On March 2nd a long and impactful career ended when James Q. Wilson died. He was a professor of Government at Harvard. He also wrote prodigiously, hundreds of essays and many books such as his Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989) and Political Organizations (1973). Much of his writing focused on investigating American society with a broad lens, covering topics like crime, welfare, organizations, conduct and character. He became well known (according to the Economist) when he co-authored an article, “Broken Windows,” written with George L. Kelling and published in 1982 in the Atlantic. In the article, they proposed the “broken window” theory as an explanation of why some neighborhoods descend into chaos and crime while others don’t.
So why am I writing about this professor? I didn’t know anything about Mr. Wilson before he passed away. But as I read his obituary I became curious and sought out more detail about who he was. How did he gain insight and understanding that was often different than ‘conventional wisdom’? What I discovered and why I’m writing about it here is he was a man that owed some of his success to the way he approached his work and life. And that approach was to go into the field and understand human behavior.
He always focused on the empirical and practical. He looked at human behavior on the ground, talking to people and building up detail. As Wilson’s sometime co-author Karlyn Bowman put it, he had “an eye for the piquant detail.” He saw things that others did not see, whether he was reading a journal article or conducting a field interview and he made the most of what he saw. As his fame increased, he acquired a reputation as the most restrained, punctilious, and empirically grounded of public intellectuals according to the Weekly Standard’s recent description of his work.
I discovered that his ability to see things that others didn’t was due to his desire to go out and interview individuals such as police workers or civil servants while they did their work. This gave him his empirical data from which he was able to synthesize and develop his ground breaking insights. This sounds a lot like Contextual Inquiry. The article in the Weekly Standard describes his work this way: his method was “demanding careful study and actual data from empirical measurement and field research, applied at just the right level of theoretical generalization for the problem at hand.” His work covered a number of decades and he was doing Contextual inquiry before that word came into common use—in fact, Contextual Inquiry is based on the field research methods used by sociologists like him.
While I know the value of Contextual Design as we practice it in the world of business, it was great to see someone who applied this same kind of method with such fantastic results. As the Weekly Standard article summarized Mr. Wilson’s impact: “Large numbers of his countrymen learned that, when they saw an article with his name on it, it would be worth their while to read it; they would be bound to learn something, and even if they disagreed with his conclusions, they would for the moment be in the company of a man who knew how to think seriously.”
A pretty impressive homage. And as the Economist wrote of Mr. Wilson, “as a scientist, political or social, he needed to count and collate things to find the answers to his questions. But nothing that was really important about human beings, he once said, could be measured in that fashion.” So while our technology may allow us to measure clicks and website tracking it won’t give us the motivations and intents human beings have. You have to actually go out there and talk to them in order to understand.