Social Science and Climate Change

After some time in the federal government (and really let’s be honest, a bunch of government happy hours), I have gotten used to hearing some variant on:

“Beth, you’ll appreciate this…  you’re a social scientist.” 

While it is quite true that I do appreciate a wide variety of topics, the phrasing always made me somewhat curious about what people think I do all day. Particularly when the topics included things like the Kardashian’s use of social media or the latest internet meme.

The social sciences have quite a bit of work to do to better communicate what we do, and natural scientists have consciously worked to communicate about things like climate change. I believe that social science has a lot to offer in that arena.

To that end, I’ve been collecting reports for a while* that I thought I’d put in one place.  Suggestions welcome!

  • Brookings has some work on public opinion and Climate Change that is a useful discussion of the ways in which different groups look at regulatory approaches to mitigating climate change.
  • This article from Stanford Social Innovation Review engages in a discussion about the values and beliefs that underly the discussions around climate science.
  • A Pew Study on the differences between scientists and the public highlights some of the key differences in the way that the public looks at climate change (as well as other issues) and how science views their work.
  • report on the relationship between social science and science from the Campaign for Social Science in the UK. The idea that social science is “disciplined curiosity” is engaging.
  • World Social Science Report (pdf) is a behemoth, but has a lot in it that is worth reading from some excellent scholars.
  • The Anthropologists weigh in on Climate change and Anthropology (pdf).

*I found many of these articles through the excellent AAAS Fellows Social Sciences Affinity Group List Serve

What do you celebrate?

I used to work at a place where they threw a big party for you when you left. When someone would head to a new job or to go back to school, they would get a cake from a really nice bakery, take them out to lunch and spend a significant amount of time talking to them about how important they were and how excited they were to see where they would go next. At first I didn’t really get it, it seemed like a lot of time spent on making someone feel special when they were about to stop being a productive member of your organization.

But the longer I was there, the more I understood.  No one ever really goes away in a state level policy world and it was likely they would run across these people again. It made sense to value the former employee because it would lead to a better relationship with the organizations they were going to in the future. They wanted those future relationships to be positive.

The experience gave me a question that I take with me doing organizational ethnography or entering  new organizations and trying to understand how they function.

What does the organization celebrate? 

There are a limited number of things that one can celebrate. Every day can’t have cake and special balloons. So what will you set aside as an organization and consider to be worthy of attention, time and perhaps even a cake?

Here are a few different options for what might be celebrated:
– Organizational successes, such as product launches, the end of a particularly big project, goals that are accomplished or even completing a certain number of years at work.
– Endings such as retirements or when someone leaves for a new job or to go to school, or when they are promoted out of their team/organization.
– Team relationships or the weekly rhythms such as special events on Fridays or summer events. Maybe there are goofy office olympics or awards for best cubicle, or for the most interesting costume on halloween, or for that person who is nice and cleans up in the break room.
– Family changes or personal events such as birthdays, marriages or births.

It’s worth noting that there are many people within an organization that can be celebrated beyond just employees. Consider colleges who help their alumni celebrate the birth of a new child by sending them a “Bachelors of long life” or a store helping a customer celebrate their birthday with a cupcake. There are lots of options for who to celebrate.

What an organization celebrates tells you what the organization values.

Ask Better Survey Questions

Survey research sounds really easy.  Type up the questions, maybe put it on Google Forms, get a whole bunch of people to answer your questions (pester them if you have to) then bingo, you have a bunch of data. Use this data to whip up a few charts saying things like “22% of people said they had a high degree of confidence”. Maybe you can even get fancy and do a pie chart or a bar graph or a cross tab (or go extra crazy and run a regression or two)

Here’s the problem: There are a lot of bad survey questions.

It’s a major problem. I’m the strange person who loves to take surveys, who gleefully snapped a picture of my long form census taker when he asked if he could come in the house to do the face-to-face interview. I take phone surveys, surveys about politics. I don’t even mind it when the survey takes a little longer than it is supposed to. I’m pro-survey research.

