Entries tagged with “social science”.

Those of you who’ve read this blog before know that I have a lot of issues with “technology-will-fix-it” approaches to development program and project design (what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”). My main issue is that such approaches generally don’t work. Despite a very, very long history of such interventions and their outcomes demonstrating this point, the solutionist camp in development seems to grow stronger all the time. If I hear one more person tell me that mobile phones are going to fix [insert development challenge here], I am going to scream. And don’t even get me started about “apps for development,” which is really just a modified incarnation of “mobile phones will fix it” predicated on the proliferation of smartphones around the world. Both arguments, by the way, were on full display at the Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services I attended at the WMO last month. Then again, so were really outdated framings of gender. Perhaps this convergence of solutionism and reductionist framings of social difference means something about both sets of ideas, no?

At the moment I’m particularly concerned about the solutionist tendency in weather and climate services for development. At this point, I don’t think there is anything controversial in arguing that the bulk of services in play today were designed by climate scientists/information providers who operated with the assumption that information – any information – is at least somewhat useful to whoever gets it, and must be better than leaving people without any information. With this sort of an assumption guiding service development, it is understandable that nobody would have thought to engage the presumptive users of the service. First, it’s easy to see how some might have argued that the science of the climate is the science of the climate – so citizen engagement cannot contribute much to that. Second, while few people might want to admit this openly, the fact is that climate-related work in the Global South, like much development work, carries with it an implicit bias against the capabilities and intelligence of the (often rural and poor) populations they are meant to serve. The good news is that I have seen a major turn in this field over the past four years, as more and more people working in this area have come to realize that the simple creation and provision of information is not enough to ensure any sort of impact on the lives of presumptive end-users of the information – the report I edited on the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program is Exhibit A at the moment.

So, for the first time, I see climate service providers trying to pay serious attention to the needs of the populations they are targeting with their programs. One of the potentially important ideas I see emerging in this vein is that of “co-production”: the design and implementation of climate services that involves the engagement of both providers and a wide range of users, including the presumptive end users of the services. The idea is simple: if a meteorological service wants to provide information that might meet the needs of some/all of the citizens it serves, that service should engage those citizens – both as individuals and via the various civil society organizations to which they might belong – in the process of identifying what information is needed, and how it might best be delivered.

So what’s the problem? Simple: While I think that most people calling for the co-production of climate services recognize that this will be a complex, fraught process, there is a serious risk that co-production could be picked up by less-informed actors and used as a means of pushing aside the need for serious social scientific work on the presumptive users of these services. It’s pretty easy to argue that if we are incorporating their views and ideas into the design of climate services, there is really no need for serious social scientific engagement with these populations, as co-production cuts out the social-science middleman and gets us the unmitigated, unfiltered voice of the user.

If this sounds insanely naïve to you, it is*. But it is also going to be very, very attractive to at least some in the climate services world. Good social science takes time and money (though nowhere near as much time or money as most people think). And cutting time and cost out of project design, including M&E design, speeds implementation. The pressure to cut out serious field research is, and will remain, strong. Further, the bulk of the climate services community is on the provider side. They’ve not spent much, if any, time engaging with end users, and generally have no training at all in social science. All of those lessons that the social sciences have learned about participatory development and its pitfalls (for a fantastic overview, read this) have not yet become common conversation in climate services. Instead, co-production sounds like a wonderful tweak to the solutionist mentality that dominates climate services, a change that does not challenge the current framings of the use and utility of information, or the ways in which most providers do business. Instead, you keep doing what you do, but you talk to the end users while you do it, which will result in better project outcomes.

But for co-production to replace the need for deep social scientific engagement with the users of climate services, certain conditions must be met. First of all, you have to figure out how, exactly you are going to actually incorporate user information, knowledge, and needs into the design and delivery of a climate service. This isn’t just a matter of a few workshops – how, exactly, are those operating in a nomothetic scientific paradigm supposed to engage and meaningfully incorporate knowledge from very different epistemological framings of the world? This issue, by itself, is generating significant literature…which mostly suggests this sort of engagement is really hard. So, until we’ve worked out that issue, co-production looks a bit like this:

Climate science + end user input => Then a miracle happens => successful project

That, folks, is no way to design a project. Oh, but it gets better. You see, the equation above presumes there is a “generic user” out there that can be engaged in a straightforward manner, and for whom information works in the same manner. Of course, there is no such thing – even within a household, there are often many potential users of climate information in their decision-making. They may undertake different livelihoods activities that are differently vulnerable to particular impacts of climate variability and change. They may have very different capacities to act on information – after all, when you don’t own a plow or have the right to use the family plow, it is very difficult to act on a seasonal agricultural advisory that tells you to plant right away. Climate services need serious social science, and social scientists, to figure out who the end users are – to move past presumption to empirical analysis – and what their different needs might be. Without such work, the above equation really looks more like:

Climate science => Then a miracle happens => you identify appropriate end users => end user input => Then another miracle happens => successful project

Yep, two miracles have to happen if you want to use co-production to replace serious social scientific engagement with the intended users of climate services. So, who wants to take a flyer with some funding and see how that goes? Feel free to read the Mali report referenced above if you’d like to find out**.

Co-production is a great idea – and one I strongly support. But it will be very hard, and it will not speed up the process of climate service design or implementation, nor will it allow for the cutting of corners in other parts of the design process. Co-production will only work in the context of deep understandings of the targeted users of a given service, to understand who we should be co-producing with, and for what purpose. HURDL continues to work on this issue in Mali, Senegal, and Zambia – watch this space in the months ahead.



*Actually, it doesn’t matter how it sounds: this is a very naïve assumption regardless.

