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sociology needs more…

Every discipline has gaps. Here’s what sociology needs more of:

  1. People who study China and India. It’s improved with respect to China. The world’s largest nation is no longer considered an esoteric specialty. But few research programs have faculty who can train you in the sociology of India, which has, like, a billion people. I’m glad I know of Shehza’s work. We need more.
  2. Formal models for the average sociologist. So far, math soc is a sequestered specialty. Good people for sure, but I really think we need a style of math soc which is about formalizing mainstream sociology and communicating the results back to the public. We also need more theorem proving as well.
  3. Mixed method research. This is a bit self-interested, but I do honestly believe it. Sociology is in the unique position of having issues that need quantitative and qualitative solutions. We should develop a research style synthesizing these two approaches.
  4. Cross-discipline imperialism. Our tenured faculty should try to publish relevant work in competitive out-discipline journals. We got the goods. Let’s do more of it

What do you think the discipline needs to do?

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Written by fabiorojas

February 24, 2011 at 12:53 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

34 Responses

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  1. Agreed. Especially #2

    Like

    Charles Seguin

    February 24, 2011 at 1:14 am

  2. I could not agree more. Sociology is such a wonderful academic discipline, teeming with interesting research questions, but woefully short on analytical structure.
    Formal models for the average sociologist, I believe, only calls for sociologists “tooling up” on basic differentiation, basic integration, and basic game theory. Math camp prior to each academic year can move sociology beyond its sister disciplines.

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    Brian A. Pitt

    February 24, 2011 at 2:02 am

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JotaC and Social Psych, John. John said: @patrickinglis this person thinks you are needed: http://bit.ly/ehhOgH :) […]

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  4. freshman computer science.

    most of us who do quantitative work write fugly repetitive gibberish with hard-coded assumptions and learning some programming would let us write more elegant Stata code and this would change the way we do even garden variety quant work in subtle ways.
    moreover more of us should learn languages like Perl or Python as there’s a lot of potentially machine-readable data out there but you need to know how to program if you want to do anything other than download off-the-shelf surveys and/or have an army or RAs type stuff into Excel. this will have more obvious reflections in the kind of work we do.

    Like

    gabriel rossman

    February 24, 2011 at 4:09 am

  5. On point #1 above, Coase to the rescue, then!

    -His new book, How China Became Capitalist, is scheduled for a June 2011 release (via http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2010/12/09/ronald-coases-new-book/).

    -A long interview with him at http://english.unirule.org.cn/Html/Unirule-News/20110101130956819.html.

    Like

    Mauro Mello Jr

    February 24, 2011 at 5:58 am

  6. Sociology is so beautiful and so dead.

    Like

    panda

    February 24, 2011 at 6:12 am

  7. More people who study the Arab world. Most of the social scientists who study the Arab world are political scientists or anthropologists, not sociologists.

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    Benjamin Geer

    February 24, 2011 at 6:32 am

  8. Fabio, I have reservations against point 2; i.e. formalizing mainstream sociology by virtue of mathematical models.

    The use of such models obfuscates the social dynamics through which social relations and structures are created, negotiated, managed, etc. It creates the impression that society “is”, for example, a “network society”. The models however do not reveal that in fact they only are metaphors (e.g., “network society”), that have been created through social processes which remain hidden under the cover of an ‘objective’ image or an ‘objectifying’ mathematical formula.
    By turning sociological findings into mathematical models the important studies on the social production of accounts and scientific knowledge are disregarded. We sort of turn the back on and ignore one of the most important research areas in the social sciences over the past 50 years so, in order to give sociology a (natural) science look or image.

    Some call the (over-)use of mathematics in the social sciences, economics and management “physics envy” (Soros 2008; Tapp 2007) as it ignores decades of social scientific research that points to role “reflexivity” plays in social relationships.

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    Dirk vom Lehn

    February 24, 2011 at 3:02 pm

  9. 5. Jobs.

    Like

    market

    February 24, 2011 at 3:32 pm

  10. China and India absolutely, but other parts of the world too: Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa. We need to understand more about the massive social and political changes that are happening in many of these places: urbanization, migration, democratization, new forms of inequalities, changes in sex and gender, social movements, etc.

