More salsa-dancing social science

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Christine Voulgarides

Continuing with Salsa Dancing Into The Social Sciences by Kristin Luker. See the first part of the discussion here.

Salsa Dancing Into The Social Sciences

Canonical sociologists usually have well-bounded sets of questions, and answer them using well-bounded sets of theories and previous findings. Qualitative researchers have questions that emerge out of theoretical and purposive open-ended research. Luker describes the case that “chooses you,” or “the one that you sample yourself into.” You want to ask: What is this a case of? and: How do you expand it to another level of generality?

Because the sociological literature is so sprawling and enormous, there is no way to survey it systematically or methodically. Instead, Luker suggests that you read in an “open-hearted way,” that is, read what feels right, chase intuitive leads. This recommendation certainly works for me. The literature might not cover your specific case, but someone out there has probably discussed one or more of its elements, or even better, the relationship between them.

In qualitative sampling, you need to ask why you chose this case and not another. Its interest should ideally speak for itself, but you still need to articulate it. Outrage is a good motivator for a protest movement or expose, but it isn’t enough to motivate sociological inquiry. You need to find the elements that demand explanation, not just the ones that you find enraging. You conduct your study so you’re in a position to discover relationships between your variables, and to be surprised by those relationships.

How do qualitative researchers operationalize? You need to be specific about the boundaries of the case, what counts and what doesn’t. And you need to explain clearly what this is a case of–this is another way of saying that it needs to connect to bigger and more general themes.

Luker suggests that you prepare for the accusation that you chose your research setting just because it proves your point. So, one might accuse me of choosing to study the Oxford University Press music textbook catalog because it demonstrates the Eurocentrism of music in higher education. I need to articulate a theoretical response to such a challenge: maybe I went looking for evidence of cultural hegemony, but OUP obliged me, and here’s all the copious evidence. Since OUP is such a prominent publisher, anyone looking would find the same thing.

The next question: how do you actually do your research? You need to gain entree, which requires social skills like those of a journalist or detective, and that those can only be gained by experience. As Michael Burawoy puts it, entree “is often a prolonged and surreptitious power struggle between the intrusive outsider and the resisting insider.” It is much easier to study documents or artifacts than to engage in all the messiness and complexity of human relationships. As a qualitative researcher, we’re supposed to embrace messiness and complexity, right?

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