Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It, by Howard S. Becker. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. 232p. $35.00. ISBN 0-226-04123-9. LC 97-19618.
These are conceptual tricks that will aid you in keeping an eye on the forest while you examine the trees. Becker is an advocate of richly descriptive qualitative research, an approach currently favored by many librarians. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the wealth of data in such a study; librarians can lose sight of the whys, whats and wherefores of their research. Becker's tricks will aid the researcher in recognizing his own hidden assumptions, collecting the most illustrative data, permiting concepts to spring from the data, and exposing hidden logical flaws. These four tasks represent the four main sections of the book that carry the chapter headings: imagery, sampling, concepts and logic.
An examination of imagery is the first, and in many ways, the central theme of the book. Images drive research projects by suggesting convention research questions, identifying typical research subjects, and providing the researcher with an identity vis-a-vis the project and the subjects. An examination of imagery forces the researcher to recognize his latent assumptions. Becker suggests numerous tricks to help researchers orient themselves such as seeing society as an organism, viewing events as the results of processes and evaluating types of activities instead of types of people. Becker illustrates how objects can be viewed as congealed social agreements, that everything is in its current place for a reason and that the researcher can rewind time's tape backwards to explain the current configuration. These tricks will be valued by part-time researchers (such as librarians) whose tendency is to isolate research phenomena and thereby lose richness of description and explanatory power. This is the first substantive chapter of the book and the strongest, setting the basic values orientation for all that follows.
Sampling is the source for the rich data that Becker wishes to describe, but he critiques random sampling, which produces only the average case. He argues in favor of selecting highly unusual cases. He recognizes the danger of the "bad sample" problem that inhibits the ability to generalize to a larger population, but his interest is in discovering the deeper structure of sociological situations. In the chapter on sampling, Becker's relationship to standard social science becomes clear: his work is most valuable for theory development, not for theory testing and evaluation. Normally, the social scientist and librarian intent on qualitative research is interested in testing results against the null hypothesis of randomness, so as not to be fooled by random selection. Becker's work, on the other hand, is more useful for theory development, and thus is not based on random sampling and classical hypothesis testing.
Theory generation is illustrated by the chapters on concepts and logic. Becker stresses that concepts arise from the data collected, and not vice versa. He cautions that using preset categories leads not to empirical findings but only definitional artifacts. He stresses the uniqueness of each case, and that by revealing the deep structure of each case, argues that every subject can make a theoretical contribution. These arguments can have great utility for librarians, who for years have presented research studies of their libraries, and suffered the problem of limited generalizability. Becker's work presents a theoretical way around this problem by providing an intellectual framework for the qualitative research approach. This book will best appreciated by readers who already possess a strong background is standard social science and can therefore appreciate Becker's contribution as a critic of the research status quo.
Terrence A. Brooks
School of Library and Information Science
University of Washington