Archive for the ‘books’ Category
John Levi-Martin is one of sociology’s most fertile thinkers. His book, Social Structures, was discussed at length on this blog and The Explanation of Social Action was a well discussed investigation of how social scientists try to approach causality. His new book, Thinking Through Social Theory, is a tour of foundational issues in social science and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand current debate over the status of social explanation.
Roughly speaking, there is a long standing dispute among scholars about what constitutes a proper explanation of social action. The argument has many facets. For example, there is a dispute over realism, the view that people have fairly direct access to reality which can the be leveraged into causal explanation. There is a related argument about social norms and whether it makes sense to say that a rule “caused” or “forced” someone to act. And of course, there are arguments over the sufficiency of various schools of thought like functionalism, rational choice, and evolutionary theory.
Thinking Through Social Theory is Levi-Martin’s review of these issues. It not only summarizes the landscape, but offers answers drawn from one of his most theoretically rich articles, “What is Field Theory?” It is truly difficult to summarize this tome (e.g., there is multi-page analysis of the “gentlemen open doors for ladies” custom) but I can indicate some high points. First, there is a good review of the issues surrounding realism. And no, he does NOT side with those pesky critical realists. Second, there is an examination of two theories (rational choice and evolutionary psychology) that try to offer “ultimate” accounts of human action. Third, Levi-Martin offers a field theoretic alternative to theories of action that are found in schools as diverse as functionalism, institutionalism, and Swidlerian toolkit theory. The basic intuition is that individuals aren’t carrying around norms, but they are working in fields of action that push people into situations that generate behavioral, or even cognitive, regularities. Sounds like actor-network theory to me, but more meso-level.
So who is this book for? I see a few good audiences. One are social theory grad students. After marching PhD students though the history of soc up the present, it is good to sit back and think about the (lack of?) progress that has been made in building social theory. I also think that the philosophy of social science crowd would enjoy this, as would scholars in cultural sociology who often run into the issue of motivation. Thumbs up.
The accounting firm of Weber, Durkheim and Simmel has carefully counted the votes from last week’s book naming contest. The winner will get $20 (via PayPal or ASA handoff) or one my sociology books (From Black Power or Party in the Street) or ten copies of Grad Skool Rulz mailed to friends. The winner will also be given a place of honor in the acknowledgements should the book ever get published. Drum roll, please…
You don’t see a lot of books linking cultural sociology and gerontology. An ethnographic study of elderly people in four neighbrohoods, The End Game is a study of the coping strategies that people use and how those are related to race and social class. For example, there are those who try to preserve their health so as not to be a burden on others, while others “use up” their health while enjoying themselves (e.g., by drinking). Abramson also pays close attention to the processes that normally occupy stratification scholars, such as how wealth affects how people access food, healthcare, and social support.
What I found most compelling about this book is the careful attention paid to the combination of class based resources and “toolkits” that are driven by culture or simply variations in personality. For example, health isn’t simply a matter of who can pay for a doctor. Health is also affected by the view that medical intervention is constantly needed to maintain a deteriorating body. One thing that I wish had received more attention is the link to outcomes – there should be more discussion of exactly which traits might be conducive to longer live, healthier life, or happier life.
Near the end, Abramson discusses a mildly disturbing encounter with a sociologist who asked why we should care about the elderly. The answer is that old age is a growing feature of human life after industrialization. It can also be a long stage of life. A 90 year old person has 25 post-retirement years! Thus, we should care about what is an extremely common experience and we want people to live well. Abramson’s text is an important contribution to that vital research task. Recommended!!!!
The book publication process is very different than journal publishing. The journal process is fairly impersonal and bureaucratic. Yes, once in a while, an editor will help out his buddies, but journals receive hundreds of submissions and they have to be processed. Most are judged impersonally (though with the editors’ tastes). In contrast, book publication is a very soft, often personal process. Some book publication histories resemble the journal process. You send it in, the editor sends it out for review, and then the reviews determine if it gets published. In other cases, editors will suggest that someone write a book and then work personally with the author to guide it through the process.
