Yesterday at the Harvard-MIT economic sociology workshop, I saw David Brady from Duke present some work on an approach to poverty that takes both micro (human capital, family structure, etc.) and macro (welfare state, economic growth, etc) seriously. In a nutshell, he finds that in the OECD, left-wing governments imply a large welfare state which implies not only low poverty, but ameliorates the micro predictors like female-headed household and low education. Furthermore, he found that the main effect of unionization is mediated by the state (i.e., collective bargaining is peanuts and the real action is unions getting lefties in office). Brady cast the research as testing liberal economic theory (growth solves poverty by increasing demand for labor), structural theory (liberal theory is basically right but it doesn’t work for all groups), and power relations theory (poverty is solved when left-wing parties take power and solve it) — with the results most supporting power relations, being ok for structural, and not at all for liberal. He had some very well designed models and good data and basically did great stuff with the error terms, intervening variables, and all that, but there was a serious problem, at least rhetorically, and possibly epistemologically as well.

The problem was the dependent variable. Brady measures poverty as a binary variable defined as disposable income less than half of the context-specific median. This means there are two ways for “poverty” to increase: for the bottom to lose disposable income or for the median to gain it. This leads to conclusions that are a bit hard to swallow on the face of it, like that Ireland has recently experienced a sharp increase in poverty, whereas the conventional way to describe that island is that in the last twenty years it has experienced explosive economic growth and now has large positive migration. Despite the counter-intuitiveness of a celtic tiger whose poor were better off when the economy was in the toilet, the definition of <.5contextmedian(disposable) is very defensible based on a large and solid literature across the social sciences (which Brady knows infinitely better than I do) on both bidding up of scarce positional goods as well as less tangible and more subjective aspects of relative deprivation. Basically, it is true that as the saying goes, America is a country where the poor people are fat — but this doesn’t mean that at least in some meaningful sense they aren’t really poor.

Nonetheless, even if you think this definition of poverty has a lot going for it, there is an inescapable sense that we’re witnessing a bait-and-switch where we’re measuring inequality and calling it poverty. It’s a lot less interesting to demonstrate that left-wing parties reduce inequality than to say they reduce poverty. At least two people in the room (myself and the guy who beat me to asking the question) were thinking this and Brady said he gets that question all the time. His answer was basically that absolute measures of poverty are both philosophically unjustifiable and methodologically problematic in comparative research because of things like which basket of goods (notably health care) the state provides directly. I thought this was a convincing argument for making <.5contextmedian(disposable) his preferred measure but a rather weak and defensive reason for making it the only measure. A big part of the problem is that he cast his project as testing liberal economic theory vs. power relations theory, but he uses a definition of the outcome preferred by the latter. From a liberal perspective, this is a cop-out since they never claimed that they would compress the income distribution, only that they would promote Pareto-efficient growth. You can use happiness research to demonstrate that this goal will not maximize subjective utility of the bottom quartile, but you can’t use it to demonstrate that it won’t succeed on its own terms. To see if liberal economics accomplishes what it wants to accomplish, you need a liberal outcome; whether it is right to want to accomplish that is a different question.

More generally, say that you build an analysis on some assumptions that you really like and you have all sorts of good reasons to favor, but that some people are just too stubborn to take them seriously. If these people are just marginal cranks, you can ignore them. But if they are not, then you have a problem. You can either convince them to adopt your assumptions (good luck), or you can, for the sake of argument, adopt their flawed assumptions and see if your results are robust. If they are robust, you win, since even on their terms you’re still right. If they aren’t robust, then you have a problem, but at least you’ve narrowed and clarified it. It’s not necessarily worth doing this if it would be extremely cumbersome (radically different model specification, nontrivial data collection) but if it’s something simple (log something, use Huber-White standard errors, break a continuous variable into a dummy set to look for nonlinear effects) then there’s really no excuse. You don’t have to make the main presentation their way, but there’s nothing so convincing as a footnote saying “I tried it the other way and the results are robust.” Basically, when you’re dealing with some obstinate asshole (especially if that asshole is a peer reviewer) it’s a good idea to be the adult and let them be the stubborn one rather than engage in a shouting match of the deaf. Would it really kill you to say, I still think I’m right, but here’s what it looks like if we assume you’re right? In the specific case of Brady, I think his research is solid, but it would be devastating if he added an appendix where he does all his models the same, but uses an absolute definition of poverty to show that his analysis is robust to assuming the importance of relative deprivation. (Or is it? There’s only one way to find out.)

Written by gabrielrossman

September 20, 2007 at 4:42 pm

50 Responses

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  1. This leads to conclusions that are a bit hard to swallow on the face of it, like that Ireland has recently experienced a sharp increase in poverty, whereas the conventional way to describe that island is that in the last twenty years it has experienced explosive economic growth and now has large positive migration.

    Ireland is a tricky case because a key effect of the celtic tiger has been leave behind a large chunk of people who didn’t benefit from all the growth. In the 1980s most poor people in Ireland were also unemployed, because the whole economy was in the toilet. Nowadays, the poor in Ireland tend to be the elderly and people stuck in rural areas. And there are a lot more of them than you’d imagine.

    This group has certainly become more poor in relative terms. The argument that there’s a bait-and-switch here where poverty is really inequality in disguise is a good one, though I think Dave’s answer isn’t bad: the problem is not so much that one measure is substituted for another but that in rich societies poverty is inescapably relative and tied to some concept of social participation or exclusion, and thus to inequality. While the liberal perspective may not have claimed to make everyone more equal by way of compressing the income distribution, it did claim that growth was a rising tide that was going to lift all boats at pretty much the same rate. The Irish case is a pretty good counterexample in this regard.

    Perhaps a measure of the degree to which the bottom quartile is falling away from or closing in with the rest might be a way to attack the problem. Measures of absolute poverty, on the other hand, seem rather harder to construct cross-nationally given the kind of data that’s available. Either you’re quickly led to the conclusion that effectively no-one in the OECD is poor (hey, calories are cheap), or you start relativizing the measure.



    September 20, 2007 at 5:35 pm

  2. kieran,

    i actually agree that relative measures of poverty are probably the best bet in wealthy societies and that in such a light Ireland actually has experienced increasing poverty. my point though was that using a relative measure is a nontrivial assumption which not everyone is willing to buy and there is at the very least a rhetorical benefit in humoring them and experimenting with absolute measures as a supplemental robustness check. not being a comparative guy myself, i’m not familiar with exactly what type of data are available (and i should note that brady said the dataset is one of those strict IRB secure-server mega-hassles that discourages tinkering), but i was imagining something like using his exact measure but setting the median across, rather than within, contexts (and perhaps throwing in some kind of ppp converter). this would be a pretty crappy measure but my hope is that it would be good enough for the people who say “i don’t care if elderly and rural irish got left behind while everybody else rode the tiger, i’m only interested in whether they actually fell back in absolute terms.”



    September 20, 2007 at 6:35 pm

  3. The relative poverty dependent variable also becomes problematic when you start looking for policy solutions. The easiest way to fight poverty, in relative terms, would just be to tax the rich excessively. Now, I have no problems with increased taxation, but if you’re not really changing the denominator (incomes of the poorest population), then I wonder if the policy is really working. Ideally, you’d like to transfer some of the wealth downwards.



    September 20, 2007 at 6:52 pm

  4. brayden,

    it gets even weirder than that. one of the most obvious policy implications of taking relative poverty seriously is drastically reducing both legal and illegal low-skilled immigration. libertarians like to argue that the best thing about immigration is the (absolute) increase in prosperity to the immigrants themselves, but if you’re really into the idea of context-specific relative deprivation, then you’re doing something pretty bad by allowing people from the median income of a middle-income country to move into the tenth percentile of a rich country.
    it changes a lot if you start talking about immigrants from the bottom billion since (as kieran implied) the literature shows that the whole relative deprivation thing only dominates once GDP/capita gets past a few thousand dollars, but most of the debate on immigration in the US is about reasonably prosperous Mexicans, not absolutely emiserated Africans.



