Numbers for Dummies
I am happy to teach them about research with people and audiences, but I can’t do numbers.
—Anonymous professor, p.4
With the above quote being the first words written, Máire Messenger Davies and Nick Mosdell make their premise clear from the outset of the utilitarian textbook Practical Research Methods for Media and Cultural Studies: Making People Count. Davies, a Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and Mosdell, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, are academics trained in using both quantitative and qualitative analysis to analyze society. Yet, they follow the popular line about the perceived divide between humanities and science. In response, they attempt to map for humanities students an accessible and practicable path to quantitative analysis.
Having taught both undergraduate and graduate students, Davies and Mosdell tailor Practical Research Methods to the “average” student’s needs. Understanding that research makes up the bread and butter of each humanities student’s work, they approach the subject with the argument that the organization of knowledge is quantifiable. They differentiate objective from subjective treatments of data, and argue that the research that follows should be “rigorous, systematic, replicable, valid, derived from clear research questions and properly operationalised”. Though such functional and numeric language sounds counterintuitive towards turning a humanities student’s beat around, Davies and Mosdell emphasize these qualities to make clear “the usefulness of science ... is its method”.
As a beginner’s text, Practical Research Methods focuses its attention on that basic staple of quantifiable research: the questionnaire. From selecting an appropriate research question (with special attention given to a student’s limited resources), to designing, testing, administering and evaluating the research, the book outlines the entire procedure. Though Davies and Mosdell emphasize strict execution and adherence to protocol, they do their best to make such a sexy idea accessible and engaging. By reflecting on a healthy dollop of in-class experiences, especially ones that relate to popular culture affairs, the examples (testing for bias against Northern Irish politicians in English newspapers; or children’s opinions on whether more children should be present in popular television programs are just a few of the cases used) are often appropriately helpful for comparative use. Yes, even for American students.
While Practical Research Methods is directed primarily at burgeoning researchers, the textbook is also useful for the novice media and cultural analyst (or, simply, any person who reflectively consumes popular culture). Chapter two, which deals with research question formulation and subsequently stresses the basic tenets of quantitative research, provides a lucid guide to what-makes-a-good-survey. Given the likelihood of exposure to this oft-used research tool, a literate person’s understanding of sound research practice could be useful. Especially as the presence of media has grown, and opportunities for consumer-business interaction have increased through online, retail, and telephone surveys, even a basic knowledge of how such research is structured can empower a consumer.
While Davies and Mosdell prove relatively successful in outlining a dry idea with spirit and wit, they fail to make a convincing argument for the utility of quantitative research. Pointing out its inability to be used in a conclusive manner—at most, as evidence of correlations or relationships—even the simplest survey becomes an immense amount of work with relatively little product. Which is unfortunate because, as they do argue in the beginning of the text, the methodology behind this research informs generally sound thinking by making one aware of consistency and clarity. It can be seen as the direct application of reason to the subjective arena of qualitative research—a useful tool especially when forming a convincing argument. However, Davies and Mosdell spend only a handful of paragraphs discussing the practical application of quantitative research findings, most of which amounts to a posterboard/PowerPoint presentation to one’s peers; practical for obtaining that passing mark, yes, but little else. Practical Research Methods succeeds in cracking the window ajar to an unspectacular practice, but falls shy of blowing the whole thing open.