Congratulations to Dr. Anouk van Leeuwen!

By Socializing Science / Watching Time: 10 Minutes

On March 16, 2016 Anouk van Leeuwen successfully defended her Phd thesis entitled “Protest! Studies on Protest Politicization, Perceived Protest Atmosphere, and Protest Policing”. In her thesis, she explores protests and their contours: How do demonstrators experience protests’ atmospheres, and why? Does such perception influence his/her willingness to join street protests in the future? And how can it be determined whether one street protest is more political in nature than others?. This are just some of the questions she addresses.

Socializing Science would like to congratulate her and invite you all to watch her defense in this clip.

Reveal the voice of people with intellectual disabilities through a camera

testBy Tessa Overmars-Marx / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

‘It is important that people see us as normal people and recognize us. We are part of the community as well!’

This quote symbolizes the importance of recognizing people with intellectual disabilities as part of our community. Being part of the community means being able to tell your story in everyday life but also in research. So we – as researchers – need to seek for ways to incorporate the voices of people with intellectual disabilities in our studies. Involving people with intellectual disabilities, however, brings many challenges. In my quest to overcome these challenges and to provide people with intellectual disabilities a platform to tell their story, I think I have found a promising method. So, read on….

tessaHow to involve people with intellectual disabilities

People with intellectual disabilities often have difficulties on a communicative, cognitive and conceptual level. As a researcher, this meant I had to look beyond usual interview and focus group methods to productively involve people with intellectual disabilities in my study. By exploring the literature and sharing thoughts with colleagues, I came up with the idea of using photography to enable their involvement. People with intellectual disabilities are often better able to express themselves if they are supported by visual content. After reading other promising experiences with the use of the photovoice method, I became enthusiastic and decided to test it out.


The photovoice methodphotovoice

What exactly does the method involve? It enables people to tell their stories through photographs they have taken themselves. In my study, I wanted to obtain more knowledge about the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities concerning their neighbourhood. So, I asked participants to photograph people and places in their neighbourhood which are important to them. I walked together with the participants through their neighbourhood. I had no active role, but instead I was ‘guided’ by them. In some cases participants found it difficult to take the photos themselves because they had difficulties in handling the camera, so I took the photo for them. However, the participants always determined the topic of their photos themselves. After taking the photos, we planned interviews to discuss them.

The advantages

Photovoice enabled my participants to share their stories about how they feel in their neighbourhood by talking about their (self-taken) pictures. Using photography as an activity made participants feel involved in my research. They were able to naturally tell their personal story without having to refer to the cognitive skills they lack. During the interviews I asked open questions only, for example: what/who is on the picture?; why did you take the picture? And, if necessary, I asked for explanatory examples, like ‘could you tell me when you visited this place or could you give me an example of a joint activity you have carried out with your neighbour?’. By using this technique, I didn’t need any abstract concepts. These advantages provide people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to explain their neighbourhood experiences and they were able to tell more about the daily contact they exchange with neighbours. This, in turn, was valuable in my research because it provides me with the possibility to distinguish important neighbourhood characteristics from the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities. This information is useful to advise care organisations in their way of working with people with intellectual disabilities who live in regular neighbourhoods.

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An example of pictures taken by the participants

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My experiences

Walking with the participants through their neighbourhoods meant gaining an insight into their lives. This was really great! The participants provided so much more information that, in my opinion, I would never have been able to elicit by means of conventional face-to-face interviews. The combination of walking together and discussing the photographs worked really well. In my research I want to find out how do people with intellectual disabilities feel in the neighbourhood and what neighbourhood characteristics contribute to this ‘neighbourhood-feeling’?’. To answer this questions their own personal and direct perspective is crucial! Perhaps equally important, caregivers and participants suffering from cold feet overcame their initial skepticism or fright and became enthusiastic! Moreover, since I started the ‘guided photovoice’ I am in a really good shape: I walked for hours with the participants and sometimes I almost had to run to keep up with them.

Would you like to know more about photovoice or do you have any other alternative strategies in interviewing people with intellectual disabilities or other groups, please contact me!

