Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
I was recently listening to the podcast, Bad at Sports, which covers the contemporary art world. This episode is a long interview with dealer, writer, and provacteur Matt Gleason. A lot of good stuff, but this caught my ear. Gleason claims that one of the major reasons that Jeffrey Deitch was disruptive as director of LAMOCA was that he pursued “post-curator art.” What does that mean? My translation:
Over the last 50 years, the art world has institutionalized. Museums are run by professionals, artists get MFA, and the art market is centralizing around art fairs. What is so disruptive about Dietch was that rejected the institutionalization of the curator – the people who pick art, stage exhibitions, and manage collections.
In other words, in a world of professionalization, Dietch said: “Screw it, my kid can do this.” And he did it. Dietch fired one of the main curators, had celebrities do shows, and curated many shows himself. Very “post.”
I once asked an art professional what he learned from interacting with Dietch, and he said something like, “I learned that you can hand over an art gallery to teenagers and it’ll work.” Metaphor perhaps, but it captures the spirit. People with degrees don’t have a monopoly over good taste. Gleason notes that this is self-serving. A museum with poor finances, like LAMOCA, might not have the cash for carefully curated shows and it would be easy to have some SoCal celebrity show work. But still, the comment is telling. The art world has institutionalized, but it rests on jello foundations.
Becker and Faulkner’s Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz now available in print
Today, I met with first year grad students who wanted to know how sociologists develop research questions and studies while navigating grad school, academia, and other contexts. Although sociologists do give retrospective accounts in their publications and presentations, it’s not easy to fully convey the “back stage” behind the research. Rarely do readers get to see how a study unfolds. Luckily, Howie Becker and Bob Faulkner‘s latest book is now available both as an ebook and print book (update: corrected link), for those of us who like to read old school-style. According to Franck Leibovici,
the paperback version produces a different experience [from the ebook]. for example, it has an index which allows you to visualise how many people, scholars, musicians, anonymous people, have been mobilized to produce this investigation.
For those who like the ebook format, see our earlier post, which includes a summary by Becker himself.
Here’s the official summary of Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz:
When Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker, two sociologists who were also experienced professionals in the music business, decided to write something about this other part of their lives, they lived at opposite ends of the North American continent: Faulkner in Massachusetts, Becker in San Francisco. They managed the cooperation writing a book requires through e-mail. Instead of sitting around talking, they wrote e-mails to each other.
And so every step of their thinking, the false steps as well as the ideas that worked, existed in written form. So, when Franck Leibovici asked them to contribute something which showed the “form of life” that supported their work, they (helped along by a timely tip from Dianne Hagaman), they sent him the correspondence.
The result is one of the most complete and revealing records of scientific collaboration ever made public. And one of the most intimate pictures of the creative process in all its details that anyone interested in that topic could ask for. Investigative writing is not only about formulating chains of rational ideas (as the usual format of scientific articles would like us to believe), but also mixes plays on words, stories, and arguments in new arrangements.
this book is a contribution to the art project (forms of life)—an ecology of artistic practices, paris, 2011-2012, by franck leibovici.
curated by grégory castéra and edited by les laboratoires d’aubervilliers and questions théoriques, with the support of fnagp, la maison rouge, le fonds de dotation agnès b. see www.desformesdevie.org.
One of the songs that helped the two authors work on their cases of how musicians build their repertories:
storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article
I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:
1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**
Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.
2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.
To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.
3. In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.” Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):
Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.
* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.
** Looking for more storytelling articles? Check out another one here.
Salon isn’t my “go to” source for recent linguistics research,* but an article on two recent developments in the field was highly provocative. The basic gist is this:
- The space of all possible languages is actually quite large.
- All known naturally occurring languages seem to occur in a narrow range.
- There’s been some progress in explaining why natural languages sit in that narrow range.
