Category Archives: science

prestige trumps quality in faculty hiring? not so fast

This article (Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore. “Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks”) has been making the rounds lately. The article uses a network method to extract prestige rankings from the set of graduate degrees and faculty hires. It shows “that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.”

Blog posts, tweets, and stories about the article (e.g., this one from the Monkey Cage) have mostly picked up on the idea that the fact that prestigious departments generally hire Ph.D.s from other prestigious departments must mean that “academia is not a meritocracy.” While I would certainly not claim that academia is a meritocracy, I don’t think the Clauset et al. paper demonstrates that.

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reflexive anti-geneticism

This is my contribution to the ongoing symposium on genetics,race, and sociological theory as well as its twin on that other blog. A quick disclaimer: I was in graduate school with J. Shiao, lead author of the paper being discussed, and we talk occasionally at conferences.

My view of the original paper is that its contribution is real but quite modest in the scheme of theory. The best way to read it is as a social-constructionist “friendly amendment” to constructivism’s tacit, yet stubborn, insistence that there is no biological basis for racial categorization. Genetic information can be used “to distinguish race/ethnicity from the existence of genetic clusters” (emphasis mine). Shiao et al. suggest that constructivist approaches to race need not cling to a strong no-genetic-clustering claim in order to maintain most of the findings of constructivism (“In sum, relatively little of the empirical explanations made by sociologists of race/ethnicity require the claim of biological nonreality traditionally associated with racial constructionism.”). In short, race is a

social reality that is historical, processual, stratified, and analytically multilevel but that is also entangled with biological inputs inherited from the geographic distribution of humans in genetic watersheds over the past 50,000 years.

While I’m no fan of genetic essentialism, I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in the Shiao et al. article, and overall I find the critiques in the special issue quite disappointing because by and large they respond reflexively to something else instead of engaging the article’s actual contents. I actually think the most important criticism of Shiao et al. is that it’s not really all that important of a finding: the idea that minor, generally meaningless, and ancient genetic variations produce phenotypes that then become inputs to the social construction of race and ethnicity is a minor correction to social constructionism. It becomes important enough for an article in ST because of the sheer symbolic importance of race and the reflexive anti-geneticism in the field. And the character of much of the responses provide further evidence that the objections are to the symbolic affront of the article instead of to its content.

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check out rodney benson’s challenge to ‘new descriptivism’

In case you missed it, Rodney Benson has an excellent piece here, delivered as a response on a panel at the Qualitative Political Communication preconference. It’s well worth the read, in part because the case he makes deserves to be considered and incorporated in many areas of sociology well beyond communication research. It’s also refreshing to see substantive, synthetic, and critical points raised in a panel response — #ASA14 discussants, read, consider, and emulate! Continue reading

talk may be cheap, but meaning is pricey

For those who haven’t yet seen it, there’s a very interesting article by Colin Jerolmack and our own Shamus Khan, along with critiques and rejoinder. The article, “Talk is Cheap,” examines the fact that what people say is not the same as what they do (the problem of “Attitude-Behavior Consistency,” or ABC). They argue that ethnography is therefore the better way to ascertain behavior because ethnographers actually observe behavior itself instead of actors’ often-inaccurate accounts of behavior.  And since sociologists are held to be concerned primarily with social action — an assumption I’ll address below — ethnography (along with, by the way, audit studies such as Quillian and Pager’s) is the better approach.

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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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beyond the existence proof

In response to Fabio’s defense of nonrepresentative sampling, Sam Lucas sent his paper, “Beyond the Existence Proof,” published last year. Fabio mentions Lucas’s article in his follow-up, but doesn’t really address the claims in the paper. I hadn’t seen it before Sam sent it, but after reading it I think it’s really smart and deserves attention in methods classes and elsewhere.