    September 20, 2007 at 7:09 pm

  5. Dear Org Theorists:

    Thanks to Gabriel for coming to the talk and taking it seriously.  When I met Gabriel yesterday, I didn’t realize it was *this* Gabriel.  Maybe I should have been more careful with what I said.  I have a few responses, although I think this debate has been interesting.

    I’d suggest at least some of the characterization of my talk is rather questionable.  I did get this very question about inequality.  I believe I made clear that OF COURSE inequality and relative poverty are similar concepts and measures.  I even cited that inequality measures tend to correlate about .95 (regardless of Theil, Gini, 90/10 etc.), while relative poverty measures correlate about .7 with those inequality measures.  So, they’re obviously associated.  I also clarified that the key distinction that a relative poverty measure doesn’t care what happens in the top half, while ginis are influenced when the top 1-10% takes off from the median (see past 30 years of the U.S.).  It is strange to call it a “bait and switch” as that implies intentional deception.  I think I was very transparent in acknowledging they’re certainly linked.  One could care about relative poverty and not care about rich people getting richer or could care about both inequality and relative poverty.  As well, the policy implication in the comments about immigration are way off base.  There is nothing about relative measures that implies keeping immigrants out as they’d swell the bottom of the distribution.  Even if there was, that wouldn’t be anything distinct about relative measures (e.g. “immigrants tend to live in less adequate housing, so more immigration means more absolute deprivation.”)  This is almost as silly a caricature as saying Bruce Western prescribes more imprisonment as a strategy to fight unemployment.  Come on….

    The Irish case is a tough one.  Kieran hit the nail on the head.  In 1987, less than 15% of the elderly were relatively poor.  In 2000, more than 30% were. These numbers aren’t perfect and we’re only talking about income poverty (maybe many of those are not asset poor).  This may be a story of living and consumption standards rising much faster than pensions.  If your pension was set based on earnings from several decades ago, it might be tough to afford rent or not experience social exclusion and capability deprivation.  Nobody said the Irish poor are worse off compared to the Irish 20 years ago, the issue is if there are more poor or less. All that said, I can’t pretend to understand the Irish case perfectly, and I have spent some time asking people about this (indeed, including Kieran).

    Brayden suggests that taxing the rich will result in less relative poverty.  But, I doubt this is the case.  Unless lowering the incomes of the top e.g. 25% *necessarily* results in a lower median, this wouldn’t result in less poverty.  I would suggest that high taxation on the top 25% is probably effective at reducing poverty if is distributed to the bottom 25%.   But, Brayden’s question raises the legitimate concern of how rising medians result in more relative poverty (even if the poor are staying at the same income).  This is a real problem we consider seriously (although economic growth is empirically negatively associated with relative poverty – so its hardly automatic).  What we do to address this is to also examine a measure of poverty intensity (% poor * avg. depth of poverty), which is less sensitive to a rising threshold.  Imagine a bunch of people were at 55% of the median income, and the median rises, and suddenly, they’re at 49% of the median income (and defined as poor).  Well, these people would have a very small poverty gap and would increase the poverty intensity measure only minutely.  I did not present the poverty intensity results, but they’re identical to the headcount results.

    I would also raise some objections of omission from Gabriel’s recounting. My principal argument for a relative measure was that it is far and away the most theoretically justifiable way to think about poverty.  As sociologists, I would argue we should be interested in relative deprivation – deprivation and poverty defined according to the *social* context of people’s time and place. Oddly, economists are actually far more likely to use relative measures. Also, my other main reason would be that if one actually reads the founders of liberal economics (e.g. Hayek and Smith), they clearly and convincingly argue for relative measures as well.  Nobody accused them of a bait and switch and they still made these types of arguments about rising tides lifting all boats.  Last, my final argument was that if we actually look at the liberal economic practitioners making claims about rising tides, they also end up agreeing that relative measures (see e.g. Rebecca Blank or the 1995 NRC Commission) are far superior.  They use the official US measure as it is readily available, convenient and conventional.  None of these liberal economic practitioners try to make theoretical arguments to defend the measure – everybody knows it is indefensible.  There is also an interesting history about the politics of the official measure that one can read about in O’Connor’s _Poverty Knowledge_ and Michael Katz’s work.  If you read that historical work and still believe in the official measure, I’d be surprised.

    My question for “absolutists” would be to propose a defensible absolute measure.  You could take the official US measure and multiply it by PPPs. But, the official US measure isn’t valid and reliable in the US to begin with. Extending it elsewhere wouldn’t make any sense since it’d be too high in all other affluent democracies that have socialized medicine.  You could come up with some measure of hunger or infant mortality, but do we believe that the only people who are poor in Europe are the ones that fall below such a low threshold?  So, where should I draw the line if I were to write the appendix that Gabriel suggests?  Using a relative measure openly and transparently acknowledges that each country’s context has its own standards of deprivation and inclusion.  Absolute measures are a bit of a masquerade in suggesting some agreed upon universal standard exists.

    On the final issue of assumptions, do you really, really believe it is productive for sociologists to perpetually be debating this imaginary libertarian?  Are libertarians that serious of an intellectual presence on poverty issues?  The only ones that come to mind are Cox and Alm, who wrote that horrible book on how poor people today consume better than the middle class in the 1940s, etc. (_Myths of Rich and Poor_).  This is NOT a new argument – see Michael Harrington’s critique of it in _The Other America_.  As proponents of relative measures, we’d say: heck, if you want to play with comparisons, I could prove that there are NO poor people in the U.S. by the standard of the middle ages.  At some point, you have to decide if we measure deprivation according to some timeless and placeless standard or if we should define deprivation according to the prevailing standards of time and place.

    Finally, do you really believe that if we just brought the right evidence to bear on a debate, sociologists could convince libertarians that “wow, I guess the welfare state works pretty good.”?  My view would be that we should first start with the best conceptualization and theory about what it means to be poor, and then second, evaluate existing explanations for poverty.  If one does so, I doubt you’re going to use an absolute measure of poverty.


    David Brady

    September 21, 2007 at 12:05 am

  6. Just a side note: you of course can *not* use happiness research to talk about subjective utility. Utility theory is based on choices a person makes, it doesn’t discuss happiness, satisfcation or anything else.


    Toni Heinonen

    September 21, 2007 at 11:35 am

  7. david,

    thanks for clarifying some of the details of your work. while i was trying in the original post to use your work as an example for a broader methodological point (which is why i tagged my post as “methods” but not “economics” or “poli sci”), i certainly didn’t want to misrepresent your work in the process. while i tried to make a brief summary of the relevant points, i wanted the summary to be fair, in part because i generally liked the presentation, in part because i think it’s imprudent for an assistant professor to be a slanderous jerk, and mostly because unfairness would be gratuitous to my argument about methods. to reiterate, this point was that no matter how well one justifies one’s assumptions, if there are people who don’t like those assumptions, then it will be much more fruitful to supplement the analysis by experimenting with the critics’ assumptions than to just redouble one’s efforts to explain and defend one’s own assumptions. if astrology were taken seriously by at least some scholars, i think it would be worth throwing astrological sign into the model just because it’s a faster way to shut people up than to try to convince them from theory that it is not in the stars to hold our destiny.

