The Intersection of Research and Civic Engagement

Two fags. One flag has a bar graph and the other has an American flag

As the November 6th midterm election approaches, politicians and voters continue to debate policies and issues tied to IHDSC’s areas of research. On the Ground surveyed our faculty affiliate network about the intersection of research and civic engagement. With perspectives from social, behavioral, educational, policy, and health sciences, our faculty provided insightful commentary on evidence-based policy suggestions, important research findings, public perception, social change, and strategies to reduce inequality. Our hope is that these comments inform one of the most important evidence-based decisions: Voting.

Faculty responses were edited for clarity and length.

If you could inform voters about one research finding, what would it be and why?

Dr. Joe Cimpian (Associate Professor of Economics and Education Policy): Voters should be informed about the negative effects of stereotypes, as well as the potential for all of us to hold them. Recent research finds consistent evidence that negative stereotypes about the intellectual abilities of young women unnecessarily restrict female participation in a wide range of fields, including engineering, computer science, economics, and business. The current political climate did not create stereotypes, but recent societal and political events afford us an opportunity to focus needed attention on these negative stereotypes. As we prepare to vote, we can reflect on our own assumptions about what makes someone suited for politics and ask if stereotypes influence our thinking.

Dr. Patrick Sharkey (Professor of Sociology): Evidence on our cognitive biases when interpreting facts and decisions would perhaps be the most valuable way to push people to take a step back and consider the idea of opening up their minds to different perspectives.

Dr. Elise Cappella (Associate Professor of Applied Psychology; Director, IHDSC) Access to a high quality education may be the single most important factor in a society’s long-term social and economic health. Brain research and longitudinal studies suggest the importance of providing access to a high quality education young (ages 0-5). Multi-disciplinary and multi-method studies indicate the need to continue that high quality education through post-secondary training in preparation for the workforce. Education is not limited to academic learning and cognitive development but includes social-emotional skills, civic engagement, and other developmental competencies. It is critical for reducing inequality and creating opportunities for social change. Unfortunately, education is rarely mentioned in national politics. Occasionally, it is a focus of candidates running for state or local office. Voters need to know that when we neglect education — and the rigorous research on education — we fail to capitalize on the most promising means toward a strong, healthy, and equitable future for our communities and our country.

Dr. Niyati Parekh (Associate Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Director of Public Health Nutrition): As opposed to individual risk factors such as genetics and behavior, social determinants such as income, education, food security, race, housing, and health services are linked to economic and social conditions that influence health outcomes. Using the example of socioeconomic status, those in poorer neighborhoods don’t have access to healthy and fresh fruits in their neighborhoods or cannot afford to buy them. The cheaper foods, typically rich in sugars and refined carbohydrates contribute to chronic disease. Food insecurity is a particular problem in minority populations.

Dr. Paula Chakravartty (Associate Professor, Department of Media, Culture and Communication and the Gallatin School): Across the political spectrum, most Americans tend to assume that there is a clear moral distinction to be made between documented or “legal” immigrants and those who are “undocumented.” Fear of immigrants, specifically, non-white immigrants, has saturated media narratives for decades. Oral histories with undocumented New Yorkers bring to life a broken system that has increasingly criminalized low-wage, non-white immigrants and demonstrates that there is, in fact, no such line. Those seeking pathways to citizenship face instead an immigration system designed to create a permanent class of exploitable and vulnerable people.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller (Research Director, SMART Beginnings): Undocumented immigrants are not taking jobs away from American citizens, and they pay billions of dollars into Social Security.

Dr. Guillermina Jasso (Professor of Sociology, Silver Professor of Arts and Science): I do not believe that researchers should be the ones to inform voters about our work. We have a sacred trust to seek the truth, single mindedly and regardless of where it leads. Moreover, we have a sacred trust to seek the causes of things, and often the best way to do it is by doing basic work — work which may take years to reveal its connection to improving the world.

