Monday, July 14, 2014

Behavioural Science and Interdisciplinary Research

An issue we have been discussing in relation to the centre is the range of disciplines to engage. As well as being an interesting academic exercise, this is important for a number of practical reasons. For example what graduates should we encourage to study with us for MSc and PhD (see our MSc programme here)? Which disciplines should we include in our workshops and seminars (events programme here)? Which disciplines should we seek to collaborate more with in terms of research (our publications here)? What collaborations might be built in terms of graduate courses and so on?

Below is a partial list of the disciplines that I believe could easily collaborate with the type of researchers in our group and others emerging globally under the broad behavioural science banner. As well as being partial it is also very broad-brush and we would need library shelves to do justice fully to even some of the bilateral interactions. Jon Elster's "Explaining Social Behaviour: More Nuts and Bolts for Social Sciences" is one of the best books I have read attempting to outline how social sciences interlock. Becoming an expert in all these areas would be too much for most if not all groups. But having a broad interdisciplinary attitude could facilitate understanding of many key problems. As a fundamentally cross-disciplinary effort behavioural science researchers are in a good position to drive this type of work.

Economics is my obvious starting point having developed from an Economics PhD. The development of market theory and the theories of consumer and firm provide a strong backdrop for modern behavioural science. The development of the behavioural economics paradigm has been instrumental in the wider development of an interdisciplinary behavioural science. Applied micro-econometric techniques increasingly underpin the evidence base for behavioural science. Management fields such as marketing, organisational studies and so are also clearly related.

Psychology is another obvious one and, along with Economics, form the two disciplines most commonly referred to as behavioural science. One view of what is happening now is a second marriage of psychology and economics after an unhappy century of separation (albeit with regular visits). Disciplines such as social psychology, health psychology, cognitive psychology provide many of the core ideas driving this area. Fields such as linguistics have also been involved in some recent papers (e.g. Chen on language and economic behaviour).

Disciplines such as sociology, political science, international relations are also clearly important in understanding societal and institutional forces impacting on behaviour. Identity sociology is already a key component of the literature (see my reading list on this). In particular, George Akerlof has been arguing that narratives have a causal role in the maintenance of group economic inequality and business cycles. His book Identity Economics, co-authored with Rachel Kranton, outlines their ideas in this area.

The inclusion of natural sciences is also widely being pursued across areas like neuroscience, genetics, epigenetics, human development and so on. Understanding biological mechanisms is clearly an important aspect of understanding decisions and outcomes. The labs of people like James HeckmanNic Christakis and Ernst Fehr attest to this.

Many of the questions in behavioural science have ethical, legal and philosophical ramifications. One of the main figures in the development of the field, Cass Sunstein, is a prominent legal scholar. His thoughts on behavioural findings and their implications for regulation are documented, among many other places, in this article. Here is also a reading list on philosophical and ethical aspects of behavioural intervention I discussed earlier.

Spatial geography, environmental studies and history are both clearly important disciplines for understanding the impact of policies over long time-periods. For issues like causal identification of non-experimental impacts, scaling up and so on, such disciplines are key.

Ethnography and anthropology potential contribute substantially to understanding behaviour in its context. George Akerlof has done a huge amount of work on cross-over of anthropology and economics. I have to admit my own reading on this area is far more partial than it should be as I am often struck by how relevant social anthropological papers on economic issues are for the type of work emerging from behavioural science.

I posted before on humanities and behavioural economics. There are obviously important ways in which humanities should impact on the study of behaviour and one crucial way is understanding ideology and power relations.

One clear way in which such disciplines can collaborate on behavioural topics is in specific problems e.g issues like organ donation or pension auto-enrolment cut across many areas of thought. Workshops built around interdisciplinary explanations of such problems is one way we will try to build more links.

1 comment:

Marlon Witbooi said...

I made an interesting leap of faith in my final year of High school. I originally wanted to study Bcom Accounting (CA) because I have always wanted to be a businessman. And all my subjects I took was business-orientated. Yet all the co-curricular activities was more focused in humanities being part of Student Counsel, Spiritual leader, Hostel prefect etc. But after seeing my June results, I wasn't as confident that my chosen field was in fact my chosen field. And I did some introspection to find out who am I really and what am I good at. Needless to say, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to help people understand themselves better and I decided on Psychology. I am currently doing my honours in Group Dynamics.

I never realised how all the subjects I did and activities took part in correlated and pointed in a direction while I was going the other way. Also, the value of all the different subjects in school and how they are connected when looking at the underlying, hidden reasons we're suppose to do it. For example maths is a great example of solving problems, literature shows us that there's hidden messages in the things we say and how we say it and how social sciences and history give an indication towards how we can understand society through their customs and traditions.

For example, looking at how I took my decision to be a businessman. From a functional perspective, I may have taken in the general trend of values and expectations from society because one thing I've been seeing in movies, saw on television and maybe even my own family is to be independent and give back to the community which is something entrepreneurs and businesses do generally. Society is also hugely dependant on the economic current of a country which is hugely affected by politics and government. So I could've seen being a businessman would be my role in society, creating jobs for people and sponsoring initiatives that helps the community.

Looking from a social constructionist view, I could've predicted that looking at my results that I might have predicted that university accounting would be out of my reach, and that the accompanying factors such as the pressure and stress and hectic deadlines would not fit me as an individual.

I wouldn't have been able to analyse the above as I did if I possibly didn't do Psychology and currently doing my Honours in Group Dynamics. Everyone should have the ability to differentiate between things and investigating and gaining understanding from different perspectives and be able to draw conclusions and use that to make contributions to the broader community.