Archive for the ‘books’ Category
For seventy five years, Harvard University has conducted a longitudinal study of 269 men who graduated in 1938. It’s an attempt to learn, in detail, about the factors that might contribute to a good life. Business Insider has a nice summary of a new book, Triumphs of Experience, that presents the results of the study. A few take home points:
- Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.” Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives; it was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression (which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it); and—together with associated cigarette smoking—it was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death.
- Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter. I assume that it doesn’t matter for the types of life course outcomes social scientists measure (employment, health, happiness, marriage).
- Relationships matter, a lot: “Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.” and “Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.”
- Dad matters as well: “warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75—whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”
The formula for a good life: no alcohol or smoking; be nice too people, especially your kids; and you’re probably good enough to get what you want out of life.
In this last post, I’ll discuss why I fundamentally disagree with the argument presented in Reinventing Evidence. There are two reasons. First, I agree with Andrew Perrin that Biernacki wants us to embrace a textual holism. One of Biernacki’s major arguments is that by isolating a single word, or passage, we are losing the entire meaning of the text. Thus, interpretation is the only valid approach to text. Coding and quantification is invalid. Perrin points out that lots of things be isolated. For example, if I see the n-word, I can say that, on the average, the text is employing racist language.
Second, Biernacki does not seem to consider cultural competence. In other words, human beings are creatures that can often reliably capture the meaning of utterances made by other humans from the same cultural group. Of course, I am talking about things like every day speech or short and simple writings like newspaper articles. More complex texts, like novels, will have networks or dense layering of meaning that go beyond a human’s native capacity for communication. These probably could be coded, but it would require intense training and an elaborate theory of text, which sadly we don’t have in sociology. But my major point remains. There’s a lot of fairly simple text that can be coded. If you believe that people can accurately convey the meaning of a text or label some aspect of it because they are “native speakers” of the culture, then coding is a valid thing to do. To believe otherwise, is to assume a world of solipsistic culture where every act of utterance requires a stupendous level of interpretation on the part of the audience.
So to wrap things up. I give credit to Biernacki for making us think hard about the quality of coding which is lacking. The fact that science is presented in ritual is fair, but doesn’t address whether a particular procedure produces valid measurement or inference. And I think that the view that texts are essentially uncodable is in error.
Speaking of branding with kitties, I have enjoyed academic work that incorporates the iconic Hello Kitty. As a grad student, I attended a conference featuring presentations on kawaii (“cute”) culture. One observant panelist noted that what appeared to be Hello Kitty on the conference posters was actually her twin sister Mimmy, distinguished by a yellow rather than red bow.
Hello Kitty has also graced the covers of at least two American academic books. The book cover of an edited anthology on manners and gender in Japan features Hello Kitty and her not-often-seen boyfriend Daniel both reaching for the same piece of sushi. A fresh-off-the-press book on globalization showcases an over-sized version of Hello Kitty about to trample a metropolis.
Want to share your own favorite cultural icons analyzed from an academic perspective? Put them in the comments.
To summarize: Richard Biernacki claims that coding textual materials (books, speech, etc) is tantamount to committing gross logical errors that mislead social scientists. Overall, I think this point is wrong but I think that Reinventing Evidence does a great service to qualitative research by showing how coding of texts might be critiqued and evaluated. In other words, ironically, by critiquing prior work on text coding, Biernacki draws our attention to the fact that qualitative research can be subjected to the same standards as quantitative research.
What do I mean? Well, a big problem with qualitative research is that it is very hard to verify and replicate. It is rare when ethographers go to the same field site, or informants are re-interviewed by others. A lot of the strength of quantitative research lies in the fact that other researchers can replicate prior results. For example, if I claim that party ID is correlated with gay marriage attitudes in the GSS, another researcher can download the same data and check the work. If they think the GSS made a mistake in collecting the data, a second survey can be conducted.
Biernacki, in trying to prove that coding qualitative data is pointless, follows a similar strategy by choosing a few articles of note and then he tries to reproduce the results. For example, he chooses Bearman and Stovel’s “Becoming a Nazi: A Model for Narrative Networks” which appeared in Poetics. The article creates a network out of ideas and themes mentioned from the memoir of a Nazi. Assuming that Biernacki reports his results correctly, he’s persuaded me that we need better standards for coding text. For example, he finds that Bearman and Stovel use an abbreviated version of the memoir – not the whole thing. Big problem. Another issue is how the network of text is interpreted. In traditional social network analysis, centrality is often thought to be a good measure of importance. Biernacki makes the reasonable argument that this assumption is flawed for texts. Very important ideas can become “background,” which means they are coded in a way that results in a low centrality score. This leads to substantive problems. For example, the Nazi mentions anti-semitism briefly, but in important ways. Qualitatively we know it is important, but the coding misses this issue.
