best of 2014 sociology blogging

Each year, the political scientists at Duck of Minerva give out awards for the best international relations blogging of the year. Sociology at present has no such organized structure. I’m not sure we need more awards (though I suppose we could always ask the 52 ASA sections to create a “best blog post” award!), but the process does have a useful by-product: it creates a curated list of great posts and new blogs for each year. Below, I’ve compiled my own list of favorites. I wish I’d started keeping track earlier in the year, as I’m sure I’ve forgotten as many good posts as I remembered. But the real hope of this post is that you readers will leave comments with your favorite posts from 2014, and together we can build a comprehensive list! My list is shamelessly subjective, as any list of favorites must be, and focused on topics I’ve been following this year.

Methods

  • Jeremy Freese on the hurricane name study. Jeremy wrote a series of posts critiquing and reanalyzing a study in PNAS purporting to show that hurricanes with female names kill more people. This set of posts is a fantastic example of why sharing data is essential, and of how plausible-seeming models can produce implausible effect sizes:

    Hurricane Andrew is of particular interest for the model, because it was very severe in terms of damage but not so many people died. 62 people died in Andrew, which their model fits well, predicting 59 deaths. If we pose the counterfactual of what would have happened if the hurricane had been named Diana instead, the model predicts over 25,000 people would have died.

  • To go along with the “research methods” theme of Jeremy’s hurricane study critique, I recommend Hollaback and Why Everyone Needs Better Research Methods, wherein Zeynep Tufekci analyzes the viral video of a woman getting catcalled walking through NYC with the tools of basic sociological research methods.

    Status

  • Kieran Healy frequently wins the internet through a combination of wit and data visualization. In The Persistence of the Old Regime, Kieran compares a 1911 classification of universities to the 2014 USNWR rankings to show just how persistent status can be.

  • In a similar vein, Beth Berman and Kieran Healy struck viral sociology gold with their pieces connecting increased income inequality to the increasing differentiation between airline classes: inequality in the skies and Fly Air Gini. As Beth puts it, airline seating charts are “a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources.” Kieran extends the analysis to show just how much space first class would take up were it to reflect the US income distribution, emphasizing how the recent rise of top earners has set them apart from the rest of the top quintile: “What has happened to make Business Class more cramped? The answer is to be found in Ruling Class. Sorry, I mean, First Class. On Air Gini, those eight most-valued passengers—three and a half percent of those on board—get thirty five percent of the available seating space.”

    Journalists writing about sociology

  • Perhaps the most important piece of sociological journalism this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterpiece, The Case for Reparations. I imagine this piece will make it onto a lot of syllabi in intro sociology and history classes to help explain the complex relationship between race, policy, history, and inequality in the contemporary US. One of the reasons Coates’ piece was so powerful was the way it incorporated academic history and sociology into its narrative structure. In a series of companion posts, Coates fleshes out his academic sources through a “narrative bibliography” on racism and the invention of race, slavery, and the ghetto as public policy. The last post in particular emphasizes the contributions of sociologists including Massey and Denton, Sampson, and Sharkey. Coates’ work is incredibly useful for thinking about how sociological research might influence the public debate, and we owe him a debt (or better yet, an award!) for making the connections so clear.

  • Vox.com has been a very interesting entry into the world of data journalism.* Though not solely engaged with sociology, a recent post on understanding statistical results caught my eye as a really helpful explainer for undergrads, tied to a substantively important topic: How racial discrimination in law enforcement actually works. Ezra Klein explains the interpretive problems associated with statistical results that include many controls, some of which may mask the effects of discrimination in different practices in the criminal justice system than the one being studied:

    People pulled over for speeding tickets are searched much less often than people pulled over for non-speeding violations like broken taillights. The researchers find that minority drivers are much likelier than white drivers to be pulled over for those non-speeding offenses.

    The result is that when you control for type of stop, some of the effect of race disappears. But by controlling for type of stop, you might actually just be controlling for the effect of race, which is the thing you’re trying to measure in the first place. The researchers know this. “The findings do not address the question of why minorities are more likely to be stopped for nonspeeding offenses.” The italics, by the way, are in the original paper. The researchers are frustrated, too.

