Still grappling with demographics

Last year I wrote about my changing perspective on demographic variables. My grappling has continued since then.
I think of it as an academic puberty of sorts.

I remember the many crazy thought exercises I subjected myself to as a teenager, as I tried to forge my own set of beliefs and my own place in the world. I questioned everything. At times I was under so much construction that it was a wonder I functioned at all. Thankfully, I survived to enter my twenties intact. But lately I have been caught in a similar thought exercise of sorts, second guessing the use of sociological demographic variables in research.

Two sample projects mark two sides of the argument. One is a potential study of the climate for underrepresented faculty members in physics departments. In our exploration of this subject, the meaning of underrepresented was raised. Indeed there are a number of ways in which a faculty member could be underrepresented or made uncomfortable: gender, race, ethnicity, accent, bodily differences or disabilities, sexual orientation, religion, … At some point, one could ask whether it matters which of these inspired prejudicial or different treatment, or whether the hostile climate is, in and of itself, important to note. Does it make sense to tick off which of a set of possible prejudices are stronger or weaker at a particular department? Or does it matter first that the uncomfortable climate exists, and that personal differences that should be professionally irrelevant are coming into professional play. One could argue that the climate should be the first phase of the study, and any demographics could be secondary. One might be particularly tempted to argue for this arrangement given the small sizes of the departments and hesitation among many faculty members to supply information that could identify them personally.

If that was the only project on my mind, I might be tempted to take a more deconstructionist view of demographic variables altogether. But there is another project that I’m working on that argues against the deconstructionist view- the Global Survey of Physicists.

(Side or backstory: The global survey is kind of a pet project of mine, and it was the project that led me to grad school. Working on it involved coordinating survey design, translation and dissemination with representatives from over 100 countries. This was our first translation project. It began in English and was then translated into 7 additional languages. The translation process took almost a full year and was full of unexpected complications. Near the end of this phase, I attended a talk at the Bureau of Labor Statistics by Yuling Pan from Census. The talk was entitled ‘the Sociolinguistics of Survey Translation.’ I attended it never having heard of Sociolinguistics before. During the course of the talk, Yuling detailed and dissected experiences that paralleled my own into useful pieces and diagnosed and described some of the challenges I had encountered in detail. I was so impressed with her talk that I googled Sociolinguistics as soon as I returned to my office, discovered the MLC a few minutes later. One month later I was visiting Georgetown and working on my application for the MLC. I like to say it was like being swept up off my feet and then engaging in a happy shotgun marriage)

The Global Survey was designed to elicit gender differences in terms of experiences, climate, resources and opportunities, as well as the effects of personal and family constraints and decisions on school and career. The survey worked particularly well, and each dive into the data proves fascinating. This week I delved deeper into the dynamics of one country and saw women’s sources of support erode as they progressed further into school and work, saw the women transition from a virtual parity in school to difficult careers, beginning with their significantly larger chance of having to choose their job because it was the only offer they received, and becoming significantly worse with the introduction of kids. In fact, we found through this survey that kids tend to slow women’s careers and accelerate men’s!

What do these findings say about the use of demographic variables? They certainly validate their usefulness and cause me to wonder whether a lack of focus on demographics would lessen the usefulness of the faculty study. Here I’m reminded that it is important, when discussing demographic variables, to keep in mind that they are not arbitrary. They reflect ways of seeing that are deeply engrained in society. Gender, for example, is the first thing to note about a baby, and it determines a great deal from that point in. Excluding race or ethnicity seems foolish, too, in a society that so deeply engrains these distinctions.

The problem may be in the a priori or unconsidered applications of demographic variables. All too often, the same tired set of variables are dredged up without first considering whether they would even provide a useful distinction or the most useful cuts to a dataset. A recent example of this is the study that garnered some press about racial differences in e-learning. From what I read of the study, all e-learning was collapsed into a single entity, an outcome or dependent variable (as in some kind if measure of success of e-learning), and run by a set of traditional x’s or independent variables, like race and socioeconomic status. In this case, I would have preferred to first see a deeper look into the mechanics of e-learning than a knee jerk rush to the demographic variables. What kind of e-learning course was it? What kinds of interaction were fostered between the students and the teacher, material and other students? So many experiences of e-learning were collapsed together, and differences in course types and learning environments make for more useful and actionable recommendations than demographics ever could.

In the case of the faculty and global surveys as well, one should ask what approaches to the data would yield the most useful analyses. Finding demographic differences leads to what- an awareness of discrimination? Discrimination is deep seeded and not easily cured. It is easy to document and difficult to fix. And yet, more specific information about climate, resources and opportunities could be more useful or actionable. It helps to ask what we can achieve through our research. Are we simply validating or proving known societal differences or are we working to create actionable recommendations? What are the most useful distinctions?

Most likely, if you take the time to carefully consider the information you collect, the usefulness of your analyses and the validity of your hypotheses, you are one step above anyone rotely applying demographic variables out of ill-considered habit. Kudos to you for that!

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2 thoughts on “Still grappling with demographics

  1. Are you saying that researchers should collect demographic variables but should under-emphasize demographics when framing the problem or recommending solutions?

    • I don’t think I have it all worked out like that. I think that researchers should look beyond traditional demographic variables when collecting and analyzing data, because it is too easy to fall into the habit of using the traditional variables and not really thinking about data in useful ways. It is easy to find demographic effects, because they are so deeply embedded in our society. But I don’t know if simply finding those effects can lead to anything actionable or useful. Oftentimes really seeing an issue requires looking at it for its own mechanics, rather than applying the same formulas.

      But does that mean we shouldn’t collect demographic data? Not necessarily. Because it can prove useful.

      My point is just that demographic analyses are not the only analyses. Sometimes (how often?) there is something to be gained by looking at research through a different lens- specifically, a lens that fits the project and not a one-size-fits-all kind of lens.

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