Summer Camp for Social Scientists! Reflections Edition

Tonight I was lucky enough to attend a lecture titled “Studying Racial Discrimination and its Consequences: Where We Started, Where We Are, and Where We Should Go” by sociology Professor Tony Brown, who researches racism and health. It was deeply thought provoking in many ways, raising questions and responses in me regarding not only the subject matter, but also measurement theory, study design, and more generally how advanced social science contributes to wider contemporary public debate.

I am approaching the end of the first session here at the ICPSR Summer Program in Quantitative Methods of Social Research, and I’ve been spending a whole lot of time cramming matrix algebra and calculus, and working on advanced methods of assessing, fixing, and presenting linear models. Although I’ve had a few good discussions with fellow participants on ontology and epistemology, we’ve generally not had opportunities to discuss the real-world implications of the methods we’re studying.

This talk was a breath of fresh air. Professor Brown started by giving us a brief survey of the state of racial discrimination research, and highlighted the problems with construct and measurement development in the field. He also highlighted a huge gap in theoretically driven research outside the commonly used stress process model. He then shared with us some very exciting preliminary work he had done to move the study of racial discrimination forward, including: a move away from measuring scales of ‘unfair treatment’ without immediate attribution to the cause of the unfair treatment, to actually measuring perceived acts of racial discrimination. He also identified a sub-study he had done that measured racial trauma similarly to how PTSD is measured in the DSM-IV. Most interestingly to me, he identified a sub-study with research questions regarding discriminators (e.g. do white self-identified discriminators have higher levels of health and life satisfaction?).

His talk ended by asking us what we thought. This was preliminary work, and he was more than generous to not only share it with us, but ask our opinions on it. He wanted our answers. But for me, I came away with many questions. Namely, why do we accept poor measurement construction without pushing and developing better measures? And, why, after so many years of study, are we still stuck with poor explanations of the causes and effects of racism?

Overall, I was deeply inspired by this lecture, and Professor Brown’s work in general. It was so heartening to reaffirm that quantitative methods in social science can not only be tools to further general scientific knowledge but also be tools of advancing critical debate. In the words of Brown et al. (2009):

In conclusion, investigations of racial attitudes address more than an academic issue. At stake are contentious claims such as whether U.S. society is approaching racial parity, harmony, and integration; whether ameliorative policies are necessary; and whether government is obligated to engineer anti-racism. In the past, present, and probably well into the foreseeable future, these claims have pitted citizens against one another. Duration of such antagonisms proves persistence of the color line as our nation’s longest standing social problem and mandates continued study of racial attitudes, among whites and blacks and others.

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