    * I’m not sure if Vox.com should count as a blog. How do we draw the boundaries? Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bibliography pieces certainly feel like blog posts written as additional background associated with a print piece. But Vox.com is entirely online, and it’s hard to distinguish kinds of content.

    Race and Inequality

  • Although Phil Cohen’s main topic is marriage and gender, a recent post on the decline of Detroit caught my eye as a native Michigander. Six grueling demographic indicators of Detroit’s decline (and some pictures) documents the incredible fall of Detroit by combining demographic indicators and before-after pictures from different waves of Google maps. The results are clear, and not pretty. Phil concludes:

    In light of these potent markers of social crisis — so obvious to so many people who live in Detroit — the willful lack of attention or compassion from the U.S. government, and the obliviousness of the mainstream culture, must feel as cold as it looks. With what consequence? Not to over-dramatize — well, to over-dramatize — but it’s almost like leaving a Black body in the street for four hours, and then feigning surprise when someone accuses you of not caring about his human life and death.

  • Tressie MC’s blog has been essential reading this year for anyone interested in inequality, for-profit colleges and, more generally, the sociology of higher-ed. Two posts stuck out to me. The first was a response to Coates’ piece on reparations that connected that story to the “education gospel” (that racial inequality, and all other forms of inequality, would be fixed by more education). Tressie writes:

    Degrees cannot fix the cumulative effect of structural racism that doesn’t just reinforce the link between family wealth and returns to educational attainment in the labor market but exists as a primary function of that link.

    Reparations can.

    When we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.

  • In another piece, Tressie took on the trend of adding trigger warnings to syllabi and connects the phenomenon to the neoliberalization of higher-ed, and particularly the model of students-as-customers:

    Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

  • Sociologists have written a lot about Ferguson and the larger problem of racialized policing and police violence. One of the solutions that’s been proposed and even heavily funded this year is body cameras for police officers. David Banks at Cyborgology wrote an excellent post on why we should be cautious about overblown claims of the success of such cameras at eliminating brutality, given the ability of officials to control the narrative produced by such cameras: Cameras on cops isn’t the same as cops on camera:

    It is this power to say what a video depicts that is the true source of power. The ability to say what one is seeing, to declare what is the “official depiction of events”, cannot be wrestled from the hands of authority with cameras alone. Mainstream media, when looking for video of an incident, will undoubtedly play the official police footage and then (maybe) show more video from a citizen’s perspective.

    Things I wrote

  • I have not blogged as much as I’d hoped this year, but I’m still proud of a couple posts. First, in April I wrote a piece on Piketty’s Patrimonial Capitalism and the Racial Wealth Gap. Given the incredible output of reviews and reflections on Piketty’s work, I was surprised then by how little discussion there was of the implications of Piketty’s argument for racial wealth gaps. Since then, I’ve seen one or two brief discussions, but overall I think it remains an understated implication: if Piketty is right, then racial wealth gaps are likely going to get a lot worse.

  • After joining the team here at Scatterplot, I spent some time blogging about the Facebook study of emotional contagion. My first post, two problems with the facebook study debate argued that “the problem with the debate over the Facebook study is that we’re debating whether or not a particular study should have been published, and not examining the broader politics of knowledge and manipulation in our brave new social networked world.”

    Sociological analysis of the internet

  • My FB study post was inspired in part by a fantastic piece by Zeynep Tufekci, Facebook and Engineering the Public. In that post, Zeynep argues that we have become complacent with corporate power in the social networking space:

    I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”.

    To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

  • Another excellent post by Zeynep analyzes how FB’s algorithms buried discussions of Ferguson, while Twitter helped bring #Ferguson into the national news.

    So that’s my selective summary. I restricted my retrospective to sociologists (plus journalists directly engaging with sociology). Major topics this year included the (non)death of Organizational Theory, Ferguson (and #Ferguson), research ethics and the power of social networks. Surprisingly, my sample cut out all the excellent commentary on #GamerGate which mostly came from feminist nerds rather than academic commentators. What am I missing? What posts from 2014 stuck in your mind? What inspired you this year?

    Author: Dan Hirschman

    I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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