October 2015

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We know good social policy is based on good social research. But did you know that good social research is not often based on good information? The research process itself is set up to favour what researchers want and believe. Thus resulting research-based policies mainly favour the interests of the researchers and their institutional funders rather than benefiting the people and societies to whom the policies apply. These are the claims of UWI researcher and Professor of Language and Culture, Dr. Beatrice Boufoy-Bastick. Here is her story.

I’m a CARICOM national, with Jamaican and French dual nationality. It can be surprising what it means to be Jamaican. Obviously, the meaning of being a Jamaican is quite different for different people, particularly for younger and older Jamaicans who are in a good position to own the ‘truth’ about being Jamaican. There is a vast gender and generational gap between the Jamaican-ness of young Jamaican men and the Jamaican-ness of older Jamaican women – with considerable influence from family in the US. But I’m talking about cultural identity in terms of behaviours that communicate personal values, attitudes, beliefs and intentions, VABI. What the American philosophers call the Intentional Stance. Whereas you might be referring to ethnic look and, of course, as they say, looks can be deceptive. In cultural identity research, looks can even be misleading.

I have been fortunate to have lived and researched with the peoples of five continents. I have experienced the dire poverty of diasporic Indian cane farmers in the South Pacific. I have experienced the enormous wealth of European aristocracies. I have always tried to speak their languages, to understand what it means to be them and through these shared experiences to understand my own changing self – mine is perhaps the classic Socratic ‘examined life.’ Most importantly for me is the freedom to be who I want to be. So my me-search not only aims to measure and describe cultural identities, but helps to empower by enabling others to retain or to change their cultural identities so as to fulfil their own potential for self-actualisation.

When institutions fund ‘evidence-based research’ we must ask whose evidence the research is based on – researcher-chosen evidence or respondent-chosen evidence – who selects the facts, who determines the ‘correct’ meaning of the questions, who says which responses are valid and which are not.

For a simple, everyday example we could take those ubiquitous ‘satisfaction questions’ we are asked to answer. When I go with my family to one of our favourite restaurants in Trincity, we are often asked to fill in one of their questionnaires. If you Google ‘restaurant questionnaire’ you will get 14 million of them. Typically you are asked to ‘Please indicate your level of agreement or disagreement with the following statements’ by ticking one of 4 or 5 boxes that range from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’

Typically, restaurants want to know if their dishes are ‘tasty and delicious’ so they ask if we agree with “The dishes are tasty and delicious.” Obviously, we keep going back because we ‘strongly agree’ that the dishes are tasty and delicious, mostly, though my husband prefers different ones to those I choose. He thinks my dishes are not so tasty as the ones he chooses – but that is to do with personal preference and they are not asking about that. What most mothers would notice is that if their children are very hungry they like everything about the restaurant. But if they have been ‘snacking’ then they rate everything with less enthusiasm.

So the answers to their questions are mixed up by the needs and expectations of the respondents and have very little to do with the quality of the food and service and all the other things restaurants choose to ask about. That’s traditional research. Take the World Health Organisation’s classic question “How healthy are you? Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor.” In some countries, responses to this survey question correlate negatively with objective measures of health status.

This is mainly because healthy people have a higher expectation for their health – the smallest deviation from their expected optimal levels is reported as dissatisfaction with the level of their health. Those who are used to poor health, report their usual poor health as average and any unexpected slight improvement as being in good health. In addition, we have the current ‘happiness effect.’ Many social survey questions are actually measuring State Satisfaction (current personal satisfaction levels) and these depend on current Expectation rather than being a measure of what the question asked.

Compounding the untruths is that the questions themselves – that is their factual content – are chosen by the researcher as representing the respondents’ problem. The respondents themselves, if they had the choice, might have chosen other questions as being more important to their problem – and simply, the actual questions and the levels of response might have different meanings to the respondents than they do to the researcher. These problems are far from unknown in traditional research. They are referred to as Cultural Relativism or inter-subjectivity and are ‘swept under the carpet’ by assuming that individual cultural and subjective choices are ‘statistical errors’ that can be eliminated by asking large numbers of respondents and averaging out their differences and assuming that the average result is the ‘true’ response for each person. This average stereotyping of the group is used compared to the group with the same type of derived average for other groups – often a different ‘norm’ group that the researcher holds up to a valued standard.