    Like

    Bedhaya

    February 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm

  11. In my experience most chinese sociologists study china. #1 is for american sociology I suppose.

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    chinese guy

    February 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm

  12. Dirk- I think that’s a bit over the top. Maths seems to be seriously neglected in Sociology. In the UK for instance most undergraduate programs only go as far as descriptive statistics in 3 whole years of study. This is frankly appalling, ‘quant’ Sociology is routinely outnumbered by qualitative approaches and ‘theory’.

    Just because many call for more formal methods in the discipline, it doesn’t follow that they are suggesting we should become, say, Economics. Just that the discipline can learn a lot from what formal modelling can bring to the table. No one is saying that modelling is the only serious way to study society…but perhaps that the discipline would stand to gain a lot from a type of ‘equalisation’ of qual with quant.

    In many ways Economics and Computer Science have taken over mathematical sociology, it’s about time we reclaimed it.

    Like

    Jon

    February 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm

  13. “The use of such models obfuscates the social dynamics through which social relations and structures are created, negotiated, managed, etc. It creates the impression that society “is”, for example, a “network society”.”

    I don’t buy that. “Network society”, for example, a key concept in the work of Castells, who is a very theoretical and qualitative thinker.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  14. For what it’s worth, I think sociologists come closest to practice formal modeling when we define words. I think ‘habitus’ is a model of organizational action, and can be applied as such. For example, if given such a habitus, you will tend toward such a result. Like any model, it can’t explain everything, though it pretends to.

    Oh, and I want to comment on this:

    “I don’t buy [Dirk’s point]. ‘Network society’, for example, a key concept in the work of Castells, who is a very theoretical and qualitative thinker.”

    This is exactly Dirk’s point, no?: Castells uses ‘network society’ not as a model but a metaphor.

    Regarding number two above, in the list of what sociology should do more. Tell me if I’m wrong: Rojas illustrates a theory of sociology that is narrowed by a personal preference, in this case for mathematics. The way he wants to do sociology is the way sociology should be done. To me, this is not worth criticizing, because we all succumb to this, reflexively, as Dirk might say. But the utter subjectivities of Rojas in this post, couched in terms of what sociology ought to be if properly practiced, are especially striking, indeed.

    Exactly what is it about the present state of society that tells you we need more mathematics? God, does this crazy world tell me the opposite.

    Anyway, I’m with everything Dirk wrote in his post; my problems are not with formal modeling per se but with the outdated theories of science held by many of those who advocate the practice of formal modeling.

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    Austen

    February 25, 2011 at 1:18 am

  15. I’m definitely for #2, augmented with Gabriel’s suggestion. In contrast to what many seem to think, formal modeling does not presuppose a certain set of substantive assumptions; it’s about clarity of thinking.

    Austen: it’s not about the state of society, but about the state of sociology.

    Like

    Rense

    February 25, 2011 at 3:34 am

  16. @Austen, you must not be thinking of Bourdieu’s use of “habitus” if you are talking about “defining” words. Bourdieu explicitly refused to define that concept, leaving it instead as an intentionally amorphous category [“a structured and structuring structure”, etc] that gains its meaning through (often inconsistent) usage instead of through definition. The result is imprecise, and intentionally so. You are right that sociologists come closest to formalizing concepts by defining them, but only because defining concepts precisely and formalizing them mathematically are extremely closely related: any statement in propositional logic can be written as a statement in boolean algebra, and visa versa. One of the consequences of most sociologists having a terrible math training is that they do not understand the ease and elegance with which language transitions into mathematics when it becomes precise. Mathematics is not some ontologically distinct universe, but a consequence of clarity and consistency: it brings with it no ontological or theoretical prescriptions. “Outdated theories of science” is a canard: as far as I can tell, anyone doing rigorous research about the social world will at some point in her career be accused of this sin simply because they omit the requisite lip service to turgid social theory.

    As for Fabio’s points, I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s being prescriptive and not descriptive. I agree with his prescriptions, and especially #2. One of the things that makes me optimistic about the future of sociology is that #2 and #3 are clearly on the rise: what is social network analysis software but mathematical social theory for Joe the Sociologist?

    Like

    xxx

    February 25, 2011 at 3:55 am

  17. Fabio, I think I attended to your proposition in the spirit you have sent it. I didn’t mean to actually propose to abolish mathematical modelling altogether. If people find that it produces valuable findings and they enjoy this kind work, please….I am sure they have their place. Harrison White’s work is only one very good example in this regard.

