Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category

race and genomics: comments on shiao et al.

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Shiao et al in Sociological Theory, the symposioum, Scatterplot’s discussion, Andrew Perrin’s comments, last week’s discussion.

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?

  1. The null hypothesis: your clustering methods yield no clusters (e.g., there are no detectable sub-groups of people).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

October 20, 2014 at 12:01 am

if sociology had an igm panel

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The IGM panel of economic experts got some recent buzz because 63% of their experts — 81%, when weighted by confidence — disagree with the Piketty-inspired argument that r > g is driving recent wealth inequality in the U.S.

I always enjoy reading these surveys. The panel includes 50 or so top academic economists, from a variety of subfields and political orientations, and asks them whether they agree or disagree with a policy-relevant economic statement. Respondents answer on a Likert scale, and indicate their degree of certainty as well as their level of agreement. Sometimes they add a short comment.

The results usually aren’t incredibly surprising. Not really shocking that 100% of economists agree that

Letting car services such as Uber or Lyft compete with taxi firms on equal footing regarding genuine safety and insurance requirements, but without restrictions on prices or routes, raises consumer welfare.

They’re a little more nervous about selling kidneys (45% favor, but nearly 30% find themselves “uncertain” — the highest proportion for any recent question besides whether ending net neutrality is a good thing). The most interesting ones are those where there’s disagreement (Have the last decade of airline mergers improved things for travelers?) or that counter the stereotype (54% disagree that giving holiday presents — rather than cash — is inefficient. Okay, counters it a little).

Anyway, this got me wondering. What if sociology had a similar panel? I mean, aside from the fact that no one would care. I can think of empirical findings we’d have broad confidence in that much of the public wouldn’t buy — for example, that there’s lots of hiring discrimination against African-Americans. But are there policy prescriptions we’d agree on — ones that are grounded in the discipline, as opposed coming solely from our left-leaning tendencies, though of course the two are hard to separate — that would tell us, Yep, sociologists WOULD say that.

EDITED TO ADD: Yes, I know that Piketty does not actually argue r > g is the cause of recent inequality growth in the US, which is what the question asks. But if they can headline the poll “Piketty on Inequality,” it seems fair to call the statement “Piketty-inspired.”

Written by epopp

October 16, 2014 at 2:43 am

before you say race isn’t real, you need a definition of race

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This week, I’d like to focus on the sociology of race. We’ll discuss Shiao et al.’s Sociological Theory article The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race, which is the subject of a symposium. After you read the article and symposium, you might enjoy the Scatterplot discussion.

In this first post, I’d like to discuss the definitional problems associated with the concept “race.” The underlying concept is that people differ in some systematic way that goes beyond learned traits (like language). One aspect of the “person in the street” view of race is that it reflects common ancestry, which produces correlated physical and social traits. When thinking about this approach to race, most sociologists adopt the constructivist view which says that: (a) the way we group people together reflects our historical moment, not a genuine grouping of people with shared traits and  (b) the only physical differences between people are superficial.

One thing to note about the constructivist approach to race is that the first claim is very easy to defend and the other is very challenging. The classifications used by the “person on the street” are essentially fleeting social conventions. For example, Americans used the “one drop rule” to classify people, but it makes little sense because putting more weight on Black ancestors than White ancestors is arbitrary. Furthermore, ethnic classifications vary by place and even year to year. The ethnic classifications used in social practice flunk the basic tests of reliability and validity that one would want from any measurement of the social world.

The second claim is that there are no meaningful differences between people in general. This claim is much harder to make. This is not an assessment of truth of the claim, but the evidence needed to make is of a tall order. Namely, to make the strong constructivist argument, you would need (a) a definition of which traits matter, (b) a systematic measurement of those traits from a very large sample of people, (c) criteria for clustering people based on data, and (d) a clear test that all (or even most) reasonable clustering methods show a single group of people. As you can see, you need *a lot* of evidence to make that work.