Next week, I’ll get to my views on Biernacki’s attack on coding. But for now, I’ll give him credit for drawing my attention to these issues. The problems with the coding of the Nazi memoir point to me that there is more work to be done. We need to first start with a theory of text and then build techniques. If you want to use network analysis, you may have to take into consideration that standard network ideas may not be suitable. That will help us address problems like how to judge a text and the way we code data. That may not be the lesson Biernacki intended, but it’s a good one.
This Spring, our book forum will address Richard Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables. In this initial post, I’ll describe the book and give you my summary judgment. Reinventing Evidence, roughly speaking, claims that numerically coding extended texts is a very, very bad idea. How bad? It is soooo bad that sociologists should just stop coding text and abandon any hope of providing a quantitative or numerical coding of texts or speech. It’s all about interpretation. This is an argument that prevents a much needed integration of the different approaches to sociology, and it deserves a serious hearing.
In support of this point, Biernacki does a few things. He makes an argument about how coding text lacks validity (i.e., associating a number to a text does correctly measure what we want it to measure). Then he spends three chapters going back to well known studies that use content analysis and argues, at varying points, that the coding is misleading, obviously incorrect, or that there were no consistent standard for handling the text or the data.
As a proponent of mixed methods, I was rather dismayed to read this argument. I do not agree that coding of text is a hopeless task and that we should retreat into the interpretive framework of the humanities. There seem to be regularities in speech, and other text, that makes us want to group them together. If you accept that statement, then it follows that a code can be developed. So, on one level I don’t buy into the main argument of the book.
At a more surface level, I think the book does some things rather well. For example, the meat of the book is in replication, which many of us, like Jeremy Freese, have advocated. Biernacki goes back and examines a number of high profile publications that rely on coding texts and finds a lot to be desired.
Next week, we’ll get into some details of the argument. Also, please check out our little buddy blog, Scatterplot. Andrew Perrin will discussing the book and offering his own views.
Yo: I will be in Chicago for the Midwest Sociological Association meeting on Thursday. Want to chat? Hang out? Talk about sociology? I’ll be on a panel discussing The Handbook of Sociology and Human Rights edited by David Brunsma, Keri Smith, and Brian Gran. Pls email/tweet/facebook/smoke signal me.
As I posted earlier, I’ll be presiding over a conversation between George Ritzer and Carmen Sirianni from 3:30-5pm on Fri., March 22, 2013 at ESS in the Whittier Room (4th Flr) of the Boston Park Plaza hotel.
In the past several years, disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina have sparked growing interest in what both conventional and innovative organizations can (and cannot) do given conditions of uncertainty vs. certainty. Both featured scholars’ work cover the limits of particular organizing practices (i.e., Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization), as well as the potential of organized action (i.e., Sirianni’s work on collaborative governance). Thus, I’ve given this particular conversation the broad title “Organizations and Societal Resilience: How Organizing Practices Can Either Inhibit or Enable Sustainable Communities.”
What would you be interested in hearing Ritzer and Sirianni discuss about organizations and society? Please put your qs or comments in the discussion thread.
For those unfamiliar with Ritzer and Sirianni, here is some background about their work:
George Ritzer is best known for his work on McDonaldization and more recently, the spread of prosumption in which people are both producers and consumers.
J. Mike Ryan‘s interview of Ritzer about his McDonaldization work:
J. Mike Ryan’s interview of Ritzer about why we should learn about McDonaldization (corrected link):
Carmen Sirianni is known for his work on democratic governance.
A brief video of Sirianni arguing that citizens should be “co-producers” in building society.
A more extensive video of Sirianni presenting on his book Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Press, 2009).
Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by Amy Binder and Kate Wood, is the latest entry into the growing scholarship on conservative politics in America. They ask a simple question: how do campus environments shape conservative political styles? This is an important question for two reasons. First, there is relatively little research on conservative students. Second, culture depends on organizational environment. How ideas are expressed is affected by where ideas are expressed. Definitely a worthy question for a sociologists.
So what do Binder and Wood discover? They focus on two campuses for their case study – big public West Coast and fancy private East Coast. They choose these campuses because thay have similar high achieving student bodies but the environments are way, way different. West Coast is a huge “multiversity” to use Clark Kerr’s terminology. East Coast is smaller and more intimate. The same type of students tend to be attracted to campus conservative politics (mainly white, fairly comfortable folks) but the environments encourage different expressions.
You might say that there are two habituses at work – the provocateur and the intellectual. In a big impersonal campus, it is very, very hard to project your voice except in a confrontational manner. Thus, West Coast conservative students rely on sensational tactics, like the affirmative action bake sale. Also, West Coast students feel little attachment to the community. Little is lost by being aggressive. In contrast, East Coast encourages all students to feel as if they have a place, even if they admit that most professors are fairly liberal. They don’t feel alienated or embattled, so they feel little hostility toward the campus. Thus, they resort to more intellectual forms of expression that don’t rely on shocking people. The book also has a nice discussion of the larger field of conservative politics and how that affects campus protest.
