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The Table Video

Brad Christerson

Researching for Shalom

Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of Urban Studies, Biola University
May 19, 2012

Prof. Brad Christerson addresses students with questions of whether sociological research in higher education can have an impact on the world for the Kingdom of God, and he discusses the potential for the relatively new discipline of sociology to make a difference for Christ. He discusses successes and failures in the discipline over its history, while also suggesting a course forward for how sociologists can “research for shalom.”


This project asks two questions. And this presentation will ask two questions. First of all, can social research contribute to the growth and development of God’s kingdom on Earth? Secondly, can social research lead to positive changes in the world and make the world a better place? These questions are really personal to me, and I’ve always assumed that the answers to these questions is yes, which is why I got into sociology in the first place. When I was an undergrad at Colorado State University, I took my first sociology class as a junior and it completely rocked my world. I was shocked about what I learned about the brokenness of this world. I grew up in a relatively sheltered suburban environment in Colorado.

I learned just about the levels of suffering in the world, the levels of injustice, the levels of poverty, inequality, and I wanted to do something about it. And my faith in God was a big part of that. One of my heroes in college was Tony Campolo. He was a sociologist slash preacher slash evangelist who had the heart of a prophet. Speaking out against injustice and showing from scripture how much God loves this broken world, and the people who are suffering and marginalized. And Campolo seemed to be doing so many things in so many places to make the world a better place, and I wanted to be just like him.

Well, here I am, twenty-five years later. I’m a sociology professor at a Christian college, just like Tony Campolo. I’m actually not that much like Tony Campolo in reality. He’s way more energetic and charismatic and I don’t know how he does all the things he does. But I’m asking these questions because twenty-five years into this, I look at own research in particular, and the research of many of my colleagues, both Christian and non-Christian, both at Christian colleges and elite research Universities.

I’m wondering why it hasn’t had more impact either on the Kingdom or on the world. I got into this to change the world, to make it a better place. And part of that’s being twenty years old, and wanting to change the world. But I feel like, you know, a career should matter. We should actually be able to leave the world a better place than we found it. I love this quote from Karl Marx: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world. “The point, however, is to change it.” And that quote really speaks to my heart, and to what I see, what I would like to see my role as. I also like this quote because it’s a dig against philosophers. [crowd laughs] Actually, it’s been great. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of philosophers during this semester, and you guys are great. But, sociology from it’s beginnings was a discipline that wanted to change the world, as this quote from Marx illustrates.

Sociology’s a relatively new discipline. It had its origins in the nineteenth century, as compared to most other disciplines that go back hundreds of thousands of years. And this was a time of great optimism about the ability of science to solve the problems of humanity. Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, the most influential figures in this discipline, sought to use the tools of science to understand the laws of social life, much like the physicist or the biologist sought to understand the laws of nature. And these sociologists thought the knowledge of these laws of human behavior and social life could be used to reform and transform society in a positive way. Well, a hundred and fifty years or so have passed since then, and the results have been mixed at best, I would argue.

If we examine the discipline of sociology over the years, there have been some successes, which I’ll talk a little bit about in terms of having a positive impact on the world, but they seem few and far between. And there have been some failures. Let’s start with Marx, one of the founders of the discipline. Nobody’s been more influential in the discipline of sociology than Karl Marx. In his analysis of capitalism and his critique of exploitation is very insightful, and I would argue it’s still relevant and still deserving of fresh read given the globalization of sweat shop capitalism, and too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Yet, for all of that insight, the people in the twentieth century that tried to apply his insight to change the world and make it a more just, less oppressive place failed miserably. In fact, most cases made things worse, as Darius can attest to, growing up in Poland. So something got lost in the translation from theory to practice. From insight to application.