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Tessa Overmars-Marx works as a PhD candidate  in the Sociology department. Her PhD Research focuses on the relationship between the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities and neighborhood characteristics.  The research project is conducted in partnership with four care organizations working with people with intellectual disabilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robots in healthcare: Curse or Cure?

 Marloes SpekmanBy Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Mrs. Johnson stares out the window. She keeps hoping her children will show up for an unexpected visit, although that rarely happens nowadays. Some days, Mrs. Johnson only sees Jenny from home care. And to Mrs. Johnson’s regret, Jenny never has time for a cup of coffee. Her children, all of whom try to balance a 40-hour work week and raising children, usually visit her twice a month on Sundays, if they’re not too busy that is. She cannot help but feel neglected, especially because she was always there for the kids when they were little. “Mrs. Johnson, would you like some coffee?” a voice speaks. Mrs. Johnson looks up – where did that voice come from? A small, human-looking robot approaches her. Mrs. Johnson closes her eyes, folds her hands and prays the creature will be gone by the time she opens her eyes again…

When I tell people I do research on healthcare robots, I often get negative reactions. Many people are appalled by the idea of their (grand)parents being taken care of by a robot: “What a ridiculous idea! Robots for physical labor are okay, but you really need a human for social tasks. There are plenty of unemployed people!!!”[1]  Why do robots instill such negative reactions? Are we afraid that they will take our place, as is often suggested in newspaper headlines (e.g., “Will Robots Take Your Job?” and “The cute robot that may eventually take your job”)? Or is there something else going on? In this blog, I explain why we are afraid and shed some light on how (un)realistic this fear of robots actually is.

One of the explanations of our fear of robots is the so-called uncanny valley (Mori, 1970). According to Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori, we get an uncanny or eerie feeling when robots look a bit like humans, but do not look and behave human-like enough to be assessed as human. Suppose that you think a person is standing a few meters away. After looking at the person for a while, his/her movements appear unnatural and start to creep you out. Only when you get closer you figure out that the person was in fact a robot. This is exactly what the uncanny valley entails; the robot looks human enough from a distance, but creates an uncanny feeling because of its unnatural behavior. To avoid these feelings, robots need to be designed such that their looks and behavior match: The robot is either approached as human, or clearly approached as a robot (and not somewhere in between).

Another explanation for our fear of robots may be that we are afraid that they will one day take over, or that they will, somehow, evolve beyond our control. This concept is often referred to as singularity. It assumes that, once we build a robot that is more intelligent than the human kind, this robot will start to develop even better robots and artificial intelligence, at which point us humans no longer have control over those robots (Vinge, 1993). In the end, this could lead to dystopian scenarios such as those seen in the Matrix – where the machines use ‘hibernating’ humans as energy source – or I, Robot – where robots start locking people up as the robots have become overzealous in their job of protecting humans. Some scientists suspect that singularity will take place somewhere between 5 and 100 years from now, although other scientists, such as psychologist Steve Pinker, do not believe in the concept of singularity at all: “There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible.”

So how realistic is this fear of robots? Most robots currently being developed are only able to do a single thing really well. For instance, Roomba is really good at vacuuming, but is unable to bring you a cold beverage on a sunny day. Robotic seal Paro is really cuddly, and invitating for social interaction (either with Paro, or about Paro with other people around you), but it cannot do much else. For instance, Paro cannot decide for itself to go to the neighbor because it is unable to move independently. And the Japanese robot Ri-man is great at lifting patients, but it will not remind you of your upcoming appointments or that you have to take your medication. Many different kinds of robots already exist, but thus far none of them can do all of the tasks we would want, need, or even fear that robots could do. This is due to the enormous complexities that are involved in the integration of different robotic systems. Social robots in particular seem to be hard to create, as most of these robots currently can only do pre-programmed interactions or are secretly controlled by a human (a research technique often referred to as Wizard of Oz).

Untitled

Even though robots can currently only do so much, most people still have extreme expectations of new technologies such as robots – either positive or negative. Many of these expectations turn out to be unrealistic after people get the chance to   see the technology with their own eyes or, better yet, experience it for themselves. The same happened with cars; even though they were first seen as extremely dangerous and legislation required a person with a red flag to walk in front of every vehicle to signal its arrival, they now are considered indispensable. So, rather than panic about what the future might bring, we should inform ourselves about what’s already here[2]!

“Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson turns around and recognizes her home robot Alice. It has only been a few weeks since Mrs. Johnson was first introduced to Alice, but she already grew quite fond of her mechanical companion. “Ah yes Alice, coffee would be greatly appreciated!” Mrs. Johnson replies. “You know what Alice”, she adds, “Just sit down, I will make some myself!”

References

Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4): 33-35.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Vision-21: Interdisciplinary science and engineering in the era of cyberspace, 11-22. Retrieved on October 26th, 2015 from: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html

[1] This is an actual message found online in reaction to a newspaper article about healthcare robots that appeared in the Dutch newspaper Metro in 2012.

[2] For instance, you could check out the award-winning documentary “Alice Cares” (“Ik ben Alice” in Dutch) to see it for yourself: http://www.npo.nl/2doc/06-07-2015/KN_1671620 (Dutch version).

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

The light of peace – reasoning by metaphor

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes
I study peace. Which is quite unusual. In political science, but even in peace and conflict studies. Many people say they study peace, but really what they study is war. Or ‘armed conflict’, which is war on a smaller scale. These people argue that peace is the absence of war. Hence, if we understand what causes war to either erupt or end, we will also know something about how to keep or achieve peace. Which makes some sense. But problems arise as soon as you are talking about peace-building in post-conflict situations, in frozen low-intensity conflicts or as a preventative measure. You cannot judge the success of these activities solely in terms of how much armed violence they have prevented. Both because it is very difficult to measure violence that did not happen, and because peace is much more than the absence of war.

To explain this to readers unfamiliar with peace and conflict studies, I will introduce a metaphor. I am not sure whether the metaphor works, but it might be illuminating, so let’s give it a try. Let’s say that war is like darkness, and peace is like light. This carries some beautiful religious overtones, and is thus very useful for Christmas dinner conversations or other midwinter nights. In a situation of total and utter darkness, you will want some light. That makes sense. Just as, in really desperate cases of war, you want peace. Any peace. This light can come from many sources: candles, classical light bulbs, low-energy light bulbs (CFLs), oil lamps, led-lights, a fire, a pocket torchlight. Even a match will do when you’re really afraid of the dark. Likewise, peace can come from many sources: armed intervention (or winning the war), promoting non-violence, statebuilding, democracy, improved standards of living, trade, meditation or peace education.

It is an empirical question which of these mechanisms does ‘better’ in terms of preventing or ending armed conflict, just as it is an empirical question how much light stadium lights provide compared to matches. On a quantitative approach to peace, this is as far as you can get. But more interesting than the amount of light (peace) a certain intervention brings, is the question what kind of light is needed for this situation. Especially when it is not totally dark.

Then you might not want to risk burning your fingers on a match, especially not if the match will not add much to the already shadowy illumination. And when you are feeling sleepy, lighting a candle to drive away the darkness might not be the best solution (as your local fire brigade will no doubt be glad to tell you). Making love (instead of war) is best done by soft candlelight, whereas rebuilding calls for construction lights. Comparable advantages and disadvantages can be found for all other forms of illumination, but the point is clear.

In a situation of total darkness you might want any kind of light, but as soon as there is some light to go by, you have to start thinking about the pros and cons of different forms of lighting.

It is the same with peace. In a situation of total war, like the Syrian conflict, it is extremely useful to think of different strategies to stop this war and try any of them. But fortunately, in most other conflicts the situation is not as dark as it is there. Which means that you have to think carefully about the kind of light (the kind of peace) you are bringing to those situations.

You can’t do this solely by studying the darkness and measuring its depth. You have to study the varieties of peace, as phenomena in and of themselves. Because different (post-) conflict situations call for different forms of peace. Sometimes you will need reconciliation, sometimes accountability. Sometimes you will have to work on people’s mindset, sometimes on institutional constraints. Sometimes you will want a candle, sometimes construction lights. What you probably don’t want is to set the world on fire, even though in a situation of total darkness  this will provide some  light.

