framing the questions

CocktailPhysicsMoi This semester, I'm teaching a class I haven't taught before: Writing Research Papers (I know: why didn't my students learn that in high school? That's another post.) I'm loving it because I've always enjoyed research and it makes me go back and think about the fundamental methods and questions of the activity. What do you look for in a fishing trip? How do you find reliable sources? How can you tell if a source is or isn't reliable? How do you formulate your questions? What makes a good hypothesis or thesis? How do you interpret data? How do you recognize your own biases? And one of the most important questions (at least I think so): how do you frame both your questions and your answer?

These questions apply to all kinds of research, whether what you're looking at is literary, historical, social, psychological, or hard science data and sources. Research, even when all you're doing is a review of the topic, ends up with some kind of focused point: here's what the trends are, here's what we know, here's what seems to be an answer to these questions, here are the caveats, here's what we don't know. Part of your answer always depends on what question(s) you ask. It's crucial to keep an open mind, no matter what you're researching. Very often, on the way to looking for one answer, you find one you didn't expect, or the answer to a question you hadn't thought to ask. This is why I've always loved poking around in libraries and the time I've spent in school and college labs, even running experiments that already had answers. It's the process as much as the product that's so enjoyable and instructive.

 I was reminded of the importance of recognizing personal and cultural biases twice this week. One of the papers my students are working on is a comparison of the lives and work of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students are predominantly African-American and, like me, hold both figures in high esteem. I warned them that when they went fishing, they were likely to find events in both men's lives that painted them in a less-than-rosy glow. No matter what great things we might do, we're all human, and subject to human weaknesses. For some, this was a new thought, and for many it was troubling. It always is to find your heroes have clay feet. But it's an important step to take in intellectual growth. Can you still admire the accomplishments of someone, even after you discover they're not as saintly as you thought? Which matters more?

The other reminder was this article on WebMD, posted by a Facebook friend, that explains the findings of a study of the correlation between working mothers and childhood BMI. I'm not even going to go into what a crap standard BMI is as a measure of health. That's a topic for another post too. What jolted me about this article was the way the question had been framed: "Maternal Employment, Work Schedules, and Children’s Body Mass Index" [emphasis mine]. Really, I thought we were over this "blame mothers for everything that goes wrong with kids," but apparently this bias persists even in research women do. In the past, mothers have shouldered the blame for their children's schizophrenia, anorexia, and alcoholism, even adult sexual dysfunction. It's still a current motif (PDF) in autism treatment and studies.

The major problem with this idea, especially in late 20th and early 21st century developed countries is that it ignores the social changes in child rearing that have occurred with women entering the workforce. Women are no longer the sole caregivers for children or primarily responsible for such chores as cooking meals or grocery shopping, both of which figure in what children eat. Why, then, were father's activities and timetables not included in this study? Why are we not asking how having both parents working and the work schedules that regularly hinder both parents from spending more time with their children affect what children eat? Because, as a culture, we are still deeply ambivalent about women in the workforce and still see them as children's primary caregivers. Although 64-78% of mothers are in the workforce full time, the continuing lack of salary parity, number of women CEOs, dearth of trustworthy child care provisions and paid maternity leave are evidence that our society as a whole does not really value women's presence in the workforce (PDF).

  There are, of course, other reasons for these problems, but a bias against women (and their ability to raise a family and work outside the home, one that does not exist for men) is certainly the main contender, and that bias, like racism, is just as often unconscious and shared by the people who are its objects, including female researchers. In this case, there are studies that look at the involvement of both parents in their children's eating habits (in Germany) and many more on women's influence, but none that I could find that look at only the effect of paternal employment on children's eating habits and obesity. Google, in fact, kept asking me if I meant "parental" instead of "paternal." It's not that the question isn't important, but that the other side of the question, or the collective question needs to be asked too. In fact, another study from the University of Maryland discovered "that paternal employment plays a significant role as well." In the WebMD study, we have what's called a selection bias; the researcher's have chosen to study only part of the group which may be a causal factor.

But the way the study is reported—its framing—is also part of the problem; it creates a perception that women are solely responsible for children's eating habits or nutrition, which clearly isn't the case. The WebMD article says,

Bottom line: The longer a mom's employment — whether she's toiling at a regular 9-to-5 job or works irregular hours — the more likely her child is to gain more weight than is healthy.

"This is not a reason for moms to feel guilty," Morrissey tells WebMD. ''It’s not maternal employment per se that's the issue. It's an underlying environmental factor that leads to this association."

What that factor (or factors) is has yet to be uncovered, she says.

The way this is phrased, it's almost impossible for moms to not take home the message that it's their fault if their kid is fat. Until that underlying environmental factor is pinpointed, we have only the correlation of maternal employment and increasing obesity, about which we can do very little. Leaving father's out of this equation reflects and exacerbates a bias already present in the culture.

Biases exist in every research study, in every discipline. The kinds of questions we ask and how we ask them will reveal those biases if we're aware and thorough enough to examine them honestly. The best we can do is try to control for them and acknowledge them. And people communicating those results to the general public need to be careful about not perpetuating their own biases too. It's not only our heroes who have clay feet; we do too.

2 thoughts on “framing the questions”

  1. I don’t know the statistics, but there’s a chance mom is the focal point since so many single moms are raising their kids after dad has done a runner.

  2. @Kae: There’s a chance, yes; but if you focus solely on the mother’s role, and discard any other parameter, you’ll surely find a relationship which is not necessarily cause-effect. Maybe kids are fatter because they stay more time at home playing PS3; or streets are unsafer; or McDonald’s burger taste better. Why blame the mother?
    It’s like the joke: Earth temperature is rising, and the number of pirates is going down. Conclusion: either a) pirates keep climate heating at bay (so don’t chase them!) or b) pirates are more heat-sensitive than coral reef. The valid one? Neither (AFAIK).

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