Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Humanity Variable

It can be easy to lose oneself in numbers, trying to discover an answer or set of answers to analytical questions that could potentially carry great weight far beyond one project. This summer I've tried my best to not become completely immersed in data and data analysis even though they are fruitful efforts for which I possess a strong sense of enthusiasm. So far, the "head above water" approach seems to have done the trick, given that I've been able to keep track of the fine work that my LAKES colleagues have been engaging in. Seeing them in action, both directly and indirectly, has enabled me to fully appreciate the integration of multiple aspects towards a common goal in addition to molding my own mind into a more expansively inclined one. A collective, interdisciplinary approach now seems almost necessary to me for any economic endeavor, academic or not, because of how much every field has informed and influenced my thinking about policy analysis. Without their input, I doubt that the full breadth of our economic analysis would have been brought to light. 

The other disciplines represented in LAKES 2017 (sociology, anthropology, biology) alongside the other economics team are all dealing much more directly with the people factor (natural factor for biology) of water quality improvement efforts; the other economics team is pursuing a more "conventional" economic study in that they are examining how people value water quality, which sounds much more typical of economics than the data analytics of policy analysis. At the end of the day, the data we analyze stems from efforts motivated by the work being done on sociological, anthropological, biological, and interpersonal fronts. Without this interdisciplinary approach, there would be little to no sound purpose behind policy-making, since policies need to be tailored to fit the needs of the people who live in affected environments.

The closest I've gotten to experiencing the human or natural factor thus far is when I joined the sociology team for a surveying run through farmlands in Chetek, an area a little over a half hour north of our micropolis here in Menomonie. For a solid five hours I tagged along as we visited farm after farm to personally interact with the people who are affected by many regulatory policies that are implemented for the environment's sake. It was an eye-opening experience to be face to face with the folks behind the numbers, with people who are much more complex than even the most stringent of datasets could describe. The majority of them were gracious in their acceptance of the survey the sociology team provided, and they seemed more than happy to give a little insight into their lives. What stood out to me were the ones who voiced differing opinions, in particular a farmer who amicably rejected any sort of survey out of concern that government agencies would manage to pierce through anonymity and use his answers against him when it came time to collect. While I don't know how much validity there is to that sort of wariness, I do know that that curveball of a response is why it's important to remain in tune with people when conducting research. In just one day, the sociology team demonstrated to me the significance of society's tangible voice, which helped me further relate to the processes involved in policy analysis. Even though my project deals with urban and suburban populaces, I returned to my data work later that day equipped with a new perspective on the real life implications of environmental policy as well as a newfound appreciation for all of the other, more life-inclined disciplines.

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