    So, Jon, yes, I went a little over the top with my argument. However, it seems that many major US-American journals have increasingly become specialist journals for academics with an expertise and interest in (complex) mathematical modelling. e.g. American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Marketing, etc. This development is unfortunate because these journals have a strong tradition of studies that address related issues (e.g. social relationships, networks, social forms, …) using very different methods and methodologies. In my mind, studies using methods other than mathematical modelling, econometrics, etc. are underrepresented in those journals. As you rightly say, journals outside the USA have different bias and have developed in ways that might be unfortunate as well.

    Guillermo, Austen put it in much better words then I but I try again:
    I don’t think it would be right to assume that because some , very important, sociologists describe society as “network society” means that that’s actually what we are living in. It’s just a term to describe a phenomenon that they have developed analysing their data. Their studies have focused on a specfic aspect of social relationships but they could have chosen a very different focus and then may have described society in other ways; and indeed sociologists have described society with other terms: Risk Society, Experience Society, Multioption Society, Knowledge Society, Information Society, et al.
    With regards to the metaphor “network society” it might be an interesting study to explore when and how it emerged as a sociological term; there might be a close relationship to the diffusion of internet technologies and the discourse about their impact on social relationships.

    Rense, I don’t think the state of sociology is improved by using ever more complex (mathematical) technologies to analyse its subject matter.

    XXX, one of the problems with mathematical models is that they imply an exactness and a preciseness that people living in the lifeworld (which might not be organised by mathematical principles) do not recognise in their social relationships. The models of description might be good in theory and useful for theoretical development but don’t correspond to social reality. It’s a matter of perspective, and it has been discussed in extenso by many (e.g. the Parsons-Schutz correspondence).

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    Dirk vom Lehn

    February 25, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  18. Dirk wrote:
    > one of the problems with mathematical models is that they imply
    >an exactness and a preciseness that people living in the lifeworld
    >(which might not be organised by mathematical principles) do
    >not recognise in their social relationships.

    This can be true of formal modeling but isn’t necessarily. To the outsider the models look overly precise and mechanistic but if you know how to read them you can appreciate how they often pick up on latent concepts underlying surface manifestations. For instance, most formal models have pretty strong assumptions that populations are heterogenous rather than thinking we are all the same. Some of the better models (especially as you move from calculus to agent-based modeling) also include noise elements, which is a simplified way of capturing the messiness of reality.

    Also, I think you’re confusing statistical methods with formal modeling. AJS publishes a lot of the former and very little of the latter. Math and statistics don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In principle, narrative theorizing could be evaluated with statistical research methods and formal (mathematical) theory could be evaluated with qualitative research methods. For instance, in my book manuscript I use game theory to interpret some of my qualitative evidence. Conversely, people like Greta Hsu and Ezra Zuckerman use statistical methods to evaluate concepts like “focused identity” derived from narrative theory (specifically, phenomenology).

    And finally, while formal theory does sometime imply excess precision (or, as I would put it, a lack of robustness to noise), the opposite tendency is to use narrative theory with so many hedges, qualifications, subtleties, and deliberately vague jargon that it is not actually saying anything but rather is better characterized as the emission of an obfuscatory and unfalsifiable/unhelpful rhetorical fog of gibberish. I wouldn’t say this is a necessary failing of narrative theory (and there is a lot of truly excellent narrative theory), but it is a potential pitfall.

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    gabriel rossman

    February 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  19. […] thing that organizational and economic sociology could use more of is experimental methods. While sociologists are not completely averse to experiments (see its […]

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  20. I think sociology needs more of comparative studies; comparative studies “across space” (between countries, societies) and “over time” (looking at different periods). I think that the insights of comparative studies can not only teach us about empirical differences or similarities or about dynamics of social and institutional change. Furthermore, in many ways comparative studies could help us to extend theories or to create a new theory, as well as to reveal new issues and to formulate new questions for the future research. I think, the case of Weber’s enormous driving influence on a modern sociological thought, and social sciences in general, stems from his sound and broad historical and comparative perspective.

    Like

    Oleg Komlik

    February 26, 2011 at 12:57 am

  21. I guess this relates to our discussion about the use of mathematical models in sociology: http://xkcd.com/435/ ;).

    Like

    Rense

    February 26, 2011 at 1:14 am

  22. “‘Outdated theories of science’ is a canard: as far as I can tell, anyone doing rigorous research about the social world will at some point in her career be accused of this sin simply because they omit the requisite lip service to turgid social theory.”

    Fine, have it your way. But your view of sociological practice completely ignores the issue of reflexivity.

