Archive for the ‘research’ Category
A few days ago, we discussed an empirical issue around Goffman’s On the Run ethnography. That work focuses on how police intervention cripples poor Black men. The issue is that other ethnography reports an under policing of poor Black neighborhoods. Earlier, I suggested a voter driven explanation – voters like to see young Black men arrested on drug charges and reward police for it.
Here, I’d like to raise a methodological issue. Goffman’s ethnography is not typical in the sense of studying a field site like a firm or a neighborhood. Rather, the ethnography is a study of a cohort of people. You follow them around. That is different than field site ethnography where you choose a location and focus on the action happening in a space. People come in and out. So it is not surprising that if you stand on a modal street corner in Philly, you won’t see many cops walk by. In contrast, if you follow people who are the target of police, then you will, not surprisingly, see a lot of police.
A common, and important, critique of journals is that they don’t want to publish null results. So when I saw a new piece in Socio-Economic Review yesterday reporting essentially null findings, I thought it was worth a shout-out. The article, by economist Stefan Thewissen, is titled, “Is It the Income Distribution or Redistribution That Affects Growth?” (paywalled; email me for a copy). Here’s the abstract:
This study addresses the central question in political economy how the objectives of attaining economic growth and restricting income inequality are related. Thus far few studies explicitly distinguish between effects of income inequality as such and effects of redistributing public interventions to equalize incomes on economic growth. In fact, most studies rely on data that do not make this distinction properly and in which top-coding is applied so that enrichment at the top end of the distribution is not adequately captured. This study aims to contribute using a pooled time-series cross-section design covering 29 countries, using OECD, LIS, and World Top Income data. No robust association between inequality and growth or redistribution and growth is found. Yet there are signs for a positive association between top incomes and growth, although the coefficient is small and a causal interpretation does not seem to be warranted.
Okay, so there’s the “signs for a positive association” caveat. But “the coefficient is small and a causal interpretation does not seem to be warranted” seems pretty close to null to me.
In light of the attention this report from S&P has been getting — e.g. from Krugman today (h/t Dan H.) — all solid findings, null and otherwise, on the inequality-growth relationship warrant publication. Hats off to SER for publishing Thewissen’s.
In one of my graduate courses, I taught the Rand health insurance experiment. It’s a famous study where some people were randomly given health insurance coverage to see how it affected access and health. The bottom line is that using insurance to decrease the costs of health via low co-payment helps with access, but not with health. In the discussion, I mentioned how this result surprises people. Then, one of my BGS* said the following, paraphrased by me:
The reason this might be surprising from an economic perspective is that social behavior is a question of relative prices. Obviously, purchasing health care would become more common if it were made easier. However, health is often beyond the ability of individuals to directly influence. Health might be due to genetic factors, social class, occupation, and other processes that are not easily countered by a visit to a doctor. Health is the result of a long chain of events. These policy interventions only happen at the end, so the modest effects shouldn’t be surprising.
Now, we did discuss the famous finding that the intervention helped with low-income individuals. But this supports the “end of the chain” view of health. For most people, they already have the resources and environment that will help with prevention of chronic health problems (e.g., malnutrition in youth) or managing short term issues that could become long term issues (e.g., avoiding jobs that might lead to injury). But low income individuals don’t have the resources for basic health self-management and even simple interventions might have a big impact. My take home? Think about the chain and the closer you are to the end, the more focused the policy effects will be, if it exists at all.
* Brilliant Graduate Student
While catching up on some reading during spring break, I ran across an Journal of Organizational Ethnography article by organizational ethnographer Gideon Kunda. In this article, Kunda’s reflections about his development as an organizational ethnographer seem pertinent to the on-going orgtheory discussion of ethnography. Kunda not only describes how he became drawn to organizational studies (hint: questioning a figure of authority about the differential treatment of patients based on class), but also how he arrived at his topic and research site, generating the now iconic study Engineering Culture.
