This is a review of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners by Helen Kara first published by Policy Press in 2012. I have a copy of the first edition so I have reviewed that but there is a second edition available.
This book is written by an independent researcher and writer, Helen Kara, who has written a number of books about research. This book fills a space because it is very much aimed at practitioners who are employed in ‘non-research’ roles, like, well, social workers but by no means only that, who are thinking of starting research and/or evaluation projects in a work setting. Through writing the book, Kara interviewed 20 different professionals who contribute. The writing is interspersed with key ‘advice’ quotations which stand out from the text. I have to say my favourite one was
You don’t have to read the unreadablep35
Research is useful, doing research is an important professional skill and using research evidence is necessary to stay current in work environments. However, not all research is good research and critical analysis needs to accompany the reading/writing/doing of research, just as it does in practice environments.
The place this books inhibits is partly about a guide to research for non-researchers and partly taking people who are confident and experienced practitioners and putting them in a ‘research’ space.
I found the most useful part of the book was the tone. Often, and I have read a lot of ‘how to research’ and ‘beginning research projects’ books which are entirely aimed at first year undergraduates or at least, early stage postgraduates.
While I have an MA in social work, and for that, I needed to complete a dissertation, it was entirely using secondary data and as part of a qualifying course, research methods and methodology was not emphasised beyond the immediate need and the push to make things as easy as we could for ourselves in getting through the degree programme.
Kara is able to speak to people like me. I am not new to my subject (in this case, social work) but having qualified in 2000, I have not been used to the language of academia. There is a particularly useful glossary at the back of the book which gives very short, one or two sentence definitions for research terms which will be second nature to those within academia but can increase the distance for those on the outside. Often, in many sectors of work, knowing the language and the terms is such a key part of understanding what is being said and how to say things. Finding the common language is key and that’s where I’ve found a lot of this book incredibly useful.
This book, as the title says, takes the busy practitioner who has a job alongside research, through the process of defining what project it is that will be undertaken, looking for research questions and better defining the tasks and best way of gathering data to answer the questions, gathering the data, including use of interviews, focus groups and quantitative data sources. Then glances through data analysis and dissemination.
These are all the same key points that would be made in many research texts for those who are new to research. What sets this book apart is that it is not aimed at academics or students. There is a useful pragmatism and an acknowledgement that perfect isn’t possible in a messy world with competing priorities. I had never read, for example, the distinction between a document review and a literature review or thought about why designing a research project on the basis of what is most feasible is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card but an entirely legitimate approach.
Kara touches on all the key parts of research, including research ethics and involving people who use services you might be working in including a breezy nod to the importance of being a practitioner in the development of emancipatory research and action research as well as an explanation of the difference between them.
Use in practice
The whole book is very much built about being able to use its contents in practice but for me, the key take-aways, apart from the additional knowledge of research and the language it uses to sometimes create a veil of mystery around the work of researchers, has been a re-stating of the idea that research doesn’t sit in a box distinct from practice. It is a challenge to integrate research into practice until you realise what you are doing anyway is using a lot of research skills, particularly if you are involved in audits and evaluation work.
As practitioners we have interviewing skills, skills to manage groups, skills to discern quality of evidence provided. These are all research skills.
There are some handy practical tips as well, such as managing information, making notes and keep track of references which has been immediately useful. The book also addresses issues such as funding and allowing time (or not) for research alongside work, often full-time.
One of the areas which is probably a bit outside the scope of the book that I think I’d have liked to see more of, was less about the doing research which is very robustly covered and a bit more about using the research evidence in practice and tying research into practice contexts, particularly when there isn’t time or support to carry out full research projects. Some more examples of the small projects which have to run alongside work would be useful.
Saying that, I found this an incredibly useful resource and it is a clearly written text which occupies a gap in the market and as such I’d definitely recommend it.
This was a book which spoke to me because it catered to a professional, skilful audience who are just not in synch with the language of academia and some of the skills of research. Although one of the key takeaways that I found particularly helpful was the idea that often use the same skills that are needed to undertake research and evaluation, in a work environment but don’t always recognise them as such. We have conversations (interviews.. ), we write assessments (reports), we analyse information which is provided to us and determine the output based on evidence.
Being spoken to, as this book does, as a skilful and knowledgeable professional who just wants to know more about how to do research in a work environment which may not always be supportive, rather than as an 18 year old undergraduate who is at university for the first time, is a great relief.
I have read a number of Kara’s books, which no doubt I will return to at other times but if you fall into the category of ‘wanting to start research but not really sure of some of the things that everyone takes for granted’ this is a perfect place to start. Even in the third year of the studies, I found it a refreshing.
We need research in practice and we need to undertake research in practice. We need to understand the basis of evaluation work and need to speak the language of evaluation and research to thrive in a professional context and this book is a great start.
The book can be bought here (I’ve linked to the second edition on Amazon – this is not an affiliate link – although I may add some later, I will always state explicitly when I use affiliate links).