What Is a Social Inquiry?

Social inquiry is the act of ‘inquiring’ into human society. The method of ‘inquiring’ varies. The factors which are taken in to account of which method to adopt to ‘inquire’ can be influenced by a number of factors. A certain type of inquiry could be used due to the inquirer’s past experiences of a certain method, his/hers preferences, cost, availability of sources are to name but a few. I intend to examine Social Research Methods written by Alan Bryman and Research Methods written by Patrick McNeill.
Both refer to the various methods available to one in order to inquire about human society. The two books are similar in that they both put forward ideas and theories related to the selected methods they want to discuss.
McNeill’s book is broken down into six short chapters, which has an informative introductory chapter into why we have research methods in sociology. At the beginning he provides the reader with a brief history of social research which is helpful as it explains why the ‘inquiry’ stage is very important. The 1960’s began to saw changes in sociology which was to “encourage survey style of social research and move towards participant observation.”

There is a clear, logical progression through the chapters. They begin at a basic level and then slowly build upon points. Therefore, it caters for anyone new to the subject who can follow it through with little difficulty. For example, in chapter one, it is rudimentary for McNeill’s to ask in the first sentence, “What is Sociology?” This illustrates that McNeill has written the book, trying to accommodate for individuals without the presumption that the reader has prior knowledge of the subject of sociology.
The book is laid out so that it has a number of sub-headings which breaks down the text making it easier to read and allow time for the reader to ‘digest’ the information. This is a good quality because it makes sure the reader is feeling they are understanding what is being written and also feeling comfortable and confident enough to carry on. It is liked that McNeill has made reading the book interactive by giving the reader a number of ‘activities’ to complete at the end of each chapter. This is a very good idea as it consolidates what the reader has read so far.
McNeill states that there are three important concepts that are used throughout the book: reliability, validity and representativeness. This allows the reader to remain focused as McNeill has pointed out what is essential.
The book discusses a range of processes including Ethnography also known as Participant Observation in chapter four. The use of examples such Taylor (1984) and his infamous a covert study of the London Underworld makes what the author say believable. Too much fiction can make readers reject the book.
The book is organised so that any difficult or complex topics/issues featured are provided with relevant “Furthering reading”. For example, “The next best thing is to read about a community study. I recommend Stacey’s books (1960 and 1975), and those by Grans (1962 and 1967). The latter have more humour.” This allows the reader to further their knowledge. This is what differentiates this book from other books. This type of book is helpful to students in circumstances where they need to do research.
McNeill uses diagrams to explain key points which are vital to aid the readers understanding. For example, Fig 7, explains the relationship between choice of topic and the research method.
McNeill goes into further detail by breaking down the stages of research. This is helpful to anybody i.e. students studying sociology. ‘A’ Level sociology students even to members if the public who want to learn about social research.
McNeill uses a number of references to support the various pros and cons for each research method. For example, McNeill questions “How can sociologists use official statistics?” McNeill states that “…sociologists take these statistics at their face value and use them as ready-made source of data for their research. They are cheap, readily available, cover a long time-p, and are comprehensive in their coverage of social life. They maybe the only source of data on the topic in question.” He also provides a balanced and objective argument – “However, there are many problems. Since the statistics are collected for administrative rather than sociological purposes definitions and classifications made are often unsuitable”. This gives the reader a better appreciation for each method. McNeill helps the reader assess which method of inquiry is good.
The aim of Brymans book is to bridge the gap between theory and methods in social research. He states that it is the “introduction to the study and implementation of social research methods.”
When writing the book, Bryman had two readers in mind –
(i) Undergraduates. The research methods, the use of British examples whenever possible and appropriate.
(ii)-Undergraduates who are wanting to conduct research projects.
Bryman wanted to write a book that would be “helping students make informal decisions about doing their research”. He would explore the uses and limitations in order to help with students any hesitations.
We can appraise Bryman’s structure of the book because it is clear, accessible style with an in-depth understanding of the subject. This is clearly demonstrated through the initial layout of the book as it has two parts; Part one: Issues and Part Two: Methods used in social research. The book is divided into four parts. The first part has two chapters introducing the natural science approach as an appropriate framework for the study of society. This would comprise social surveys, case studies and experimental research. These first two chapters would apply the building blocks for the rest of the book
The second part has ten chapters based on quantitative research methods including sampling, design of questionnaire, structured observations. The third part has eight chapters with a strong overview of the nature of qualitative research, including ethnography/participant observation and the analysis of this method. Finally, the fourth part has five chapters which take the reader beyond quantitative and qualitative.
The physical characteristics of the book are one of the concerns some readers have when deciding on choosing a book to read. McNeill’s book is of ‘reasonable’ size as it does not look overwhelming which would put off potential readers. In comparison, Bryman’s book is literally twice as large and as heavy and because it is considerably larger, this may come across as a daunting read. I believe it is not designed for a reader who is new to the subject, although it doesn’t expect students to have any prior knowledge of the subject.
The written text is clear, using a standard type and font size twelve, making it easier on the eye. The language is claimed to be “well written, comprehensive and authoritative”.
Contrary to this view, the language has been described to be severely convoluted.
Throughout the book, it is laid out so that on each page, the text is broken into two columns. This gives the allusion that there is less to read. In contrast, Brymans book is very colourful using red, blue and green which grab the potential reader’s attention. This is intelligently done as it makes the book look aesthetically pleasing and attractive. Though, it is believed the book is that multifaceted it requires ‘colour’ to attract a reader to it!
A weakness that proves to be a problem throughout the book is that Bryman reiterates and labours his points further than needed. For example, trying to explain Interpretivism in the main text. However, Bryman then reviews this in his ‘summary key points’ in “Box 1.9 What is Interpretivism”. This is too much for students because it is time consuming. In contrast, McNeill’s book is more succinct.
The book has a number of ‘Special Features’, including Boxes, a Readers Guide which is a route map of what is to follow. Key Points mentioning any significant points to make a note of. Similarly, McNeill’s book, there are revision questions which test the readers understanding and finally a glossary which has the definitions of central terms. The abbreviations page was very supportive because it enabled the reader to familiarise themselves with the subject matter. At the beginning of each chapter there is a contents of page, thus making it very easy to refer to. The books adhere to all the commonalities of a ‘normal’ book.
Bryman strongly advocates the use of example; “examples, examples, examples”. Though it can be argued that this goes onto much more detail than is required. Hence, the reader begins to lose focus on the content. Bryman clearly states the advantages and disadvantages of research methods. For example, “Open Questions”, the advantages mean “respondents can answer in their own terms. They are not forced to answer in the same terms as those foisted on them by the closed answers”. However, the drawbacks mean “they are time consuming for interviewers to administer. Interviewees are likely to talk for longer than is usually the case with a comparable closed question”
Brymans book would be useful for someone who is seriously interested in obtaining a full and detailed analysis of methods. This is excellent if you like illustrative books. Bryman is targeting the type of reader which enjoys detail.
A positive point about the book is that it has questions at the end of chapters allowing the reader to engage in empirical work. I don’t like Brymans book because it is focused for 2nd year and 3rd year students and even for them it is sometimes hard to grasp what the author is trying to say. In contrast, McNeill’s book is very helpful because you are able to find something out, quite quickly and also understand it with little difficulty.
I believe that both books are very helpful and do fill a gap in the literature. Overall, I found both books to be very helpful as they successfully enabled students to learn how to do social inquiry. They outline the advantages and disadvantages to various methods. Although this is a good point but sometimes this can overwhelm the reader. On the other hand, a reader should be well informed. Though, each book is tailored to the potential readers as discussed earlier.

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