academic hot takes

A post over at orgtheory reminded me of this nice bit by Jeff Goodwin:

Hypothesis number one: For any book to become widely cited today, let alone to influence how people think, it must be reducible to a few general and easily grasped formulations. Many texts are “formulated,” furthermore, not by their authors, but by more or less officially designated readers (call them DRs), including reviewers for academic journals. Books that cannot be formulaically summarized by DRs, accurately or otherwise, are unlikely to generate much discussion, let alone change minds.

The process of “formulation” typically results in simplifications, half-truths, and outright errors, particularly when DRs are ill-disposed toward a particular text. The more complex the text, moreover, the more simplification is essential if the “formulation” that is a prerequisite of broad influence is to occur at all. Ensuing “discussions” and “debates” about a particular text often build upon these simplifications, half-truths, and errors. Before long, scholars can be “influenced” by these “debates,” or even participate in them without having read the text supposedly at issue; one need simply familiarize oneself with the formulaic “summaries” and “discussions” of it that DRs have produced.

Hypothesis number two: No book can claim to be “influential” today until large numbers of people who have not read it (or have not read beyond its introduction) have strong opinions about it. In fact, some of the most frequently cited books are, paradoxically, not very widely (or closely) read at all.

Hypothesis number three: A text that actually had to be carefully read by large numbers of people in order to be “understood” would never become “influential.”

Goodwin, Jeff. 1996. “How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol.” Contemporary Sociology  293-295.

what are we measuring when we measure behavior? elementary school edition

Organizations (and/or authority figures within organizations) are frequently called on to make consequential decisions about individuals. These decisions range from who to admit to a selective undergraduate institution or graduate program to which mortgage applications to accept to which prisoners should be paroled. The organizations and individuals have at their disposal varying kinds of information, which are perceived as being differently valuable in making those decisions. For example, in undergraduate admissions, we may know a student’s GPA, their SAT score, their class rank, the extracurriculars they participated in, and so on. Some schools may value SAT highly, others GPA, etc. In the past few decades, there has been a decided turn towards looking at behavioral information as particularly valuable across a variety of fields, including finance (the turn to behavioral credit scoring, which relies primarily on variables like past defaults and late payments) and criminal justice.
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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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piketty on piketty: it’s not just r > g

Thomas Piketty has just published an interesting follow-up to his epic Capital in the 21st Century (a book important enough to already have its own wikipedia page). Perhaps the most surprising claim he makes is that commentators have put too much emphasis on the role of “r > g” in his analysis of the dynamics of inequality:

… the way in which I perceive the relationship between r > g and wealth inequality is often not well-captured in the discussion that has surrounded my book…

I do not view r > g as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century, or for forecasting the path of income and wealth inequality in the 21st century.

For an example of that overemphasis, see this delightful Colbert Report t-shirt:

r g t

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the normative aspects of positive thinking

I love economics papers with “optimal” in the title. When I was first starting out in sociology, I planned to study immigration, remittances, and development. For a literature review I was working on, I spent some time reading about the economics of migration. I came across a gem titled Optimal Migration: A World Perspective. The first line of the abstract struck me as a brilliant example of “the normative aspects of positive thinking” – the way that economics sometimes emphasizes the normative conclusions of seemingly positive models. Here it is:

We ask what level of migration would maximize world welfare.

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the imitation game

Quote from Alan Turing that I came across while reading Lee and Wagenmakers’s Bayesian Cognitive Modeling:

“I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extra-sensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz. telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psycho-kinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.”

assessing james coleman

From Sharon McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die, about Bayesian statistics (versus frequentism):

The chasm between the two schools of statistics crystallized for [Howard] Raiffa when Columbia professors discussed a sociology student named James Coleman. During his oral examination Coleman seemed “confused and fuzzy . . . clearly not of Ph.D. quality.” But his professors were adamant that he was otherwise dazzling. Using his new Bayesian perspective, Raiffa argued that the department’s prior opinion of the candidate’s qualities was so positive that a one-hour exam should not substantially alter their views. Pass him, Raiffa urged. Coleman became such an influential sociologist that he appeared on both the cover of Newsweek and page one of the New York Times.

Bonus for those interested in standardized tests: How did Raiffa end up as in a position to evaluate James Coleman?  The same book tells his academic origin story: Continue reading

one book, one _____

My favorite contemporary novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the selection for One Book, One Chicago. I was surprised when I heard this, because I thought, “But… it’s a novel.”

