I tackle socially-relevant questions and compare different methodological approaches to answering them. These posts will highlight particularly interesting methodological and conceptual developments from a variety of disciplines. They will also tackle specific social “problems” – such as partisanship’s effects on political communication.

My specialities are social psychology, communication, and cultural anthropology. The former emphasizes rigorous statistical training and the use of subtle experimentation to identify key variables for understanding human behavior. You may have heard of a “crisis” in our discipline. I prefer to think of it as growing pains – we are acknowledging the limitations of our tools and moving towards both greater caution and greater accuracy in interpreting results.

Dealing with the complexity of human behavior is difficult. We are unable to have the same level of certainty that a physicist or chemist may have (and even drug companies have had great trouble replicating key, published and oft-cited, findings in their field). In order to detect a reliable pattern that is consistent across situations, the best human-behavior studies would have hundreds or thousands of people, a practical difficulty that is only occasionally surmountable.

All is not lost, however. Even a smaller study can highlight an important relationship between different factors. At that point, it’s the field’s duty to conduct more research, replicate or fail to replicate the result, and to try to understand whether the initial result was due to chance or due to a third variable that moderates (that influences the strength of) the effect.

Looking from an interdisciplinary perspective, however, we can be inspired by laboratory-studied relationships and look for independent evidence of their relevance to “the real world.” The laboratory allows us to take a micro-view, to get at what people can’t or won’t tell us about themselves. We can then take these findings to the field and look for evidence for or against the laboratory results.

As a cultural anthropologist working with the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, I was keenly aware of the fact that my cultural narratives, as well as the narratives the Maori used to describe themselves, drove the questions that I asked. I was able to ask questions that pitted these potential interpretations against one another and to record the response of individual Maori informants. Were they skeptical of the narrative? Did it make sense to them? What was their emotional response? Were some members of the community more open to my account than others? Were they open to the account, but did it strike them as novel? These are all questions an anthropologist asks.

Combining social psychology and cultural anthropology we can become more attune to the unobserved factors that inform human behavior. Are people, for example, publicly advocating a narrative of which they are privately skeptical, or at the very least, feel neutrally about? Translating social psychological findings to the field, we can make predictions about the gap between how people will see themselves, how they present themselves, and what may actually be motivating their behavior.

It is in the tension between insights that we often make the most progress.

Sound wishy-washy? Studying human behavior requires working with ambiguity, at least if you’re interested in having both descriptive and predictive validity. Descriptive validity concerns mechanism; predictive validity emphasizes outcome. For better or for worse, shaping the world in innovative ways requires an attention to both process and product, the navigation of multiple approaches, and a willingness to investigate and to challenge our most basic assumptions in a systematic way.

In the end, we all do the pragmatic thing. We all choose a side, take a stance, and act. However, we can do so humbly, aware of complexities, without blinders. We can do so boldly, honestly, and in a way that convinces others that we have selected the best response given what we know at the time.

Ok – the last step, being humble, bold, and yet persuasive to an audience that wants simple answers, is more difficult. Fortunately, both anthropology and social psychology offer important insight into how to communicate complexity and yet provide stability, knowledge, and purpose.


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