Oppression should be validated even when not measurable

Illustration of person speaking with data and graphs
Vivian Du/Staff

Related Posts

“Non-white School Districts Get $23 Billion Less Funding Than White Ones” … “Police shootings are a leading cause of death for young American men, new research shows” … “Prejudice against ethnic minority Scots ‘persistent’, study finds.” While these are all crucial studies, this information is not new. My response to headlines such as these is usually “Well, I already knew that,” because when it comes to research on social issues, it’s only confirmation of my personal experiences. Racial oppression and Islamophobia? Been there, done that.

Being a student in this research institution means that everything is driven by data, especially my classes. In my first semester here as a political science transfer student, I began to see how real that was. In one of my classes, we were trying to measure the impact of policing on the physical and emotional well-being of Black and brown folks. Essentially, we were attempting to validate the generational experiences of Black and brown people through numbers. But why does it have to be measured? Why do the lived experiences of people of color become real only when they’re translated to numbers and percentages? As a student of color at UC Berkeley, these questions have constantly floated in my mind. If you haven’t already, you should start to ask these questions, too.

So why is it that our experiences are constantly questioned? Well, it’s a part of the systemic process of quantitative research in the social sciences. For an effect to be considered real by academics, it has to be measurable through empirical data that is representative of the general population. This has been generally accepted as the ontologically rational and “objective” approach in the research community. Furthermore, the basic assumption in this type of research is that the null hypothesis (which assumes that there is no relationship or effect between the variables measured) is true. Hence, quantitative methods rest on this premise of skepticism of the observed effect. Translated into the real world, this means that the experiential social problems are assumed to be invalid until validated by measured and analyzed data. This can present obstacles to understanding and “solving” social issues and oppressions.

Quantitative research is conducted in such a way that it impedes a full understanding of social problems in the world. First off, quantitative research is often based on a linear approach: One variable explains or affects the other, and this often discounts outside variables that may have another explanation for a phenomenon. In our complex world, it’s difficult to measure social issues through one-dimensional models. In that sense, quantitative research fails to fully explain the nuances of our social issues. Secondly, quantitative research is not as objective as it seems. Empirical data doesn’t automatically create objectivity; the way we ask the questions, the samples we use and how we gather the data determine the results. Lastly, research is set on principles of replicability and generalizability. This incentivizes researchers to focus on repetitive patterns and use representative samples; the issues facing minority people of color are often confined to specific contexts and are difficult to replicate and apply to the general population, however. Since these contexts are often left out of research, the burden of proof then falls on minorities themselves (especially those in research fields) to prove the oppression.

Moreover, accepting the concerns of minorities only when it’s quantified reveals an undertone of mistrust, which has real-life consequences. Prime examples of this include police brutality and the health care system. Police brutality is not a trending issue that recently developed; rather it’s been an ongoing effect of slavery. It only became important to the mainstream media once more quantitative reports came out on it. For example, Chicago police got several complaints on police misconduct, but they were not taken seriously until the death of Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was later convicted of murder. In fact, Van Dyke alone had 20 allegations of misconduct filed against him, including the murder of McDonald. Van Dyke was not charged or disciplined for his action until the McDonald case. It took national media coverage and active advocacy by groups such as the Black Lives Matter movement for the courts and the public to take this seriously.

“Hospitals are where Black women die,” my friend worryingly warned me as we were entering the emergency room. I didn’t fully understand the danger of the health care system for Black women until I accompanied my friend to urgent care. When my Black female friend fell into a migraine episode, I followed her to urgent care, and I witnessed firsthand her treatment. My friend was visibly sick and couldn’t talk, but the receptionist insisted on impatiently asking her questions until she was close to falling unconscious. As I was by her side, she would ask me to ask the doctors and nurses about the medicines and dosages they were giving her. The mistrust that she felt wasn’t just a hunch; it turns out this is a big problem facing Black women in the U.S. This is where the data to show the gravity of this problem is valuable, however, the data was gathered out of the need for Black women to be heard and seen in public health. For instance, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women are three to four times more likely to experience pregnancy-related death than white women. But this doesn’t tell the full story of Shalon Irving, a Black epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who died three weeks after giving birth because of complications of high blood pressure. Even with her notable education achievements and access to health insurance, her concerns were still ignored. Here, data to understand the racism that Black women are dealing with in health care is valuable. Yet data shouldn’t be the sole focus of research on oppression because of the failure to show the bigger issue, as told by Irving’s experience, that anti-Blackness in health care transcends education, income and access. Thus, the gap in researching and studying oppression can result in life-or-death consequences for minorities.

So how do we bridge this gap? This requires a paradigm shift in research and social science studies. We can start by centering the experiences of impacted people instead of focusing solely on numbers and data. To do this, we would need to conduct our studies under the assumption that these experiences are real and valid, gathering qualitative and quantitative data for the purpose of supplementing those experiences to understand their greater impact on the impacted population. Research shouldn’t be seen as a solution to oppression, but as a way to fundamentally understand the experiences of the oppressed. Once we understand these experiences, we can begin to take steps to address oppression.

Sarah Farouq is a senior studying political science and is an intern at the Multicultural Community Center.