sociology’s home court advantage

So, orgtheory has had a couple of posts (here and here) about journal comments that follows my own, perhaps overdramatic, earlier post on the topic. Part of one thread, as well a post by Peter, follows up on my statement that there is often a “wild lack of critical thinking that many sociologists evince toward work that claims to show the triumph of some sociology-affirming narrative.” The discussion over there has been mostly about sociology versus economics, but where I’ve more comparative advantage is with sociology versus “biology.” What I’m talking about here is work that first depicts some duel between sociology and “biology” as competing confederations of causes, and then professes to offer arguments or evidence on behalf of the sociology side.

Sure, I understand fully that you would expect a bias in favor of sociology-affirming findings for papers in sociology journals. Permit an analogy. In basketball, you expect a home-court advantage, for various reasons. Back when I was growing up, there was a neighboring school that had a guy often referee their games that was supposedly married to the principal’s best friend’s sister or something like that. Home-court advantage is one thing, but the home-court advantage this guy gave to this school was insane, as though there were two completely different standards for what constituted a “foul.” Anyway, although I think sociologists have come a long way on this just in my time since graduate school–due more to external developments than anything internal to the discipline–you still get stuff that is so obviously misleading reasoned or unfair and some otherwise-wise reviewers seem to lap it up.

I don’t want to get into calling specific work out, especially since part of my impression has come from unpublished papers. But let me give two different examples of reasoning that I have seen each in two different papers that have crossed my desk for one reason or another the past few months alone. Please don’t mistake this as somehow exhausting what I mean by “ill-reasoned” or “unfair”–I just mean them as examples. Also, I’m not actually going to explain what the problem in reasoning is, so, as a Special Scatterplot Puzzle Feature, see if you can read them and figure out what I object to:

1. The paper purports to assess the importance of “socialization” versus “biology” (variously characterized and described) for some adult behavior. The paper operationalizes “socialization” as a measure of behavior when the person was a child or adolescent. As nothing predicts the present like the past, the paper presents a regression that shows a strong association between the measure of child/adolescent behavior and the measure of adult behavior. The paper ends with a rousing conclusion about the importance of socialization and dire warnings about those who would overstate “biology.”

2. The paper purports to assess a vague notion that “biology” (variously characterized and described) is consequential to understanding some adult behavior or attainment. The prevailing view of sociology is that “biology” matters for this outcome either trivially or not at all. To no one’s actual surprise, the paper is able to show that there are differences in the association between some variable and the outcome across different societies. Because there is no reason to think there are big “biological” differences across the societies, this is taken to indicate that “biology” cannot explain everything about the outcome. This is then used to conclude that the prevailing view of sociology is correct.*

I mean, this isn’t about some celebration of the importance of “biology.” If a paper claims that it speaks to an issue, then it should be held to the standard of actually speaking to that issue, as opposed to speaking to some nobody-disputes straw issue but having some self-righteousness conclusion about how Sociology Was Right All Along.**

* See this post at CT for an interesting obverse example.

** There may be some more recent trend toward coupling this conclusion with an empty platitude about how “of course, both are important” or “of course, what’s really important is the interaction between the two.” I don’t even want to get started on that here.

Author: jeremy

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

10 thoughts on “sociology’s home court advantage”

  1. Well, starting with the link you posted, I wandered off into several hours of reading in the sociological blogosphere. I’ve been playing tourist in areas that are not really my own. The analytic structure of the debates/discourses seems to have a great deal in common with other polarized issues where there are real interests and policies at stake. I have thoughts about this, but realize that anything I write will reveal my amateur status as a discourse analyst.

    In re bad reviewers, if you think about the skills needed to be a good reviewer, the number of reviews good reviewers are asked to do (and the number the good reviewers turn down because they are already doing too many reviews), the distribution of skills in the profession, and the time-varying factors that affect how much of the reviewer’s total capacity as a reviewer might be deployed for a given review, you can pretty readily construct a model that explains why not-good articles can get published. And, of course, also why good articles can get rejected.


  2. My bigger problem with the biology vs. socialization papers is that while something like 90% of them are about gender, they rarely engage gender scholarship. Those favoring biological explanations in particular, tend to equate “social” with “socialization,” ignoring the large literature in both sociology and psychology that shows that gendered social arrangements and gendered expectations –that is, “gender in the here-and-now” rather than distant childhood past — predict all kinds of behavior. This is not to deny biological differences between men and women or that boys and girls continue to be socialized differently, but put men and women in the same structural position and hold them accountable to the same expectations and gender differences in behavior are greatly muted and often eliminated. This is an important insight for those who wish to lessen gender inequalities that exist in the workplace, schools, etc because it highlights the contextual influence of gender rather than the seemingly immutable effects of either biology or childhood socialization (whatever those may be). Sorry to vent but those of us who work in this area get frustrated when nature and nurture are presented as all there is.


