The Shortcomings of Existing Community Engaged Science

On Thursday April 13, Dan Price, Ph.D., gave a virtual presentation on a new initiative that aims to improve the current style of data collection and analysis used in community-engaged and strengths-based research process.

By altering the current process of data collection, usage and display, Price stated that his initiative intends to “begin building, sustaining and deserving trust between the community and the university.”

Price is both the director of the Community Health Worker Initiative and the Data and Society program at the University of Houston’s Honors College. Price shared that he has a background in Continental Philosophy, with a particular interest in the German philosopher Georg Hegel and that his “background informs how he understands current [community] complaints about researchers.”

In the webinar, Price shared several complaints from community health workers that he has received firsthand. They related, for instance, that “nothing counts unless it’s counted,” which causes research subjects to feel dehumanized and their unique experiences to be discounted. Building trust is of the utmost importance. Because of his background in Hegelian philosophy, Price strives to “defend the difference that trust makes, through a crossover between the Hegelian decision-making process and the mathematical process.” For both, the key is to look for the structure behind both the experience and the data, while trust is built by respecting that structure and making it count in a rigorous mathematical sense.

Price spent the remainder of the webinar displaying, through philosophically and algebraically based flowcharts, the phenomenology of how one arrives at a decision about a data set. In the end he displayed how an individual would hypothetically arrange information in a format such as an Excel spread sheet through the process of precise decision making.

His slide “Decisions and the Explicit Construction of Models” displayed an overview of the decision-making process. Dr. Price then moved through a thorough account of the “History of Category Theory,” explaining both “equality and equivalence,” as well as its arithmetic and algebraic intersection. Transitioning into the “Equivalence and Embedding of Paths,” Price explored the use of pathway concepts to understand how decisions are embedded within relationships.

In one of his final sections, “Decisions About Structure: Power and Strength,” Price discussed structural racism. “When you are adding a row [to a data set], you have to make sure that it fits in with the rules of the structure, otherwise it may violate existing information; this may seem simple when adding an individual to a census table, but it becomes more complicated around race and ethnicity,” he stated.

Price continued, “if one wanted to use [this dataset] to assess whether or not there was structural racism involved in the assessment of disparate availability of affordable housing, they might want to look at a total collection of events and then add them up. However, this task runs into a statistical problem when making the fundamental decision about tracking either racist intent or racial disparity in outcomes.”

In that situation Dr. Price proposes the following: “Instead of saying that there is some supra-personal intent that inhabits a system or an abstract structure, one should say that the events that matter, and those which should be added to rows in the table, are structured paths or embeddings that represent a broader structure of experience.”

In the end, Price stated that the aim of the initiative was to “make visible the reliance on structure while drawing some analogies with other ways researchers might think about the process of making an implicit structure visible as part of the machinery of decision support in community settings.” Price proposed that researchers lean into the task of collecting stories and coding their algebraic structure. This, he holds, would open new directions for research.

If the program works, Price believes that it will allow research teams at the university level to provide tools for decision support. This decision support would rightly begin with the strength of the community and not with the power of the system. The methodology proposed by Price will give analysts the ability to intervene by making the pathway to a decision more efficient. “Only at the point of intervention can spaces be created that are more amenable to the pathways that people want to take,” said Price.


Angela Jardina

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