How not to be WEIRD in social psychology: Solution proposals for issues facing social psychologists in or from developing countries
01.11.2017, by Sibylle Classen in opinion
By Fouad Bou Zeineddine, Assistant Professor, The American University of Cairo, Egypt
There are many problems in social psychology, as we all know. At EASP Granada 2017, I introduced a list of proposals for solutions to one of these: the disadvantages faced by social psychologists from and in developing countries, beyond the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) nation-states. These proposals come through suggestions made in interviews on this topic with 10 social psychologists at various career stages in the Middle East, North and South Africa, South America, and East and South-east Asia. Regretfully, I was not able to connect with colleagues in other regions. This lack of interconnectivity between us is itself one of our problems.
Our colleagues raised the issue of being on the periphery of research and resource networks in multiple ways. The three main aspects of this marginalization they listed were:
- In professional development potential and expertise – many of our colleagues were shocked at the average job conditions and compensation in the US and Northern Europe. Graduate students in our colleagues’ countries, as well as our colleagues themselves, were often unaware of the conditions and requirements in the international job market, and cited severe lack of vacancies and growth potential in their domestic markets. They lacked the privileges of professional development support suitable for international competitiveness and the networks of research contacts in research centers such as the US or Europe to pass on to their students.
- In academic development potential and expertise – many of our colleagues cited great need and lack of support in publication and grant writing, including such institutionally and culturally privileged information as journal and grant sponsor “hidden transcripts” and implicit standards and norms in international and top-ranked journals.
- In the difficulties of geographical distance and currency exchange relative to the “centers” of global research in Europe and North America, and discriminatory disadvantages in travel for professional interviews or conferences, and for acquisition of or access to the best materials and resources.
This asymmetry in logistical and professional expertise and access to resources aggravates already present discrimination by admissions committees, journal reviewers and editors, as well as national differences in mobility, security, and access to resources. But it is not only residents of the developing world that are disadvantaged, or who face risks and obstacles not faced by our developed country colleagues. Both expatriates (in developed countries) and local researchers from developing countries found that: “[there is a] charity discourse, and a disempowered work environment. Everything is framed as handouts from countries, universities, funders with more money. It is harder to be self-sufficient if one is not already secure.”
Expatriate researchers face insecurities and constraints not faced by any other group, regardless of national origin, though even there, there is a hierarchy, such that expatriates of developing country origin face more problems than those of WEIRD nations, and are sometimes exploited for their citizenship specifically, in order to enable WEIRD advisors or departments to study politically or culturally sensitive “hot” topics. In the words of one colleague, there is a “hostile environment [that] is disempowering. We [expats] feel less entitled to object, criticize, or take initiative…”
Our colleagues also pointed to security and political risks in places other than “hot” zones such as the Middle East. Fieldwork safety and security is a very serious issue in many countries. So much so that in some African and Asian countries, field researchers are resigning or leaving social research and action entirely due to intimidation, obstruction, or psychological or physical injury. In one example in South Africa, death threats were issued to a white researcher “colluding” with black and Indian colleagues conducting field research. That researcher subsequently left academia.
The impression among our colleagues was also that, as educational budgets continue to be cut, we still fail to adequately demonstrate the societal benefits in practice that would protect our field and its funding. As one colleague noted: “The discipline is not well known or easily recognized in public discourse and therefore is not sought after the way it could be [...] There is an urge to do applied rather than basic work, but [especially] in areas such as intergroup relations, the jump from basic to applied social psychology is not always straightforward in terms of establishing a partnership between the public/civil society sectors and academia, so that research projects produced can help address in a more direct manner real and existing problems in society.” This is an organizational and empirical issue that social psychology as a whole must begin to address systematically and globally, in collaboration with, at the least, lawyers, political scientists, economists, and sociologists.
Our problems are your problems, and your problems are ours. Whether it is in terms of our working conditions, or in terms of working in politically sensitive areas of social psychology, dealing with self-censorship, censorship, repression, and dependence on conditional and politicized funding, these problems are increasingly global and not limited to social psychology. The facilitation or acceptance of these constraints anywhere, but particularly in developed countries and prestigious institutions held by so many as role models, contributes to the ongoing global race to the bottom on social scientists’ economic and political power and relevance and the quality and output of their scientific contributions.