And Marx himself would have hated the totalitarian dictatorships that emerged from these social forms supposedly based on his theories. But it hasn’t been all bad. To cite some more contemporary examples, there have been some successes, one of the most famous being the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that struck down racial segregation in our public schools in America. The Supreme Court opinion cited the work of sociologist Gunnar Myrdal and psychologist Kenneth Clark in making the case that “separate but equal” was actually a fallacy. These works show that institutionalized segregation causes real harm to both black and white people. Couple other contemporary examples; James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory of Crime. This is a political scientist, actually, who came up with this theory. It was first published in the Atlantic Magazine in 1982. Essentially, the idea is it’s a way of policing in high-crime neighborhoods. And basically the idea is that you enforce minor violations very rigorously and you also clean up graffiti, and you fix broken windows, which is why it’s called “the broken windows theory”.

And the idea is that more serious criminals will see the neighborhood as not being a place where they can practice their crime, because it’s well regulated. And so they will sort of disperse and go other places. And this has actually been implemented in a lot of police departments, most famously in New York and Boston and Los Angeles through William Bratton, who was our former police chief here. Some critics argue that this actually opens the door to aggressive policing techniques that target the vulnerable like the homeless. There’s a lot of arrests for vagrancy and things like that. And I’m one of those critics, but it’s hard to argue that this hasn’t actually made a positive difference in the world. I’m taking my family to New York City on vacation this summer in a couple weeks, and I was in New York City in the early eighties, and I don’t think I would want to take my family to Times Square back then. There was just drug dealers everywhere, prostitutes, just… It’s very much a different place because some of these reforms.

One of my own professors in graduate school, Bill Beelby, came up with a concept called “statistical discrimination”. And the idea behind this is that workplace segregation, sex segregation happens in the workplace, which actually limits the opportunities for women. And that sex segregation, a lot of times, is based on statistical differences between men and women. And one of the famous, he was an expert witness in a case of the old Lucky’s Supermarket chain in California. And basically, it was proven that Lucky’s was systematically discriminating against women from letting them into management training programs because their rationale was that women are more likely to drop out of the labor market when they have kids and for various reasons. So, they were trying to save money on management training by just discriminating against women.

Well, they won the lawsuit, the women won this class action lawsuit and it’s really changed policy in terms of workplace law. So, some great examples of sociological and social research making a difference in the world for a positive way. But despite these few successes, for the most part, the last two centuries of sociological research, the norm has been actually indifference between social researchers and policy makers. Most policy makers do not read or engage academic social research, and most academic social researchers do not engage policy makers. Most of us our grinding out our research that nobody outside of our small guild of academia reads. And I would argue that the reason why social science research has had so few successes in making the world a better place is that it’s based on a flawed model of how social change actually works. In the disciplines of the social sciences, it seems to me that the dominant assumption among the social sciences is that the way that our work can change the world looks something like this. So, you have the social scientist doing rigorous empirical research and trying to discover the laws of human behavior.

And somehow, eventually, that trickles down to the general public or to policy makers and practitioners and that knowledge is applied in some ways that makes the world better. Social scientists, in my experience, mostly recognize that the link between social research and social policy is rarely made. But they assume that the advancement of knowledge will somehow eventually lead to positive social change. The key word being “eventually”. Yet, it’s hard, again, the come up with examples, concrete examples, where this has actually happened. I would argue that there’s a number of reasons why this model doesn’t generally work very well.

First of all, academia, the way it’s structured, incentivizes abstraction and high levels of complexity in our analysis. In order to get promoted in our respective disciplines, we need to publish in academic journals and academic presses, where our work gets reviewed by other academics. And lets just say that one of their main criteria is not simplicity and clarity for public consumption when evaluating our work. Rather, a premium is placed on theoretical abstraction, complexity and sophisticated quantitative research methods. So, even very smart law makers and community leaders often can’t understand our research.

And if you want to know what I’m talking about, go over to the library and get a copy of The American Journal of Sociology. And I know there’s a lot of smart people in this room, and I wanna see if you can actually get through one of those articles. And if you can get through it, I want you to tell me what it means. When I was an undergrad in sociology, I was so excited about what I was learning in my sociology classes, and I wanted to be a sociologist, so I went to the library and picked up a copy of a research journal. And I had no idea what was in there at all. It was like I was reading a different language. Also, secondly, the act of social research to inform policy is inherently political, obviously.

