Citing more broadly

Update 12/7/19 I added a few mechanical suggestions at the bottom of the post

How do you decide what literature to cite when you write an article? Sociologists routinely complain that economists fail to cite the sociological work on the topics they write about. But sociologists themselves are typically citing too narrowly. Most view citations as a matter of nodding (or genuflecting) toward the “key” people or concepts with special attention to making sure to cite anybody who they think might end up reviewing the paper. In the process they focus on a few famous people (mostly White men), often those assigned in the courses taken in grad school, and/or articles published in the American Sociological Review or the American Journal of Sociology. We may also include people we know personally or have met at conferences.

These practices both tend to downplay the contributions of women and people of color and tend to exacerbate the prestige hierarchy in sociology. The #CiteBlackWomen campaign has been importantly pushing back against these practices, but even intentionally citing Black women runs into the problem that there are no race designations in citations so you have to know who is a Black woman to cite them, leading to citations of a few famous people, not a broader base of citations. Reviewers are notorious for “cite me” recommendations or the occasional suggestion of lines of research the writer has missed, but apart from that, a typical journal reviewer is not generally going to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all research in an area and it is not reasonable to expect reviewers to do their own literature searches as part of a review.

I’ve talked to students about their citation practices, and it appears that the most common approach involves sorting Google Scholar search results by number of times cited, and citing the most commonly-cited sources. This, of course, just exacerbates inequality.

So how can we get out of this box? I have been as bad as everyone else for most of my career, but I have recently been working hard to push back against the elitist bias, and want to share some of the strategies I have used to try to expand my citation networks. I urge others to share yours.

Since this post has gotten long, let me begin with my three main take-away points. The rest is strategies for implementation.

  1. Look for and cite the most recent work on your empirical topic, paying special attention to work coming from people who are not already highly-cited, less-prestigious institutions, and less-prestigious journals. This requires a broad search strategy, about which more below.
  2. If your work takes off from some key theoretical or empirical papers, look for the recent work that cites those papers in Google Scholar or Web of Science, again paying special attention to works by those who are not already elites.
  3. Pay attention to work in progress including dissertations, conference papers, and publications in journals your library does not subscribe to.  PDFs of many of these are available online through working paper repositories (SocArXiv, ResearchGate, Academic, SSRN, and many campus or personal web sites); good libraries subscribe to the dissertation database. You can also do an Internet search for the author and email them to ask for a copy of the work and to ask whether there is a published version or related papers. Most people are happy to cooperate when you make these requests.

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legal estrangement and police reform in minneapolis

The following is a co-authored post by Michelle Phelps, Amber Joy Powell, and Christopher Robertson.

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, the topic of police violence and police reform has been at the forefront of the debate about the future of criminal justice in the U.S. Questions about policing have peppered the recent Democratic debates and have featured prominently in some of their policy plans. This week, several candidates met with a group of men and women who were formerly incarcerated to discuss criminal justice reform.

Yet often missing in the public conversation about police reform are the voices of community members most heavily impacted. While some of these residents get involved in community organizing, through #BlackLivesMatter chapters and other groups, many never have their opinions on police reform heard.

During 2017-2019, our research team traced the process of police reform through the eyes of the local police (Minneapolis Police Department), professionals and activists involved in reform, and residents in North Minneapolis, the residential community in our city most impacted by high rates of poverty, racial segregation, street crime, and police contact.

In this post, we provide some preliminary results from our interviews with residents in North Minneapolis. We conducted over 120 interviews, collecting survey responses about attitudes toward the police and in-depth qualitative accounts of their experiences with police and attitudes about police, policing advocacy groups, and police reform.

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the milgram study and the suppression of violence research


In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.

I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.

As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.

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live-tweeting the harvard affirmative action case

Today, a US District Court ruled that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies passes strict scrutiny. The full ruling is here. I live-tweeted a read through of the decision here, in case you’d like a bit of rambly commentary mixing Gelman-esque critiques of statistical methodology with a smattering of critical race theory. Here are some of my takeaways:

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on exactitude in social science

…In that Empire, the Art of Machine Learning attained such Perfection that the data of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the data of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Datasets no longer satisfied, and the Machine Learning Faculty built a Dataset of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Machine Learning as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Dataset was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Data, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Statistics.

—Jorge Luis Borges, Obras Completas v7, translated from the 20th century by @asociologist

imagining sociology’s theorists as contestants on a home design show

A while back, I made a joke on Facebook about panopticons and open floor plans, and a friend commented that she’d love to see a version of the television show House Swap featuring Goffman and Parsons. That gem of an idea (thanks Carolyn Chernoff) then became this Twitter post, imagining various sociological theorists as contestants on a home design competition show (I was bingeing Ellen’s Design Challenge at the time).

I ended up sharing the thread with my Intro Soc students, and I thought I’d share it here, too. It’s a clever way to help students compare key points from each theorist, and it could also work as inspiration for a creative class assignment. You could have your students apply the same concept and imagine various theorists as contestants on food competition shows or quiz shows or as popular athletes or musicians.

Here’s the setup: Imagine that some of Sociology’s theorists are contestants on a home design competition show. Each theorist has been asked to choose a chair to complete a particular room. 


Host: Welcome to Soc Theory Design Challenge! First up, we have Talcott Parsons. Tell us about your design.

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the science of gay gene science

The following is a guest post by Jeff Lockhart.

It is that time of year again: Science has a new study by Ganna et al. on the “gay gene,” and major outlets like the New York Times have picked it up. While many are just encountering this area of research for the first time, numerous genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of sexual orientation have been published since the invention of GWAS in the early 2000s. Like others in the genre, Ganna et al. uncritically cite and perpetuate research with deep theoretical, methodological, and ethical flaws, like the Wang & Kosinski “gayface” paper. But rather than frustration, I’m taking my cue from XKCD: this is an opportunity to introduce others to an exciting area of Science and Technology Studies.

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