Archive for the ‘social construction’ Category
Last week, I argued that many sociologists make a strong argument. Not only are social classifications of race a convention, but there is no meaningful clustering of people that can be derived from physical or biological traits. To make this claim, I suggested that one would need to have a discussion of what meaningful traits would include, get a huge sample people, and then see if there are indeed clusters. The purpose of Shaio et al (2012) is to claim that when someone conducts such an exercise, there is some clustering.
Before I offer my own view of the evidence that Shiao et al offer, we need to set some ground rules. What are the logical possible outcomes of such an exercise?
- The null hypothesis: your clustering methods yield no clusters (e.g., there are no detectable sub-groups of people).
- The weak hypothesis: clustering algorithms yield ambiguous results. It’s like getting in regression analysis a small correlation with a p=.07. This is important because it should shift your prior moderately.
- The “conventional” strong hypothesis: unambiguous groups that correspond to social classifications of people. E.g., there really is a “White” group of people corresponding to people from Europe.
- The “unconventional” strong hypothesis: unambiguous groups that do not correspond to common social classifications of people. For example, there might be an extremely well defined group of people that combines Hawaiians and Albanians.
A few technical points, which are important. First, any such exercise will need top incorporate robustness checks because clustering methods require the use to set up initial parameters. Clustering algorithms do not tell you how many groups there are. Instead, they answer the question of how well the model fits the hypothesis that you have X groups. Second, sociologists tend to mix up these possible outcomes. They correctly point out that there is a social construction called “race” which is real in its effects and influence on people. But that doesn’t logically entail anything about the presence or absence of human populations that are differentiated due to random variation of inherent physical traits over time. Also, they fail to consider #4. Their might be actual differences, but they might not match up to our common beliefs.
So what does Shiao at al offer and where does it lie in this spectrum of possibilities? Well, the article is a not a systematic review of genomic research that searches for clusters or people. Rather, it offers a few important points drawn from anthropology and genomics. First, Shiao et al point out that there is a now undisputed (among academics) human history. Humans originated in East Africa and then spread out (“Out of Africa thesis”). Second, as people spread out, genomic variation emerges as people mate with people close by. Third, genetic drift implies that geography will predict variations in genes. As you move from X to Y, you will see measurable differences in people. Fourth, these differences are gradual in character.
Shiao then switch gears and talk about clustering of people using genomic data. They tell us that there are statistically detectable and stable group differences and that these do not rigidly determine behavior. They also cite research suggesting these statistical groups correlate with self-described racial groupings. Then, the authors discuss a “bounded” approach to social theory where biology imposes some constraints on the variation on behavior but in a non-deterministic fashion.
I’ll get to the symposium next week, but here’s my response: 1. There is a real tension. At some points, Shiao et al suggests a world of gradual variation, which suggests no distinct racial groups (outcome #1) but then there’s a big focus clusters. 2. If we do live in a world of gradual, but real, variation in human biology, then the whole clustering approach is misleading. Instead, we might live in a world that’s like a contour map. It’s all connected, there are no groups, but you see some variables increase as you move along the map. 3. If that’s true, we need an outcome #5 – “race is not real but biology is real.” 4. I definitely need more detail on the clustering methods and procedures. Some critics have pointed out that the clusters found in research are endogenously produced, which makes me suspect that the underlying science might be hovering around outcomes #1 (it all depends on the algorithm and its parameters) or #2 (there might be some clustering, but it is very poorly defined).
Consider the following approaches to the same in issue – fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). In 2000, Elizabeth Armstrong and Ernest Abel published an article in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism arguing that fetal alcohol syndrome had become a moral panic. Even though people had become obsessed with FAS, there was actually very little evidence to suggest that moderate alcohol consumption damaged fetuses. This argument is elaborated in the 2008 book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility. In 2013, the economist Emily Oster published a book called Expecting Better, which assesses pregnancy advice with a review of the pertinent clinical evidence. Like Armstrong, Oster finds that the norm against moderate alcohol consumption is not supported by the data.
The comparison between Oster and Armstrong is revealing. For example, more people know about Expecting Better because, frankly, economists are more respected than sociologists. But there is a deeper lesson. When Oster frames her work, she presents it as a morally neutral project. Her framing is roughly: “Statistics is hard, people may not have all the facts, and you might have a mistaken belief, but as an economist, I am trained in statistics. I can help you make a better choice.” Thus, the reader is morally blameless.
In contrast, Armstrong’s approach to FAS relies on standard explanations of moral panics in sociology. It goes something like this: “The facts we believe reflect our underlying biases. These biases reflect our evaluations of certain types of people, who may not deserve that stigma.” Thus, if the reader buys FAS, they are implicated in an immoral action – unfairly exercising gender prejudice. Heck, all of society is implicated.
This is an interesting observation about the public image of disciplines. Economists may advocate unpopular policies (e.g., they are often critical of minimum wage laws) but their moral framework is fairly neutral and technocratic. If you don’t buy my policy, it’s probably because you aren’t aware of all the factors involved. You haven’t calculate the social welfare function properly! In contrast, sociologists often make arguments that implicate the moral character of the audience. And that doesn’t buy you a lot of friends.
This week the Supreme Court considered whether corporations ought to have constitutional rights of religious freedom, as given to human individuals, in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For many people, the idea that companies ought to be given all of the rights of humans is absurd. But in recent years, this idea has become more and more of a reality, thanks to game-changing cases such as Citizens United vs. FEC. How did we get to this place?
In an article on Slate, Naomi Lamoreaux and William Novak briefly go over the history of how corporations evolved from artificial persons to real persons with human rights. They emphasize that this change was a slow descent that still seemed unthinkable to justices as late as the Rehnquist court.
The court’s move toward extending liberty rights to corporations is even more recent. In 1978, the court held in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that citizens had the right to hear corporate political speech, effectively granting corporations First Amendment speech rights to spend money to influence the political process. But even then, the decision was contentious. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, reminded the court of its own history: Though it had determined in Santa Clara that corporations had 14th Amendment property protections, it soon after ruled that the liberty of the due-process clause was “the liberty of natural, not artificial persons.”
If you find this piece interesting then I would encourage you to read Lamoreaux’s collaboration with Ruth Bloch, “Corporations and the Fourteenth Amendment,” a much more detailed look at this history. One interesting point that emerges from this paper is that our general understanding of how rights became ascribed to corporations is historically inaccurate. Bloch and Lamoreaux assert that although the Court in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad likened corporations to individuals and asserted that they might have some protected rights, they were careful to distinguish between corporate and human civil rights.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court drew careful distinctions among the various clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some parts it applied to corporations, in particular the phrases involving property rights; but other parts, such as the privileges and immunities clause and the due -
process protections for liberty, it emphatically did not. Although this parsing might seem strange to us today, it derived from a remarkably coherent theory of federalism in which the Court positioned itself both as the enforcer of state regulatory authority over corporations and as the guardian of individual (but not corporate) liberty against state intrusion. To the extent that the Court extended constitutional protections to corporations, it did so to protect the interests of the human persons who made them up.
Read the whole paper. It’s fascinating!
are we a post-racial society? See Vilna Bashi Treitler’s new book The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions
Sociologist Vilna Bashi Treitler has a new and especially timely book coming out about race and ethnicity in the US. Look for The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions at your local bookstore or at the Stanford University Press table at ASAs.
The Ethnic Project analyzes changing depictions of race relations to help readers understand the development and perpetuation of a racial hierarchy in the US.
A contemporary cartoon and summary after the jump.
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Imagine going to the ATM and discovering you can’t withdraw your money because the ATM is out of cash. Not only that, but the bank is closed because of a national holiday so you can’t use the bank teller to withdraw money, electronic transfers of funds are frozen, and the stores refuse to accept credit cards out of concerns that electronic payments won’t be made. If you are able to get to your money, you learn that 6.75% of your funds (or 9.95% if you are a lucky ducky with over 100K euros in your account) will be converted into bank shares under a compulsory levy intended to prop up the banking system. The mortgage payment that you scheduled, the student loan check that you deposited to pay for your education, the vendors that you need to pay for your small business – all are up in the air.