So just because you can show a rigorous analysis to support your policy ideas, those whose political interest is in the status quo will resist. And, in fact, interest groups on all sides of all issues have their own teams of social researchers and think tanks that produce research that supports to policies that they’re pushing for. And that brings up the next problem, is that what psychologists call the confirmation bias. This refers to the fact that we actively look for, as humans, we actively look for information that confirms what we already think and believe. And we all do this. Even social scientists do this.

We tend to ignore data that doesn’t fit in with the theoretical paradigm that we’re working with. But in the policy arena, it’s even more so. Most people, whether it’s policy makers, community leaders, or the general public simply dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit with their pre-existing value commitments. People who are pro-immigration will cite studies that emphasize the benefits of immigration, and people who are anti-immigration will cite studies that emphasize the cost. People who are against the death penalty for moral reasons will cite research that shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but people who are for the death penalty will cite research that finds the contrary.

And Google actually makes this really easy to do. So if you just Google something like “global warming is a hoax,” or something like that, instantly you’ll have a bunch of studies that give evidence to that. And that’s not to say that we can’t actually answer these questions through empirical research. In fact, there’s a large consensus in academic communities over these issues. Five hundred economists in 2006 wrote an open letter to Congress basically stating that immigration as a whole, including illegal and legal immigration, is a net economic benefit to the United States. There was a consensus that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. Yet, getting policy makers and the public to support policies to change that is a whole different thing.

The immigration example, the most surprising thing to me was that you could find five hundred economists who could agree on anything. But they could agree on that. That immigration is actually a benefit and that we need to open up to opportunity for more legal immigration. But we have not seen that happen. So, anyway, this model where you have objective experts conducting research which is then passed on to policy makers who carefully consider the evidence and act accordingly, that’s a naive model. Not only is it naive, I would argue it’s not consistent with a biblical view of how social change happens.

So, I’m gonna briefly get into theology here and I’m wading on grounds that I’m not a theologian, but I have strong beliefs in terms of what I think about the relationship between biblical faith and social change. If we understand that our place in history in terms of the Kingdom is broken in, but it’s not yet fulfilled, the Kingdom is really the driver of social change both internally and the effects of the Kingdom growing, actually spill out over to society. When Jesus kicks off his public ministry, he makes a remarkable statement. In Luke 4, this is his first public statement as he’s kicking off his ministry. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, “because he as anointed me to proclaim good news “to the poor. “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner, “and recovery of sight for the blind, “to set the oppressed free “and to proclaim the year of the Lord.” So, Jesus in this kick-off statement, he’s announcing the inbreaking of the Kingdom.

And he’s also stating that the growth and development of the Kingdom will include things like the oppressed being freed, recovery of the sight to the blind and the poor hearing the good news. So when the Kingdom grows, there are all kinds of good things that happen and the world shalom, which is the title of my talk, has something to do with that. When the Kingdom grows, shalom, in terms of harmony and well-being and thriving increases. Not perfectly, not until Jesus comes back, it will never be perfect, but it grows. Both internally, I would argue, and it spills out into society.

And if you look at Jesus’ model of social change, of bringing in the Kingdom, he didn’t go looking for the smartest people that he could find do to some policy research and then go lobby the Roman government for policy changes. Jesus’ model of the Kingdom is a bottom-up movement. He went to a group of working class fisherman and started a new kind of society and the Holy Spirit descended on them and they started living in a different way.

And this society grew and expanded because of that power of the Holy Spirit and God’s sovereignty and that small society grew like a mustard seed and it turned the Roman Empire upside-down. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, during the plagues and the epidemics of the Roman Empire of the second century, ordinary Christians, because of their ethic of care and because of their focus on the afterlife, came out in force to care for the sick and dying during these epidemics, even though they were risking their own lives to do so.

This lead to the rapid growth of Christianity, as people cared, were cared for the by the Christians, but they also lead to the eventual beginnings of public institutions of healthcare in the west. And, historically, if you look at the major social changes of the last two centuries, from the abolition of slavery to the advancement of women’s rights, to the labor reform movements of the nineteenth century, to the civil rights movement of the sixties, to the fall of Communism in the 1980’s, Christian leaders and lots of ordinary Christians were central to these movements. And Jesus’ opening statement has throughout history become an empirical reality. T

he Kingdom has grown, the blind see, the oppressed are set free. So that brings up a question: Is there a role for social science research in this? If God is growing the Kingdom, and this is a Kingdom movement, and that leads to positive social changes, both within and the society at large, why do we need social research?

