great visual appeal, not just in the images included, but in the use of text panels and simple colour to draw the reader’s attention to key debates and issues. Given that it is an introductory text, indicators of further reading are particularly helpful and there is a comprehensive companion website specific to this edition (which I confess I have not explored). Updated content means that there is greater emphasis on digital imagery and new technologies available for analysing large data sets, so it now speaks more explicitly to the contemporary visual and cultural context.

My main interest in turning to Rose’s book was to inform a research study that incorporates, but is not primarily based on visual methods. I suspect that is not too different from many potential readers, as Rose anticipates, and in that regard Mannay’s work is more immediately helpful. First, she is embedded in research that is about creating and co-creating images or narratives (the one being importantly the means of getting to the other). And then, her research adopts broadly ethnographic approaches and this enables her to reflect upon the impact of knowledge and relationships over a period of time on producing and interpreting images and other data. She looks beyond the purely visual and identifies writing, clay modelling and other creative techniques, as well as standard interviews, as possible tools for the ethnographer in his or her close-up explorations of the research setting. In fact, her ‘reflections of fieldwork have emphasised the need to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to data production in favour of a more flexible methodology which centralises the importance of choice for participants’ (Mannay, 2016: 104).

It is not that visual methods promise a cure for all the ills of more conventional research methods for either of these authors. They both highlight the challenges of analysis and interpretation, even the problems of selecting from what may be a large volume of data. And both engage with what Mannay (2016: 5) describes as the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ of doing research on the ground. That in fact is the strength in these books, because the authors impart their own enthusiasm for the visual, but at the same time illustrate with examples of empirical studies what engagement in these methods means in reality. Visual and creative methods may be exciting yet they still demand rigour and, in many instances, require a high level of researcher reflexivity, not least in terms of the power relations that play out in research relationships.

Visual research has to contend with many of the same ethical dilemmas as other qualitative methodologies, but raises additional questions about consent, confidentiality and anonymity, particularly but not exclusively related to dissemination. Rose covers a wider spectrum of ethical concerns, including copyright and legal issues, while Mannay is able to discuss in more depth the feelings of participants in her studies and the implications of their involvement long-term. Again, these feel like complementary debates that in both cases draw on the authors’ research experience.

These are very different books, each distinct in approach and presentation, but each of great use for the prospective visual researcher. I could not choose one above the other as they are perhaps aimed at researchers in different disciplines and, in Rose’s case, at a broader student readership. I hope that criminological researchers do start to explore the possibilities of the visual and extend their repertoire of methods, not for the sake of the particular techniques, but for the knowledge they might reveal. These two books will be invaluable resource material for those wishing to take that journey.

Anne Robinson, Principal Lecturer, Dept. of Law & Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University

Mitchell, C. (2011) Doing Visual Research. London: Sage.

Edited by Karen Lumsden and Aaron Winter (2014) Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. £70.00 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-137-37940-5

Lumsden and Winter offer an ambitious, refreshing and insightful collection of essays that span a myriad of research settings, disciplinary boundaries and continents. Through ‘warts and all’ (p. 77) accounts we sit alongside researchers in their close encounters with the powerless and the powerful; from ‘boy (and girl) racers’, football hooligans and those seeking asylum, to international policymakers and gatekeepers holding the metaphorical (and in some cases literal) keys to gaining access to informants on whose participation research depends. We travel from night clubs in Scotland to prisons in Italy, India, America and Argentina, to post-conflict communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the beaches of Brazil, Aboriginal societies and even into the online gambling world of ‘advantage players’.

The focus on reflexivity provides a valuable lens through which to examine criminological research methods and practice. The aim of the book is to show that reflexive praxis is not an end in of itself but that it can be put to work. The authors provide a window into the often hidden world of how qualitative research is actually done, in doing so it makes a stand against the resurgence of ‘positivist and normative criminology and crime science’ (p. 2). The authors’ deep, reflexive engagement with the research process brings to light the social character of knowledge production and how their research is more rigorous because of it.

