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ETHICS AND SOCIAL SCIENCE

The biggest problem in conducting a science of human behavior is not selecting the right sample size or making the right measurement. It’s doing those things ethically, so you can live with the consequences of your actions. I’m not exaggerating about this. Ethics is part of method in science, just as it is in medicine, business, or any other part of life. For although philosophers discuss the fine points of whether a true science of human behavior is really possible, effective social science is being done all the time, and with rather spectacular, if sometimes disturbing, success.

In the mid-19th century, when Quetelet and Comte were laying down the program for a science of human affairs, no one could predict the outcome of elections, or help people through crippling phobias with behavior modification, or engineer the increased consumption of a particular brand of cigarettes. We may question the wisdom of engineering cigarette purchases in the first place, but the fact remains, we can do these things, we are doing these things, and we’re getting better and better at it all the time.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the increasing effectiveness of science over the past few centuries has also given human beings the ability to cause greater environmental degradation, to spread tyranny, and even to cause the ultimate, planetary catastrophe through nuclear war. This makes a science of humanity even more important now than it has ever been before.

Consider this: Marketers in a midwestern city, using the latest supercomputers, found that if someone bought disposable diapers at 5 p.M., the next thing he or she was likely to buy was a six-pack of beer. So they set up a display of chips next to the disposable diapers and increased snack sales by 17% (Wilke 1992). At the time, 20 years ago, that was a breakthrough in the monitoring of consumer behavior. Today, every time you buy something on the Internet or download a computer program or a piece of music, you leave a trail of information about yourself and your consumer preferences. By tracking your purchases over time, and by sharing information about your buying behavior across websites, market researchers develop ads that are targeted just for you.

We need to turn our skills in the production of such effective knowledge to solving the problems of hunger, disease, poverty, war, environmental pollution, family and ethnic violence, and racism, among others. Social scientists, including anthropologists, can play an important role in social change by predicting the consequences of ethically mandated programs and by refuting false notions (such as various forms of racism) that are inherent in most popular ethical systems. This has been a hallmark of anthropology since Franz Boas’s devastating critique, a century ago, of racial theories about why some ethnic minorities in the United States were taller and healthier than others (Boas 1910b; Gravlee et al. 2003a, 2003b).

Don’t get me wrong. The people who discovered that fact about the six-packs and the diapers were good scientists, as are the people who design all those automated data- collection mechanisms for monitoring your behavior on the Internet. I’m not calling for rules to make all those scientists work on problems that I think are important. Scientists choose to study the things that industry and government pay for, and those things change from country to country and from time to time in the same country. Science has to earn its support by producing useful knowledge. What ‘‘useful’’ means, however, changes from time to time even in the same society, depending on all sorts of historical circumstances.

Suppose we agreed that ‘‘useful’’ means to save lives. AIDS is a terrible disease, but over three times as many people died in motor vehicle accidents in the United States in 2005 as died of AIDS—about 45,000 and 13,000 respectively (SAUS 2009:table 118). Should we spend three times more money teaching safe driving than we do teaching safe sex?

I think the answer is pretty clear. In a democracy, researchers and activists want the freedom to put their skills and energies to work on what they think is important. Fortunately, that’s just how it is, and, personally, I hope it stays just that way.

 
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