People look to NCRM to provide answers to all sorts of questions about research methods. These questions may be quite complex, but they do not have to be. Among the more popular of resources from NCRM are materials designed to provide introductions to particular research methods (or methodological issues) to an audience who are assumed to be interested but not necessarily to have any prior knowledge. It was clear in the early days of NCRM that there would be a demand for us to supply concise and accessible overviews of a range of frequently-used research methods and of current issues in research methodology.
One way of meeting this demand has been to run presentations at the ESRC Research Methods Festivals dedicated to answering questions that range from ‘what is action research?’ (Danny Burns), ‘what is biosocial research?’ (Michaela Benzeval) and ‘what is CAQDAS?’ (Ann Lewins and Chris Silver) to ‘what is survey weighting?’ (Chris Skinner), ‘what are visual methods?’ (John Prosser and Andrew Clark) and ‘what is webmetrics?’ (Mike Thelwall). There are now dozens of these presentations captured on video that are available on the NCRM website1 and six more presentations will be made at the 2018 Research Methods Festival in July2. It is an indication of the large number of methods to be found in the modern social scientist’s toolbox that the topics on the programme have not yet been covered. The Tuesday afternoon presentations will be on data linkage (Peter Smith), citizens’ juries (Andrew Thompson) and mixed methods research (Donna Mertens), while on the Wednesday afternoon the presentation topics are worldmapper (Danny Dorling), methodological pluralism (Graham Crow) and data quality (Olga Maslovskaya). These twenty-minute presentations cannot hope to be exhaustive of their topic, of course, but the format does allow for enough information about a method’s key features and examples of its application to be provided and thereby to allow someone unfamiliar with it to decide whether this is something that they would benefit from pursuing further.
For those people that do decide to extend their knowledge of a method or methodological issue, NCRM is also associated with a series of books, published by Bloomsbury Academic. Books in the What is? research methods series3 are written by experts in their fields with a brief to write about their subject for a broad audience. They are designed to allow readers to acquire a greater depth of knowledge of the method than can be conveyed in a short video, but at 35,000 words their authors remain mindful of the value of conciseness. 2018 has seen two new titles in the series published on Community Studies (by Graham Crow) and Quantitative Longitudinal Data Analysis (by Vernon Gayle and Paul Lambert). These follow contributions to the series on Diary Method (Ruth Bartlett and Christine Milligan, 2015), Discourse Analysis (Stephanie Taylor, 2013), Inclusive Research (Melanie Nind, 2014), Narrative Analysis (Corinne Squire et al., 2014), Online Research (Tristram Hooley et al., 2012), Qualitative Interviewing (Ros Edwards and Janet Holland, 2013), Qualitative Research (Martyn Hammersley, 2012), Qualitative Research Ethics (Rose Wiles, 2012) and Social Network Analysis (John Scott, 2012). Two more titles, on Qualitative Longitudinal Research (Bren Neale) and Rhythmanalysis (Dawn Lyon) are due out later in 2018, and further titles are at various stages of preparation. Anyone interested in writing for the series is welcome to contact me as series editor at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The ‘What is?’ format of presentations and books allows researchers who are new to a method to gain an insight into its key features and critical debates about its use, but we have found that they also provide a useful update on recent developments for people who have had some prior acquaintance with it at earlier stages in their careers. Methodological innovation is the order of the day, and in some fields this is proceeding so quickly that it feels very hard to keep up with advances even in one’s area of specialism, let alone more general developments. Over the years I have found that it is by no means only novice researchers who seek answers to the ‘what is?’ question. It can also be colleagues with a wealth of experience in one area whose collaboration on a new mixed methods project requires them to broaden their methodological repertoire, or research methods trainers who frequently find themselves asked by students what are the latest developments with which they should be keeping up. A further group of users of the ‘what is?’ resources are people whose old-fashioned curiosity leads them to engage with an approach that they know to be a long way from their comfort zone, driven by the recognition that serendipitous connections have played a part in many a scientific advance (as Robert Merton famously showed). For all of these reasons, and perhaps others besides, it can pay to ask the simple ‘what is?’ question.
Submitted by Graham Crow, NCRM, University of Edinburgh on Friday, 6th April 2018