As a doctoral researcher currently conducting fieldwork I found a number of chapters particularly helpful, and it is these which will be the focus of this review. The book is structured into six broad sections. In Part One O’Leary (chapter 2) provides a step-by-step account of how she negotiated entry to the field and the sensibilities required to maintain relationships both during research and in disseminating research outputs. Davies and Peters (chapter 3) highlight the importance of gatekeepers in both the selection of participants and in the ‘management information’ that they are willing (or able) to provide. Reflecting on the preclusion of certain respondents or data raises important questions about ‘who has knowledge, who governs it, and who are those who control which individuals are allowed to generate it’ (p. 44). These chapters provide an excellent overview of how to begin research; and for me highlight the importance of thinking critically about the factors which have shaped the data collected and how I interpret it.

In the next section authors candidly problematize their classed and gendered subjectivities, the impact this has on how they present themselves to respondents, conduct research and how this affects research quality. Poulton (chapter 6) and Brooks (chapter 7) reflect on their performances of the self in their research, why they selected to exhibit or hide certain aspects of their identities. I will draw upon these chapters when reflecting on my research with women experiencing advanced marginality. Le Grand’s contribution (chapter 9) is particularly brave as it reflects on his ‘failure’ to perform the role expected, that of an unemotional, impartial researcher and also expands what can be considered data through reflecting upon difficult or ‘failed’ research encounters.

Part Three considers intersectionalities of race and ethnicity, Glisch-Sanchez (chapter 10) highlights how reflexive practice led to a critical moment which ensured the research was meaningful to respondents and reduced self-selection bias, in research on TLGBQ Latinas/os experiences of ‘hate crimes’. Bhatia (chapter 13) reflects on what enabled him to build ‘strong rapport and trust-based relationships with his participants, including his shared cultural identity as non-white without ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’, he also reflects on the emotional labour of conducting long-term ethnographic research in spaces of ‘bare-life’ and in particular explores the difficulties of straddling both academic and volunteer roles. The section concludes with a reminder that we ought to remain critical of how the research agenda is set, a wariness that research does not contribute to epistemic violence in the social constructions of marginalized populations. Wearing (chapter 15) argues for ‘a critical interpretive method’ in which researchers reflect on their positionality ‘as agents or translators’ within systems and practices of surveillance and control (p. 199).

Part Four is the shortest section but considers the important topic of risks, ethics and researcher safety. Chapter 16 considers these themes by putting the PhD supervisor-supervisee relationship under analysis, illuminating not only the importance of support, trust and transparency but provides a rarely disclosed account of the unexpected challenges and dilemmas researchers face day-to-day in the field.
In the penultimate section Ferreccio and Vianello (chapter 20) and Lumsden (chapter 21) bring issues of access and gatekeeper behaviour to the fore, these chapters provide much needed advice for researchers hoping to navigate powerful institutions or gain access to ‘hard to reach’ groups, both chapters challenge what we consider as data in research, reflecting on gatekeepers’ behaviour and the process of negotiating access highlight important findings in themselves.

In the final chapter Graham and White (chapter 24) show the importance of a nuanced approach within international criminological research when assessing policy and practice. They argue that spaces in which innovative and progressive practice takes place, warrant our attention even if they sit within a broader system that may sanction ‘inhumane conditions for the many, and their ineligibility to take part in what are still wonderful initiatives’ (p. 319).

In the current climate within UK academia, in which productivity in the form of ‘measurable and immediate research impact, visible enterprise activities, knowledge transfer’ (p. 9) is fetishized, this book is an important reminder of the benefit of being present as you conduct research. Authors critically reflect on their reading of the social world to produce high quality research. It shows the value of ‘slow scholarship’ and carving spaces of resistance to the hegemony of the productive, neoliberal university (Mountz et al., 2015).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book; my only critique would be that some chapters felt a little short. I would recommend it as an essential read both for junior researchers entering the field and experienced researchers looking to develop their reflexive gaze.

Larissa Povey, Doctoral Researcher, Sheffield Hallam University

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T. & Curran, W. (2015). ‘For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university’. ACME: an international E-journal for critical geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.