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elysium and the fact/value distinction

I saw the new Matt Damon movie, Elysium, this summer. I loved the prior movie by the same director (Neill Bloemkamp), District 9, which is a dystopian alien-visitation movie wrapped up in an extended allegory for apartheid.  Like District 9Elysium has an explicit political message along with plenty of violence, action, and gore (all of which I confess to liking!).

To me, though, Elysium was disappointing in its political/theoretical content for one of the reasons I am troubled by Phil Gorski’s approach to transcending the fact/value distinction:

Social science is not (entirely) value free or ethically natural. Instead, it is axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom. This is not to say that social sciences provide ready answers to policy questions like “is proportional representation better than first past the post?” Those are of a different order. Nor is it to deny that justice must be part of a social ethics, either.

WARNING: the remainder of the post contains a SPOILER, so if you haven’t seen Elysium but plan to you may want to stop reading here.

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is obesity a problem?

I started this post as a reply to the OrgTheory thread on obesity but it got long enough I decided to move it here.

With all due respect, I think the claim that “obesity is not the problem” is overstated. I suspect that this overstatement is due in part to medical sociology’s tendency to infer from the “social construction of <condition>” that <condition> is not really real (see here for more on that). (Quick disclaimer: I have not yet read Abigail Saguy’s What’s Wrong With Fat?, though I hope to soon.)
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aaup new report on irbs and academic freedom

AAUP has released a new report, the first in five years, on restrictions posted by the IRB system on academic freedom. The report is here.  A couple of key points:

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could we prevent some scientific retractions?

Fabio Rojas and others have been discussing retractions over on our buttoned-up nemesis, and making the excellent point that the presence of scientific retractions is good for science. However, it can only be good for science insofar as bad or even falsified science takes place to begin with. Continue reading

neuro folly: the quest for biological bases for politics

The sociological fad for seeking straightforward biological bases for complex social phenotypes has spread in recent years to political science. A recent collection of articles and blog posts rehashes the rhetoric that garnered widespread criticism in sociology. Essentially the scholarship establishes an entirely noncontroversial position–that biological influences on political ideology are “nonzero”–and spins this into the much broader, and indefensible, claim that inter-person variation in biology is (a) unidirectionally causal; and (b) a significant source of variation in political ideology. Continue reading

irbs, mission creep, and prior restraint

I am beginning a new thread here to avoid threadjacking the other conversation going on about the relationship between COI and IRBs.

Fabio writes:

How far do we let IRBs go before we actively resist? If the IRB decided they needed to see my medical records, should I just give it to them?


IRBs were initially designed to manage risk related medical research. Now they try to govern social science research as well (which is ok in my view). But they also find it fit to judge whether something is real science, whether people can be paid by researchers, and all sorts of other activities. …. The institution of the IRB has grown enormously in ways that were not anticipated by anyone.

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It’s humbling to go to the library every once in a while. Standing in the stacks reminds you of all the things you don’t know – regardless of whether you think of these as the things you have left to learn, the things you’ll never know, or the things that others don’t know either so you’re clearly not all that inferior. If you’re too lazy busy to walk to the library, watching this video might suffice.

Edited to add: Apparently BBC blocked the video. UK readers are still able to see it (part of the “Super Smart Animals” program) here.

blood pressure, the slavery hypothesis, and social construction

My wife is a physician, and like many doctors was taught in medical schools that African Americans are susceptible to hypertension, and particularly salt-sensitive hypertension, as a result of genetic selection through conditions during the middle passage. I raised this possibility in chatting with Liana Richardson, a postdoc here at UNC, about her very interesting work  on hypertension as a biomarker for stress over the life course, and in particular as a marker for high stress among African Americans. Her response was very interesting, and illustrates an example of cross-disciplinary information flows.

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on the value of religious experience to sociology

Krippendorf asks why I suggest:

I think lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist.

The short answer is that religious experience is an amazingly widespread social phenomenon, and it has a sui generis quality to it that makes it difficult to explain without some sort of experiential link. Continue reading


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