02 April 2009

Homelessness and Complex Problems

When someone in authority says, "evidence-based" to me, I hear "positivist paradigms prevail." The problem with relying exclusively on positivism, in either quantitative or qualitative research, is that it can only tell one part of any complex story. In particular, when dealing with complex social systems - those involving people - there is much that positivist approaches, and statistical approaches in particular, cannot discover. One of the key observations to which I often point when talking about research paradigms, are the papers by John Ioannidis, both from 2005. One was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research [JAMA 294(2), 218-228]. The other, with a far more accessible title was published in the Public Library of Science - Medicine [2(8)]: Why most published research findings are false. Straight-forward enough, right?

Last evening, I happened to be sitting with a colleague who is completing her thesis in Counselling Psychology. She related a story about how she first became interested in qualitative methods. She had been working on a survey that was going to be a part of her undergrad honours thesis. She decided to include two open-ended questions right at the end of the survey that would be analyzed using one of the post-positivist, qualitative methods. She was amazed to discover that the qualitative results exactly contradicted the quantitative results obtained from the main body of the survey. As it turns out, there is quite a body of literature on survey design, and the biases introduced both by things like question ordering, and the implicit power dynamic between researchers and so-called subjects in traditional positivist and post-positivist methodologies.

I do not doubt that the Toronto City Councillors are sincere about addressing the problem of homelessness in this city. Neither do I doubt Mr. de Jong's competence and expertise at managing a very, very difficult and complicated problem. However, I question whether he is being informed exclusively by those who live in a positivist world among the "academics, service providers and other government officials throughout the world," the "Drop-in centres, Housing Help Centres, shelters and street outreach providers [who] all also collect data," and "professional researchers that examine important issues related to homelessness." If so, he is missing a huge piece of the complex puzzle that is homelessness in urban areas.

The Streets to Homes program has its critics. And, I literally do not know whether the program is adequately informed by the voices of those who work with, and research marginalized populations from critical, feminist, aboriginal, psych-survivor, and other radical-oriented standpoints. The intent of the program is laudable: to ensure that every citizen of this city has a safe, secure, and appropriate place to sleep at night, and live during the day (or vice versa, as appropriate). However, problematizing "safe," "secure," and "appropriate" in complex urban politics, including addressing root causes, is a task best not left exclusively to positivist research academics, politicians, and managers in bureaucratic systems.

[Technorati tags: | | | ]

No comments: