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friends don’t let friends do critical realism

Over at the American Journal of Sociology, Neil Gross, frankly, rips critical realism a new one in a review of two books (Douglas Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach and Margaret Archer’s book, The Relational Subject). First, Gross notes that critical realists don’t seem to have a grasp on what sociology is actually about:

Porpora’s argument for critical realism is that it can counter “seven myths of American sociology” (p. 11) that he sees as pernicious. The first is that “ethnography and historical narrative are only exploratory or descriptive. They are not explanatory” (p. 11). This is a weird claim. Most American sociologists see ethnographic and historical work as crucial for the elucidation of causal mechanisms, which is central to explanation.

How wrong is this claim? The AJS actually ran an entire issue devoted to inference in ethnography. Bro, do you even J-stor?

After showing that the warrant for critical realism  is lacking, Gross then gets to what critical realism is actually about:

Since most of these myths don’t amount to anything, I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. In the end, though, I was glad I did, because Porpora offers a concise and engaging introduction to critical realism. As he describes it, critical realism is a “metatheory” intended to provide a critique of, and alternative to, covering law approaches to explanation, that is, those that understand explanation to mean accounting for facts by subsuming them under general causal laws of either a deterministic or probabilistic nature.

Ok, we have this meta-theory… how does it work out?

But what does this mean for explaining stuff in society—you know, the thing sociologists are supposed to do? Beats me. The book goes on and on with endless tables and charts and typologies, covering everything from “relational phases of the self” to connections between the “cultural system” and the “sociocultural system,” with about as much discussion of “morphogenesis” and “morphostasis” as you’d expect from Archer. The occasional attempts at empirical application fall flat. When I got to Donati’s chapter on the 2008 financial crisis—a chapter where he refuses to engage the impressive scholarship produced by economic sociologists, economists, anthropologists of finance, and others, preferring to give a theoretical account that loosely weaves together ideas of relational subjectivity with the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann—I gave up.

Finally,

The world is in flames. We need good, clear, accurate, and powerful explanations for what’s happening so that we can figure out how to smartly move forward. Maybe a sociologist will read some critical realism and get inspired to produce a brilliant explanation she or he wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope so. But neither of these two books makes a convincing case that critical realism is the royal road to sociological truth.

If you want to burn up your precious productive years writing this sort of stuff, go for it. But if you feel grumpy at the end, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

recent dj qbert

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Written by fabiorojas

July 2, 2017 at 4:01 am

eason, zucker and wildeman on rural mass incarceration

John Eason, Danielle Zucker, and Christopher Wildeman have a new article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on the unexpectedly high incarceration rate in rural areas:

Academic work on crime and punishment has focused mostly on urban centers, leaving rural communities understudied, except for acknowledgement that rural communities warehouse a large number of prisoners and that rural prisons provide jobs and economic development for some struggling communities. This study uses a novel dataset that includes information on the home addresses of all prisoners in Arkansas from 1993 to 2003 to document imprisonment rates and racial disparities in imprisonment rates across metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. We show how rural communities both receive and produce prisoners and that imprisonment and racial disparities in imprisonment vary more within different types of communities than acrossdifferent types of communities. Further, we find that nonmetropolitan rates of imprisonment are higher than would be expected, based on observed local risk factors such as poverty rate. We close with a discussion of what these findings illustrate about concentrated disadvantage across the rural-urban interface.

Check it out!

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Written by fabiorojas

June 30, 2017 at 4:00 am

regnerus’ three mistakes

I was having a conversation a little while ago about scandals in sociology and the topic of of Regnerus’s article came up. That was the article in 2012 that claimed that children of same sex parents had bad life outcomes. My conversation partner suggested that Regnerus’ mistake was in asking the question. I don’t think so.  Asking if there are differences by family type is legitimate and we should be ready to accept less than flattering answers. I also don’t think it is inherently wrong to have biases in research. If he has a favorite answer, then so be it. Long as he doesn’t tinker with the data to get his favorite answer. Nor is problematic to have research sponsors. People with political goals are not barred from research.

