Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Academia, theories and the real world

Yesterday was the first day of my workshop on culture, evolution and collective rituals organized by the Kurt Lewin Institute, hosted by Groningen University. I gave a talk on cultural change and how evolutionary processes can help to understand how, when and why cultures might be changing. It was more of a big picture kind of talk, with an overview of what I would consider exciting theories in the social and biological sciences about cultural dynamics. In the afternoon, me and Nina Hansen then gave the students a task: Breaking them into small groups, they had to imagine that they are asked to provide advise to UN Women about addressing gender inequality in developing countries. Their task was to use their respective theories of research to come up with interventions to tackle the task.
The interventions were really fascinating, typically addressing issues of arranged marriages and/or education of women. I loved how the students focused on concrete examples and target populations and considered trade-offs between costs and benefits that keep practices that disempower women in place. This was fantastic stuff. Some of the proposed interventions were also really innovative and creative - big ups for that.
It was also great to see that people were really aware of cultural sensitivity, issues of trust and ethics. They showed amazing sensitivity to potential problems.
At the same time, what was really striking was the lack of psychological theory. These students are PhD students in leading Dutch universities. Their research is in social psychology, on issues around status and intergroup relations. I would have thought this makes their theories and research immediately applicable to this specific intergroup context of gender relations. Yet, beyond simple nods towards social influence and contact theories (without actually using these theories to develop or guide their intervention), there was a void of theory. Lots of common sense reasoning, but nothing that an educated individual may not come up with... I was struck by this.
Are our psychological theories irrelevant to addressing pressing global issues?

What could account for this observation?
One option might be that psychologists are really good in terms of addressing the problem, using a problem focused mindset. So the students turned to the problem and addressed/ identified key issues about the problem. This is great critical thinking - but then... what is the use of studying psychology if critical thinking is the key?
Even when pressed by me, the students came back to classic theories of intergroup relations. Even though they work on cutting edge stuff at world leading universities, nobody really stepped up with an example of recent psychological theorizing. What is the practical relevance of these theories?
Another option might be that our instructions led them astray. We asked them to address the problem. Yet again, involving Kurt Lewin's old mantra: There is nothing as practical as a good theory. Good theories should lend themselves to address problems.
Another option is that the students were aware of all the pitfalls and problems and exceptions and boundary conditions of their theories and therefore were reluctant to apply it here. Great - but then, what is the relevance of the theory if it can not explain key mechanisms of human behaviour? What is the usefulness of a theory if by virtue of its boundary conditions and equivocal findings it becomes inapplicable to real world contexts?
Or are psychologists just too shy or unwilling to convert their theoretical stuff into useful real-world applications? So the problem would be one of translating science and research into interventions.

I am not blaming the students, I think it reflects a deeper problem in our field. Our work is increasingly specialized and focused on minute details (which can and should be important), but miss the link to real world applicability. This is reflected in a similar way in this great opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof.

One great quote from this opinion piece:
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
Side note on that blog: The one thing that I do not agree with there is that I believe we need more (but useful) quantitative thinking and research to tackle social problems. The issue for me is translating it into language that is understandable by the general public (see Statistics as Principled Arguments).

Back to my main points: I can already hear some colleagues complaining about the importance of basic research. I love basic research. I think we need a better understanding of human behaviour and all the intricacies of it. But we are not doing physics, most of what we are studying is based on real world observations. So our insights should also provide some better understanding of how things could be changed (see also my earlier post on practical psychology).

We had a great discussion yesterday. I think this is the starting point. We need to reflect on our practices. Maybe (and I actually believe this) our theories in psychology are relevant. But psychologists are too reluctant to take their own research serious, tweak it to make it relevant and most importantly communicate it in a useful way to help address social issues.

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