Archive for the ‘books’ Category
I am taking a blogcation for about two weeks. But before I do, I’ll make one small announcement. The sales of Grad Skool Rulz are doing well and I think it’s time for an update. New cover, new content. I’ll work on it this coming semester, once some other projects are done. So if there is something you want in the new edition, put it in the comments. Also, once the new edition is released, the first 100 copies will be free.
PS. Don’t forget – if you have an idea for a guest post, feel free to send it in.
A few years ago, I bought a copy of Charles Tilly’s Why?, just for fun sociology reading. All the Important sociology reading got in the way, and I never read Why?
But while I was unpacking this week I came across it and thought I’d bring it along on a car ride to Providence over the weekend. Not only is it a fun read, as well as touchingly personal at times, it turned out to be surprisingly relevant to stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.
The book is organized around four types of reasons people give for things…any things: their incarceration in mental hospitals, why a plane just flew into the World Trade Center, whether the last-minute change of an elderly heiress’s will should be honored. In grand social science tradition, the reasons are organized into a 2 x 2 table:
|Cause-Effect Accounts||Stories||Technical Accounts|
Why? illustrates these types with a wide range of engaging examples, from eyewitness accounts of September 11th to the dialog between attending physicians and interns during hospital rounds.
Conventions are demonstrated by etiquette books: they are reasons that don’t mean much of anything and aren’t necessarily true, but that follow a convenient social formula: “I lost track of the time.” Stories are reasons that provide an explanation, but one focused on a protagonist—human or otherwise—who acts, and which often contain a moral edge: evangelist Jerry Falwell’s account of how he came to oppose segregation after God spoke to him through the African-American man who shined his shoes every week. Both conventions and stories are homely, everyday kinds of reasons.
Codes and technical accounts, on the other hand, are the reasons experts give. Reasons that conform to codes explain how an action was in accordance with some set of specialized rules. The Department of Public Works did not repair the air conditioning because they lacked a form 27B/6. While law is the quintessential code, Tilly shows that medicine follows codes to a surprising extent as well.
Finally, technical accounts attempt to provide cause-effect explanations of why some outcome occurs. Jared Diamond argues that Europe developed first because it had domesticable plants and animals and sufficient arable land, and lacked Africa’s north-south axis. Technical accounts draw on specialized bodies of knowledge, and attempt to produce truth, not just conformity with rules.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months thinking about what experts do in policy, and thinking about the different paths through which they can have effects. Lots of these effects are technical, of course. Expert opinion may not determine the outcome in debates over the macroeconomic effects of tax policy changes or what standards nutrition guidelines should be set at, but there’s no question that they’re informed by technical accounts.
But at least as important in influencing a wider audience are the stories experts can tell. Deborah Stone wrote about these “policy stories” decades ago, though she wasn’t especially focused on experts’ role in creating them. Political scientists like Ann Keller, however, have shown that scientists, too, translate their expertise into policy stories—for example, that human activity was creating the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that produce acid rain, destroying fisheries and making water undrinkable. These stories are grounded in technical accounts, but are simplified versions with moral undertones that point toward a particular range of policy solutions—in this case, doing something about the SOx and NOx emissions that the story identifies as creating the problem.
Some kinds of expertise, or rather some kinds of technical accounts, are more amenable than others to translation into policy stories. Economic models, in particular, are often friendly to such translation. For example, although this isn’t the language I use there, my book in part argues that U.S. science policy changed because of a model-turned-story. Robert Solow’s growth model, which includes technology as a factor that affects economic growth (by increasing the productivity of labor), became by the late 1970s the basis of a powerful policy story in which the U.S. needed to improve its capacity for technological innovation so that it could restore its economic position in the world.
Similarly, a basic human capital model in which investment in training results in higher wages easily becomes a story in which we need to improve or extend education so that people’s income increases.
Sociological models, even the formal ones, seem less amenable on average to these kinds of translations. Though Blau and Duncan’s well-known status attainment model could be read as suggesting education as a point of intervention to improve occupational status, it seems fairer to read it as saying that occupational status is largely determined by your father’s occupation and education. While this certainly has policy implications, they are not as natural an extension from the model itself. It hearkens back to that old saw—economics is about how people make choices; sociology is about how they don’t have any choices to make.
