Striking a balance in data collection

A big part of my research time is spent on violence against women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and harmful traditional practices. Though sometimes all whipped into a category of “women’s issues,” I’ve argued before that these are problems that everyone should care about, that they exert severe effects on our health and well-being as a society, emotionally, physically and economically.

Currently, I’m mired in two data collection projects, both with various degrees of hopelessness. I’ll write more later about my time in Caracas, but suffice it to say for now that there simply isn’t data available on issues like the ones I mention above. Or if it is available, no one’s going to give it to me. No surveys, no police data, no statistics on hotline use, nothing. We don’t know anything.

Conversely, in a meta-analysis of programs for adolescent girls that I’m writing with a colleague, my coauthor came upon a study suggesting that in order to correctly assess prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) we should submit randomly selected female villagers in rural areas to physical exams.

I was shocked and disgusted when she sent me the study. I don’t doubt for a minute that the most accurate way to gauge prevalence of FGM is to randomly select women and examine them, but seriously? I am astounded that no one thought through the psychological consequences of women who have already been victims of gender-based violence being examined by a foreigner who thinks they are lying about whether they’ve been cut.

These days, it’s a good reminder for me that in collecting data there is such a thing as too much, and such a thing as not enough. It’s all about striking a balance.

Weekend Roundup and off to SF

VAWA passed! 68-31. Notably, Kay Bailey Hutchison, who engineered a substitute with Chuck Grassley, voted for it, and all 31 Republican men voted against it.

If you haven’t read Mona Eltahawy’s essay in Foreign Policy: “Why do they hate us?“, you should. Then you should go watch Melissa Harris Perry moderate a discussion between Mona and another Egyptian feminist, Leila Ahmed. (Samhita has it on her latest post at Feministing.)

In other news, today was my last day of teaching this semester. Agreeing to attend a conference the last week of classes was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but all in all, I think I’m ready. I’ll be in San Francisco for the Population Association of America meetings (PAAs) from Wednesday to Monday, attending sessions, tweeting about demography and families, and eating a lot of good food. Apparently, events are already starting. I arrive Wednesday and will be going to the Economic Demography session on Wednesday afternoon and more. If you’re in town, my session is on Friday morning: 96. Stop by!

Session 96:
Child Health

Friday, May 4
10:30 AM – 12:20 PM
Continental Parlor 1
Ballroom Level

Chair: Laura M. Argys, University of Colorado at Denver
Discussant: Susan L. Averett, Lafayette College
Discussant: Anoshua Chaudhuri, San Francisco State University

1. The “Marriage Advantage” in Infant Health Outcomes: Evidence of Selection or Risky Behavior?Jennifer Buher Kane, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

2. Expectations of Support: Health Investments and Promises of Financial Assistance for ChildrenErin K. Fletcher, Gettysburg College

3. Parental Age at Birth and Longevity of Offspring in Centenarian Families: The Role of Biology, Social Interaction and CultureValérie Jarry, Université de Montréal; Alain Gagnon, Université de Montréal; Robert R. Bourbeau, Université de Montréal

4. The Psychological and Physical Well-Being of Involved, Low-Income FathersLetitia Kotila, Ohio State University

VAWA on the Senate Floor

The Violence Against Women Act is up for renewal this year and is now on the Senate Floor. While we shouldn’t be surprised in this contentious political climate that bills that formerly renewed with broad bipartisan support are suddenly fodder for filibusters and other nonsense, this one is really important.

A colleague and I were discussing the bill last night. She contends that some groups put things into the bill that were unnecessary, particularly in an election year, and that’s hampering its forward progress. But the response by some lawmakers to limit the usefulness of VAWA would have overwhelmingly negative effects, by putting women and their families in more danger, increasing stigma, and reducing reporting.

Some of the problems outlined with the Grassley-Hutchison substitute are here, but in general, the substitute shows an extreme lack of understanding of the problems associated with violence against women, gender-based violence, and external effects of increased penalties, stricter reporting and cooperation requirements and more.

#ReauthorizeVAWA on twitter

Food Aid and Conflict

As a researcher I’m incredibly interested in conflict, its causes, and its effects. It may have started with “how do I get my brother not to get mad at me?” and continues with “how do we get people to not beat up their loved ones?” Though I heard someone mention the other day that the world has less conflict now than ever, it’s still worth looking into the causes of it.

In that vein, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian have a new NBER working paper examining how food aid causes conflict. In a earlier paper, they presented some relatively straightforward relationships between food aid and need. Essentially, we send food where it is needed, but donor countries respond more to internal shocks than shocks in the recipient country. So, we send food where it’s needed, but mostly only if we have extra. The follow-up paper, or how that food aid contributes to civil war, is the one whose abstract is here.

This paper examines the effect of U.S. food aid on conflict in recipient countries. To establish a causal relationship, we exploit time variation in food aid caused by fluctuations in U.S. wheat production together with cross-sectional variation in a country’s tendency to receive any food aid from the United States. Our estimates show that an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. Our results suggest that the effects are larger for smaller scale civil conflicts. No effect is found on interstate warfare.

