Think Out Loud

An invitation to debate ecology, art, human development and enlightenment

A social science approach to learning

Beating a Path through Your Intellectual Ambition: A Social Science Approach to Learning

X –> Y

In social science research, this is the most basic expression of relationship.  It can loosely translate as “X affects Y”.

Let’s start with Y.

Y stands for a social phenomenon that you don’t quite understand.  This can be as seemingly simple as “student grade point average (GPA)” or as beguilingly complex as “national gross domestic product (GDP)”.  Researchers call Y a “variable”, because its exact value will vary from case to case, e.g. GPAs will be different from student to student and GDP will vary from country to country.

In our X–>Y model, Y is the “dependent” variable, or the “response” variable.  This means that its actual value (e.g. 3.8 GPA) is affected by other variables (e.g. whether the student with a 3.8 GPA has strict parents, or a part-time job, or a tutor, or exercises regularly…).  In other words, we might want to find out if some factor affects Y so predictably that Y is dependent on this factor, or it is a response to this factor.  For instance, maybe we want to find evidence that students who get at least eight hours of sleep tend to earn higher GPAs (i.e. GPA is dependent on student sleep habits), or that nations with the lowest GDPs have the most people working in agriculture (i.e. GDP is a response to the proportion of farmers in a country).

X, of course, represents the possible explanations for the value of Y.  It is typically called the “independent” variable, or the “explanatory” variable.  Typically, there are more than a few X’s that can account for the value of Y, just as there are multiple factors that contribute to student grade point averages.  The more complex the phenomena, the more X’s will crowd your relationship model, as in:

Xi, Xii, Xiii, Xiv, Xv, Xvi –> Y

Finally, once a social scientist establishes that there is a relationship between X and Y, he or she must then figure out how.  This is implied by the arrow (“–>”) in the formulas above.  In other words, –> is a mechanism through which X affects Y.  For instance, maybe the brains of students who get adequate sleep are better able to learn and recall new information.  Hence, brain function is the mechanism through which student sleep habits affect grade point averages.

Of course, social phenomena is utterly complex, and the model above is not fool-proof by any means.  However, I think it is a great place from which to start thinking about a “Learning Plan of Action”.

Especially for people with wide-ranging interests, finding just one thing to study can sound like a soul-crushing proposition.  Take heart.  Social scientists are here to help.

Whereas most people are tempted to describe their interests by discipline (e.g. “I’m a mathematician”; “I like science”; “I’m into history”) the social science approach let’s us breach the boundaries of these academic silos.  By focusing on relationships and problems instead of disciplines, we establish a greater sense of immediacy, even urgency, to our intellectual mission.  Sure, “history” can wait, but the relationship between bilingual education and second-generation German-American income is a juicy topic just waiting to be explained.

The human brain just loves to mull over a paradox, and the social science approach to learning invites us to consider this special conundrum: compared to the traditional disciplinary approach, the social science approach is both more intellectually restrictive AND more intellectually expansive.

The SS approach is more restrictive than the disciplinary approach because it requires you to study only the methods and subjects within a discipline that directly impact your X–>Y relationship.  For instance, someone studying second-generation immigrant income in history (a fascinating subject that might shed light on current economic trends in immigrant communities) would NOT be served reading a general history textbook, a random scholarly journal put out by an international historian society, etc.  This person needs to get specific: which immigrants, during what time period, where…  It would really help to know if your relationship of interest has already been explored and how.  Are you satisfied with the explanation?  Do you think you can do better?

The SS approach is more expansive than the disciplinary approach because real life phenomena, unlike a college major, does not fit neatly into discrete subjects like “History,” “Education,” “Governance,” “Sociology”, and “Economics”.  A social scientist understands that they will need to learn a sufficient amount about every topic that might touch on their X–>Y relationship.

The statement, “I’m interested in history, education, governance, sociology, and economics” sounds overwhelming and symptomatic of the “mile wide and an inch deep” intellectual problem.  By contrast, “I’m interested in the relationship between bilingual education and 19th-century second-generation German-American income,” sounds manageable.

Finally, if you’re still with me, it’s important to note that the social science approach is not only relevant for social sciency relationships and problems like the ones I featured above.  This approach can help get you started on the path to some really exciting learning that could directly impact your life.  Think about how the following questions can be expressed with the X–>Y model:

  • What is the relationship between meditation and the ability to control one’s emotions?
  • What are the work habits of the most successful entrepreneurs in my industry?
  • Are there commonalities in the parenting of children who have the closest relationships with their parents later in life?
  • Do inexperienced young authors have a harder time getting a literary agent compared to older inexperienced authors?
  • What exercises are correlated with the largest number of injuries in people over 50?

Do any of these subjects pique your interest?  Do they suggest delicious forays into fields as disparate as psychology and neuroscience, anatomy, biochemistry, and sociology?  Inevitably, as you begin to explore one X–>Y relationship, a hundred more will explode into view as you contemplate other variables that affect X, or more variables that affect the mechanism between X and Y.  Follow your curiosity.  See where it leads.


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