Overall, a solid book and one that’s essential to studies of campus politics. If I were to criticize the book, I think I’d think a little more about the differences between conservative students and the broader field of conservative intellectuals. This does get mentioned in a few passages that allude to Steve Teles’ book on conservarive legal academia, which we discussed in detail on this blog. The issue is that the world of conservative intellectuals that have influence is more defined by the East Coast intellectual types than the affirmative action shock jocks at West Coast. The consequences are important as we’ve seen with the Tea Party mobilization. Conservative grass roots politics is now dominated by shock jocks, not the well coiffed policy wonks of the Heritage Foundation. More needs to be said about the boundary and links between campus conservatives and this broader network of think thanks, interest groups, and electoral organizations.
The last comment I’ll make is about the inherent irony of much of this stuff. It can be argued that conservative politics at its best is incremental, stodgy, and resistant to radicalism – that it is essentially bourgeois. It retains the hard won lessons of tradition and skepticism of utopia. Then there is some irony that the cultural style of contemporary conservatives is at odds with this ideal. It is loud and obnoxious. It mocks one of society’s most ancient and enduring institutions, the university system, which has nurtured Western culture since the end of the Middle ages. It is skeptical and hostile toward those who are cultured and knowledge. It can’t disentangle potentially insightful criticisms of specific intellectual currents from a loathing of the academic system itself. Perhaps the ultimat lesson is that beneath the talk of tradition and values, there is a rank populism that leaves one ultimately disappointed.
Last week, Teppo commented “The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office,” a book by CBS prof Ray Fisman and editor/writer Tim Sullivan that brings organization theory to a popular audience. This week, I’ll add a few of my own comments to the discussion. Later, Ray and Tim will be contributing to the blog.
In summary, The Org brings to the educated reader an argument about why organizations are important and how they work. It’s about coordination and routinization. Modern life simply requires big tasks that can’t efficiently be done with managers, bosses, and CEOs. It’s the sort of book that you might give someone who is just starting to think about why the social world is the way it is.
The book covers a lot of basic territory in a crisp and easy to grasp way. The book gives great examples of principal agent problems, superstar markets, and the problems of vertical integration. The examples range from the for-profit world, to the military, to churches.
In particular, I enjoyed the chapter on innovation. The issue is that innovation and organization are at odds with each other. Organizations thrive because they can exploit scale and produce the same product over and over. That requires people to obey. In contrast, innovation requires that people diverge from established routine. Rather than give in to a feel good approach to innovation, Fisman and Sullivan sensible point out that the tension between organization and innovation is natural and that it will be solved in different ways. They give good examples that show the range of solutions. McDonald’s demands conformity from franchisees and innovates in a lab, while Lockheed Martin famously created a separate entity that encourage wildly creative innovation Yes, that is old school contingency theory, but it remains a good insight.
A few nit picks. Rhetorically, I wish the book had been a little more cognizant of the interdisciplinary nature of organization studies. The book begins with the typical “an economist looks at …” discussion that is in vogue in the post-Levitt era of popular economics writing. But the book itself covers a lot of great material from managerial economics, business school scholarship, sociology, history, and even concludes with a quote with the old man himself, Max Weber. Also, I wish the book had said a little more in the conclusion about the social consequences of management. The world we have today is shaped by management philosophy and management itself has given rise to a new class of people. That deserves some discussion. But overall, these are quibbles, though. The book’s a winner and I’m sure it’ll start appearing in organization studies syllabi.
Marcel Fournier’s exegesis of Durkheim’s life and work is much more than a biography of a French academic in fin-de-siecle Europe. It offers the reader an intellectual history of ideas, alongside an insight into the process of knowledge production and the craft and method of empirical analysis. The logic of Durkheim’s argumentation is meticulously (and exhaustively) dissected. Fournier’s forensic examination goes further, though, drawing on a wealth of archival documentation, including correspondence, manuscripts and reports, to re-create the energy, excitement and politically charged atmosphere in which academic sociology in France began to take shape.
Durkheim believed that sociology should concern itself with social facts, the external and objective nature of social reality that exists beyond the individual. Social facts are “the substratum of collective life”, he observed in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895), an early attempt to outline a modus operandi for the discipline of sociology. Social facts have a specific character and are discernible in systems of religious, moral and juridical belief. For Durkheim, man (sic) is both an individual and a social being. Ways of thinking and acting are not simply the work of the individual but are invested in a moral power above him.
Check it out.
This April we will be reading Richard Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence. Prior book forums:
- Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics.
- Jenn Lena’s Banding Together.
- David Graeber’s Debt.
- Greta Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis.
- John Levi-Martin’s Social Structures.
Single autocatalytic networks generate life, but they do not generate novel forms of life. There is nothing outside of a single decontextualized network to bring in to recombine with what is already there. Self-organizing out of randomness into an equilibrium of reproducing transformations, the origin of life, was a nontrivial accomplishment, to be sure. But this is not quite speciation, which is emergence of one form of life out of another.