I guess part of the appeal of Why? for me was that it mapped surprisingly well onto these questions that were already on my mind. Mostly I’ve thought about this in the context of economic models becoming policy stories. I wonder, though, whether my quick generalization about the technical accounts of sociology lending themselves less readily to compelling policy stories actually holds up. What are the obvious examples I’m missing?
We’ve been talking about the diffusion of organizational thinking into parts of sociology that don’t identify as “organizational sociology.” Monika Krause’s new book, The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason, is the latest example of this.
I was familiar with Krause’s name, but the first article of hers I ran into was a 2012 piece on “model systems” in sociology, coauthored with Michael Guggenheim. The paper explores whether sociology has model systems analogous to the fruit fly or E. coli in biology — specific organisms studied by lots of people so that a large body of knowledge can be developed and eventually extended to other organisms.
The paper suggests that yes, sociology does have model systems. Think of Chicago in urban sociology, or the French Revolution in comparative-historical, or doctors in the study of professions. But, due both to the nature of what we study (the city of Chicago can’t be reproduced in a lab in Germany, like mice can) and the difficulty of standardization (there may be many studies of hospitals, but two hospitals will differ more than two C. elegans), cumulation is harder in sociology.
The concept was cool, and it stuck with me. The new book is on a very different topic, although it also touches on the production of knowledge.
The book is an interview-based study of large humanitarian NGOs. It argues that such NGOs are structured to make “good projects” the main goal of desk officers. Because the success of the project is what the organization demands, and officers are rewarded for, they have incentives to provide help that will have measurable short-term effects on groups that are relatively easy to assist. The people who are in need have to compete to show that they are the right kind of population — one that will benefit in the ways desired by donors. This dynamic has a variety of effects on what kind of assistance is provided — some benign, others less so.
I found this particularly interesting because it echoes findings by Joe Gibbons, a PhD student whose committee I’m on. (Defending Tuesday and on the job market — check him out here!) Joe’s dissertation looks at community-based organizations in Newark and Jersey City. He discovered that funding agencies’ focus on maximizing impact — “impact” meaning “numbers of people reached” — meant that when times got tough, groups doing excellent work serving smaller immigrant communities, for example, could lose funding entirely. Others had to adjust their strategies to serve as large a population as possible, even if that didn’t really align with their mission or competency. His quantitative findings also suggested the most disadvantaged neighborhoods tended to be underserved by CBOs — which would be compatible with a donor preference for helping populations likely to show measurable success.
Both of these studies are fundamentally organizational, and find overlapping results. The Good Project is explicitly about how organizations operating within a particular field develop logics that shape those organization’s practices in complex, but comprehensible ways. Joe’s dissertation looks at how city-specific fields of CBOs shape how and to whom services are provided. Yet studies like these — one in the development literature, one in urban soc — are unlikely to be put into conversation with one another.
At any rate, you can preview a nice chunk of The Good Project here. I know I’m looking forward to reading the rest.
summer reading: libby garland’s after they closed the gates: jewish illegal immigration to the united states, 1921-1965
As part of a CUNY junior faculty semester-long writing group, I read and commented on drafts of what are now publications. I’m delighted to see that one draft is now a book that introduces readers to an unfamiliar historical period, one that helps us understand the US’s contemporary policy on immigration. For readers interested in immigration, historian Libby Garland‘s new book After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965 (University of Chicago, 2014) offers a window into policy implementation.
For a preview of her book, check out a recording of her talk and actors’ re-enactments of documents (fast forward to about 9:25 for the start of her talk) at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.* In her talk, Garland discusses the origins of her research project, which was prompted by the desire to understand the role of Jewish nonprofit organizations in international aid work, as well as the impact of nascent quota laws – numerical limits
that presaged piloted by the Chinese Exclusion Act – upon the forms of immigration. While conducting research on documents from the US Immigration Bureau in the National Archives, she realized she had stumbled upon a forgotten piece of American history.
During her research, which included examining reports made by Jewish aid organizations and newspaper articles, she uncovered accounts of eastern European Jewish immigrants’ circuitous routes into the US via multiple countries, including Cuba, Canada, and Mexico. Governmental officials (undercover agents) sent reports documenting smugglers’ activities and requesting orders on what to do about the influx of undocumented immigrants. Through careful study of such documents, Garland uncovers the implementation of policy at borders, seaports, and deportation hearings.
Garland also has a podcast interview about her book on Vox Tablet.
* The Tenement Museum offers docent-led tours, showing how much (or how little) times have changed in terms of living space.