But most of the time, survey questions are written SO BADLY. They’re badly worded questions that go on for way too long, they’re questions asking an opinion about something I (the questioner) care nothing about, they are questions that assume knowledge I do not have, they are questions that don’t take into account the categories I consider true or my opinions are too complex to fit into “acceptable, somewhat acceptable, Neutral, somewhat unacceptable or unacceptable”. I could rail against all the reasons the questions are so bad, but there is a solution that I would like to offer. It’s simple, but not easy.

Work backwards.

When you’re creating a survey, think about what kind of chart, analysis or outcome you want. What do you want to be able to say? What chart would come from asking these questions? Does this question measure the outcome I want to create? Create questions to construct those analyses.

Organizational Culture is a Dirty Word

A friend of mine is an anthropology professor who refuses to let her students use the word “culture” in the classroom. She says that the term is overused and it prevents students from talking about what they actually mean. She’s right. When I hear someone say “it’s because of the organizational culture” to explain the reasons why an organization did something, it makes me twitchy. Our media has begun to use this term a lot recently, and I’m getting more and more cranky about it.

Recent secret tapes about the Federal Reserve employees ineffectually regulating Goldman Sachs is concluded with a discussion of the problems with the organizational culture (This American Life/ProPublica).

  • Reports about the fact that General Motors neglected to recall defective cars is called a “cultural failing”. (WSJ).
  • The problems with Veteran’s Affairs is discussed is explained by saying there was a “corrosive culture” that led to inaction and lack of employee morale. (Politico).


The problem is that each of these news articles concludes with the idea that the culture has to change, without a sense of what *about* the culture needs to change. In the end, culture becomes a convenient scapegoat that describes the problem ambiguously enough to make any solution equally vague and meaningless. When we say “the culture needs to change” we are not saying what we actually mean, we’re saying that someone else needs to fix the amorphous social thing that’s bad.

Culture becomes an invisible substance, like the weather, that we know exists and we can blame things on but which we never have to actually take responsibility for.  We put on a puffy coat when it’s cold, but we don’t consider ourselves the cause of that snowstorm, we just prevent it from affecting us.

Organizational culture is not the weather. Collectively, we do control the culture of the environment we are in while also being affected by it. We create the snowstorm and we create the puffy coats. We create the environments we are in through the stories we tell, the way we interact, the things we celebrate, the activities we put our energy into. Every single day we create and recreate the culture.

I’m not saying that it’s easy to try to create new way of doing things or to exist within a toxic environment. I’m not saying all cultures should or even can be changed. There are very real, very important barriers to making changes within an organization that need to be acknowledged and understood. What I am saying is that if as a society we have agreed that it is unacceptable for a bank to refuse to be regulated, the culture of an organization should not make regulation impossible.

What I am saying is that if we decide that we want to hold organizations to strict safety standards and to ensure that their negligence does not cause deaths in people using their products, organizational culture should not hold us back from enacting those standards.

What I am saying is that if we decide that our veterans should get care that is due to them for their willingness to serve our country, we ought to not rest with the simple conclusion that organizational culture is at fault for our inability to give them the care they deserve.

If we blame organizational problems on culture without a deeper inquiry into why or how this culture is creating problems, there is very real possibility that there will be no change.

Consultants will be hired to create a laundry list of small changes that add up to no change at all. Or “new leadership” is brought in to do the ambiguous and herculean task of “changing the culture” and find that it’s more challenging than they expected, so they either leave in disgrace or make changes that don’t address the main issue. Or nothing at all happens. Because once we’ve decided that culture is the problem, we all know that culture is hard to change. We default to throwing our hands up in the air and saying “Oh well”.

We have to stop blaming offensive organizational behavior on culture and saying that we have no control over it. Yes it is hard to change organizations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.

Photo: Reto Fetz