stiglitz on inequality: have economics, sociology, and political science converged?

The newest issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Politics and Social Science is out and the theme is inequality, especially intergenerational mobility. Several pieces caught my eye, including a short reflection on Ken Prewitt highlighting how little we know about the influence of social science on policymaking (including the institutionalized production of data, about which I have written a little). Prewitt is much more optimistic than many scholars about the potential for scientific research, and even social science, to influence policymaking in the present moment.

Also in the issue is a talk given by Joseph Stiglitz on inequality in the United States. Stiglitz has been writing about inequality on and off for his entire career. This talk struck me for two reasons: first, for how much it highlights the rise of top incomes as the hallmark of increased inequality and second, for how Stiglitz (and by moderate extension, some subset of mainstream economists) sounds a lot like mainstream sociology and political science in his diagnosis of inequality.

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I found myself becoming the guy I had always wanted to avoid being: That Guy, With The Bad Back. Fall 2013 I had some horrible back problems, and I was pro-active about it with a combination of buying a better chair, doing yoga, and being sure to jog every day (doable because I was on sabbatical). All this really helped, which isn’t to say there weren’t still problems.

I decided I could do better, though, and when I got back to the United States I made an appointment with a personal trainer, and said that I really wanted to work on strengthening my core, which I understood to be key to minimizing back pain. The result of this one session with a personal trainer–which for the love of god involved doing deadlifts for the first time since high school–was a full-on back injury that led me to my first experiences with a physical therapist. I had to start bringing a mini-foam-roller to meetings just so I could bear to sit through them.

Skip ahead. I am now happy to report that my back feels great: no pain whatsoever, so better than it has felt in a year and a half and likely much longer. My secret? I had an emergency appendectomy, and as a result have not exercised one bit in five weeks and have had intentionally to take it easy with everything else. It’s also been a great month in terms of getting writing and reading done.

There is some lesson in all this, but I am having trouble figuring out what.

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.

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hot sociology, 2014 edition

It is somewhat boring that my annual list of the most cited works in sociological journals always puts Bourdieu’s Distinction at the top. That was going to be the case again this year, so I decided to change the sorting algorithm to measure “hotness”.

An article’s hotness is the number of cites it received in sociological journals this year divided by the log of the number of years since publication. This means that a work that was published in 2010 and cited 18 times in 2014, like Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace scores slightly higher than something that was cited 34 times last year but published in 2000, like Putnam’s Bowling Alone. I tried different variations of what to put in the numerator and denominator, but this method 1) had the most pleasing mix of new and old things and 2) knocked Distinction all the way down to #2.

So, the 63 hottest articles in sociology last year were:

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my experience with sociological science

I published my second paper in Sociological Science last week (first paper here). I’ve had a great experience with them both times: what they say about quick, no-bulls**t turnaround is absolutely true. Two things that I might not have anticipated about publishing there:

1. Despite the stuff about how the journal evaluates papers and doesn’t mentor them, for both papers, we still got useful feedback in the process of acceptance that led to revisions that strengthened the papers. It wasn’t very much feedback, and certainly not the laundry list of this-and-that one gets from reviewers, but it was a couple of incisive points that were correct and which I found myself wanting to address.

2. I don’t know who SocSci found as their copy editor, but the person is crazy good. For the paper that just came out, it was thoroughly copy edited with a lot of little things getting caught or changed, and yet I did not do one single STET. My usual experience with copy-editors is that they are either so superficial that they may as well be a bot, or they are intrusive in ways that lead to a lot of annoyance and STET-ing.

I’m very excited about Sociological Science more generally, and I’m pleased it is doing so well. I fell in love with the idea from the whatever was the first draft of the mission statement that I read. What I loved was that the statement offered a number of different innovations, but they were all guided by a single priority: what would a sociology journal look like if pushing social inquiry forward was the only thing that mattered?

saturday is s-cat-terday

Suffice it to say, it’s been a rough week. Thankfully, today we can distract ourselves with the internet’s biggest holiday. I came across a particular image that seemed worth sharing here:

A comfortable spread

A comfortable spread

Image via EconLolCats. May your Caturday be a chance to relax and regroup.

at a loss

I am shocked, stunned, and maddened at the fact that Eric Gardner’s murderer will not even be prosecuted for a crime that was caught on camera. I am also deeply worried about the power of the state in a society where the message to police officers becomes anything that happens on the job will not be prosecuted under the law. You might lose your badge, you might lose your job, but we — as a society — will legally condone whatever you do.

