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Discovering unmeasured factors

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Beating the odds

Despite coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, some kids manage to “beat the odds” and achieve unexpectedly positive outcomes. Meanwhile, other kids who seem on track sometimes struggle unexpectedly. Policymakers would like to know what variables are associated with “beating the odds” since this could generate new theories about how to help future generations of disadvantaged children.

Once we combine all of the submissions to the Fragile Families Challenge into one collaborative guess for how children will be doing on each outcome at age 15, we will identify a small number of children doing much better than expected (“beating the odds”), and another set who are doing much worse than expected (“struggling unexpectedly”). By interviewing these sets of children, we will be well-positioned to learn what factors were associated with who ended up in each group.

What we learn in these interviews will affect the questions asked in future waves of the Fragile Families Study, and possibly other studies like it. By combining quantitative models with inductive interviews, the Fragile Families Challenge offers a new way to improve surveys in the future and expand the range of social science theories. In the remainder of this blog, we discuss current approaches to survey design and the potential contribution of the Fragile Families Challenge.

Deductive survey design: Evaluating theories

Social scientists often design surveys using deductive approaches based on theoretical perspectives. For instance, economists theorize about how one’s employment depends on the hypothetical wage offer (often called a “reservation wage”) one would have to be given before one would leave other unpaid options behind and opt into paid labor. Motivated by this theoretical perspective, Fragile Families and other surveys have incorporated questions like: “What would the hourly wage have to be in order for you to take a job?”

However, even the best theoretically-informed social science measures perform poorly at the task of predicting outcomes. R-squared, a measure of a model’s predictive validity, often ranges from 0.1 to 0.3 in published social science papers. Simply put, a huge portion of the variance in outcomes we care about is unexplained by the predictors social scientists have invented and put their faith in.

Inductive interviews: A source of new hypotheses

How can we be missing so much? Part of the problem might be that academics who propose these theoretical perspectives often spend their lives far from the context in which the data are actually collected. An alternative, inductive approach is to conduct open-ended interviews with interesting cases and allow the theory to emerge from the data. This approach is often used in ethnographic and other qualitative work, and points researchers toward alternative perspectives they never would have considered on their own.

Inductive approaches have their drawbacks: researchers might develop a theory that works well for some children, but does not generalize to other cases. Likewise, the unmeasured factors we discover will not necessarily be causal. However, inductive interviews will generate hypotheses that can be later evaluated using deductive approaches in new datasets, and finally evaluated with randomized controlled trials.

An ideal combination: Cycling between the two

To our knowledge, the Fragile Families Challenge is the first attempt to cycle between these two approaches. The study was designed with deductive approaches: researchers asked questions based on social science theories about the reproduction of disadvantage. However, we can use qualitative interviews to inductively learn new variables that ought to be collected. Finally, we will incorporate these variables in future waves of data collection to deductively evaluate theories generated in the interviews, using out-of-sample data.

By participating in the Fragile Families Challenge, you are part of a scientific endeavor to create the surveys of the future.

About Ian Lundberg

Ian is a Ph.D. student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University. You can read more about his work at http://scholar.princeton.edu/ilundberg/.

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