sociologists behaving badly

David Rubinstein, emeritus at UIC, has now made far more waves as a self-styled “whistleblower” than he ever made as a practicing sociologist. In that career he was apparently undistinguished and even lazy, having rarely updated the sociological theory classes he taught (“who wouldn’t?” he sniffed in his defense. I would!) and produced virtually no scholarly work of significance. His swan song: a small-minded expose of the “cushy life” he leads as a retiree, peppered with tired old saws about the ideological homogeneity of the discipline, largely discredited by serious scholars but trotted out reliably by hacks like Dr. Rubinstein.

Others have written convincing retorts (see here, here, and here).  The bottom line: tenure is a gamble entered into by a university convinced that a scholar has the record, skills, and approach to continue to be productive given the latitude offered by tenure. This is, sadly, a gamble that can be inappropriately exploited by irresponsible people, as appears to be the case by his own admission of Dr. Rubinstein. The point of tenure is not to offer intellectually and literally lazy Ph.D.’s a cushy work and retirement life. The point is to trust intellectually curious and talented Ph.D.’s to create and communicate knowledge free of the tethers of immediate economic necessity.

Meanwhile, my colleague Philip Cohen writes about the latest intellectual dishonesty perpetrated by Brad Wilcox, religious True Believer in the virtue of religiosity and sociological lightweight. Philip’s careful dissection of Wilcox’s shoddy analysis is great, and there’s no need for me to summarize here. But the final paragraph asks about whether and how sociologists ought to be willing to act as experts: that is, to comment on matters that go beyond specific data we’ve collected or analyzed. I think we should be willing and able to do that; to act as a public intellectual, IMHO, reasonably includes commenting in a learned manner on matters on which we might have important things to say, even if we haven’t directly researched those areas ourselves. The problem with Wilcox’s MO, to me, is not that he does this, but that he makes specific empirical claims that (as Philip demonstrates) are simply not warranted.

So here’s the question: Rubinstein and Wilcox both show downsides of tenure: people who jump through the hoops set up to warrant scholarly quality, then either kick back or abuse the privilege to add scholarly gravitas to wishful thinking. Is there a reasonable intervention that might prevent some of these cases while preserving the remarkable breadth of discovery and intellectual productivity enabled by tenure?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

29 thoughts on “sociologists behaving badly”

  1. I’m having trouble seeing how Rubinstein shows a downside of tenure itself. There were no complaints (that I’ve seen, at least) about his performance as an instructor. his fellow faculty apparently didn’t realise he was enough of a slacker that they objected at all to his being given emeritus status and the privileges therefrom.

    He’s a self-declared lazy sod. However, as Andrew Gelman did the math, Rubinstein is claiming to have spent ca. 1 hour/semester on the combination of Office Hours, Preparation, Grading, and Teacherly Duties (including the requisite paperwork). (True, UIC is on a Quarter System, but that doesn’t appear to have meant less class time than Gelman assumed.)

    The story as presented is absurd on the face of it. But even if it isn’t, I’m not seeing how tenure caused a problem–unless everything else at UIC collapsed for the same period of time.

    I call b******t on his story, let alone his reputation. But, even if everything he said were true, it’s difficult to see where in the process he would have been dismissed even without tenure.

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  2. According to someone on RateMyProfessors: “Everyday he comes in with an empty coffee cup and takes sips throughout the class even though there is nothing in his cup!!!”

    Think what you like about the rest of his career and his essay, but things like that are one of the reasons we do need to keep the tenure system in place.

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  3. Rubinstein (BTW, Andrew, the link to his name is broken in your post) went through the tenure process a long time ago. I couldn’t find a link to his CV so I don’t know what he did before or after getting tenure. But let’s face it, every department has a few ‘terminal’ associate professors and then even fewer (but they can still be there) full professors who decided somewhere along the way (after they got promoted to full) that they didn’t want to be research active anymore. I think this spans colleges and universities at every level — except pure teaching places. However, this self-proclaimed lazy sod got through the hoops because he was doing something right at some point in order to receive these promotions.

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  4. A reader pointed out to me that the language I originally used about Wilcox (“religious True Believer”) implied that I consider religious belief antithetical to good sociology. I certainly do not think that; in fact I think lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist. I was referring to the fact that Wilcox consistently claims that religious adherence and associated family structures are nearly uniformly good for whatever social outcome he is considering at the moment. This pattern of claims and dubious evidentiary bases suggest more commitment to conclusion than data.

