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What is at stake for Sociology in Walmart?

Much has been discussed about the Walmart case and ASA Amicus Brief in the postings and comments on the orgtheory [with subsequent posts 1, 2] and scatterplot blogs. Little, however, has been said about the literature review in the ASA Amicus Brief, though it spans a little more than half the main body of the Brief. Some have even suggested that the only thing the Brief does is take the position that the methods that Bill uses are those of science and sociology in particular. Clearly it does much more. [In providing the analysis below, I want to be quite clear that I am not making any claims about what people’s motives were in writing and submitting the ASA Brief.  Laura Beth has been quite clear about hers and I believe her.]

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Written by Chris Winship

May 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Goals and a Few Answers

I spent last night reading through all the comments on orgtheory and scatterplot. My key goal in writing my initial post was to get a discussion going about the role of sociology in the courts and the particular problems involved. I guess I succeeded! My interest in the Walmart case was only secondary and I discussed it, the ASA Amicus Brief, and Bill’s expert report because it was current, was potentially important, and exemplified many of the issues that I thought needed to be discussed. I did not write it to attack the ASA as Sally Hillsman has accused me of in an email to the Council. Truthfully, I do not know enough about what was done to know whether I would believe it to be unproblematic or not. If the Council, the ASA members’ elected representatives, had the time to seriously consider the matter, read the materials involved, appreciated the issues, and voted to submit an Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court, then I think I and others should not complain. Of course the Mitchell et al. paper does attack the ASA brief, but on scientific, not procedural grounds. [I should also note that Sally’s claim that I offered Laura Beth the opportunity to publish her reply to Mitchell et al. in SMR and withdrew that offer is factually incorrect. I withdrew the offer for her to write a quite different paper, for quite defensible reasons. All that said, what will go in the SMR special issue is still evolving.]

In reading through all the comments last night I was amazed by the number times various people said I said particular things (using their words, not mine), and claimed that I thought various things (with no access that I am aware of to my mind). Amy’s post is perhaps the extreme example of this. In an actual court proceeding this may be appropriate. I don’t think it is appropriate for blogging, assuming the goal should be to try to understand each others’ thinking–why they believe what they think is reasonable–and that by hearing what each other thinks, we might improve and deepen our own thinking. Let’s not put words in people’s mouths or thoughts in their heads. If a position someone has taken is important for a point you want to make then quote the person. If you believe someone thinks a particular thing and that is why they are taking the position they do, then ask them whether that is what they think. More generally, as Laura Beth has asked, let’s keep it as diplomatic as possible. In doing so, this will vastly increase the likelihood of having a constructive dialogue.

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Written by Chris Winship

May 25, 2011 at 12:55 am

Walmart and the ASA (a guest post by Chris Winship)

Note: Chris is a professor of sociology at Harvard University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and, since 1995, he has edited Sociological Methods and Research, which is a peer-reviewed scholarly methodology journal. SMR content is also available on the SMRblog.

The current employment discrimination case against Walmart raises the important question of whether social science, and sociology in particular, can effectively participate in court cases and at the same time maintain its scientific integrity. If the answer is yes, there is then the further question of what criteria need to be met for scientific integrity to be maintained. These are important questions requiring discussion, even debate. But first some history.

By early fall, if not sooner, the Supreme Court will make a key decision in the largest employment discrimination suit in history: Dukes v. WalmartOral arguments in the case were heard on March 29. The suit itself, involving a class of as many as 1.5 million women, alleges that Walmart has systematically discriminated against women in its salary and promotion decisions. Potentially, billions of dollars in damages are at stake. The question before the Court, however, is not whether Walmart in fact discriminated against its employees but rather whether such a large case, involving women working in varied circumstances in thousands of different stores and involving different supervisors can be thought to constitute a single class and thus whether the class should be certified.

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Written by Chris Winship

May 18, 2011 at 12:10 am

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