How a Sandbox and a Computer May Supercharge Social Science
by Jeff van de Pol
Keith Barton and Ray Shiraishi had a problem. Their research project, a study of child development based on a psychological therapy known as Sand Tray, was rapidly drowning in a sea of logistical struggles, data-entry nightmares, and subjective analyses. So Professor Barton and Graduate Research Assistant Shiraishi turned to computers to streamline the project. In the process, they may very well have changed the way social science research is organized in the future.
Sand Tray Therapy: A Primer
Sand Tray therapy is a method used to assess the psychological well-being of children and adults by analyzing how they express themselves through the manipulation of objects in small, tabletop sandboxes (or trays). Sand Tray participants are invited to create a diorama (a story or miniature world) by arranging toy people, animals, and other items in the sandtray. The therapist evaluates the participant's choice and use of objects to draw various conclusions about the subject's psychological health. This non-invasive method works especially well with those individuals who are young or have trouble comprehending and talking about difficult issues, such as domestic or child abuse, incest, or the death of a family member.
Though Sand Tray therapy has scientific respect and popularity worldwide, some clinicians are concerned about the variety and subjectivity of conclusions on the meaning of sandtray dioramas. For instance, the interpretations of completed sandtrays tend to vary widely depending on the training of the therapist. With many practitioners following different psychological theories, the meanings assigned to the toys used in the sandtrays can shift dramatically from therapist to therapist. For example, a Freudian therapist might associate a subject's use of a crescent or snake in a sandtray with a sexual problem, whereas a Jungian might associate the same object with an affinity for nature.
Barton and Shiraishi are quick to point out that even though interpretations of the same clinical situation often differ substantially, that does not mean they are "wrong." It is simply a fundamental fact of social science research. "We would never say that any particular interpretations are invalid," says Barton. "Rather, we believe that it might be also useful to look for more objective measures that are independent of any particular clinical theory."
Barton and Shiraishi believed that if they could create an agreed-upon profile and description of each object (toy) used in a typical Sand Tray session, they could provide Sand Tray therapists with a "more objective" basis for their evaluations.
Another important goal was to identify a group of objects common to all Sand Tray sessions. Barton explains: Therapist #1 at present may offer 2,500 toys for potential use on the tray, while therapist #2 might offer only 500 objects. This may not present any problem in making sense of their own clients' trays, but it creates severe limitations when trying to do comparative studies. If therapist #1 attempted to interpret a completed sandtray from therapist #2, or vice versa, the results would be problematic, as each therapist would be basing the interpretations on his or her own set of sandtray toys.
"If a set of precisely identified objects could be defined and offered to therapists in a kit (much like the objects used in many individual IQ tests)," Barton continues, "objective measures and comparisons would be much easier to complete."
The Logistics Nightmare Begins
As part of the project, armed with a series of 85 specific words (characteristics), five social scientists rated 363 toys using a scale of 1 to 5. Each rater was initially given two rating books with 1,000+ pages each in which to enter the data. This pencil and paper method -- one that has been commonly used by many social scientists for years -- quickly became a lengthy and unwieldy process. According to Shiraishi, "Raters typically took at least 30 hours in the lab to complete their toy ratings, a total of 30,855 data entries made by hand, at which point another individual had to enter the information into a computer spreadsheet."
With such an enormous number of entries, errors from duplication, multiple entries, and rater fatigue became increasingly problematic. Lab access and security also became concerns, as each rater was initially required to come to Barton and Shiraishi's lab to physically handle the toys at each rating session; such excessive handling invariably led to damaged or lost toys.
Technology to the Rescue
At this point, Barton and Shiraishi looked to computers for a solution. Neither researcher is a "computing guru," but both recognized the wisdom of researching and implementing a technical solution to some of the challenges they were facing. Creating a table (using Microsoft Access, an application standard on most PCs) that looked similar to the traditional rating pages, Shiraishi configured a database so that raters could input their ratings directly, making the lengthy in-house rating process much faster and more convenient.
The benefits of this change were immediately obvious. According to Shiraishi, "This new database dramatically reduced both data entry costs and the error associated with massive data entry. Moreover, we are now able to analyze the data as they are entered into the database instead of having to wait ten-plus weeks for the completion of the rating books."
Further simplifying and streamlining the process, Shiraishi and Barton used a digital camera to photograph all the toys in extreme detail. After loading the pictures onto the computer and setting up a server for access, the raters were then able to independently view and rate the toys from home using the 85 agreed-upon characteristics, essentially eliminating security problems and further speeding up the lengthy data entry process.
A Bright Future for Social Science Research
These simple yet effective procedural changes produced stunning results. "With all this new and ever-expanding technology in our hands, we were able to produce studies in a few months that would have otherwise taken years to complete," Shiraishi says.
Barton also hopes that future social science researchers will take advantage of what he and Shiraishi have learned and realize that with the application of a few pieces of hardware and software social scientists could potentially transform the way future research is conducted.
"This present study is a prime example of how technology can be used in future psychological research," says Barton. "Many of the researchers in the social sciences have neglected the use of computers because their past projects have not intrinsically required the use of modern technology. We found ways to make the research project more efficient and more cost effective through the use of computer technology. The ability to conduct quality research that is both quicker and cheaper is no longer a dream for many scientists; it can be realized for many right now."