Might the same be true for culture? If we understand culture as something analogous to language, then culture is an organized system for generating symbols, assigning meaning to these symbols, and generating stories or narratives. But that doesn’t mean that culture comes in all shapes in sizes. Rather, like language, culture is probably constrained. Sociologists already have a good grip on what the basic syntax and lexicon of culture might be – in-group/out-group distinctions, hierarchies, assessments of value and worth, collective memory tokens, etc. The empirical question, then, is how one should discover the rules for creating complex stories out of these building blocks.
Anthropology has a long history of this type of research. There are a lot of arguments about how people generate myths. Sociologists could do the same. We could look for “universal rules” about, say, how social merit is assigned, or how people create ranks. This already exists in sub-specialties. What we need is someone to pull it together and repackage it for the wider sociological public.
* It’s actually my go to source for anxiety inducing articles about sex, relationships, death, parenting, and Rand Paul.
Detail of William Powhida’s “A Subjective Classification of Things” (2013) (all images courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery) - linked from Hyperallergic
Background: For about 20 years, Art Chicago was one of the most important art fairs in the world. So important, that the New York auction houses would move their sales to as not to conflict with the fair. Then, around 2000, the fair lost its mojo. Competitors showed up, in droves. Budget problems cropped up, then a near shut down, followed by a fire sale. The last two or three editions of the fair were held at the Merchandise Mart. Less than amazing art, held in a claustrophobic space. Then, the fair shut down permanently in 2011.
David Courpasson is finishing his term as the editor of Organization Studies, the official publication of the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS). As a parting gift, he wrote an essay about what he feels is right and wrong (okay, mostly wrong) about the current state of organizational scholarship. The essay is provocative and a bit pessimistic, although not unfairly so. One of the major problems plaguing our field, Courpasson believes, is the development of a culture of productivity in social science, which seems to have most severely infected organizational and management research. In this culture of productivity, scholarship is not evaluated based on relevance or the quality of ideas but rather on the sheer volume of research that a scholar can produce. Professors are compelled to write lots of journal articles, and they push them out quickly in order to boost the length, but not necessarily the quality, of their CVs. Although he doesn’t mention it, this culture of productivity seems to have numerous institutional sources, including the practice of many departments that determine merit raises and tenure cases by “number counting” (i.e., deciding that someone deserves tenure based on the number of “A journal publications” the person has produced).
The consequences of this culture of productivity is to increase the sheer volume of publications but at the sacrifice of social relevance. The culture also has negative effects on the review and editing processes. Reviewers are worn out, editors are overwhelmed with new submissions, and there are simply too many journal articles to read and process. Here is an excerpt from Courpasson’s article:
[O]ur current system of scientific manufacturing creates more papers to review, with less committed and less timely reviewers, with a lower density of challenging ideas, as well as of ideas that are less significant for ‘the world’; in other words, for other worlds than the closest colleagues and networks. The culture of ideas is therefore vanishing: due to publishing pressures, people feel more and more pushed to submit any paper because rejection is not necessarily harmful: a new dynamic is created where work is routinely submitted anyway, sometimes in a real hurry (that is to say, even when clearly unfinished, including incomplete lists of references or variety of colours in the text), overburdening journals and editors. Here individual arbitrations surely play a role: authors’ visibility can indeed be maximized by small improvements enabled by journals’ insightful reviews; at the same time, thanks to this principle of productivity, potential papers to submit by a single author are multiplied, often in a logic of replication and repetition that also leads to ‘deviant’ behaviours such as self-plagiarism. But that adds some items in a resume and that is important because items are counted. Again, this is a counterproductive game: because volume does not always match quality and innovation, editors are more and more inclined to focus on flaws to purposively (although not willingly) narrow down the number of papers under review and obviously, in this ‘negativist’ cycle, innovative papers can be sacrificed by the necessity of correlating the ‘quality’ of a journal and a high (desk) rejection rate.
lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education
As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.
HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***
Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.
With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies. But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.
In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”
Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).
Several sociologists (Matt Wray, Jon Stern, and myself) and an anthropologist (S. Megan Heller) have a round table discussion on Burning Man at the Society Pages. We’ve all done research at Burning Man, an annual temporary community in Nevada that has inspired events and organizations worldwide.
Have a peek at our discussion, which includes ideas for future studies. We discuss answers to questions such as:
“Why might the demographics of the Burning Man population be of interest to researchers? For instance, there is a cultural trope that people who go to Burning Man are often marginalized individuals—outsiders in some way. Could the festival’s annual Census be used to measure this rather subjective characteristic of the population? Is there a single “modal demographic” (that is, a specific Burner “type”) or are there many? What else does the Census Lab measure (or not measure)?”
“Burning Man sometimes gets portrayed as little more than a giant rave—a psychedelic party on the playa. It is like a party in many ways, but those of us who go know that the label doesn’t begin to capture the full experience. What larger phenomena does Burning Man represent in your research? In other words, how do you categorize the event and why should we take it seriously?“
Normally, when we think of Latin Jazz, we think of Afro-Cuban, or Bossa Nova. But there are others. For a while in the 60s and 70s, Gato Barbieri created a blend of Argentinian music and free jazz that had quite a following. Merceditas, above, is one example, before he gained popularity doing a type of smooth jazz.
One of the somewhat terrifying or, for some of us, invigorating aspects of being an academic is learning and practicing cross-cultural and local norms, especially for research or travel. Typically, these lessons involve careful observation of what seems unthinkable (cutting in line?!? OR waiting one’s turn in line?!?), inadvertently breaking norms in front of aghast or amused locals, and the thrill of mastering a new skill.
In a few weeks, those of you who are relocating or returning to Britain might find the following links handy for immersion in the local milieu:
- An excruciating obsession with ennui, politeness, and queues – a few sample quotes about VeryBritishProblems:
- “Feeling your life lacks excitement, so dunking your biscuit for an irresponsibly long time“
- “The anxious bewilderment when clocking the stranger deciding to join the queue at your side rather than behind you“
- “The unwelcome surprise of someone telling you how they are after you’ve asked them how they are”
- “Secretly hoping it stays cold so there’s always something to talk about”
- “Feeling guilty taking your M&S Bag For Life into Tesco“
- Habits and mannerisms: Kate Fox’s Watching the English : The hidden rules of English behaviour
Coming to NYC for ASAs? Try season 8 of Curb Your Enthusiasm and brush up your “waiting on line” etiquette. Tip: don’t assume you’re at the back of the right line.
I keep hearing about the coming big data revolution. Data scientists are now using huge data sets, many produced through online interactions and media, that shed light on basic social processes. Big data data sets, from sources like Twitter, Facebook, or mobile phones, give social scientists ways to tap into interactions and cultural output at a scale that has never been seen before in social science. The way we analyze data in sociology and organizational theory are bound to change due to this influx of new data.
Unfortunately, the big data revolution has yet to happen. When I see job candidates or new scholars present their research, they are mostly using the same methods that their predecessors did, although with incremental improvements to study design. I see more field experiments for sure, and scholars seem more attuned to identification issues, but the data sources are fairly similar to what you would have seen in 2003. With a few notable exceptions, big data have yet to change the way we do our work. Why is that?
Last week Fabio had a really interesting post about brain drain in academia. One reason we might see less big data than we’d like is because the skills needed to handle this type of analysis are rare and much of the talent in this area is finding that research jobs in the for-profit world are more lucrative and rewarding than what they’re being offered in academia. I believe that’s true, especially for the kinds of people who are attracted to data mining techniques. The other problem though, I think, is that social scientists are having a hard time figuring out how to fit big data techniques into the traditional milieu of social science. Sociologists, for example, want studies to be framed in a theoretically compelling way. Organizational theorist would like scholars to use data that map on to the conceptual problems of the field. It’s not always clear in many of the studies that I’ve read and reviewed that big data analyses are doing anything new other than using big data. If big data studies are going to take over the field they need to address pressing theoretical problems.
With that in mind, you should really read a new paper by Chris Bail (forthcoming in Theory and Society) about using big data in cultural sociology. Chris makes the case that cultural sociology, a subfield that is obsessed with understanding the origins of and practical uses of meaning, is prime for a big data surge. Cultural sociology has the theoretical questions, and big data research offers the methods.
More data were accumulated in 2002 than all previous years of human history combined. By 2011, the amount of data collected prior to 2002 was being collected very two days. This dramatic growth in data spans nearly every part of our lives from gene sequencing to consumer behavior. While much of these data are binary and quantitative, text-based data is also being accumulated on an unprecedented scale. In an era of social science research plagued by declining survey response rates and concerns about the generalizability of qualitative research, these data hold considerable potential. Yet social scientists – and cultural sociologists in particular – have ignored the promise of so-called ‘big data.’ Instead, cultural sociologists have left this wellspring of information about the arguments, worldviews, or values of hundreds of millions of people from internet sites and other digitized texts to computer scientists who possess the technological expertise to extract and manage such data but lack the theoretical direction to interpret their meaning in situ….[C]ultural sociologists have made very few ventures into the universe of big data. In this article, I argue inattention to big data among cultural sociologists is particularly surprising since it is naturally occurring – unlike survey research or cross-sectional qualitative interviews – and therefore critical to understanding the evolution of meaning structures in situ. That is, many archived texts are the product of conversations between individuals, groups, or organizations instead of responses to questions created by researchers who usually have only post-hoc intuition about the relevant factors in meaning-making – much less how culture evolves in ‘real time’ (note: footnotes and references removed).
Chris goes on to offer suggestions about how cultural sociology might use big data to address big theoretical questions. For example, he believes that scholars studying discursive fields would be wise to use big data methods to evaluate the content of such fields, the relationships between actors and ideas, and the relationships between different fields. Of course, much of the paper is about how to use big data analysis to enhance or replace traditional methods used in cultural sociology. He discusses how Twitter and Facebook data might supplement newspaper analysis, a fairly common method in cultural and political sociology. Although he doesn’t go into great detail about how you would do it, an implicit argument he makes is that big data analysis might replace some survey methods as ways to explore public opinion.
I continue to think there is enormous potential for using big data in the social sciences. The key for having it accepted more broadly is for data scientists to figure out how to use big data to address important theoretical questions. If you can do that, you’re gold.
Neil Gross cements his position as the leading sociologist of American intellectuals with his new book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?* This book collects into one text a series of arguments about the American professoriate that Gross and his collaborators have presented in a series of articles. Essentially, Gross argues that American academia, on the average, is liberal because of self-selection on the part of conservatives. The specific issue is that academia, for a number of historically specific reasons, has acquired an aura of extreme liberalism. Thus, conservative students say “Why bother? Academia is for liberals. What’s the point?”
What is impressive about Gross and his confederates is that they test all kinds of alternative hypotheses. For example, one might think that academic skills explain conservatives lower enrollments in PhD programs. But it doesn’t. Differences in values don’t explain much either. In other words, Gross et al systematically test all kinds of hypotheses and show that they are simply not true or that they only explain a small proportion of the differences between conservatives and others.
Eventually, using historical evidence and interview data, Gross makes a good case for self-selection. Sociology is a good example. In principle, there’s lots of places for non-liberal sociologists. For example, one could work on non-ideological aspects of sociology, like research methods. Or, as many conservatives have done, they could work in areas of interest like family sociology, where in some cases (like studies of negative divorce effects on kids), they could work on topics that are consistent with their ideology. But if you sit down and ask a typical conservative undergrad why they didn’t take many soc courses, they’ll tell you an image of evil ultra-liberals who are bent on political correctness.
Now, where I would criticize this book is the study of conservatives. For example, Gross argues that there isn’t much evidence of bias against conservatives. He uses the example of a study he conducted with Jeremy Fresse and Ethan Fosse where they contacted graduate directors with email from fake students. Some emails mentioned working for a GOP candidate, some a Democrat, and other none at all. Gross et al find no differences in how graduate directors responded.
First, there’s the issue, which Gross acknowledges, that graduate directors probably write a lot of boiler plate emails. But there’s a deeper criticism – why didn’t Gross interview people at risk for discrimination from liberal colleagues? For example, why not interview liberal (Keynesian) and conservative economists (monetarists or Austrians)? Or, why not interview Rawlsian philosophers (liberals) and compare their careers with Nozickians (libertarians) or Burkeans (conservatives)? Or, even better, why not collect materials from people who submitted books or articles on conservative topics but were rejected?
I think that Gross is right – anti-conservative bias is not nearly as bad as people think, if it exists at all – but the treatment of conservatives is not nearly as nuanced as the treatment of liberals. This probably speaks to the development of the project, which started with analyzing massive data (like the GSS) that trues to tease out conservative/liberal differences. Developing a theory or map of conservative intellectuals probably came late in the game.
Regardless, this book is massive progress on a central issue in the study of American intellectuals and the academy. This will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.
* And I’m not saying that because he said nice things about me in the book. But he did. Oh yeah, and I’m not just saying it because he edited another cool forthcoming book about academia with a chapter by moi. But he did. Ok, maybe he buttered up a little. But just a little!
The usual advice about art and investing is “don’t bother.” Buy it because you love it, but don’t expect a decent return. Well, that’s not exactly true. There are at least two ways to consistently make money from art, but neither is easy:
- The Vogel Strategy: Named after the Vogels, who spent their lives collecting art on a postman’s salary, the idea is simple – immerse yourself in art and buy up lots of cheap stuff. But you can’t buy any old art. You go to the cultural center, hang out with impoverished artists, and buy cheap.
- The fussy value buyer: As discussed in a recent Art Market Monitor article, art investment funds do actually manage a decent rate of return. The way they do it is to avoid the fancy auctions and look for somewhat undervalued works by artists that are already on track to having good historical reputations. For example, if Bacon is already famous, go for his lesser known buddy Frank Auerbach. Good work, but probably under-appreciated.
The tricky part with the Vogel strategy is that you need to invest in a lot of stuff, much of it goofy. Most people don’t have the patience or taste needed to spot how today’s bizarre avant-garde might be featured in tommorrow’s history book. The trick with the Moneyball strategy is that you go for people who are relatively cheap, but still expensive in absolute terms. You need a lot of capital to even contemplate this strategy. Also, you need to be confident and ignore the hype that often surrounds “hot artists.” That is hard to do for many investors.
Apparently, a lot of it has to do with working in that cycle of fourths into your lines. This is a very nice video of the post-bop piano master, with a performance of his tune “To Those Who Chant.” I also strongly recommend his composition Coral Keys, ideal for those who want easy listening with a hip edge.
If you follow journalism, you’ve heard that the Chicago Sun-Times has laid off its entire photojournalism staff. Probably a last ditch effort to save money, the move was pitched as an attempt to go multi-media and have print journalists snap pictures with their smart phones.
One casualty was John H. White, one of Chicago’s best photographers. Above is his picture of a Nation of Islam gathering. More vivid photos can be found in this Chicago.mag article.
Brendan Nyhan has a nice post on the sociology of scandal. He summarizes his research on presidential scandal in this way:
My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge. First, I found that new scandals are likely to emerge when the president is unpopular among opposition party identifiers. Obama’s approval ratings are quite low among Republicans (10-18% in recent Gallup surveys), which creates pressure on GOP leaders to pursue scandal allegations as well as audience demand for scandal coverage. Along those lines, John Boehner is reportedly “obsessed” with Benghazi and working closely with Darrell Issa, the House committee chair leading the investigation. You can expect even stronger pressure from the GOP base to pursue the IRS investigations given the explosive nature of the allegations and the way that they reinforce previous suspicions about Obama politicizing the federal government.
In addition, I found that media scandals are less likely to emerge as pressure from other news stories increases. Now that the Boston Marathon bombings have faded from the headlines, there are few major stories in the news, especially with gun control and immigration legislation stalled in Congress. The press is therefore likely to devote more resources and airtime/print to covering the IRS and Benghazi stories than they would in a more cluttered news environment.
I’d also add that “events” have properties. It is easier to scandalize, say, the IRS investigation issue because it is simple. In contrast, the issue of whether the attack in Libya should have been labeled terrorism is probably to esoteric for most folks. If you buy that argument, you get a nice story about the “scandal triangle.” The likelihood of scandal increases when partisan opposition, bored media, and clearly norm-broaching events come together.
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.
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).
We live in a golden age of papal betting. Within my own lifetime, I will have had at least three opportunities to wager on papal elections (’78, ’05, ’13). Better than bingo. If you need a primer on the possible leaders, click here. Intrade is trading 47% for an Italian pope. For individual cardinal odds, click here. For sociology of Vatican II, check out Melissa Wilde’s ASR article on the topic. Consider this an open thread on the social science (and gaming) of the papacy and/or information markets.
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.
Quick reaction: The Academy loves well crafted films that are about actors or acting, especially when actors save the day. These films often beat other films. Example: Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan; the Kings Speech beats Black Swan, Inception and Social Network. Bonus: Argo had old Hollywood guys saving the day. I still liked it.
A few weeks ago, I argued that the era of overt racism is over. One commenter felt that I needed to operationalize the idea. There is no simple way to measure such a complex idea, but we can offer measurements of very specific processes. For example, I could hypothesize that it is no longer to legitimate to use in public words that have a clearly derogatory meaning, such as n—— or sp–.*
We can test that idea with word frequency data. Google has scanned over 4 million books from 1500 to the present and you can search that database. Above, I plotted the appearance of n—– and sp—, two words which are unambiguously slurs for two large American ethnic groups. I did not plot slurs like “bean,” which are homophones for other neutral non-racial words. Then, I plotted the appearance of the more neutral or positive words for those groups. The first graph shows the relative frequencies for African American and Latino slurs vs. other ethnic terms. Since the frequency for Asian American slurs and other words is much lower, they get a separate graph. Thus, we can now test hypotheses about printed text in the post-racial society:
- The elimination thesis: Slurs drop drastically in use.
- The eclipse thesis: Non-slur words now overwhelm racist slurs, but racist slurs remain.
- Co-evolution: The frequency of neutral and slur words move together. People talk about group X and the haters just use the slur.
- Escalation: Slurs are increasing.
This rough data indicates that #2 is correct. The dominant racial terms are neutral or positive. Most slurs that I looked up seem to maintain some base level of usage, even in the post-civil rights era. The slur use level is non-zero, but it is small in comparison to other words so it looks as if it is zero. Some slure use may be derogatory, while some of it may be artistic or “reclaiming the term.” I can’t prove it, but I think Quentin Tarantino accounts for for 50% or more of post-civil rights use of the n-word.
Bottom line: Society has changed and we can measure the change. This doesn’t mean that racial status is no longer important, but it does mean that one very important aspect of pre-Civil Rights racist culture has receded in relative importance. Some people just love racial slurs, but that its likely not the modal way of talking about people. Is that progress? I think so.
* Geez, Fabio, must you censor? Well, it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary. I just don’t want this blog to be picked up for slurs. Even my book on 1970s Black Power, when people used the n-word a bit, only uses it once, in a footnote when referring to the title of H. Rap Brown’s first book.