Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
The NY Times Opinion Pages has a forum on whether economists have too much influence. Personally, I actually think economists have a great deal to contribute. But when reading Diane Coyle’s contribution, she personified the extreme caricature of economists as disconnected. For example, Coyle wrote:
No government has a chief anthropologist or a corps of philosophers employed in its departments. The president has no Council of Sociological Advisers.
We actually do have a corps of sociologists in government who do an extremely important job – the US Census Bureau! And there actually is a high level committee where sociologists shape this extremely government agency. It’s called the Census Scientific Advisory Committee! And it actually has a bunch of sociologists on it such as NYU’s Guillermina Jasso, Michigan’s Barbara Anderson and Penn’s Irma Elo. Within the ranks of the US Census Bureau, there are actually lots of sociologists who work on policy reports and survey design, including some graduates of my own program. The Congressional Budget Office also employs a lot of social science graduates to do important work.
While Coyle may be right about philosophy, she is still wrong about anthropology. It is true that states do not have cabinet level anthropologists, many do actually employ anthropologists to study, manage, and interact with indigenous populations, which is an enormously important job. In Latin America, anthropologists are crucially important for Indian affairs. I don’t know where Coyle got her ideas when she implied that economics is the only social science discipline with a function in government , but I’m working with real data – not pie in the sky!
Everyone wants to know the secrets to academic success. But despite the sizable academic self-help genre, actual evidence on whether scholars who pursue certain strategies are more successful than others is fairly thin on the ground.
Erin Leahey has written about the returns to research specialization, and I know of a couple of papers on the characteristics of highly cited scientists (gated links, sorry). There’s probably more in the voluminous scientometrics literature.
Some of our standard theories in organization theory suggest different answers to this question — and in particular, to the question of what research topic you should pick. (Assuming maximum academic success is your goal and not, say, following your passion.)
A whole line of research following from Ezra Zuckerman’s 1999 article on the penalty to category breaching suggests that not fitting into predefined categories can hurt a product. Audiences, for example, find genre-spanning work less appealing. On the flip side, though, Ron Burt’s work on structural holes would seem to imply that academics who bridge poorly connected networks are in a good position to benefit from their brokerage.
Of course, none of this work (at least the stuff I know) has looked specifically at academic research. But both theories fit plausible narratives of scholarly success.
It makes a lot of sense that people who bridge disconnected research communities would be in a position to bring useful ideas from one into the other, and reap the rewards that result. On the other hand, I can think of several examples of folks who seem to achieve less success than they merit because their work falls outside, or fits awkwardly between, well-defined research communities. A penalty to category-breaching or genre-spanning sounds entirely plausible too.
If I had to guess, I’d suspect that these two patterns may both exist in academia but intersect in fairly complex ways. So the network-broker can benefit from her ability to borrow insights from another discipline, or community. But only if the insights are recognizable enough to her home discipline that others can mentally place those insights in an understandable location within their field — that is, in an existing category.
The question is whether there’s a sweet spot — being just enough of a broker to benefit, without being so radical as to trigger a category-breaching penalty. Or maybe there’s a benefit to brokerage, but only in certain structural holes — ones that don’t cause the category problem. Or maybe there are a couple of mutually exclusive strategies for success.
What do you think? Will academic brokers be hit with an illegitimacy penalty for their category breaching? Or are these in fact orthogonal issues for ambitious academics? Maybe there’s actual research that speaks to this.
(H/T to Tim Bartley for the conversation that spurred these musings.)
James Iveniuk is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago. He recently collected data on professors to understand how people choose their research specialty. He collected data on all professors at 97 ranked sociology doctoral programs in the US News & World Report. Click on this link: Iveniuk Discipline Analysis. Lots of fun results. In my view, this report supports the “Prada Bag hypothesis,” which suggests that the areas of cultural, politics, and historical are luxury items more likely to be found at higher ranked programs. Add your own interpretations in the comments.
So last week, for me, was the first week of classes. But the week before that, I was in Austin to use the LBJ archives.
The LBJ archives are awesome. Of the 15 or so archives I’ve visited over the last 10+ years, they had hands-down the most helpful archivist I’ve ever met. (Allen Fisher, if you’re taking notes.) I was also amused that they’re a little competitive with the other presidential archives. I received a meaningful look when they learned that no one at JFK explained the details of the archives’ shared cross-referencing system to me. (“You’d be surprised how often that happens.”)
Anyway, the best find of the trip was the papers of Donald Turner, who was the first economist to run the Antitrust Division (1965-68). There were letters to all sorts of major players in law & economics, like Robert Bork. A letter of recommendation for Oliver Williamson, who very early in his career was Turner’s special economic assistant. A “P.S” on a letter from the Dean of Yale’s Law School: “Is Steve Breyer [then 27] as able as I think he is?”
But the most fun was the totally human part. The year before Turner became antitrust chief, he went on sabbatical at Stanford, where, as academics do, he rented the house of another faculty member who was also on leave — a young Bill Baxter, who would become Reagan’s antitrust chief some 15 years later. Turner kept a copy of his outgoing letters from that year, and they sound awfully familiar. Academics of the past — they’re just like us!
