levy book forum part 1: what is rationalism, pluralism and freedom about?

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Levy book cover

This month, I will discuss Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom by my good friend Jacob Levy. I usually don’t write much on “political theory,” as it is a genre of scholarship that I am not fluent in, but I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this book.

Levy’s goal is to review the tradition of political thought in the West and argue that there is a fundamental tension. First, one might think that, from a liberal perspective, that people have the right to association. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Western liberalism is the view that people have the right to live in neighborhoods they choose, join churches they like and otherwise hang out with who they want. Yet, at the same time, these non-state groups impose all kinds of restrictions. And this is the tension: liberals tend to put tight reins on states – they are supposed to have limited powers over people – but people can still join groups that are highly illiberal in character.

Summarizing this book is tough, but it has a few major sections, each with a distinct message. The first clearly articulates the problem and offers the argument that states and private groups can over-reach and move in illiberal directions. The second major section ranges through political and social thought and is an exploration of thinking about the boundaries between states, civil society and individuals through modern (e.g., 1500+) history. The third section is an argument against synthesis – you can’t believe at the same time that groups are totally awesome because they shield you from the state but at the same time totally be against their constraining character.

The book is really two short books – one on history of thought and another on ethics (how two normative positions are mutually exclusive) – so my discussion will not go into every detail. What I will do is pick out some parts that sociologists might enjoy and put them under scrutiny.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 


Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

third world quarterly retracts “the case for colonialism”

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News has come that Third World Quarterly has withdrawn “The Case for Colonialism.” It’s a weak article, but I do not believe that it should be retracted. So what happened? According to the journal’s website:

This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay. Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

Horrible. Nobody, including, academics should be subject to violence. I completely understand this action. At the same time, I wonder what can be done in the future to protect freedom of speech. People like to joke that sensitive academics are imposing a “heckler’s veto” but this is much, much worse. This now sets a regrettable standard – if you don’t like an idea, make a “credible” threat of violence.

At this point in time, I do not have a clear thought on how academics should respond to threats. But at the very least, we, as a community, can say “enough is enough.” Academics should be united in defending speech. I hope the next time a controversial speaker arrives at campus or published an ill argued article, that fewer of us will demand “retraction!” Now, we have seen the next step and it is not good.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2017 at 4:24 am

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nancy ska/tom thumb

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One my favorite Wayne Shorter compositions, done in the “ska-jazz” style.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 15, 2017 at 4:07 am

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nudging the economists (guest post by juan pablo pardo-guerra)

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It is the best of prizes. It is the worst of prizes. Let me focus on the latter.

On Monday, the renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel Prize in Economics. For the Washington Post, the award made “economics more human—and real”. For The Atlantic, it was a much-deserved recognition for someone whose “career has been a lifelong war on Homo economicus”. There may be much to celebrate, but there is even more to ponder.

Thaler’s award speaks to three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits. Firstly, it is disparaging that the prize recognizes research showing “that people can be influenced by [mostly social] prompts to alter their behavior” given that other sections of the social sciences have been doing this for, well, just about forever (e.g. seems there was this French dude called Gabriel Tarde…). This year’s Nobel Prize was as much a recognition of behavioral economics within the intellectual firmament of the discipline as a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).

This year’s Nobel Prize is problematic for a second reason. Behavioral economics does not seem to be in the same league as the politically troublesome contributions of some of the more controversial previous laureates (think: Milton Friedman or Robert Lucas), but as a matter of fact, it sort of is. Though it might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioral turn doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue. Consider the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, central to the type of applied behavioral economics that made Thaler’s research so publicly relevant. Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium, ‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’. I am not saying that this is not positive: I am sure that creating psychological incentives so that people increase their investments in retirement will eventually help them; but so would a stronger social security net and a stronger, better funded state welfare apparatus. At the end of the day, the metrics of success in behavioral economics are uncritical of how the economy is built and remit to the ‘less human’, more market-centered, and ‘more surreal’ varieties of economic analysis that behavioral economists like Thaler so bemoan at a first degree of approximation.

Thirdly, the economics prize showcases and arguably reproduces the lack of diversity and intellectual variety in the discipline. Historically, the economics prize is overwhelmingly white and male. Only one woman received the prize to date—Elinor Ostrom, “for her analysis of economic governance”; the same is true for non-white economists—represented by Amartya Sen for his “research on the fundamental problems of welfare economics”. So while economics might expand its reach in colleges, universities, and government offices throughout the world, the Nobel committee reminds us year after year that there is pretty much one type of economics that is better than the rest. It has a race; it has a gender. This is quite regrettable, particularly in a year when discussions about gender in economics were so prominent in the news. There is no dearth of women or minorities in economics—example: Maureen O’Hara’s work in market microstructure theory is perhaps more relevant and intellectually important than Eugene Fama’s somewhat passé discussions of asset prices and market efficiency from the 1970s that were recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2013. (Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart also jumps to mind).