What were Regnerus’ mistakes, in my view? He made three:

  1. Making big claims with delicate data. Instead of investing the time to properly locate same sex families and make a good sample, he instead relied on what respondents remembered about family life. Furthermore, scholars who have analyzed the Regnerus data have found that the results may be due to mis-coding cases and data handling errors. In other words, family structures are hard to measure and code properly. And with a small number of cases, small errors can have big effects on the final. This is not the kind of data on which you make big, bold claims.
  2. Politically, Regnerus missed the wave. The big story in American politics is that LBGT equality is arriving.  Polling shows that support for legal same-sex marriage has surpassed 60%. If you’re fighting the new mainstream, you had better be prepared.
  3. Tactically, by rushing the paper through peer review with a friendly editor, it has the appearance of being a hack job. If the paper had been vetted at conferences and undergone a more traditional peer review, then it would have improved.

The issue is that Regnerus was doing something rather ambitious. He was trying to overturn an established research finding, and one with major policy implications. While I don’t agree with his politics, he certainly has a right to do this. At the same time, you don’t take on such a task without seriously thinking things all the way through. That is probably the most basic lesson of all. You should strive toward virtue in your research, especially if you are swimming against the tide.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 29, 2017 at 4:30 am

do we need illegal firms?

Over at Harvard Business Review, Benjamin Edelman argues that Uber’s ultimate problem isn’t bad corporate culture. It’s being an organization that is premised on being illegal. To quote:

But I suggest that the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership. The company’s cultural dysfunction, it seems to me, stems from the very nature of the company’s competitive advantage: Uber’s business model is predicated on lawbreaking. And having grown through intentional illegality, Uber can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.

And:

Uber’s biggest advantage over incumbents was in using ordinary vehicles with no special licensing or other formalities. With regular noncommercial cars, Uber and its drivers avoided commercial insurance, commercial registration, commercial plates, special driver’s licenses, background checks, rigorous commercial vehicle inspections, and countless other expenses. With these savings, Uber seized a huge cost advantage over taxis and traditional car services. Uber’s lower costs brought lower prices to consumers, with resulting popularity and growth. But this use of noncommercial cars was unlawful from the start. In most jurisdictions, longstanding rules required all the protections described above, and no exception allowed what Uber envisioned. (To be fair, Uber didn’t start it — Lyft did. More on that later on.)

Edelman goes on to make a number of fair points: by operating illegally, employees are at risk and it encourages poor corporate culture.

But here’s another take. What if some industries need to be developed through illegality? For example, right now in the US, many marijuana firms are operating in a de facto state of illegality, with Federal law (which supersedes state law) outlawing recreational marijuana. Despite this problem, many dispensaries remain committed to marijuana distribution and they innovate. My conjecture is that their practices will set the standards for the future recreational marijuana industry. Even in Edelman’s article, he refers to Napster, which illegally made music easier to distribute. They broke the law, but created a new market in the process.

In these three cases (Uber, Napster, US marijuana distributors), the market was expanded and developed through illegality. This suggests to me that Edelman’s point is good – firms working illegally may be saddled with too many problems. But it elides an even bigger point. Various regulations and state granted monopolies create needless zones of illegality. For some markets to develop, somebody has “break the rules to make the rules.” In many cases, that can be a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 28, 2017 at 4:12 am

hearing is believing – a documentary about rachel flowers

I recently saw the documentary “Hearing is Believing,” which is about the musician Rachel Flowers. The movie focuses on how Flowers, who has been blind since birth, became a musical prodigy. Like many films that focus on talented people with disabilities, Hearing is Believing tells you about the challenges she faced as a young person and her success as a musician.

The film is fairly conventional in many ways. Description of the condition that deprived her of sight and testimonials from the family about how they will do the best they can for her. Like many musician documentaries, there’s a lot of talk about how at a very early age (4!), Flowers could accurately play complex classical music. By her teen years, she masted piano, guitar, and woodwinds at a professional level and had begun composing. In the film, she shows mastery of an amazing range of styles, from church organ music to bebop to progressive rock to Hawaiian ukelele.

