People, generally speaking, are good.
I highly doubt that many people actually wake up in the morning to the thought of “gee, I hope I can ruin someone’s day today.” Most folks just want to go about their lives, not be bothered, and avoid making eye contact with other pedestrians on the street. But for all of those people, there are a few who really do set up to hurt, harm, or take advantage of others while getting ready for the day. But even they don’t necessarily plan to be evil or cruel. No one sees themselves as the villain. So, if people generally feel like they’re acting as they should in their lives, what can be done about it?
Enter Social Change Research. There are a lot of ways to define Social Change, depending on the subtype, but for the most part, it’s safe to infer that “the general idea is that the researcher(s) are actively changing something in a social situation that they are a part of” (PSU, 2016). This concept is extremely broad and widely applicable, and can be seen in more social settings than just about any other topic covered in a standard course on psychology. There are little snippets of it lying around just about anywhere you look, and it’s used in ways that range from the altruistic to the insidious.
A good example of altruistic social change research might be looking into ways to effectively provide food and shelter for the homeless. A recent project in Salt Lake City, Utah deals with precisely that, and is a prime example of the concept in action. In an article published by National Public Radio, first heard on the popular daytime program “All Things Considered,” the project, called Housing First by the state, has its results broken down and examined. Said results, while imperfect, are astonishing in their own right. “Utah set itself an ambitious goal: end chronic homelessness.
As of 2015, the state can just about declare victory: The population of chronically homeless people has dropped by 91 percent” (McEvers, 2015). The story has generated interest from media outlets around the world, and is a (mostly) prime example of how social change research can be implemented and applied to change something in a social situation. Sound familiar?
As pretty as the Utah story is, however, not all social change research ends up being for the greater good. By counterpoint, several states have attempted to institutionalize bigotry through what they’re calling “religious freedom laws” to restrict the forward momentum of what some would call progress, but what others would call ‘an attack on traditional values.’ In some other states, women are not allowed to have an abortion if the only reason for it is because the child will be born with a crippling disability. Depending on which side of the argument you fall on, it’s rather easy to see how social change research and Activist research (and the inherent implementation of policies that said research was designed to propagate) can be much more ambiguous, and potentially dangerous, than housing the chronically homeless.
In my own city, Jackson, Wyoming, there is a group campaigning to block all new affordable housing projects for fears that a particular subspecies of sage grouse will be negatively affected. Property in Jackson comes at a serious premium. Due to the proximity of the town to the famous Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, along with a good swath of National Forest and National Wilderness, only 2% of land in the county is available for private ownership. As a result of this, home prices are staggering. On Trulia.com, a real estate brokerage website, the most current average listing price for property is $1,655,749. It is impossible for the middle class and working class workforce in the region to own property, but because a conservation group has (very effectively) employed activist research to its advantage, all affordable housing projects submitted to the town council in the better part of the last decade have been denied.
It is abundantly clear that social change research and its subtypes and relatives are a powerful tool. Drawing a parallel back, basically no one sees themselves or their cause as unjust or harmful. Yet if wielded irresponsibly, social change research can cause great harm to many individuals, groups, and demographics. It is the imperative that the social psychologist be aware of the great responsibility that comes with the power they have to effectuate a difference in their social scenarios.
In our hurry to effect change on one group, we have to make sure our actions don’t become chains on another.
Penn State University. (2016). Applied Social Psychology, Lesson 13: Social Change/Participatory Research. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp16/psych424/001/content/14_lesson/01_page.html
McEvers, Kelly. (2015). Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness by 91 Percent; Here’s How. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres-how
Trulia. (n.d.). Jackson Real Estate Market Overview. Retrieved from http://www.trulia.com/real_estate/Jackson-Wyoming/