Author Archives: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

fun with a purpose: no longer fun enough?

From Kieran on Twitter, I learned that the Neal Stephenson Kickstarter project Clang! has been abandoned. The idea was to break out of existing videogame conventions and provide a realistic depiction of longsword fighting. As it turned out, apparently, the most fun thing about it proved to be the name. As Stephenson says, “I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.”

I was reminded of the failure of Arden: The World of Shakespeare, which once upon a time was supposed to be an instructive MMORPG that was based on Shakespeare’s world and that would also provide a platform for behavioral scientists to run experiments (on things like, say, pricing of in-game goods). The project leader’s exegesis of the failure involved two things: (1) designing a videogame that can successfully compete for player attention involves a scale that is hard to imagine, but, more notably, (2) after building a big prototype, it became clear that “it’s no fun.”

Broader upshot that I wonder about is how society is evolving with not just increasing entertainment options but, with the implied competition, increasing refinement and specialization on being entertaining itself. In other words, if you aren’t in the first instance–and second instance, and third instance–entertaining, you are done. To take an entirely different example, I enjoy the weekly John Oliver clips that circulate on Facebook, but, man, that guy has to try really, really hard with all kinds of digressions just to be able to hopefully strike home with his main point.

david vs. goliath

A small woodland creature takes on the man responsible for the technique-revolution in competitive eating. Whatever, I found it inspiring. [HT: RCM]

does asa speak for sociology? do they even try?

Sociologists will often profess especial concern for inclusiveness and minority rights. So, when it comes time for sociologists to set up a democratic system of their own, how do they do it? The ostensible governing body of the ASA Membership, its Council, has 20 or so sociologists in the room. By the system that sociologists have devised, it is possible for 49% of voting ASA members to have voted for none of those 20 people. How can that possibly be morally defended?

(Note: in the United States, the winner-take-all system at least comes about as a by-product of the constraint that individuals only vote for one person in a particular election, so it’s hard then to see how the system could be changed without a radical overhaul of what being a Congressperson means. Sociologists have set up their systems so that multiple Council-Members-At-Large are elected via the same election, and sociologists have chosen to run the election so that voters each vote for X candidates and the top X vote-getters are chosen–the most “tyranny of the majority” method of doing so.)


Upon returning to blogging, I told myself I would not write posts about the main professional organization for American sociologists. Nevertheless, the front page of the ASA website currently links to a letter hosted in the “Advocacy” section folder of the site that is presented on ASA letterhead, which opens with the following statement:

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our support for your decision not to hire Dr. Steven G. Salaita as a faculty member at the University of Illinois.

This is not the association expressing a concern about the perceived importance of either protecting free speech or protecting students from speech-of-certain-sorts, but instead this is ostensibly the association straight-up taking a position regarding a decision made by the Chancellor on this question. The letter does proceed to note that “some” in the organization may not agree with this position. Likewise, subsequent text–as well as the fact that it is signed only by a Vice-President Elect and one Council member of the association–creates some ambiguity about its status as an official Association document. In this respect, one might also wonder about the preceding letter signed by persons including the outgoing, current, and incoming presidents of the association. At least in that case, the standing of these persons as “leaders” of the Association is stronger and the letter is carefully framed as a statement of concern about a particular principle and not as an explicit position on a decision.

I have known of instances in which individuals make unauthorized use of organizational letterhead to make statements of personal opinion that are not statements made in their official capacities. But of course being presented on the website would suggest this was, in some sense, authorized by the organization (see response from ASA president). Regardless of whether one believes the University of Illinois did or did not do the right thing in this case, the process by which this organization has come to issue its statements on the matter appears peculiar, to say the least.

double take

From a PLoS ONE article on publication bias in psychology:

A random sample of 1000 English-language peer reviewed articles published in 2007 was drawn from the PsycINFO database. As keywords we used ‘English’ ‘peer reviewed’ ‘journal article’ in ‘year 2007’. Three articles could not be acquired, another article was a duplicate.

very cross words

The NYT always has some gimmick with its Thursday crossword puzzle (the app store package of Thursday puzzles are called “Tricky Thursdays”).  This past week’s took my beloved and me twice as long as usual to complete it, even though the clues themselves were ostensibly not that difficult, because it turned out the trick was really tricky. For us, the trickier the better, so we found the puzzle gratifying once we solved it. However, it turns out there was a whole online outcry against it. Example:

This is not the puzzle I needed today. It’s 9/11, and the memorials have already started, broadcast on TV. I’m planning to view the light towers illuminating the skyline tonight, which I can see from my home. Frankly, to run this puzzle today is an abomination of insensitivity.

In any event, if you’re a cruciverbalist and feeling suitably psychologically robust, I recommend going for it. (The NYT did recently increase the cost of their crosswords to $7 a month, which is still a great price for us, but I think you can get a month free, which access to all the archives, and then cancel.)

equal environments assumption

The equal environments assumption in behavioral genetics is the assumption that environments for identical twins are not more similar than the environments of fraternal twins. One might say the assumption is violated more than many behavioral geneticists would like to admit and less than many sociologists would like to think. The point of this post, however, is just to share a video of an example of unmistakable violation:

zee mortgage of zee body on zee mind

A decade or more ago I was at a talk on cognitive aging giving by a old guy with a thick German accent. My only memory of this talk whatsoever is the guy repeatedly using the phrase “the mortgage of the body on the mind” to describe the idea that bodily problems interfere with cognitive potential as one gets older.

