A common, and important, critique of journals is that they don’t want to publish null results. So when I saw a new piece in Socio-Economic Review yesterday reporting essentially null findings, I thought it was worth a shout-out. The article, by economist Stefan Thewissen, is titled, “Is It the Income Distribution or Redistribution That Affects Growth?” (paywalled; email me for a copy). Here’s the abstract:
This study addresses the central question in political economy how the objectives of attaining economic growth and restricting income inequality are related. Thus far few studies explicitly distinguish between effects of income inequality as such and effects of redistributing public interventions to equalize incomes on economic growth. In fact, most studies rely on data that do not make this distinction properly and in which top-coding is applied so that enrichment at the top end of the distribution is not adequately captured. This study aims to contribute using a pooled time-series cross-section design covering 29 countries, using OECD, LIS, and World Top Income data. No robust association between inequality and growth or redistribution and growth is found. Yet there are signs for a positive association between top incomes and growth, although the coefficient is small and a causal interpretation does not seem to be warranted.
Okay, so there’s the “signs for a positive association” caveat. But “the coefficient is small and a causal interpretation does not seem to be warranted” seems pretty close to null to me.
In light of the attention this report from S&P has been getting — e.g. from Krugman today (h/t Dan H.) — all solid findings, null and otherwise, on the inequality-growth relationship warrant publication. Hats off to SER for publishing Thewissen’s.
I’ve recently argued that sociology has an amazing opportunity. The emergence of data science means that you should have people who really understand research design and social behavior. It doesn’t mean that sociology will automatically reap the benefits. Rather, we’ll have to work at it. My suggestions:
- Sociology programs should now make basic programming a standard feature of the undergrad and graduate degree.
- We have to have an internal discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Internet generated data, much in the same way that there is a literature on the pros and cons of surveys, experiments, and ethnography.
We should also reach out to our colleagues:
- Start cross-over workshops.
- Reach out to faculty who already work with behavioral data by offering to help with grants
- Personally, I’ve found it hard to work with CS graduate students. They have the normal level of grad student instability + six figure paychecks waiting for them outside of academia. But still, some are very curious, super smart, and willing to think about behavioral science.
The major barrier, in my view, is the differing publication style. CS happens very, very quickly – sometimes in a manner of weeks, while sociology is slow. We have to stop that.
Yesterday afternoon I ended up reading this Vox story about an effort to rank US Universities and Colleges carried out in 1911 by a man named Kendric Charles Babcock. On Twitter, Robert Kelchen remarks that the report was "squashed by Taft" (an unpleasant fate), and he links to the report itself, which is terrific. Babcock divided schools into four Classes, beginning with Class I:
And descending all the way to Class IV:
Babcock’s discussion of his methods is admirably brief (the snippet above hints at the one sampling problem that possibly troubled him), so I recommend you read the report yourself.
University reputations are extremely sticky, the conventional wisdom goes. I was interested to see whether Babcock’s report bore that out. I grabbed the US News and World Report National University Rankings and National Liberal Arts College Rankings and made a quick pass through them, coding their 1911 Babcock Class. The question is whether Mr Babcock, should he return to us from the grave, would be satisfied with how his rankings had held up—more than a century of massive educational expansion and alleged disruption notwithstanding.
It turns out that he would be quite pleased with himself.
One of the most famous passages in economic thought is Schumpeter’s description of markets as an arena for “creative destruction.” This conjures images of the rust belt with its abandoned factories and warehouses. In the Internet age, I think the story is a bit different. Sure, we have Pets.com and other collateral damage of innovation, but it seems that the Internet allows some firms and brands a bit more flexibility. You have creative reconstruction.
For example, people laugh at MySpace and Friendster for losing their early advantage in social networking to Facebook. It sounds as if these firms became the 21st century equivalent of horse and buggy firms (which is also a myth – these firms didn’t just go bankrupt but slowly morphed and merged with auto makers). But if you actually look, you see that MySpace is attracting a million visitors per month and ranks in the top 500 web sites in the United States. Similarly, Friendster is now a gaming web site with a few million users, mainly from Asia.
Make no mistake, these firms will likely never regain their position of dominance. They are quite close to failure (see here for recent MySpace pessimism). But they still seem to have quite a bit of value, nearly a decade after their collapse. If I told you about a company with a few million visitors, but didn’t tell you the origin, you’d probably be impressed. The lesson I take is that the market can allow opportunities for reconstruction.