I have developed a family of simple methods that work based on self-comparison rather than by comparison to foreign norm groups. It’s called ‘Culturometrics’ and it measures cultural identity. It is widely applicable in social science research because most social constructs can be reframed by taking cultural identity as the unit of analysis. So social research on crime would build on measures what it means to be a criminal. Social research on education would build on measures what it means to be educated. Social research on how to learn French would build on measures what it means to be a French language speaker, and so on.

Since the last coup the spectre of civic unrest has often been reported in Trinidad. “Culturometrics” offers a rapid appraisal of relative ethnic and national allegiances – that was trialled in Trinidad – and can be used to forewarn governments of impending civil unrest here and in other multicultural societies. The book is available on Amazon.

Crime and the Fear of Crime are major concerns in Trinidad. In Trinidad, as elsewhere, government policy is guided by public opinion culled from traditional ‘satisfaction’ surveys, which we have seen are very misleading. For example, people who are generally more fearful will report a greater fear of everything, including crime. All their expectations of losing their wealth or health get mixed-up in their responses to how much they fear different crimes. International research now links fear of crime with social welfare. However, culturometrics simply sorts out these confounding factors to measure individual’s true fear of crime. A culturometrics fear of crime survey we did for Trinidad in 2007 predicted the unprecedented fear of the more wealthy young male Indo-Trinidadians that corresponded to them being kidnapped at a time when Trinidad was publicised as the ‘kidnap capital of the world.’ A comparative culturometrics fear of crime survey we have just completed reveals that of ten demographic groups in Trinidad women and girls have suffered a huge increase in the stress that is caused by their true fear of crime.

Uncontrolled impulsive anger is a major contributor to people’s fear of crime in Trinidad. The university current has a successful anger management project running in conjunction with the prison rehabilitation services in four correctional facilities including the Maximum Security Prison. Culturometrics measures the strength of identity of Officers and Inmates as Anger Controllers before and after the Anger Management programmes. Over the first trial of the programme we have seen a significant 26% average increase in anger control. This is a popular enjoyable programme with great results which has also given training to local clinical researchers in the modern methods of culturometric assessment.

The power, simplicity and extensive applications of Culturometrics are becoming widely appreciated and we are leading this research internationally. Currently I’m working closely with four European universities giving guest lectures and workshops to faculty and postgraduate researchers on theory and applications of Culturometrics. The photo shows one of my nationally televised addresses to the Lithuanian parliament on culturometric applications to education language policies for enhancing national culture. These initiatives together with the Department’s many publications – such as Caribbean Cultural Dynamics (2015) Boufoy-Bastick & Savrina Chinien – are building UWI St. Augustine as Europe’s formal centre for Anglo-Caribbean identity research. This is supported by a Memorandum of Understanding through Mr. Sharan Singh the Director of our Office of Institutional Advancement & Internationalisation, joint PhD research supervision and international research collaborations.

Over the last four years I have been invited to edit a series of international handbooks which has involved on-going online collaboration with individual researchers and research teams comprising more than 300 researchers from over 30 countries who contributed to the series working together on a daily bases. This has now culminated in the four volume publication of 3,858 pages.

Where is education policy leading us and what is The UWI’s role in taking us there?

In democratic societies we expect the majority opinion to sway education policy. So, the puzzle is why have so many educationists, parents and even students acquiesced to the massive international degradation of public education with many still contributing to reductions in educational choice in their own schools, colleges and universities – where, under the direction of questionable economic beliefs, most education has been replaced with competitive employee training for a vague promise of jobs – a promise to all those that we train; a promise with no intention of being fulfilled. Just like loan sharks profit from the poor in times for low employment, so students with low employment opportunities flock to university training courses. Universities, under their own economic stress, have few qualms in training them all for jobs that will not be available to all who have invested in this training. Education and training are often confused. Culturometrics clarifies this in terms of cultural identities by showing that education gives informed choices of who you want to be whereas training reinforces one of those choices.