Seeking Ethical Measurement of Racial Discrimination

Historically, racial discrimination has been correlated with disparities in mental and physical health data. Morgan Thompson, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, seeks to measure that impact through ethical psychometric tools and novel methodology. Her research objective is to ultimately inform public policy based on accurate measurement of the racialized experiences of minority groups. To do this, Thompson is a close follower of the philosophy of science, or the study of scientific research and application.

She began her academic career focusing on gender gaps in undergraduate philosophy enrollments, influenced by her own experience as a woman in the major. Gaining intimate knowledge of data collection through her early research, Thompson pivoted to studying epistemic pitfalls of psychological measurement tools, specifically in the context of discrimination data. Thompson considers U.S. and German government-provided data to pinpoint trends which may require policy intervention. This is much more difficult than it sounds as there are countless roadblocks to creating an ethical survey.

In the U.S., the self-report survey has been a popular tool in recent years. This format has strong benefits, such as allowing the participant to voice their experience through a first-person perspective. However, these surveys do not fully capture ‘something as socially complex as discrimination’ Thompson says.

Another common reason for the exclusion of relevant factors is attributional ambiguity, or when ‘someone might think this happened to them because of their race, but then they kind of waver and say, ‘oh, maybe that person was a jerk. I’m not sure if I’m interpreting this correctly’’ Thompson explains. ‘And I think that these kinds of experiences can’t be reported on the particular surveys that public health researchers use,’ she adds.

In addition to the individual’s internalization of an event, societal context strongly informs methodology. In Germany, for instance, race has entirely different connotations than in the U.S., namely that it was infamously employed by the Nazis. For this reason, the German government uses ‘migration background’ (or sometimes ethnicity) instead of race, but this ‘doesn’t fully capture the experiences of black Germans’, Thompson says. The impact of Germany’s past pushes Thompson to work with fellow researchers in developing a more accurate assessment tool that accurately considers race.

Another roadblock is that researchers’ refusal to consider intersectional influences has marred the practice of discrimination studies. In Thompson’s experience, ‘Often this work does not allow participants to say that some discriminatory event happened that was due both to their race and their education level. So this has had to be amended only in the last couple of years.’

Through her research on the epistemological soundness of current tools, Thompson finds that new scales are created through validation with existing measures. This creates a funnel of measures, where ‘two scales look very similar to each other based on this empirical research foundation’, she notes. In addition, a scientist’s own values that inform a given measurement will be echoed in other tools, creating a biased feedback loop of perspective. Clearly, Thompson is left with many philosophical gaps to fix!

To do this, she begins ‘by focusing on what I see as problems and then bringing philosophy in as I need it to give me the flexibility to use the kind of concepts that I think are helpful.’  She teases apart all aspects of a research question and examines them independently. She brings in ‘philosophical concepts or distinctions into a problem that other disciplines are having’. This helps counter the stifling theoretical frameworks that Thompson regularly encounters.

In order to counter the paradigmatic funnels, such as those responsible for redundant scales, Thompson strives to include community in her studies. She argues that this will allow for ‘democratic legitimacy’ of research through the inclusion of multiple complex perspectives. This means no longer ignoring intersectional experiences and instead helping to fill the gaps of attributional ambiguity. Engaging community in social research can help better define experiences and concepts miscategorized with inaccurate blanket labels. This also can create real policy changes at the local level.

Thompson is a strong proponent of Standpoint Theory, which posits that an individual’s perspective and understanding of the world are influenced by their social position, experiences, and cultural background. Those in marginalized social positions are better poised to gain certain knowledge. ‘It’s an opportunity for people who have knowledge that would traditionally be overlooked to actually bring that knowledge into scientific research and for epistemic reasons, to make that research better’ Thompson says.

Morgan Thompson’s endeavors epitomize the transformative power of interdisciplinary research and community engagement. Her dedication to refining measurement methodologies and incorporating diverse standpoints paves the way for a more equitable society. Thompson’s work stands as a testament to the importance of continual introspection and evolution within the realm of research, particularly when tackling issues as pressing and multifaceted as racial discrimination.

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Morgan Thompson