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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop 1 The Benefits of International Collaborations International collaborations in behavioral and social sciences research can be tremendously rewarding and productive. Participants at the workshop identified three particular benefits of international research collaboration: conceptual benefits, pragmatic gains, and simple imperatives. CONCEPTUAL BENEFITS: THE FROG IN THE WELL A lone frog in a deep well has a superb view but of an extremely circumscribed patch of sky. This was the metaphor used by Kevin F. Miller (University of Michigan) to convey the potential limitations of remaining within one’s own research perspective. If most of the research in a field is done predominantly in one well—generally North America or Europe—this is to the detriment of the field. Getting out of the well provides new research topics and new collaborators, both of which spur broadened insights. Miller referred to a study regarding research teams that were homogeneous in cultural background, discipline, and training in comparison to other research teams that were heterogeneous.1 While the homogeneous teams generally had more harmonious discussions, they generated fewer discoveries. The heterogeneous teams, by contrast, were far more contentious. Team members thought they spent an excessive amount of time explaining obvious 1 K. Dunbar, “How scientists really reason: Scientific reasoning in real-world laboratories,” pp. 365-395 in Mechanisms of Insight, R.J. Sternberg and J. Davidson, eds., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1995.
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop points to other team members. In the process, however, they discovered that these points were not so obvious after all. Team members gained a greater awareness of their underlying assumptions and the need to clarify their conceptualizations, ultimately leading to better research products and greater theoretical clarity. Miller thus urged researchers to get out of their deep and comfortable wells and enlarge their views by means of international collaborations. Jacqueline Goodnow (Macquarie University) explored the conceptual gains of international collaborations in her introductory remarks to the workshop (see Appendix C). Beyond the basic advantage of checking the universality or generality of one’s hypotheses and questions, working elsewhere with others often presents the opportunity to observe a “natural experiment,” which Goodnow described as “variation in conditions that we cannot alter or that we would seldom think of altering.” These situations invite attention to the nature of those conditions, whether a certain behavior depends on those conditions, the diffusion of behaviors and practices across different conditions, barriers to such diffusion, or the interaction of various elements. Such research, in Goodnow’s view, often yields surprises that have the power to shake assumptions about what is apparently well established or seen as normal when a single culture is the context. She encourages researchers to anticipate and cultivate such surprises by being alert to “tremors,” or signs that some assumptions might be shaky. The experience of collaborating across boundaries also generates questions about the nature of collaboration itself and the challenges of translating not merely vocabulary and specific survey questions but also the constructs and concepts being examined. Goodnow noted, for example, that “it is out of the difficulty with measures and procedures that we begin to look seriously at issues of ‘translatability’ and at the assumptions that lie beneath the kinds of measures that we use and beneath others’ responses to them.” Marc Bornstein (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) elaborated on several conceptual gains of collaborating across international and other boundaries in conducting research. Bornstein’s straightforward rationale for this work was “description.” Three different cultural limitations constrain understanding of contemporary developmental science: (1) a narrow participant database, (2) a biased sampling of world cultures in its authorship, and (3) a corresponding bias in the audience to which the literature is addressed. Bornstein noted that cross-cultural developmental descriptions encompass the widest spectrum of human variation; thus, they are the most comprehensive in social science. Such collaborations
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop provide a check against any single researcher’s own ethnocentrism, permitting a better view of an individual’s own culture and its contingencies. A second motive for cross-cultural developmental study is explanation. In Bornstein’s view, crossing cultures can help parse the parts that culture-dependent and culture-independent forces play in the emergence and development of psychological phenomena. Psychological comparisons across cultures increase our understanding of the processes through which biological variables fuse with environmental variables and experiences to shape individual development. Bornstein’s third major reason for cross-cultural developmental science is interpretation. Paradigms in the social and behavioral sciences have been dominated by assumptions about beliefs and behaviors that are parochially limited to Western realities. Realities are products of the ways we represent, implement, and react. All behavior needs to be considered in its socio-cultural context, and culture provides the variability necessary to expose developmental process. Thus, many of what are destined to become classic findings in development require replication in multiple cultures. Given the substantial investment of resources in psychological research by North American and European societies, it is inevitable that many ideas will originate there and be subjected to early empirical scrutiny there. In consequence, there is a pressing need for cross-cultural research as a “doorkeeper” to prevent ideas from being incorporated too easily into accepted knowledge before they have weathered the test of replication in societies with different values and social structures. PRAGMATIC GAINS: EXTENDING THE POSSIBLE In a number of research areas, little progress can be made without international collaborations. Investigations into rare diseases or other unusual phenomena, for example, may require an international pool in order to attain a research population of sufficient size. Collaborations also permit access to unique research assets or distinctive populations. Many topics benefit from larger datasets, especially those exploring cross-cultural differences or how cultural contexts condition the ways in which variables relate to each other. Devising culturally appropriate interventions for a range of diseases requires cross-cultural collaborations. Alexandra Quittner (University of Miami) has researched the measurement of adherence to treatment and the quality of life in children and adolescents with chronic illnesses. She pointed out that cystic fibrosis, a fatal genetic disease, is so rare that sample sizes