Well, I would argue there’s still a positive role for social research in growing the Kingdom and as a result, making the world a better place. I’m involved with a group of sociologists of Religion, some at Christian universities, some at top research universities, many of whom are believers that are doing work that has been beneficial to the growth and development of the Kingdom, I would argue. I just want to give you a couple examples of that.

And I would say, in terms of sociology and religion, there’s two dominant ways of thinking about it, or two dominant ways that research is done. And one is looking at religion as an independent variable. And these scholars are mostly Christian, so they’re interested in the church. By independent variable, I mean what effect does religion have on other social phenomena? And a couple of excellent examples; the book Divided By Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith talked about how evangelical Christianity actually reinforces racial inequality rather than bridging the difference. So in that sense, social research can be a corrective or a prophetic voice within the church. We’re doing certain things that have unintended consequences. Mark Regnerus also has done a lot of work on religion and teenage sexuality and the effects that teenagers involvement in religion affects their sexual behavior.

Second mode of engagement is religion as a dependent variable. And that, meaning, asking the question “How is religious belief in practice affected by other social institutions and forces?” So a couple examples of that is Christian Smith’s work on teenagers and young adults. His first book out of that project is Soul Searching. And in that he talks about how things like consumerism, pluralism, and individualism effect the spiritual lives of teenagers, and how they think about God.

Don Miller’s book Reinventing American Protestantism came out in the late nineties. Very interesting sociological account of the rise of the so-called third wave neocharismatic movement. And he argues that the individualism and anti-authoritarian values of the sixties influenced that movement. All right, as great as this work is, and I’m all for it and I’m involved in it and I will continue to be involved in this type of work, it still, I would say, suffers some of the same limitations as the dominant paradigm of how social science ‘influences social change.

First of all, most of these books are written by academics for academics. So, they tend to lead to abstract generalizations that maybe are hard to grasp for lay people. So our pastors and Christian leaders gonna read this stuff. And the best examples I’ve put forward, and I would argue that a lot of pastors have read it, and it has influenced how they do things and how they think about things. But for a lot of work, pastors don’t have a lot of time to read four hundred page books about empirical data. So, does it trickle down?

In other words, does this research actually lead to action or make a difference in the Kingdom? Secondly, we still have the problem of the confirmation bias and that will people, when they read something, dismiss it if it doesn’t fit with their commitments and what they already think and believe. I wanna offer up a different way of thinking about the relationship between social research and the Kingdom and making the world a better place that I’ve come across recently, and that I’ve applied into some of my classes that I think offers a lot of potential. And again, not that we shouldn’t be doing these social research that leads to abstractions and generalizations, but this particular model called “participatory action research” I think has tremendous potential in terms of growing the Kingdom, and making the world a better place.

This model focuses, instead of abstract generalization, as its bottom line, as its output, focuses on research that actually enables action. Secondly, the people that are researched become partners rather than objects to be studied. The people that are studied in participatory action research actually are involved in defining the questions and the goals of research and participate in the research process itself. Lastly, and maybe more importantly, the researcher becomes a servant to the goals of the community or the organization that they are researching, rather than taking on the role of the expert who then comes up with the laws of human behavior.

So, one way to… this is a way to sort of visualize this model of social change is that you’ve got you’ve got the researcher and an organization, perhaps. It could be a church, or a non-profit, or a business or something. Stakeholders in the community that it’s working in and the community itself, just individuals in the community are all part of the research process, and all are helping to find the questions and the purposes of the research.

So, how does this work? I think the best way to think about it is just to offer an example. I came across an article. Riggs and Langhout written in 2010, about a school near Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Now, these researchers were at Wesleyan University and there was a relatively low income and low performing public school near the University. And that public school came to Wesleyan and wanted to form a partnership. And the principal of this elementary school wanted to have some researchers come to their school and do some research on just how they could improve educating the kids at this relatively low performing school.