In related news, I went to a personal trainer for the first time in my life for a couple of days, which involved attempting to lift weights for the first time since high school. In addition to the expected but substantial new-to-exercising-this-part-of-the-body soreness in my arms and shoulders, I seem to have messed up my back in a more worrisome way, as in the spell last fall where I would fill a long sock with tennis balls and lie down with my spine on that for awhile.

In any event, it’s compromised my writing goals for the past couple days. I start to settle in and then think, “Holy [bother] does my back hurt”, followed by reminiscing about the German guy and his cognitive aging catchphrase. It’s like Harrison Bergeron, only instead of a dystopian satire it’s simply midlife.

the shock and awe memo

Comment by a well-known sociologist and friend on Facebook:

“We have turned from a discipline of article writers into a discipline of revision memo writers. This is a very sad thing.”

This concerns me, too. But what can be done? I’ve wondered if memos could be capped, but not sure if that would end up as routinely ignored as the page limits on ASA papers.

Thing is, my belief–and I’m very confident I’m not alone in this–is that long memos work. I’ve even said things like, “You need to write a shock-and-awe memo” (along with doing the actual revisions to the actual paper). But of course I think the discipline as a whole would benefit by maximizing the research time spent on the research products themselves, and not unpublished memoranda about those products.

UPDATE: An obvious answer to “What can be done?” is “Reduce the number of R&Rs” and/or “Promote non-R&R-giving outlets like Sociological Science and As Yet Untitled.” And, yes. But, is that it?

i suspect there is a third way

An example (otherwise unimportant to his argument) that Harry Collins uses to illustrate a concept in his 1998 AJS on evidential cultures:

Consider that there are two ways to organize an undergraduate course in sociology during periods of high politicization of the subject. One can insist that every teacher of sociology presents an unbiased course, so that if, for example, they favor a Marxist approach, they also put the counterarguments, or one can allow each teacher to teach according to his or her biases but make sure that the faculty as a whole is balanced.

Indeed, I suspect that these two approaches are correlated: the more “balanced” the department, the more likely the individual instructors are to be “unbiased” in their courses.

is homosexuality really like menopause?

As someone interested in genetics and social behavior, here was a passages that caught my attention in the Posner decision:

Although it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives, thus increasing the survival and hence procreative prospects of these relatives. This is called the “kin selection hypothesis” or the “helper in the nest” theory.

The passage includes a citation to this “responsible popular treatment” of the topic.  That article is better, in that it articulates a number of different explanations for how homosexuality being “inborn” (as Posner puts it) is not incompatible with evolutionary theory.  What’s interesting is that Posner’s decision singles out for attention the weakest argument of the lot.

What’s weak about it? Continue reading

god, i hate scribd

I was going to write a post just now about the Posner ruling that Andy cited in its previous post. More specifically, I was going to comment on the shout-outs to genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology that are provided on pages 9-10. Anyway, my momentum for that was derailed by trying to copy-paste and make presentable the relevant passages out of [expletive deleted] Scribd, and, so, like Coleridge after the visit from the man from Porlock, it’s gone now (and I have work to do). Maybe later.

hit ‘em high! hit ‘em low!

Just finished Season of Saturdays, new book about the simultaneous appeal and contradictions–the author is a Penn State alum–of being a college football fan:

Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). Maybe the very idea of college football resided at the far edge of your consciousness, a rural preoccupation like Garth Brooks and Peanut Buster Parfaits and moonshine, the province of southerners and state-school graduates and scrubbed fraternity boys in hooded sweatshirts. Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.

And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.

College football has been the sport I’ve followed most closely my whole life, but, yes, it feels harder to defend each year.

In any event, the book ends with an acknowledgment to the author’s spouse that I thought was fun for a book that talks a bunch about Big Ten football:

Thanks to Cheryl Maday (Northwestern) for ceding space on our couch all those Saturdays, and for buying the couch in the first place, and for tolerating my often inexplicable college football compulsion (especially during fall weddings), and for not going to Michigan.

northwestern is hiring, pt 2

BTW, at the blog party at ASA, someone called my attention to the fact that Northwestern’s ad for a tenure-line assistant professor said something about a preference for someone whose work used quantitative methods, with additional language about appreciating methodological synergies that I read as saying “we want someone who uses quantitative methods but isn’t a jerk about it.” As parties to that conversation know, I was extremely surprised to learn of this wording for the job ad; indeed, I didn’t believe it until someone brought it up on their phone and showed me.

While I am in no sense a spokesperson for our department or this search committee, my understanding is that the wording of the ad was a simple mistake; that it is a truly and fully open search with respect to methods and area of specialization; and that the ad has since been edited to reflect this. (If the last point is not correct, somebody let me know.)

dear committee members

Letter of recommendation season is upon us, and I helped get myself in the mood by reading Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a novel that is written entirely as a series of letters of recommendation that an English professor writes for different people. It’s a tough constraint for a novel, as it requires complete abandonment of the advice to authors to “show, don’t tell.” The book also wavers in its purpose between being an academic farce, a la Straight Man, and something far more somber.

But the protagonist is very well-drawn as an aging professor who no longer cares if he stays on point when writing letters and is nevertheless often quite effective because of it. And the letters include all kinds of great bits on life in the academy. I’ll include three favorites after the jump: Continue reading


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