But, unless you study peace as a positive phenomenon, you will have no idea what the candle, the construction lights and the fire are metaphors for. I am open to suggestions.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

Born into inequality: How neighborhoods influence birth outcomes in the Netherlands

Vera ScholmerichBy Vera Schölmerich / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

 

Miriam and Sofia are best friends and enjoyed growing up in the same neighborhood next to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam – one of the richest areas in the city. In her early thirties, Miriam moves to the Bijlmer – one of the poorest neighborhoods of Amsterdam. A while later, Miriam and Sofia meet up for coffee. Miriam excitedly tells Sofia that she is pregnant. Sofia replies: “Me too!”
Miriam and Sofia are both healthy, and lead a healthy lifestyle – they eat enough veggies, go to see their midwife on time, etc. Miriam’s lifestyle has not changed since her move to the Bijlmer, but she lives in a very different neighborhood. Would Miriam’s chances of a healthy baby be any different than Sofia’s, as a result of living in a poor neighborhood?

 

In other words, do neighborhoods influence birth outcomes, 

above and beyond an individual’s health?

 The answer you will find in an article my colleagues and I recently published in PLOS ONE is: yes.

The Netherlands is home to one of the highest recorded disparities in birth outcomes across neighborhoods in any developed country. In wealthy neighborhoods in Rotterdam, for example, about 3% of babies are born prematurely. In poorer neighborhoods, over 15% of babies are born prematurely, and therefore have a bad start in life, often leading to long-term developmental problems such as reduced IQ.

Previous studies have shown that the inequalities in birth outcomes across neighborhoods are partially the result of so-called ‘compositional effects’: healthier people tend to live in wealthier neighborhoods, and less healthy people cluster in poorer neighborhoods. We suspected, however, that there might also be ‘contextual effects’, meaning that neighborhoods influence birth outcomes.

But how could neighborhoods influence Miriam’s birth outcomes? There are at least two pathways. First, neighborhoods influence behavior via specific norms and social control. Imagine Miriam – who is visibly pregnant – waiting for the bus, sitting next to a man. Whether this man will light up a cigarette right next to her partially depends on the existing norms in this neighborhood, and how other people would react.

Second, neighborhoods might influence birth outcomes via biological pathways. Miriam has moved to a neighborhood with much higher crime rates and lower levels of social cohesion amongst residents. Miriam is therefore more likely to feel more stressed, and stress is a major risk for premature birth.

To find out whether neighborhoods influence birth outcomes, we used data on the characteristics of all inhabited neighborhoods in the Netherlands (more than 3400 neighborhoods), as well as data on individual characteristics and birth outcomes of all pregnant women in the Netherlands during the last 8 years (about 1,6 million cases).

We found that neighborhoods indeed influence birth outcomes. More specifically, between 2-5% of the variation in birth outcomes can be attributed to neighborhood effects. To go back to Miriam and Sofia: this means that Miriam will have higher chances of an unhealthy baby due to her move to the Bijlmer – a poor neighborhood with lower levels of neighborhood social cohesion. Our results show that both of these characteristics were the strongest neighborhood predictors of adverse birth outcomes.

For Miriam, the negative effects of her neighborhood are bad news. For policy makers however, our study is actually good news. Currently, policies to reduce inequalities in birth outcomes focus on educating women to lead healthy lifestyles – with disappointing results. Our study indicates a new way of improving birth outcomes, namely by adopting a contextual approach. We recommend investing in improving neighborhoods, such as allocating more funds to reducing poverty and crime rates and increasing social cohesion (e.g. by increasing the amount of parks and neighborhood initiatives).

Instead of focusing on educating a small amount of pregnant women, improvements to neighborhoods have the advantage that they influence a large number of residents in the neighborhood. A shift in policy might reduce inequalities in birth outcomes across neighborhoods – and lower the amount of babies that are born into inequality.

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Vera Schölmerich completed her joint-PhD at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (Erasmus Medical Center) & the Department of Organization Sciences (VU University Amsterdam).She is currently an assistant professor at Erasmus University College, Rotterdam.