That is where Shiao et al get into the game. They never dispute the first claim, but suggest that the second claim is indefensible – there is evidence of non-random clustering of people using genomic data. This is very important because it disentangles two important issues – race as social category and race as intra-group similarity. It’s like saying the Average Joe may be mistaken about air, earth, water, and fire, but real scientists can see that there are elements out there and you can do real science with them.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 14, 2014 at 12:04 am

new asa blog

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The ASA has a new blog where you can discuss association related issues.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 11, 2014 at 12:06 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

the meditation movement and the challenge to the theory of fields or, why you should check out jaime kucinskas’ work

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Mobilizing Ideas recently ran a post about emerging stars of social movement research. I was thrilled to see three folks with IU connections – Matt Baggeta of IU’s top ranked policy school, Casey Oberlin of Grinnell (IU grad), Jaime Kucinskas of Hamilton (another IU grad). I’ve already discussed Casey’s work on this blog, so let me take a moment to tell you why you should pay attention to Jaime’s work.

Jaime’s dissertation was a study of religious change. Specifically, the rise of meditation as a serious topic in academia and American popular culture. Basically, meditation has found its way into many areas of American social life – even the military! The reason Jaime finds this interesting is that it is a serious change in American spiritual life that happened without the process of conflict and resource mobilization as described in works like Fligstein and McAdam’s Theory of Fields.

Jaime points out that movements can have great impacts by bypassing the contentious politics route. She argues that American meditation is a top down, elite driven movement that does a lot of institutional work behind the scenes and uses the levers of elite institutions to subtly inject new religious practice into popular culture. Based on great field work and extensive interviews, it is a great case study with broad and deep implications. Check it out.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

hector cordero-guzman on measuring latino ethnicity

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Hector Cordero-Guzman is a sociologist at CUNY who writes extensively on immigration, ethnicity, and related topics. In relation to our post on race agnosticism, Hector reminded me that he wrote a post on measuring race for the blog Latino Rebels. In the post, he describes his reaction and analysis to the claim that Latinos were increasingly self-identifying as white. From the post:

Recently, a controversy about Latinos and racial classifications has led to heated debate based on a toxic mix of incomplete conclusions from research and rampant speculation.

A draft presentation at the Population Association of America (PAA) chronicled by a Pew Research senior writer was then picked up by Nate Cohn, writing for The New York Times’ “Upshot” blog.  In the eyes of Cohn, his editor David Leonhardt and the Times, and based on a report that the scientific community has not seen or evaluated, Latinos were becoming “whiter.”

Surrounding all the controversy and discussion about reporting on research that was not available for inspection or review by other academics, two explanations to the tentative result from the unavailable census study have emerged: that the people changed (Cohn, Leonhardt and The Times) or that the census questions changed (Manuel Pastor in the HuffPost).

He follows with an analysis that can be summarized as:

A second possibility is that the context where the question is asked matters and that asking about race in Puerto Rico is different than asking the same population about their race in New York City. The question is not changing and the people are not changing—what is changing is the context, the reference point, the broader racial classification schema and categories that are used, how they are interpreted, their subjective meaning, and their social and sociological role.

Cohn further argues that the reported change in the answers given to the race question suggest Hispanic assimilation into the U.S. and into its racial classification schema. If anything, comparing data from Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York City suggests that mainland Puerto Ricans develop a sense of “otherness” as they come into closer contact with the U.S. racial classification regime. In fact, it would be interesting to compare the data from Puerto Rico with data from Puerto Ricans throughout the U.S. (not just New York City), those residing in various regions, as well as looking at the more recent arrivals to see if the categories they pick are different from Puerto Ricans that have been living on the mainland for a longer period of time.

In other words, study context acts as important cue for creating interpretations of race on surveys. The whole post is highly recommended.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 


Written by fabiorojas

October 7, 2014 at 2:10 am

road trip – fall 2014 meet ups!!

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Orgheads, I will be travelling a bit in late October and early November. If you want to hang and talk sociology, organizations, or whatever, just drop by! We’ll make some time:

  • October 17: Mississippi State University – “More Tweets, More Votes.” New results + a Grad Skool Rulz bonus round.
  • October 24: The University of Southern California – “The Four Histories of Black Power: A Sociological Challenge to Black Power Historical Scholarship.” ’nuff said.
  • November 10-13: SocInfo 2014!! The conference that bridges computer  science and social science. This conference will be held at Yahoo Headquarters in Barcelona.

See you then!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 6, 2014 at 12:01 am


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