Archive for August, 2010

Engineering and agriculture as metaphors for social change

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Much of the language we use to describe and measure social change brings to mind engineering: linear, rational, technocratic. Inputs, outputs, outcomes, impact; logic models, theories of change: the flowchart functionality of powerpoint gets a workout.

But what if social change is best understood in terms of agriculture? Growing cycles, working with the seasons, crop rotation, irrigation, husbandry, seed types, terroir: would a different set of metaphors yield a different understanding of social change, help us see dynamics that aren’t visible in grids and flowcharts?

Two things stand out at first glance: seasons and terroir. Seasons: the idea that change is cyclical, and has a pattern that can be understood but never fully predicted. Terroir: the idea that the same product can have a different expression in different parts of the world, and that that difference can either be homogenized or celebrated.

What else? How prevalent are metaphors based in engineering, and how might we understand the same phenomena using metaphors based in agriculture?


The data-driven, multi-method life

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Multi-method research involves some mixture of qualitative, quantitative, and game-theoretical approaches. As I was coming up in grad school, this was increasingly becoming the norm in my department, UC Berkeley. In my own research, I combined archival research with some quantitative analysis – in part of data that I had gathered through that archival research, in part of a dataset that I created based on existing qualitative work. The qualitative work set up the quantitative analysis: I developed concepts and a theoretical framework, and examined them in a case study involving multiple episodes over time in one country. Based on that examination, I identified ways to operationalize the concepts for a broader set of countries, gathered that data, and used it to test the theoretical framework across a set of Latin American countries. In that same chapter, I did three case vignettes, looking at how my theoretical framework applied or did not in three other Latin American countries.

This is one reason I think the “data-driven life” is of necessity a multi-method one. Conceptualization and measurement are closely tied, and while measurement is viewed as quantitative, conceptualization is intensely qualitative. It’s important to understand and be clear about the conceptual frameworks underlying measurement when doing evaluation in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.

The data-driven life

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Came across an article by this title in the NYT from a few months back, about people who itemize their activities or ideas and turn them into searchable databases. Interesting, but some basic misapperceptions about the nature of data, I think. For example:

If you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them.


In other contexts, it is normal to seek data. A fetish for numbers is the defining trait of the modern manager. Corporate executives facing down hostile shareholders load their pockets full of numbers. So do politicians on the hustings, doctors counseling patients and fans abusing their local sports franchise on talk radio.

But data aren’t just numbers. And the opposite of numbers is not intuition.

A) Qualitative data can be systematized, coded, and made searchable.

B) Tools of quantitative data analysis are subject to the assumptions built into the equations, and those assumptions can be mighty hard to satisfy. And there’s an element of intuition and experimentation to the way those assumptions are made.

We need a more holistic view of what count as data. Yes, to the article’s point, more things than we think can be made into databases, but that only increases the need for interpretation. Data don’t speak for themselves….