Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hi, my name is James, and I'm a social scientist.

I have a confession to make: I am a social worker. At least, that’s what it says on my job description and my diploma. I prefer to use the “old-fashioned” term for my degree – social welfare – because I acknowledge that “social work” gives many people a poor taste in their mouth and inclines many towards dismissing my work. As one commenter put it, we’re considered (and there’s a fair bit of truth here) the “lowest rungs on the academic ladder.” Even more open-minded folks have a tendency to dismiss social sciences, even of the more rigorous ones, as disciplines that can’t make up their minds whether they want to be sciences or liberal arts.

A social worker’s education is about one-half counseling (in practice and theory) to one-quarter public policy and one-quarter research. It’s an odd hybrid between psychology, political economy, and sociology. And I’ll admit that I had to work my ass off to garner the benefit from two dedicated research professors and did a lot of the political economy work on my own; there’s a real bias towards counseling currently in my profession. That said, there are social workers (typically those who go into PhD programs like UC Berkeley’s) who identify as such and do a lot of disciplined, rigorous research into social issues.

Often times, social sciences are disparaged because their work cannot give us the same kind of causal relationships one can garner from physical sciences. But then, this is precisely the point. Recognizing that most of our research will end up being correlational, rather than causal, social scientists have developed a fair number of methodologies in order to provide accurate data. My personal favorite is the “mixed” study design, integrating quantitative (X subjects out of Y sample for Z criteria) with qualitative (narrative, interviews, patterns, etc.) methods. In social welfare programs, we are held to far stricter statistical analysis standards than many other social sciences, such as political science or economics (anything less than p = .05, I was taught, makes results unreliable). We do this precisely because there are so many conflicting and interacting factors when one is discussing social and psychological issues.

It was this acknowledgment of and attempt to account for and integrate these complex factors into our research and methods that attracted me to social work, and keeps me interested today. We call this “systems theory:” Everyone (or group of individuals) has multiple factors at work upon them on many levels. The evaluation of any action, from individuals, groups, or even ethnicities or nations, needs to take into account the interaction of psychological, social, cultural, religious, economic, environmental, historical, and psychological factors. When dealing with human interaction, it is borderline intellectually dishonest to attempt to boil down anything to one causal or explanatory factor.

This is not an easy thing for a lot of people to do. Man, by nature I believe, pursues simple causal relationships. I’ve termed this the “simplicity seeker impulse,” allowing humans to comprehend, categorize, and evaluate data in easily organized schema that can be accessed swiftly. My suspicion – and there’s certainly no ethical or isolated way to prove this that I can think of in my casual moments – is that it is a survival skill to maximize reaction time. This is the impulse that allows us to categorize swaths of people (“Poverty causes gang-membership”) as opposed to recognizing more complex social and psychological interactions (“Lack of rewarding work may cause individuals to seek validation from other external sources”). We see this at work constantly among pundits and academics who wish for their work to be consumed by a broader audience. More disturbingly, it is a prevalent attitude among political leadership that make decisions with far-reaching applications and consequences. It is, frankly, simpler to construct broader explanations that can be digested swiftly and easily.

But simpler doesn’t equate to more accurate. When one is talking about real human lives, it seems to me more sensible to take the time and attempt to account for as many factors as possible before making a decision; similarly, that decision must address as many of those factors as possible. I am not advocating a form of thought wherein every possible correlational factor must be considered and evaluated and statistically established before a decision is reached. This is simply an outgrowth of what used to be a profoundly American form of pragmatic, classically liberal thought: approach everything with a degree of skepticism, especially one’s own certainty.

[James F. Elliott is the proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum -- ed.]

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