Transpositions and feedbacks among multiple networks are the sources of organizational novelty. In a multiple-network architecture, networks are the contexts of each other. Studying organizational novelty places a premium on measuring multiple social networks in interaction because that is the raw material for innovation. Subsequent cascades of death and reconstruction may or may not turn initial transpositions (innovations) across networks into system-wide invention.
Through fifteen empirical case chapters, Padgett and Powell extracted eight multiple-network mechanisms of organizational genesis:
Over a week ago, a colleague called to let me know that our advisor, Harvard Prof. J. Richard Hackman, had passed. For months, I knew that this news would eventually come, but it’s still painful to accept. I will miss hearing Richard’s booming voice, having my eyeglasses crushed to my face from a bear hug (Richard was well over 6 feet tall), or being gleefully gifted with a funny hand-written note imparting his sage advice on a matter.
Richard was a greatly respected work redesign and teams researcher. At Harvard, his classes included a highly regular and popular (despite its “early” morning time slot) course on teamwork. For those undergraduate and graduate students who have been lucky enough to take Richard’s course on teams, the course interweaves concept and practice as students must work in teams, something that most of us get very little practice with outside of organized sports or music.
In July 2012, Richard emailed several of his former teaching fellows asking us to join him in Cambridge and help him rework this course. On short notice, we assembled at the top floor of William James Hall and went over the materials, with Richard expertly leading us as a team, with clearly designated boundaries (those of us assembled for the task), a compelling direction (revising the material to attract students across disciplines), enabling structure (norms that valued contributions of team members, no matter their place in the academic hierarchy), and a supportive context (reward = tasty food, an incentive that always works on former graduate students, and good fellowship).
During this last meeting, Richard asked us about how we thought his course on teamwork could most impact individuals. I opined that his biggest impact wouldn’t be through just the students who took his course, but via those of us who would continue to teach teamwork and conduct research in other settings. This question may have been Richard’s gentle way of telling us that he was passing on the baton.
Here are several ways that I think Richard’s legacy lives on.
Read the rest of this entry »
Recently, at a faculty meeting of professors and graduate students from several disciplines, discussion turned to the IRB’s interpretation of human subjects guidelines and the implications for students’ efforts to document phenomena for class assignments. Participants pointed out a variety of problems, including changes over the years in IRB decisions about whether results of projects could be publicly shared – in this case, whether students’ videorecorded interview of a retired elected official could be publicly shared under today’s IRB guidelines. Faculty and graduate students also described delays in getting feedback from their IRBs, raising concerns about how the lack of accountability on the part of some IRBs increases the uncertainty of planning class research, students’ timely graduation, and faculty productivity.
At orgtheory, we’ve discussed how researchers face challenges concerning the IRB here and here. Although the IRB offers detailed guidelines that can protect human subjects in medical research, how the IRB and human subjects concerns can contribute to the conduct of qualitative research, particularly organizational ethnography, is less clear.
Several recent publications offer researchers’ experiences with these issues.
Let’s thanks Tom Medvetz for an edifying and entertaining series of posts that include the genesis of his research question, cinema trivia, and his thoughts on blogging as part of the academic enterprise. Readers can enjoy his posts here, here, here, here, and here.
In this installment of our Fall book forum, I’ll discuss how Glaeser applies the “sociology of understanding.” Based on interviews, he presents us with an account of how some East Germans (in Berlin) saw the world. His account of peace activists would be familiar to those who study movements. Peace activists saw their faith in German socialism challenged when authority figures were perceived to act in hypocritical ways. Thus, the personal attachment to communist institutions was challenged and eventually severed.
What is much, much more interesting is his account of the internal life of the Communist party and the lives of Stasi officers. Glaeser’s account relies on a description of the folk cosmology of Communist leaders. Essentially, there are two components to this “lifeworld.” One is a worldview derived from Leninist interpretations of Marxist theory. It was all about the Party and how the Party sets the course for the nation as a whole. Thus, the mental lives of Stasi officers is filled with thinking about how any action or policy reflects the Party’s agenda and mission as the guide of the people. Political Epistemics is filled with lots of thick description on how Stasi officers sat around and try to create an interpretation of the world that properly squared with how the understood Marxist-Leninist theory. I found the obsession with “left” and “right” deviations to be informative, if amusing as well.
Second (which I find more interesting) is a Manichean worldview that pits us (the Communist movement) against an evil outsider. Abstractly, the evil outsider was capitalism in general. More concretely, the enemy, the nightmare that haunted the socialist imagination was fascism, seen as the most perverse manifestation of counter revolutionary forces. The implication is that the people who had the most status were those who had somehow participated in anti-fascist actions in WWII, as partisans, prisoners, or soldiers. This biographical experience created a sort of authenticity from which the elite of the East German communist state could be built.