    on the question of the “bait and switch,” my recollection of the talk was that (as described in my post) you presented the metric in the talk then justified it (well) in Q&A. i think this was entirely appropriate given the time constraints and i should note that in the book you front-load the question of defining poverty relatively. (btw, you’re right that your measure is different from inequality per se in that it ignores bill gates and that the brayden king poverty reduction program should therefore be not soak the rich, but confiscatory middle-class taxation. nonetheless, we agree that despite some noteworthy distinctions, relative measures of poverty are conceptually and empirically close to inequality). i apologize for the unintended implication of deceit in the term “bait and switch.” i was trying to get across the idea of using a loaded term in a nonintuitive way even when one makes a strong explicit argument for using the term in this way. the same issue comes up with concepts like structural/institutional racism. in my experience, undergrads always understand and accept the notion of social structure having disparate impact by race but they rebel at the idea of using the word “racism” to describe it as they reserve this for bigotry. it probably has a lot to do with the intensely individualist assumptions of liberal philosophy and our culture generally, but i (and i imagine a lot of other people too) have a very strong intuitive sense that being left behind a rising median isn’t as bad as absolute deprivation. this is true even though on a cognitive level i completely accept that (in middle-income and rich countries) poverty is almost entirely relative. this paradox of relative vs absolute assessment dates back at least to the parable of the workers in the vineyard. perhaps this intuition is like that of people who just don’t get how statistical inference from a sample can be unrelated to population size (that is, a common perception that is completely and utterly without merit). another example is that even if you understand the monty haul problem or quantum physics, it still don’t feel right. i think this issue may be similar — despite overwhelming evidence and convincing arguments to support it, it just doesn’t feel right that if i have the same amount of stuff at t0 and t1, but you get more prosperous, that i was not poor at t0 but am poor at t1. yes, i’m an inconsistent idiot and i should just bracket my misleading intuition, but i think there are a lot of us idiots and it would probably be worthwhile to humor us and show how the model behaves under the intuitive but indefensible assumptions.

    on the issue of finding a good absolutist measure to experiment with, you think such a thing can’t exist (in prosperous countries) and i think you’re almost certainly right. however, i still think there is some value in taking a bad (but good faith) absolutist measure and applying it. the logic is a little similar to that notorious variable of church attendance which is really problematic because of social desirability bias but nonetheless has good validity as an ordinal variable and is a strong predictor of lots of behaviors and beliefs. likewise, i think it would be worth it to apply a severely flawed absolutist measure (not being a comparative guy, i don’t know what’s common in the literature, but i would be happy with something simple like ppp conversions of official US poverty with a 10-20% discount to allow for free health care and perhaps even kicking the US as irreducibly non-comparable). the best argument i can see for not trying such a thing would be if critics then said the operationalization was flawed and demanded endless variations on their preferred metrics, including ones like detailed consumption data that would be impractical. nonetheless even in such a case i would find it convincing to say “look, i tried to measure your concept, if you want to nitpick on the operationalization then write your own damn paper.”

    i think it’s very clever to use Hayek and Smith as cites for relative deprivation since you’re essentially saying to the classic liberal, “in setting our philosophical assumptions, let’s put Rawls aside and start with your guys, we still come up with relative deprivation.” This is a pretty close parallel to my suggestion, which is to say “in defining the statistical model, let’s put relative deprivation aside and start with absolute poverty, we still come up with the welfare state.” basically, i think you’re smart to rhetorically flirt with the assumptions of your adversary and i’m urging you to do this not just in terms of theoretically justifying your metric, but in the metric itself. this was the intended gist of my post, that one can make a stronger analysis if one experiments with conservative (in the logical sense) assumptions — even if one thinks those conservative assumptions are indefensible.

    finally, on the issue of whether such an exercise would really convince anyone or if any serious person really asks this, no, i don’t think Ayn Rand could be convinced by any evidence, but i do think a relaxed specification might convince people on the margin (think Hilary Clinton or Mike Huckabee). furthermore, the fact that you frequently get asked about this issue (presumably by fellow sociologists) implies that it’s not just some straw man from frivolous people but an issue about which your (nonspecialist) colleagues have some lingering doubts, even if we ought not to. that’s a shame as the measurement question ought to be secondary to the really interesting thing, which is your micro-macro approach.



    September 21, 2007 at 2:57 pm

  8. Gabriel: I am going to make sure you don’t show up at any of my presentations ;)



    September 21, 2007 at 4:05 pm

  9. […] assumptions […]


  10. I’ve never posted on a blog before and don’t know whether this will be read. If there’s no response, I’ll send you orgtheory guys emails.

    In any case, I am one of the coordinators of the MIT-Harvard Economic Sociology Seminar. Ever since we were apprised of Gabriel’s blog, there has been an internal conversation regarding the appropriateness of blogging research seminars in general, and our seminar in particular. The consensus is that, while we believe that Gabriel’s intentions were pure, the precedent here is very worrisome. Essentially, the point of a research seminar such as ours (I have checked with close colleagues at peer institutions, and they voiced similar thoughts; of course, it’s possible others disagree) is to provide a setting in which early, pre-publication work can be presented with relatively little risk to one’s status and maximum possibility for constructive criticism. In this context, it is problematic to broadcast critiques of a seminar presentation, however well-intentioned, polite, and well-crafted, over a mass medium such as the internet. Consider the case of a graduate student presenter, one whose talk is a practice job talk (we have a few coming up). It is nerve-wracking enough to get up there and give your talk in front of faculty and peers. It is quite another matter to realize that there is a critic/reporter in the room who plans on critiquing your presentation for all the world (including people who hold coveted jobs) to see. And this applies as well to visitors from out of town. As host of the seminar, I feel that it is my responsibility to inform visitors that they might not want to present if they have work that they don’t want critiqued over the public airwaves.

    Of course, there are no laws against doing this and there shouldn’t be. But there are laws and there are norms. We are dealing with a new technology and the norms are unclear. Moreover, there may be people who love to be talked about like this on the internet, and what right do we have to kill that joy? A possibility was raised by a colleague: just as a practice has arisen whereby an author may write “Please do not copy or distribute with permission of the authors,” an author/presenter could include a line that says “Please do not engage in public commentary on this paper without the author’s permission.” And we can include something like this on our seminar’s website. Of course, we cannot really enforce this. But on the other hand, neither can anyone enforce the first type of “signing statement.” But it clarifies that a norm is being violated, with the social sanctions that flow (unevenly, perhaps) from that. What say you, o bloggers of the blogosphere, to this suggestion?

    A final note on this is substantive. When I teach about network externalities, I am fond of pointing out that from a certain standpoint, economists have the concept backward– rather than thinking of network effects as holding when a product/asset is increasing in the number of other users, it is often productive to think of what’s going on as the *constraint*/pressure increasing in the number of users. Consider how hard it is for someone who doesn’t like email to avoid it. And this holds for the medium of the blog as well. The more folks that are out there using blogs to discuss work, the more others are *forced* to get on the blogosphere as well. Fine for those of you who like it. Not so great for those who don’t. In a sense, this is what happens when you blog about a private event like a seminar– you are pressuring others onto your medium.

    Again, please don’t get me wrong. I know that what Gabriel did was well-intentioned, and I really hope he continues to attend the seminar and participates fully. I just hope he doesn’t blog about it without first checking with the presenter.


    Ezra Zuckerman


    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 21, 2007 at 9:31 pm

  11. Ezra,

    All I can say is, “wow.” I agree entirely, but if you check the archives of this blog, you will see that the post in question is largely out of character for this blog. MOST of the time, people around here – and on academic blogs more generally – aren’t live-blogging seminars and such. Unfortunately, for the REST of the time, it is good to remind people quite directly of what simple etiquette demands. Undoubtedly, you will get bombarded with responses about how you aren’t “down” with the kids these days and all, but it is, in the end, a simple matter of etiquette.



    September 21, 2007 at 9:49 pm

  12. DaveC: Yea, let the games begin! Its just how the kids today “rap” with one another…don’t be such a square daddy-o. Didn’t you get the memo that this intertube thingy changed everything?



    September 21, 2007 at 10:09 pm

  13. Professor Zuckerman raises an very important set of concerns and offers reasonable suggestions for addressing those concerns. As one who is sometimes a seminar organizer, sometimes a seminar participant, and sometimes a blogger of seminars, I appreciate the care with which Professor Zuckerman articulated his concerns, and I suspect that most problems would be avoided if all of the parties to this sort of interaction used equal care.

    As a seminar organizer, I will make more of an effort to ensure that all participants in the seminar understand the nature of the enterprise. If the point of the seminar is “to provide a setting in which early, pre-publication work can be presented with relatively little risk to one’s status and maximum possibility for constructive criticism,” it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make that clear to all of the participants.