So this was the best of prizes (for Thaler—kitchen remodel) and the worst of prizes (for the rest—economics won’t change much), a missed opportunity to nudge the discipline in a slightly different direction. Perhaps this is asking too much from a committee that represents all too well the gendered dynamics of economics in Sweden (I could not find a female committee member, but I might be wrong): in 2005, Statistics Sweden only identified one full professor of economics in the entire country. How’s that for an architecture of choice?

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UCSD. His research explores the connections between markets, cultures and technologies.


Written by jeffguhin

October 11, 2017 at 12:26 am

Teaching/research/learning opportunity available in Lebanon

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Paul Galatowitsch has an announcement for organizational researchers who are looking to integrate their summer/winter break with teaching, research, and/or learning in Lebanon.

This might be of particular interest those with experience or seeking experience with NGOs, health systems, and refugees: and the Short Course in Lebanon is up and ready.  I would really like to get some Organizational Sociologists on board…. It’s a great research and service opportunity.


Written by katherinechen

October 10, 2017 at 7:38 pm

sociological science v. plos one

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A few days ago, the Sociological Science editors released a report that discusses their journal’s performance over the last three years. I was also reading an interview with the editor of PLoS One, Joerg Heber, These two items show how these journals operate in different ways and the long term results of their editorial policy choices. Before I move on, I want to thank each journal for making their work transparent. Sociological Science and PLoS One have shown how to do scientific publishing in ways that make editorial decisions more transparent.

PLoS One: The idea is here is simple. PLoS One will only evaluate papers based on technical criteria and ethical standards. In other words, they only thing that is judged is whether the evidence in the paper actually matches the claim of the paper. No judgment is made about whether it is “high impact.” Basically, if it is competent, it gets published, assuming the authors are willing to pay the fees. Papers are blind reviewed, but authors are given many, many chances to fix flaws until either (a) the author gives up or (b) all flaws are addressed.

Long term impact? PLoS One now publishes about 20,000 papers a year. Acceptance rate? 50% in 2016, down from about 66% in earlier years. PLoS has published fewer papers than before, probably due to the rise of Science Advances (the open access branch of Science).  Also, PLoS One has a decent impact factor (2.8 in 2016) given that, by design, they published a lot of marginal materials.

Sociological Science: Also a simple idea – send us a paper, they peer review fast and give you a “yes or no.” There are no revisions. Then, after you pay the publication fee, it goes open access. The result? They get 100-200 papers a year and publish about 20-25% of them. The impact factor is not reported (I may have missed it).

Perhaps the most interesting thing that I saw in the Sociological Science report was an analysis of the “most senior co-author.” They find that 47% of the top co-authors are full professors. This is insane, given that full professors, by design, a small fraction of the population of sociologists and many of them no longer publish because they are deadwood or administrators. Post-docs should be all over Sociological Science since they are desperate for jobs and have a lot of new work. This fits my impression, expressed on Facebook, that Sociological Science tilts towards research that is more established. It makes sense given the editorial model. If you are shooting for well done articles but only give “up or down” decisions with no revision, you select out for older authors and more established work.

A comparison of both journals shows that open access publishing is successful. If you want a public repository of peer reviewed work, the PLoS One is clearly a winner. Sociological Science seems to have taken the position of a well regarded specialty journal, with an emphasis on more established authors. That is good too.

Readers know that I am a “journal pluralist.” I am very happy that we have both of these publications. Three cheers for Sociological Science and three cheers for PLoS One.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 


Written by fabiorojas

October 5, 2017 at 12:01 pm

response to gelman on what retraction does and does not do

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In our recent discussion about retraction, Andrew Gelman wrote the following:

I’m on record as saying that retraction is not much of a solution to anything given that it’s performed so rarely.

So I agree with you, I guess, and I’d probably go further and say that we can’t realistically expect papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous. Again, the problem is that there are so many papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous, that most of them aren’t gonna get retracted anyway.

We have to get away from the whole idea that, just cos a paper is published in a serious journal (even a top journal), that it’s correct or even reasonable. Top journals regularly publish crap. They publish good stuff too, but they also publish a lot of crap. And, to the extent that retraction is a way to “protect the brand,” I’m against it.

This comment made me think about the problem with litigation – while it may help the plaintiff achieve an outcome, it rarely solves any broader problem. This is because taking people to court is a lengthy, expensive and inefficient process. Retraction is really similar. It is simply not a tool meant for more systematic monitoring of academic work. It is a blunt tool meant only for really extreme cases.

What would I suggest? 1. Encourage openness and replication. 2. Institute rules so people can share data. 3. Create systems were discussions of papers can be appended to papers. These are all less expensive and more decentralized ways to monitor work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2017 at 4:01 am