Monthly Archives: November 2018

14 kinds of research we need for #reducinginequality

I leave a WT Grant Foundation grantees’ meeting on Reducing Inequality with a rough mental list of types of research that we need:

  1. Descriptive research on what is unequal, for whom, where.
  2. Causal research on what promotes inequality or inequality, and on the effects of various kinds of inequality.
  3. Descriptive and interpretive research on the lived experience of the poor or the relatively poor–including research that challenges simple assumptions about deficits and suffering. (E.g., Annette Lareau’s research on ways that working-class kids live better lives than middle-class kids.)
  4. Philosophical or other normative research that asks what should be equal for whom; how equality trades off against liberty, innovation, environmental sustainability, and other goods; and which interventions to enhance equity are ethically permissible–or obligatory–under various circumstances. (Cf. “we are for social justice, but what is it?”)
  5. Conceptual research: how should we define and operationalize such relevant concepts as human capital, political influence, or social capital. (See, e.g., this post on different theories of social capital or this one on defining equity versus equality..)
  6. Intervention research on programs and policies that improve the absolute or relative situation of the disadvantaged.
  7. Research about scaling: when and why do successful programs expand, and when is scaling beneficial? (A program that helps at scale X can be inappropriate or even counterproductive at 10X).
  8. Descriptive and interpretive research on the advantaged. What are their lives like, what deficits as well as advantages do they manifest, and how do they think about and treat the disadvantaged?
  9. Intervention research aimed at the advantaged. What works to change their behaviors to improve equity?
  10. Research on public opinion about inequality. Who thinks what, why, and how does that change?
  11. Research on what changes political decisions relevant to inequality. What are the effects of social movements, leadership, public rhetoric, and organizations?
  12. Research on when and why good research is used for policy or programming.
  13. Research on phenomena that lie between individuals and the whole society, such as networks, communities, movements, and markets. (See against methodological individualism.)
  14. Intellectual work that builds ideologies (in the good sense of that word): broad views that serve as heuristics. Think of the intellectual contributors to New Deal liberalism, Western European social democracy, libertarianism, or feminism.

(Thanks to Hiro Yoshikawa and Prudence Carter for stimulating some of these thoughts, but I’m responsible for omissions and mistakes.)

how to present mixed-methods research

(Washington, DC) I’m at a W.T. Grant Foundation grantees’ meeting on “reducing inequality” and currently listening to Tim Guetterman (University of Michigan) talking about mixed-methods research. Proponents and advanced practitioners of mixed-methods research form a community that is thinking hard about barriers and solutions to their research approaches. I’ve posted before about this community and its agenda. Meanwhile, I’m involved with colleagues on two fairly elaborate mixed-methods studies of our own: one on the effects of adolescents’ civic engagement on neighborhoods, the other on the role of an arts center in combatting the negative effects of gentrification.

One question is how to present qualitative and quantitative information together in an efficient format (fitting within journals’ word limits). Guetterman showed a nice example from Panda et al. (2015). These authors present findings by theme, with columns for the qualitative summaries and quantitative statistics. A third column could present reflections on divergences and convergences.

Panda, Samiran, et al. “Exploring stigma in low HIV prevalence settings in rural West Bengal, India: Identification of intervention considerations.” Journal of Mixed Methods Research 9.4 (2015): 362-385

a discussion of Civic Studies at Tufts

Here is a recent discussion of Civic Studies. The audience was Tufts alumni. The speakers (from left to right) are Tisch College’s Associate Dean Diane Ryan; Prof. Hilary Binda, who runs the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College; Prof. Alnoor Ebrahim of the Fletcher School and Tisch College, whose next book is  Measuring Social Change: Performance & Accountability in a Complex World; and me. We discuss what “Civic Studies” means at Tufts. Much more is written about it here.


social media and the youth vote

CIRCLE has released a highly substantive analysis of social media and the 2018 youth vote that is worth reading in full.

It probably won’t surprise you that many young adults heard about the election on social media. In fact, it might be worth pausing over the fact that only 47 percent saw something about it on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and/or Twitter. It is possible to go through an election cycle without seeing much about politics on social media if your friend-networks are apolitical. We talk a lot about polarization into left and right, but an equally significant phenomenon is the division between political and apolitical Americans. That was less of a problem when people got their information from sources like broadcast TV and newspapers, which forced everyone to see political headlines.

More than one quarter of young adults heard about the election only on social media, not from traditional outreach by campaigns, candidates, and parties. That probably means that social media is expanding the number of youth who are engaged in the election.

The more you hear about an election, the more likely you are to vote. Compared to young adults who had heard about the election both on social media and from campaigns or candidates, young adults who recalled no outreach were less than half as likely to say (in October) that they were extremely likely to vote.

