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race and genomics: comments on shiao et al.

Shiao et al in Sociological Theory, the symposioum, Scatterplot’s discussion, Andrew Perrin’s comments, last week’s discussion.

Last week, I argued that many sociologists make a strong argument. Not only are social classifications of race a convention, but there is no meaningful clustering of people that can be derived from physical or biological traits. To make this claim, I suggested that one would need to have a discussion of what meaningful traits would include, get a huge sample people, and then see if there are indeed clusters. The purpose of Shaio et al (2012) is to claim that when someone conducts such an exercise, there is some clustering.

Before I offer my own view of the evidence that Shiao et al offer, we need to set some ground rules. What are the logical possible outcomes of such an exercise?

  1. The null hypothesis: your clustering methods yield no clusters (e.g., there are no detectable sub-groups of people).
  2. The weak hypothesis: clustering algorithms yield ambiguous results. It’s like getting in regression analysis a small correlation with a p=.07. This is important because it should shift your prior moderately.
  3. The “conventional” strong hypothesis: unambiguous groups that correspond to social classifications of people. E.g., there really is a “White” group of people corresponding to people from Europe.
  4. The “unconventional” strong hypothesis: unambiguous groups that do not correspond to common social classifications of people. For example, there might be an extremely well defined group of people that combines Hawaiians and Albanians.

A few technical points, which are important. First, any such exercise will need top incorporate robustness checks because clustering methods require the use to set up initial parameters. Clustering algorithms do not tell you how many groups there are. Instead, they answer the question of how well the model fits the hypothesis that you have X groups. Second, sociologists tend to mix up these possible outcomes. They correctly point out that there is a social construction called “race” which is real in its effects and influence on people. But that doesn’t logically entail anything about the presence or absence of human populations that are differentiated due to random variation of inherent physical traits over time. Also, they fail to consider #4. Their might be actual differences, but they might not match up to our common beliefs.

So what does Shiao at al offer and where does it lie in this spectrum of possibilities? Well, the article is a not a systematic review of genomic research that searches for clusters or people. Rather, it offers a few important points drawn from anthropology and genomics. First, Shiao et al point out that there is a now undisputed (among academics) human history. Humans originated in East Africa and then spread out (“Out of Africa thesis”). Second, as people spread out, genomic variation emerges as people mate with people close by. Third, genetic drift implies that geography will predict variations in genes. As you move from X to Y, you will see measurable differences in people. Fourth, these differences are gradual in character.

Shiao then switch gears and talk about clustering of people using genomic data. They tell us that there are statistically detectable and stable group differences and that these do not rigidly determine behavior. They also cite research suggesting these statistical groups correlate with self-described racial groupings. Then, the authors discuss a “bounded” approach to social theory where biology imposes some constraints on the variation on behavior but in a non-deterministic fashion.

I’ll get to the symposium next week, but here’s my response: 1. There is a real tension. At some points, Shiao et al suggests a world of gradual variation, which suggests no distinct racial groups (outcome #1) but then there’s a big focus clusters.  2. If we do live in a world of gradual, but real, variation in human biology, then the whole clustering approach is misleading. Instead, we might live in a world that’s like a contour map. It’s all connected, there are no groups, but you see some variables increase as you move along the map. 3. If that’s true, we need an outcome #5 – “race is not real but biology is real.” 4. I definitely need more detail on the clustering methods and procedures. Some critics have pointed out that the clusters found in research are endogenously produced, which makes me suspect that the underlying science might be hovering around outcomes #1 (it all depends on the algorithm and its parameters) or #2 (there might be some clustering, but it is very poorly defined).

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Written by fabiorojas

October 20, 2014 at 12:01 am

sociology’s greatest hits 2010-2019: #4 – the continuing battle over bio-sociology

What’s the relationship between biology and human behavior? Well, it’s complicated and sociology’s been working on this as well. Probably the most noted person is Gang Guo producing a parade of articles that link various bio markers to behaviors like drinking. Then, we had the mini-explosion of Jianbin Shiao’s Sociological Theory article on race and genetics. On the other side of things, folks like Dalton Conley, who retrained and earned a doctoral degree in biology, tells us that yes, genetics is a thing but it’s way more complicated than you might suspect.



