Synopsis: In this article Paul Dodenhoff looks at social sciences and statistics in regard to disability hate crime.
What is the most accurate social research method, qualitative data (subjective people's experiences) or quantitative data (statistical or numerical data)This is an academic question I came across many years ago. It's a simple question, but one that may actually have a complex and intriguing answer.
Crime arising from the hostility of the perpetrator towards the disability, or perceived disability, of the victim, or because of their perceived connection to disability.
It is certainly a highly contested area of debate that has largely been left invisible to the general public, despite the mountains of research projects that continue to rely on statistical data to sell their 'wares'. Arguably, it is an area of mystery left 'mysterious' to the general public because so many people make a very good living out of it - namely scientists, academics, statisticians, politicians and marketing, just to name a few.
Additionally, many social scientists plump for either one methodology rather than the other, and it is certainly viewed within academia that "never the twain stall meet". But why
In simple terms, when early social research began more than a hundred years ago, it closely modeled the methods and ethos of conventional medicine and western science in order to understand and control the social environment, in a similar way that western science had tried to understand and control the natural world.
However, while western science was certainly innovative, it was a voyage of discovery not based upon assimilating or building upon previous philosophical knowledge about the physical or social world that had already been gathered worldwide over many thousands of years, but a voyage of discovery that effectively eradicated previous philosophical thought because it was considered 'inferior'.
That is partially the reason why 'alternative' methods or 'traditional' therapies have had such a hard fight in regaining both a foothold and respect within the western world in recent times, and in many cases, some still viewed as 'quackery' by western science and medicine.
While, western science was considered and argued to be completely 'objective' and 'unbiased', based solely upon objective observation or experimentation (and eventually statistical analysis) it was therefore free from the 'whims', 'foibles' and 'belief systems' of human beings. However, the extent that western science has achieved this aim of objectivity has been subject to much heated debate many years since.
While there has undoubtedly been many significant scientific advancements and breakthroughs over the years, and many that have improved life generally for most people, many of these advances have arguably also been motivated primarily by economic reasons and/or for private 'profit', rather than for purely advancing human kind. This is a really important point to make, as many improvements in life can be argued to have been such a by-product of scientific thought, not as its primary motivation.
While it is not necessary a bad thing in itself to want to make money, but history is littered with many occasions when western science and western medicine has caused more harm than good - 'Thalidomide' for example.
Any look back through the history of western science illuminates not only its advancements and achievements, but also practices that are now regarded as highly racist or fraudulent, generating many falsehoods where 'truths' and 'facts' that were discovered in one decade where often proven completely false in another.
But it also constructed an authoritative knowledge base of 'ability' based upon physical and mental prowess that has had many detrimental consequences for physically impaired and mentally impaired people worldwide. A knowledge base where measurements and comparisons of physical mobility or mental IQ signify superiority and inferiority within the social world, where 'impairments' are actively constructed, feared and therefore controlled for or contained.
So, what about the implications for social science
The social sciences primarily originated in order to investigate and control the social environment, in a similar way that the natural sciences had tried to investigate and control the natural world. This included human behavior within the newly developed workplaces and factory's, as well as social behavior and conflict beyond the workplace.
During the 1960's and 1970's, social science became arguably highly productive, guided to some extent by popular social movements and social conflicts that began to fervently highlight the inequality, injustice and oppression of peoples, not only worldwide but upon our own doorstep.
So, what about today
Arguably, the social sciences have generally taken a backward step within the 'western world' in recent years. In my view, this is partially through a general lack of state and private funding for important social projects, but also through a shift away from qualitative data that highlight and illuminate the actual experiences of oppressed and marginalized groups, with a shift back towards 'proper' science, such as the use of numerical (empirical) data and statistics.
Firstly, statistical evidence has its uses, but it is a flawed methodology that contains an inbuilt error within the system that cannot reliably prove one way or another that something is 'truth' or 'fact'. All that statistical data can do is to highlight that there may be a correlation between a number of variables, not offer concrete proof of anything.
This may be difficult for the general public to understand, because we exist within a social world that wants cold, hard facts, proof and evidence. However, when much of this evidence is based upon 'statistical' methods, we still cannot say conclusively that something is proven or not proven, and that it is still very much a case of 'suck it and see'.
Despite inbuilt error within the mathematics, both western science and the social sciences use such data to argue that their research is 100% valid and reliable. Both sciences spend time considering arguments and theories, then use statistics to back up their conclusions one way or another, but almost in a similar way that politicians use numerical data as 'facts' to back up one dodgy policy or another.
For me, this is where the main problem originates.
While quantitative data is an important tool if used correctly, there are arguably occasions where statistics are used primarily to bamboozle the general public into backing something or into agreeing to something that often isn't in their own best interest, but in the self-interest of groups who are pushing that research or policy.
As a social researcher, my job is to try and accurately understand the social world in an unbiased and objective way, and present that information in an unbiased manner. However, time and time again I have come across numerical data and statistics that are clearly being used to push one line of argument or another, without mentioning the glaringly obvious flaws within the research or the data.
One example of this is the UK's obsession with attitude surveys, opinion polls and measurements, where such data is consistently churned out to back political, economic or social policy.
I have heard the argument time and time again that attitudes towards disability have improved over the years and are still improving (according to statistics), but where clearly within the UK, attitudes towards disability have not altered that dramatically. And where incidents of officially recorded 'hate crime' incidents against physical or mental impairment are at least four times less than those reported by other means.
To be fair, this error in the recording and measurement of disability hate crime within the UK has now been recognized by the UK government, but it is also fair to say that all governments use such data primarily as 'smoke and mirrors' that intentionally muddy the waters a little, as far as important social issues are concerned. Otherwise they may have to spend money in order to tackle such important social problems, and in general, what the public don't know about, they won't worry about.
That is why, it is extremely important that we don't take any numerical data or statistical data as the 'truth' or 'proof' of any situation, but interrogate that data in order to discover what that data is actually telling us and what it is hiding, and particularly how it is being used to sell something - be that an product, opinion or social policy.
As the title of this piece is called Disability Hate Crime - " Lies, damned lies, and statistics " , all of us should be aware how statistics and numerical data are often used to herd us in one direction or another like sheep, by misinformation, and primarily for monetary gain or political self-interest.
Other articles by Paul Dodenhoff in this series relating to disability hate crime include:
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