Some selection is at play here. If you are already a likely voter or part of a community that is seen as active, campaigns are more likely to contact you. If you have friends who vote, you are more likely to see information about the election online, but you might have voted anyway. Maybe you even pick friends who are into politics. Still, evidence from randomized experiments shows that outreach boosts turnout, and at least some of these differences must be attributable to the effects of outreach.

the state versus petit-bourgeois white America

Citizens experience the state in the form of people–teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses and doctors. These may be public employees or just subsidized by public funds, as when doctors get reimbursed by Medicare or professors get some of their salary from federal financial aid and grants. They help, serve, and protect; they also advise, cajole, assess and select, and discipline.

If we expand distributive justice (taxing richer people and spending the money on “government”), then relatively needy people will be confronted with human representatives of the state. These interactions will be friction points, sites of cultural conflict and resistance.

This is a well-known problem that has been discussed for a century. Traditionally, it has a strong class dimension: the state sends mostly college-educated people to both help and discipline working-class people. The state represents norms and ways of life embraced by the dominant social class. (I think this was even the case in the USSR.) In the US, the friction also has a racial dimension, even though white people have always been recipients of government support and surveillance in the US.

I think four strategies have often been proposed to reduce the friction:

  1. Make the state more demographically representative of the people it relates to. For instance, work to enhance the racial diversity of public school teachers, especially when their students are people of color.
  2. Design programs and laws–also train the “street-level bureaucrats” who deliver services–to minimize unnecessary moral superiority, reduce patronizing attitudes, and shift the balance to helping people versus disciplining them. For instance, educators are taught to be sensitive to their students’ backgrounds; social workers have norms against being judgmental.
  3. Organize or train the recipients of government services to stand up for their own rights and values.
  4. Expand cash transfers and other detached forms of redistribution that don’t involve monitoring and changing behavior (as education, policing, public health, and social work do).

None of these strategies has ever been fully successful. But we now see a new dynamic. A significant segment of the population identifies strongly as middle class and culturally mainstream. These are white, Christian people who may have attended college (often without completing BA degrees) and who may own small businesses or work in white-collar settings. They live in smaller towns, exurbs, and rural settings that represent a vision of respectability.

Traditionally, they identified with the state, particularly since they were very well represented in Congress, the state legislatures, and the military. Their typical question was whether or not to spend money on the government, which might waste their tax dollars but might also protect their national security, might genuinely help them without a lot of lecturing (think of agricultural extension workers or locally-controlled public schools), and would discipline other people.

Now this class—white, non-urban, Christian, and petit-bourgeois rather than working class–is in trouble. Obesity, opioid abuse, and suicide are rising to the point that their life-expediencies are falling. In some cases, their communities are losing population. Their traditional economic roles are in peril, and they’re told that their children must live and learn differently to retain their class position.

“Mortality by Cause for White Non-Hispanics Ages 45–54,” from Anne Case & Angus Deaton, PNAS December 8, 2015 112 (49)

The very bad trends depicted in this figure are concentrated among white people without college experience, but those with some college show increasing mortality. It’s only people with BAs or more who have escaped that pattern.

The state arrives to tell them to eat different foods, not to smoke, to raise their children differently. It may seem that the state disagrees with the messages that they hear in church, which they attend to live good lives. The state tells them to send their kids to the state university if they want to stay in the middle class. Their taxes and tuition dollars will pay for people who relate to them as the state has traditionally related to the poor and working class. Professors and student-affairs workers will steer their kids into a new culture that the coastal bourgeoisie has created. From the same universities come the k-12 teachers, nurses, and others who lecture them back in their own communities about food and exercise and carbon emissions. (Here I am indebted to Kathy Cramer, among others.)

When asked whether the government should “do more” (1 on the scale below) or “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private business” (5 on the scale), white men have traditionally tilted against government. However, they caught up with white women in their support for government between 2014 and 2016, perhaps because they needed it more. We don’t have 2018 data yet, but we know they voted for Trump that year. This is consistent with needing government but not liking it.

The conflict between petit-bourgeois white people and the state is gendered, because many of the front-line representatives of the government are female, and many of the people with the most counter-normative behavior are men. The conflict is also racial in two respects. First, white, middle class people traditionally distinguished themselves from Americans who needed government aid and guidance, whom they viewed disproportionately as people of color; but that distinction is erased if the middle class also needs help. Second, representatives of the state–especially those who appear on TV–look at least somewhat more racially diverse than white communities do. At the very top of the state structure for eight years was a Black man.

I think these tensions are at the heart of current US politics. Focusing on them challenges both the “economic insecurity” and the “racial resentment” explanations of the 2016 election and its aftermath. A somewhat different premise is that lower-middle-class rural and exurban white Americans are now experiencing the state roughly as poor urban people are used to experiencing it. They need it but don’t like it, because it is always telling them they must change.

I’m not saying that most of them are responding appropriately or wisely, but we might want to dust off our tools for repairing the welfare state: make sure the government employs people who talk and look like those it affects, train them for sensitivity, organize those most affected by the state to push back, and try to shift to cash redistribution instead of invasive behavior-modification.

See also: why the white working class must organizeresponding to the deep story of Trump voterswhat do the Democrats offer the working class?