I am not a person to typically denounce the tyranny of the state. In fact, I tend to believe that most problems can be addressed by state action. But this is a systemic flaw that must be addressed. If it doesn’t, it not only hurts those affected by police violence, but it sows mistrust in police and leads people to back non-state actors with their own incentives. Paramilitary violence will further escalate the situation if officers of the law are not held to account.

I am struggling with how to talk with my students today about all of this. It is our last class meeting and I had planned for the last day to be a working day for their final assignment. Apropos of the conversation on policy and agency, I feel like this needs to be addressed. I need to provide them with some way to see how they fit in this picture. Any ideas would be most welcomed.

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So much self-loathing in sociology, so many different diagnoses as to why. Overall, it gets frankly tiresome, even though I find particular sociologists’ particular (parting?) shots interesting. The latest: Orlando Patterson has an essay on “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant” in today’s Chronicle. I thought his best lines were toward the end:

The first is the Garfinkel rule, mentioned earlier: Never treat your subjects as cultural dopes. If you find yourself struggling to explain away your subjects’ own reasoned and widely held account of what they consider important in explaining their condition, you are up to something intellectually fishy.

The second is this: If you end up with findings that have policy implications that you would never dream of advocating for yourself or your loved ones, be wary of them. A case in point: If you find that neighborhoods have no effects, you should be prepared to do the rational thing and go live in an inner-city neighborhood with its much cheaper real estate, or at least advise your struggling son or daughter searching for an apartment to save by renting there. If the thought offends you, then something stinks.

Anyway, his call for a more “public sociology” is just using the slogan to call for–what I do agree with–sociology that is more connected to social policy. I mean, I like that sociology allows one to think about big-picture questions that don’t always have to come back to policy–indeed, I think that is one of the great privileges of being in our field. Continue reading

annals of very large effect sizes

From Nicholas Kristof’s most recent column in the NYT:

Researchers once showed people sketches of a white man with a knife confronting an unarmed black man in the subway. In one version of the experiment, 59 percent of research subjects later reported that it had been the black man who held the knife.

Does anyone know the study on which this is based?

causes of differences

The other day I read a useful paper about causation, by Kenneth Waters, who is now at the University of Calgary. At least I found it useful. Every so often I’ll make a dive into philosophical literature on causation, and the recurrent problem that I find is that philosophers are generally preoccupied with causation for single events (examples of balls hitting other balls and convoluted assassination schemes) or for big generalizations about classes of events. Meanwhile, sociologists regularly form their causal questions as about differences between groups of persons, as in wanting to explain why whites score higher on standardized tests than blacks or why women live longer than men.

Waters explicitly tries to formulation insights about causation in population terms. As he puts it:

Focusing attention on singleton situations about a single lighting of a match, a single breaking of a vase, or the single catastrophic dropping of a boulder obscures important features of causation. Much light could be shed on causal reasoning by shifting attention to causes in populations.

To get there, he draws a distinction between potential difference makers and actual difference makers. The key move here is the study of actual differences, for which you have to be talking about the causes of multiple outcomes, that is, a population. While potential difference makers are the larger body of causes of an outcome, actual difference makers are the ones for which actual variation in the population in question explains actual variation in the outcome.

tummyache tips

If you find yourself sending the following e-mail to students:

[Student A], [Student B]:

I woke up this morning feeling really sick to my stomach. I thought it was something that would pass, but it hasn't passed yet. So, [A], I'm sorry for being so last minute about this, but the pain is so acute at the moment that I don't think I can walk up to campus to meet. We'll need to reschedule (and [B], if you don't hear more from me, us too). More when this subsides enough that I can think clearer.


