A deliberative proposal for psychological experimentation

The field of social psychology is dominated by the experimental paradigm. The typical participant in social psychological experiments is an undergraduate that takes part in the experiment either because of course requirements or because there is some reward being offered. Voluntary or non-rewarded participation is rare. One could therefore say that participants are coerced into being researched.  Moreover and typically, experiments use deceptive methods in order to keep participants naive about what is going on.

While this state of affairs is perhaps most typical of psychological science it is not unfamiliar to other social sciences such as sociology or political science. From a deliberative democratic perspective, such an arrangement is anything but democratic or deliberative. Although mandatory ethics require that participants are debriefed after the experiment has taken place and then have an option to have their data withdrawn from the research record if they choose, an irreversible deliberative democratic breach has already taken place. The question is whether psychology departments could  approach the issue of experiment participation differently.

There are several reasons why psychology and other social science departments are dependent on undergraduates and their participation in experiments. One reason is pure pedagogical. Participation in an experiment gives first hand insight into the process. Undergraduates gain an experiential understanding of the process of experimentation and students who later choose a path in science have a better understanding of experimentation from a participant’s point of view. A second reason is more utilitarian in that it simply provides researchers with their object of study. A third reason could be said to be a more altruistic one in that both researcher and participant are contributing to further the understanding of human functioning in the world.

It is perhaps this last reason that social scientists could capitalise on in promoting a more deliberative way of gaining access to research participants. First year undergraduates normally have to participate in a stipulated number of experiments in order to received their grades. Could this be done deliberatively? I believe so. Why not have a lecture where students are informed about science, the way it is conducted and its dependence on people’s willingness to put themselves up as the objects of research? It could be argued that a dependence on willingness only leads to self-selection and, consequently, skewed or biased results. Whereas this could be true, the choice to withdraw one’s data after the fact can also lead to bias, as we don’t know whether there are any specificities to the people that refuse to have their data being used. In fact, the routine use of undergraduates as research participants is most certainly riddled with biases, as university students are anything but representative of the general population.

Perhaps a better way of obtaining the participation of students would be to have undergraduate students, and others, deliberating about the issue and whether they want to participate and therefore contribute to the advancement of scientific understanding of human behaviour. It is difficult to find a way for course credits to still be given for participation under this ‘opt in’ regime, but because the course credits under the existing scheme can be seen as illegitimate they can and should be dispensed with. A practice based on deliberative decision making rather than coercion teaches things about the practice of psychology that our students should be made to consider and although participation may fall in the first instance this should be no reason for continuing a practice that is illegitimate, simply because we haven’t managed to find a more legitimate way to ensure the students are keen to be involved in the advancement of their chosen field.  A non-negligible side-effect of such a procedure is that it would also entail a lesson in deliberative practice.

Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?

Elaine Santos has this interesting habit of randomly asking difficult questions over morning tea. This week, her pop quiz question is “Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?” (Last week it was “What do we do with asylum seekers?”) One of our colleagues who has had this same conversation with Elaine said there is none while I, perhaps worryingly, instinctively thought there is.

Off the bat, I suggested that female genital mutilation is unacceptable under deliberative terms if those who are affected by it (inclusivity) are not given the opportunity to contest the traditional/cultural reasons for such practice (openness).

The openness argument is relatively straightforward. Deliberative democracy opens all principles and practices to challenge including tradition, ideology, expertise and sacred texts. Time-honoured practices, in order to be acceptable and legitimate based on deliberative terms, should be subject to critical tests of reasons. Its advocates as well as its critics should be able to publicly provide other-regarding justifications for supporting or disavowing such practice. A number of ethnographers and anthropologists (e.g. Vicki Kirby, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf and Janice Boddy) have contributed to the dissemination of alternative discourses on the subject, facilitating greater understanding on female genital mutilation from the point of view of women themselves.

The inclusivity argument – ascertaining those who are “affected by it” – is a more complex one. On its strict definition, we can say that it is young female children who should have a say on the matter or their mothers who usually make the decision for them. It gets trickier, however, when we extend the notion of inclusivity to those who are not directly affected by the practice (in the sense that they are not subjected to it) but consider themselves to have a stake on the issue. This goes right in the heart of the normative dilemma of who should deliberate and decide on the acceptability of this practice. A colleague said that we should only engage with this issue if it occurs within our shores, as in the case of legislative debates on honour killings occurring in immigrant communities in Germany and the UK (our colleague Selen Ayirtman does exemplary work on this subject). Otherwise, we would be meddling in the affairs of other cultures. I questioned the default privilege this argument provides on the nation-state as the primary category for when we should engage in discourse on a particular issue. Global affairs can be viewed using different optics and nation-state or territorial boundary is just one of them. For example, as a woman, I feel that I must be able to contest a practice that systematically perpetuates female sexual oppression and gender asymmetries, even though I live in a western liberal democracy. On the other hand, as someone coming from a post-colonial, neo-liberal cultural background, I feel that I also have something to say about practices that confront the western liberal view of what is good. It is only until this discussion that I realised how tricky the issue of inclusion is in deliberative theory, but perhaps this tension is best left unresolved and contested, maintaining the multiple voices on the subject.

Our morning tea did not end with a consensus or even incompletely theorised agreements. Nevertheless, the discussion on the subject was both productive and engaging, prompting us to think about uncomfortable issues that deliberative democrats needs to face head on.

Nicole Curato is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the ANU. She worked with Prof. John Dryzek and Dr. Simon Niemeyer on an ARC and newDemocracy foundation-funded Project: Creating and Analysing the Australian Citizens’ Parliament. Aside from the theory and practice of deliberative democracy, Nicole’s research interests include fringe forms of political participation and qualitative research methods. Nicole is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the University of the Philippines.