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  5. Andrew: “lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist.”

    Care to unpack or elaborate? (Maybe in a different post, to avoid a thread hijack.)

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  6. I agree it’s fine to lend our credentials to public commentary without peer review. But naturally it’s a buyer-beware situation.

    In his own defense, FYI, Brad Wilcox sent me a response, which includes in relevant part:

    “Third, Professor Cohen also notes that this report was not peer reviewed. This is true. Although I have published more than 15 articles and books through the peer-review process, I do not think that every report written by an academic must be peer reviewed. In this case, I thought it would be helpful to convey new data to a public audience in a timely fashion. Here, the National Marriage Project (NMP) is following a convention found at other research institutes located at American public universities, from the Center for WorkLife Law to the Williams Institute.”

    The full response is here: http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/w-bradford-wilcox-responds/

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  7. In a number of blog posts, sociologist Andrew Perrin accuses me of being a “religious True Believer,” a “True Believer in the virtue of religiosity,” and a “sociological lightweight.” On the last point, let me just say that my CV includes peer-reviewed articles in the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Journal of Marriage and Family, and other scholarly venues, and that I have books in print or under contract with the University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press, and Columbia University Press. The irony here is that Dr. Perrin and I have published in many of the same “lightweight” scholarly venues.

    He also accuses me of essentially twisting my empirical analyses to claim “that religious adherence and associated family structures are nearly uniformly good.” This is a curious claim to make, both because many of my scholarly collaborators do not share my views and would not willingly distort our empirical analyses to serve an ideological agenda, and because I have publicly acknowledged that religion is not uniformly associated with positive outcomes. See, for instance, my comments in The Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/08/12/ST2010081200374.html?sid=ST2010081200374] on the impact of religious disagreement on relationship happiness.

    Finally, in his original post, he called me a “religious True Believer.” I guess that counts as a slam in the circles that Dr. Perrin travels in. That’s too bad. As a cosmopolitan conservative, I have friends who span the ideological and religious spectrum. And I would never slam their views in such a manner.

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    1. Well, I think it’s just one blog post, not “a number” except insofar as one is a number. But that aside:

      • My claim about Dr. Wilcox’s sociology’s quality is my judgment. It is not based on the quantity or venue of publications, but rather on my professional evaluation of the quality of those publications. Professional evaluations frequently vary. I think there’s a lot of lightweight sociology published in high-status venues, and some excellent sociology published in low-status venues or even not at all.
      • As I’ve clarified here and here, I emphatically do not think being a “religious True Believer” is a “slam,” in my circles or in any other.
      • Much, if not all, of the material I’ve seen by Dr. Wilcox endorses religious belief and practice, and generally relatively traditionalist religious belief and practice, as Better than various forms of religious and family heterogeneity. Indeed, the Washington Post link he provides above also endorses traditionalist and homogeneous approaches, albeit with better evidence than the recent report attacked in Philip Cohen’s blog.

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  8. It’s also worth noting that sociologist Philip Morgan has a paper on the recession and the family coming out. Among other things, he concludes:

    “There is some evidence that divorces are becoming rarer since the beginning of the recession. But the recent decline in the divorce rate also appears to be a continuation of a longer-standing decline in the divorce rate dating back to around 2000.”

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  9. What is most interesting to me about this matter are two sociology-of-sociologists questions: Why Wilcox/NMP among all the possible targets? And why the emotional energy animating the critique and its reception?

    There are lots of possible targets in sociology to attack, all kinds of problematic claims, arguments, and inferences to be found in every field, school, perspective, and ideological position. Also, very many projects, institutes, and universities put out reports and press releases all the time, for better or worse. And, as Andy suggests, even the peer review process hardly guarantees that published scholarship isn’t seriously problematic. Therefore, any given “calling out” that happens like this is bound to be highly selective. So: Why Wilcox in particular and why the emotional energy?

    Given my limited imagination, I can only think of three hypotheses:

    H1: Some sociologists are jealous and resentful that others who get press attention when they do not, and so attack those who are more in the media to even the score.

    H2: Blogging naturally bring out the very worse in people, and if these discussions were being had face-to-face, they would feel very, very different.

    H3: Some sociologists hate other sociologists whose social/political viewpoints violate sociology’s progressive orthodoxy, and so attack them in order to discredit them.

    I doubt much of H1 is going on. H2 seems plausible to me. A lot of circumstantial evidence also seems to point to H3, although I would be happier if it were false. Is it?

