More Than a Headline: Scholarship on Today’s Hot-Button Issues

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Research methods, research ethics, research dissemination are typically central to my writing. Keeping up with relevant scholarly developments, new articles, blog and social media posts within my eclectic field can readily lead to information overload. But lately the news of  each day makes it difficult to focus on the usual information streams and professional activities. Clearly, I am not alone ­—it is hard to ignore the shifts in attention in the academic world, let alone the world at large. Previously staid publications are deliberating about political dilemmas, and planning special issues one social problems. Professional societies typically focused on exchange between members are encouraging members to speak up publicly (and take to the streets).

It goes without saying that scholars have been studying social, political, and cultural questions since the beginning of time—but if they are not publishing in the journals we typically read, we could have easily missed them. Now might be an ideal opportunity to step outside our usual boundaries. It is more important than ever to gain a deeper understanding and richer context for the problems we collectively face than is possible from glimpsing the headlines flashing across our screens. Here are a few examples of contemporary scholarship about some of today’s front-page issues: racism, climate change, and immigration. These articles represent studies conducted by researchers from a variety of countries and disciplines who used diverse research methods.

Bias and Race: I selected two articles that define and examine old and new variations of racism experienced by African-Americans in the United States.

To surface interconnections between racial bias, conflict, and policy-making in the United States, Kevin Drakulich (2015) carried out a correlational analysis of data drawn from studies about prejudice, inequality, and social movements. He studied ways that “policies tied to group interests may be advocated by tapping into latent concerns about potential threats to racial group positions—in other words by activating racial biases” (Drakulich, 2015, p. 243). He pointed to “new forms of racism” that emphasize inherent disposition and individual choice. From this view, African American or Hispanic individuals are jailed because they make bad decisions, not because they are part of a racial group. This ideology supports the use of the criminal justice system as a remedy, rather than improved social supports or policies that address income and social inequality. At the same time Drakulich discovered that more overt forms of racism are increasingly seen as socially unacceptable. He observed a “seeming paradox in modern US race relations: that open expressions of racial antipathy and support for overtly racist policies like segregation have declined while opposition to programs designed to address racial inequalities and support for harsher punitive policies with race-disproportionate effects have remained steady” (p. 563).

In some ways, implicit forms of racism can be even more difficult to fight. Yet Jonathan Livingston et al. (2017) found a resurgence of activism in the African American community, with more pervasive enthusiasm to fight racism of all kinds. The research design used correlational and cross-sectional analyses of surveys conducted with 187 participants from the African American church community in two United States cities (Livingston et al., 2017).

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The study proposed that “African Americans who are more critically aware of the sociopolitical context in which they are embedded, are able to understand the causes for social impingements affecting their community, and can identify resources needed to address concerns and improve their community will be more active” (p. 287). Livingston (2017) used the term empowerment to describe critical awareness about issues affecting the community as well as the ability to identify and mobilize resources to address them.

Livingston observed that much of the literature about African-American activism is based on studies of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s. He suggested that more research is needed to understand not only the new forms of racism that interested Drakulich (2015), but also the factors that influence members of the African-American community to become active and engaged in the change process.

Climate Change and Sustainability: I chose two articles on the interrelated topics of climate change and sustainability that have a common thread: all of these researchers posit the need for multi-disciplinary, cross-sector collaboration to better understand and address these pressing issues.

In their introduction to a special issue on “Climate and Beyond. The Production of Knowledge about the Earth as a Signpost of Social Change” for the journal Historical Social Research, Swiss researchers Andrea Westermann and Christian Rohr (2015) point out that the fields of environmental history, history of the earth, earth and environmental sciences are converging with fields of research related to natural disasters, transnational politics and governance. To understand and analyze the “confluence of heterogeneous data streams and forms of knowledge” they suggest that data collection and interpretation methods will need to be drawn from the scientific as well as the social sciences fields.

Educators are trying to take a multidisciplinary perspective on sustainability and climate. For example, Allen Hill and Janet Dyment (2016) used a mixed-methods approach to study an Australian effort to include of sustainability as one of three cross-curriculum priorities implemented throughout the country (Hill & Dyment, 2016). Their online survey asked principals and curriculum leaders to respond to both qualitative questions and quantitative scales about the integration of sustainability into their programs and the staff capabilities, professional development, necessary for success. The strongest area of agreement across participants was for support by the principal and alignment with school philosophy. In another area of agreement, participants indicated that inadequate teacher knowledge and skills related to sustainability meant that teachers needed more time in order to understand new subject matter before they could teach it. Hill and Dyment advocated for both top-down and bottom-up solutions that would improve teaching and learning and thoroughly infuse this program into school life. The motivation for overcoming obstacles was passionately articulated:

[T]he reality facing our own and future generations is that transformative shifts to more sustainable ways of living is not an optional extra or ‘add-on’. It is an imperative that simply cannot be ignored. The role that education must play in these shifts is well established. (p. 239)

Immigration: Immigrants’ adaptation to life in the United States was a theme in two selected articles. Kristina Lovato-Hermann (2017) studied Mexican young adults, and Rihab Mousa Yako and Bipasha Biswas (2014) studied Iraqi professionals (Yako & Biswas, 2014).

