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Research & Terminology – Connotations, Implications, and Progress

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Mitchell and Snyder’s “Cultural Locations of Disability” raises many relevant points about the absence of disability rights/perspectives within the scientific and research fields. Mitchell and Snyder claim that “these professions [therapy, medical school, public health, etc.] have always imagined their commitment to disabled people as their primary value, and hearing that disabled people – particularly those in disability studies – do not necessarily share this sentiment often comes as a shock” (191-192) and that “disabled people have served as the relics of obscene curiosity disguised beneath the neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).

The latter claim, especially, made me reconsider the research terminology that I have learned/am learning in my psychological statistics and research methods courses. During my first week of statistics last semester, we discussed the “normal” distribution of scores around the mean score (“average” score) and other terms such as “standard deviation.” Until reading theory articles for dis/lit, the inherent connotations of these words were not evident to me, let alone their moral/ethical implications.

A normal distribution is a graphic representation of scores***. It looks an arch, with the peak representing a majority of the scores (this is the mean or average score.) The distribution is divided by standard deviations, which represent how far away a standardized score is from the mean. The implication of a “normal” distribution is that anything that falls too far from the mean (more than, say, two standard deviations) is abnormal. When conducting research and/or a statistical analysis, a scientist is only concerned with “statistically significant” scores that fall several standard deviations away from the mean; this statistical significance implies that the score and its subject are not part of the distribution, are abnormal, and are deviant.

“Standard deviation” is another troublesome term. The literal meaning regards a person’s score on a test and its position relevant to the average (mean) score. The connotation, as with “normal distribution,” implies unnatural, abnormal, or even socio-culturally unacceptable behavior or characteristics. To be deviant, in common speech, is a rather undesirable and stigmatized thing.

What, then, can we do? Before I offer a potential solution, I must highlight a few ways in which science and research, particularly psychology – or, at least, psychology at this university – is readjusting negative habits, traditions, and mindsets. When studying abnormal psychology (we’ll deal with this terminology later), my class discussed several progressive trends in the field. For example, a good deal of time was spent analyzing the now unethical treatment of patients in the past; discussing the stigma that surrounds psychological practitioners, scholars, and patients; and even the implication of the word “patient.” Some psychologists are now adopting the term “client” instead of “patient” to give more connotative power to the client-practitioner relationship. Equally as encouraging, if not a bit unrelated to my current topic, is the emerging field of cross-cultural psychology, which seeks to analyze the ways in which psychological practices in different cultures focus on, research, and handle issues in completely different ways.

Additionally, I think that research cannot be entirely dismissed, discredited, or disgraced. While research is inevitably biased and teeming with demeaning and dis-empowering terminology, it can be used to discover very beneficial information, therapies, as well as fuel for further theoretical debate.

Encouraging though it may be, the progress being made in the field of psychology leaves much to be desired. Even though reform is taking place among some academics, psychology and its related terminology still carry quite a large stigma in the United States. More work needs to be done to rethink and renew terminology, particularly research terminology such as “standard deviation” and “normal distribution,” to make research a more humane and less dis-empowering practice.

***Apologies, but I could not find an appropriate open-source image of a normal distribution to post with this topic. Google it Enjoy these photographs of the hummingbird that I rescued!***

Written by Robert

September 2nd, 2010 at 10:16 am