Let’s start with nuts and bolts and then move to some Q&A:
- The author either starts with a proposal, a sample chapter, or the whole thing. They contact an editor who then decides to review.
- Editors come in a few flavors. There are “acquisition” editors whose job it is to sort submissions. The “list” editors are in charge of certain types of books. E.g., the health editor managers health books. There are also more senior editors who have a leadership role.
- Once something is submitted, you fill out a survey. Who are you? What is the book about? Who will buy it?
- Then, the book is sent to 1-3 peer reviewers. It is usually single blind. Reviewers see the authors, but not the other way. Usually, they are peers. Sometimes, non-academics or professors on the publisher’s board. Reviews range from “good job, move along” to very detailed responses.
- The proposal, the manuscript, the survey, and the reviews are then taken to the board for academic presses and to more senior editors for private presses. The whole package is evaluated. Sometimes you get a reject. Sometimes you get an “advance contract” (see below). Sometimes you get an “interesting, try again” – an “R&R.”
- If all you submitted is a proposal and sample chapter, “thumbs up” means you have permission to submit the entire packaged when ready. You can ask for the “advance contract.” If you submitted the whole thing, “thumbs up” means you get a publication contract – the final step before the book is “in the system” and moving toward publication. You might be done with it, or you need to do some revisions.
- Next week, I will talk about the nitty gritty of making the physical/ebook.
- Q: Should I submit a proposal or whole book? A: My opinion is that you should try to submit the entire book, unless you are pressed for time. The reason is that it is much easier to judge the quality of the book once you can see all the parts. Less micro-managing by reviewers. Also, it signals to an editor that you have your act together.
- Q: What is an “advance contract?” A: It is a contract with the press that says that they will consider the book for review upon completion. It is not a promise to publish. Some people find this useful because it shows hiring and promotion committees that the project is real. So yes, it is good, but it is a very modest step. That is why a lot of people won’t get hired just on the advance contract. There needs to be a “real” publication contract.
- Q: Can I submit to more than one press at a time? A: Yes. The norm seems to be that you can submit to a few at a time and of similar prestige. Too many submits, and it looks weird. If you get an offer from a low tier press, the high tier may not take it seriously.
- Q: How do I identify a good press and the editor? A: First, look at your bookshelf. Cambridge published a lot in protest movements, so movement scholars should try that first. Second, think about impact. Will the press help you reach the right audience. To learn about editors, use your networks and talk to them at professional meetings. Email sometimes works, but I have found it to be highly variable.
Next week: more on publication and writing it up.
Today and tomorrow, I will discuss book writing. Today’s post will be about the basic mindset behind book writing. Most academics are trained to write articles. In some fields, an article might be a few pages long, or a few dozen pages. Books are longer and more ambitious in scope. Their length and sustained argument is a challenge and many academic are not able to complete such a book due to training or temperament.
So here, I want to outline some key differences and help you get in the mindset about writing a book:
- Books are not about narrow nitty gritty arguments. They are sustained arguments in a (mostly) verbal format. You should only write a book when each part of your argument involves a journal article length explanation. Otherwise, think about cutting down to journal size.
- Books are good for very verbal areas (historical work); arguments that collect a lot of different data and thus can’t fit in a 35 page paper; and big ideas that might reach a broad public.
- Books often have wider audiences, even technical books. A well written book can be discussed in academic journals, learned journals (e.g., Foreign Affairs), and mass media (e.g., the NY Times). Even a technical book might reach out, in that other specialists will want to consult “the book” on a topic that goes into gory detail. So when you write a book, be prepared to explain what bigger audience you might be shooting for.
- Books need to justify their existence. It costs about $20k for a single print book. These costs will only be recouped if you sell about 1,000 copies at $20 a pop. Only offer an idea that will (a) be bought by libraries and (b) have some justification to a larger public or cross-disciplinary academic audience.
- Bill Germano’s book writing guide gets it right – you only have 20 pages to really justify the book. If an editor doesn’t get it after about 10 minutes, it won’t get published.
Tomorrow, the book publication process.