The Human in the Equation

Capturing human stories on the journey

Gemma Jiang, PhD


Photo: Pixabay

This Cafe features our social scientists on the team: our economist Dr. Don Fullerton; our two anthropologists, Dr. Cindy Isenhour, and her graduate student, Brie Berry.

While the themes for the first three Cafes were pre-determined in consultation with our PI Dr. Melissa Bilec, this theme on “the human in the equation” emerged from conversations in the first three Cafes. In particular, we come to see that the point of departure for social science from engineering is whether human behaviors are included in the considerations. Remembering “each human is a complex adaptive system” from the first Cafe, maybe it is time we shed light on research when humans are included. How does human add to the equation? How are the complexities dealt with?

There was excitement in the air throughout the preparation stage. Nanda and I each prepared two questions. We shared one from each with our panelists before the Cafe, and kept the other two for surprise effect. Afterwards Melissa sent a special announcement in Basecamp, with this compliment “the panelists, Brie, Don, and Cindy, brought their “A” game!”

I am happy both for the dialogues we were engaged in, and for the team building opportunity. We are forming a “social science squad”!

Our Process

Four Questions

The whole Cafe evolved around the following four questions:

  • How do you define knowledge and how does it influence your research practices?
  • How do you think your own biases and experiences influence your research? Do you believe it’s possible to be neutral and separate your own worldview from your research methods and outcomes?
  • All models are wrong, some are useful. How wrong, how useful? Statistical and conceptual
  • If you could give us a glimpse into your research empire, what would you like us to see?

Highlights in our conversations are organized around the following themes and supporting quotes.

Diverse disciplinary perspectives and relationships

“I think we all see the world really differently and that can be challenging and also really exciting…I’m learning quite a bit, even when I’m just observing.”

“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised that people seem genuinely interested in the anthropological approach and really willing to learn together.”

“Economics is not a monolith and neither is anthropology. So even from theoretical perspectives, but also from methodological perspectives, there are economists that do ethnographic work. There are anthropologists that do highly quantitative work.”

“I’ve enjoyed…a lot of far-reaching perspectives and interchange of ideas.”

“I think we can either be oppositional or we can be convergent, and why not choose convergence?”

Working with bias

“We might all tackle this differently, but I think about the work that we have to do to position ourselves as researchers. So, I think that the research that I do can’t be unbiased because I’m a person in the world and I have experiences that are going to shape the way I see and interpret data. I think the best thing that I can do is to reflect on what is shaping the questions that I’m asking and the way that I’m interpreting data.”

“You can never eliminate all bias and you can never have perfectly neutral research, but I think of that as a goal: try to make it as neutral as possible, as unbiased as possible, and to acknowledge what those remaining biases might be.”

“If we really want to be as unbiased as is possible, our best bet is to be really clear about not only our assumptions in the data, but also about who we are and what our theoretical position is.”

“One of the best things we can do in recognizing any of those kinds of inherent biases is to say that that’s where we are. And that we’re recognizing that we’re in the space and that we need to, as we seek convergence, actively seek out alternative perspectives on this topic.”

“We need to recognize CE is situated in white, middle-class, pro-environmental spaces. We should actively seek alternative framework and also own our perspectives.”

“I do not make any statement that sounds like policy recommendation.”

Bringing human into research

“All models are wrong because reality is inherently more complex. In models we have to make abstractions, so we are never able to capture all the complexity. By putting our expertise together, we can make our models better and better.”

“Within anthropology, we see people as sort of the experts in their own life and they’re bringing really important forms of knowledge to this process. So, I view myself as a researcher and I have expertise in research design and methods and theory. But I don’t know more than my research participants about their own lives. And I think they bring a different way of knowing. That is something that I’m trying to understand.”

“I think that we have to take seriously the idea that people’s perceptions of the world are real for them. And so, it’s not my role as a researcher to say — even though there’s other evidence, there’s other reasons to suggest why that shouldn’t be the case — for you that is the case. And we have to work within that reality. So it means that when the stakeholders that we are conducting focus groups with express barriers, perceptions, other thoughts about the circular economy, those are real for them. And that is important knowledge for us to take into account.”

“Policies that do not reflect people’s culture backfire.”

Feedback: Take home messages

As is the tradition, we ended the Cafe with a check out question: “what is your take home message”? Below are feedbacks from our participants, organized in three themes.

Possibility of complementary relationships among disciplines

Quote of the day from Brie: “We can either be oppositional or convergent.”

We have a lot to contribute to each other’s work if we choose to see the differences as opportunities instead of obstacles.

Taking human into the equation

Humans are just too complicated!

My take away is how complex economic systems are even before we start to add in the human elements.

It’s difficult to divorce the observer from what you’re studying, which makes studying humans even more difficult than studying the natural sciences. Any rigorous work needs to acknowledge that. Brie and Cindy (and Don) your work is so much harder!

When we think about problems related to exceeding planetary boundaries, it’s fundamental that we understand that these are SOCIAL problems with environmental consequences. It is about the way human society is constructed.

Working with humans

I want to know not what is the predicted answer, but what drives that answer, what makes it bigger or smaller than that prediction?

I would like to thank Lydia Chlpka for her help with preparing for this blog post.



Gemma Jiang, PhD

Senior Team Scientist, Colorado State University; Complexity Leadership Scholar and Practitioner; also at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gemma-jiang/