Constitutional Amendments Or Doing Stuff?

Three organizations I am a part of are now going through the process of “constitutional revisions.”  These include the local water association, the Sociology Department, and the California Sociological Association.  Actually the water association is not going through revisions, but last night one of the new members actually found a copy of  “The Constitution,” and sent an email noting that we no longer follow the rules, mainly because we never get a quorum.  For that matter, here in the State of California, there is a call for a Constitutional Convention, too.  All of Europe is undergoing changes to their Constitution, as well.  

       Are Constitutions ever completed and then never (or rarely) changed?  The word implies that they should be, but as far as I can tell, this rarely happens, except maybe in the US Constitution which we hire Constitutional Lawyers and Judges to gues at its meaning.  We humans do though seem to have a fascination with tweaking the rules for doing whatever stuff our organization was designed to do, rather than the actual “stuff.”

Campbell’s Law, Planned Social Change, Vietnam War Deaths, and Condom Distributions in Refugee Camps

       Donald T. Campbell was a psychologist in the heyday of the 1970s. During this time, the belief emerged that society was a social engineering project that could be planned and evaluated.  The general idea was  that if you collected enough data, you could plan and control social change in a way that led to desired results.  Economists from USAID believed this about economic development, military planners in Vietnam believed it, and Sociologists in the War on Poverty believed it.  But by 1976, Campbell wasn’t so sure…

       The generation of social scientists Campbell critiqued ran around measuring poverty, illiteracy, disease, Communism, and other bad things.  Thus in the 1970s you had Wars on Poverty, Smallpox, Illiteracy, Drugs, and so forth.  There were also violent wars in Vietnam (for the Americans), and in Afghanistan (for the Russians).  When I lived in Tanzania in the 1980s, the Tanzanian government had wars on Poverty, Ignorance, and Disease, all funded by international donors living out this paradigm.  Planners in Washington, New York, Dar Es Salaam, and elsewhere calculated with statistical precision what was needed for victory in their “war,” and allocated government money to produce the desired victory.  Their decisions were “data driven” and “evidence based,”  to borrow two words common in policy making circles today.

       Campbell was involved in such projects himself.  He was so much part of them that he wrote an unfortuantely obscure paper, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change” which reflects on the psychology of planners.  More interesting for this blog, though, is the fact that what he was really doing was taking the ethnographic temperature of number-assessed planners.   Campbell’s Law is as follows:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

      In Vietnam, Campbell pointed out, the quantitative social indicator was “enemy killed.”  Thus, he noted, this measure was corrupted as dead civilians were re-defined as “enemy,” and occasionally villages were invaded in the hope that at the unit would have kill-metric which could be rewarded.  Two examples added by other social scientists including the following: Cardiac surgeons declined to operate on seriously ill because such patients were more likely to die (duh).  They did this because the state began issuing “scorecards” rooted in survival rates.  So, since the very sick were the most likely to die in surgery (or on their own), the doctors declined to operate on the seriously sick, and preserved their high survival rates.  Another example of Campbell’s Law comes from airline schedules.  Airlines began to be scored on the basis of “on-time arrivals” in the 1980s.  They responded by simply increasing estimated flight times, thereby driving up their “on-time” rates—anytime you arrive early at a destination, thank Campbell’s Law; tailwinds probably did not have much to do with it!

     Citing “Campbell’s Law” when critiquing the United States’ “No Child Left Behind Act” is something of a fad in education circles today.  This is because high stakes testing for science and math drives decision-making about student promotion, teacher retention, and school closures.  Thus, you get extensive test prep of students in reading and math, with resultant dilution of subjects like history, science, music and the arts which are not tested for.  And of course, the ultimate vindication of Campbell’s Law are the cheating scandals by schools and teachers concerned only about “succeeding” on test day.

      Campbell’s law also applies well to other bureaucratic endeavors, especially those of applied social scientists.  My own experience is in Tanzania where projects to assist refugees or villagers were created with quantitative goals and objectives to satisfy donors, independent of what was needed or wanted by the villagers (or refugees) they were assisting.  My favorite version of Campbell’s Law was the many broken diesel powered water projects that littered western Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed a book called Watering White Elephants was written about this phenomenon.  Many of these were funded with the bureaucratic “Health for All by the year 2000” goal of WHO in mind. Quantitative reports showing that the goals of the project in terms of villagers served, villages with pumps, etc., were met. 

      For the refugees I worked with in Tanzania between 1994 and 1996, a good example was the numerical goal established for birth control in the Rwandan refugee camps.  This was right after the Rwanda genocide, and the UN was concerned about the exploding birth rates, and the costs that would be incurred by their child health programs.  The result was a bright idea: Condoms all around!  In `1995-1996, four million condoms were distributed in record time by a USAID program, a quantitative  result trumpeted at NGO meetings I attended (Quick: 4 million condoms spread across 450,000 refugees means that USAID is assuming what about the frequency of refugee sex???). 

      The visiting anthropologist hired to evaluate the program though pointed to the corruption of the condom distribution program.  The condoms, she found were not used to prevent births, which continued to rise quickly, even nine months (or more) after the big distribution.  Rather the condoms became a marker for young men to display their prowess.  The young men cut off the end of the condom and wore it as a bracelet to represent conquests.  Campbell’s Law wins again!

      Indeed, there is a ethnographic field worker’s version of Campbell’s Law which was written by the development economist Teodor Shanin in 1966 at the height of the Cold War.  Central planners in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing were running around the world applying the econometric models (Washington), or assumptions about central state planning (Moscow and Beijing) to Third World projects.  The result was Campbell’s Law writ large, as the planners with their emphasis on production targets, development plans, and so forth created goals which implementers adjusted their programs to match.  The result was that in places like the Congo, Vietnam,and  Afghanistan, all the great powers were ultimately frustrated.  Echoing Campbell’s law, Shanin wrote about the corruption of the quantitative social indictors in the following way:

Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam”  Shanin (1966).

      Which in the end points to the strengths of the ethnographic method, since after all Campbell’s Law applies to quantiative measures, not qualitative.  As long as ethnographers are the harmless fuzzballs on the wall, they are able to write about processes, interactions, relationships, and so forth that quantitative measures typically miss.  After all, Campbell’s Law itself is ultimately an ethnographic conclusion about the nature of quantitative methods. Ethnographic method may not be grand, or easily adapted to manage large bureaucratic projects, but in its insight, it can be used to describe the limitations of more quantitative projects.

Undergraduate Seminar: Doing that 1st fieldwork project for class

At some point as an undergrad, particularly if you are taking a social science class you may be asked to do some kind of field project as an assignment.  The kind where you have to go out and talk to live, squishy people… preferably strangers, write down what they say and do some form of perfunctory analysis of it.

Now of course you have some decisions to make as we talked about in other entries on this topic: you’re thinking about the grade you want, how much time it is going to take, and how to fit it in with your hectic schedule of binge drinking and procrastination. Start as usual and place the page with the description of the assignment someplace on the floor where you are sure to kick it under the bed until about a week before the due date. After these prelim’s it’s time to get down to some serious panicking. This entry is aimed at very short projects, not semester-long / team field projects.

Break down the assignment:
What, REALLY is the instructor asking for?  I have seen this in business and in class: people turn in projects that are missing the basic issues spelled out in the assignment or contract.  Does the instructor have a specific topic area they want you to cover (or a list of topics that are not to be done)?  Do they spell out exactly how they want the paper or presentation formatted.  Do they give a minimum number of people to talk to or other sources to be used? These are the minimum requirements, if you have not fullfilled them, don’t get creative and hope your cleverness will cause someone to overlook that your blew off half the requirements:  you are NOT that clever.  Yes, getting an “A” means doing above average work, but it also means you met and surpassed the requirements.  This feeds into your strategy for choosing a practical and maybe even memorable choice for your topic (Unless of course that topic has been pre-chosen for you).

What is your topic?
If the topic is not assigned to you, then you need a topic that is realistic and at least a little interesting.  Before you do anything, talk to your instructor about what you are planning to do and listen to their reactions.  Take notes because may well lay it out for you what you need to do.  If they say… “well, if you are committed but I am not sure that fits the assignment.” DO SOMETHING ELSE.  You’d be amazed how many students just pass right over that speed bump and are shocked they don’t get a higher grade or have to do the project over.  Does the instructor have a pet topic or like to see the exotic?  I once went to a nudist camp for a project, it was something the instructor had not seen someone do before and I was able to tie in some theory and I got an A.

Make sure it is doable
You want something that is realistic, can be done while you are working on your other classes, can be done again if something goes terribly wrong.  What I mean by that is don’t choose something that happens one time a year between the hours of 3am and 3:23am and if you don’t get all your info in the time span you are screwed.  Likewise you don’t want to choose something where you aren’t sure you will even get access.  For example, if you are planning on talking to people in a shopping mall, you have to get permission from the mall to do fieldwork there, as it is private property.  Don’t let that put you off, people are often very cooperative with student projects, and the worst you get is a “no.”  But by all means find out in advance so you don’t have to do last minute changes.

Don’t apologize to people for doing the project
I have seen this time and time again: People sometimes feel self-conscious about asking people to participate in class projects.  This sometimes manifests itself with them saying things like “Well, I just have this lame project I have to do for class and I would appreciate if you could help me out.”  If that is the approach, why not just say “HI, I am going to waste your time and mine and take up 30 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.”  I understand this feeling of unease you may have in getting these conversations started.  After having started countless conversations with strangers over the years for research, I still feel a little uncomfortable on the initial approach and getting started.  I have no idea why, because in nearly every case you wind up having an interesting conversation with someone you never met and that is happy to talk to you if they have time.

Do something you are interested in if possible
Fieldwork and the very active listening it requires is more tiring that you might think.  There can be a lot of standing around and just observing.  Your first interview or two may not yield much while you figure out the best way to approach topics.  If you are working on something you are interested in it can help your motivation to keep going if things get a little tough.