Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
As many of you know, Washington University decided to reestablish a sociology department after notoriously shutting theirs down some two decades ago. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has reported that the university has chosen the department’s first chair and associate chair — Steven Mazzari, a macroeconomist at Wash U., and Mark Rank, who started in Washington’s sociology department before moving to the School of Social Work in 1989.
This seems like a surprising decision. The Chronicle writes:
Administrators had considered appointing a senior figure in American sociology to be chair, but, “lacking an obvious candidate,” as Mr. Fazzari puts it, they turned to him. Along with several teaching awards, he has six years of experience as chair of the economics department, and has done stints on campus-planning and hiring committees. He was a member of the campus advisory panel formed last year to consider how to revive sociology.
“There is much overlap between the problems addressed by economics and sociology,” he says. “Economics also provides a firm grounding in technical modeling and data analysis that is part of much advanced work in many social sciences, including sociology.”
I can imagine various reasons they might have taken this approach. Luring a top senior person in to build a department from scratch has to be a challenge. Still, Washington has a lot of resources and is a highly respected university (outside of sociology, where it has no presence). And there are some definite downsides to launching the department without a highly visible sociologist at the helm. I’m curious what the back story is here but, having no inside information, will leave it to you to speculate.
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.”
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.
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:
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.