There are plenty of questions about this, but my first thought is why we don’t see an effect on interstate warfare? Particularly in places where tribal allegiances or religious allegiances are more salient than national ones, what makes food aid have a differential effect on different types of conflict? Is there some sort of endogeneity in the places we send food aid based on their form of war? It seems like we might restrict food aid to places who are violating borders, which would pose a problem for their identification strategy.

See also Marc Bellemare for his two cents.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “Aiding Conflict: The Impact of U.S. Food Aid on Civil War” (January 2012). NBER Working Paper No. w17794.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “The Determinants of Food Aid Provisions to Africa and the Developing World” (December 2010). NBER Working Paper No. w16610.


There is a large debate in the economics community about the value of putting out working papers. When a working paper creates significant buzz, whether in the media, on twitter, or even just among economists, the conclusions in the paper take hold. That first impression is shown to be very persistent, even when a later version of the paper comes up with opposite results.

At least as long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve had a note on my research page saying that links to working papers are forthcoming. I’ve completed my dissertation and am working on revising the chapters to submit to journals. I’m fairly certain that the big picture of these papers isn’t going to change and my advisors were insistent that each of my chapters was very close to that point. Consequently, revisions are small at this point, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t benefit from a little help from the internets.

Over the next few weeks, I will post each of the chapters of my dissertation here. Comments, suggestions, typos, criticism, etc. are welcome.

Violence and Venezuela

I spent much of the last few weeks of the semester trying to convince my Latin American economics students that Venezuela is unabashedly the craziest place on earth. I may have made this claim about several places I’ve lived, but new evidence shows that I may actually be correct about Venezuela.

In Al Jazeera this week, former Fulbright scholar and current Stanford PhD student, Dorothy Kronick, discusses the prevalence of violence in Venezuela and how Chavez amazingly escapes the blame for it. Comparisons of Venezuela’s level of violence have been made to Iraq during the height of the war, Ciudad Juarez, and other dangerous places, but Dorothy points out that unlike Iraq or Ciudad Juarez, there is no war going on in Venezuela. Petty crime often ends in murder, gang-related deaths are all too common, and I’ll add that violence against women, at least in my anecdotal knowledge, is rather high.

Despite the relative impunity with which these criminals act and the astounding levels of violence that permeate society, President Chavez does not seem to suffer electorally. In fact, Dorothy shows that the areas showing the highest growth in rates of crime have lost very few Chavez and chavista votes.

“People don’t seem to blame the government for the security problem,” Gerardo Gonzalez, an analyst with one of Venezuela’s top polling firms and a Central University of Venezuela graduate, told me in an interview. “In fact, it seems to us that violence might even help Chavez: the more people talk about violence, which they don’t attribute to him, the less they’re talking about unemployment, which they do attribute to him.”

So, there’s only so much you can complain about, but I still find it most amazing that Venezuelans don’t attribute la inseguridad (violence or insecurity, loosely) to Chavez. I never knew a pre-Chavez Venezuela, but it can’t have always been like this.

Over on Caracas Chronicles, my former editor gives his take on the same article: it can’t go on forever.

What’s the matter with Kansas?, redux

I saw mutterings that a repeal of domestic violence laws might actually take place in Kansas a few weeks ago, but I had a hard time believing that it might actually come to pass. It did, and now the mainstream news is covering it. I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe this violates equal protection clause of the Constitution. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone would use the economy to justify picking and choosing which crimes to prosecute. Beyond that, though, I’m astounded that even if you are able to justify your actions so callously–as those in charge in Topeka are doing–you cannot see that it’s incredibly short-sighted to repeal domestic violence laws. You create such perverse incentives–increase in battering, reduction in reporting, decrease in intervention by police, family members, neighbors. Haven’t we established that domestic violence is extremely costly? To individuals, to society, to workplaces, to the insurance system, to children. Endangering women and children is not the way to make a point.

Cartoon Violence

There are all sorts of studies that claim that cartoon violence, particularly of the video-game variety, encourages children to be violent, but this morning I was treated to a cute little analysis of violence that most likely isn’t actually engendering any violence. It does bring up questions of exactly what is being represented, though. Does violence in New Yorker cartoon articles correlate with rates of violence in the real world?

There are myriad questions, of course, that one could ask that might strengthen or weaken the relationship. Whether the total number of cartoons (violent or not) is constant over decades, turnover in the cartoonists, who the cartoonists are, etc.

I’ve never really known any cartoonists, so I can’t say much about their average temperaments, or sources of inspiration, or how much they read the news, or how much their cartoons reflect other trends in society. It’s reasonable to assume that, however inaccurately, they have some idea of what’s going on, even if they don’t metaphorically have their finger on the pulse of the nation. But more than rates of actual violence or murder in real life, I wonder if the increases can be associated with differing levels of depression or other mood disorders. A quick google search did not reveal an easy way to get depression statistics in the same format as the New Yorker cartoon violence data (and even if it did, it’s unlikely that there are enough data points to get a statistically significant answer). I’m sure a health economist friend (or even my mom) could help me out with this, were I to pursue it.

