Wearing two hats?

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Serving seniors or serving science: a dilemma game

MarijeBlokBubble1 by Marije Blok | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Serving seniors or serving science?
Loneliness is a serious problem among older people. My organization, the National Foundation for the Elderly, aims to tackle this challenge through different activities. My team works on innovations to support ageing in a meaningful way. We investigate wishes of older people in interviews; explore their ideas in co-design sessions and test prototypes. I love my job! And it only got better when I succeeded in creating a PhD position to enrich it: now I would even be better able to serve the elderly! However, soon I discovered that serving science is not always the same as serving seniors and I started to face ethical challenges.

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Dilemmas of a double role
All researchers face ethical challenges. Lucky us: there are guides to help us out. The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the integrity Bible for (Dutch) researchers – provides methodological and ethical standards. It introduces a set of ‘virtues’ for good scholars, including honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

As a researcher working for an employer outside the university, I’m also supposed to take principals of my organization into account, including making a difference, being involved, flexible, connecting and distinct. However, both sets of principals sometimes conflict. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats, as values of my organization and science are not always aligned.

The Erasmus University developed the Dilemma Game, supporting researchers in practicing with hypothetical dilemmas. Inspired by playing this game in a course at the faculty, I reflect in this blog post in a playful way on dilemmas I faced in my work. Next to exploring what to do when interests of seniors and science seem to clash, I hope to motivate fellows operating both in science and society to reflect on their work as well. All blocks contain a dilemma (left) and the considerations I made (right).

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Representing a wellbeing organization, I felt responsible to make participating a pleasant experience for the older people (B). However, I also found the value of scrupulousness important and didn’t want to be flexible at the cost of this scientific value (A).  I choose A, as including new persons would anyway affect the reliability of the results (A+C). Unfortunately, this was not a happy-ending story. The collaboration was disturbed and another participant left because her friend wasn’t welcome.

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This dilemma forced me to choose between being flexible and connecting (A) – according to my organization’s values – or scrupulous and independent (B) – following scientific principles. C was a successful mix: beneficial for my organization without ignoring scientific standards.

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As an elderly organization, we joined this project to make a difference in older people’s lives and considered this approach (B) suitable for this. Our partners considered replacing participants at the cost of scrupulousness and not in line with ethical standards (A). We considered B, but first discussed this with the partners once again. This worked out surprisingly well, so we ended with C.

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Considering what would be most honest from a scientific point of view (A, B) I decided to be transparent in reporting, but to not use their input (A). Instead of interviewing her husband I spent additional time having coffee with the lady, as I felt responsible after her sharing her story (C). This mix was a good strategy and in line with both my organization and research

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A beautiful hat
I am not a talker at all, but I feel you really listen to me and that makes me share my story’ – an 85-year old lady when I finalize my interview. For a moment I feel guilty, as my primary interest was a valuable dataset. But then I realize that a valuable encounter can be valuable for my research at the same time. Reflecting on my dilemmas taught me that although my organization’s values are not always similar to those in science, decisions aren’t necessarily black or white. Am I wearing two hats, in my position? No, I’m not. I’m wearing a very special one and will do this with pride!


Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

 

Visiting conferences abroad: cherries on top of an academic cake or an absolute necessity?

Yazililtasby Demet Yazilitas / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

Early June 2014 I attended the International Science and Mathematics Education Congress organized by the Educational Research and Publications Associations (ERPA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The visit was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) to which I am very grateful. Though the main purpose of my visit was to present my own work and to meet and learn from other researchers working in similar fields, the visit turned out to be much more than that. During my visit I got acquainted with the city of Istanbul, also known as the City of Cities by Turks, in ways I did not before. This blog is essentially about the extras of doing a PhD –of which going abroad to attend conferences is an important one – and the additional learning experiences that come with those extra’s.

City of intersections – Istanbul

The last visit I made to Istanbul was 9 years ago and I was surprised to find the city even more magnificent and energetic than during my last visit. To some extent this probably relates to the combination of splendid summer weather and the neighbourhood in which the congress took place, namely Beyazit Square in the district of Fatih on the European part of Istanbul. Besides being close to the city’s main tourist attractions, the square is also adjacent to Istanbul University’s main campus where the congress took place. Established in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – immediately after Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople – it’s Turkey’s oldest university.

Main entrance of Istanbul University

The history and grandeur of Beyazit Square was one of many marvels the city had to offer after my arrival. The district of Fatih is generally considered to be the heart of Old Istanbul. Some of Istanbul’s most important architectural buildings are situated here, including Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and Basilica Cistern. Although I had visited this particular neighbourhood before, it had changed in many important ways, of which the introduction of Marmaray was only one. In 2013, Marmaray was opened for public after years of delay. It is best described as a high-speed metro-line that partially runs under the Sea of Marmara that connects Europe to Asia in only a few minutes.

