How social science research is understood and used

Some of the comments in a story, from the Oxford Press, on what kind of family is best for an adopted child has me thinking more about how the public, policy makers and sometimes, even ethics review board members, view social science research.

Here’s the story: What type of family is best for an adopted child?

“I believe that using social science research as a justification for this policy is an overly simplistic interpretation of the research” Kuvalanka said. “I believe this policy is potentially harmful in that it will likely add to the stigma that single-parent families and lesbian- and gay- parent families already face.”

But Peter Sprigg, vice president of policy at the Family Research Council – a Washington, D.C. -based social conservative think tank — said the research field is crowded with gay activists and the dozens of studies on the issues have been inconclusive.

“There’s an abundance of research showing that children of (married parents) do better than children of vitually any other family structure,” he said. He said that his organizations’ stated pro-marriage agenda — including “combating the homosexual agenda,” according to its Web site — taints his research no more than others.

This posting isn’t about what kind of a family is best for an adopted child, nor is it about the actual research data that activists on both sides of the issue claim as supporting their positions. What this is about is how we think and talk about the purposes, methods and uses of social science research.

The article, in essence, highlights a policy in Butler County, Ohio, giving preference to “traditional married couples” over same-sex or single-parent families for placements of children for adoption or fostering (Note: The policy has been suspended pending review). The Butler County Services Director Michael Fox states that the policy is supported by data from social science research. On the other side of the issue, two sociology researchers from Miami University, Jean Lynch and Katherine Kuvalanka, who conduct research on families and gay and lesbian parents, state that “cohabitating singles, same-sex couple and single parents with strong family support work just fine.” They base their claims on peer-reviewed social science research. Researchers and policy makers cited in the article on both sides imply that those on the other side may be “biased” in the conduct of their research.

Phew. Okay. It’s a bit confusing, but there are a few salient points brought out by the debate highlighted here.

First, the notion that social science research shouldn’t be used as a justification for policy is worrisome. Clearly, we want policies — especially in areas of family and health — that reflect the contexts and changing nature of a diverse society. We don’t want policies based solely on statistics, numbers and quantitative outcomes. So policy-making is precisely the place where we want social science research to be provided as a justification.

Second, the notion that social science research should always be “unbiased” is also problematic. Many social scientists are very explicit, and should be, about the theoretical or philosophical lens through which they view phenomena. Unlike other kinds of more typically empirical or quantitative methods, in which the notion of “bias” is avoided at all costs, a lens through which to explore and view data, in some social science reseach methods, is not only permitted, but encouraged. So to claim, as one researcher does in the article, that having a particular perspective on an issue under research is akin to a lack of rigor, might be seen as somewhat disingenous. On the other hand, to claim that research is “inconclusive” (as Fox does) because it was carried out by researchers with explicitly gay-positive agendas who are activists as well as researchers, is problematic and simply, illogical.

This is a highly sensitive debate. The issues are serious ones. It’s important to acknowledge the power of social science research in debates like this one. Many still operate under the mistaken notion that social science research is simply a bunch of social scientists walking around with audio recorders interviewing individuals, which ultimately has little to no impact or greater societal benefit. Hardly. In fact, many, if not most important contextual social issues (i.e. the ones that are often most important to us) can only be captured, explored and reported effectively using methods of social science research.

Social science research is powerful and must be viewed as such by those who use these kinds of data to back up their claims about social phenomenon, like who is “best” to parent adopted children. It can — and should be — the underpinnings of social policies. Therefore, it also needs to be understood as potentially very powerful by ethics review board members who are reviewing social science research protocols and examining issues of individual risk and societal benefit. I’m not saying that we need to take a giant step backwards by considering the kinds of potential for risk of harm in social science research (e.g. psychological risk, social risk, etc.) as we have considered risk in biomedical research. Not at all. I’m talking more about the proposed benefit or “impact” of the research — as this story shows, claims grounded in data from social science research can have a dramatic effect upon policy, and subsequently, people’s lives. I am saying that we need to be careful not to underestimate the power of the data and the potential “benefit” or impact that the data may have, in social policy and priority-setting milieus. Not only should the risks and benefits, the rigor of the proposed research and position and lens of the researcher be considered very differently (and very seriously) in social science research, it must also be considered as powerful work that can, and does, make a difference.

~ by Nancy Walton on April 9, 2009.

One Response to “How social science research is understood and used”

  1. In the US the Common Rule muddles the issue of consideration of the proposed benefit or “impact” of research by directing IRBs to determine that: Risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, if any, to subjects, and the importance of the knowledge that may reasonably be expected to result. In evaluating risks and benefits, the IRB should consider only those risks and benefits that may result from the research (as distinguished from risks and benefits of therapies subjects would receive even if not participating in the research). The IRB should not consider possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research (for example, the possible effects of the research on public policy) as among those research risks that falls within the purview of its responsibility.(1) The phrase, “anticipated benefits, if any, to subjects,” conflates direct benefit, if any, that may accrue to individual volunteers with the social benefit of research, “generalizable knowledge.”(2) The “if any” stipulation cannot be applied to the social benefits of research. The research plan or protocol must anticipate results or findings – positive, negative or inconclusive – that contribute to generalizable knowledge. The social benefit of research with human volunteers is what ethically justifies such endeavors. It is the premise of the Belmont Report stated, flat out, in the opening sentence: “Scientific research has produced substantial social benefits.”(3) The underestimation of the social benefit of human research referred to in this post contributes to the effective nullification of the almost universally ignored general requirement for informed consent that: “A description of any benefits to the subject or to others which may reasonably be expected from the research,”(4) be included in the informed consent process, on the one hand. On the other hand, the underestimation of the social benefit of human research contributes to a mindset among researchers, their sponsors and reviewers, that fails to routinely offer to share results and finding with volunteers and the communities from which there were recruited. (1) See, at §46.111(a)(2). (2) See, at §46.102(d).(3) See See, at §46.116(a)(3).Renée LLanusa-Cestero, MA,

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