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Written by fabiorojas

December 17, 2019 at 7:02 pm

Posted in uncategorized

emirbayer and desmond book forum 2: they could have been nicer

This is part 2 of our book forum on Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order. Here, I’ll discuss the first 80 pages of the book, which starts with an amazingly ill advised sentence: “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.” This is a really bad starting point because even a non-specialist such as myself can easily come up with three (!) major systematic and comprehensive theories of race:

  • Race is a socially constructed group division based on ancestry and physical appearance: This theory was articulated in classical theory, such as Weber’s discussion of caste and DuBois’ work on American race relations. It has many, many proponents.
  • Race is a biological variation in human beings: The modern version of this theory comes from studies of genetic variation. In sociology, the journal Sociological Theory (ahem) had a massive symposium on genomic theories of race, which we discussed here.
  • Race is a social category meant to signal a group’s place in the means of production or political system: This theory is less discussed in sociology, but is a popular theory in anthropology. For example, John Comaroff is a well known anthropologist who explores this argument as do many others.

So, from my view, the problem isn’t that we lack a theory of race. Rather, we have *tons* of theories of race and *tons* of empirical evidence.The problem is sorting it all out.

Adding to this issue is the avoidance of work that would seem to help bolster various parts of the book. For example, one crucial element of Emirbayer and Desmond’s theory is work on race that its insistence on an unconscious and interactional dimension of race, as would be suggested by Bourdieusian theory. The modern “racism without racists” school actively draws on Bourdieusian sociology very clearly, as does the work on race, cultural capital and status attainment. Yet, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva or Prudence Carter are barely mentioned in text. Another example: In the recent Theory of Fields (2012), Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam actually have an entire chapter applying field theory to civil rights mobilization. These are not obscure points. This is a major issue: why does a supposedly systematic treatment of race avoid the many major scholars whose work defines race scholarship in modern sociology? I am puzzled.

Before I wrap up, a stylistic point and a nit picky point. Stylistic: I think one drawback of the book is that it employs a classical “theory bloat” style of writing. For example, it doesn’t actually tell you it’s theory of race for 80 pages!! It also takes detours into reflexivity theory and a bunch of other issues. I really suggest that readers skip directly to Part II for the good stuff. This reminds me of the time I read Jeffrey Alexander’s Neofunctionalism and After – which doesn’t tell you what neofunctionalism is until page 110!

Nit picky: the book occasionally has some points of intellectual laziness. For example, at one point, there is a detour about the evils of regression analysis. Bizarre. Given that sociology is moving into a comfortable mixed method approach to data, we don’t need grad school seminar cheap shots. Regression analysis is fine and it’s perfectly good for studying trends in data, assuming you’ve put in the effort to collect high quality data. That sort of cheap shot is below these authors.

Next week: We’ll discuss Part II of The Racial Order. Spoiler: I like it!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

does race exist? part trois

This semester we spent a lot of time discussing Shiao et al’s (2012) article in Sociological Theory claiming that recent genetic research provides a reason to believe that “races” exist. Now we’ll discuss the symposium that was recently published.

There are three responses by Anne Morning, Daniel Hosag, and Fujimora et al. There is a lot in there so I will focus on what I think is most important:

  1. Genomic analyses are contaminated by racial categories. I.e., genomic clustering results rely on social categories of race.
  2. Genomic analyses are inconsistent in that different algorithms producs different number of human clusters (“clinal groups”).
  3. Genomic analyses do not clearly map onto groups that would clearly be identitified as racial or ethnic groups.

Let me take each in turn. On a purely logical level, 1 is probably the weakest point. As I noted in my original post on Shiao et al 2012, the contamination of a scientific research program by social bias does not logically imply that the basic idea is flawed. That requires a different argument. My original example: social definitions of non-humans have plagued scientific research, but that doesn’t imply  that there aren’t meaningful distinctions between fish or rocks. It only shows that a particular scientist got it wrong.

Point 2 is a much stronger point. Inconsistent results, or those that are very sensitive to initial paramters set during model estimation, should reduce our confidence. I think the respondents do a good job suggesting that genomic research does not show a clear partition of people based on genomic data.

I think Shiao (and other people on his side) have a plausible response: human populations have no clear boundaries, they intermix a bit, and we should expect fuzzy boundaries. To support this point, you would examine the distribution of the number of clusters done using different data and different methods. If we get a very “flat” posterior (i.e., any number of groups is equally possible), the critics win. If the distribution has concentrated mass and the mean is not zero, then Shiao et al wins. In other words, meta analysis is the way we settle this sort of claim. Neither side has done this analysis in the Sociological Theory exchange.