    As a seminar presenter, I will begin to include the proposed notice (“Please do not engage in public commentary on this paper without the author’s permission.”) where it seems appropriate, though in most instances I would be more tempted to offer the following: “Please engage in public commentary on this paper!” After all, as academics we are keen to market our ideas.

    As a blogger of seminars, my usual practice is to blog only when (1) I can link to a paper (or, on some occasions, a book) that is publicly available, or (2) I have received prior permission of the presenter. After reading Professor Zuckerman’s comment, I believe that the better practice would be to ask permission in all instances, not as a matter of necessity, but as a matter of courtesy.


    Gordon Smith

    September 21, 2007 at 11:54 pm

  14. I am trying to figure out what I think of Ezra’s comment. I think my reaction is complicated, but a first part of my reaction is that Gabriel was absolutely correct in presuming that the seminar content was fair game for blogging. Had it been a graduate student giving a practice job talk, different story. As it was, the case is a senior faculty member at another university coming in and speaking to an audience that is large and sufficiently open-ended that it would be hard to reconcile with a definition-of-the-situation as either “private” or “intimate.” This isn’t to say that the organizers cannot change the default setting with a statement like the one Ezra provides–if they really think that is a good idea.

    I guess, in my mind, we have a continuum of forums that range from the prototypic “departmental colloquium” on the one hand to the prototypic “practice job talk” on the other. The former case to me is tantamount to a conference presentation and the speaker has no real standing to prevent another person from blogging about it. The latter case to me is obviously discourteous and in other ways professionally wrong to blog about. The world of research seminars and brownbags is somewhere in the middle. Having been to the Harvard Econ Soc seminar, it certainly feels more like a colloquium, especially when the speaker is a faculty member from the outside, so if they want it to be closed from blogging they should indicate that.

    Two additional, more incidental things:

    1. I think sociology’s default should be that it’s generally a good thing when there is public discussion of sociology ideas, and so my own ideal world would be one with generous boundaries for what is considered open for blogging rather than conservative ones.

    2. While it’s appealing to imagine a seminar “in which early, pre-publication work can be presented with relatively little risk to one’s status,” my own thinking regarding professional socialization is that graduate students should be discouraged from thinking there are too many forums in which that actually exists, and certainly not that it’s a bubble that offers protection when one is out in the world of traveling to give talks. The fact of the matter is that I’ve seen people give “work-in-progress” talks that have resulted in unerasable negative impressions of them, because even net of the work-in-progress character, they were doing so something slippery or dumb or weird or whatever that I concluded it indicated something fundamental about them as scholars. The point is less whether it is right or wrong for me to be drawing such conclusions, but that I do and so do other people in the audience at one’s work-in-progress talk. (Indeed, sometimes those other people talk to me and tell me about the atrocity that so-and-so did in a work-in-progress talk they saw.) In my opinion, only in the most plainly intimate seminar settings should somebody be self-consciously trotting out their C game with the idea that there is little status risk. If you don’t think you are going to be bringing at least your B game, don’t sign up to speak. (Which isn’t to say that I haven’t gotten myself into the situation where I’ve been standing in front of people and doing something below that, but not by design.)



    September 22, 2007 at 2:14 am

  15. Hi, Ezra.

    This is Fabio Rojas, one of the regular contributors to, along with Brayden King, Teppo Felin, Omar Lizardo, and Kieran Healey. We read your response to Gabriel’s post about David Brady’s presentation and appreciate your concern about blogging about seminar papers. Presenters may not want public commentary because of hiring & promotion issues, protection of ideas, or they don’t want a rough draft to be known as the final product, which are important issues to consider. Thanks for reading and we hope you’ll continue to participate in our discussions.

    The Orgtheory Guys



    September 22, 2007 at 2:27 am

  16. Jeremy says: “the speaker has no real standing to prevent another person from blogging about it.”

    Not so sure. I think there is something VERY different about me and my friends trashing the “C game” of a visitor and me trashing the visitor on my blog. If you don’t, I think you are sorely mistaken. We’re all entitled to our opinion of course, but am I really entitled to put it out on the internet where the googlebots make it forever and a search on Person X will eternally return my reaction to the talk? Strikes me as boorish behavior plain and simple. Yes, there are lots of poorly socialized, borderline personality types in academia. I think Ezra’s point is that the fact that some have blogs doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to play their game or even tolerate them.

    rich: I ain’t no square you bongo beating beatnick!



    September 22, 2007 at 3:28 am

  17. DaveC: “Trashing” another scholar may be boorish regardless of the circumstances, depending on what one means by “trashing.” Ezra’s comment was talking about “polite” criticism, which some of us would regard as the heart of academia rather than a pastime for those with “borderline personality types.”

    I am presuming that one would not argue that it is simply boorish ever for one scholar to criticize another scholar’s work. So then the question is what kinds of scholarly forums is work available for criticism and what forums is it not. I could understand a position where one said work was only available for criticism if the primary text on which the criticism is based was available, as a matter of academic sportsmanship. Myself, I believe conference presentations are also fair game, and I think invited department-wide colloquiums are professional equivalents to conference presentations, so they seem like fair game to me as well. Where “research seminars” fall is a different question, and there it seems to me more like the request that they not be available for public commentary is fine, but not the idea that someone is supposed to assume that it’s wrong to blog polite commentary about a presentation by a senior scholar brought in from elsewhere.



    September 22, 2007 at 4:12 am

  18. Jeremy: You’ve dodged the issue. I’m sure you know what I am talking about and definitions of “trashing” and “scholarly criticism” are not at issue. I take to this to mean that you don’t see any difference between what you say among friends and associates and what you say on the internet. In that case, then, yes, I guess prominent “no blogging” signs may be a necessity at conferences and workshops in the future.



    September 22, 2007 at 2:05 pm

  19. Instituting “No blogging” signs at future conferences or workshops would be huge waste of collective effort.



    September 22, 2007 at 3:04 pm

  20. DaveC: If that’s the issue, then, of course, I see a difference between what I say among friends/associates and what I would say on the Internet. Incidental point #2 of my original comment was not intended to say otherwise. That point was not even about the Internet. Instead, I was reacting to Ezra’s statement about seminars providing “minimal status risk” and just saying that graduate students should not get an exaggerated idea about the extent to which forums offer minimal status risk. Because one comes away from any forum with an impression about the speaker, and sometimes those impressions can be quite negative even if the forum was supposed to be risk-free and the work was presented as “work-in-progress.”



    September 22, 2007 at 3:13 pm

  21. The idea of a “No Blogging” sign at a professional conference is stultifying, unless it is some kind of private conference directed to unfinished work (in which case I would call it a “workshop”). Conference presentations can be cited in papers. They are listed on CVs. I can’t reconcile the idea that authors can have those venues of credit for an academic presentation with having them be closed to public commentary.



    September 22, 2007 at 3:27 pm

  22. My last two cents: I said in my original comment that academic bloggers are generally well-behaved, and the org theory crew especially so. I think Ezra raises a good point and it isn’t all that complicated. If you asked Miss Manners I am quite sure that she would say that, before blogging an event, you should ask YOUR HOST whether they want the event blogged AND you should ask the beneficiary or victim whether SHE/HE wants their talk blogged. Literally, simple manners.

    Beyond what I trust will be self-evident etiquette to most, I believe that it is rude and corrosive of scholarly exchange to create a situation for others in which every word uttered at an academic event is something that MAY BE PRESERVED FOREVER ON THE INTERNET. We bloggers have to be responsible or “no blogger” signs, in reality or in practice, are a likely outcome. I assume all assembled do not believe they have a right to videotape or create a podcast of any conference they attend, how is blogging it any different in terms of etiquette? Finally, I want to make it clear that nothing I’ve said in this thread has to do with the specifics of the Rozman post. I was speaking to the general issues Ezra raised in his post.



    September 22, 2007 at 4:00 pm

  23. Hi All,

    I’m coming to this late, but thought I’d chime in as another someone who has had a seminar blogged (by Fabio, on this site). I agree that it’s worth asking a presenter how they feel about public commentary (which Fabio kindly did in my case), but I’m also with Jeremy that public discussion is a good thing.

