Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
The great author Gabriel Marquez died and he left a treasure of great literature. Here, a few notes about the smallness of networks inspired by Marquez’ passing. One of my uncles was a lawyer and literature professor named Eduardo Pachon Padilla. He is probably best known for El Cuento Colombiano, an important anthology of Colombian fiction.
Throughout my life, he would go on and on about Marquez and I never understood why. One day I got the story. It turns out that Eduardo and Marquez where from the same region of Colombia, and they studied the same subject (law) in Bogota. The world of novelists and literary critics is small. They knew each other. This was before either had achieved much, but Marquez was competitive and smart and people knew it. So there was that. Later, it came to a head when my uncle was on the jury of a literary contest and, according to Eduardo, Marquez submitted this absolutely brilliant manuscript. Perhaps it was some version of Cien Años, or another work. It was about thirty or forty years after the fact, the memory was not fresh. Regardless, people could tell it was brilliant but still, the jury liked one other book a teensy bit better. He never did regret the award and always argued that, on some technical ground, this other book was better. Perhaps. I also wonder if the friction between Marquez and some his contemporaries was translated into the texts and that Eduardo and his buddies exists as characterization in one of Marquez’ short stories or novels.
Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.
Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.
The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.
For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.
Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.
Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.
The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.
But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.
Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.
My good friend Jeffrey Timberlake and his MA student Adam Mayer have a forthcoming paper on the world wide diffusion of heavy metal (early version here). It is coming out in Sociological Perspectives:
The purpose of this paper is to explain the timing and location of the diffusion of heavy metal music. We use data from an Internet archive to measure the population-adjusted rate of metal band foundings in 150 countries for the 1991–2008 period. We hypothesize that growth in “digital capacity” (Internet and personal computer use) catalyzed the diffusion of metal music. We include time-varying controls for gross national income, political regime, global economic integration, and degree of metal penetration of countries sharing a land or maritime border with each country. We find that digital capacity is positively associated with heavy metal band foundings, but, net of all controls, the effect is much stronger for countries with no history of metal music prior to 1990. Hence, our results indicate that increasing global digital capacity may be a stronger catalyst for between-country than for within-country diffusion of cultural products.
My inner Beavis yearns to come out.
For the past year I’ve slowly been working my way through Stanley Aronowitz’s Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals. My slowness in finishing the book isn’t an indicator of how enjoyable or interesting the book really is. This book is fascinating, especially if you’re interested in the intellectual history of sociology. Aronowitz makes the case that Mills’s sociological impact was a direct result of his engagement with the broader intellectual public in an effort to push social change and present ideas that challenged the capitalist status quo. Mills wasn’t a socialist or any of the things typically associated with the Old Left. Rather, Mills was the forerunner of the New Left – a group that believed in the power of ideas to shape equality and freedom in society. He saw himself as a producer of those ideas.
Not long before I began reading this book I had a conversation with a former student at Columbia University when Mills was still a professor there. (Mills died in 1962.) The former student, now an emeritus professor himself, described Mills as a recluse. He had no involvement with the graduate program and showed no interest in training future PhDs. His main involvement with the department was to teach the undergraduate political sociology class. He was rarely, if ever, in his office, and so running into him in the halls was unlikely. At the time of his death, Mills’s impact on the discipline was fairly minimal, largely because he didn’t have an ongoing research agenda that involved PhD training or publishing articles in the top journals (although he had published those types of articles in the past). Merton, Lazarsfeld, and Bell were the stars of the department in the eyes of the students.
But arguably, Mills’s reputation has outlasted those other scholars. Read the rest of this entry »
Are humans by nature social animals? My colleague, Adam Waytz, argues in a provocative essay for Edge.org that the idea that humans are naturally social may be more myth than reality. That is, if we define human sociability as the tendency to be cooperative with others, compassionate, and empathetic, it’s hardly the case that humans will always act or think in a social way. Adam’s essay is geared towards psychologists, where the trend has been to describe humans’ brains, hormones, and cognition as innately social.
He points out various ways in which psychological research points out that this is just not true. Humans are as competitive as they are cooperative, and in certain situations competition overrides cooperation. Empathy isn’t an automatic response. Humans may have a strong in-group bias and a tendency to treat people outside of our group with suspicion and lack of trust. Social behaviors seem to be triggered by certain situational characteristics rather than being the default. Moreover, our capacity to be social may be much more limited than we have previously recognized.
Because motivation and cognition are finite, so too is our capacity to be social. Thus, any intervention that intends to increase consideration of others in terms of empathy, benevolence, and compassion is limited in its ability to do so. At some point, the well of working memory on which our most valuable social abilities rely will run dry.
Rather than sociability being the natural response to human interaction, it may actually be an achievement of society that we have created the right institutions that enable sociability. Sociologists, of course, have a lot to say about the latter.
Therefore, what does it happen if the artworks, that once circulated mostly thanks to art magazines (supported by gallerists) and exhibition catalogues, are now instantly available online to everyone?
A preliminary answer to this difficult question would be that a lot of people will simultaneously recognize a same kind of “physiological” beauty. Then they will try to buy it, if they can, driven by the idea that they are not alone, but part of a relatively large number of people who love that artist’s work. That is why – as not only Claudia Cargnel says – the request of certain artworks is extraordinary high, even if the curriculum vitae of the artist has no exhibitions, prizes or bibliography on it. It could be just a trend, due to the internet surfers’ appetite for money, but it may also mean something else. It could be the evidence that social networks, blogs and auction houses’ web sites are now informing art people definitely more than traditional art magazines and museums (generally supported by collectors).
Indeed. One can get a pretty decent education in contemporary art by just reading a few blogs and magazines obsessively. The art world may be getting ready for the next stage of evolution after the rise of the art fair model.
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.