So, two researches at Wesleyan that were trained in participatory action research techniques went to the school and started talking to parents; all the stakeholders, parents, students, staff, teachers, administrators; and tried to get a sense of what were some of the biggest goals that they wanted to see happen? What are some of the changes that they thought needed to happen at the school to improve the learning environment. In particular, the students and the parents talked a lot about how too much time in the classroom is spent on disciplining the children and on behavior control rather than actually teaching the children.

So, they looked into that and they said “okay, we’re going to focus on that “as our research problem. “Why is this happening “and how can we improve the school “by spending more time on academics “and not on behavior control?” And so, they interviewed students again, teachers, and tried to get a sense of what was happening. They did focus groups, and one of the things the kids kept coming up over and over, they kept sayings like, if the researcher would ask, “What would you change about this school if you could?” a lot of the kids were saying things like “I just kids were nicer at the school” or, “I wish there wasn’t so many fights at recess”. And so it turned out, what they found was that recess was actually the problem. And they wouldn’t have found this out if they hadn’t focused on talking to the kids. And there were fights breaking out, and it turns out that the playground aides were just not very effective in controlling the fights breaking out and the chaos on the playground. So the kids were in all these conflicts on the playground and they would bring that into the classroom when they came back. And then, thus, there’s behavior problems. You’ve got kids that are still mad at each other are coming in after recess.

So, the next step in the process, and this is the key step for this type of research, is they actually developed an intervention. The researchers, again, they did another series of focus groups and talked to the kids, the recess aides, the teachers, on possible solutions for this. And the kids actually came up with the idea of having teams of kids go around the playground, and when fights broke out, they would sort of intervene and try to figure it out and work it out. So they trained teams of kids in basic conflict resolution. And the initial, as this article was published, the initial effects have been very positive. The reports are there was actually less time being spent in the classroom dealing with behavior and more time teaching.

So that’s just, to me, that’s a great example. Now, these researchers didn’t come up with these sort of generalizations, these universal generalizations that you could apply to any school to help them teach their kids better. Another school, maybe something different that’s the problem. But the exciting thing about this research is that for this one school that’s got five hundred kids in it, teaching is significantly improving in the school. And so the lives of five hundred kids are being made better by this research project.

To me, that’s exciting. So, just to kind of talk about why this is a great example of what I’m talking about, the school and the stakeholders defined the questions of the research, the goals of the school and the stakeholders, not the researchers, drove the research. And the interventions were also designed by stakeholders and then research goes back and then analyzes the interventions to see if they’re making a difference. I would argue that this type of research has a lot of potential for the Kingdom, growing the Kingdom.

First of all, it allows churches, it could be faith-based organizations, groups that are focused on shalom, you know, making the world a better place, producing justice or harmony in society. To actually define research questions and goals and that researchers can actually help them do what they do better. And there’s funding agencies that have actually gotten on to this, and actually, the Lilly Endowment, and the Louisville Foundation, are now giving grants to researchers, they’ve always done that. But they’re now forcing researchers to tie it more to the church, and helping the church do what it’s trying to do better before they’ll give the research grants.

So, this, to me, is very exciting. It can involve multiple participants, community members, students, stakeholders in the research. Also, the proposed actions. The main thing is that there’s an intentional direct link between research and action. And you can apply this to all different kinds of organizations. So, it incentivizes positive change rather than simply producing good academic work.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should abandon all the traditional types of social research. I think that type of research is really important to do, to understand to do this kind of work, because you’re understanding how social processes work before you go into this. So here’s my dream. I’m gonna just share with you a dream that I have. I haven’t shared this with any administrators yet. You’re the first ones to hear this. I would love to see Biola or other Christian universities have centers for action research.

The Christian university could create a center where multidisciplinary action research faculty is housed. You could have researchers in education, in business, in Christian ministries, in sociology, psychology, political science. You could have a multidisciplinary faculty who knows how to do this kind of research at the center. And you could create partnerships between the center and community organizations that promote the values in the Kingdom development that we want to see happen. Organizations promoting shalom. The community organizations can propose the research projects that can help them promote their goals as an organization, and then the researchers will help and design and conduct the research in partnership with those organizations using participatory action research methodologies and using students and university resources.

