Wednesday, 23 January 2013

"Mastery" and Interdisciplinary Questions

   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.


  1. Goodness, that's an ambitious goal! The question at the end of your 2nd paragraph seems to suggest a link between subject matter/content (or disciplinary field?) and method. Super interesting! Especially in light of Knight's comments regarding the link between various ontologies, epistemologies, research objects, and method (p. 33).

  2. I feel like the dominant opinion in Luker's book as well as in our class discussions is that info-glut is a negative phenomenon. I think it's important to take this with a grain of salt. Of course, as researchers, we now need to be more ambitious in trying to cover as many bases as possible in our research, but we also live in an age where all of this information is available, and that is a good thing. Luker mentions that, "Within a fairly short period of time, I knew more about abortion than almost anyone except four or five other people on the planet..." (12) simply because there was not that much scholarly information available in 1968, when she was researching the topic. Now there is so much information flying around, that a research scholar could never keep up with all of it. While this means that no one person can be the be-all expert of one particular subject any longer, it also means that there is that much more information available to us. As research scholars, we need to be wary of our criticisms of info-glut, and concentrate on finding ways to navigate our way through relevant information rather than trying to learn everything there is to know about a particular topic.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. In response to Chaya: On p.33, Knight mentions that “the claims that researchers can most readily sustain are related to the epistemologies and ontologies on which their inquiries were base.” (Knight, 2002). Knight (2002) then discusses six implications that this reality has for small-scale research, including:

    "1. Different ontologies and epistemologies imply a preference for different methods.
    2. Different concerns-with the physical world, observing behavior, understanding mental states, ethics, aesthetics-imply a preference for different methods." (p. 33)

    These first two points appear to confirm the idea of a link between a particular subject matter/disciplinary field and the research methods that are considered the most appropriate to use when studying that particular field. Implications 3, 4, and 5 seem to further confirm this notion. However, the sixth implication suggests that the real world practice of small-scale research outside of the natural sciences is much more flexible, out of necessity:

    "6. Most researchers have mid-range, pragmatist views. Since they cannot operate, as natural scientists do, by saying that their claims are justified because they have followed approved methods, they are forced, as Searle said of the philosophers, ‘to fall back to even greater degrees of clarity, rigor and precision’ combined with ‘original, imaginative sensibility’ (Knight, 2002, p. 33)."

    This last statement raises the potential impact that professional peer pressure within a discipline can have on a researcher’s decision to select one research method over another. The fact that professional disciplinary methods orthodoxy can influence methodology decisions makes me wonder if the established norms in some fields are preventing the creation of innovative research by limiting the tools which its practitioners feel they can use in a research project and still remain a respected contributor to the discipline .

    Table 2.1 “Three tendencies in research thinking and practice” (Knight, 2002, p. 28-32) discusses the possibility that it is the research practitioners’ own viewpoints on the nature of the world (ontology) and nature of knowledge (epistemology) that makes them select one method over another. This Table, and the rest of Knight’s writing, firmly establishes the importance of self-reflection and metacognition in the research process.

    Thus far, I’ve discussed the perceived causes of the link between particular research methods/tools and specific disciplines. I am still left wondering if there are specific examples of research projects in which the researchers altered their research methods or otherwise broadened their methodological horizons in order to produce the type of interdisciplinary research that is now in demand in the social sciences. If anyone knows of such an example, please let me know. Thank you in advance.

    Knight, P.T. (2002). Small-scale research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.