Chris Thile: MacArthur Grant Recipient and Mandolinist Extraordinaire – Live Recording of Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer in the Rocky Mountains.
New orgtheory feature! Our Director of Musical Programming has invited Michael Mauskapf to be an occasional v.j. In order to mix things up, Michael will provide us with a carefully hand picked selection of music. He’s the ideal person for the job. He has a Ph.D. in musicology who has now found a better paying gig as a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Northwestern. This is Michael’s first contribution as our new vlogger.
He adds: “Telluride should use this in an ad campaign for their tourism industry. Casual virtuosity is the best virtuosity.”
I am going to take a sabbatical in the 2015-16 academic year. On the Facebook group, I asked for input and got one good suggestion. Here, I widen the query. What advice would you give to someone planning a sabbatical? Good places to go? Do’s and don’ts? Other ideas?
So I’m teaching a graduate class this semester that’s got sort of a logic-of-qualitative-inquiry thing going. One of the pieces we just read was Murray Davis’s “That’s Interesting!”
I imagine many of you know the article (it’s come up several times before on orgtheory), but for those who don’t, Davis attempts to taxonomize what makes social theories “interesting.” An interesting piece of research, he argues, does four things:
- It articulates taken-for-granted assumptions.
- Then it challenges one of those assumptions.
- It demonstrates that the challenge is correct.
- And it suggests the practical consequences of that correction.
People thought that suicide resulted from individual proclivities. But Durkheim argued that suicide could be explained by social factors. Sociologists assumed that people who were deviant committed deviant acts. But Becker showed that being labeled as deviant causes people to act in deviant ways. And so on.
It’s a great article for teaching, because it gets students thinking about how to frame their research so that readers perceive it as “interesting!” Because “interesting!” totally works for getting your research published. And Davis’s taxonomy is easy to apply to a wide range of sociological arguments. I’m not likely to stop using it in class.
But rereading it got me to thinking about the limitations of our fixation on “interesting!”
One is that “interesting!” isn’t a good criterion for normal science. Or rather, normal science can be interesting, but it’s got to include lots of not-so-interesting stuff, too, if progress is to be made.
A fixation on “interesting” is what leads us not to publish replications. Or to test scope conditions. Or to refine existing theories. Instead, we end up in a cycle of the novel and counterintuitive. One result is the situation in experimental psychology, in which the whole field seems skeptical of its own findings.
Another, I suspect, is the endless churn toward new theories and concepts that sociology is susceptible to. The quest for the interesting can produce the fractal dynamics Abbott describes. One rejects what has become mainstream in one’s subfield, arguing that an alternative approach can in fact produce new insights or challenge old assumptions. But unlike in Hegel, thesis and antithesis never seem to reach synthesis. And rejecting the status quo by upholding the status quo ante is hardly “interesting.” Instead, a new, narrower community develops around the “interesting” finding that challenges old assumptions, often under freshened-up language.
Finally, the quest for “interesting!” makes it harder to convey what we know beyond academia. Media attention goes to the research that challenge existing assumptions. So we “learn” that we were wrong about eating Mediterranean: it’s a low-carb, high-fat diet that will keep you healthy. At the extreme, this becomes the click-bait of academic research: You Thought You Knew About Social Mobility. But This One Weird Social Theory Will Prove You Wrong.
In the end, I still like the interesting: the unexpected finding, the surprising result. But it’s probably worth considering, every now and then, when we should pay some attention to the uninteresting, too.
A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.
In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:
- Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
- Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.
Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.
Last week, discussed how police interact with urban communities and the hypothesis that police are rewarded for focusing on the drug trade and they are less rewarded for just keeping the peace. Once commenter asked: what are the goals of the police? What are they trying to maximize?
Upon reflection, I realize that I had no idea, but I could generate some hypotheses:
- Department budgets
- Violent crime
- Non-violent crime
- Property crime
- Victimless crime
- Social control (i.e., controlling specific populations)
- “Broken windows” – making certain locations look desirable
- Votes (for D.A.’s especially)
I’d be interested in any data show the relative importance of these goals, say, in police budgets, arrests, prosecutions, police hours, etc. Criminology readers – how would you rank these goals given your knowledge of the field?