on fights on scholar-activism

The following is a guest post by Daniel Laurison.

At ASA, I was on a panel about the idea of the “scholar-activist” and some of the debates around it. The panel happened because Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra wrote this blog post & was asked to organize a Presidential Panel on the topic. The blog post happened because of arguments on twitter about Mary Romero’s Presidential candidate statement; those arguments flared again after the theme of this year’s ASA (Social Justice) was announced. One collection of twitter comments about the issue is here. Generally, discussions seem to be framed as about valuing “good science” and “objectivity” vs valuing, well, values.

(note: I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this issue, but I’m really quite open to being wrong about much of what’s below – I think it’s worth saying, but I’m not 100% sure about all of it – that’s what blogs are for, right? I have really appreciated a lot of good conversations I’ve had on twitter and in DMs and in person about this issue with a lot of smart folks; part of what is really tricky about this issue is that there are people I really admire and think are very smart on both/all sides of this issue; that is part of what’s motivating me to try to figure it out, but it’s also making me nervous about pissing people off. Oh well.)

I don’t think of myself as a “scholar-activist” but I am basically convinced by the arguments of folks who do – including, especially Romero’s Presidential Address (go find it as soon as it’s available – it’ll be here on video eventually, and in ASR in print). However, I’m also pretty much convinced by a lot of the arguments made by the “pro-science” people about what makes for good science. It seems to me that a lot of the problem is that people are talking past each other, and so I’ve been trying to sort out what’s going on. I laid out my (not-fully-formed and definitely not extensively researched) thoughts on that in my short talk at ASA, and this is roughly what I said.

First, it seems weird to have a discussion on this topic without the voices of people who DO think of themselves as scholar-activists, so I asked on twitter if folks would weigh in, and here’s what a few said:

p.s. kehal: i would like a discussion of why only liberals and left of center folks get marked as scholar activists whereas anyone for no change manage to evade any label, as if their scholarship & professional work wasnt activism of its own type

Simone Kolysh: With so many urgent problems affecting our loved ones, scholarship for scholarships’ sake is irresponsible and irrelevant.

And: I think the boundary between scholarship and activism is a tool of oppression and maintains the legacy of many -isms in Sociology. As prez Romero pointed out in her address, for as long as there was Soc, white men tried to stomp out activism.

L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (via direct message): For me, being a scholar-activist is a part of connecting to a deeper and richer black sociological tradition. From WEB Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Oliver Cromwell Cox on to Patricia Hill Collins, the idea/belief that good research can help lead us to better social actions is at the core. While activisms look different for different scholars, the black sociological tradition rejects the idea that we have the luxury to study phenomena without the necessity to change them. I will say activism doesn’t look the same. For Wells, documenting lynchings and advocating for justice in policy and with the support of mass movements is just one form. For Cox, who had a physically disability, his activism looked more like critical scholarship and challenging canons across aisles. For me, being a scholar-activist can be anywhere from challenging methodological orthodoxy to participating in anti-police terrorism actions. All of which are done with an idea that we must understand things deeply and differently and commit our understandings to actions that will reshape how we think and live.

So, I’m open to being wrong, but I think there are a lot of things that are pretty much consensus positions in sociology, although I’m still pretty new here in the scheme of things.

  • I think we all agree that sociology should strive for accuracy, for getting the social world right, for a good understanding of how things work, so that’s not what we’re arguing about, I don’t think. We maybe disagree about whether that should be called “objectivity” or how complete/accurate/impartial we can be about the social world, but no one is arguing against aiming for having a true account of some aspect of society or social processes. And I don’t think anyone is arguing that it’s possible to have a completely perspective-free take, either.
  • I think we all roughly agree that our values inform our research in some way, that as humans we can’t entirely escape having our values shape what we study, or how we study it, or how we report on it.
  • I think we all think it’s legitimate for sociologists to use their research in various forms of advocacy. I think we all agree that research and advocacy are not the same thing, nor are facts and values.
  • I think we all want sociology to be taken seriously beyond the discipline, so I don’t think that’s what we’re arguing about, either, exactly.

Based on all that consensus, I don’t see any reason for our field not to have some kind of consensus or widespread value of social justice, if that means everyone should be treated fairly, or everyone should get to have a basically OK life, or something like the universal declaration of human rights. I didn’t say exactly this at ASA, but tweeted it (and some good conversation followed) – some of the disagreement then is maybe about what “social justice” actually means. For a lot of us, as was clear in ASA President Mary Romero’s talk, it just means values I think everyone (ought to) broadly share. like “liberty and justice for all” or “racism & white supremacy are bad.” I also think there’s a worry that if we embrace a “social justice” values too strongly it’ll delegitimize us, and I think that’s an entirely reasonable thing to worry about. But I would point out that the other social sciences with lots of power (relative to sociology) seem to me to have clear values/normative commitments that – poli sci seems to value democracy and democratic-ness; economics seems to value productivity and efficiency for their own sake. Those are values, just like “equality” or “fairness” are. So I don’t think we actually want or need a norm-free social science, even if that were possible.