To conclude, my dream is still alive, that sociology and social research can contribute to the growth of the Kingdom and creating shalom in the world. And it has, in different ways, throughout history. But I think we need to continually re-think and look for new models that connect our work to the actual work that’s being done out in the world and particularly the work that’s being done in the Kingdom, because the Kingdom is really the engine. That’s where the action is. The growth of the Kingdom is where God’s primary vehicle to bring shalom into the world.

Shy Student: Hi, Brad. As you were talking, I thought of something, and I just want to tell you the situation and if you could tell me if this is participatory action research, and if you’re aware of anything like this in sociology. So your example with the recess, they found out somewhere where there was a problem by talking to the kids. But, my example is where they found out something that was working in a small group, in a community, and then they tried to multiply it. So, it was a community in southeast Asia, and there was malnutrition in the community. People came, I’m assuming from America, from the west, and tried to figure out what is the problem? And they couldn’t fix it, couldn’t fix it, and then they looked instead for, okay, what kids are having the least problems? Where are the kids who look like they’re a little bit more healthy? So then they went to those mom’s and they said, “What’s working? What are you feeding your kids?” and then they found out things that were growing in the area that were easy to give to the children instead of bringing food from America and then they said, okay, we’ll help you to feed more of that to your kids and then all of the kids in the community can eat in that more healthy way. So it seems like it’s a similar version, but instead of looking for the problem, they looked for even a small way of something that was working in the community.

Yeah. That’s a good example of what I would call asset-based development, where instead of focusing on a deficit or problem, you focus on what’s working and try to contribute to that and try to add to that. I guess one question I would have about the research is, it sounds like a group from America or the west sort of had a problem in mind: malnutrition. And they were trying to sort of come and figure out how to solve it. Participatory action research is very much focused on trying to be democratic in allowing the community to define the problem. It could very well be that some people went there and said “Hey, what’s the biggest problem you have?” “I can’t feed my kid.” If that’s what they did, that would be along those lines, but it’s very much focused on allowing the community or the organization to define what the problem is.

So in the case of the school, I think one of the key points is that the principal actually approached the university and said “Hey, we want to invite you guys in “to see if you can help us.” ‘Cause too much of, I think, the typical western model is sort of elites coming in and studying people and figuring out what those people need, and then trying to give them that and a lot of times that gets completely misrepresented. And there’s those power dynamics that are very difficult. But yeah, that’s a great example, I think, of looking at community development as an asset-based problem. You go and you look and see what’s working and try to build on that.

Darius: Brad, thank you for your presentation and for just being very sincere and honest with us and kind of sharing your heart, I really appreciate it. As you mentioned, I’m not a sociologist. I have experiential knowledge of communism. I cannot comment too much on that, but I do know that Karl Marx was a philosopher, too. So he’s going after philosophers, yet he himself was a philosopher. As a philosopher, we was a materialist. So, he also struggled with the notion of original sin. He basically, if I can just generalize, thought that if our basic material needs are met, therefore, we will prosper and enter shalom. Which, you know, many communists were well-versed in theology. Stalin had a Masters of Divinity himself. So, the question that I want to ask you, where we think of this as a center for action, research at Biola, which would, you know, be Christian in character, what do we do with sin? I mean, how to we address the problem of sin and how do we talk about bringing shalom, not the earthly shalom, but the shalom of which the angels spoke when Jesus was born? The shalom that is between us and God.

Yeah. That’s a great point. Marx is an interesting figure because he’s really a secular theologian. In fact, he’s kind of a dispensationalist when you think about it. He’s got all these different stages that history is moving towards and so maybe some of the Talbot profs, you can tell them Marx was a dispensationalist. [audience laughs] Yeah, he’s a philosopher, he’s a materialist, so there’s all kinds of problems there, I guess, in terms from a Christian perspective. My appreciation of Marx is primarily his analysis of the mechanics of capitalism. I think he nailed some things pretty right on that. There’s all kinds of issues with how you bring in social change there.