Dr. Emily Balcetis (Associate Professor of Psychology): Elections are a time of change. Sometimes this causes anxiety, since we don’t know what the day after election day could hold for our society. This anxiety can lead us to double down on what we already understand and people tend to vote for the status quo even if it doesn’t benefit them personally. Elections are also an opportunity to make change for the better, despite the uncertainty. Take a moment to think not only about what is best for your city, state, or country but also what is best for you and the social groups you are a part of that you care about most.

Research can play an instrumental role in changing policy, for example it was key to informing New York State’s Raise the Age legislation. Taking into account IHDSC’s areas of focus, what key research is missing from an existing federal, state, or local policy?

Dr. Diana Silver (Associate Professor of Public Health Policy and Management): Implementation research is critical to federal, state and local jurisdictions. We need more funding to do this research, and more creative ways to get this way to people in agencies who can make critical budget and staffing decisions.

Dr. Ingrid Ellen (Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning; Director for Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy): We have rigorous research from Dr. Raj Chetty and his colleagues showing that children who move to low-poverty neighborhoods when they are young are more likely to attend college and enjoy significantly higher earnings as adults. But as important as this research is, policymakers need more guidance about what aspects of neighborhoods really matter for children, and what policy tools can improve them. What are the most critical place-based investments we should make to improve the life chances of low-income children?

How can research play a larger role in community organizing, electoral participation, or other forms of civic engagement?

Dr. Michael Kieffer (Associate Professor of Literacy Education): I think the mindsets that we use as researchers — e.g., openness to being proven wrong; reliance on data over intuition; skepticism about causal interpretations — would be very useful to our civil discourse. Politicians, the media, and political organizers would all benefit from more scientific mindsets in their work. I don’t have good answers about how to make that happen, because there are certainly many incentives that work in the opposite direction. However, a first step may involve researchers modeling these mindsets when engaging with the media and the public. For instance, when speaking with the media, we can describe times when our intuitions have been proven wrong and how our understandings have changed over time. We can also push back against the easy answers and simple causal stories that dominate our discourse, complicating these and bringing nuance into the discussion.

Dr. Lisa Gennetian (Research Professor, IHDSC; Director, beELL): Graduate programs could and should increase their diversity of offerings related to management, leadership and civic and research engagement with non-academic settings. Arguably, for some disciplines and some paths toward applied PhDs these could be mandated courses, designed to be flexible workshops, or intense 1 to 2 week trainings. To thrive, all researchers need some exposure to management (think of that big NIH grant or being department chair). To make an impact in the real world, many researchers would gain from leadership skills as well as ways to communicate with the everyday people whose lives they are seeking to change. Practice with civic and research engagement can come from on the ground experience, in a learn-by-doing model, but also an easier path with mentoring or training.

Dr. Arnold Grossman (Professor of Applied Psychology): Evidence needs to be incorporated into psycho-educational bulletins and programs presented to the electorate about the effects of minority stress created by acts of prejudice and discrimination against LGBT youth. Minority stress leads to health disparities — higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide attempts, among LGBT youth — and these lead to greater stigmatization, more bullying, and poorer health. Research shows that when adults enact anti-bullying policies and become role models, LGBT youth experience more positive health outcomes.

Dr. Charlton McIlwain (Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication; Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development): Evidence may demonstrate that certain advertising messages effectively deceive people of color into thinking that their vote will not count or that they will face identification issues at the polling station, and thereby depress turnout. This evidence can lead community organizers to develop large scale, targeted, voter education drives, early voting campaigns and various forms of polling assistance on election day to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote.

Dr. Erin Godfrey (Associate Professor of Applied Psychology): We know that giving young people a chance to debate political and hot button topics in schools in a way that is respectful and open to diverse ideas foster youth’s critical thinking skills and promotes their civic engagement in their schools and communities. We need to continue to learn more about the family, school and community experiences that stoke civic engagement in our youth and put those into practice — our democracy depends on it.

Find your polling place. IHDSC is committed to putting research to work for children, families, and communities. Visit our research page to learn more about our projects.