Friday, July 6, 2012

Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder - an Auto-ethnography

In a recent posting entitled “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” in the Hunting Dynasty Blog, Oliver Payne reminds us of the insights of Kurt Lewin and his field theory. Further, he draws our attention to the implication of Lewin’s theory has had on advertising and marketing. He specifically refers to the perception of US drinking-drivers reported by Charles K Atkin in ‘Mass Communication Effects on Drinking and Driving’ as an example of how Lewin’s theory has become a common principle in today’s advertising and marketing. We don’t hear too much about field theory now-a-days in anthropology.

Payne, however, reminded me of how important Lewin’s theory was for me in understanding the real issues in one of my first research projects as an applied anthropologist. Some years ago I was asked to complete a study of the impact of a proposed change to decriminalize the public inebriation laws in Arizona. I inherited the data from the study, so had no control over the original design but was asked to analyze the data. I had to "create" a design for analyzing totally different data sets. 

The question was, “Would it be more effective (humane) if public drunks were taken to a local alcoholism reception center (LARC) for evaluation and detoxification then to have them arrested and sent to the county jail?”  The original research designed called for the police to record all cases of public drunkenness that they had contact with, the location and the disposition of the case over the trial period. These were only contacts with no personal identification. Meanwhile, the client records at the LARC for cases recorded during the same period were sampled in terms of number of encounters, source of referral, and disposition.

Based on the police data, most referrals made to the LARC came from an area within a two to three mile radius of the center in a city of 90 square miles. And many of these appeared to be repeat offenders. The police saw the experiment as a waste of time and resources. This hypothesis was reflected in the fact that the further away from the LARC, the fewer number of contacts and referrals. Since public drunkenness was no longer to be treated as a crime, enforcement dropped off as a function of the time it took to transport the drunk to the LARC and thereby taking the car out of its patrol zone..

From the LARC data it appeared that referrals came from several sources with the police being only one. Others included friends and family, health and mental health agencies, self referral, and others.

A brief description of the LARC program is in order here. The program consisted of a 3-day residential detoxification, which allowed the "client" to sober up and for the staff to evaluate the clients 'physical and mental condition. At the end of three days, the client was legally allowed to leave. Based on the evaluation results, the staff would provide counseling and referral into the health care system if advisable or desired by the client. The LARC officials felt confident that the program was having an impact. However, they couldn't prove it to the police.

To accommodate the fact that I was looking at apples and orange I decided to use a very basic statistical tool, a frequency distribution table. Taking the number of individuals in the sample, and the number of contacts in the sample, I constructed a simple table classifying individuals into a groups based on their number of contacts with the LARC. And, I constructed a second table classifying the contacts by the number of individuals making up the group. The idea was that the former table represented the modal LARC perspective, the latter the modal police perspective. We found that the data plotted two different Pareto charts. Both the police and the LARC were correct in their initial conclusions about the problem.

The police saw the LARC as a revolving door, every three or more days  they were picking up the same people, along with others. From the LARC perspective, 57% of all 209 clients, recorded for the period, did not return after their first encounter and accounted for only 19% of all the 644 contacts recorded during the period. Meanwhile, 4 individuals or 2% of the clients accounted for 158 or 23% of all the contact.

While the facts demonstrated that the program was having an effect. The perceptions based on experience were quite different. The police saw only the worse cases and saw them repeatedly, while the LARC staff saw the full range of referrals and the successes of decriminalization as a means for the early intervention in most cases.

Several years later, I found myself discovering a similar situation while studying the drinking behavior of the rural elderly in Arizona. We found through a household survey that 6% of the elderly reported a drinking problem in the household, while the average state-wide for the general population was approximately 12%. Meanwhile, the emergency rooms were reporting a 20% rate for elderly admitted for alcohol related problems during the same period.

Lewin’s field theory helps to explain a lot about the partisanship that exists in society and why advertising can be especially powerful in distorting or clarifying the public’s perception of a partisan reality.

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