A Message from the President and President Elect: The Vast Potential of Our Work

July 10, 2016 3:13 PM | Lisa Gaudette (Administrator)


The Vast Potential of Our Work – Or, Why are We Really Doing What We Do

Those of you who are old enough to have watched the Rocky & Bullwinkle show will remember that each episode had two alternative titles, each of which could easily have been the theme of the episode. So, here, we have chosen two alternative titles that are intended to highlight the importance of the work we do, and that will hopefully lead all of us to question how our work can be used to inform public policy.

The standard currencies in academia are grants, journal articles, books, and the occasional award. Sometimes, as we have been fortunate to have happen to us, we have the opportunity to serve in professional organizations like SSEA. But, for most of us, that’s as far as it goes. We get funded – by granting agencies, or by our universities – to conduct research, and the endpoint of much of the work that academic researchers do is a series of journal articles or book chapters.

Many times, the furthest we go into the real-world implications of our work is a few sentences or paragraphs toward the end of an article that briefly review some implications of our findings. Often these are implications for future research, occasionally they are for practitioners, and much less often they are for policy.

Indeed, academic research typically has little impact on policy. Most of the journals we publish in are read primarily by academics, full of jargon and with an obtuse writing style that is often impenetrable to anyone without a master’s or doctoral degree. Academic books also cater primarily to academic audiences. For this and other reasons, it is evident that research findings rarely succeed in influencing policy decisions. Can you imagine a legislator, lobbyist, or judge getting through the results sections of the articles we publish?

It is because of this common disconnect that the International Consortium of Developmental Science Societies (ICDSS), of which SSEA was one of nine founding societies, has chosen to focus on fostering collective efforts to synthesize developmental science research with the aim of contributing to effective policy. Recognizing that effective communication efforts will require working with multiple stakeholders, honestly brokering summaries of multidisciplinary knowledge, and reliance on evidence from the highest quality research, a primary preliminary aim of ICDSS is to develop research statements to help inform global policy.

The location of 8th biennial SSEA conference (Washington D.C.) has pushed us to consider how the amazing work that SSEA members do can be influential for public policy. Further, even a cursory examination of the recent Orlando massacre reveals a strong tie to our work – the shooter, Omar Mateen, was an emerging adult, as were most of the victims and the other people in the Pulse nightclub. So how can our research speak to issues such as the Orlando massacre? As President and President-Elect, we would like to start this conversation by taking an inward look at some of our own research areas and how they are applicable to current policy decisions in the United States and beyond.

SETH: My interests are primarily on the intersection of personal and cultural identities, and how these (and other) identities predict psychosocial and health outcomes during adolescence and emerging adulthood. I focus on both majority and minority ethnic groups, with the understanding that the increasing diversity of our world is prompting most people, regardless of their ethnic background, to understand themselves personally, culturally, sexually, spiritually, morally, and so on.

Multiple accounts suggest that Omar Mateen was struggling to reconcile his ethnic, religious, and sexual identities. He may have been bisexual, and the shooting may have been a way for him to reconcile his religious faith with confusion about his sexuality. In an article that we have under review, my former PhD student and I argue that the intersection of identities is a critical issue for everyone – as it likely was for Mateen. Will our knowledge about, and understanding of, intersectionality be used to help identify and support people who are struggling to reconcile conflicting identities?

ELIZABETH: My research primarily explores sexual identity development during emerging adulthood, specifically focused on the ways in which individuals of all sexual orientations make sense and meaning out of their sexual and romantic experiences. This development occurs within social contexts – many of which are unfortunately replete with both overt and covert sexual prejudice and discrimination. Might Omar Mateen have been influenced by this kind of discrimination? Might that, along with what he saw as the demands of his religious faith, kept him from being more comfortable with his sexuality?

Policies are an important factor in constructing these social contexts. There are vast differences in the policies that directly impact sexual minority emerging adults within the United States and across countries. These range from criminalization of same-sex sexual behavior and affiliation with sexual minorities to inclusive equal access to reproductive technologies and parental leave policies. Given that emerging adulthood is a time of sexual exploration, how can we urge societies to create safe spaces for such exploration and to encourage responsible freedom of sexual expression?

Indeed, as we learn more about how sexual minority emerging adults navigate social contexts in the process of developing their identities (sexual and otherwise), we become acutely aware of the ways in which policies can impede or enhance positive development for these emerging adults. In addition to the policies that directly empower or threaten sexual minority individuals, there are a number of other direct and indirect ways in which policies impact sexual minority emerging adults. For example, institutions of higher education that explicitly protect the rights of sexual and gender minorities offer safer and more inclusive climates within which these people can more freely pursue their education. Because emerging adults are such a diverse group, it is essential to enact policies to ensure that they are not discriminated against in the job force, housing, health care, or in seeking other services. Given that many immigrants are also sexual minorities, immigration and asylum policies also directly impact many sexual minority emerging adults from across the globe in terms of pursuing opportunity and escaping persecution.

These are just examples from our own work regarding how the study of emerging adulthood carries critical policy implications. As President and President-Elect of the society, we would like to issue a call for you - SSEA members and affiliates - to engage in a close examination of how your work can be used to better our societies through informing policy decisions. Let’s move beyond our comfortable roles as academics and practitioners and make our research more accessible to policy audiences and forge more effective research-practice-policy relationships. As the 2017 Washington DC conference draws closer, we look forward to more submissions establishing this critical link.

Seth Schwarz, President

Elizabeth Morgan, President Elect