    As a result, the Bourdieu point that the sociologist cannot be truly empirical without an awareness of the reflexive nature of social data — this point goes unchallenged by you, and of course Rojas.

    In sum, you have a theory of mathematics, but you have not linked your theory to the actual state of society.

    Bourdieu has.

    Again, I ask: what is it about social data in today’s world that calls for more mathematical modeling?

    If you can’t answer this question then number two above sits scientifically baseless.

    For example, there is a clear empirical reason for number one above– the structural transformations and economic growth of China and India over the last few decades.

    What is the empirical basis for number two?

    Like

    Austen

    February 26, 2011 at 3:06 am

  23. Austen: I don’t understand why you ask for empirical support for what is essentially a philosophical, methodological point. Sociology fails to explain an awful lot of social phenomena (alright, you might call that an empirical claim of sorts), and Fabio’s claim is that more modeling would help. Eventually, of course, the real test for such claims is verifying that formal models have better explanatory power than verbal theory, and this can only be done though empirical tests, but I don’t think that that is what you mean. I wonder, do you have an empirical basis for the need for reflexivity?

    But if you really want something “about social data in today’s world that calls for more mathematical modeling”, how about this one: the digital revolution created an abundance of data on social interaction on a scale that sociologists in earlier days could only dream of (think Facebook). The sheer scale and complexity of such data call for more rigorous approaches than verbal theorizing; you can’t even start to come up with useful descriptions of such data without the use mathematical techniques.

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    Rense

    February 26, 2011 at 5:58 am

  24. Gabriel, thank you for your intervention. That’s a very useful clarification. My argument on exactness and preciseness implied in mathematical models was directed at XXX’s comment; but “mathematical can imply or suggest…” is much better than “do imply” an exactness that does not correspond to the social world. However, such models, depending on how they are presented, can suggest to the reader or the ‘public’ that they are the same as the social world and not just ‘models’ of it. In tis sense, I still agree with Austen, that the relationship between the modelling and the social world is easily lost. Researchers can easily get carried away by their enthusiasm of what a technology allows them to do, without further reflecting on the relationship between the measure and the practice of measuring. Narrative approaches approaches are only one alternative method, and the choice of method depends on the objective of your research. (your research domain is fascinating, by the way)

    Rense, you seem to mix up information with data. Data are not out there but they are produced by the researcher(s). Facebook and other social media provide interesting opportunities for social scientists but it remains to the researchers to turn what they observe into data. Also, I think Facebook etc would agree, the forms of social interaction allowed for by these services are very primitive, largely text and picture based. If sociologists want to learn about social interaction it might be worthwhile to step away from the computer and explore what’s going on in the world.

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    Dirk vom Lehn

    February 26, 2011 at 11:30 am

  25. This thread seems to involve a number of misunderstandings about what formal theory is (and the fact that it differs from quantitative analysis… a point that Gabriel made above). The original post called for more formal theory not more quantitative empirical research so I will bracket the latter.

    Theory development generally involves deduction, the claim that some proposition follows from a set of assumptions. That’s true of both formal theory and verbal theory. Formal theory differs from verbal theory in the fact that it uses a set of tools that have been designed for such deduction (and for keeping track of very large numbers of “moving parts”). In fact, it would be reasonable to think of formal theory simply as a language with more precise definitions and a stricter grammar than natural languages (i.e. English or German). Formal theory therefore has the advantages of precision (in intended meaning), verification of the logical chain and the ability to deduce unexpected consequences. Adner, Polos, Ryall and Sorenson (AMR, 2009) have a more extended discussion of these issues (for management, but just replace “management” with “sociology”).

    The limitations suggested above are generally not limitations of formal models but rather complaints about specific assumptions. But these assumptions are not inherent in the method. Formal models can, for example, accommodate uncertainty and even ambiguity (see, for example, research by Ryall). They can accommodate social interconnections (a massive amount of work has been done here in physics and economics), and they can accommodate recursive processes (such as performativity and structuration). In general, they are limited only by the creativity and skill of the person using them (and, of course, by the fact that they cannot represent ideas that violate the rules of logic).

    Verbal theory has a place. When speculating about new ideas, for example, the cost of trying to identify all of the necessary assumptions probably exceeds the value of doing so. But as ideas become refined and better understood, they generally reach a point whether further theoretical progress requires formalization.