To answer your second question, absolutely. Shalom has to include reconciliation between individual and God. That’s actually the center, even though it goes much more beyond that. I think in evangelicalism, we look at that and think that’s all we’re looking for is that reconciliation between individual and God. American evangelicalism, at least. But it goes much broader than that, it goes person to person, it goes group to group. Even people and creation, there’s a reconciliation that needs to happen there. That’s why the church is uniquely positioned to spread shalom, because of that brokeness with God has to be at the center. So I don’t know if that answers your question. That’s why participatory action research can be applied to any organization: secular or Christian. We can use research to actually help the church do what it’s doing. Not that the church needs social researchers. This is God’s plan, He’s gonna make it happen, but I want to participate in some way.


[Deep-voiced Student] My question, if I understood one of your points correctly, the one about the research becomes a partner, I have the following question. How would you respond to someone saying that this new partnership somehow would compromise the wanted-for objectivity of your researcher?


That’s a big issue, and that’s one of the critiques of participatory action researcher is it becomes inherently political ’cause you’re trying to help an organization do what it’s trying to do. How do you become objective in that? I think that’s true, but, it’s different. It’s goals are different than just getting at objective truth in the sense of abstract generalizations or abstract principles. So it’s goals are to help the organization meet its goals through empirical research. And so, by using empirical methods, you can gather data that is objective in that sense, but you’re not looking to find objective truth as the goal, I guess. What you’re doing is trying to help an organization meet its goals. So, that brings up the question, you better pick the right organization, then, because what if some neo-nazi group or something approaches you and you can just as easily apply these methods to help them do what they’re doing. And so that’s where other research, and biblical truth and all that has to come into maintaining ideas of what a good partner is. But yeah, it’s a different model of social research where objectivity isn’t necessarily the goal other than objectivity within the organization trying to understand the dynamics.

[Clear-Voiced Student] Thank you very much, this was wonderful. My question: From what I understand about participatory action research, that the goal is not to systematize and to replicate to meet specific goals. So, as far as this connection to policy, there shouldn’t be one? Is that a correct understanding?

Yeah. I think it’s less amenable to that top-down sort of policy model because when you’re dealing with policies, you’re dealing with passing laws that apply to everyone. One way to think about it is, if a government office, let’s say the City Council of Los Angeles, this is actually something I’m thinking about doing with my [mumbles] sociology class next semester, that County Supervisors Office has a number of projects and one is creating more health care options for people in south L.A., for example. So, one idea that I have for my class, is that we can do research for them in terms of trying to figure out how to meet that goal. And they’ve actually invited us to do that, which is really exciting. I think government can be one of the organizations that you work with, but in terms of making laws, policies that affect a wide group of people, then yeah, this isn’t the right model to go about informing that.

[Smooth-Voiced Student] Thank you very much for your talk. I’m curious, when you work with an organization in this kind of research, it seems to me that always an organization should be listening to a critique that comes from God. Even the best organizations have problems with the authority structures within them. I mean, Jesus gives us a very peculiar understanding of authority when he says “You won’t lord it over one another like the Gentiles do.” I’m curious, as a researcher, when you’re doing this kind of project, how do you help an organization see its own flaws when it doesn’t want to?

Again, this is inherently political. So, if you come up with a solution, or you identify a problem, there’s probably gonna be certain stakeholders that are gonna get defensive because you’re putting the problem on them. Maybe the recess aides at the school were defensive about “you guys aren’t controlling the kids.” I’ve actually done this type of research in the context of congregations. It can be tricky when you’re identifying certain dynamics and there are people sort of involved in creating those dynamics, maybe, that aren’t healthy. That’s why you need buy-in with the organizations. Say, “Hey, we’re just gonna come in and interview people” and as an outsider, that’s why having another researcher come from the outside is actually helpful, because you can just say what you see and if people don’t want to do anything about it, there’s not much you can do about it. But if the organization is really truly a partner, and they want to change, and they want to listen, my experience is that if organizations invite you in, they want to know everything. Whether they take the steps necessary, I think maybe that becomes a thornier issue. I think most people want to know what they’re doing wrong, I guess.

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