They complain about grading!
I’m not sure if these were left over from the fall semester at Harvard, or if Turner had to teach while he was on leave, but the 140 blue books staring him down in December caused a fair bit of grief. That one’s easy to relate to.
They complain about how their articles are going!
In 1965, Turner published a major article on conglomerate mergers, which caused him all sorts of anguish. The letters are full of agonizing over how hard he’s working on it, frustration with how long it’s taking, and the inevitable requests for deadline extensions. To top it off, there was a final kerfuffle over the copyediting. He sure must have been glad to see the back side of that one.
They take advantage of the bar!
Turner and Baxter, the two future antitrust chiefs, didn’t know each other well at the time that Turner rented Baxter’s house. In fact, it appears that they had never met in person. One of the funniest bits is the post-sabbatical correspondence tidying up the loose ends. Turner drank some of Baxter’s booze, and offered to reimburse him for it. Baxter had noted what they left on a card, but then misplaced the card. So he roughed it out: “[My] recollection is that you left about the same amount of gin and wine that we had left; but that about two fifths of bourbon, two fifths of scotch, and one fifth of cognac have not been replaced.” He called it $25, and Turner paid up. It’s always important to pay for your liquor.
I swear I was already thinking about this before Fabio posted last night about the politics of academia. Noah Smith (of the blog Noahpinion and more recently Bloomberg) wrote an interesting piece yesterday titled “Economics Stars Swing Left.”
In it, Smith notes that, contra Fabio’s statement below, economics is pretty left-leaning these days. Among economists there was widespread, though not universal, approval for government stimulus after the recession; inequality has been the cause célèbre ever since Piketty (and, really, before; see Dan Hirschman’s excellent paper on how economics rediscovered income inequality). Development economics, with its focus on interventions that help the poor, has been a hot field for well over a decade. Tyler Cowen calls Piketty, Krugman, Stiglitz, Sachs, and Sen the five most influential economists today — hardly a bunch of free-marketeers.
This runs counter to the way many sociologists think about economics. Some sociologists (#notallsociologists) think that economics is dominated by members of the Chicago School who believe that actors are always rational, free markets always work, and if we just privatized everything the world would be a better place. That’s simply not the case.
But I would like to offer an amendment to Smith’s assertion about economics being totally left-leaning these days. I agree in a way. But what this misses is that the “left” that economists tend to be is a very particular kind of left.
In fact, this is a core argument of the book I’m writing — that as economics became more influential in U.S. policy, it changed what it means to be “left.” It’s also a prominent theme in Stephanie Mudge’s forthcoming book, which follows the development of market-friendly “third way” parties in Europe.
So what’s different about the kind of left that economists tend to be? As always, there are exceptions here — I’m painting with a broad brush. But to make some generalizations:
- It’s a kind of left that does believe in the power of markets, while acknowledging that markets frequently fail or at least work imperfectly.
- It is a technocratic sort of left, that sees market failure as a problem to be solved, and government as a way to solve that problem.
- It tends to prioritize political goals that make sense through the lens of economics: promoting growth, increasing efficiency, increasing income; these days, reducing inequality.
- It has a harder time engaging with goals that can’t really be understood using economics: individual autonomy, civic engagement, political empowerment.
- It’s a bit skeptical of the value of democratic politics. In fact, it kind of thinks that the world would be better if people would just shut up already and do what the experts are telling them. (This last part goes for many sociologists, too.)
- It tends to undervalue what can’t be measured: a sacred piece of land, the value of dignity in one’s work, the inherent worth of increasing knowledge. Or perhaps a better term than “undervalue” is “view as impractical to consider.”
In other words, it’s a type of “left” that looks very familiar in American politics today.
The central political position in economics, then, may be seriously concerned with inequality. It may care deeply about poverty and about development. And it may be solidly in favor of government intervention to solve these problems.
But even so, it is only one type of left. And while there are big chunks of it I agree with, I think we lose when this is the only left that is legitimate.
We discussed the tools computational sociologists should know and what soc departments should do. Now, we discuss what industry might do profitably engage with the field:
- Hire sociologists: Seriously. Ask yourself this – how many times have you seen engineers and computer scientists come up with some cool graph using big data that really doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference? You can create teams of engineers and sociologists, who tend to be a bit better finding the meaning of data. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate – different, but they taste great together.
- Hire sociology departments: There was an older tradition where leading sociology programs would do consulting work with for-profit firms. Columbia used to be the leader here. Now that is mostly gone. Bring us some projects that you need help with.
- Send us your nerds: If your company is developed enough, you might be able to give a semester sabbatical (3 months) as a reward. They can take a class and work on projects. Think of it in the same way that an executive might get a little time for MBA level training.
- Academic github: Create a stable space for storing data and/or code derived from commerical work. In other words, make a space where people can continually consult data generated from industry collaboration.
Add your ideas in the comments.