Doing theory as an information scholar

Having completed undergraduate work in one of the last four-field anthropology departments, we often say that the four-field approach has one foot firmly planted in the sciences (biology, archaeology) and the other in the humanities (culture, linguistics). Taken together, these four lenses are thought to enable the holistic perspective. Yet, I find myself more skeptical of applying theory to social science, because you can never get the whole picture regardless of how immersed you are in a group. And science, because it is done by humans, whether is it hard or soft, is never truly objective. In terms of Boulding’s (1956) Systems Hierarchy, mechanical systems frameworks are on the bottom because they are the least complex systems and we know the most about them. At the top are social organization and transcendental systems. Crafting theory for such systems is much more difficult because we know much less about these systems.

Javanmardi, E., Liu, S. Exploring the Human Cognitive Capacity in Understanding Systems: A Grey Systems Theory Perspective. Found Sci 25, 803–825 (2020).

Newtonian physics, for example, is much easier to model and theorize than quantum physics. Because we understand much less about the quantum world. But this brings me back to a question I had about theory versus law. As I had understood it, scientific laws are mathematical formulas that offer a description of an observed phenomenon, whereas theory explains why such phenomena occur. The Sage Research Methods chapters seemed to indicate that theory could somehow be elevated to law (even though the authors warn against it) (Shoemaker et al., 2003).

In any event, just as we know that electrons only seem to exist in a state of probability, we now know that human behavior exists in a range of propensities (Sapolsky, 2017). Even so, many of us still think and speak about it as though it is fixed. When you hear someone claim that phenomena like violence or greed is simply human nature, or that we are hardwired for this or that behavior, I would be skeptical of what else they think because they are operating under a subjective paradigm that leads back to race science.

Robert Sapolsky (2017) is a leading primatologist and neuroscientist at Stanford who pushes back against the notion of a fixed human nature and hardwiring of behavior patterns, suggesting instead that we view behavior as a range of propensities that are expressed in response to environmental stimuli. There are those who would make the claim that high crime urban areas in majority Black neighborhoods are evidence that Black people are racially inferior to White people. But if you abandon theories of innateness and question the contextual environment that could influence the expression of violence and other criminal activity, we see racist zoning laws (Freund, 2010), lost job opportunities (Deshpande et al., 2020), and less wages for those who are fortunate enough to get a job. Here was see the implications of racism as a social problem that in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the racists who push race science to influence policy. When policy and those in positions of power are used to prevent you from participating meaningfully in the formal economy, you are more likely to participate in the informal economy to feed yourself and your family (Sugrue, 2014).

When Baym (2010) described that negative impacts of technology tend to cause the technological determinist to turn to techno-solutionism, I saw that as an analog for theory building in race science. Where in theory, instead of negative impacts, such researchers are looking for deficiencies to then improve the theory. With regard to race science, even though it continues to be debunked at every turn, it persists. For me, I see this as science being used as a technology by white supremacists, who continue to iterate over the theoretical design in promoting racial classification as a predictive model until they achieve their desired impact.

We have known for over a hundred years now that human beings cannot be classified into discrete biological categories that we call race. But race as a social construct precipitates racism, the implications of which are quite real. For example, Dr. Eglash describes how race is recursive through DNA methylation (Eglash et al., 2020). This is an epigenetic mechanism that pushes a chemical compound, methyl (CH3), into the DNA modifying the histones thereby altering the propensity of genetic expression. Such expressions have been shown to persist for several generations. The epigenetic layer serves as a control board to the gene. Where once we thought of genes as on or off, we now know that they have a range of expressions.

It is possible that I have read the Smedley paper as an undergrad, though I do not remember doing so. Reading it this past week, however, has provided me a reference for some of the claims I have been making for years. Because in addition to the previous example, I have often told people that race was used by Christians to justify slavery before the eyes of God (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). To paraphrase Sapolsky (2017), rationalism is so often used to rationalize away evil.

The earliest known record of applying racialized discrimination to the legal code came in mid 15th century Spain, called the Sentencia-Estatuto (Wolf, 2008). These laws were established just prior to the Spanish Inquisition, in an effort to prevent further upward mobility of the conversos, Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity. This in turn gave rise to the Spanish obsession with Limpieza de Sangre, “purity of blood”. The Spanish brought this obsession into Mexico (Martinez, 2008), and Christians spread it throughout Europe and brought it into the United States.

When applied to the racist theory of eugenics, that you could selectively breed out birth defects and undesirable traits, it sent the nation on a crusade to “purify the stock of the white race” by passing laws to force sterilization on “white trash” (Isenberg, 2017). In fact, the American Eugenics Movement served as both inspiration and foundation for the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Eugen Fischer, a German physical anthropologist and geneticist said, “The Nordic race displayed a higher range of variation than other races and could thus be assumed to produce a particularly high number of exceptional individuals, which ensured superiority of the culture produced by this race,” (Bargheer, 2017), and yet we now know that the genetic diversity outside of Africa is only a fraction of the genetic diversity that exists within it (Pennisi, 2021). Even so, up until recently, most studies have focused on genetics outside of Africa, with African DNA making up only 2% of contributions to the Genomewide Association Studies (GWAS) compared to European DNA, which makes up 78.4% (Pennisi, 2021).

A similar situation has occurred in the social sciences as well. Psychology claims to study human behavior absent culture. And yet, it is overwhelmingly WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democracies), with upwards of 90% of research subjects representing just 12% of the actual variation in global population (Henrich et al., 2010). How can psychology claim to understand human behavior at all if it only examines a small, uncommon sample of the larger whole? Do you think studies full of young, white, straight, college-age males can be used to build a model of human behavior that your data fits to? What are some examples of how this can negatively impact efforts in HCI to design accessible technology, and to design for the non-WEIRD world?

REFERENCES

Africa’s people must be able to write their own genomics agenda. (2020). Nature, 586(7831), 644–644. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03028-3 (Links to an external site.)

Bargheer, S. (2017). Anthropology at War: Robert H. Lowie and the transformation of the culture concept, 1904 to 1954. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 53(2), 133–154. (Links to an external site.)

Baym, N. (2010). Making new media make sense. Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 22–49. (Links to an external site.)

Deshpande, K. V., Pan, S., & Foulds, J. R. (2020). Mitigating demographic Bias in AI-based resume filtering. Adjunct Publication of the 28th ACM Conference on User Modeling, Adaptation and Personalization, 268–275. (Links to an external site.)

Eglash, R., Bennett, A., Lachney, M., & Babbitt, W. (2020). Race-positive design: A generative approach to decolonizing computing. Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Links to an external site.)

Freund, D. M. (2010). Colored property. University of Chicago Press. (Links to an external site.)

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29–29. (Links to an external site.)

Isenberg, N. (2017). White trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America. Penguin. (Links to an external site.)

Martínez, M. E. (2008). Genealogical fictions: Limpieza de sangre, religion, and gender in colonial Mexico. Stanford University Press. (Links to an external site.)

Pennisi, E. (2021, February 4). Africans begin to take the reins of research into their own genomes. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/africans-begin-take-reins-research-their-own-genomes (Links to an external site.)

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin. (Links to an external site.)

Shoemaker, P. J., Tankard Jr, J. W., & Lasorsa, D. L. (2003). How to build social science theories. Sage publications. (Links to an external site.)

Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60(1), 16. (Links to an external site.)

Sugrue, T. J. (2014). The origins of the urban crisis. Princeton University Press. (Links to an external site.)

Wolf, K. B. (2008). Sentencia-Estatuto de Toledo, 1449.

Published by Mtthwgrvn

UX Research | Culture | Information | Human-Computer Interaction

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