    I should also note that one of the key seminars at my university, ICOS, records and web archives both the presentations and the Q&A. I think the result is a very valuable resource that I’ve used to develop my own work and for teaching purposes. To my mind adding thoughtful commentary and an opportunity for substantive response only makes the conversation richer.

    Oh, yeah, if anyone wants to check out the ICOS archive, it’s here


    Jason Owen-Smith

    September 22, 2007 at 5:29 pm

  24. Jason: ICOS indeed is a brilliant public online forum – I started keeping tabs on the forum four-five years ago, the consistently interdisciplinary and open approach of ICOS, and the online availability was/is far ahead of its time.



    September 22, 2007 at 5:53 pm

  25. Davec,

    Thanks for clarifying that you were talking only about the propriety of blogging a colloquium talk in the abstract and not the specific content of my post. Phrases like “trashing” and “borderline personality” led me to the false impression that you thought the content and not just the context of the post was beyond the pale. The decorum of the context is certainly debatable but by any reasonable standard the decorum of the content was not. (Note that I said “debatable” not “reprehensible.” Even if you’re right about the rule, I think it is a sufficiently hazy rule that violating it is not the mark of a “poorly socialized” sociopath.) Anyway, I’m just glad to hear that (like Ezra) you have only an understandable objection to blogging on a colloquium presentation rather than an absurd objection to writing (as I did) that something was basically good but could have been improved. Another way to put it is that you seem to think it would have been fine for me to write the exact same post about a published work without getting permission from anyone, but the in-progress nature of a talk demands more discretion. If so, fair enough.

    On reflection, I think that in principle Jeremy’s “vitable is blogable” rule is on balance (prescriptively) correct, especially when the tone is respectful and the presenter is faculty. However, we don’t live in a world derived from first principles but one of accumulated institutions and traditions. As Ezra noted, there is no established standard on whether it’s OK to blog about a colloquium presentation and between Ezra and Jeremy we’ve seen reasonable arguments for how we understand the implicit rules to be and why such an implicit rule is desirable. I think that Jeremy is right in principle, but Ezra is right in practice. Ezra’s argument about network externalities cuts both ways. Just as people who think of seminars as rightfully private can be forced onto the blogosphere by people who think they are public, so can people who think of seminars as rightfully public be forced from discussing them online by people who think they ought to be private. I have no idea what the consensus is (though I trust Ezra’s survey of seminar organizers that this group is generally against it), but if even a sizable minority of our field opposes it then I think it’s just more prudent to avoid it. If somebody were to say something like “how dare you blog my book or journal article” then I’d go with the Jeremy position of “because academia has an institutional understanding that published works are legitimate objects for public discussion and I don’t really care if you think otherwise.” Given though that there is ambiguity about colloquiums, I think it’s better just to avoid it. The central point of my original post was that sometimes it’s pragmatic to concede a contentious point even if you are in the right and I think that applies to this issue as well, especially since the evidence for “colloquiums are public” is far weaker than that for “poverty is relative.” Perhaps in a few years a norm of colloquium publicity will develop (and in this light I think Jason’s point about ICOS and the large number of similar podcasts found at is suggestive that it probably will). However, in the meantime I personally will show great deference on it. Davec’s position that you should always ask both the organizer and presenter reminds me of Antioch’s notorious policy that students need to get explicit verbal permission for each instance of each act of sexual intimacy (e.g. “may i touch your breast again”). I mean this both in the sense that it’s stultifying, but also that it’s understandable that the risk of causing offense or misunderstanding is so high that extreme risk aversion is a tempting solution. You can count me as yielding to temptation since like I said, this will be my own practice until such a time as a consensus of legitimate publicity is established.



    September 22, 2007 at 6:41 pm

  26. Being an advanced graduate student, the prospect of having initial findings and/or my practice job talk publicized on the web terrifies me (well, let’s be honest, the entire job search terrifies me). But, I think that this is not because I am afraid of my results – if I am nervous that they cannot hold up to legitimate criticisms, I should probably rethink whether I should even be on the job market. Rather, there are two goals of a practice job talk, at least the practice job talks that I have seen in my department: 1) showcase your talent as an independent scholar; and 2) get feedback on where you should improve your presentation and ability to answer questions. Getting this feedback on academic blogs is not, I agree, an appropriate venue for this feedback. If the practice job talk were meant for public consumption, then it would destroy the pedagogical value of the practice job talk.

    This conversation is similar to a similar one at Crooked TImber this summer. Although not completely the same, that discussion focused on papers “published” online with a heading on the first page to the effect of: “Please don’t quote or cite.” That conversation, too, focused on the norms of academic conversation and where it is appropriate to use the internet as a forum for discussion. Many of the posts in the thread there focused on the fact that researchers gain advantages for their own benefit (feedback, recognition, etc.) but that they are not responsible to providing benefits to the field (providing an open discussion of ideas). Of course, others pointed out that this was generally a courtesy so that the author knows who is citing the paper and authors have the most recent version.

    I feel that it would be appropriate to ask an author for “permission” to cite their work in a blog in the same way that authors ask “permission” to cite an unpublished conference paper. It gives the original author a chance to respond (as ortheory has done) and it might provide helpful and important insights for the author in the development of their continued development of the work. It might also engage a larger discussion about the importance or impact of the research. Ultimately, I think that Jeremy and Jason are right when they say that public discussion of sociological is a positive benefit for the discipline as a whole and blogs provide a powerful way to do that.



    September 22, 2007 at 6:52 pm

  27. mike,
    thanks for referring the similar CT thread. one clarification, everyone agrees that it would be inappropriate to blog a practice job talk, the debate is about whether an invited lecture also requires permission.

    good luck on the job market.



    September 22, 2007 at 7:04 pm

  28. I say way actually put it to Miss Maners (Judith Martin at the United Features Syndicate). I also propose that we take the response as binding on the org / political science / sociology blogging community. I’d suggest the fairest language would be something like the below.

    Miss Manners,

    As academics and bloggers we often face the temptation to blog about presentations given at conferences, seminars, and workshops that we happen to attend. Some of us claim that anything that happens at such events is “fair game” to be disseminated to anyone around the world with an internet connection. Others claim that, just like taking someone’s photograph, videotaping them, recording their voice, etc., it is inappropriate to do so surreptitiously. This group claims that, before doing so, we must seek the consent both of our hosts and of the people whose participation in such events we wish to discuss on our blogs. What say you?


    Academic Blogger

    If we’re all game, I will submit this to Miss Manners and let everyone know if she responds.



    September 22, 2007 at 7:31 pm

  29. rich,

    cute, but i think the miss manners test is a really bad idea.

    1. this is a matter that requires a lot of insider knowledge of academic culture so an outsider can’t answer for us, especially with a biased prompt. while i have no doubt you wrote it in good faith the anti position is “it’s like stalking” and the pro position is “but it’s so fun,” not jeremy’s position of “if one is taking credit for ideas (as compared to developing ideas) then one is making those ideas available for public discussion.”

    2. we all know that etiquette writers say to ask permission (and send a thank you note) for absolutely everything. I could easily imagine phrasing a question in such a way that an etiquette writer affirming that you should ask permission before citing a /published/ work which is clearly absurd.

    3. it’s a bit imperious for us to establish a binding test for everyone. even if we agreed that it would be binding only among the signers, suppose that miss manners wrote back “blog away” and then some presenter got pissed off. would they really be convinced by “it’s ok, we’re miss manners approved”?

    as stated above, my new policy is to personally be discrete and deferential, but let bolder souls do as they like and see how things settle out in a few years.



    September 22, 2007 at 7:57 pm

  30. Gabriel,

    I think it is a pretty accurate representation of the poles of the discussion. On the one side, everything is fair game at conferences and such. As Jeremy succinctly put it, “if it is cv-able, it is bloggable.” On the other, blogging a conference should be treated like taking someone’s photograph. Sorta like, yes, clicking off your camera phone under the conference table. I appreciate that most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. I think I may very well send her a note regardless. If you or anyone else, has language that you think is less biased, please suggest away.

