Monday, 30 January 2012

Metacognition in the practice of narrating psychological scholarship

* Having just spent most of the past week as a disciplinary outsider at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, I have just had a fascinating chance to observe the workings of the social life of psychological stories as they are produced and shared in their native terrain. This experience has made me appreciate narrative scholarship and science studies, particularly the sociological study of the development of scientific knowledge. In the The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Max Weber identifies social scientists as distinctive amongst scientists for taking into account the self-understanding of the actors they study. As a geographer who studies the way that people understand relationships between society and environment, I was attending this scientific meeting to gain a better understanding of the way that psychologists understand their ways of studying society-environment relations. I learned a great deal about constructs developed by social psychologists that may be very useful for addressing environmental management challenges; as an outsider, I also gleaned some insights about the ways that accounts of scholarship were being constructed and narrated that may be of interest both to those concerned with the way narration works and also to people working in society-environment domains, particularly those that deal with the challenges of building communicative action amongst diverse groups.

Such scientists!
Overwhelmingly, the strongest impression one may take away from a meeting such as this is the degree to which psychologists identify themselves as scientists who use empirical methods--and consequently frame their narrations as legitimate to the degree that they are properly scientific. Not only in the sessions, but also (and perhaps particularly) in the hallways, restaurants, and bars across town, the most common--and emphatic--story I heard went something like this: "Now I respect a lot of different kinds of research, as long as it's empirically supported, but X--- doesn't really respect his data!" Perhaps of particular interest from a social psychology perspective, this invocation of scientific identity was rarely accompanied by acknowledgement of intergroup biases, or "in-group / out-group" effects, that might be particularly helpful for understanding the mechanisms of contest between different modes of knowledge production. Instead, especially as a social scientist from a considerably more post-normal discipline, I glimpsed many performative practices that appear to help mark the presentation of valid research (and that are obviously often lacking in the messier social sciences where neither correlation nor experimentation are most often used to support claims, but instead interpretive analysis).

What warrant!
Emphasizing good science seems to (further) reduce the motivation to explain why a particular approach is a good way to explore a particular question--the "warrant". I know this exposition of alignment between motive and methods is not many people's favorite part of science--for one thing, it often opens up broad arenas for conflict. However, contests over why a particular way to understand a particular question is better than another are also productive, and can be the heart of improvement in the progressive approximation that is the production of science. This explicitness is particularly important in fields that require collaboration or cross-over between different fields (as almost all questions of society-environment do), where multiple expertises have required different and often incommensurate background preparation and knowledge cultures. Disciplinary culture often cultivate implied warrants, since highly coherent disciplines may use similar methods. However, my observations suggest that this culture of implicit warrant encourages over-hasty focus on the calculations and analyses, and less investigation of starting premises and assumptions than is often warranted. It may be that people are discouraged from asking questions about foundational premises by not wanting to appear ignorant of the basics, but it is particularly important to be able to ask when these basics may well exhibit a fundamentally different point of reference (for example, as Michael Burawoy asserts in a recent review of global sociology, "Just as economics takes the standpoint of the economy and the expansion of the market, and politics takes the standpoint of the state and political order, sociology takes the standpoint of civil society and the defense of communicative action." We might add psychology as taking the standpoint of the individual person).

Systemic spillover
How people understand their situation within complex systems is one of the central questions that has compelled me to turn to the behavioral sciences. Given the orders of magnitude in differential impact of behaviors on environments between Euroamericans and others, the question of whether nudging individual consumers to reduce their impacts in minor ways (e.g. through prompting water or energy conservation measures) can scale up to more significant effects has tremendous implications for the future direction of both society-environment policy and scholarship. Although some research on these "spillover" effects--how small improvements might spill over into much more systemic transformations--was presented, it was a tiny proportion of the research dedicated to "sustainability psychology," almost insignificant in comparison to the amount of research dedicated to confirming that specific constructs about environment and society can make measurably changes in people's compliance with social and environmental norms in the laboratory. Although I do not want to downplay the remarkable research expanding our understanding of complicity in and possible change frameworks for the enormous challenges presented by climate change and unequal resource distribution, the contrast between the trivial scale of most interventions and the felt urgency of the challenges may illustrate a few of the significant challenges to addressing social problems from the standpoint of individuals, challenges that I suggest might be made somewhat more approachable by narrating them in somewhat more post-normal science terms:

First, the temporal and spatial scale of thinking about society-environment experience from the perspective of individuals makes it considerably difficult to capture the systemic scale of most socio-environmental dynamics. In almost all of the papers I heard, I felt a palpable urge to ask the scientists involved to take a few steps back in the way they set up their questions--particularly to take critical geographic and historical aspects of socio-environmental dynamics into account.

Second, the impetus to tell adequately scientific stories with authority clearly encourages scholars to tell cleaner rather than messier stories. With all respect to Occam's razor, the cleanest and most parsimonious and flashy stories I heard told were often the most radically problematic (especially, interestingly, when the authors claimed that the conclusions were self-evident, for example in the highly problematic equating of "overpopulation" of short-life, large-family countries with highest environmental impact).

Third, shifting the focus of analysis from the individual to the more systemically entrained individual (and including within the frame of that focus, more metacognitively, the understandings of the researchers involved that shape questions such as those about overpopulation and biophilia), may problematically call into question paradigms of both academic work and also the kind of agentic action in the world that activist scholars would like to encourage.

I am keenly aware in expressing these observations of how easy it is to come across as casting aspersions from the shore as intrepid scholars row themselves about in the shifting currents of a developing field of complex knowledge. I share these observations, however, with the hope that the impressionistic view from shore (or perhaps from another boat sailing by, in this metaphor, encumbered by different currents to row against), helps make visible dynamics that are hard to see from within. For me, so often the voice of setting in this land of character and plot, it was fascinating to step into a storied world where setting was (usually) at best an impressionistic stage set (even in concrete form, sometimes actually limited to a short set of amenity-valenced words such as "butterfly," "mountain," and "tree"). This gave me a much clearer sense of the challenges and implications of focusing on persons as a unit of analysis in socio-environmental work, and I will be interested to see whether inserting explicit awareness of these implications helps address any of the challenges I've noted.

Burawoy, Michael. 2011. The Last Positivist. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 40: 396.

Weber, Max. 2010 [1949]. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward Shils and Henry Finch with a new introduction by Robert Antonio and Alan Sica. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

*Thanks to Julian Hermida for the image; searching "metacognition" returned more images of diagrams than anything else I have ever searched. This may explain a lot of my affection for cognitive psychology. Bookmark and Share

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