This is important from the perspective of political sociology because it indicates how socialist systems were often built on very real historical traumas and the authenticity that could be constructed from these experiences. While I find it hard to see how someone could abstractly accept a political philosophy that ceded all power to state committees, I do find it easy to believe how anti-fascist sentiment could be assimilated into a socialist party’s agenda. The Party became the “us” in a literal life and death battle with “them” (fascists).
This biographical approach to the East German state also explains, to some extent, the endurance of European socialist states, which survived starvation (USSR in the 20s), mass political murder (USSR in the 30s), warfare and mass death (USSR in the 40s), and open revolt (Prague ’56/Czech Republic ’68). The elites of the system had gotten to the point where there own internal sense of self was thoroughly integrated with the Party’s interests. Thus, social change entailed a thorough rejection of the self as it had been shaped by wars.
Ironically, this merging of Party ideology, history, and personal identity contained its own internal contradictions. Since Stasi officers were justifying their actions in terms of the inevtiable evolution toward communism, they hesitated to support the GDR when things started going bad in 1989. They simply couldn’t keep repressing dissent and still believe that the Party was really standing against fascism and moving in a progressive direction. This corrosive doubt, rooted in the tensions between individual experience and party ideology, and the confrontation with a now wealthy West Germany, enabled one important group, the Stasi, to hesitate when it came time to either fight anti-communist activists or simply give up on the East German socialist project.
Next week, we’ll wrap this up with a discussion of how this historical analysis fits into a broader social scientific discussion of revolutions.
This Fall’s book forum will address Political Epistemics, a new book by Chicago sociologist Andreas Glaeser. The book investigates life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious book that has three main aims. First, it’s a political sociology argument. Glaeser argues that social change occurs when there is a break, or shift, in how people develop their identities and have them affirmed by various people and institutions. He calls this the “sociology of understandings.” Second, Glaeser offers a historical account of two groups of people with very different understandings of East German socialism – Stasi officers and Berlin peace activists. Third, Glaeser claims that his sociology of understandings provides a better explanation of the dissolution of East German communism than other theories.
As you might guess from this thumbnail sketch, the book is epic. It synthesizes a deep knowledge of Western cultural sociology with Glaeser’s own reading of East European history and Communist ideology. There is also a lot of thick description, where Glaeser tracks down former Stasi officers, dissident intellectuals, and works through East German archives. Yet, the book hangs together remarkably well. Though Glaeser is erudite, the text is easy to follow and rich with interesting insights. It’s a wonderful example of how a book can be very sophisticated, yet accessible to most readers.
This book succeeds on a number of levels, though I do have some reservations, especially when Glaeser goes beyond his interview evidence and extrapolates to the broader issue of why Communism ended. We’ll discuss these strong and weak points in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll end this introductory post with a discussion of why I chose this specific book.
First, Political Epistemics has many sociological virtues. The topic – the fall of European Communism – is important and deserves serious attention. The transition away from Communism is a topic I wish that more graduate students would address. As late as the 1980s, much of the world’s population lived under state socialism. Even today, we have a number of nations that have traditional Leninist/Maoist states (e.g., Cuba, North Korea), have leaders who are trying to push in that direction (e.g., Venezuela), hybrid state forms, such as modern China, or nationalist-socialist systems such as the Baath regimes of Hussein era Iraq, Kaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Syria. Another virtue is that the book is grounded in daily experience. Rather than rely on “grand history,” Glaeser takes the time to uncover the meaning of these political systems by interviewing the people who made these systems a reality.
Second, I chose this book for personal reasons – Glaeser was an instructor of mine in graduate school. The first time I met Glaeser was when he gave a job talk at the University of Chicago, where I was a young and very annoying graduate student. I was struck by his talk (a precis for Divided in Unity) because it combined fancy schmancy hermeneutics and ethnography. Later, I took a course in cultural sociology with him. It didn’t resemble any of the “American sociology” courses. He yelled at us once – “What? You don’t know who de Certeau is? What do they teach you around here?”* He also admitted that he doesn’t watch cable TV. But still, he was always very generous when helping students get through the rather imposing corpus of European social theory. He even indulged me in a weird argument about whether the label “critical theory” could be applied to rational choice theories.** So I was quite happy to see that his second book was out. When I read Political Epistemics, I recognize our culture theory syllabus embedded in it. It’s always a pleasure to see how the ideas of the past form the books of the present.
Next week: How to Understand the Sociology of Understanding
* Answer: Circa 1999, a lot of Park and Burgess, with a healthy dose of Simmel. And a lot of event history models.
** My view was that critical theory was not really an important theoretical distinction. Rather it’s a normative term in disguise, or simply a term for second generation Marxist theory. I asked, “For example, couldn’t, say, bounded rationality be critical theory in some sense if it lead to some level of reflexivity (as implied by Calhoun’s definition of critical theory)?” Hilarity ensued.
In a recent tweet, Brayden wondered if he would have gone to graduate school had he read my advice book, Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure ($2 – cheap!). That got me thinking. Brayden is a cool dude and an amazingly successful scholar. Is my book, whose first chapter is called “Don’t Go to Graduate School,” too harsh if it would have discouraged someone like Brayden?