So if we’re not arguing, exactly, about whether true objectivity is possible, or whether values have any role in research, or whether at least the broad version of “social justice” is normatively good, I think we must be arguing about something else. And I think that something is about power and status in the discipline, about the legitimate forms of legitimation in the field of sociology, as my pal and yours Pierre Bourdieu might say (probably did say but I’m not looking up the cite).

And part of that struggle over the legitimation probably needs to be understood by looking at who is making which arguments. This is the part I’m least sure about; I haven’t counted, or done a systematic search, or anything like that, but I think it’s worth raising: to the extent that there are sides/divides on the interwoven issues of scholar activism, values in social science, whether we call our work “objective,” etc., those sides look like they have something to do with race. My impression is that there are more Black (and other POC, but especially Black from what I can see) sociologists emphatically siding with Romero & identifying as scholar-activists, and pretty much only white sociologists (on twitter at least; Fabio Rojas took a more “let’s be a science” stance at the panel) calling for more objectivity and worrying about the effects of Romero’s statements, bemoaning the rise of “scholar-activism” etc. (And lots of folks from every racial group somewhere in the middle or not weighing in either way.)

As sociologists, we know that as fields get more women, their average pay (and status) generally declines, though I don’t think anyone would argue (anymore) that that’s a reason to exclude women from sociology; the same is probably true of having higher representation of any/all marginalized/oppressed/minoritized etc groups, though no one (I hope) would argue (except on the rumor mill, maybe) for making sociology more white, more straight, etc. Put succinctly, if our field is more opposed to power in its approach or its composition, it can lose power, and that might be one of the dynamics underlying this debate.

I think the science folks are most concerned that sociology be taken seriously by people already in power – that we be more like economics in our influence, or at least political science that has its own Washington Post column. And I think the scholar-activist folks generally have more concern with the communities that tend to get screwed by the current power structure. I personally hope we can be ethical actors (at least) with respect to the latter while also having an influence on the former, and I think a lot of us do, but it seems there’s a fair amount of distance along an axis of which is prioritized (and as Omar Lizardo quipped on twitter, we might all be wrong about what it takes to make sociology a more powerful discipline overall).

That’s basically what I said at ASA, with a little editing. I have one other thought about what’s going on that I want to say here: I think part of what is happening is actually about features of arguing on twitter, in two ways. First, unclear referents – from conversations in DMs with folks on the “science!” side, they’re mostly not thinking of existing sociological research they think is unacceptably tainted with too much social justice value motivation, but they’re worried about us becoming a discipline where the only kind of research that’s valued is work that advances radical social change. But when a lot of folks see people saying “let’s be more a science!” they (understandably) see it as an attack on their in-progress or published work that they know is part of a (possibly radical) social justice project (and that is ALSO good science by pretty much any standard we might come up with). Because people are (understandably) reluctant to publicly point out research they think is bad (I asked, no one bit – well, one person mentioned one book and then deleted the tweet), we don’t know what we’re talking about. Another referent issue is whether we’re talking about research at all, actually – at least one “science!” person told me they think our research journals are mostly publishing good research, but they *are* worried that too much undergraduate teaching is framed as sociology = social justice, and that they are especially concerned that ASA takes normative/political stands that align with members’ values, but aren’t obviously based on sociological knowledge.

I think on that front it’s worth thinking through Matt Desmond’s Evicted. No one, to my knowledge, has denounced his work as unacceptably scholar-activist-y, even though it’s clearly driven by his values (poor people shouldn’t get screwed by their landlords) and is part of what appears to be an active project of working towards greater social justice of the “people should be treated fairly” variety.

I think the other twitter/social media thing that is happening is about audience. I think the “Science!” folks broadly agree that objectivity is at best a good goal, etc, but they’re worried if we SAY it’s only a goal we’ll be taken less seriously; Phillip Cohen at ASA pointed out though that there’s evidence that what actually convinces people about science is often actually scientists admitting we’re fallible.