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    OS

    February 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm

  26. History confirms, and this post suggests, that the road to firm theoretical and empirical concensus is arduous (but not impossible).
    My explicit agreement with Fabio’s #2 is due to the dearth of concensus amongst sociologists ABOUT THE BASICS (e.g., what sociology is and what theoretical lenses it uses).
    Few sociologists would disagree that Weber is one of sociology’s founders and his notion of “social action,” or how humans orient their action to others, is, and has been, a staple of sociology. That said, how can it be that this notion has not been formally developed by sociologists? I am of the opinion that obtaining a better understanding of a concept requires less qualification, and more clarification. Clarifying how humans orient their action to others, it seems to me, should be introduced to students verbally and formally. Verbally via the works of Weber, and formally via the analytical techniques of network analysis and game theory.

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    Brian A. Pitt

    February 26, 2011 at 10:26 pm

  27. Dirk, note that I was only responding to Austen’s question about what changed in “social data.” Of course there’s a difference between what’s going on in reality and what you measure; my point was just that what we can measure has changed these days, and I was assuming that that was what Austen’s question was about. (As an aside: communication via online media is real communication too, with real consequences!).
    OS puts is nicely. Formal modeling is about how you say it, not what you say.

    Like

    Rense

    February 27, 2011 at 9:58 pm

  28. Dirk wrote:

    >However, such models, depending on how they are presented,
    >can suggest to the reader or the ‘public’ that they are the
    >same as the social world and not just ‘models’ of it. In tis
    >sense, I still agree with Austen, that the relationship between
    >the modelling and the social world is easily lost.

    absolutely

    >(your research domain is fascinating, by the way)
    thanks

    >Rense, you seem to mix up information with data. Data are not
    >out there but they are produced by the researcher(s). Facebook
    >and other social media provide interesting opportunities for
    >social scientists but it remains to the researchers to turn what
    >they observe into data. Also, I think Facebook etc would agree,
    >the forms of social interaction allowed for by these services
    >are very primitive, largely text and picture based.

    Again, agreed and that was largely the point of my “freshman computer science” comment. Likewise I think you’re right to imply that it’s worth considering that not only the researchers but also more pragmatic actors (Facebook, US News, etc) create data and shape reality so data that is particularly subject these actors’ influence needs to be understood as such.

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    gabriel rossman

    February 27, 2011 at 10:03 pm

  29. I think everybody is making fine points. I hope it is similarly worthwhile if I then bring up another problem facing formal modeling of human behavior– time. It is possible that human action exists in moments rather than according to an interaction of time-static variables. It might be inherently bad empirics to take a social variable outside of an immediate temporal context, which would be a critique of not only formal modeling but most American sociology in general.

    Also, there might be a disagreement about what it is a sociologist does. A sociologist doesn’t ‘give a window into reality.’ A sociologist makes statements about reality. He makes language. Our language does not form data into reality; our language is itself data into reality. Assigning any more is playing a game of faith that can never be scientifically validated.

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    Austen

    February 28, 2011 at 12:28 am

  30. “I don’t understand why you ask for empirical support for what is essentially a philosophical, methodological point.”

    Probably because of my own subjective goals for sociology, which is something like to never discuss theory, data, and method separately from one another. Also– shouldn’t a sociologist have good, sound empirical reasons to make an argument about how sociology should change? I think he has it in terms of China and India in a way he lacks for mathematical models. Notice there’s data in number one (a billion people) whereas he goes no further than “I think” in number two. I do wish he’d follow up to provide an empirical case, but, alas, I suppose his role is as provocateur. How post-modern.

    “how about this one: the digital revolution created an abundance of data on social interaction on a scale that sociologists in earlier days could only dream of (think Facebook).”

    I agree 100 percent. And I also tend toward agreeing that we need more models. The question for me is whether these new data call specifically for more mathematical models. The data I see out there are best kept in the language they are transmitted, not transformed into integers. Note I said ‘best.’

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    Austen

    February 28, 2011 at 12:52 am

  31. […] Fabio’s claim that sociology “needs more…” As a qualitative sociologist, I think the discipline stands to gain from a closer engagement […]

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  32. […] Fabio’s claim that sociology “needs more…” As a qualitative sociologist, I think the discipline stands to gain from a closer engagement […]

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  33. […] sociolgy needs more… @ orgtheory.net by Fabio Rojas […]

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  34. […] sociolgy needs more… @ orgtheory.net by Fabio Rojas […]

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