I am taking a blogcation for about two weeks. But before I do, I’ll make one small announcement. The sales of Grad Skool Rulz are doing well and I think it’s time for an update. New cover, new content. I’ll work on it this coming semester, once some other projects are done. So if there is something you want in the new edition, put it in the comments. Also, once the new edition is released, the first 100 copies will be free.
PS. Don’t forget – if you have an idea for a guest post, feel free to send it in.
It was recently announced that Barnes and Noble would spin off the Nook. Despite valiant attempts at penetrating the tablet market, they couldn’t do it. What is less remarked is that Barnes and Noble is actually profitable. Only the digital reader is a money loser. The question is, then, how is a brick and mortar outfit still alive in the age of Amazon and digital books?
My answer: experience. I, too, thought that B&N was done for. But what I realize is that brick and mortar, in some cases, is an experience. A pleasant place to do things, even if it can be done cheaper online. Think restaurant. B&N, and the now rebounding independent book store sector, are providing reading experiences that people value. When I go to a B&N, I see things for kids, music, and a cafe. And it’s probably the most literary place in most suburbs. So, B&N, you shall live to see another day.
A few years ago, I bought a copy of Charles Tilly’s Why?, just for fun sociology reading. All the Important sociology reading got in the way, and I never read Why?
But while I was unpacking this week I came across it and thought I’d bring it along on a car ride to Providence over the weekend. Not only is it a fun read, as well as touchingly personal at times, it turned out to be surprisingly relevant to stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.
The book is organized around four types of reasons people give for things…any things: their incarceration in mental hospitals, why a plane just flew into the World Trade Center, whether the last-minute change of an elderly heiress’s will should be honored. In grand social science tradition, the reasons are organized into a 2 x 2 table:
|Cause-Effect Accounts||Stories||Technical Accounts|
Why? illustrates these types with a wide range of engaging examples, from eyewitness accounts of September 11th to the dialog between attending physicians and interns during hospital rounds.
Conventions are demonstrated by etiquette books: they are reasons that don’t mean much of anything and aren’t necessarily true, but that follow a convenient social formula: “I lost track of the time.” Stories are reasons that provide an explanation, but one focused on a protagonist—human or otherwise—who acts, and which often contain a moral edge: evangelist Jerry Falwell’s account of how he came to oppose segregation after God spoke to him through the African-American man who shined his shoes every week. Both conventions and stories are homely, everyday kinds of reasons.
Codes and technical accounts, on the other hand, are the reasons experts give. Reasons that conform to codes explain how an action was in accordance with some set of specialized rules. The Department of Public Works did not repair the air conditioning because they lacked a form 27B/6. While law is the quintessential code, Tilly shows that medicine follows codes to a surprising extent as well.
Finally, technical accounts attempt to provide cause-effect explanations of why some outcome occurs. Jared Diamond argues that Europe developed first because it had domesticable plants and animals and sufficient arable land, and lacked Africa’s north-south axis. Technical accounts draw on specialized bodies of knowledge, and attempt to produce truth, not just conformity with rules.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months thinking about what experts do in policy, and thinking about the different paths through which they can have effects. Lots of these effects are technical, of course. Expert opinion may not determine the outcome in debates over the macroeconomic effects of tax policy changes or what standards nutrition guidelines should be set at, but there’s no question that they’re informed by technical accounts.
But at least as important in influencing a wider audience are the stories experts can tell. Deborah Stone wrote about these “policy stories” decades ago, though she wasn’t especially focused on experts’ role in creating them. Political scientists like Ann Keller, however, have shown that scientists, too, translate their expertise into policy stories—for example, that human activity was creating the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that produce acid rain, destroying fisheries and making water undrinkable. These stories are grounded in technical accounts, but are simplified versions with moral undertones that point toward a particular range of policy solutions—in this case, doing something about the SOx and NOx emissions that the story identifies as creating the problem.
Some kinds of expertise, or rather some kinds of technical accounts, are more amenable than others to translation into policy stories. Economic models, in particular, are often friendly to such translation. For example, although this isn’t the language I use there, my book in part argues that U.S. science policy changed because of a model-turned-story. Robert Solow’s growth model, which includes technology as a factor that affects economic growth (by increasing the productivity of labor), became by the late 1970s the basis of a powerful policy story in which the U.S. needed to improve its capacity for technological innovation so that it could restore its economic position in the world.
Similarly, a basic human capital model in which investment in training results in higher wages easily becomes a story in which we need to improve or extend education so that people’s income increases.
Sociological models, even the formal ones, seem less amenable on average to these kinds of translations. Though Blau and Duncan’s well-known status attainment model could be read as suggesting education as a point of intervention to improve occupational status, it seems fairer to read it as saying that occupational status is largely determined by your father’s occupation and education. While this certainly has policy implications, they are not as natural an extension from the model itself. It hearkens back to that old saw—economics is about how people make choices; sociology is about how they don’t have any choices to make.
I guess part of the appeal of Why? for me was that it mapped surprisingly well onto these questions that were already on my mind. Mostly I’ve thought about this in the context of economic models becoming policy stories. I wonder, though, whether my quick generalization about the technical accounts of sociology lending themselves less readily to compelling policy stories actually holds up. What are the obvious examples I’m missing?
This coming Fall, I will be one of the program chairs of Soc Info 2014, the 6th annual conference in social informatics. It will be held in Barcelona, Spain at the Yahoo regional headquarters. It’s a great opportunity to meet the people on the cutting edge of computer science and social science. We’ve already got a stunning line up of key note speakers – Lada Adamic, Duncan Watts, Michael Macy, and Daniele Quercia. Submit a paper or attend!
This August 15, Alex Hanna, a computational sociologist at Wisconsin, will host “Big Cities, Big Data” at the campus of UC Berekeley. BC/BD is a “hackathon” – a meeting of people who program all night long to develop new projects. The next day, the results will be presented at a workshop at ASA. From the announcement:
The theme is “big cities, big data: big opportunity for computational social science,” the idea being looking at contemporary urban issues — especially housing challenges — using data gathered and made publicly available by cities including San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Austin, Boston, Somerville, Seattle, etc.
The hacking will start at noon on August 15 and go until the next day. Sleeping is optional. We’ll have a presentation and judging session in the evening of August 16 in San Francisco, exact location TBD.
We’re working with several academic and industry partners to bring together tools and datasets which social scientists can use at the event. So stay tuned as that develops.
Check it out! It’s the place to meet the next generation of sociology hackers!