Society

Collidoscope: Of Diversity in Social Science Researchers

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

Today is exactly three months since I started Collidoscope. And I’m going to use that (tiny) milestone to look at something a little more overarching. When consuming anything, at some point the mind wanders to who produced it. This week’s newsletter looks at who is producing social science research that gets published in ‘top’ (mostly North American) journals – and, more importantly, who isn’t.

Coincidentally, I also get to use my friend’s design for my column (in my favourite winter colours) for the first time today, so I’m extra excited.

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The white men of American economics

Representative image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Representative image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Economics, particularly orthodox economics often felt to me like it wanted to be known as one of the most ‘macho’ social sciences, dealing with hard numbers and complex models. This has been challenged multiple times over the years – the inception and growth of the journal Feminist Economics is one of the biggest examples of that.

But how much has the composition of the field changed, not just to include women but also minorities of different kinds? In their article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Amanda Bayer and Cecilia Elena Rouse answer that question for economics in the US. And their first line isn’t encouraging:

“The economics profession includes disproportionately few women and members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups, relative both to the overall population and to other academic disciplines.”

Of all tenured and tenure-track economics professors in the US, 23.5% are women and 6.3% are of African or Hispanic origin. When looking at PhDs awarded in economics, about 34% of all PhDs awarded went to women and 8.4% to minorities. Similar differences exist for undergraduate degrees as well. For the most part, the changes seen in the professionals working in the discipline over the last two decades have been minimal, the authors argue.

Why is this the case?

Bayer and Rouse split the reasons into supply-side (factors affecting whether students choose economics) and demand-side (the behaviour of other economists at different stages of a person’s career).

A range of factors fell into the supply-side of the explanation: lack of previous exposure to economics, lack of role models and so on. What is more interesting is their description of the demand-side factors. While explicitly discriminatory behaviour in academia may be less frequent today, the authors write, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. More important, implicit biases often creep into the profession. “Research suggests that implicit bias affects interactions at all stages of the academic pipeline, in formal decisions, such as promotion and admission, and in routine interactions, such as advising students on courses to take or responding to questions and ideas from colleagues.” The article cites a number of studies that found implicit biases resulted in differential attitudes to women and minorities, from faculty members, students and institutions.

But why have these factors hit economics worse than other disciplines? Though there isn’t conclusive evidence on this, the authors write, “it is concerning that those who, like economists, are used to framing choices in terms of individual objective decision-making may also be less vigilant against discrimination.”

The authors conclusions on implicit biases are unlikely to be unique to the US. And this is concerning (to use a mild word) for a range of reasons, some of which the authors point out. Different groups often have different perceptions on economic policy, which would not be represented unless there is diversity. Diversity in economics, they write, would also change the dynamics of how decisions are made.

And a lot has changed, it’s important to remember, though of course the problems are still big (as the article points out). The field of economics has broadened to include issues that affect women and minorities more instead of disregarding them as unimportant, such as studies on unpaid work. And while there are still those who insist (or quietly judge) that this isn’t ‘real’ economics, the profession is (hopefully) unlikely to listen to their opinion forever.

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The shadows of racist anthropology

Credit: Nacho Facello/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Nacho Facello/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

As a field of study, anthropology has gone through immense changes since it first started. The beginnings of the field were very much based on white supremacy and colonialism, studying the ‘savage’ and the ‘primitive’ from the point of view of the ‘civilised’.

This was one of the worries I had when taking anthropology courses during my masters. But a lot has changed since then, though one might still find a whiff of that old style in certain places if you look hard enough (in much more sugar-coated language, of course). But anthropology now looks at almost everything you can think of in fascinating ways – all the way from Wall Street to Indian weddings. This change hasn’t been sudden, but through a long and stubborn struggle by those trying to create a discipline that isn’t based on imagining, exacerbating and ridiculing difference. (If you want a brief history of how this happened, this recent article is a useful place to start.)

So how do students of anthropology today, especially those coming from communities that early anthropology would have cast one of it labels on, place themselves in this coloured history?

Michelle Munyikwa, a student of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, gives her perspective on this in a blog post published on Scientific American.

“In the center of the class of bright-eyed first year grad students stood a cart containing specimens from a large collection of skulls owned by the university. They had been collected by Samuel George Morton who was famous for his craniometry studies, in which he classified human races by skull size. His ultimate argument was that “Caucasians” had larger skulls (and therefore larger brains) than the other races that he had studied.

… As we passed the skulls around, reactions ranged from shock to curiosity. We read their labels. Simple, yet meaningful phrases. Lunatic. Negro. Anglo-American. Child. Some skulls had tags indicating the fate of their owners, or other hints about their lives.”

The way forward for students of anthropology, according to Munyikwa, is not to ignore this uncomfortable history, however much it may anger or upset you. You choose the anthropologists you look up to, of course, and the ones you’d like to follow in the footsteps of. But it’s also good to be aware of the shadows you may be in, and have to always be careful to step out of.

“But then I remember that in order to be a part of a better future for anthropology, we must be aware of its past. We must understand the intricate relationships between power and knowledge, and remember that these legacies are connected to us, lest we be lulled by the myth of objectivity.

Critically looking at the past can help us to build a better future.”

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The biases in Indian social sciences

Credit: kaythaney/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: kaythaney/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Is social science research in India egalitarian? I was hard-pressed to find recent material on this, which also raises certain questions.

One of the things I did find, though, is an article by Gopal Guru published in the Economic and Political Weekly now almost 15 years ago, but his argument can also be made today. Guru’s approach is interesting – he draws a distinction between those seen as ‘able’ to conduct theoretical analysis and others considered suited only for empirical research. “As 50 years’ experience shows, social science practice has harboured a cultural hierarchy dividing it into the vast, inferior mass of academics who pursue empirical social science and the privileged few who are considered the theoretical pundits with reflective capacity which makes them intellectually superior to the former,” he writes.

And within this distinction, Guru argues, is the inherent marginalisation of scholars and researchers from ‘lower’ castes, relegating them to only doing and accessing certain kinds of research. And the way social science is practised and who judged ‘good’ theory, according to him, has a lot to do with that.

“Social science discourse in India is being closely disciplined by self-appointed juries who sit in the apex court and decide what is the correct practice according to the canons. These juries decide what is theory and what is trash. It is a different matter that these canons lack authenticity as they are borrowed from the west unreservedly. The apex court in social science with its full bench in Delhi keeps ruling out subaltern objections as absurd and idiosyncratic at worst and emotional, descriptive-empirical and polemical at best.”

Historically, institutional biases kept a large number of Dalits and Adivasis out of places of higher learning, Guru writes. And even once this was done away way, very few steps were taken to equalise the completely slanting playing field. This, he argues, has meant denying Dalits the ability to “develop their reflective capacity”. And this has led to a situation where theoretical research is done on their ‘behalf’, without including their voices.

“In view of the complete lack of theoretical intervention from dalit/bahujan scholars, some non-dalits messiahs have offered to represent dalit/bahujans theoretically. Their claim to fight this reverse orientalism on behalf of dalits looks attractive. It is argued by the TTB [‘upper’-caste researchers] that they need to intervene in the dalit situation at the theoretical level only to restore voice and visibility to dalits and ultimately advance the dalit epistemological cause. But this also ends up producing reverse orientalism in a very subtle way. The claim to offer epistemological empowerment to dalits involves a charity element which by definition is condescending.”

The answer, he says, is to make theory more universally accessible, to not limit it only to those who have access to elite institutions and certain vocabularies. This could certainly be seen as true even today, though the lack of writing on it questions how much of a priority making access to research is in Indian social science.

[An extended version of this argument as well a response from Sundar Sarrukai, who feels those from outside a community could also fairly represent them, can be found in the book The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory.]

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Other things to read

Though that’s all I’ll be going into in-depth, there are some other things I came across that I think are worth highlighting:

  • Being a conservative social psychologist

A New York Times article look at a very different kind of internal skew in the social sciences than the ones discussed so far: a political one.

“It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

  • The women archaeologists buried in archival dust

Lady Science is a web magazine that looks at the work of women is science, technology and medicine. In an article titled ‘What Does a Woman Know?’ published in the New Inquiry, Kathleen Sheppard looks at all the forgotten women in archaeology.

“…there were a number of women archaeologists who did important work in the field, in publications, in museums, and in universities, but like much of the work women have done in the sciences, their labors are not considered Science.  Their lives and careers tend to be erased in the historical record because they did not do heroic, exciting fieldwork, but instead did the seemingly hum-drum administrative work of cataloguing, organizing, and publishing the finds of the hero.  In the end, many of these women got married and had families, further removing them from their career or ending it altogether, unlike their male colleagues whose marriages made them more productive. No matter their training or accomplishments, female archaeologists have been buried by Great Men.”

Sheppard takes the life of one such female archaeologist, Caroline Ransom Williams (1872-1952), and looks at all the things she did achieve and could have achieved.


That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]

Categories: Society

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  • Parantap Bhatt

    An interesting read about need of heterodox environment in social sciences. India too needs conservative intellectuals in social sciences, the lack of which has been clearly articulated by Ramchandra Guha in his essay (http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/absentia-ramachandra-guha-indian-conservatives)
    There is a wonderful project known as Heterodox Academy, which has been initiated in US in order to promote diversity of views in Academia.
    The inherent bias strikes home to me as the lack of women in pure sciences has conditioned my mind to usually glance over the research by them as compared to their male peers, which in turn feeds to the semantics of bias as women scientists/ researchers may tend to feel left out or taken seriously.
    The other aspect about the subaltern voices in India has long been overlooked and thankfully, a due to little efforts on the part of different organizations in India we are seeing more of it. Although a large upheaval is required in the Academia so that we don’t have more of Dalit point of view from a “upper caste guilt” writers.

  • Parantap Bhatt

    An interesting read about need of heterodox environment in social sciences. India too needs conservative intellectuals in social sciences, the lack of which has been clearly articulated by Ramchandra Guha in his essay (http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/absentia-ramachandra-guha-indian-conservatives)
    There is a wonderful project known as Heterodox Academy, which has been initiated in US in order to promote diversity of views in Academia.
    The inherent bias strikes home to me as the lack of women in pure sciences has conditioned my mind to usually glance over the research by them as compared to their male peers, which in turn feeds to the semantics of bias as women scientists/ researchers may tend to feel left out or taken seriously.
    The other aspect about the subaltern voices in India has long been overlooked and thankfully, a due to little efforts on the part of different organizations in India we are seeing more of it. Although a large upheaval is required in the Academia so that we don’t have more of Dalit point of view from a “upper caste guilt” writers.