Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences

For those of you who are worried that this was all getting a bit scientific, one of the most interesting and enjoyable books I have read in recent years was Kristen Luker’s Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences. The book is really designed for graduate students but Luker does concede that it may be read by precocious undergraduates (and there are certainly some of those out there). This is an extremely rare thing in that it is a book about research methods which you can read from cover to cover without going mad, although you can of course dip in and out. To give you a flavour, I liked this from page 6:

You’ll be hearing a lot about “truth” in the social sciences… so you should probably know that both truth and its handmaiden objectivity are going through some tough times right now. Lots of social scientists see no problem at all with the concepts, and think they are as reliable and trustworthy as they ever were. Others dismiss even the attempt to approach something resembling the “truth” as hopelessly misbegotten, a relic of older and less sophisticated times. As for myself, I see the search for objectivity in the social sciences as something along the lines of Zen enlightenment: I don’t personally expect to achieve either of them, but I do find the pursuit worthwhile. Let me tell you two different parables to prove the point. It turns out that the ancient mariners (the Portuguese, not the one in the poem) accomplished extraordinary feats of navigation with bad, albeit beautiful, maps. They circumnavigated the globe with maps that had large sections around the edges inscribed “Here There Be Dragons.” So you and I can do the same. We can get a much better picture of the social world than the one we have at present, and we can get much farther than we ever imagined possible even if our maps do have the modern equivalent of dragons sketched all over them. The other parable is one told to me by my colleague Steve Epstein, to the effect that even the most radical, postmodernist, social constructionist Act-Up AIDS activist still wants to know if AZT works. In other words, sometimes we just need to know.

Kristin Luker (2008), Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-glut, Harvard University Press.

There is a good review in The Times Higher , and also here.  

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