I realized that I’d just assumed that the trajectory of One Book, One Northwestern was a general phenomenon, where the history has been:

2014-5: Whistling Vivalidi, Claude Steele (non-fiction)
2013-4: Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow (non-fiction)
2012-3: Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz (non-fiction)
2011-2: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
2010-1: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder (non-fiction)
2009-10: Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman (non-fiction)
2008-9: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quarmmen (non-fiction)
2007-8: Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin (novel)
2006-7: Othello, Shakespeare (play)
2005-6, Antigone, Sophocles (play)

Most obviously, a sharp movement away from literature. Do other universities have a One Book program? Has their trajectory been like Northwestern’s, or have they remained more literary-focused?

the personal touch

I got a video message from Northwestern’s football coach about renewing my season tickets:

The fun part is, if you change the 090 in the URL, you can see the greetings to other first names. As of now, it goes up to 108. He certainly does a better job than I would at being engaged through each of these different messages.

7th annual fiscal sociology grad student workshop

For the past six years, Isaac Martin, Monica Prasad, and Ajay Mehrotra have worked tirelessly to promote interest in “fiscal sociology” (the historical and sociological study of public finances, especially taxes). In addition to producing a great reader and publishing fantastic books on various aspects of the topic, they have also organized a one-day workshop each year for graduate students interested in fiscal sociology. As usual, the workshop will be held the day before SSHA (this year in Baltimore on November 11th), with a slightly different cast of instructors. Below is the full call for participants and details. Note that participation is (partially) funded, so it’s a great way for graduate students to get an introduction to SSHA.

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arum and roksa, “aspiring adults adrift”

I am a fan of Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa’s first book, Academically Adrift, which examined predictors of growth in critical thinking skills during the first two years of college. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, Arum and Roksa follow the same cohort of students into the first couple of years after graduation.

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how long should asa papers be allowed to be?

My last post noted that ASA changed its rule from having a 20 page limit to having now saying 15-35 pages. I think this is a good change. Fabio dissents:

Dissent here: I oppose paper bloat. Thus, I always praised the 20 page limit because it forced people to get to the point. You only have 15 minutes to present, for crying out loud.

My view on this is that I would never write a paper just so I can present at ASA, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to, either, except maybe people who are in positions where they have no interest in publishing but are really desperate for travel funds. In my preferred world, ASA would allow people to submit slide decks, as well as something much more promissory than a full paper if it’s going to be due over 7 months before the conference. Specifying “working/draft paper” is definitely progress.

In the end, ASA does require papers. In that world, I’m for whatever minimizes the extent to which people end up doing work that diverges from the paper they are writing for publication, simply for the purpose of pleasing the one person that will end up looking at the abstract and possibly skimming the paper (i.e., the ASA session organizer). The problem with the 20-page rule is naive folks would spend irrational amounts of time cutting or revising longer papers in order to meet the page limit. This makes no sense.

asa rule change?

ASA rule for submissions:

15-35 page draft paper/working paper either converted to a PDF file or prepared as a Word, or WordPerfect document stored locally and ready for uploading.

This is new, right? Didn’t it used to be 20 pages, without anything to imply it shouldn’t be a fully complete paper?

My preferred belief is that this is a new change and that, regardless of whatever story exists about its provenance, blog & Twitter whinging helped bring it about (e.g., here). But I’m open to counter-facts and counter-narratives.

In any event, regardless of why, kudos to the organization for the change.

lizardo, “the end of theorists”

Omar Lizardo just posted his Lewis Coser award lecture “The End of Theorists: The Relevance, Opportunities, and Pitfalls of Theorizing in Sociology Today” as a delightful pdf pamphlet. Omar argues that theory today suffers from several structural problems, including the lack of a well-functioning hierarchy of modes of doing theory, the deinstitutionalization of “theorist” as a position in the field (as more and more programs now assign theory courses to specialists in other, empirical fields who only dabble in theory), and a lack of new, high quality theory to import from France and Germany. The solution for theory’s woes, Omar argues, has two parts:

The first is a move towards institutionalizing a new set of “positions” for the increasingly uprooted theory people floating around in the field. I will propose one model for such a position based on the role that philosophers play in the disciplinary collective known as cognitive science. Here the theorist is a generalist that is both familiar with the nitty-gritty empirical problems of the different fields and who uses a selective, generalist strategy to provide conceptual solutions to those problems.

The other productive pathway that I see opening up (and here I have been inspired by the recent work of Richard Swedberg) is a revival of interest in the notion of theorizing as a process and as an acquired skill. My recommendation will be that we should begin to move away from our obsession with theory as a finished product or as canon of works and towards a conception of theorizing as a creative activity.

The whole thing is short and witty, and highly recommended if you’re interested in the state of sociological theory today.

beckieball and the study of not-quite-elite selected groups

Beckieball is a new sport sweeping the country. Beckieball performance is the result of three things: height, skills, and desire, all of which are uncorrelated with one another. Let’s fire up Stata and show what the correlation matrix would look like for the population:

             |  perform   height   skills   desire
     perform |   1.0000
      height |   0.5751   1.0000
      skills |   0.5751  -0.0072   1.0000
      desire |   0.5774  -0.0000  -0.0005   1.0000

Unfortunately, scouts cannot really assess desire well, so when they are picking players for professional beckieball leagues, their assessment is just based on equal parts height and skills. What happens?
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