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop in any one country are insufficient. International research collaborations are necessary in order to yield the data necessary for the large-scale studies that are needed to improve health care. International studies also produce information on disparities in patient outcomes (e.g., that life expectancy for those with cystic fibrosis is 38 years in the United States, but only 18 years in parts of Eastern Europe). This motivates further research to identify the causes of those disparities and ways to minimize or eliminate them. L. Rowell Huesmann (University of Michigan) has examined many aspects of child and adolescent social development, particularly the effects of different aspects of children’s environment on their social development. International research offers a wider array of environments for study, providing the necessary environmental “variability” to fully understand children’s development. This necessarily entails research in many different contexts. To address such questions as the etiology of aggressive behavior and the long-term impact on children of habitual exposure to media violence, Huesmann has been involved in multiple international projects. One is a 15-year empirical study conducted in four countries that examined the long-term impact of viewing violent television shows on aggressive behavior. Each project participant brought a set of perspectives to the process that benefited all of the researchers who were involved. Another project is one by the National Science Foundation-funded Center for the Analysis of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood that has coordinated secondary analyses on longitudinal life-span data collected by 20 different researchers in multiple countries. Jacqueline Goodnow identified other aspects of the pragmatic gains of international research. International collaborators in research, for example, may provide essential language skills or specific analytical expertise. They may also offer crucial familiarity with a local population or access to populations that are in some way distinctive, such as indigenous groups, immigrant communities, or populations undergoing political transition or other substantial changes that present a kind of natural experiment. Judith Torney-Purta (University of Maryland, College Park) noted that the study of naturally occurring experiments in educational psychology was one of the reasons that a cross-national group of researchers founded the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). This international consortium of research centers (now headquartered in Amsterdam) was organized nearly 50 years ago to study the effects on achievement of educational factors that vary across countries, such as the age at which children begin attending school or the age at which they
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop complete compulsory schooling. Education systems were changing rapidly and in different directions after World War II, and researchers saw this as an opportunity to conduct a comparative empirical study. In the intervening years the IEA has developed a solid research infrastructure of technical committees and documented research and data-sharing procedures to support international collaborations in educational research based at their Amsterdam headquarters and their Data Processing Center in Hamburg. 2 Psychologists have coordinated IEA studies in areas ranging from a video study of mathematics classrooms to a survey of civic, political, and social attitudes. The expectation in each study is that every participating country will learn from every other country about the similarities and differences in the provision of education and its outcomes. The etiology, prevention, treatment, and management of diseases that constitute a global burden have behavioral components that are influenced by cultural context. The etiology of many diseases is a function of bio-environment-behavior interactions that can best be understood through international research collaborations. Disease prevention strategies that are successful in one country often need to be modified in significant ways when applied in a different cultural context. The treatment and management of diseases vary considerably as a function of cultural expectations and experiences as well as resources. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, for example, are increasing worldwide. Suzanne Bennett Johnson (Florida State University College of Medicine) pointed out that environmental triggers for Type 1 diabetes in genetically at-risk children are being studied in an international study supported by the National Institutes of Health. Only through an international collaboration could sufficient numbers of genetically at-risk infants be identified, and the international context provides the environmental variability necessary to make the study of environmental triggers possible. In the United States, minority populations, who are often from lower socioeconomic classes, are disproportionately affected by Type 2 diabetes. Studies of Type 2 diabetes in those who immigrated from a non-Western culture to a Western culture have provided a great deal of information about the environmental and behavioral underpinnings of this disease. As the world becomes more “Westernized,” the Type 2 diabetes epidemic is expected to increase. International research could offer a great deal in terms of the prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes worldwide. As Jill Weissberg-Benchell (Northwestern University) suggested, behavioral 2 See http://www.iea.nl (accessed October 25, 2006).
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop scientists should play a role in this effort since behavior is critical to both prevention and management of this disease. Culturally appropriate interventions are essential in other areas of public health, such as tobacco use and traffic safety. Mark Nichter (University of Arizona) has been involved in research on how to design, develop, implement, and evaluate culturally appropriate programs to encourage tobacco cessation in India and Indonesia. Without international collaboration in the behavioral sciences, such research would not be possible. Knowledge about locally specific perceptions of risks and consequences is crucial to tailoring cessation programs, as is research into attitudes about the politeness of refusing tobacco when offered in social settings or the appropriateness of setting certain anniversaries or holidays as target quit dates. The life-saving value of international collaborative research in the behavioral aspects of many public health problems cannot be overemphasized. SIMPLE IMPERATIVE: NO GOOD ALTERNATIVE Another benefit of building strong collaborations across boundaries is simply that it works. All workshop participants confirmed that parachuting into a foreign research setting does not. Without local collaborators, neither conceptualization of the research questions to be addressed in locally appropriate research designs nor the logistical tasks can be handled adequately. As Charles Nelson (Harvard University) observed, working without local collaborators not only makes the conduct of research much harder in many practical ways but also ultimately compromises the quality and analysis of the data, as interpretations will lack cultural nuances. Oscar Barbarin (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) noted another shortcoming of what he termed “hit-and-run research.” When foreign researchers arrive with their own project to execute and then depart, local research capacity is not developed. This is to the detriment of future and longitudinal collaborations. Collaborative efforts enhance not only current research projects but prospects for future ones as well. International research collaborations in the behavioral and social sciences, then, have many benefits. Conceptually, they can make a contribution to a particular research project as well as the field as a whole, generating new theoretical questions and hypotheses with input from all participants. Pragmatically, they make it possible to study rare phenomena or to undertake broad comparative research that examines contexts and looks at interactions. In developing locally appropriate interventions, collaborators
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International Collaborations in Behavioral and Social Sciences: Report of a Workshop can save lives as well as resources. Collaborations have the potential to contribute to the continuing development of universities as contexts in which faculty and students can achieve a global perspective. And for all their obstacles (discussed below), international collaborations certainly surpass the alternative of “hit-and-run research,” or limiting one’s perspective to one’s own “well”—in both the quality of their immediate outcomes and the contributions they can make to the behavioral and social sciences.