Kristin Luker provides many interesting ideas and insights throughout the first three chapters of her book. For me, some of the most interesting material focused on 2 areas:
(1) the changing nature of what is considered “mastery” in the social sciences
(2) The explosion in the number of interdisciplinary questions as a result of the increasing size of the information universe
The New “Mastery” in the Social Sciences: Luker mentions that many of the research methods being taught today are based on the notion of “information scarcity” dating from 1970s or earlier, whereas the new reality is that of information glut (Luker, 2010, p. 9). Luker elaborates on this point: “[W]hereas one once showed what a cultivated person one was by mastering one of the high arts in depth…such displays now have to do with the mastery of genres across boundaries.” (Luker, 2010, p. 14) Earlier in the chapter, Luker wrote: “[K]nowledge today comes not from mastering esoteric facts or techniques, but in making connections across boundaries-going wide rather than deep.” (Luker, 2010, p. 13) It would appear that the tools associated with the information age (i.e. computers and digital information storage systems) have made creative and critical thinking more valuable to the social sciences than ever before. At the same time, those same technologies also have made the fact-filled expert appear less like an “intelligent” person and more like a great “memorizer.” The definition of “smart” in the social sciences appears to be changing, but it is not clear from the first three chapters how that change has affected research methods. The demand for interdisciplinary research is encouraging more creative, lateral thinking among researchers, but how has that altered their research methods (i.e. the tools that they use in the field, such as surveys)?
The Increasing Number of Interdisciplinary Questions: Luker mentions that during her time as a graduate student in the early 1970s, “I lived in a world in which information was scarce…The ‘fields’ in all the social sciences were pretty well defined, and the few-but very few-interdisciplinary questions that then existed were mostly seen as crossing the boundaries of perhaps two or at most three fields.” (Luker, 2010, p. 11) One of the main themes of her book appears to be that not only have interdisciplinary questions within the social sciences increased substantially since then, but that the interdisciplinary question is the current modus operandi. However, I am left wondering how social scientists ensure that they have sufficient understanding of concepts outside their field of original expertise (i.e. the field in which they received their graduate degree). In Chapter 1, Luker mentions that she will be discussing the “pitfalls” of “mixing an insight from economics with one from history,” and mentions that those pitfalls will be discussed later in the book (Luker, 2010, p. 13). However, Luker does not cover this material in the first three chapters of the book. Chapter 2 provides a thorough overview of the strengths and weaknesses of both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Chapter 3 examines the assumptions underlying the research methods of the canonical social sciences. I look forward to learning how salsa-dancing social scientists ensure that they have “covered all the bases” in terms of their understanding of the different fields that they are attempting to combine in a research project.
I hope to have these questions answered as the course progresses forward.
Luker, K. (2010). Salsa Dancing into the social sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.