** Spoiler: not so well. To be fair to the folks in Mali, their program was designed as an emergency measure, not a research or development program, and so they rushed things out to the field making a lot of assumptions under pressure.

Would folks who know precious little about development please stop telling everyone what the discipline of development looks like?  Seriously. Francis Fukuyama has a piece in the American Interest in which he decries the lack of what he calls “large perspective” work in the social sciences. Admittedly, I have some sympathy for his position here – like all academic disciplines, the social sciences generally reward narrow specialization, or at least that is what most of us are trained to believe.  I think there is another way to succeed in academia, a path I am taking – to write not only high quality, refereed research in one’s field(s), but also general-audiences works that gain a wider profile (that was the point of writing Delivering Development).  When you reach audiences beyond academia, you develop other lines of influence, other sources of funding . . . and generally give yourself some space in your home institution, as nobody wants to fire/lose the visible public intellectual.  Sadly, few of us choose the buck the system in this manner, and therefore become slaves to our journals and their relatively narrow audiences.

I also like Fukuyama’s clear argument about the goals of social science:

“The aspiration of social science to replicate the predictability and formality of certain natural sciences is, in the end, a hopeless endeavor. Human societies, as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and others understood, are far too complex to model at an aggregate level.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  When we refuse to admit this, we empower the people who are willing to take problematic data and jam it through dicey quantitative tools to produce semi-coherent, super-shallow analyses that appear to present simple framings of the world and solutions to our problems while in fact they obscure any real understanding of what is going on, and what might be done.

But in between these two points, made at the beginning and end of the article, respectively, Fukuyama populates his piece with a number of statements about development that range from the problematic to the factually incorrect.  In the end, I am forced to conclude that he has little, if any, understanding of contemporary development in theory or practice.  Sadly, this did not keep him from making a number of sweeping, highly erroneous statements.  For example, at one point he makes the claim

Few scholars have sought to understand development as an inter-connected process with political, economic and social parts.

This claim exists to further his argument that development is plagued by siloed thinking that has led to intellectual incoherence and failed policy. While I might agree about development having problems with its intellectual coherence, he is totally wrong in this claim. It only holds up if one chooses to NOT use something as ubiquitous as Google Scholar (let alone Web of Science) to examine the literature of the past 20 years.  Anthropologists, geographers and sociologists have been doing just this sort of work, mostly at the community level, all along.  Often the lessons of this work are not aimed beyond the communities in which the work was undertaken, but there is a giant volume of work out there that has long taken this interconnection seriously.

Further, Fukuyama’s ignorance of the current state of the discipline and practice of development shows in his claim:

While paying lip service to the importance of institutions, most economists and field practitioners still see politics as at best an obstacle to the real work of development, which is improvement in incomes, health, education and the like, and not as an independent objective of development strategy. (Amartya Sen is an important exception to this generalization.) The democracy promotion agencies, for their part, spend relatively little time worrying about economic growth, social policy or public health, which in their view are goods often used by authoritarian regimes to buy off populations and prevent democratization.

While some economists still treat “the social” as maximizing behavior warped by a bunch of externalities, those that are any good concern themselves with politics (at scales from the state to the household).  Practitioners, perhaps more than anyone else, know that politics are hugely important to the work of development.  Sen has a wide purchase and following throughout development, including at my current employer.  And how does one then address the Democracy and Governance Office in my Bureau – they are, without question, a democracy promotion office . . . but their whole lives revolve around linking this to various other development efforts like economic growth or public health. When he claims that those who work for USAID “do not seek an understanding of the political context within which aid is used and abused” he’s simply factually incorrect. Basically, Fukuyama is just throwing out huge claims that have little or no anchor in the reality of contemporary development agencies or practice.

Fukuyama’s article was not really about development – it was about understanding social change.  However, in using development as his foil in this piece, Fukuyama has done a great disservice to the contemporary discipline – both in its good and bad aspects.  Like those who would give us useless universalizing generalizations and predictions from their social inquiries, Fukuyama’s (mis)reading of development makes it harder to see where the real problems are, and how we might address them.

OK, two posts for today, because I can’t help myself. Yeah, I am a social scientist. Which means that people either think I run control experiments on various populations (an idea that freaks me out)*, or they think that I have no method to my research at all – I just sort of run around, talk to a few people until I get bored or run out of money, and then come back and write it up.

Of course, both views are crap.  Good social science is founded on rigorous fieldwork and data whose validity can be verified.  How one collects that data, and verifies that validity, varies – it depends on what you are studying.  For whatever reason, though, people have a hard time understanding this.  Quick story: a former chair of my department, during a debate about field methods, actually once asked me if it was really possible to teach someone to do interviews and participant observation.  My response: “I didn’t pop out of the womb able to do this, you know.”  End of discussion, thankfully.

But now I have found someone who has written this up nicely – Wronging Rights (absolutely hilarious, and totally awful, all at the same time – just go read for a bit and then feel bad about yourself for laughing.  Everyone does) has a great post on the subject that links to a series of even better posts at Texas in Africa that covers it (see the Wronging Rights post link to connect to the relevant Texas in Africa posts).

Social scientists, get to reading.  Journalists, read this and understand why you are not social scientists.  Especially you, Thomas Friedman.  And the rest of you . . . never, ever ask me if you can teach someone to do social science . . .

*controlled experiment: what, am I supposed to pick two identical villages (no such thing), and then start to work with one village while studiously ignoring the other village no matter what happens to that community (i.e. drought, food insecurity, disease, what have you) because I need to preserve the integrity of my control group?  There are other ways to establish the validity of one’s results . . .