Who studies us and our systems?
May 16, 2010 2:37 AM   Subscribe

What breakthrough researchers- with their methods & fields- are examining interactions between behavior and social structures.

I would like to see all the variety of fields that examine it and the top researchers. (Forrester - systems dynamics, Collins - interaction chains, etc)I am primarily interested in data-driven research methods.

The ultimate goal is to help me see which researchers and fields to pursue further research in. I am intentionally being vague about my background to not unintentional focus ideas.
posted by elationfoundation to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's theory of autopoiesis looks at life forms as bounded, self-creating system that are structurally coupled with their environments. The biological cell is the classic example of such a system, but it can be used on more macro levels to describe the individual human or a social system, and to explain such phenomena as knowledge, language, and cognition. You might be particularly interested in Niklas Luhmann, who applies autopoiesis to social systems theory. The Tree of Knowledge is a lovely little book that introduces the theory in a very accessible manner.
posted by c lion at 8:25 AM on May 16, 2010

How institutions or context affect mass or elite behavior are very common research questions in economics, especially public choice economics, and political science.

They're both sufficiently common and the breakthrough researchers were long enough ago that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to think about who the breakthrough researchers are.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:34 AM on May 16, 2010

You need to specify more parameters, as your two examples are very field-specific (as is the phrasing of the question -- the idea that "behavior" and "social structure" refer to actual things in the world that "interact" being somewhat deprecated as a metaphor in my fields of research these days).

Also, "data driven" is quant-head code for "not qualitative," and it's something of an insult in this context where you're actually seeking alternative perspectives on a fundamental question of social theory. Those of us who do qualitative behavioral research consider our work plenty "data driven," just more empirically real than most quant work that presumes the existence of obvious and naturalistic variables accessible to objective description by a distanced observer in the domain of social behavior (aka positivism). (Anyway, all seriously scientific social research entails making interpretive, qualitative models of real world situations before you even know which "variables" can be quantified as "data." But I'm channeling Howard Becker, which I do too much.)

What would research that was *not* "data driven" even look like? The question isn't whether you use data, but what kind of data you use.

In anthropology, the method of choice remains ethnography, an incredibly messy, complicated, ad hoc, improvisational, emergent and individuated approach to the "interaction" of these two abstractions ('behavior' and 'social structure') that is based on the claim that this interaction is itself messy, complicated, ad hoc, improvisational, emergent, and individuated. We used to call it "culture," actually -- and some of us, mostly in linguistic anthropology, still do.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:41 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, "data driven" is quant-head code for "not qualitative,"

I'm more or less a quant-head and I usually hear "data driven" as broadly equivalent to "casual empiricism" or "naive data mining", with its opposite being "theory-driven." Anyway, it's also a pejorative for bad quant research.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fair enough, ROU . . . I'm currently doing battle with a particularly bad quantitative study (whose IRB approval I have challenged) so I'm ultra sensitive at the moment.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:39 AM on May 16, 2010

Best answer: Community psychology looks at an individual as part of a larger system- they examine forces outside of the individual (e.g., family, neighborhood, culture, social forces like oppression) that impact that person's life, and how individuals in turn impact the systems.

Some of the most commonly cited people in community psych are Seymour Sarason and Julian Rappaport, as they are essentially two of the grandfathers of the field. However, Sarason's dead and Rappaport's retired. In terms of people still doing research, the top people in the field are going to be specific to their research interests. I study sexual assault from a community psychology perspective, and some of the top community psych-oriented people in that field are Mary Koss (University of Arizona, in public health, which is very similar to community psych), Rebecca Campbell (Michigan State), Sarah Cook (Georgia State), and Sarah Ullman (University of Illinois at Chicago).

To my knowledge, Michigan State has the top community psych program, if you're looking for a grad school. They have rock stars there including William Davidson (who runs an amazing adolescent diversion project), Pennie Foster-Fishman (commonly cited in the systems change literature), Cris Sullivan (one of the top domestic violence researchers), and Rebecca Campbell (one of the top sexual assault researchers).

If "data driven" does indeed mean not qualitative, you may not be happy in community psych. While there are a ton of people doing quantitative work, there's also a lot of qualitative and mixed-methods research. Participatory action research, where the researcher builds relationships with the researched and empowers them to direct the course of the research, is a technique used in community psych. However, to say that the work done by non-quant community psychologists is not rigorous would be erroneous.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:06 AM on May 16, 2010

Response by poster: fourcheesemac: true, I used very field-specific wording. Long term cultural change around behavioral norms as impacted by rules, laws, and organizational structures would be one way to say it. I apologize if my "data-driven" term was excessively laden with meaning. ROU_xenophobe was right on there. I want to work in an environment where I will be expected to force my data into pre-existing theories.

Thank you for the help so far.
posted by elationfoundation at 11:36 AM on May 16, 2010

Best answer: These are all from criminology, or the sociologists who studied crime before criminology was invented. To one extent or another, they examine the effect of social structures on crime/ criminality, sometimes quite literally:

Cohen and Felson--Routine activity theory.
Brantingham and Brantingham--environmental criminology
McKay and the Chicago school criminologists: social disorganization theory
Shermand and Weisburd (and others)--crime and place theory
Reiss--community based policing (and criminology)

I add crime and place and the environmental theories because part of the idea is that social structures have influence on the built environment, which in turn influences the patterns of human behavior (and and concentration of crime) that you see in very small places--at addresses, street segments, street blocks, and so on. The methods are most often quantitative in this area of research, although there is a growing interest in mixed methods and qualitative research. I'm not sure if this is what you're going for or not, but I hope it's helpful. I'm definitely oversimplifying a bit with this summary, MeMail me if you'd like some specific references/ discussion.
posted by _cave at 12:46 PM on May 16, 2010

Well...the Chicago School was sociology, I guess. They've since been adopted by criminology, but calling them criminologists isn't really correct
posted by _cave at 12:50 PM on May 16, 2010

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