I agree with critics that the movie rambled a bit and needed a bit more context, but I still liked it. First, Flowers has an inner joy. She loves music and spends much of her time doing workshops with students and she loves it. Second, I think it was fun to see her dabble into the many nooks and crannies of American music. I only think a musician would appreciate, for example, how she was able to replicate Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” on her home keyboard, or how she could drop in on jazz trumpet master Arturo Sandoval and jam.* It’s also interesting to see how she built a reputation by putting her performances on youtube.

Finally, she’s built a real life and that’s impressive. You may think that Flower’s life is just jam sessions with Dweezil Zappa (yes!) and premiering her orchestral works. But she still goes to a Braille school and needs an enormous amount of help just getting around. Life is hard, but she has a gift and she’s doing the best she can. And maybe that’s the sweetest note she can play.

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* I thought it was interesting that Sandoval was the only person who was really on her level. In true jazz style, they seem to have a cutting session and Arturo gets the upper hand and she just laughs with joy. Later, he actually shows her a little bit about how to improve her piano technique. Neat!

Written by fabiorojas

June 27, 2017 at 4:16 am

tommy curry needs free speech. keeanga-yamahtta taylor needs free speech. alice goffman needs free speech. charles murray needs free speech. they all need free speech.

Last week, Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College triggered a nation wide controversy when his statements about White supremacy made national news. The issue isn’t the statement itself, but how it fit into a wider pattern of outrage and threat. Trinity shut down in response to death threats. And it is not the first college to have problems related to campus speech. Charles Murray’s opponents injured a faculty member at Middlebury during a protest. Princeton Professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor had to cancel talks in response to death threats after she lambasted Donald Trump.

These events have shown that the culture around faculty speech has devolved. College professors have always been lightning rods of controversy as their job is to explore ideas, even if they are unpopular. The history book books frequently recount how controversial professors have lost jobs over their ideas, such as when the  eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell lost an appointment at the City College of New York in 1940 or, when DePaul University denied tenure for Norman Finklestein in 2007. If you push unpopular ideas, be prepared.

But things may be getting worse for two reasons. First, the campus left is now in a place where there is a visceral and automatic push back against some speakers. It may be opposition to the trash talkers of the right, like Anne Coulter, or the right’s public intellectuals, like Charles Murray. But it even extends to people who might granted a stay, such as sociologist Alice Goffman, whose appointment as a visiting scholar at Pomona was protested.  In some cases, the campus left is so reflexive and angry that it targets people who are clearly on their side, such as the confrontation between enraged activists at Yale and sociologist Nicholar Christakis over a relatively mild email about how to handle racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

Second, the Fox News Right has made a hobby of taking statements, some innocent and some not, made by faculty and manufacturing national outrage. This includes the outrage over Johnny Williams at Trinity, the dust up over philosopher Tommy Curry’s discussion of nationalist politics and the 2015 rancor over Saida Grundy’s tweets.

Together, the campus left and the Fox News Rights have created a situation where we have a constant stream of outrage and anger, which has all kinds of negative consequences. Individual faculty members must disentangle themselves from nasty waves of publicity. Talks are cancelled and, in some cases, people are injured. This puts a price on free speech.

What to do? First, if you are an academic, express your disagreement in civilized ways. If Charles Murray comes to campus, offer your own talk. Write a blog post. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the talk must be stopped. Let it happen. Second, if you are an administrator, show tolerance and protection of speech. Assert that professors deserve the right to pursue unpopular ideas. If threats come in, go through with the talk. Find a way to do things safely. If a professor says something that is genuinely hateful and offensive, slow down and think carefully about what to do. People have a right to bad ideas and that applies to professors. Third, if you are a member of the public, switch emotions. Don’t let third parties, on the left or right, score cheap political points. Just say, “Ok, some professor said something dumb” and then watch sports instead. Do not waste your attention on cheap campus controversy.

Free speech is one of the most precious things in the world. People died to make it happen. Let’s not cheapen it. If you’re a professor, it’s your job to save it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2017 at 2:51 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized