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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Authors' Mistakes #5 - Academic textbook on research methods

I have been reading Practical Research Methods for Media and Cultural Studies: Making People Count, by Máire Messenger Davies & Nick Mosdell, Edinburgh University Press 2006, ISBN 978-0-7486-2185-9.

On page 62, to explain methods for random sampling, the authors describe how to make a sample of 50 students from a population of 150.

When they explain the stratified method for random sampling, they say: your population list may be divided into two lists of seventy-five males and seventy-five females and you sample each list randomly until you have twenty-five of each.

The statement that out of a total population of 150 students the genders are equally split is in general not correct. You might think that it doesn’t really matter whether the two lists don’t have exactly the same length, and that the method remains valid. But this is not the case, because if there are, say, 90 males and 60 females, a sample built with 25 males and 25 females would obviously not represent the population.

Now, rather than studying a sample that represents the whole population, you might like to investigate differences between male and female students, regardless of how many of each gender are present in the population. Then, it would make sense to do the split and pick equal numbers of students from the two lists.

But how they put it, they are definitely wrong. And they keep doing it. Here is how the text continues: You then subdivide the two lists into age groups to ensure you have sufficient numbers of, say under- and over-thirties (assuming that age is relevant to your research question). As you can see, if you are going to subdivide your sample into particular demographic subgroups, your subgroups will become smaller and smaller the more categories you include, until the sample size for these subgroups cannot be seen as reliably representative.

So far so good, but now comes the blunder: For instance twenty-five females, split equally into under- and over- thirties will give you only twelve or thirteen people in each group.

How can you split equally 25 students on the basis of age (if you define the discriminating age in advance)? It’s plainly wrong.

And they go deeper and deeper in their nonsense: If you want to look at four age categories, you will get only six or so people in each age and gender subgroup.

You might think that with a couple of “on average” added in the crucial places, everything would make sense. But that is not the case, because their explanation would still imply that the age distribution of students is flat, which is not.

It’s sad to see such mistakes in academic textbooks...

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