Then, I thought, maybe confidence in government? This WSJ graph has historical presidential approval ratings. The discontinuities would make it difficult to analyze, but  could be aggregated over each decade. There might be a story, or even better, might be a story about stability. Perhaps more volatility in presidential approval ratings over time means more violence. Or some combination of level and volatility?

Regardless of the outcome of such a search, this is clearly not a case of causation. Even asking whether cartoon violence is predictive or reflective of actual trends in depression or presidential approval ratings would take much finer data and many more assumptions. But I think it’s fun to try to link trends in media to trends in other facets of life. I used to tell a friend, who complained often about seemingly obvious journalism–“People use technology to do stuff”-type articles, for instance–that they’re necessary for the historical record. They’re also for nerdy economists to read and try to find patterns over time.

Revictimizing the victim

Since I posted here about Mac McClelland’s piece on her own PTSD, and how she used violent sex to lift herself out of it, I thought it appropriate to give voice to one of her sources. A Haitian woman whose experiences were tweeted by McClelland has found the means to say that she never gave McClelland permission to share her story in such a way. The author here even suggests that McClelland put her source’s life in danger.

There’s a fine line when we choose to share someone else’ experiences through any media outlet, be it social media, a newspaper or an online magazine. I don’t remember who said it, but I was once told that in order to be a good reporter, you have to be warm enough to earn people’s trust, and then callous enough to betray it by telling their story to the world.

We’re all talking more about the problem of rape in war-torn or disaster-affected countries as a result of this story, I’m sure. Haiti, Congo, Syria. Not many of us likely have ideas about how to fix it, but I think we can all agree that retraumatizing a victim does not add up to good work.

A lawyer, an economist and a social psychologist walk into a bar…

Over the last few months, I’ve been hard at work on an amazing project with two even more amazing coauthors. Through my undergrad, I’ve come into contact with so many fantastically smart people and as we all grow professionally, we’re starting to collaborate and work together on various academic projects. It just so happens that this most recent collaboration was proposed to me by a lawyer, to write a handbook chapter on gender-based violence, or GBV, from a social psychology perspective, with the other coauthor being a social psychologist. It starts to sound like a joke, but I promise it’s not.

I delved into this world of social psychology with some trepidation. My advisors expressed their qualms about the project, and not just because it would take time away from finishing my dissertation (it has, but it’s all going to get done). Academics in general, and economists in particular, are wary of crossing disciplinary lines, and there are good reasons for that hesitation. We’ve all been “raised” in very different academic environments, with not only different advisors, but different canonical texts, different standards for what constitutes research, for what constitutes a conclusion, different styles of writing, of citation, etc. In this light, our differences can seem overwhelming, to the point of excluding all possibility of collaboration. When it comes down to it, though, we’re all interested in asking interesting questions and finding answers to them. It’s that curiosity, that drive to solve problems, that I think unites us as academics. Certainly, we all took these (at least theoretical) pay cuts for a reason other than “summers off”.

In the research I did for this paper, and am still doing as organizations get back to me, and more sources and programs come to light, has opened up a whole new world in terms of how we present information. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we ask questions, and particularly survey questions, I’ve spent less time in thinking about how we present information to change behavior. It’s easy to agree that gender-based violence is an undesirable outcome, but with the wealth of experience that tells us how easily we can alienate those we try to teach, how teaching can backfire in the face of culture and how unique individual situations are, it’s harder to say that we know how to combat it.

Programs that follow the dicta of social norms marketing fall squarely in this idea of how do we present information to change behavior. It’s a term that at first confused me, the economist, but quickly took hold. We talk about social norms all the time from what constitutes appropriate dinner talk to the acceptability of practices like FGM or honor killings in certain communities. As regards gender-based violence social norms, is gender-based violence acceptable? Or, rather, are there certain situations under which beating your wife is acceptable? We find that the answers to these questions are rather different, and how we pose them to survey respondents greatly affects the data to come out of such surveys.

The marketing part is the presentation of information. Through pamphlets or television shows or radio programs, advertisements, participatory workshops or events, social norms marketers try to present information about social norms, or rather present information about desirable social norms, using methods that are familiar, or not. Some of the most successful social norms marketing programs for gender-based violence rely on what are essentially soap operas and likable characters to portray desirable behavior.

Perhaps it’s my relatively naivete in the subject, but it really warms my heart to see new campaigns like this coming out. While in all reality, they really haven’t been sufficiently evaluated, the glimmers of promise in their success at creating desirable social norms around violence (it’s not okay to hit your wife, ever; rape is not something real men do, etc) bode well.

My coauthor recently sent me these videos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring a famous Congolese rapper in various roles portraying strong, loving, respectful real men. Real men who make their wives dinner when they’re late coming home from work instead of beating them and real men who treat women as equals instead of demanding sexual favors in return for employment. The videos don’t have subtitles and I don’t speak much French, but they’re cool nonetheless. I don’t see them winning an Oscar by any means, but hopefully they’ll change someone’s mind.