You might consider the possibility that it is appendicitis, and that perhaps rather than staring at your monitor thinking “When is this going to pass? I’ve got writing to do!,” you should Uber yourself to the emergency room, stat. Because getting to the emergency room is just the start of a long waiting process to see the doctor, and you can’t get any pain medication before that happens, so by the time that happens you will have exhausted your mental inventory of theistic-like entities from known religions that you can beg and bargain with, should they exist, to make this horribly painful queasy painful pain in your stomach go away? Continue reading


“The single most important piece of advice for the one-on-one meetings you have during a job interview is to LISTEN.”

academic name changes

OW’s post about her problems from not changing her name reminds me of a question that came up last week in Bloomington over lunch. The question concerns women scientists — well, let’s start out by restricting attention to women sociologists — who are placed in tenure-line academic jobs. Some women have publication records in which they publish under one surname, and then later on–say, no earlier than after completion of their PhD–switch and publish under an entirely different surname. Leave the matter of name hyphenation out of this: I’m talking about case where if my CV went from publications as “Jeremy Freese” to publications as, say, “Jeremy McDonald”.

The question: when this happens, how much of the time is it because the woman has gotten married, and how much of the time is it because the woman has gotten divorced? This is in principle an empicial question that has an answer, but I don’t know what the answer is, so I invite your speculation. (Or, if this actually a question with a known answer out there somewhere and somebody wants to offer that, all the better.)

name ghost

One way or another it is looking like it will cost me several hundred dollars and significant aggravation to deal with the fallout of US patriarchy. Back when I was married in 1970, the women’s movement was just kicking in and a summer employer insisted that they could not (would not) pay me unless I signed a form changing to my married name on my social security record. I never got a new card, however, and since that time, the only name I’ve used is my birth name.To do this, in the 1970s I had several times to verbally lie to self-appointed local government monitors of women’s names (marital status was never a question on the written document one was signing) who were insisting that married women must use their husband’s surnames on things like drivers licenses and employment records. Sometimes the courts upheld the patriarchists, sometimes the women. All this dust gradually settled around 1980 and since then married women have been left alone and allowed to use birth names in peace.(All you young-‘uns who are going about changing names willy-nilly for trivial reasons like marriage just make us older women sigh, given all the grief we incurred to avoid it.)

Because many people do change names at marriage, it is very easy to do so. You just drop by your local identity office with marriage papers and poof your name changes. This does not apply, however, if you are caught in the warp of the 1970s. If the SSA persuades itself that the name they have for you is your “legal name,” you must prove that there has been a legal name change. If you are a married women using your birth name you do not, of course, have such a court order, because you never changed your name. You are just dealing with the fallout of strong arm patriarchal bullying from the 1970s that gives many married women from that era an inconsistent set of names.

SSA knows who I am. I have a comprehensive identity record. They know my birth name, they can see my lifetime payroll records, they have my marriage certificate. They know what happened. There is no dispute about the facts. But they claim to be incapable of correcting their records to match reality without a court order. They say this is part of the heightened scrutiny on identity with e-verify. There are activists pointing out that this system disproportionately affects women. My lawyer says I should not have to pay her to do this for me, and I’m going to try one  more time on my own before handing it over to her.

I’m pretty mad but if I have to I can pay the money to get this straightened out. If I have to, I’ll get the court order. But as my friends say, “what are poor women supposed to do?”

transparency as a matter of research ethics

Apparently APSA has actually made a step toward open science as part of their ethical guidelines. According to a recent paper in Science:

The American Political Science Association in 2012 adopted guidelines that made it an ethical obligation for researchers to “facilitate the evaluation of their evidence-based knowledge claims through data access, production transparency, and analytic transparency.”

My understanding is that the ASA ethical guidelines are still stuck on the idea that people should get around to sharing data after they’ve finished all the articles they might want to write from a paper, which as a practical matter often means “never.”

Any plans afoot to modify the ASA code of ethics?


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