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An impression of Marmaray – connecting two continents

On the day of my arrival I called an old friend who lives in Istanbul to meet up and have a coffee. He had migrated 8 years ago from Paris to Istanbul for work and I was eager to hear his stories about life in Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. He told me to take the Marmaray and get off at the last stop at the Asian side after which he would pick me up in order for me to meet his wife and have dinner at his home. I did as he said, thinking that he probably lived near this last stop since this last stop was already quite far off from the city centre – at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise we had to drive for an hour or so before we reached his house. The city kept on going as we drove further and further away. Skyscrapers and construction sites as far as the eyes could see. At that moment I started to realize how big the city actually is. With a population of 14.1 million this is perhaps not surprising. When we arrived at this home, he and his wife, assured me that this still wasn’t the edge of the city. It was still within reasonable distance. They lived in East Ataşehir, at Eastern part of Asian side, of which you can find an impression below.

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Ataşehir – cities within the super-city

The supersized city as a magnifying glass

Besides the distance and all the skyscrapers, there was one other thing that caught my attention. When I entered my friend’s home I was introduced to someone who I thought was a family friend. Later this person turned out to be the housekeeper from Georgia who lived with my friend and his wife. This was, I have to admit, a bit of a surprise to me. In the Netherlands I personally don’t know anybody with an in-living housekeeper although outsourcing of household tasks such as cleaning has become rather normal, even among single households. Having an in-living housekeeper is therefore something I still associate with old movies and Victorian costume drama’s in particular. My surprise is also related to my upbringing in a welfare state in which social inequalities between “the haves” and “have nots” are much less visible to the ordinary eye. This is of course not to say that there are no similar manifestations between these groups in welfare states as ours. It’s that they are less visible. The scale of a super city like Istanbul in this sense probably acts like a magnifying glass for social processes of all sorts, both the positive and negative, and all at the same time.

City of intersections – history and present

Over the next days, as the congress and my stay in Istanbul progressed, I would slowly start to understand some of these processes along with the vastness of the city. In 2009, research conducted by the London School of Economics referred to Istanbul as the “City of Intersections”, which I think is a very good description of the state of the city, both in the literal meaning as in a more symbolic. Examples of the literal meaning immediately come to mind when we speak of a city stretching out over two continents. An example of the more symbolic meaning includes the sight of two women, sitting next to each other at a restaurant, and one of which is dressed in a niqab and the other in a short and bare dress. Never, at any congress, or in any other part of the world I have visited, did I witness something similar. This is I think the strength of places like Istanbul, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. And that in itself creates a kind of flexibility in attitude that we in the West, I am inclined to argue, are not used to nor completely understand.

The rootedness of diversity and the importance of the Ottoman era in today’s Turkish culture

The importance of diversity in Istanbul is probably rooted in the city’s specific historical context  as one of the most diverse and tolerant empires of all times – the Ottoman empire – and the city’s specific geo-political importance as a city connecting two continents. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 16th and 17th with control over many of the countries around the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North-Africa. The city’s importance as the capital and home of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multinational and multilingual power is still very much engrained in the collective memory of most Turks and Istanbulites. The recent revival of the Ottoman era and it’s artistry and craftsmanship, e.g. in architecture, jewellery, fashion and interior design, are only few examples of this. Popular use of the ‘tughra’–  the Ottoman calligraphic monogram or seal – ranges from tattoo’s, t-shirts, home wall and car stickers. Other examples include multiple TV shows that are inspired on the Ottoman history and/or take place during that particular period, including the hit-show ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’. Translated as The Magnificent Century it is currently one of the most popular shows in Turkey. The show mainly deals with the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan of all the Ottoman Sultans, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, who used to be a slave girl from what we now know as the Ukraine. Moreover, since the shows first broadcast in 2011, it has reportedly gained an international audience of 200 million viewers with broadcast in 59 different countries, including USA, France, China, Russia and China. One last interesting example concerns the construction of mosques around the world based on the Ottoman style, e.g. the Nazimiye Turkish Masjid in Midrand, South-Africa that was built in 2012. The renewed interest in the Ottoman era and culture is thus not limited to Turkey but well exceeds the country borders.

To understand today’s Istanbul, and for that matter Turkey, is to understand its history as a multiethnic power. This history is of course not only limited to the Ottoman era, but starts well before that with the history of the Anatolian peninsula as one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world that saw many different rulers throughout its long history. However, one cannot understand this history without understanding the country’s specific geographical location on the brink of two continents. This specific location is of course deeply imbedded in the region’s history and that of its neighbors. Taking into account how history and place are interconnected over time is of course not an easy task to venture on, nor something that one can do within a few days, weeks or perhaps even years. Nonetheless, this visit has inspired me to do just that. I think that places like Istanbul, where all of these things come together, are very important to visit especially for sociologists, since time, place and history are key factors that we always need to take into account in our work when we try to understand how groups of people interact in any given society.