    I don’t see understand the extension to “normal” academic discussion and debate, including blogging a book, a published paper, a working paper, etc., so the thing about asking permission to cite is a red herring I think. Also, I don’t think membership in an academic culture gives us a pass on the normal rules of behavior.



    September 22, 2007 at 9:51 pm

  31. The “manners” frame around this seems odd to me, especially now that someone seems to be seriously advocating consulting Miss Manners as a jurisdictional authority over academic discourse, but also because we are only treating as a question of manners that of whether the blogger should ask the speaker. What about how the speaker should respond? Does the speaker have the right to just say “No” without providing a reason? If so, is that a mannerly thing for them to do? Or is the courteous thing for the blogger to ask and the speaker to say yes unless there is a “good” reason?

    The idea of the privacy of conferences continues to intrigue me. Maybe it is a disciplinary thing. In sociology, for the major annual conference (as well as the regional conferences), media are invited. That they don’t come is due to lack of interest, not some respect for privacy.

    While I can understand as a matter of courtesy ritual “asking” for permission with the presumption that the speaker will say yes, I can’t imagine a good defense of thinking the speaker really has veto power over whether a talk is blogged if that talk is also open to the media, not even getting into the issue of the talk being something that can be cited and put on a CV.

    Same thing for a seminar that has been recorded and that recording put online. If a person is okay with anyone being able to click and listen to their talk, in my opinion they’ve granted permission for anybody to offer commentary on that talk. It might feel mannerly to “ask” before blogging about it, but if so it would be quite unmannerly of a speaker to decline the request.



    September 22, 2007 at 11:27 pm

  32. When I signed off this morning, I said I was going to leave this alone, but, whoa, how it has continued! I can’t resist answering Jeremy. Yes, Jeremy, I think that I am perfectly within my rights to say, “No, I’d much prefer that you don’t talk about me on your blog.” What you do with that is up to you I suppose, but I hope you will appreciate that there are many of us who don’t think that blogs have anything to do with academic discourse and genuinely don’t want our privacy invaded in such a way. “But wait,” you say, “you gave the talk and you list it on your vitae!” Yes, sure, and, if you were present, you are entirely within your rights to ask questions and criticize my work. You are also entirely within your rights to have your impression of me sullied and to share that feeling with your friends and associates. But, unless the forum is one in which I have been told ahead of time that I will be recorded or that reporters will be in the room (or that the session will be blogged) – good point Jason Owen-Smith – I think I am perfectly within my rights to say “no” and to take umbrage upon being blindsided by the equivalent of TMZ down the road. Yes, simple manners.

    Why that would strike you as odd is, to me, odd. I honestly don’t understand why this would be such a difficult point to understand. I imagine that the proportion of sociologists who are involved in blogging is miniscule. Obviously, then, there are many of us who aren’t interested in playing this game and would prefer that you direct your energies to “eight random things about me” and such. Gabriel raised the specter of “stalking” and I don’t think it is as far from the mark as you might imagine. If I don’t know you, and don’t want to know you, and you persist in blogging about me after I have asked you not to, what else would you call it?

    Alright, really and truly finished with this now.



    September 23, 2007 at 12:07 am

  33. I think “rights” is the wrong term to use in this context. No one’s rights have been violated. The discussion seems more appropriately centered on the question of, what are the norms that govern when and how academic research is discussed? I’m perfectly willing to concede that any specific forum can and should be capable of designing norms that prohibit leakage of discussion beyond the confines of the research seminar. That’s the prerogative of the organizers of that forum. What clearly happened in this case is that there was a confusion about what those norms were in that local context.

    The bigger, more general problem is whether there should be a discipline-wide norm prohibiting people from discussing research outside of the seminars where they were originally presented. And if it is okay to talk about working research projects, is it wise to ask the person who’s doing the research prior to posting it online (for anyone to see)? The second problem I feel more or less ambivalent about it. Yes, there are certain circumstances where it might be courteous to ask permission but there are other times when it’s probably unnecessary. But regarding the first problem, I feel very strongly that a discipline-wide norm constraining discussion of ongoing research (even online discussion) is not a very optimal norm. The whole discipline benefits from ongoing feedback. We’re not talking about purposeful intents to destroy a person’s reputation (which somehow the topic of this discussion is morphing into); we’re talking about sincere discussions of research findings, theories, etc. was created for the purpose of generating more intellectual discussion and facilitating interaction across academic contexts. I think this is a good thing.



    September 23, 2007 at 12:32 am

  34. DaveC: Whatever you think about those silly folks who blog things like “8 random things about me,” there are serious academics out there who write things for this medium that are serious, and there are other serious academics who read those things. I’m sorry if you don’t like that this is what the New Millenium hath wrought. If you don’t want to be available for public commentary, don’t be a professor, or at least don’t be one who presents work in forums open broadly to other academics. Certainly don’t travel and don’t collect honoraria. Because otherwise other academics–strangers, even–might have things to say in response to things you say, and blogs are a place where those thoughts are expressed. It’s not “stalking” to think that you don’t need permission of others and you don’t need for them to like blogs in order to offer thoughts about their work. It’s not “privacy invaded” for people who present their work publicly to have that work talked about publicly afterward.

    Certainly, a scholar is free to tell a seminar organizer they don’t want a recording of their talk going up on the Web. But if it’s online, it’s fair game.

    (Also, just so we are clear, the major point of mine for this thread is not that “research seminars” like the Harvard Econ Soc seminar should be fair game no matter how the organizers or speaker might feel, but that Gabriel was not wrong in presuming the default was that it was fair game.)



    September 23, 2007 at 12:48 am

  35. I don’t think Dave will be “finished” until he has had the last comment on this thread. Stay tuned.



    September 23, 2007 at 1:41 am

  36. Folks:

    I’ve been offline for the last day fasting. Reading your discussion of the issue was a good dessert. Seriously, the main goal of my post was to get you guys to consider the issue, and you have. Here our my two cents:

    First and foremost, the name of the seminar somehow lost the ‘MIT’ in the title in Jeremy’s posts. (I seem to remember Jeremy at both locations last year, and we were glad to have him). The seminar was initiated by Bob Gibbons (an economist!) in 1997 (well before my arrival in 2001) and Harvard joined for 2003-2004. Hardly an important point, but hey– MIT pays my salary, and most of the people who attend regularly are MIT faculty and students.

    Second, I pretty much agree with everything DaveC (whose offline identity is? What’s the point of these pseudonyms?) said to Jeremy. To get to the heart of the matter, allow me to parse the following from Jeremy’s last post: “I’m sorry if you don’t like that this is what the New Millenium hath wrought. If you don’t want to be available for public commentary, don’t be a professor, or at least don’t be one who presents work in forums open broadly to other academics. Certainly don’t travel and don’t collect honoraria. Because otherwise other academics–strangers, even–might have things to say in response to things you say, and blogs are a place where those thoughts are expressed.”

    Here is how I would read this quote: “You don’t like being blogged? Tough shit. This is a new medium. It’s here to say, so get used to it. Moreover, this is exactly what you signed up for when you became a professor. How dare you be annoyed when other academics simply express their thoughts about your work!”

    But why exactly does everyone have to be down with this new medium? There certainly can’t be an ethical basis for this kind of statement. After all, people should feel free to use any communication medium they choose. And it is certainly not the case that any academic working today ‘signed up’ for a career in which they expected that their (unpublished) work would be blogged. Though perhaps the norms are changing. Journals are passé; blogs are where it’s at. Everyone’s doing it, you might say. But even if we wanted to make morals a matter of popularity, the problem is that very few academics actually have blogs or participate in them. So whence this sense that everyone is going to end up on the blogosphere whether they like it or not? In my view, it’s because, as the most public, most permanent form of public commentary known to mankind, blog discussions exert a powerful form of social control in the manner I described in my earlier post. While only a few early adopters may be blogging now, your discussions of other people’s work have the potential of forcing them onto the blogosphere. Who can bear to see people criticize their work in a global forum without answering?

