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Verification of impact and related thoughts

Posted by Felipe do Brazil 
Verification of impact and related thoughts
May 15, 2009 10:56AM
At Rhythm of Hope we often tackle the problem of looking for evidence before-the-fact by seeking out and then developing and growing relationships with existing initiatives. Personal interactions and observations over multiple visits spanning time allows us to assess who is having an impact, how they do what they do, what the magnitude of impact is, and who is honest and reliable. On the basis of our assessments then we are able to facilitate assistance to existing projects, programs and communities, to help them do more of what they are already doing, or do it better, with some degree of confidence.

Of course we also undertake special projects in response to specific needs which are not being addressed, usually for lack of financial, material or other resources, which we become aware of through our interactions, but generally these do offer the capacity for us to conduct trials - for example, the installation of the first few ecologically sound dry-composting toilets in a rural community lacking sanitation allowed us and our collaborators and strategic partners (consistent with the video that preceded this one) to see that the approach was viable and accepted and, following that, effective. See the April 07 entry, Bringing Sanitation to Itaparica Island, at [rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com].

The issue of problems with interventions is an important one for researchers, and I would like to see the discussion broadened to include consideration of social sciences research. The medical sciences research issues are more straightforward, I think the video did a good job of communicating that, but interventions by social sciences researchers often are not. With activist and advocate anthropology and sociology, which I encourage, there are clear problems with intervening which relate to issues of credibility.

Encounters with study subjects in social sciences research are less controlled and more peripheral (usually observation based though interviews, questionnaires, etc may be employed). The impact, if any, of social sciences field research may be a long-time coming since it often involves the need to disseminate analysis through published articles and presentations to influence perspectives which may ultimately produce change.

A great problem for social scientists is that they so frequently undermine their credibility in the field. Doing so poisons relationships and, for that, negatively affects observed behaviors. There are two important reasons why this happens, I devoted considerable space to this in my second MA thesis because one aspect of this demands a level of knowledge about the history of how social scientists behave the way they do today in the field.

First is the issue of denial, and this can be inadvertent or more insidious. Social scientists often introduce a research project to potential study subjects by declaring that they do not expect to receive any personal benefit from their research, suggesting that their motives are wholly altruistic. Clearly that isn't the case and potential study subjects ma be ignorant in the sense that they lack education, but they aren't stupid.

Social science researchers benefit in a number of ways. As students they need to author papers reflecting their ability to conduct meaningful research and analysis to obtain a degree. With degree in hand they are able to secure employment or pursue an even more advanced degree, to assure their career and livelihood. Members of the academy gain respect or tenure to advance their careers, and are sometimes directly compensated for speaking appearances and/or when works are published.

Second, social scientists sometimes suggest that the study subjects themselves will benefit as, over time, the results of their studies percolate through the system and society, producing social and cultural change. This is dubious presupposition at best. If change ever is inspired by such research it is almost certain to be much to late for the study subjects to benefit, and it very likely will never directly impact their particular community in any case.

A larger issue, and one which encourages the two misleading sentiments above, emerges from requirements imposed on social scientists related to how we deal with human study subjects. Human study subjects protections are absolutely necessary, I want to be crystal clear about that. But how those are presently framed in the academy is very problematic (I would be happy to share the portion of my second MA thesis which explores the issue with anyone who would like to see it).

Through the manner in which researchers are encouraged to introduce consent forms, offices of Human Study Subjects Protections (HSP) on college campuses encourage researchers to suggest their wholly altruistic motivations and the idea that their research may very well one day produce direct benefit to the study subjects themselves. I have already described the problems with that.

HSP offices also encourage researchers to communicate to study subjects that the procedures which demand that the researcher request signatures is driven by the fact that "our first concern is for their welfare." A survey of the history of the emergence and institutionalization of HSP practices in the US clearly demonstrates that this this is not the case. It sems very probable that if there were not the ever-present threat of government sanctions and law suits it is very probable that most social scientists would not be invoking HSP procedures.

HSP were inspired by the Nuremberg trials but the American health-care industry and the academy were reluctant (an understatement really) to buy into them. The government came down hard on medical researchers after Tuskeegee and other scandals erupted, and the legal system followed suit (no pun intended), which had serious financial consequences for a number of highly regarded universities and medical centers.

When, eventually, the government announced it would terminate federal funding for any school or other institution failing to protect human subjects the social sciences were forced to adopt the HSP that were developed for medical researchers without any variance to account for the clear differences that are involved. So when we are encouraged to introduce HSP as something we do primarily because we want to protect the subjects of our research its misleading at best. We do it because our hand was forced and funding and lawsuits are the underlying primary concern.

To assess the impact of any initiative we have to get good data. Study subject intuitively understand that we often have selfish motives, which does not preclude the possibility that we may also have genuinely altruistic motives. But social sciences research is a transaction and, since the primary beneficiaries are most likely to be the researchers, one that is more often exploitative than balanced, that's one reason I argue for advocate and activist sociology and anthropology.

Social sciences researcher should come with something tangible to offer those who will, after all, be providing them something tangible. That requires the researcher to do his or her homework in advance to greatly enhance the possibility that he or she will be able to honor his or her side of the transaction in a meaningful way. Social science researchers should more honestly introduce the realities which frame what they do and why and how they do it. When they are seen as partners in the social process rather than as being exploitative there is a much better chance that social sciences researchers will be able to gather meaningful data and, by doing so, help us all help others.

Phillip Wagner
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