    Our discipline will be much better off if everyone involved is not only sociological about the world and other people around them, but also about themselves. (That I learned in part from a great former colleague, Sherryl Kleinman, who was gifted in seeing the unseemly side of all things, including those that posed as correct and righteous and were very close to home.) I wonder what constructive we can learn from these sorts of exchanges that do not just reinforce our existing beliefs and make us feel better about them.

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    1. Since your comment was posted anonymously, I don’t know how much you read and/or post to the blogs, but I think if you scroll through past posts on scatterplot and orgtheory you will find lots of targets; Prof. Wilcox is hardly alone. The question you ask at the top of your post, that is, may well sample on the dependent variable.

      There have been a number of recent discussions on the blogs in which sociologists have been critiqued for making bad arguments that fit with “sociology’s progressive orthodoxy.” I’ve certainly seen critiques of racial claims made by Joe Feagin and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. There’s been very sustained and deep critique of the mis-mobilization of claims about progressivity in the discussion about the ASA dues structure. Several conversations about genetics and society have contained indictments of progressive orthodoxy in rejecting genetic explanations for behavior. In other words: I don’t think H3 can be sustained with respect to this venue.

      If by “the very worse [sic]” you mean “frank and snarky,” I think folks at scatterplot would agree with H2. I don’t think I would make a different claim in such a discussion, but would likely use nicer words than “sociological lightweight.”

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    2. Blogging naturally brings out the very worst in people, and if these discussions were being had face-to-face, they would feel very, very different.

      I have a contrary view of this, which is perhaps worth a post in its own right, but the gist is we’re academics. If we handle disagreements as a series of face-to-face communications, we are doing the public a disservice. I am an outsider to this area and have absolutely no dog in this fight. Even so–and while I recognize nobody likes being called out–the exchange among Cohen-Wilcox-Perrin is informative to me about an area of disagreement I didn’t even know existed.

      Now, to be sure, there are issues about how frank is too frank and how sassy is too sassy, which we’ve been through recently. (Incidentally, regarding the notion of political mindguarding, I understand the concern but, well, several of us have also recently been through the experience of having the ASA President send an e-mail comparing us to Tea Party Republicans.)

      And these debates about how we debate are important. But, I think, for academia, blogging often brings out a more valuable public self than the enormous conflict-aversion of face-to-face communication does.

      Should we post the way we would if we were talking one-on-one to the person we are criticizing? Probably depends on how much moxie we have to be forthright face-to-face. I recognize that if we write like we are all sitting around a big table we are doing a nice turn to the person we are talking about, but I’m not sure we are doing a service to the larger community, which is the point of blogging in the first place.

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      1. This whole thread is really interesting to me because I’m on the council of the ASA section of sociological practice and public sociology. The issue of how sociologists represent sociology — and (per this discussion) other sociologist’s work in the public sphere has come up as a possible theme for a presentation session. This is timely because there are now so many avenues sociologists can pursue – i.e. blogs, online zines etc. So any feedback on a possible session on this would be greatly appreciated.

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  10. Andy, it’s me, Chris. Anonymity by accident. Just changed my public face to my name, still figuring out the dashboard here. Yes, bogging is not my forte. And, no, I have not followed the history. Not my thing. So, take it as simple questions from an uninitiated outsider. If H3 is really rejected, then, yes, I’m happier. I’d be even happier if people generally wrote in ways that they might speak face-to-face. But we have emailed about this on the side. Thanks for the input.

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  11. So, again, a question from a naive non-blogger: Does the “Phil Cohen treatment” operate as a kind of “vigilante peer review,” making sure to see justice done, even if only after the fact, in cases where the peer review “law” didn’t get it right in the first place? And who is to keep the vigilantes from going off track (who watches the Watchmen)? I gather this is about more than mere entertainment. So what is the intended function and how is it supposed to relate to the formal professional review system and other processes of disciplinary self-governance and monitorning? Forgive my naivete. I just wonder what the larger implications are.

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  12. Chris — None of your hypotheses explains why I targeted Wilcox’s report. Some of the conditions for them exist — (a) he gets inordinate press attention because of his conservative ideas, (b) I write a blog, and (c) I disagree with his politics (note, not confirming words like “hate” or “orthodoxy”).