    In short, I think the attitude captured by this quote is that of a bully. You have a weapon in your hands—i.e., the fact that you are an early adopter of a medium that has the power to impose negative externalities on others by broadcasting global commentary about them. It is naïve to think that everyone else has the same access to that weapon, at the very least because they are not as versed or adept at the medium as you are (besides which, you have a huge first mover advantage; will be harder for later-comers to drive traffic to their sites no matter their blogging skills). The quote suggests that you have no qualms about exercising your power. In asking for more conservative norms about blogging semi-public events, I’m asking that you be a bit more sympathetic to the weak.

    A related point: I think most people who have been to our seminar would giggle at the suggestion that somehow you can get a way with your C game because we are so easy on presenters, students or anyone else. There is plenty of status on the line all the time. But as DaveC keeps on trying to explain, it is quite another matter entirely when the criticism is on a permanent worldwide stage. My practice job talk at Chicago was an unmitigated disaster. (It happened to have been an unpublicized departmental event, but it could very well have been at a seminar). I shudder to think of what would have happened if it had been blogged in some way. Perhaps I should have been able to suck it up, and accept the fact that we are always on a global stage these days. But who would have been better off for it? No one, as far as I can tell. I believe that good research often needs local exposure and commentary before it is ready for global exposure. And this is true for tenured faculty like me too. Now Jeremy may disagree, and say that in being a professor, I have lost the right to say who can comment on my work. Is there a way of deciding who is right– Jeremy or me? No. But only one of us is in the position to impose his view: Jeremy. And that is the key point.

    Happy weekend to all,



    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 23, 2007 at 4:51 am

  37. “Though perhaps the norms are changing. Journals are passé; blogs are where it’s at. Everyone’s doing it, you might say.”

    Ezra: Absolutely no one is saying that blogging somehow replaces publishing in journals (is Jeremy not publishing?), that is a rather odd argument to make.

    Blogging simply is an informal extension of the ‘invisible college’ of scholarly conversation (beyond the narrow halls of one’s own department, or, beyond the banks of the Charles river). The electronic version of lunch conversations, seminar comments/interaction etc. Granted, a potentially more public conversation and forum (that is, if anyone cares to read it – though, apparently people do), but a wider conversation nonetheless.



    September 23, 2007 at 5:54 am

  38. I should refrain from noting, yet find that I cannot, that first a snarky comment about my blog, and then a phrase like “attitude of a bully,” are coming from people purporting to be the defenders of “good manners” in academic discourse.

    The example of a practice job talk has already been invoked several times in this thread, with no one expressing the view that practice job talks are fair game for blogging. I believe we can put that example to rest.

    For that matter, my own position, which I have repeatedly articulated in this thread by now, is that organizers can set their own norms for things like “research seminars”, but that the *default* for a senior scholar coming in as an outside speaker is that it is open to “polite” criticism.

    DaveC has stretched the idea that it’s bad form to blog about a research seminar to include the example of conference presentations. If we are talking conferences like ASA, I think the idea that people should feel like they need to have the author’s permission first before talking about ideas there is stunting to academic discourse and goes contradicts other uses of conference presentations (citation, CV, media reports) that have a long precedent of being acceptable.

    Given Ezra’s reference to “(unpublished)” work as if perhaps he thinks print publication is where the line is, I would be curious as to his opinion as to whether working papers were fair game, now that such a large share of the NYT’s breathless coverage of news from economics is based working papers (or conference papers).

    In any event, the point of contention doesn’t seem to be a dispute that presenting something at ASA is not a public presentation of ideas. Rather, the claim seems to be that just because academics make something public doesn’t mean they make it available for being blogged about. The argument is that since they don’t use and feel squeamish about a medium that is freely available to everyone anywhere–in a way that, say, getting to offer comments directly to a speaker at Harvard or MIT is not–those that do offer such commentary are wielding power like proto-bullies and are imposing “negative externalities” on the existing order. (A problem with the “power of bloggers” argument is evident in this thread, by the way, as it’s clear the only people who want any part of it at this point are either senior faculty or commenting pseudonymously.)

    Is this really the argument? If it is, it’s not about showing sympathy to the weak, since no one is disputing that there are different considerations when one is talking about graduate students, nor does anyone dispute that faculty should have forums in which they can rightly ask that there not be public commentary on work. (But no way, in my view, are conferences like ASA such forums.)

    I recoiled when I first read that Ezra had put the words “Tough shit!” into my mouth. At some point, though, if I really am understanding the counterposition correctly, I guess that’s not an altogether bad characterization of my view.

    (Last, my original “C Game” comment was not at all intended as directed as talking about the MIT/Harvard seminar, but I was speaking more generally to the point of seminars offering “minimal risk.” It’s a great seminar–and Ezra is of course right about it being, if anything, more MIT-based than Harvard-based–and I would not want any of my comments construed as critical of it. Ezra’s subsequent statement that “there is plenty of status on the line all the time” is exactly right. I have seen presentations by graduate students–again, not at MIT/Harvard Econ Soc–where I wish someone had drilled that statement home to them before they presented.)



    September 23, 2007 at 7:41 am

  39. Hi all.

    I’m hoping that by responding quickly, I can make this my last comment. (The main reason I don’t do this is that I have no time. I am amazed that you guys– especially wildly productive people like Jeremy– somehow find the time to do this regularly). A few notes:

    1. Sorry, Jeremy, for the bully comment. I don’t know the etiquette of this medium. Offline, I would have no problem using this word to a friend in the way I did to convey the force of the point I was trying to make. When it is broadcast all over the world though, perhaps it packs more of a punch than I intended. (A certain irony, that…)

    2. To ‘anonymous’: I was too casual in suggesting that the argument for blogs involved their replacing the journals. I should have just focused on the increasing popularity of blogs as the seeming basis for the sense that everyone was going to be doing it. I emphatically disagree though that this is a simple extension of the invisible college. At the time that term was invented, members of various invisible colleges could not have imagined a medium such as this one that is so public and permanent.

    3. The good news is that, despite the sturm und drang in the last posts, there is relative consensus, which is summarized in Jeremy’s last post. In particular, I certainly agree that it is ok to blog an academic conference like the ASA. (Would be courteous though to send a link to your blog t to the relevant parties). And I obviously agree that it’s not OK to blog a practice job talk. In between those extremes is a large grey area. The difference between us, I think, lies in what the default should be. I would prefer a default in which the potential blogger check to see what the speaker prefers. You prefer not. Your preference will probably carry the day because, if each of us acts on our preferences, folks will have comments written on their unpublished work written on a worldwide stage, and that will induce them to clarify, in future such occasions, that they would prefer not to be blogged. And such public declarations will logically imply that blogging is fine in their absence.

    4. On the ‘power of bloggers’ argument: let me first express a newbie’s frustration with the limitations of this medium. There seems to be a lot of back-and-forth that gets close to some important issues, but not nearly as much close as would be made if folks were in the same room and could manage the subtlety of their points, correct emerging misunderstandings, etc. My point was not that it is some kind of hierarchy-overturning power. Sure, senior faculty are more powerful than junior faculty who are more powerful than graduate students. And that ain’t going to change until grad students become the ones who control jobs. My point then was to focus on power differences *on the margin*. Controlling for a pair of academics’ status/power (in this case, the former leads to the latter), the one who has a blog enjoys a certain power over the latter. The proof of that, once again, is what happens if each of us simply follows our preferred course of action. My preferred course of action (default: no blogging at research seminars) imposes no externalities on Jeremy, but his preferred course of action (default for faculty presenters is that anything they say is blog fodder) does impose externalities on me, in the specific sense that it can induce me to get online and defend myself, when I had preferred uses of my time. Note in this regard that I obviously do not agree that the described power imbalance between Jeremy and me due to his blogging is easily redressed because blogging “is freely available to everyone anywhere.” Certainly that’s true to a point. Would be a lot worse if people didn’t have the same right to blog as Jeremy has. But many people actually do not *want* to blog for all kinds of reasons (I have mentioned two for me: the clunkiness of the discussions, and lack of time). And even if we wanted to, you have a an advantage in having come down the learning curve in figuring out how to do it, as well as a classic first-mover advantage in having sunk the costs of setting up a site and built up (sticky) traffic to it. So while subtle, you really do enjoy a certain kind of power over your peers due to your blogging. I think I know you well enough to expect that you’ll wield that power carefully (I appreciated it when, this summer, you obliquely referenced a comment that I had made at a private conference we both attended.) But I’m not particularly optimistic that this will be true for all bloggers, which is why I’d prefer more conservative norms.