Yako and Biswas (2014) conducted a cross-sectional mixed methods study to explore the adaptation and acculturation of Iraqi immigrants to American life. The authors highlighted prior research about acculturation stages that can include both integration into and rejection of the new culture. They utilized survey questionnaires followed by in-depth interviews to elicit responses from Iraqi residents living in Detroit, Michigan and St. Louis, Missouri (Yako & Biswas, 2014, p. 135). All participants identified the same top three essentials: adequate housing in safe environments, financial aid for at least a year or two during the transition, and a year-long English-speaking program. The sample for this study included professionally trained individuals who were also concerned about being able to transfer their skills into the kinds of jobs that would allow them to support their families.

Yako and Biswas (2014) found that religion could either add to or reduce acculturation stress. Christian refugees who had escaped religious prosecution were more readily welcomed into their new communities and Muslim refugees felt more isolated as religious minorities. At the same time, perceptions of freedom to pursue one’s religion contributed to lower acculturative stress. The researchers recommended that further research should “give voice to Iraqi refugees’ own declaration of what would be most helpful to them when they arrive in a new culture” (Yako & Biswas, 2014, p. 140).

Lovato-Hermann (2016) used a phenomenological approach to study the adjustment experiences of young immigrants who were separated from and then reunited with their families. She conducted in-depth interviews with 10 Mexican youth, evenly split between male and female participants. Semi-structured interviews allowed the researcher to explore the adjustment experience in three domains: family relations, educational relations, and social relations. She found that when young adults were separated for many years, their parents had sometimes remarried and had other children, so they had to find a place within a new current family configurations. They may have been raised by grandparents and other relatives since infancy, with little connection to the mothers and fathers.

Male and female participants narrated the adjustment process differently because their families had very different expectations based on gender. Female participants were often expected to move into a caretaker role within the home, including caring for new stepsiblings and serving as a translator between the mother and community services. Female participants found school more positive outlook and were able to forge social support systems with new peers and community. In contrast, male participants were not under the same pressure to be responsible for the family and could do as they pleased. While less burdened by than their sisters, they described feeling more disconnected from their parents. Male participants discussed difficulties with school, poor grades, as well as social risks including crime and gang recruitment.

Lovato-Hermann (2017) situated study implications in the context of social work practice, and highlighted the need for school and community practitioners to understand adjustment obstacles for male and female youth who rejoin birth families after long separations. She also recommended that “interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, triangulated research is essential to begin to understand the lived experiences of this understudied population” (p. 389).

What can we do?

We can’t hope to become experts about such complicated issues by reading a few articles. However, if we can tiptoe outside our usual professional and disciplinary boundaries perhaps we can gain some respect for histories, complexities, and convergent/divergent perspectives on hot-button issues. Multidisciplinary solutions were emphasized throughout this small selection of articles– perhaps in these difficult times we are called upon to contribute our own expertise to research and/or practice.

Feel free to add your own references in the comment area, or links relevant readings.


References

Drakulich, K. M. (2015). The hidden role of racial bias in support for policies related to inequality and crime. Punishment & Society, 17(5), 541-574. doi:10.1177/1462474515604041

Hill, A., & Dyment, J. E. (2016). Hopes and prospects for the sustainability Cross-Curriculum Priority: Provocations from a state-wide case study. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 32(3), 225-242. doi:10.1017/aee.2016.20

Livingston, J. N., Bell Hughes, K., Dawson, D., Williams, A., Mohabir, J. A., Eleanya, A., . . . Brandon, D. (2017). Feeling no ways tired: A resurgence of activism in the African American community. Journal of Black Studies, 48(3), 279-304. doi:10.1177/0021934717690526

Yako, R. M., & Biswas, B. (2014). We came to this country for the future of our children. We have no future’: Acculturative stress among Iraqi refugees in the United States. International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 38(January), 133-141. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2013.08.003

2 thoughts on “More Than a Headline: Scholarship on Today’s Hot-Button Issues

  1. The state of sustainability research and practice, including but not limited to climate change, demands this type of interdisciplinary research. In 2015, with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in conjunction with the Paris Agreement, 17 cross-cutting areas including poverty reduction, water, climate change, cities, partnerships, food and more created a focus for action at all scales that must be supported by interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

    We need the new thinking that comes from not only new information in the various fields, but from a blending of approaches and problem-solving methods. Thank you for your call to get out of our comfort zones and collaborate on finding new solutions to these “wicked” problems.

  2. This sounds fascinating Janet.

    What struck me after reading your post was that we share a common concern for what I call a “generous community”, a generous way of being in a research/learning community and creating welcoming spaces in the sciences for deliberation and dialogue – including for me to be challenged by paradigms and world views that may be somewhat uncomfortable but which stretch and expand!

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