I don’t think I’m unduly harsh. I’m being scary in the book so that people will understand how tough academia can be. People won’t get the picture unless you yell a little bit. Consider the following. Roughly speaking, only 50% of doctoral students complete the PhD within ten years. Many take 7, 8 and 9 years to complete. The job market is atrocious. Only about half of PhD’s will ever get tenure track positions, some only after years of low paying post-docs. Of course, a significant number will not be promoted with tenure even if they do get a tenure track job. I would have told the younger Brayden is that these are the odds and that he should go forward if he is willing to take the risk and put in a lot of hard work.
Idealistic students will only confront these questions if you are blunt. Really blunt. That’s not pessimism. It’s honesty. It just means that graduate school is real life. You can’t pull an all nighter and get a nice piece of paper at the end. Graduate education takes effort, planning, and a lot of luck. And even then, it doesn’t always work. Grownups take this sort of calculus into account when choosing a career.
Finally, let me gently chide my friend Brayden for not reading the whole book. Near the end, I actually view the Rulz as a positive, affirming text:
I also wrote the Grad Skool Rulz out of a sense of optimism. For all its imperfections, and there are many, the academic system is a truly amazing human invention. Evolving over a period of nearly a thousand years, universities embody the knowledge that humanity has created. I am very lucky to be part of this exciting enterprise. The Grad Skool Rulz are designed to help people get past the bureaucracy of higher education so they can actually enjoy a career of research and teaching.
We’re pleased to announce that Tom Medvetz will be guest blogging at orgtheory!
He recently published Think Tanks in America (UChicago). Learn more about these powerful organizational actors, some of which deploy our own PhDs to form and reshape policies. Please check out Tom’s new book and give him a hearty welcome.
We are clearly living in a golden age of sociology of culture. We have the works of Richard Petersen. We have the works of Jenn Lena, whose book we discussed in detail last Spring. Now, we have Climbing the Charts is a new book by guest blogger and UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman. What these books have in common is a very careful examination of how cultural industries are created and how they change.
Rossman’s book is a study of how some songs become hits on the radio. The problem is that there are lots of nice stories about how this happens, but it’s hard to prove if any of them are true. For example, you might think that the dominant firm, Clear Channel, just chooses hits and then everyone follows them. You might also think that songs diffuse through a network of stations or promoters. The third option is simply that radio stations do what the record industry tells them. These are nice stories, but how do you tell which one is true?
Rossman has a simple, but powerful, idea. The different stories imply different diffusion curves (graphs that map market saturation vs. time). Each story comes with a different curve. The “lightning in a bottle” story (hot songs diffuse through market networks) has a classical S-shaped curve. Promotion by the record industry has a discontinuous step function.
Using new data on play time, Rossman shows there’s a lot of evidence that pop music is built by the record industry. You may say, “duh!” But remember, there are other equally obvious hypothesis that have conflicting predictions. It’s a real testament to Rossman that he was able to test these different stories with this great data set.
This book is a great example of bread and butter social science. The ideas are simple, the hypotheses sound obvious. But they can’t all be true. It’s hard to find data to test different ideas. Thus, the social scientist is a sort of Sherlock Holmes who roles up her sleeves and does the messy work of assembling the relevant facts to find an answer. This book is a testament to empirical social science and is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the economics and politics of cultural markets.
I’m teaching Weber next week in my social theory class and this afternoon I uploaded some of the recommended reading to the class website—a longish excerpt from the first volume of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, a book which made a big impression on me when I read it as an undergraduate. It didn’t turn me in to a Big Structures/Huge Comparisons guy, if for no other reason than the ambition it entailed seemed so gigantic, but of all the products of the so-called “Golden Age” of macro-sociology, Sources—and the first volume in particular—seemed to come closest to fulfilling Weber’s vision for what really big-picture sociology could be. Re-reading the first hundred-odd pages this afternoon I was struck by the directness and accessibility of Mann’s approach, and by how much of his theoretical intuition seemed right, given his aims—in particular his insistence that societies are not totalities or systems, and his determination to avoid the pitfalls that come with thinking they are:
Societies are not unitary. They are not social systems (closed or open); they are not totalities. We can never find a single bounded society in geographical or social space. Because there is no system, no totality, there cannot be “subsystems,” “dimensions,” or “levels” of such a totality. Because there is no whole, social relations cannot be reduced “ultimately, “in the last instance,” to some systemic property of it—like the “mode of material production,” or the “cultural” or “normative system,” or the “form of military organization.” Because there is no bounded totality, it is not helpful to divide social change or conflict into “endogenous” and “exogenous” varieties. Because there is no social system, there is no “evolutionary” process within it. Because humanity is not divided into a series of bounded totalities, “diffusion” of social organization does not occur between them. Because there is no totality, individuals are not constrained in their behavior by “social structure as a whole,” and so it is not helpful to make a disctinction between “social action” and “social structure.” … State, culture, and economy are all important structuring networks, but they almost never coincide. There is no one master concept or basic unit of “society”.