Even if you are told “nevermind, we’re re-evaluating that policy, back to the drawing board!”, what’s the rational thing to do? Most likely, you as a depositor will lose trust in the banking system and pull out as much as you can. If you are in an adjoining country with a shared currency, the mattress, precious metals, and alternate currencies are looking like more attractive places to keep your money. This is the scenario currently unfolding for residents in Cyprus and those who were parking their money in what seemed like a safe haven.
Less than a year ago, Greece was in a similar situation and is still dealing with the consequences. Now, it’s Cyprus’s turn. These supposedly one-off, “unique” situations involving untested interventions are becoming regularities as banking and governance systems around the world are becoming more tightly coupled together. Although Chick Perrow‘s Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies discusses nuclear plants and chemical plants, his concept of how reactions, once started, are hard to stop (much less understand) in tightly coupled systems, is a helpful read. Add to his concept the erosion of a shared understanding and belief in institutions for a potent mix – that is, the delegitimization processes of trust in banking and governance that we may be seeing in the EU.
For those of us who have been living under the various rocks of committee work/teaching/research/other commitments, a little background reading: Dealbreaker’s take, with plenty of links to others’ analysis, Reuters,and Zero Hedge’s mordant posts.
A guest post by John Padgett and Woody Powell about their new book The Emergence of Organizations and Markets:
Innovation in the sense of product design is a popular research topic today, because there is a lot of money in that. Innovation, however, in the deeper sense of new actors—new types of people, new organizational forms—is not even much on the research radar screen of contemporary social scientists, even though “speciation” (to use the biologists’ term for this) lies at the heart of historical change over the longue durée, both in biological evolution and in human history. Social science—meaning mostly economics, political science and sociology—is very good at understanding selection, both at the micro level of individual choice and at the macro level of institutional regulation and lock-in. But novelty, especially of actors but also of alternatives, has first to enter from off the stage of our collective imaginary for our existing theories to be able to go to work. Our analytical shears for trimming are sharp, but the life forces that push up novelty to be trimmed tend to escape our attention, much less our understanding. If this book accomplishes anything, we at least hope to put the research topic of speciation—the emergence of new organizational forms and people—on our collective agenda.
It is my pleasure to announce our February guest bloggers: Woody Powell and John Padgett. Professor Powell is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, Communication, and Public Policy at Stanford University. Professor Padgett is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Woody and John are both leading figures in the study of organizations and networks. Professor Powell is co-author, with Paul DiMaggio, of the groundbreaking “iron cage” article and then went on to publish a series of highly influential papers in social network analysis. John Padgett is one of political science’s leading formal modellers, having written seminal papers on budgeting & garbage can processes, the courts, and state formation. His most well known work is likely the “Medici paper,” which used network analysis to describe the cultivation of political power in early modern Italy and introduced the idea of “robust action” into modern social theory.
They will be discussing their new book: The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Here’s a summary:
The social sciences are rich with ideas about how choice occurs among alternatives, but have little to say about the invention of new alternatives in the first place. These authors directly address the question of emergence, both of what we choose and who we are. With the use of sophisticated deductive models building on the concept of autocatalysis from biochemistry and rich historical cases studies spanning seven centuries, Padgett and Powell develop a theory of the co-evolution of social networks. Novelty in new persons and new organizational forms emerges from spillovers across multiple, intertwined networks. To be sure, actors make relations; but the mantra of this book is that in the long run relations make actors. Through case studies of early capitalism and state formation, communist economic reforms and transition, and technologically advanced capitalism and science, the authors analyze speciation in the context of organizational novelty. Drawing on ideas from both the physical sciences and the social sciences, and incorporating novel computational, historical, and network analyses, this book offers a genuinely new approach to the question of emergence.
This week and next week, I’ll post some thoughts that John and Woody have shared with me. This is *required* reading for sociologists, management scholars, political scientists, and economists. And yes, there, will be a quiz!