First think. Then do.

Reading Chapter 5 in Salsa Dancing this week made me realize that one of my biggest fears in embarking on a research project is that I won’t have enough prior knowledge in my area of interest in order to formulate an intelligent, meaningful research question. As an undergraduate, I never learned how to efficiently survey the literature on my topic before I tried to formulate a thesis. This might partly be a result of taking mostly English courses, where most papers were written as close readings of a primary text and didn’t require secondary sources. In history courses, I spent hours searching article databases and the library catalogue for anything I could find related to my topic and quickly got overwhelmed when I tried to narrow down the list to resources that were actually relevant. Somehow the end product turned out fine, but I always dreaded this frustrating initial process.

Armed with a year of library science studies, I now know that a large part of my problem (like many students) was lack of effective searching skills and little knowledge of how the library catalogue and databases actually work. But Luker touched on the other serious issue: today’s “info-glut” means there is simply too much information for anyone to absorb, and it is very difficult to frame your work within the plethora of perspectives out there. It hardly matters that I now know how to navigate to a given section of the Library of Congress Classification or use Boolean operators in a database; the quantity of information, and the impossibility of finding everything I would need under one neat label, means that I would still be drowning in a sea of irrelevant resources.

Luker’s “Bedraggled Daisy”, combined with the other tips in this chapter, helped calm my fears of preparing a literature review. She emphasizes quality of information over quantity – don’t even try to read everything on your topic, just the best works that relate specifically to how you have framed your question. This approach resonates with Knight’s point that “research is more thinking than doing” (p. 17). It’s easy to misinterpret “research” as the actions of gathering and recording information, rather than the thinking process. Following Luker’s outline, mapping my question in order to plan a literature review is a crucial “thinking” activity. Even though I haven’t landed on a research question yet, I feel more confident that when I do, I’ll be able to get a good grasp on the existing research in that area as long as I do enough thinking before I start acting.

Diving into research

Not having a background in social sciences, I was a bit intimidated by this course before the semester started. I’m not familiar with research lingo and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often wary of statistics, at least as they’re used in mass media. But my limited understanding of what research in the social sciences entails has already been challenged and broadened by Luker’s unique (and dare I say fun?!) “salsa dancing” approach. I like the way she examines the two opposite approaches of qualitative vs. quantitative research in Chapter 2, explores the reasons why they are different, and then argues that it is possible to strike a balance between them (p. 39). Additionally, after demonstrating the conflict that can occur between the prediction and discovery approaches (p. 18), she re-envisions the process as a combination of both (pp. 38-39). Research isn’t about  groping around in the dark trying to discover something new, but neither is it about beginning with a predefined set of ideas that we’re simply trying to verify. My goal is to acquire the right balance of theory and practice that I will need to carry out research as needed in my professional future, and I think that Luker’s hybrid approach will be a great help.