Instead, for Mann, what matters are the overlapping networks of social interaction—ideological, military, economic, and political—that can provide the organizational means of attaining goals.
All of which is to say that, after a bit of idle googling, I was surprised to learn that volumes three and four are scheduled for publication later this year and early next, respectively. Mann published volume I in 1986 and volume II in 1993, and while he has done a lot of other things in the meantime, parts of volume II, in particular, gave the distinct impression that the project had gotten seriously bogged down. I’m very glad to see that he’s pushed the project through. The first two volumes are also set to be reissued, with new Prefaces (and covers). I suppose it is too much to ask that they have proper indexes this time, too.
Blogs work when there’s a solid community of readers and writers. We’ve been blessed with both. If you haven’t checked in for a while, look at these great discussions by leading scholars and the quality comments by readers:
- Neil Fligstein on the theory of fields, with comments by Useem and Goldstone. Update: Check out the Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury response as well.
- Our two week forum on relational work. Start with Fred and Nina’s intro, and a new post by Fred Block. There will be a lot of good posts in this series.
- Rob Robinson and Nancy Davis discuss their recent book on religious movements and civil society.
Coming up on orgtheory: in September, a review of Gabriel Rossman’s book on the radio industry and in October we’ll do our book forum on Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics book. And don’t forget guest posts by Jenn Lena, Katherine Chen, and Brandy Aven.
A lot of people have bugged me about Isaac Reed‘s book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the use of theory in the human sciences. It’s a book that offers an explanation (sorry!) of the different ways that social researchers construct explanations. I think this a wonderful and engaging book, but it has some major points that I disagree with. Let’s just say that, me and this book are frenemies.
This book argues that there are three types of explanations to be found in the social sciences. There is “naturalism” or “positivism,” where explanations are tied to a social reality that is “out there.” There are normative explanations, which focus on social processes because of what they say about some ideal state derived from ethical theory (e.g., Habermas’ public sphere account vs. the theory communicative action). The third style of explanation situates human action within worlds of meaning, which Reed calls interpretive sociology.
Let’s start with what I like. Despite the occasional wordiness that is typical in the social theory genre, this is actually a short and elegant book. I enjoyed this book. I think Reed’s typology of social research is valuable and on target. If I were to teach graduate theory, I’d assign this book. Substantively, Reed is correct in pointing out that what makes social research distinctive is meaning. Indeed, with the exception of rational choice, nearly every major development in the social sciences addresses the role of meanings and beliefs. Institutionalists talk about cultural stemplates. There’s toolboxes, schema, habitus, and so forth. These are all attempts to integrate theories of action with theory of psychology and beliefs. Reed is also to be applauded in arguing that social explanation, to be effective, must situate an individuals moods or dispositions within a “cultural landscape.”
I level a few criticisms at this book. One is purely stylistic. The book is filled with loving references to the likes of Roy Bhaskar and post-modernism. I don’t think their work adds much to Reed’s main point. I can easily that some sociologists would just stop reading. Why would a demographer or labor market researcher bother with such a book? There’s a lot of preaching to the choir.
Second, there’s a big argument that interpretive sociology is inherently different than the naturalist or positivist sociology that takes it cues from the physical sciences. My view is different. Ideas about falsification, inference, data collection, hypothesis testing, and so forth can be applied to systems of symbols and meaning. In linguistics, for example, there are successful research programs that focus on how systems of language evolve and are put together. No reason that can’t be applied to the historical study of colonialism, Christianity, or whatever. In fact, there is something called schema theory in psychological anthropology, which takes Reed’s idea of “cultural landscapes” and converts it into a positivist research agenda.
The separation of interpretation from naturalism is even more implausible once we consider how the same argument would play out in the natural sciences. Let’s take biology. It’s fairly clear that you can’t understand animal behavior without thinking about the organism’s history and ecosystem. So what should a biologist do? Option A: Develop a general principle that will help us explain variation in ecosystems, organisms, and evolution. Option B: Ditch the ideas of normal science and do ad hoc interpetations of different animals and their ecosystems. I hope that the reader thinks, along with Darwin, that option A is very desirable.
Those that separate qualitative and interpretive research from positivist modes of social science are missing something important. Meaning systems, or cultural landscapes, are complicated systems built up from simpler structures that are embedded in larger systems. “American culture” is emergent from American words, emotions, norms, social practices, and so forth. If you buy that argument, then the link between interpretive work and naturalist social science is obvious. You need a positivist explanation of how these complex systems are born, evolve, and operate. It’s not an easy problem by any means, but it’s one that easily fits within the ideas that we associate with natural science.
