Me-search, we-search; screaming for representative research
Hello all you SRA’ers! This is my last blog post as one of the official bloggers, and quasi-fresh from the SRA conference (which I hope you all had a great time at), there are a few things on my mind. In between meeting with old colleagues and networking for new ones, SRA is a great conference for all the like-minded researchers to come together and talk about methods and theories and findings, pontificate about improving our fields of study, and brainstorm new studies to extend our knowledge ever-further.
Hello all you SRA’ers! This is my last blog post as one of the official bloggers, and quasi-fresh from the SRA conference (which I hope you all had a great time at), there are a few things on my mind. In between meeting with old colleagues and networking for new ones, SRA is a great conference for all the like-minded researchers to come together and talk about methods and theories and findings, pontificate about improving our fields of study, and brainstorm new studies to extend our knowledge ever-further. And that’s totally awesome, but the key word there is “like-minded”. Not to say that everyone agrees on where the overall field of adolescent research should be headed, but on average (and median, and mode), SRA members come from backgrounds (in both their academic lives and their “life” lives) that are more similar than different. Let’s be honest. We’ve been citing the need for diversity for a long time, trying to make up for a long history of homogeneous representation of both researchers and subjects (i.e., the white college student). We’re getting there, but we still have a ways to go.
Although this is not true for everyone, I feel that a large proportion of people who study people are interested in doing so based on their own innate curiosity about themselves and the others around them. Many of us have a personal reason for not only our chosen fields, but also the specific subjects we study, and the questions we ask. Not that this is a bad thing. Personally, my entire academic career was kickstarted by a study in which I was curious to see if I was “normal”. Many of my papers, and even entire lines of study, have been influenced by personal experiences, observations, or curiosities. This practice is fairly common; we call it “me-search as research”.
Although science is supposed to be objective, there is absolutely no way for us to completely remove our own biases, beliefs, or experiences from the way that we may interpret certain results or generate hypotheses. That’s not to say that this makes for shoddy research; by adhering to methodological rigor we can do good me-search research that can substantially contribute to the field. However, if hypotheses or the interpretation of results are in part based on our own experiences or beliefs, we may not be documenting the truest portrayal of people-based phenomena. Combined with less than rigorous methodology practices (take my fellow Mizzou colleague Joe Hilgard’s account of P-hacking, for example), and we may be inherently contributing information that is “less then correct” to the field. This information, in turn, informs other research, creating a perpetuating cycle of potentially skewed science.
What does this have to do with diversity? When we close ourselves off to other voices, particularly voices that are not part of R1/R2 researchers and theorists, I feel that we not only limit the ways that we can generate hypotheses and interpret results, but also limit how we build questionnaires and models, design experiments, and use literature to craft studies. This in part can be considered a lack of diversity in specific fields; developmental psychologists are not particularly likely to base studies or theories using works in behavioral economics or anthropology. But it’s also due to an underlying bias relying on the expertise and understanding of highly educated people who have a large portion of their cultural and social beliefs and experiences in common. Take into account me-search research, and you have a bunch of studies with implicit biases of these specific individuals.
A good example of this is recent paper I worked on with my mentor examining the effects of neighborhood deprivation, alcohol outlet density, and urban/rural geographical location on alcohol use. Basing our hypotheses on well-known psychological theory (and perhaps, underlying biases), we were fairly surprised when our results were contrary to what we hypothesized. However, when discussing this issue with my boyfriend (someone who is completely removed from the academic world but is intimately familiar with the effects of the specific environments we were examining), he made some very good points that lead me to re-think how to integrate economic behavioral theory (which we had initially decided not to do) into our resubmission. Additionally, my conversations with him contributed to extensions of this research in a current grant submission; we now include several parameters in our proposal which we wouldn’t have even considered if I hadn’t talked to him.
The #BlackLivesMatter SRA pre-conference, which included discourse between researchers and community organizers in Baltimore, in order to discuss how systemic racism should be addressed within research processes, was a great example of how researchers and non-researchers can get together to help better inform each other. Many times, we as scientists discuss how our work can impact society through “dissemination”, which is a completely top-down process, forgetting how valuable the communities we are trying to impact can be to inform our own work. This is a more common practice in policy work and program development, as well as some other areas that employ more qualitative or mixed-methods approaches, and if we want to make SRA a truly interdisciplinary society, I feel we need to not only include people from these fields, but also non-academics who can truly inform our work and make it more representative.
I often get in debates with my boyfriend where he will ask me why I can’t put a specific variable he thinks may be important in a model, only for me to say “because it’s not part of the theory or hypothesis – it’s not good science to just throw in arbitrary variables!” And I stand by that idea. But I also stand by the idea of allowing input from non-academic individuals (hopefully in groups, where there can be some sort of empirically evaluated consensus) in many parts of the psychological research process, from study conception to result interpretation. Not only can you teach more people about the nuances of the scientific method, but you also have a potentially more informed study that can better encapsulate the kaleidoscope of human behavior.