"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


how social scientists think week

After several days of posts on a pie-in-the-sky idea about military intervention against the LRA (See here, here, and here for arguments as to why it's a bad idea that won't work and here for a defense of it) and overstated claims about impending genocide in South Sudan from an actor and a celebrity-courting advocate, I'm reminded of a fundamental truth: advocates and academics think differently.

Not that any of this is really news, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways that social scientists consider evidence, facts, and forecasting in light of the way that our jobs as researchers are different from those whose job it is to persuade others to take action on an issue. Academic researchers are trained to think in particular ways. In the social sciences, we are trained to take the most messy of subjects - human behavior - and think about it in systematic ways that explain causal relationships between phenomena. Advocates, though, are trained to stir emotions and to draw personal connections between international events and Western students, consumers, and families.

I think this difference in training and purpose accounts for a lot of the disconnect between academics and advocates on a number of policy questions (eg, conflict minerals in the DRC). So I thought it might be useful to spend a few days this week explaining how those of us in the social sciences think. Stay tuned for the first post in the series tomorrow. Here's hoping it's not mind-bogglingly boring.



Anonymous Ian said...

Looking forward to this.

I think you are right to stress the approach of social scientists as being to use systematic ways to explain causal relationships - but it's important to note that there is also a place for social scientists to study advocates to understand what causes them to do what they do and what makes them successful at it (when they are).

I consider myself somewhere between the two groups and therw is IMO need for more middle ground since understanding causality isn't much use if that knowledge isn't then put to use effectively to improve things, and that will require some good advocacy.

Monday, October 18, 2010 3:33:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Great point, Ian. I am interested in how advocates do what they do as well.

Monday, October 18, 2010 3:52:00 PM

Anonymous J. said...

I'm quite keenly interested in your thoughts on this. A fairly substantial part of my day-job involves negotiating the space between these two rather different worlds.

Monday, October 18, 2010 5:40:00 PM

Anonymous Don Stoll said...

I look forward to seeing you explore this crucial faultline within the development world--dividing, if you like, the Bonos and Geldofs on one side from the Easterlys on the other.

However, your mention of "an actor and a celebrity-courting advocate" and my own mention of the two great Irish celebrity/advocates hint at how readily we caricature and thus oversimplify the division. On what side of the rupture shall we find the many people engaged in development who are neither trained social scientists nor flagrantly emotive advocates? Where shall we place those whom nobody would confuse with rock stars but who state ideologically-driven claims as if these were established truths--oblivious to the possibility that a little empirical support would be nice?

Last spring, whenever I told someone that the small nonprofit with which I work planned to distribute mosquito nets to all the residents of a particular Tanzanian village, I could count on hearing that we needed to charge a token sum for the nets because, obviously, we value what we must pay for above what we can get for free.

Although this looks like "common sense," I suggest it merely passes as such during an era of ascendant market ideology. "Common sense" supports just as persuasively the assumption that extremely poor people, who need every penny, will value any useful free thing, such as a bed net, that allows them to use their scarce pennies to buy other valuable things (like, say, food).

Which of these "obvious" or "common sense" truths is truly true? How would I know?

But whaddya know? A social scientist, Pascaline Dupas of MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, had actually conducted field research to determine the effectiveness of charging for nets versus the effectiveness of giving them away. Not the last word, perhaps--one hopes for additional studies--but surely more solid than "common sense."

So bring it on, Texas!

Monday, October 18, 2010 9:03:00 PM

Anonymous Dave Algoso said...

Ooh, I am definitely interested in this. Ever since the Congo minerals debate a few months back, I've been stewing over how to bridge these communities better. I agree with Ian. I want the advocates to have a smarter, more accurate message - but I also want the academics to provide causal analysis that provides actual levers for action, which the advocates can then promote.

Monday, October 18, 2010 9:05:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Don, I think that's a really good question. For my part, I'm interested in helping both sides to understand the divide, and hopefully in making a push to provide advocates with better research methods training.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 8:59:00 AM

Blogger Madeleine said...

TIA, would love to see a post/comment from you on this:

I feel like Kenneth Roth's ridiculous suggestion has eclipsed discussion of this actual military force being assembled to deal with the LRA. I"m very curious as to your thoughts and any insight you might have on the details of the negotiations leading up to this announcement.

Keep up the amazing work!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 4:03:00 PM


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