Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Reading :: Tricks of the Trade

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It
By Howard S. Becker

Howard Becker, one of the more famous members of the Chicago School of Sociology, published this book in 1998. As the title suggests, it's full of the "tricks" of qualitative research that Becker learned the hard way—first by performing his own studies, later by teaching his students how to do the same. "These tricks," he explains, "... are ways of thinking about what we know or want to know that help us make sense of data and formulate new questions based on what we've found" (p.5).

Becker, that is, gives us ideas and answers that don't appear in standard qualitative research textbooks. And for good or ill, his book isn't written as a textbook either: it's written in a narrative, perhaps even rambling, style that is easy to enjoy but hard to skim. The great advantage to it is that we get a fully fleshed idea of how each "trick" works. So, rather than simply describing the "null hypothesis trick" (p.20), Becker sets up the problem of stereotyping and overgeneralization with several pages of description, then introduces the trick as a way to identify, doubt, and investigate those stereotypes and overgeneralizations.

Becker describes these tricks, not just from his own research, but from other sociologists as well (I was impressed by how he used Latour to make a couple of points). And because his style is the way it is, the reader almost feels as if she or he is having a conversation with Becker—not a lecture, but maybe a conversation over a beer after the lecture. It reminded me a bit of Bateson. If you're looking to pick up some tricks—whether you're an experienced researcher or a student—definitely pick up this book.

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