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Conceptual Change About People


Students often fail to develop a sophisticated understanding of scientific topics despite years of formal education designed to help them do so. Through studying how students learn the physical sciences, conceptual change researchers have amassed a large body of evidence that people, rather than being empty vessels who passively accept scientific theories, already possess rich intuitive theories about the world. More recently, researchers have argued that these intuitive theories shape how people understand the social world as well. In this project, we explored these intuitive theories about people and how these intuitive theories differ from how experts in the social sciences think about people. To do this, we used the Delphi method, a method of surveying experts that uses iterative rounds of quantitative judgments and comments. We created seven Delphi panels, each comprised of professors from a specific field of the social sciences (Anthropology, Economics, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology) and asked them to explain the most consequential ways that studying their field changes how one understands and explains the human world. Three of the panels were highly successful, one was moderately successful, and three were largely unsuccessful due to low participation. Findings indicate that social scientists can describe several consequential ways they think about the human world differently from those who have not studied the social sciences. Similarities and differences across fields of the social sciences are discussed, as well as differences within the fields as described by panelists. However, these disagreements within and across fields, and especially disagreements over the correct way to interpret terms, make it difficult to generalize across the social sciences as a whole.

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