Should social scientists be distanced from or engaged with the people they study?

Kalonji Nzinga, David N. Rapp, Christopher Leatherwood, Matthew Easterday, Leoandra Onnie Rogers, Natalie Gallagher, Douglas L. Medin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


This commentary focuses on two important contrasts in the behavioral sciences: (i) default versus nondefault study populations, where default samples have been used disproportionately (for psychology, the default is undergraduates at major research universities), and (ii) the adoption of a distant versus close (engaged) attitude toward study samples. Previous research has shown a strong correlation between these contrasts, where default samples and distant perspectives are the norm. Distancing is sometimes seen as necessary for objectivity, and an engaged orientation is sometimes criticized as biased, advocacy research, especially if the researcher shares a social group membership with the study population (e.g., a black male researcher studying black male students). The lack of diversity in study samples has been paralleled by a lack of diversity in the researchers themselves. The salience of default samples and distancing in prior research creates potential (and presumed) risk factors for engaged research with nondefault samples. However, a distant perspective poses risks as well, and particularly so for research with nondefault populations. We suggest that engaged research can usefully encourage attention to the study context and taking the perspective of study samples, both of which are good research practices. More broadly, we argue that social and educational sciences need skepticism, interestedness, and engagement, not distancing. Fostering an engaged perspective in research may also foster a more diverse population of social scientists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11435-11441
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number45
StatePublished - Nov 6 2018


  • Advocacy research
  • Diversity
  • Engagement
  • Generalizability
  • Insider bias

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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