During his training, Kunda worked on several projects using other data collection methods (i.e., surveys), during which Goffman’s work on Asylums was instructive:
Here once again was a science that starts with ready-made theories, selectively uses them in accordance with interests unrelated to (or even opposed to) the logic and spirit of scientific inquiry, collects data using a method that assumes it knows what and how to ask before encountering the world of its subjects, and disrespects or ignores their complex realities, or for that matter, their feelings about who is studying them and why. What factors effect quality is a legitimate question, if one takes the managerial perspective (although this is not the only perspective that could and should be taken). But in order to answer it, in fact in order to even know how to go about studying it, I began to realize, one has to find ways to collect valid data. And the data, if that was what the facts of life should be called, were found in the richness of the stories I heard and the complexity of the interactions I observed, in people’s sense of who they were and what they were up to, and in their willingness to convey it to an interested outsider. Whether or not all this could or should be ultimately reduced to numbers and statistically analyzed seemed much less important than finding ways to collect, understand and interpret evidence that was respectful of its complex nature. If this was the case, it seemed to me, then the scientific system I was enmeshed in, even by its own standards – the norms of science that demand respect for the empirical world – was woefully inadequate. And worse – its procedures and output were embarrassingly boring, to me at least, when compared to the richness of the world it set out to comprehend.
In conclusion, Kunda states:
Over the years I have continuously noted and wondered about the extent researchers in the early stages of their careers, and graduate students in particular, feel, or are made to feel, that while they are granted the methodological license, and sometimes looseness, of “qualitative methods” (a phrase that often replaces or refers to a watered down version of ethnography), the academic authority system (in terms of funding, supervision, publication requirements and career options) compels them to limit their questions, choice of theory and writing style to those that enhance the chances of approval, funding and quick publication. I encounter again and again the ways that this commitment comes at the expense of a willingness to let fly their own sociological imagination, to cultivate and trust their own interpretive resources and analytic instincts, to respect and develop their innate language and authorial voice, or, for that matter, to risk long-term ethnographic fieldwork.
The issue then is not, or not only, one of competing methods, and to overstate such distinctions is, I believe, to miss my point. Rather, I see my story as an invitation to acknowledge and explore the shared conditions of all scientific claims to knowing and depicting social reality, organizational and otherwise, under whatever theoretical and methodological guise, that together place limits on the depth, insightfulness and indeed the validity of interpretation: the endless complexity of data, the incurable subjectivity of the observer, the fundamental flimsiness of formal method and the prevalence of unsubtle yet often disguised institutional pressures to confirm to standards and ways of thinking outside and often against the pure logic of scientific inquiry.
If I am to formulate a conclusion, then, it is this: the continuing need to devise personal and collective ways – and I have suggested and illustrated some of mine – to release “discipline” from its misguided equation with an institutionally enforced a priori commitment to hegemonic theoretical discourse and methodological frameworks, and to apply it instead to its legitimate targets, the questions for which there can never be a final, authoritative answer, only continuing exploration and debate: What is data, what is a valid and worthwhile interpretation, how does it come about, what are and how to cultivate the personal sources of imagination that make it possible, how to report it and, not least, to what end.
Another major take-away for budding researchers is that peers can offer support. That is, scholarly development is not necessarily a hierarchical transmission of information from mentors to mentees, but the co-production of knowledge with peers.
This semester, I agreed to teach a PhD-level course on organizational theory when I realized that fewer and fewer colleagues who are trained in organizational research remain in sociology departments. Apparently, I am not the only organizational researcher who is wondering about the implications of the de-centralization of organizational sociology.
Mark your calendars for Aug.! Liz Gorman has planned the following Organizations, Occupations, and Work (OOW) session for the ASA annual meeting this Aug. in San Francisco. The line-up includes some of our regular commenters and readers:
Title: Section on Organizations, Occupation and Work Invited Session. Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?Description: Few sociologists today consider themselves primarily scholars of organizations. Sociologists who study different types of organizations within their primary fields–such as economic sociology, science, social movements, political sociology, and urban sociology–are often not in conversation with each other. Many sociologically-trained scholars have migrated to business schools and become absorbed by the large interdisciplinary field of organization studies, which tends to have a managerial orientation. Little attention is directed to the broader impact of organizations on society. This invited session will consider these and other trends in the study of organizations within the discipline of sociology. It will ask whether “organizations” still constitutes a coherent subfield, whether it can or should be revitalized, and what its future direction might look like.Participants:Organizer: Elizabeth Gorman, University of VirginiaPanelists:Howard Aldrich, University of North Carolina – Chapel HillElisabeth Clemens, University of ChicagoHarland Prechel, Texas A&M UniversityMartin Ruef, Duke UniversityEzra Zuckerman, MIT Sloan School
Topics: Organizations, Formal and Complex