WEIRD Results in Non-WEIRD Contexts

What is the impact of non-WEIRD scholars studying in WEIRD countries?

Posted Aug 14, 2020

We know that context and culture matter in our investigations of human behaviour across a wide variety of studies and disciplines. As is the case with most social sciences, in psychology too, several theories do not hold true across cultures.

A potential reason for this could be that psychological research draws upon evidence from a very specific category of participants—those known as WEIRD (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic cultures). This is changing slowly, with the rise of social science researchers in the less developed regions of the world. One way in which this happens is by taking up collaborative projects with those who have traditionally contributed to what is known as WEIRD science. This often involves including a local researcher to provide context and background on the phenomenon being studied.

The second way in which this happens is when non-WEIRD scholars undertake training at universities or institutions in WEIRD countries. This way, they are able to equip themselves with skills that are rigorous and cutting edge in their field, but at the same time reconcile them with knowledge of the cultural context in their home country.

For example, consider a researcher who has studied psychology her entire life in a developing nation, such as India, and enters a graduate program in her discipline at a university in the United States. She hopes that this degree will enhance her employability, her skills, and in the future, help her contribute to non-WEIRD research. She works hard for four or five years to earn her graduate degree, and has conducted some innovative experiments, found novel insights, and is poised to publish her work in a high-impact academic journal.

This is a major milestone for a social scientist, regardless of where you study or where you’re from. Looking forward, will her training in scientific methods from a WEIRD country affect the kind of science she does? To add, does training in a WEIRD country mean that you are inherently trained to set aside nuances of the cultural context in your work? 

We, unfortunately, don’t have an answer to this question just yet. Many researchers from non-WEIRD countries move abroad to work at institutions, gain meaningful employment, and often remain in those (WEIRD) countries. This potentially gives them fewer and fewer opportunities to work on issues related to their home country. Furthermore, it could also limit their exposure to ideas and emerging research themes in their country of origin. They may (rightfully so) favour attending conferences in WEIRD countries, where more WEIRD research is presented, than opting to attend and learn about research in their home country.

This is not to say that it becomes impossible for them to keep in touch with what’s going on back home, just that being entrenched in a WEIRD research culture could inculcate a sense of focus that often excludes other cultures (unless you’re already doing cross-cultural work!)

Keeping abreast of research in their home countries can be difficult for non-WEIRD scholars working in WEIRD countries but not impossible
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

One of the main ways to overcome this issue is to look at how social science is taught in WEIRD countries. University courses (especially at the graduate level) can be more inclusive of the fact that non-WEIRD cultures bring to the fore important differences in behaviour. Their training of future social scientists can emphasize not just why doing non-WEIRD, representative social science is important, but also why their training in a WEIRD country shouldn’t restrict their research within their home cultures. Ensuring that scholars attend (and even organize) conferences and other academic events in their home country is one possible way to ensure that WEIRD research culture does not always imply WEIRD research. It is through interactive exchange between WEIRD and non-WEIRD scholars that we can move social science forward.

Collaboration between researchers from non-WEIRD and WEIRD countries will help expand the context of a study.
Source: jambulboy/pixabay

With information on the implications of differences in WEIRD and non-WEIRD research coming to light, this exchange between WEIRD and non-WEIRD scholars, and only among non-WEIRD scholars is important now more than ever. The latter will enable a dialogue of shared experiences and contexts, potentially strengthening applications of WEIRD research in non-WEIRD contexts. Research and research methodology exchange and dissemination are important to bridge the gap between WEIRD and non-WEIRD studies. A factor that unites WEIRD work in academia is "whiteness" but, it’s largely overlooked. An example of the whiteness of research and its adverse (probably unintended) effect could be the manner in which automatic soap dispensers take longer than they normally would to dispense soap for dark skin tones.

Another important aspect of research, which is often taken for granted, is the language in which it is communicated — almost always English, which stands true more so in the case of WEIRD work. Non-WEIRD researchers, with training from WEIRD countries, could serve as a bridge, by helping disseminate relevant information in their regional language(s). For example, a farmer residing in an Indian village will most likely be unaware of the short or long-term benefits of deworming medication on the future of their child’s education and employment until someone, an expert or field organization, breaks it down for them.

Customizing WEIRD results to fit a non-WEIRD country’s framework could have beneficial policy implications too: for example, exploring how the benefits of certain government policies can be targeted in developing countries. Understanding the needs of a region will enable the implementation of the most relevant policies, and avoid wasteful expenditures. 

This post was written by Anirudh Tagat (@inhouseconomist), and Anchal Khandelwal (@anxhal23) research author and assistant, respectively, at Monk Prayogshala, India.