Point 3 is unpersuasive as presented. As I noted in an earlier point, it is logically possible that there is genuine clustering of people but it doesn’t match to our notions of what counts as a race. For example, maybe I am not Latino but I am Basque-Dutch-Colombian-Sub-Tico. So race exists, but not in the way we understand it. So the mismatch between genomic data and folk notions of race may be beside the point.

Shiao et al’s response hits some common points and focuses on others (e.g., their review of the genomic literature is accurate in contrast to what the critics claim). Shiao et al’s response to point 2 is a bit different in that it goes into detail about what certain algorithms accomplish.

Overall, I am struck at what was accepted by most folks. There seem to be genuine biological differences between people, behavioral genetics is not irrelevant to sociology, and there seems to be meaningful dimensions of variation among people that is tied to geography. This last point is also noted by Shiao at el. Shiao then makes a strong point – if you believe that there is genomic variation by geography, why immediately jump to the strongest constructionist argument? Doesn’t make sense.

A few months ago, I noted that I was a racial agnostic because I don’t possess the technical knowledge to judge rival claims and I don’t immediately assume the constructionist view is true. After reading this exchange, I am moving toward the view that there is indeed systematic variation in people, but “Race” might be a terribly bad way to think about it.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 22, 2014 at 7:22 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

before you say race isn’t real, you need a definition of race

This week, I’d like to focus on the sociology of race. We’ll discuss Shiao et al.’s Sociological Theory article The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race, which is the subject of a symposium. After you read the article and symposium, you might enjoy the Scatterplot discussion.

In this first post, I’d like to discuss the definitional problems associated with the concept “race.” The underlying concept is that people differ in some systematic way that goes beyond learned traits (like language). One aspect of the “person in the street” view of race is that it reflects common ancestry, which produces correlated physical and social traits. When thinking about this approach to race, most sociologists adopt the constructivist view which says that: (a) the way we group people together reflects our historical moment, not a genuine grouping of people with shared traits and  (b) the only physical differences between people are superficial.

One thing to note about the constructivist approach to race is that the first claim is very easy to defend and the other is very challenging. The classifications used by the “person on the street” are essentially fleeting social conventions. For example, Americans used the “one drop rule” to classify people, but it makes little sense because putting more weight on Black ancestors than White ancestors is arbitrary. Furthermore, ethnic classifications vary by place and even year to year. The ethnic classifications used in social practice flunk the basic tests of reliability and validity that one would want from any measurement of the social world.

The second claim is that there are no meaningful differences between people in general. This claim is much harder to make. This is not an assessment of truth of the claim, but the evidence needed to make is of a tall order. Namely, to make the strong constructivist argument, you would need (a) a definition of which traits matter, (b) a systematic measurement of those traits from a very large sample of people, (c) criteria for clustering people based on data, and (d) a clear test that all (or even most) reasonable clustering methods show a single group of people. As you can see, you need *a lot* of evidence to make that work.

That is where Shiao et al get into the game. They never dispute the first claim, but suggest that the second claim is indefensible – there is evidence of non-random clustering of people using genomic data. This is very important because it disentangles two important issues – race as social category and race as intra-group similarity. It’s like saying the Average Joe may be mistaken about air, earth, water, and fire, but real scientists can see that there are elements out there and you can do real science with them.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 14, 2014 at 12:04 am

give me $3 and i’ll get you your phd

Ok, that’s a bald faced lie. Unless you’re my dissertation student, I can’t give you your PhD. Even then, you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way – do some research. But you know what you can get for $3 that will get you your PhD? The Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know About Academia from Admissions to Tenure. And the title is no joke. In 59 short chapters, I cover everything from “Should I go to graduate school?” to assembling your tenure dossier.

Why did I write this book? I think graduate education is a mess. People expect you to just learn through osmosis. Imagine if we ran medical schools the same way. Meh! So I wrote this book to help people know how the system works. For real – from a dude who succeeded (and failed, at time) in graduate school and the tenure track.

The reviews:

  • A well explained and written overview of academia that is helpful for anyone in or considering a profession in academia. A great sociological analysis of the process. Well worth one’s time. (JL Howell).
  • This book is an excellent representation of the mainstream in professional sociology. It’s especially valuable for my advisees, as our department is a historically critical/activist one. I wish I’d had it when I was in graduate school. (JL Shiao).

Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 19, 2013 at 12:33 am