  3. SJC: Yes! In case it’s not clear, I have deep problems with the whole biology vs. socialization trope, especially when it crowds out what I would think of as more specifically sociological thinking. A problem with studying the effects of here-and-now at the individual level is that sometimes people want to pitch that as biology vs. socialization vs. here-and-now, and this is really misguided because there is so much selection into here-and-now that I think it’s easy to misinterpret differences between proximate and distal causes as differences between real and not-real causes. But even that misses the question of how the here-and-now works as it does and how there here-and-now came to be as it is, not to mention what would be a more equitable or satisfying here-and-now.


  4. Perhaps it is just my own preoccupations, but I am more frightened about what is going on around race. As I understand it, the DNA work is clearly showing that “race” is a meaningless biological concept at the same time that there is a move to re-biologize race in other academic/scientific circles. Although sex is a contiuum, I THINK it is true that there is a bimodal distribution and clustering of a fair number of biological traits (hormones, etc.) beyond the physical genitalia. This is not true with race, and yet there is a great deal of effort around finding/creating race in data mining exercises. I am not, by the way, disputing that there are heritable biological traits that cluster geographically and in lineages. It is their organization into a relatively small number of “races” that I believe is incorrect from what I have read. (I say this as a non-expert consumer of secondary accounts of the relevant research.)


  5. Jeremy,

    The links to Orgtheory you posted eventually brought me back to an old post about economists’ collective opinion of sociologists where you posted that there are many good reasons to believe that the median economist is “smarter-in-the-academic-sense” than the median economist and that, in fact, it’s not a very close call.

    What do you mean by smarter-in-the-academic-sense?

    At least initially, this comment made me cringe a little, partly because (I assume) that you mean that economists generally have better critical thinking skills and are perhaps more rigorous thinkers?

    It seems that at least part of this is based on the image of many sociology students as social activists who need a major (or a graduate degree) conducive to that lifestyle. While there may be at least a grain of truth to that stereotype, that seems to imply that there aren’t just as many economists who fall into the same trap. That assumption, I think, is the product of accepting a definition of critical thinking that (increasingly) has been defined by economists.

    Specifically, there’s a sort of quasi-libertarian, anything-goes fetishization of the counter-intuitive that many (mediocre) economists seem to relish, and that many popular publications like the New Republic (at one time) and Slate (currently) seem to have adopted as their own.

    In a strange way, though, that type of forced counter-intuition has a lot in common with the worst of cultural theory — which is arguably the furthest thing from positivist economics.

    The most important questions to ask any academic are: What are the topics that interest you? What things do you “value” (i.e. efficiency, equality, etc.) that created your interest in said topic? In other words, what are your normative concerns, even if you hide them? And, finally, what would it take for you to change your mind about whatever tentative conclusions you have come to about your chosen topic?

    If you can’t get a good answer to the last question, then it’s hard to claim that the person you’re talking to is really interested in intellectual inquiry. But I don’t think that economists are necessarily more virtuous on that count.


  6. gradytripp: I think there are important weaknesses to economics, to be sure. I’ve no intention of fetishizing it. My “smarter-in-the-academic” sense comment from whenever referred to economics being, at least as far as I can tell, a more demanding undergraduate major, more selective in its graduate admissions, and stronger in a ‘weeding’ ethic in graduate programs. If true, then it seems to me wishful that it’s not going to have consequences for the resulting overall distribution.

    In any case, comparing frustrating aspects of X to positive aspects of Y will generally result in a favorably assessment of Y. This is one thing that fuels qual-quant tension among sociologists, each side comparing good parts of their own enterprise to weaker parts of the other.


  7. Jeremy,

    I agree wholeheartedly with the last paragraph of your comment above.

    My department is really divided (at least among the older faculty) between the quantitative and the qualitative people, which is unfortunate (and bad for the graduate students.) Overall, it seems to do a great disservice to the discipline as a whole to have people of different methodologies going at one another publicly.

    My only concern, as noted above, regarding giving economics too much credit revolves around the “weeding” idea you mentioned. As far as I can tell from discussing graduate econ courses with graduate econ students and with students from other departments who’ve taken graduate-level econ, the weeding part occurs because it involves more rigorous mathematical training. So, the point I was trying to make above is that there’s nothing about knowing more calculus that makes you a more creative researcher who arrives at more plausible explanations, which really should be the litmus test for being a good social scientists.

    For example, I was taught econ at the undergraduate level by a prof who went to Chicago and had three Nobel-winners on his committee. Yet, his biggest research impact to date came in the form of several papers arguing that the post office was inefficient. Was he good methodologically? I’m not an economist. So, I can’t say. Was he a creative researcher and thinker? Well…


  8. Grady: Yes, I agree. Selection on technical proficiency can crowd out other things that are more virtuous in the big picture. Many people think this has happened in economics, and I’m neither positioned nor inclined to disagree. Why a discipline might come to overselect on technical proficiency is itself an interesting sociological matter, but I start writing about that now…


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