    But these facts are not sufficient to explain my motivations. My blog is Family Inequality. The effect of the recession on family structure and dynamics is central to the subject matter I cover. I have been doing an entire series on “recession studies” (you can see them all with under this link: http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/tag/recession/), which has included criticism of a lot of different research as well as reports on research I think is useful, and recommendations for directions to go.

    Interestingly, I was also recently accused of mounting a “crusade” against the feminist meme that women own 1% of all property in the world.

    Why all the emotional energy, the critics wonder? As I might say to Sherryl: “Common, guys. That’s just how I roll.” (That’s a joke.)

    Finally: Excellent question about the extra-peer-review policing system. There is no system, and no rules I’m aware of. But don’t we need that? I think it’s a great innovation, a necessary counter-balance to the proliferation of non-reviewed “reports” — and blogs — some of which are great. As I said in the post: check my sources. Read it critically. Send me your responses.

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  13. Just starting to find my way around here, but I am not concerned about the dialog, or the motivations. I find the interpretations insightful, and I feel I am capable of critically evaluating the arguments. Philip Cohen’s views on the findings released by Brad Wilcox are informative, as were the responses. We need this form of sociological introspection, whether it is, or is not, delivered with a bit of an ‘edge’. What matters, to me, is I have learned a little more by reading the initial analysis and responses.

    It seems to me that blogs like this give us another venue to engage in discussion and debates.

    I am pretty new to this, not yet caught up with the younger generations. So I still have not figured out how to identify myself on here … other than in the body of the post.

    Dan R. Hoyt

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  14. Gee, I was thinking that Cohen was operating with another motivation: H4: He was reacting to a deliberately deceptive piece of political propaganda trumped out in several popular outlets as social science. And, it’s quite a hoot to hear religious political activists call reasoned (albeit bloggy) criticism of bad work “emotional.” Indeed, I’ve heard this before from Christian and Bradley after I reviewed Wilcox’s book supporting Christian patriarchy (…didn’t Perrin send me that?). Better watch out Cohen and Perrin, they have minions of ideologues who will be whipped into action! You’ve probably been added to the secret newsletter as enemies of Christ….

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  15. Phil, thanks for your answer re selection of targets, which seems reasonable. One question is whether the targets tehn get a fair hearing in their reply, or are assumed by amused readers to be guilty until proven innocent. Or whether the targets simply don’t reply at all because the prospects for rational discourse is hopeless.

    I do think “vigilante peer review” is problematic. If done well by people exercising the right virtues, it could have a valuable place in the larger scheme of things. But much pushes in the direction of abuse. What is lacking in it is any position that adjudicates comments, like an editor or judge/jury. It easily turns into a posse on keyboard-horseback driven by who-knows-whatever vendettas, capable of unjust character assassination, etc. At its worse in history, the general strategy becomes the SS taking care of “justice” that it self-appointedly believes the Weimar Republic hasn’t. Less hideous versions, but still damaging to democracy, are enclave media, like Glenn Beck, etc. Accountability to the facts is flushed. Everybody only listens to what they already believe.

    Jeremy, my point is not that everything written should definitely be as if it *were* face to face, but rather that people writing should simply consider what they *would* say if face to face. Respecting the dignity of persons requires something like that, and the mental exercise might limit our more abusive statements, since it can be easy to hide cowardice behind the pseudo-courage afforded by keyboards.

    None of that, btw, has anything necessarily to do with not being frank and critical. We need very frank and critical. The question is how exactly frank criticism is offered. Both for our discipline and our political culture more broadly, the more we try to convince with reasons rather than destroy those with whom we disagree, the better.

    Andy, a last thought re H3: just because some progressives criticize some other progressives does not mean that H3 does not explain why they criticize conservatives. These could be two prongs of attack driven by a single ideological motive. That is, one might attack conservatives because one hates them for their conservativism AND criticize other progressives who are embarrassing to the progressive cause. Similar to evangelicals attacking “secular humanists” because they are the enemy, but also attacking embarrassing evangelicals because they are too close for comfort. Just a theoretical possibility, pointing out that simply because this blog has critiqued Feagin and Bonilla-Silva does not necessarily mean an attack on Wilcox is definitely not explained by H3.

    (I realized after, btw, that my H2 is irrelevant to the question of selective targetting that I asked. It might explain tone of criticism, not selection of the criticized. Which narrows the possible explanations.)

    Finally, the H4 proposal offered just above is Exhibit A evidence for H3. It also illustrates some of the reasons why vigilante peer review is problematic, seeing the kind of vomit that some are happy to spew with glee on others.