Reed does make some points in this direction. For example, in chapter four, he says that interpretations should be “locally consistent.” But he needs to go farther. Interpretation needs to always have an eye on general principles. Interpretations of different groups and historical eras need to be consistent with each in ways that provide guidance for future research. Without such an imperative, interpretive sociology threatens to devolve into the solipsism of historical specificity.
Today, at my university library, I went to pick up ten books I had ordered. The circulation worker started checking the tall stack of books out for me. To my surprise, rather than commenting on my reading habits (as the security guard later did, muttering “lots of books”), the circulation worker asked, “are you writing a book?” I answered yes, explaining that I had written one book and that I intended to write more, eliciting what sounded like a happy noise from the worker. What the worker intuitively got was that in order to write, one also has to read – both to stand on the shoulders of giants (i.e., learn and build on existing content) and to understand different ways of writing and presenting material.
Although an intrinsic desire to read and write is important, reading and writing habits can be cultivated and encouraged by family members, friends, teachers, professors, mentors, and colleagues. For example, one professor of mine devoted a portion of his slideshow lecture to describing the writings and displaying the covers of books published by previous students; he also noted that readers should have to periodically consult a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words – if they didn’t, they were reading below their level. Similarly, another regularly mentioned students’ journal publications in lecture. Such mentions underscored how writing and publishing were within the realm of reality, rather than something limited to a few, other-worldly individuals. Similarly, a dissertation writing group, particularly one led by a trained facilitator, can help junior researchers learn how to troubleshoot issues and run future writing groups with colleagues that facilitate a regular stream of publications.
However, figuring out what to read is no longer as easy as waiting for a journal delivery or pulling out a drawer of alphabetically organized index cards, looking at the subject indexes for more cards, and heading into the stacks with a list of call numbers. The struggles of today’s students and trained librarians to effectively locate appropriate resources on even very specific topics suggests that something is amiss. Partly, the proliferation of electronic journal search engines that access some journals but not others, as well as budgetary cuts that have curtailed book acquisitions and cancelled electronic journal subscriptions don’t help. Even the well-heeled Ivies are slashing their library collections.
What are people doing in response?
- Some instructors, including those at elite institutions where one might assume that students are well-prepared for college instruction, devote part of classtime to teaching students how to read scholarly articles and books. Some also send students to trainings at university libraries for instruction on how to search for resources.
- Individuals can look for recommendations of readings on listservs, blogs, and colleagues’ webpages. In addition, recently published books can be located on university presses’ catalogs or websites; conference attendees can ask representatives for recommendations on specific topics or peruse the offerings at the publishers’ book displays.
- Besides regularly reviewing manuscripts for journals and publishers (a necessary professional responsibility to keep the community alive and thriving), colleagues can suggest colleagues’ books for library collections or purchase books from grant funds. Update: Implicit in this remark is that contributing to the production and consumption of publications is important to sustaining venues that allow people to publish…though the advent of self-publishing and open-access suggest alternative opportunities as well.
Any ideas or comments on the state of cultivating reader- and writership?
What are your plans for retirement? Do you hope that your retirement investments will comfortably support you and your loved ones in a life of leisure? Or, do you hope to work as long as possible – work until you drop! As life expectancies expand and the cost of living increases, some will work as long as possible, either out of necessity or choice. Increasingly, workplaces seek to retain such employees, as demonstrated by efforts to redesign work processes at Germany’s BMW plants for aging workers.
Speaking of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, ILR Press), which sheds insight into the experiences of an aging workforce. This intriguing ethnography follows the workers powering the family-owned factory Vita Needle in Needham, Massachusetts. Vita Needle manufactures a wide variety of needles, including those used for medical care and industrial applications. Its workers range in age from teens through their late nineties; some have advanced degrees. Some work for the sheer pleasure or to stay active per their doctors’ orders; others work because their retirement savings were insufficient to cover expenses.
Besides life-long employees, workers include a smorgasbord of past professions, including engineering, physics, architecture, education, and accounting. The company’s owner feels that these workers are especially dependable and devoted. They are less costly since Medicare serves as their medical insurance. Furthermore, he opines that this invested and experienced workforce offers a competitive advantage over other companies.
Most of Vita’s employees work part-time. Lynch’s interviews reveal that they enjoy the flexible work schedule, camaraderie, and meaning-making. Lynch’s participant-observations describes the banana-time like games that workers play to stay alert and engaged in repetitious tasks – the most sleep-inducing machine work is rotated among employees in one hour shifts. Some workers will cover for one another; a few will gently urge laggards to resume work. Lynch also notes the benefits of violating Taylorist practices of efficiently rearranging workspace. Having to walk to get tools or materials in the tight factory space keeps workers active and connected with co-workers. In addition, Lynch devotes a chapter to employees’ responses to the flurry of media attention, as well as an analysis of how domestic and foreign media have depicted the firm. In all, this book is an informative addition to courses on the workplace, organizations, and work and occupations.
Fall university press books are about to be released. Any recommendations for books to read, that are your own or written by colleagues? Put ‘em in the comments.