Social science can be more than a spectator sport.

In the previous post, we noted a near-universal tendency to divide people into different categories of “we” and “they.” This takes many forms; male-female, young-old, religious-irreligious, rich-poor…the list is nearly endless.

Here’s one from the social sciences: researcher and subject.

Let’s take a running start at this – beginning with a little physics, and one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the past century – the so-called Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Prior to 1927, physicists thought there was no fundamental limit to how precisely one might measure both the position and the velocity of a particle. But it turned out that was only approximately true, and only for objects familiar to human experience, that is to say, “large.” When it came to the world of the very tiny – a single electron, say – measurements became more problematic. How do you locate an electron? You shine a light on it. In the world of the tiny, this corresponds to hitting it with a photon. But the photon, when it hits the electron, nudges it some. To locate the electron more accurately requires a photon of shorter wavelength and greater wallop, and it knocks the electron for a loop. So you have less of an idea where it’s gone to! Physicists needed a long time to internalize this and other features of quantum mechanics. In the beginning, there was a grieving process.

Social scientists can rightfully argue that this uncertainty is nothing like the uncertainty they face when they study human behavior, whether individually or in groups. Take economists. When they project an economic boom or downturn, they find that everyone has been waiting for their latest projection. People dash out to be the first to buy or sell, depending on the forecast. The result? Sometimes an amplification of what they expected, and sometimes the opposite. No wonder the heads of the Federal Reserve – Greenspan and Bernanke and their predecessors – have learned over time to speak in parables. Social scientists frequently lament the fact that the objects of their study – you and me and our fellow human beings – are watching over their shoulders as they watch us. [Not surprising! Jane Goodall’s gorillas did the same thing.] Over time, they’ve built up a sophisticated methodology to be as unobtrusive as possible. Take surveys. They’ve learned from experience how to avoid asking leading questions, such as: “how do you feel about those terrible things the politicians have done?” Instead they might ask something more neutral, like “Do you support the latest health care bill?” [Please forgive the exaggeration here.]

They’ve also built up a rather extraordinary set of ethics and procedures with regard to the kind of experiments they can do on human subjects (and animals for that matter). Consider, for example, a set of famous psychology experiments conducted by Solomon Asch, who showed back in the 1950’s that social pressure can lead subjects to say things that are categorically untrue. Here’s how it went. Picture a subject in a room with a bunch of folks he or she thinks are fellow subjects. In reality, they’re in on the game. The group is asked some simple question, such as which circle of two projected on a screen is the larger. All except the subject say the smaller is in fact the larger. Some of the subjects will disagree with the group – even get violently angry – but most sooner or later start to go along with the crowd.

We knew this already, didn’t we? Think of school kids and drug use or cigarette smoking. Even so, folks began worrying over time that experiments of this sort could emotionally damaging to subjects or worse, and whether they were conscionable. They started limiting the circumstances under which they could be conducted[1]. Today, funding agencies require that research universities establish Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to examine proposed experiments and pass on them before allowing campus researchers to go forward.

This problem has led to entirely new approaches to social science, that go under labels such as participatory action research or something similar. To oversimplify, and perhaps even misstate a bit, the idea is this. When social scientists attempt to be near-invisible observers in a community, this invisibility is prone to failure. It’s also more than a bit elitist. The social scientists are at an altitude of 10,000 feet, watching human suffering, but detached, at some remove. They collect data and go back to their universities to analyze them. The subject community may or may not derive a benefit.

By contrast, in PAR, social scientists imbed themselves into the group. They do their best to erase the distinction between researcher and subject. To the extent possible they become part of the community effort to sort through a given challenge or problem, such as, say, reducing poverty within a community, improving education, or recovering from natural disasters – even as they study it. Often community members will be co-authors or co-presenters of the scientific work. Over time, this has become an important complement to standard approaches to social science. It has the added attraction of fostering the quick and effective transfer of knowledge and understanding into societal benefit.

It is this latter feature that makes such an inclusive approach to the science so attractive in a world of environmental problems, natural hazards, and resource constraints where time is of the essence.


[1] In the same way, medical researchers are strictly regulated with respect to human and animal experimentation. No more Tuskegee airmen!

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