Monday, March 03, 2008

Reading :: Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition

Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition
by H. Russell Bernard

Last year, I was casting around for supplemental readings on interviews and field notes for my grad-level qualitative research class, and stumbled across this thick book. I copied a couple of chapters for my class, which were great, and went back to my regular reading.

Now that I'm preparing once again for this QR class, I'm reading several relevant books. And I decided to go back to this one, reading the entire thing this time. Most of that reading was accomplished on the plane on the way to the WRAB conference and sitting in the Santa Barbara airport on the way back. And it counted as pleasure reading, because Bernard does a great job making anthropological research methods engaging and relevant.

As the title indicates, Bernard addresses both quantitative and qualitative methods. And he does so in a way that makes both accessible. But he does much more than that.

Bernard starts by discussing the foundations of social research: issues and strands of epistemology, paradigms, and history are given good treatment early in the book. Basic concepts such as variables, measurement, validity, reliability, cause and effect, and theory are handled clearly in Chapter 2, and with enough examples from Bernard's research and across the field that neophyte researchers can see how doable research is. Next, he discusses the literature search -- again, clearly enough that this crucial step can be well performed, but casually enough that neophytes can see it as surmountable.

Things get really interesting starting in Chapter 5, when Bernard explains experimental design -- something that can be tricky for qualitative-minded readers to catch, but that seems eminently surmountable here. Chapters 6-8 go on to discuss sampling for various flavors of quantitative and qualitative research. In Chapters 9-15, Bernard turns to data collection techniques such as interviewing, participant observation, and field notes; his discussion of interviewing alone takes three chapters to cover the variations of this crucial technique, and is simultaneously the clearest and most comprehensive discussion of this technique that I've seen.

The remaining chapters (16-21) cover qualitative and quantitative analysis. Honestly, I skipped through the quantitative analysis chapters, but the qualitative analysis chapters provide a solid overview of analytical techniques -- not as comprehensive as Miles and Huberman, of course, but still well done.

Throughout, Bernard's deep experience shows. He has stories, anecdotes, and citations to his own work and to others, and he often exposes the uncertainties and happenstance that tend to be hidden in finalized research reports.

The book is a solid introduction to anthropological techniques, then, and by extension to many of the bedrock techniques used in rhetoric and writing, professional writing, sociology, human factors, and user-centered design. I really like it, and I've ordered a desk copy of the fourth edition for consideration in my QR class this fall. But the book isn't perfect. Its biggest flaw, frankly, is that it's sort of talky. Bernard's deep experience gets in the way here, leading him to tell more stories than necessary and leading him away from summaries. In consequence, the book is about twice as long as it could have been, and it's a daunting read for that reason. In a QR class, I would probably have my students skip some chapters and skim others. The book is also very much an anthropology book, so those of us who are researching -- or training others to research -- subcultures within our own national culture are going to find some of the advice irrelevant or even unsettling (for instance, Bernard stresses getting all necessary shots before going to one's research site).

Nevertheless, it's an excellent read and I intend to refer to it often as I develop new research designs.

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