    My conclusion after a few days of this: the blog world is an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. I think I’ll check back out again after any possible responses to this post.

    Thanks, anyone, for your interest in my arguments, however naively they still believe in virtues of discourse, democracy, fairness, tolerance, human dignity, persuading opponents with reasons, and such.

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  16. Yes, nobody should send around blind cc’d emails in response to someone’s reasoned and published critique of another scholars work in a sociological journal, or strong-arm an editor into rejecting an invited comment on an invited paper because one disagrees with her position, right? It’s all virtuous discourse until the virtuous disagree with what is being said.

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  17. Hmmm. Book reviews have been around for a very long time and have historically included a high percentage of snark. Right? So I don’t think negative commentary is particularly new to sociology just because there are blogs. Academics as a class have a long history of getting into personal disputes and using their high verbal ability to say mean things in clever ways. So I would not want to over-attribute meanness to blogs. The most you could say is that meanness circulates faster.

    The rule that works, I think, if you are trying to have genuine substantive debate, is what I was taught a long time ago about faculty debates at Wisconsin: You can say anything you want about whether you think work is good or bad, right or wrong, as long as you genuinely believe what you say. What you cannot do is say things you don’t believe just for political reasons and you cannot question the motives or sincerity of the people you disagree with.

    Saying “I think you are totally and completely wrong, your methodology stinks, and the tables you present are misleading” is a different kind of statement from “you know the data do not show that but are just saying that to promote a political agenda.” And, similarly, it is inappropriate to say, “You are just criticizing my research because you disagree with my politics” or to argue that people who are known to disagree with your politics have no standing to dispute your methodology or results.

    If a person “publishes” on the Internet, it sure seems to me that the Internet is a fair place to review the work.

    What is empirically true about the Internet is that many lines of research that are published on line are posted by advocacy groups or by people associated with advocacy groups. It is a matter of fact if research is sponsored by an organization with a known political advocacy standpoint, and it does not seem illegitimate to me to discuss the linkage of research to advocacy. The line not to cross if one wants to remain in dialogue is the suggestion that an opponent is deliberately mis-representing data to score political points.

    The suggestion that a political standpoint might affect a scholar’s understanding of what data are important could border on an attribution of motives but seems to me not to cross that line if carefully stated. But it is certainly not unethical to criticize someone else for data that was omitted that would weaken that person’s argument, and not unethical to mention ties between the researcher and advocacy on issues relevant to the research.

    I also don’t think it is unethical to be more skeptical of research that challenges your own presuppositions (which may well be politically motivated), as long as the challenges focuses on the work and not on motives.

    This got longer than I thought it would. Oh well.

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  18. Two things in response to Chris:

    One, thank you OW for this: “If a person ‘publishes’ on the Internet, it sure seems to me that the Internet is a fair place to review the work.” The point of my spoof report was that my blog is no more and no less reviewed or accountable than his “report,” as far as I can tell. It is not a case of a vigilante critiquing “research” – with the question of how we should do such critique, the system of justice, etc. – it is two tenured professors posting their thoughts online. I might point out that I was more patient in a critique of his faulty reasoning and misleading statistics in a post in late 2009, which – if he had been interested in doing the research right – he might not have ignored.

    Two, why only question the motives for the critique, instead of for the original – low-quality and misleading – research? I did not get into Wilcox’s motives in my post, and I see no reason to get into a minute multi-hypothesis analysis of my own without some reciprocity (and I’m happy to do neither). If someone wants to draw conclusions from the fact that some people’s research is funded by politically-motivated private foundations, while others critique them in the mere hope of a backslap and a beer at ASA some day, then I’m powerless to stop them.

    In that 2009 report, he included this 100% misleading graph: http://familyinequality.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/wilcox1.jpg. I am not making that up. The guy has a PhD. Go ahead: question my motives.

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  19. Thanks for the good thoughts, olderwoman. I don’t think it actually operates quite that simply, but those are very good standards to bear in mind.

    Phil, for the record in your case: I asked a question, posed some alternative possible answers, asked for thoughts, got a reasonable answer from you, and said, “That’s reasonable. Thanks.” I am far from persuaded that every other voice’s contribution is as reasonable as yours. But I take olderwoman’s ideas as good to go by. For what it’s worth, I also actually originally told the scholar you criticized that I think your critique seems legit. My interest here is more with the meta issues, not defending or attacking any particular scholar.

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