52 works that inspired sociologists this year

  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press, 1984.
  2. Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Transaction Books, 2009.
  3. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2001.
  4. Raudenbush, Stephen W. Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Vol. 1. Sage, 2002.
  5. Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Harvard University Press, 1993.
  6. Goffman, Erving. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY (1959).
  7. Steensland, Brian, Lynn D. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, and Robert D. Woodberry. “The measure of American religion: Toward improving the state of the art.” Social Forces 79, no. 1 (2000): 291-318.
  8. Swidler, Ann. “Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.” American sociological review (1986): 273-286.
  9. McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. “Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks.” Annual review of sociology (2001): 415-444. Continue reading “52 works that inspired sociologists this year”

free speech, kansas, and duck dynasty

Two big free-speech matters are making headlines today. First, Phil Roberts of the show Duck Dynasty made some truly ugly comments in an interview with GQ, which prompted A&E to suspend him from the show. Predictably enough, the right-wing meme has become “the left is tolerant of everything as long as you agree with them.” Second, the Kansas board of regents adopted an exceedingly broad policy on social media use that could provide authority for employees (presumably including faculty) to be disciplined for comments that harm or insult the university.

Continue reading “free speech, kansas, and duck dynasty”

long live the fact/value distinction

Phil Gorski’s argument that the fact/value distinction is bankrupt is out in Society, along with a marquee of big-name responses. Phil and I had an interesting and productive exchange on the article this fall. The exchange follows here, with Phil’s permission. I still think I’m right!

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separate the ick from the harm

The controversy over Colorado’s response to Patti Adler’s exercise, in which undergraduate teaching assistants role played various types of prostitute to consider the stratification of deviance, has produced a wide variety of opinions among academic sociologists. Many here on the blogs and on twitter have raised questions about the appropriateness of this exercise, which is a fair point, but one that requires a bit more scrutiny, in my view.

Sexual topics of all kinds have to deal with the “ick” factor. Many forces in our culture encourage us not only to be critical of, but also to be viscerally repulsed by, sexuality. So, I worry that the administration’s reaction, as well as that of my colleagues, is magnified, triggered, or made more extreme by the ickiness of the topic, rather than by the actual harm done. I am not saying that it is not possible for lectures/exercises on sexuality to harm students or teaching assistants. Of course it is. Sexism, as well as sexual violence and exploitation and harassment, are real phenomena and should be concerns of university campuses. Students and employees should be considered and cared for, and not subject to harassment. Period.

However, I am concerned that the sexual nature of the lesson itself makes it highly suspect to administrators, and I fear that the ick makes it seem obvious that such a topic must therefore be harmful. If the sexual nature of the topic–and our repulsion to it–gives us permission to skip the step where we weigh the benefits against the harms, then we are heading down a road to total censorship of sexual topics in sociology. And it is my view that, as sensitive as these topics can be, more harm comes from being silent about sexuality than discussing it openly. So, that is why my response to the news–which of course hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out–is to express great concern for administrative intrusion in the classroom and academic freedom. I am worried that it is all too easy for everyone to agree that this exercise is icky and assume, therefore, that it is also harmful.

irb creep watch

More could be said regarding reports of the situation with Patti Adler at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but this part toward the bottom of the Inside Higher Ed story caught my eye:

[A]sked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, [spokesman Mark J.] Miller said: “Yes. CU-Boulder does not discourage teaching controversial topics but there has to be a legitimate educational basis for what is being taught in the classroom. In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for regulatory compliance involving human subjects.”

Adler responded that IRBs are for research, not teaching. […]

Asked about IRBs being for research, not teaching, Miller said,”Students did participate in the lecture. All we are saying is that it is a best practice to go to the IRB.”


some thoughts on mandela and apartheid

I don’t have anything as eloquent as Tim Burke to say about Mandela and the discourse around his death. Like many politically-active people of my generation, I found great inspiration not just from Mandela in particular but from the grand struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid was the great moral struggle of the late 20th century. In part the monstrous last gasp of European colonialism, and in part the oh-so-modern hybrid of capitalist extraction and scientific racism, it was impossible by the early 1980s to form a morally defensible claim for its support. Mandela became the international symbol of the struggle, and deservedly so, but his ANC was but one piece of the struggle that included allies in the trade union movement (COSATU) and the Communist Party (SACP). Remarkably, this coalition was multiracial and fostered a remarkable leadership including Mandela. An important rival was Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, which looked from outside like a piece of the coalition but was in fact a crucial competitor for ways of thinking about racial justice in South Africa.

It is a huge moral failing of the United States, and an enduring shame, that the Reagan Administration, Congressional cold war hawks, and envoy Elliott Abrams became, de facto, the global sponsor of the apartheid regime. Thousands of people died and thousands more suffered and were brutalized because they considered Cold War geopolitics a priority so overwhelming as to write off the human rights of the subcontinent.

I spent a year or so in Namibia just after its independence, writing for The Namibian and working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited Johannesburg, Soweto (thanks Chris Benner), and Cape Town, as well as Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe while I was there, and came away deeply moved by the imagination, creativity, dedication, and commitment of the people who fought for an authentic vision of democracy and freedom. Mandela certainly was a great man, and the movement he led is one of the triumphs of the last century.

topic modeling and a theory of language

The much-anticipated special issue of Poetics devoted to topic modeling in cultural sociology is now available, and it’s a beaut! Props to John Mohr and Petko Bogdanov for editing the special issue, and to all the authors for an exciting group of articles.

There is, quite appropriately, a lot of buzz about the potential of “big data” and quantitative analysis of text, in particular for cultural analysis since so much of culture seems to make its way into text in one form or another.  The articles in the special issue combine into a grand showcase of the possibilities of quantitative analysis of text.  I’ll comment on most of them below. But I think most of them–like much quantitative analysis of text in general–suffer from some theoretical shortcomings. Specifically:

  • with the partial exception of the Mohr, Wagner-Pacifici, Breiger, and Bogdanov article, the studies lack a well-conceptualized theory of language, which leads to some conceptual slippage.
  • there is little attention to the conditions of production of text: whose words, and which words, are written down, archived, and digitized.

Continue reading “topic modeling and a theory of language”