    A final thought: There may be those out there that think that I’m the one who’s being a bully—i.e., using my status to get online and tell the “kids” on the “intertube thingy” to shut up. I think that’s true, to a point. But the difference is that for me to have any influence on what you guys do, I have to step outside my preferred course of action and start a whole discussion about how we should behave. But for a blogger to exert her power over others, she merely must go about her business of writing about such others.

    I will read any subsequent posts eventually, but I am not going to post again unless I think that my points have been wildly misrepresented.

    Enjoy your Sundays.



    P.S. I just realized I didn’t answer Jeremy’s interesting question about working papers. My short answer is that if they are published in a working paper series (NBER, SSRC, or even a school’s series), they are in the public domain. And I guess this should be true even of papers that are posted on a web site. This puts me in a bind with respect to our seminar. When we post papers to our website, we do it primarily to make them more convenient for seminar participants to access. Often, speakers ask us to remove the papers soon after the presentation. But if it’s blogging-fodder if it’s posted (and we all know that posting is permanent nowadays), I think we should reconsider the policy, and distribute the paper by email (unless speakers are fine with being blogged).


    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 23, 2007 at 1:02 pm

  40. Some of you who are completely new to our blog may get the impression that we some sort of wild, unruly gang trying to tear down academic institutions. That’s not true at all. Most academic bloggers, and certainly those who are regulars on this blog, are heavily invested in the existing institutional arrangements of academia. If you look at our vitaes you’ll see that we do more with our time than just blog (blogging, in fact, seems to complement rather than compete with our other academic work). We shoot for publication in good journals and we provide service to ASA in other functions. We’re just like every other young junior scholar out there as one of our greatest priorities in life is getting tenure and contributing to the field of social science.

    Academic institutions tend to keep us in line and regulate what we say for the most part. We’re concerned with our reputations and status and so we don’t often say things in the blog that you wouldn’t normally say in front of your peers. In fact, the public nature of the blog actually regulates us even more, and so blogging ends up being a typically more polite and respectful manner of communication.

    I disagree with Ezra’s assessment of the value of blogging because my experience with it has been such a positive one. I’ve made connections I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve received great and timely feedback on ideas and working projects. I’ve been exposed to ideas that I never would have found without my blogging connections. I’m much more interdisciplinary in my views than I was prior to blogging.

    Maybe Ezra’s comments about the “clunkiness of the discussion” are limited to those events where conflict or extreme disagreement exists. In those cases, then yes, I’d agree that supplementing blogging with a private phone call seems like a better way to resolve things. But those conflicts rarely emerge. This is a rarity on orgtheory to have an extended discussion of this sort. Usually, in fact, blogging tends to initiate fruitful discussions of other sorts. I have at least one paper that found its origin in a blog post and that later grew into something bigger through emails and phone calls (thanks to Gordon Smith).

    The last thing I want to address is this implicit assumption that we’re somehow wasting time by blogging. I don’t think Ezra meant that when he said he didn’t have the time to blog, but some of you might come away with the impression that time blogged is time wasted. I couldn’t disagree more. We all have things we do with our downtime. TV, magazines, hobbies of other sorts, etc. Blogging is what I choose to do. It’s a kind of “serious playing” that relaxes me. It does not really compete with working on papers, compiling datasets, or doing other academic things. Sometimes it may be procrastination (but as the economist Brad DeLong says), it’s a very productive form of procrastination.



    September 23, 2007 at 2:55 pm

  41. Ezra: Good summary of the points. Not much disagreement, ultimately, for a 40 comment thread. I agree with your distinction regarding working papers.



    September 23, 2007 at 2:57 pm

  42. Not to be snarky, but perhaps we should be distinguishing between academic blogs and the “8ThingsAboutMe — my friend likes KISS songs” blogs.

    It seems the former would be in the better position to establish scholarly norms and stimulate beneficial discussion to the academic topics at hand. The latter tend to turn into “oh look at me; what a silly boy I am” blogs with the accompanying draw.

    Sure some might benefit in their early careers by being early adopters of this technology and combining their personal background and life stories with the occasional scholarly critique. But is the overall field benefitted?

    I would say “no” that perhaps what davec. and many here object to is the drivel that often appears in the comment sections of those “KISS songs/serious about my work” now blogs. Presenters absolutely should have the right to decline to fill that kind of space in those kind of blogs, and let the reputations of those who would disagree and act otherwise suffer what they “hath wrought”.


    John D.

    September 23, 2007 at 3:07 pm

  43. Oh no, I think our sinister plot to bait the country’s most productive scholars into blogging and/or posting comments on a blog –so that we could thereby have a faint hope to catch up as they become distracted from their work–has been revealed! (Jeremy handicaps himself because…well, he’s just an all-around nice guy and doesn’t want to leave everybody else in the dust). I guess we have to go back to plan B…(back to work!)



    September 23, 2007 at 3:08 pm

  44. I would hate to leave Omar looking wrong about anything, so, for Mr. John D. and the record, let me chime in again and say that I like Jeremy’s blog. I like that Kiss-lovers blog as well.



    September 23, 2007 at 3:27 pm

  45. let me chime in again and say that I like Jeremy’s blog. I like that Kiss-lovers blog as well.

    See how quickly the discussion moves away from academic issues to whether or not you are a KISS fan though? I suspect many would just prefer not to swim in those waters.


    John D.

    September 23, 2007 at 5:35 pm

  46. I may be too late to this discussion, but I wanted to inject a bit of a pseudo-outsider’s perspective. I withhold my last name because I’m more intimidated by academia’s status structure than even a graduate student—that’s because I’m presently applying to become a graduate student. I’m happy to tell any individual who I am, but (as has been mentioned above) I don’t need this coming up in my Google life, in case what I’m about to say is ignorant in some way I’d later regret.

    But there’s something that has happened to me and many other aspiring scholars because of academic blogs. As Brayden notes, our perspectives become much more interdisciplinary, because a link can take us from a familiar sociology-based discussion to a disorienting economic analysis. Minutes later we might have landed in a cognitive science arena where people discuss biological bases for social phenomena, leading to a night reading about chromosomes. That disorientation and the curiosity it triggers is what has sent me back toward academia (despite my better economic sense) after trying my hand at the practice of politics and journalism. (You can imagine what this does to one’s Google profile…)

    I think blogging and online discourse make this an exciting time to enter academia. This notion of supplying people with guidance about whether information is public or not, I believe, is right on. Most reporters, for instance, will always assume anything is on the record unless told differently. In my career I will make sure to mention if I wouldn’t want something to discussed, just as I would in journalism or politics. I think Prof. Zuckerman’s sense this practice will be gradually forced on everyone is accurate, but I think that’s not a matter of a blogger telling others “tough shit.” Academic bloggers, as has been noted, are exceptionally considerate, even when they are arguing.

    I would submit that making your publicity preference known is simply prudent, as more and more people in academic gatherings have blogs: consider grad students who have been blogging since high school, undergrads who may be in attendance but yet unsocialized in whatever norm emerges, journalists being pressured to come up with some content out of every few hours of their day, and non-academic guest scholars such as those in think tanks who are more accustomed to an “on the record” default.

    Thanks to all here for a good discussion, and to the orgtheory folks for yet another way to let other disciplines complicate my future work.



    September 25, 2007 at 11:50 am

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