Visits like these might be considered by many as the perks of doing a PhD – the figurative cherries on top of an academic cake –, the extras that come with hard and lonesome work of an academic but that’s not how I see it anymore, at least not for sociologists. I think that when you claim to investigate social behaviour and are interested in finding out why certain groups of people act in certain ways you cannot disengage from getting acquainted with different cultures and places. Here I thus argue that going abroad and taking time to understand differences is therefore an essential necessity for all sociologists and we should not think otherwise.

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Demet Yazilitas is a PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of social, institutional and psychological factors on gender and ethnic differences in natural science choices of high school students in the Netherlands and Sweden.

The worldwide health threat of physical inactivity: Things I learned in Brazil at the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health

Elske Stolte  by Elske Stolte / Reading Time: 6 Minutes /

Fresh off the airplane, still buzzing from the recent experiences in Rio de Janeiro and the lack of sleep I start writing this blog. I attended the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health where I presented a poster about the online physical activity intervention which is part of my research project. I learned a lot at the congress about the current state of affairs of physical activity research. Physical inactivity is a worldwide health threat. In this blog I will share some of the knowledge I gained at the congress about worldwide physical activity research.

Physical inactivity is not a luxury problem

That physical inactivity is not just a problem of well-developed rich countries was one of the biggest eye openers for me during this congress. The emphasis on less developed countries in the program had somewhat surprised me. In countries where poverty, crime and pollution are major problems along with diseases such as HIV I would expect physical activity levels of the population to be very low on the list of priorities. However, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are rising problems in these countries and effect public health in a major way. The importance of physical activity for public health worldwide has been illustrated by The Lancet with a special series on the topic.

More of the same is not enough

The ICPAPH congress has an overarching topic. Last time it was ´the elephant in the room´, which stood for the required awareness raising of the physical inactivity problem and was achieved in the form of The Lancet series. This time the overarching message was ´more of the same is not enough´. There is a big gap between what researchers are doing and what public policy makers need, as explained by Public health professor Adrian Bouman in his key note. There has been a substantial increase in research on the topic of Physical (in)activity, but the focus has not been optimal. Researchers need to take into account the big picture of public health instead of just focusing on tiny subsamples and stressing that more research is needed to answer even more questions. An effective intervention trial is nice but public policy is key when making real world changes to public health. There is a need for more collaboration between researchers and policy makers, this point was also illustrated by the fact that the conference was almost solely attended by researchers.

Brazil cares about physical activity

Brazil is one of the countries that has realized the impact of inactivity on its population and is taking a leading approach in tackling this issue by working on community programs and public resources for physical activity (see the article ‘Policies to promote physical activity in Brazil’ of The Lancet series). This was visible for instance at the beach where you find a wide boulevard for walking and running, a cycling lane and workout stations where people can stretch and do muscle exercises (which are used regularly). You will see many people jogging along the beach in the morning and afternoon, but even in the middle of the day ploughing through the sand in the burning sun.

Outdoor Gym in Rio de Janeiro
Outdoor Gym in Rio de Janeiro

Dutch infrastructure is a luxury

Attending presentations from people from all over the world who are working on the topic of physical activity promotion also made me more aware of the luxury position of the Netherlands where I live and conduct my research. In one presentation a video was shown of a cycling path that had been improved due to the Connect2 program in England. This program aimed to increase walking and cycling to work by improving the infrastructure. The presenter commented that ´depending on your frame of reference this is an excellent or quite bad example of cycling infrastructure but the point is that the situation has improved a lot´. England is able to improve its infrastructure but I can imagine many developing countries have much more pressing safety issues to deal with first. In Rio de Janeiro for instance, the nice cycling lanes next to the beaches do not always connect to the next neighborhood. Between some of the neighborhoods you see some very dangerous situations where cyclist are on a very narrow two way cliff road with many curves and busy traffic. The Netherlands on the other hand has an excellent infrastructure for cycling and walking, we have sidewalks and separate cycling lanes almost everywhere and the situation is still being improved. The Netherlands is also third in the list of the prevalence of cycling to work just behind China and Denmark. This obviously has an influence on the focus of health promoters. I can afford to focus on people’s motivation for physical activities as major environmental barriers have already been tackled mostly, while in many countries it might be more important to focus on improving the infrastructure and safety.

Standing tables at the conference
Standing tables at the conference

Walking the walk and using standing tables

It is important to walk the walk and not only to talk the talk. Especially on a research congress it can be difficult to be active enough during the day. So on the first day we had a half hour walk along the wonderful beach promenade (the so-called “agita mundo walk”). Also in every conference room at the back some tables for standing where provided. These standing tables were a great success and should be introduced to all conferences.

In Brazil, I learned how my research project fits into a worldwide context of the pressing issue of physical inactivity and its health consequences. My work focusses on a tiny piece of a puzzle that fits into the context of the global effort to increase physical activity in the world population. Also, I learned that as a researcher I should look for ways to collaborate with policy makers to be able to influence public health.

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Elske Stolte MSC is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research revolves around motivating older adults to be more physically active. By means of an intervention trial she studies the effects of prompting on motivational factors and physical activity.