A recent Inside Higher Ed article describes the world of academic self-publishing. My own view of the issue:
Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, said he’s “still a believer in regular publishing.” (His next book is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.)
“The reason that academia has value is that we’re people who engage in self-criticism,” Rojas said. “We have peer review. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t always work, and a lot of garbage gets published anyway. But that’s why most of the energy in academia may be on traditionally peer-reviewed materials — because that’s what the value added is.”
But self-publishing, the sociologist said, “is now a new tool in the tool box.”
“If I want to get something out there that doesn’t quite fit the mold, then I have this new option,” he said. “What if Mark Zuckerberg had to go to the Myspace people and ask permission to start Facebook? That would be absurd. Same thing with academia: after a certain point you have to say, if this is a truly good idea, you have to take the initiative and get it out there.”
Other scholars, however, aim for a middle ground. They want to avoid the hassles of academic publishing, but they don’t want to abandon the long-cherished forms that scholarship tends to take: the review, the article, the monograph. And they hesitate to publish through Amazon or through similar websites like Smashwords or Lulu, which publish all manuscripts without any screening process.
The online, open-access journal Sociological Science is one example of how scholars have tried to develop alternative publishing models. The journal is peer-reviewed: well-regarded sociologists select which papers to publish. But the journal does not offer editorial suggestions, and it publishes all accepted papers within 30 days of receiving them.
A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:
Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.
My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.
Dirk vom Lehn is a lecturer in marketing, interaction, and technology at King’s College London. He is very interested in ethnomethodology and interactionism. He wrote this short comment about museums.
The Organization of Museums
Dirk vom Lehn (King’s College London)
It’s holiday season and many of the readers orgtheory.net are going not only to the beach but also to museums, galleries and science centers. It therefore is just right that orgtheory.net runs a series of posts concerned with museums as organizations giving us some ideas of what to look out for, apart from the fun and entertainment of the sites. In organization studies and related disciplines there has been of course a long-standing interest in museums as organizations. Many of these disciplines however primarily focus on museums as organizations that deploy technologies to collect, archive, preserve and exhibit original objects. They curiously show little interest in studying exhibitions and the organization of actions through which the general public, including us, the readers of orgtheory.net in our leisure, gain access to and make sense of the original objects on display. Whilst there is considerable sociological and applied research in the area of audience and visitor research in museums, it largely either re-evaluates the intellectual access to museums using Bourdieusian concepts – see for example Tony Bennett’s (cf. 2009) excellent analyses – or conducts evaluation studies that aim to improve the ‘effectiveness’ of museums in providing people with physical and intellectual access to science, culture and the arts. These evaluations of ‘effectiveness’ are of limited use to museums and are in fact, as a recent report by Maurice Davies and Christian Heath (2013, p.3) suggests, “seen as a necessary chore, part of accountability but marginal to the work of museums” (Davies and Heath 2013a, p.3). For organization studies however, it would seem that this concern of museum managers with ‘effectiveness’ could be a starting-point to intervene and conduct studies on the exhibition floor. Rather than starting from educational measures and indicators of learning from exhibits that often are deployed by exhibition evaluators and museum educators, organization studies could flip perspectives and instead investigate how those acting and interacting on the exhibition floor, orient to effectiveness. So, when on our vacation we visit museums we might want to consider if we (and our family and friends) see our engagement with the original objects in the exhibitions as ‘effective’ and in what way. What would have helped our experience with the exhibits? What hindered it? Questions like these might give us a starting-point where to start and expand organization studies’ perspective on museums on our return to the office. Until then, enjoy your vacations and the museums you visit.
Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Professor of Sociology Mike Savage, Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. Routledge.
Bittner, Egon. 1965. “The Concept of Organization.” Edited by Roy Turner. Social Research 32 (3): 239–258. doi:10.5449/idslu-001091498.176.
Davies, Maurice, and Christian Heath. 2014. “‘Good’ Organisational Reasons for ‘ineffectual’ Research: Evaluating Summative Evaluation of Museums and Galleries.” Cultural Trends 23 (1): 57–69. doi:10.1080/09548963.2014.862002.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1956. “Some Sociological Concepts and Methods for Psychologists.” Psychological Research Reports 6 (October): 181–195.
Heath, Christian, and Dirk vom Lehn. 2008. “Configuring ‘Interactivity’: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums.” Social Studies of Science 38 (1): 63–91. doi:10.1177/0306312707084152.
vom Lehn, Dirk. 2014. Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.