I could go on and on about this topic, I find it really fascinating. Among the things I *could* have done in this post, but didn’t:

  • Clearly staked out what I think the sides actually are, whether there are really just two, etc – I’m not sure about this. Omar Lizardo called them “splitter and lumpers” which is pretty good, though.
  • Clearly stated my own approach to the relationship between my values and my research, between how I think about activism or advocacy and their role in sociology, or vice versa. That’s a whole other essay but I will say I teach my students that good research requires not already knowing for sure what you’ll find, and that if you just want to point out things you already know are normatively bad or harmful, I don’t think that’s what sociology is about. I don’t know if any sociologists think that IS what it’s about (see above), but some of my students do, and I try to shift them towards research that asks questions and is open to the answers.
  • So many other things! But I said I would post something by Monday, and it’s now the end of Tuesday, so I am stopping now.

class and culture conference

The following is an invitation from Annette Lareau to a Class & Culture Mini-Conference at the Eastern Sociological Association meetings this year. She has organized a dinner along with the conference. This would be a great opportunity, especially for students! The dinner information is in the comments below.

January 20, 2018

Dear ESS Class and Culture attendee,

Anyone attending ESS is welcome to attend the sessions for the ESS Class and Culture Mini Conference. There is not any special registration; you can just show up to the sessions. If you would like to attend the dinner, however, you need to register in advance.

All are welcome to join an informal dinner to continue the conversation including those attending the Class and Culture Mini Conference. The conference begins Friday morning and ends early Saturday afternoon. The dinner will be on Friday February 23rd, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.

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not on the bernie train

In a discussion about politics with some students this week–outside of structured class activities!–several were surprised to learn that I wasn’t a fan of Bernie Sanders. How could a sociologist not support Bernie, they wondered (I should have pointed out that some great sociologists actually hold conservative convictions; next time, Gabe!).

This came up in the context of Sanders’ ignominious return to the news following his endorsement of anti-choice Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. He defended his position by saying:

The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about

And he’s right! But, he then went on to say

If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.

And I get off the Bernie train at this station. The man who can’t take the criticism of purity built his campaign on the idea of purity on economic populism of the kind that would help white, male workers in formerly union-heavy industries. Asking people to accept an anti-choice candidate as a means to an end for pro-choice policies doesn’t ring a note too discordant from finding wealthy supporters to fund support campaigns of politicians elected to upend economic inequality. Talking to Goldman Sachs should disqualify a Democratic candidate from consideration, but actively supporting an anti-choice candidate should not.

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the polls are alright

I am going to take Dan’s invitation to consider one aspect of the polls that I don’t see getting a lot of attention right now, but that I think could be important: undecided voters could explain much of the polling error being discussed.

Oliver Tacke, FlickrIn other words, I don’t think that the polls were that wrong. I know that this view puts me in the minority, even among people who think about these things for a living. What we have, I think, is a failure to really consider how we should interpret polls given two very unpopular candidates and a possible “Shy Tory” effect where Trump supporters reported being undecided to pollsters.

Let’s break down the vote share by breaking it into its component parts: Continue reading “the polls are alright”

social defense systems

I started teaching Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy in my class last week. Despite being a mathematician by training (she goes by the moniker mathbabe online), the book makes a strong case for the importance of social science generally and sociology in particular.

O’Neil looks ouweaponsmath-r4-6-06t at the land of big data and its various uses in algorithms and sees problems everywhere. Quantitative and statistical principles are badly abused in the service of “finding value” in systems, whether this be through firing bad teachers, targeting predatory loans, reducing the risk of employee turnover by using models that incorporate past mental health issues, or designing better ads to sniff out for-profit university matriculates. Wherever we look, she shows, we can find mathematical models used to eke out gains for their creators. Those gains destroy the lives of those affected by algorithms that they sometimes don’t even know exist.

Unlike treatises that declare algorithms universally bad or always good, O’Neil asks three questions to determine whether we should classify a model as a “weapon of math destruction”:

  1. Is the model opaque?
  2. Is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives?
  3. Can it scale?

These questions actually eliminate the math entirely. By doing so, O’Neil makes it possible to study WMDs by their characteristics not their content. One need not know anything about the internal workings of the model at all to attempt to answer these three empirical questions. More than any other contribution that O’Neil makes, defining the opacity-damage-scalability schema to identify WMDs as social facts makes the book valuable.

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a dangerous lack of skepticism

Last weekend, Slate announced the use of social scientific tools similar to those used by campaigns themselves to anticipate results over the course of the day. Slate rejects, in editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s words, the “paternalistic” stance of the traditional media embargo on publishing results during Election Day.

Slate is making a bold move by ignoring the embargo, but in doing so they also appear to be ignoring the flaws of data science and a sacrosanct principle of both social science and journalism: skepticism.

Image by Robert Palmer via Flickr

Continue reading “a dangerous lack of skepticism”