Book of the week: Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences

The methodologically bewildered find their groove, says Leslie Gofton

November 27, 2008

Only the weary explorer first lighting upon the mysterious shores of Easter Island has encountered more stone-faced indifference than the unfortunates compelled to teach Social Research Methods 101. The standard texts, with few exceptions, tend to struggle with the endemic problems and controversies in this area, while the various faiths contesting for the methodological souls of neophyte social scientists resemble nothing so much as evangelicals demanding total allegiance and absolute fidelity to the creeds they espouse.

How welcome, then, is a book full of good sense and good cheer. Like Howard Becker with his excellent texts on sociological writing and methods, Kristin Luker has managed to produce a charming and effective manual on how to get through the research process with most of one's enthusiasm still intact. This is a guidebook for the methodologically bewildered, with an attractive blend of homespun wisdom, illustrated from her own research career, as well as glimpses of herself, her family and her enthusiasms - of which the salsa dancing of the title seems to be one - threaded through a lucid and accessible discussion of the elements of research practice.

Although it will be a comforting and useful read for postgraduates, which is its intended market, it is already on my undergraduate recommended list. This is a refreshing and well-judged guide produced by an engaging writer in touch with a long career's lessons and the changing realities of researching today. For young researchers undertaking their first project or beginning a dissertation, it should prove an excellent guide.

The book sets out to rethink the existing conventions of research practice, but it mostly resists iconoclastic posturing. Although recognising the reasons for, and the context of, standard "serial" or "canonical" approaches to social research, the text nevertheless argues that this orthodoxy is out of touch with the realities of research now, and was in any case based, in most instances, on rather flimsy logical and ontological premises. The idea that we can proceed through the sequence of formulating a research problem, followed by hypotheses, subsequently tested by analysing data gathered in accordance with the rigorous criteria of randomness and representative sampling, is, Luker asserts, both unrealistic and a remote aspiration for the vast majority of researchers in the social sciences who toil outside lavishly funded and amply staffed research institutes. Even in the so-called golden age of research (which was probably just as mythical as all other golden ages), it was clear that there were significant disjunctures between theoretical formulations of research issues and the empirical realities to which they putatively referred. Luker uses her own early and subsequent research career, which focused on the introduction and history of abortion in the US, to illustrate both the value of various conventional methods and data (particularly surveys, secondary statistics and grounded data a la Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss) and also the shortcomings of the canonical approach to them. Her coming of age illuminates a lucid account of the practicalities of research in the early stages and the need to "dance" around and between the (conventionally serial) progression through this process.

At the same time, she argues, student researchers today face a research environment that is quite different from that of her generation. This is the age of info-glut, with researchers in the midst of a digital tsunami of data, where the problem is how to keep one's head above the deluge of information available at the click of a mouse, rather than, as predecessors experienced, a struggle to gain access to scarce and often intractable data and subjects.

While the book's format is fairly conventional - including exercises at the end of each chapter, aiming to engage the individual in a continuing process of self-development, as well as offering insights into research issues - it is Luker's light touch and sense of humour that make Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences such a pleasant experience. There have been excellent accounts in the past of the research experience as a document of itself, and they are almost as revealing as the subjects they set out to describe. But accounts dealing with the actual behaviour and experiences of great researchers are fairly rare, and they are often couched as methodological apologia posing as memoir. A "warts-and-all" view, the reality TV of the research process, is both satisfying and comforting; the semi-scandals of what Bronislaw Malinowski really thought of the Trobriand Islanders or of where Margaret Mead derived her descriptions of ethnosexual practices in Samoa introduce a welcome human dimension into the canon.

A great deal of the book's attractiveness lies in its refusal to pursue the grandiose and the ineffable. Endorsing what used to be called "theories of the middle range", this approach eschews master narratives and grand theory. A little modest realism about what the aims of social research can be, and ought to be, rather than inflated claims and rhetoric in pursuit of what it hoped to be for so long, goes a long way, and makes for a book that will, I suspect, generate a spirit of optimism in those who fall for its down-to-earth charms.

At first sight, "salsa dancing into the social sciences" seems an absurd and inappropriate image with little relation to the typical experience of the fieldworker knocking on doors in the rain or snow, or the drone struggling with statistical-analysis software, stacks of questionnaires or the cacophony of rowdy focus groups in a desperate attempt to impose meaning and some order on the hubbub of the everyday world and its persons. The recognition of the centrality of spontaneity and playful creativity in research processes is, however eccentric it appears, something that Luker has rediscovered, along with many other great researchers, and it is an important and very welcome component.

Above all, however, this is a book to enjoy - and for a text on method this is rare indeed. Really enjoyable writing among social scientists is itself, unfortunately, a rarity, and it is a pleasure to welcome into the canon someone who celebrates the teaching role as well and successfully as Luker. Her determined cheer is a tonic, and a perspective well worth fostering in every student approaching the social-research process. More than that, however, she has developed a robust, effective approach to the conduct and practices of research and to the question of how one should prepare for research. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Perhaps we shall see more of the lifestyle and personal history of the authors of such texts creeping into future publications. Today salsa, tomorrow perhaps Crowd Surfing for Ethnographers? Meanwhile, I look forward to Luker's forthcoming triumph on Strictly Come Dancing.


Kristin Luker is Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt professor of law and professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also did her undergraduate and doctoral studies.

Luker works with students from many disciplines - sociology, history, political science, economics, social work, city planning, education, ethnic studies - "and probably a few others I have forgotten".

Her father was an Air Force colonel, and the young Luker lived in a number of different countries, learning four languages in the process. But moving so often had its downsides: she says she was unable to multiply fractions until she was 23. "I thought the whole world turned fractions into decimals, did the operations and then found the nearest matching fraction."

As a mother of young children, Luker says she has few hobbies, although she enjoys kayaking and bad films. She also adores golden retrievers - the latest puppy is being coached in "the decidedly important skill of not eating the couch".

Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in the Age of Info-Glut

By Kristin Luker

Harvard University Press

336pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780674031579

Published September 2008

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