Our colleagues have suggested some proposals to alleviate some of these issues. I list as many of these specific proposals as possible given the word limits imposed:
Connectivity and inclusion
- Create databases of representative contacts and volunteers with the experience and centrality in international research networks in and for every global region or country, to assist researchers on academic, consulting, and professional development issues. Establish a sponsorship program where senior faculty donate time and funding to pre-tenure needs directly and provide mentorship.
- Establish hybrid online/live participatory conferences, if online-only ones are not desirable. Such conferences have been conducted in many fields and industries for years.
- It can take an international applicant 4-8 months to get an EU or US visa application together, especially to the countries that usually host conferences, in the UK, EU, and US. Adjust timelines accordingly.
- “Exploiting foreignness of students by western academics”, as one Middle Eastern PhD student put it, is a common problem, especially for those of us who come from “problem” regions for the West, such as the Middle East or China. Understand differences in style, language, culture, publication norms, political sensitivities and consequences of work etc., particularly when hiring or admitting or collaborating with someone from “those” countries. And, address the hyper-focus on stereotype-reinforcing research in countries abroad (e.g., Middle Eastern research on conflict, intergroup relations, sexism etc.). Recognize and study or help study the many phenomena in non-Western societies that are unique and scientifically generative but that are not Western economic or political or cultural “interests”
- When research is conducted abroad, at least translate your abstracts or headline findings and theoretical contributions to the native languages of the populations you examined, and ensure that material is received by locals who are able to disseminate and/or act on them in those countries.
- Make more efforts to expand inclusion of natives in research projects abroad. As one researcher said, “reach out for contacts! The EU needs contacts as much as the Middle East. Reach out, instead of always waiting for us to come groveling.” Establish equitable partnerships with universities in the region for graduate programs and bring funding/meetings to locales of research. Normalize having extra (e.g., security) staff accompanying local field researchers as needed as well as provision of formalized support and medical care for vulnerable and traumatized researchers in fieldwork.
- Establish training workshops for admissions and PhD committees in developing countries. Writing admissions and job applications and reference letters and dissertations are culturally variant and continually evolving practices that can severely impact the trajectory of social psychologists from outside the developed countries.
- Establish permanent roles for contact points between associations implementing divergent organizational and solutions, to identify and exchange best practices. This may also be useful to do between innovative journal and peer review management and editors. It is incumbent on us to figure out best practices systematically.
Establish funds derived directly from academics/academic organizations. Funding that comes from governmental or private sources, even when it goes to academic or non-profit organizations, is increasingly not trusted in politically sensitive countries and topics.
Establish or host or sponsor a crowdfunding venue exclusive to social psychologists in or after graduate study, so we can support each other’s’ projects of interest. This may help those who may need to resort to crowdfunding, as has been happening more frequently in academia, to sidestep the discomfort of pursuing a funding approach that is entirely unlinked to any disciplinary, organizational, or institutional source, and which may produce social censure, suspicion, or de-legitimization in countries where such practices are considered evidence of incompetence or low status.
Advocate for reinstatement of subsidies for international sales of reference books, and support regional efforts in publication of tailored versions appropriate for these regions.
- Establish a dedicated (formalized) peer review pre-publication hub for social science to be funded jointly by journals, associations, social science departments, and researcher contributions. Or alternatively, begin to empower a norm of “live” peer review, where reviews count as publications in the way that commentaries do for target articles in journals such as Brain and Behavior.
- Normalize triple blind peer review for traditional publication, where submission remains anonymous to the editor until a decision is made (as the cultural “sound” of a name or university affiliation is enough to bias people, as we know). Furthermore, work to resolve the double standard requiring representative samples from international samples but accepting convenience (university student) samples in single-country research in developed countries.
- Support the EU Competitiveness Council’s ambitious drive towards open access science.
These are some of our colleagues’ experiences, thoughts, and suggestions. I hope that at least some will be taken up and be useful in resolving some of the many problems facing our field and our most disadvantaged colleagues. Please contact me with any feedback or support regarding any of these ideas, or with other, better ideas.
Fouad Bou Zeineddine, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
American University of Cairo
New Cairo, Egypt