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the risky sex game paper – professional lessons

My first ever journal publication was an article called “A Game Theoretic Model of Sexually Transmitted Disease Epidemics.” It appeared in the journal Rationality and Society in 2002. As the title suggests, the goal of the paper is to model network diffusion using agents that play games with each other. Specifically, let’s assume people want to have sex with each other. The catch is that some people have HIV (or another disease) and some don’t. Further, let’s assume that people will estimate the probability that the partner has HIV based on the type of sex they offer and the current disease prevalence. In other words, offering unprotected sex in a world without STD’s is interpreted way differently than the same offer in a world where lots of people have infections. In this post, I want to briefly discuss what I learned by writing this paper. Tomorrow, I will talk about the small, but interesting, literature in biology and health economics that has referenced this paper.

Lesson #1: Interdisciplinary work doesn’t have to be garbage. The paper uses ideas from at least three different scholarly areas – game theory/economics; social networks/sociology; and probability theory/epidemiology. Orgtheory readers will be familiar with game theory and networks. But the paper uses a cool idea from probability theory called “pairs at a party model” – to model diffusion, you draw people from a pool and match them. I added these ideas: people can only be paired with people they know (the network) and then to decide if they have intercourse, they play a signalling game (game theory).

Lesson #2: Working with your buddies is amazing. My co-author on the project was Kirby Schroeder, who now works in the private sector. We developed the idea by thinking about his personal experience. Gay men often encounter the signaling problem – say you meet a partner and he offers unprotected sex. What does that suggest? We then joined forces to write the paper. Great experience.

Lesson #3: People can get angry at your research. During conferences and peer review, we experienced great hostility because we relied on the literature showing that sometimes, people don’t tell partners about STD’s and thus put them at risk. One woman, who claimed to be a researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, literally yelled at me during an ASA session. The paper got rejected from Journal of Sex Research, after an R&R, because one reviewer got very upset and claimed that were defaming gay people and that “you don’t know what love means.” Do any of us, really?

Lesson #4: Long term matters. The paper was published in Rationality and Society and then quickly disappeared. But it had an interesting after life. It got an ASA grad student paper award from the Math Soc section. During the first couple of years on the job, it was the only journal publication on the CV, which saved me from complete embarrassment. In one review of my work, it was the *only* paper that the committee actually liked. Later, a member of the RWJ selection committee said that the paper was the only reason that they invited me for an interview, because it showed a genuine commitment to health research. Even better, starting around 2010, researchers rediscovered the paper and now it is part of a larger literature on sexual risk spanning biology, economics, and health. So even though it didn’t have an immediate impact, a well written paper can pay off in ways you might not expect.

Tomorrow: What people get from the Risky Sex Game paper.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

April 28, 2015 at 12:01 am

lessons from the social organization of sexuality

In 1994, The Social Organization of Sexuality was published. The authors, Ed Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels,conducted a large N survey of a random sample of Americans. I use the book in my freshman class to discuss sexual behavior. In today’s post, I will discuss what sociologists should take away from the book.

1. Doing a well crafted large N survey on an important topic is huge service to science. When we think of sociology, we often think of “high theory” as being the most important. But we often overlook the empirical studies that establish a baseline for excellence. American Occupational Structure is just as important as Bourdieu, in my book. Laumann et al is one such study and, I think, has not been surpassed in the field of sex research.

2. The book is extremely important in that good empiricism can abruptly change our views of specific topics. Laumann et al basically shattered the following beliefs: people stop having sex as they age; marriage means sex is less frequent; cultural change leads to massive changes in sexual behavior. Laumann et al showed that older people do keep on having sex; married people have more sex; and cultural moments (like AIDS in the 80s) have modest effects on sexual behavior. Each of these findings has resulted in more research over the last 20 years..

3. An ambitious, but well executed, research project can be the best defense against critics. The first section of Laumann at al. describes how federal funding was dropped due to pressure. Later, the data produced some papers that had politically incorrect results. In both cases, working from the high ground allowed the project to proceed. It’s a model for any researchers who will be working against the mainstream of their discipline or public opinion.

4. Quality empiricism can lead to good theory. Laumann et al’s sections on homophily motivated later theory about the structure of sexual contact networks and prompted papers like Chains of Affection. Also, by discovering that network structure affects STD’s, it lead to the introduction of network theory into biomedical science about a decade before Fowler/Christakis.

When we think of “glory sociology,” we think of succinct theoretical “hits” like DiMaggio and Powell or Swidler. But sociology is also profoundly shaped by these massive empirical undertakings. The lesson is that well crafted empirical research can set the agenda for decades just as much as the 25 page theory article.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2015 at 12:01 am

sexy orgtheory

Next week, we’ll discuss sex and sociology. Here are the topics:

  • Why sex is important for sociologists to study
  • My experience teaching social science research on sex
  • Lessons from Laumann et al. (1994)
  • Professional lessons from my first article on networks and STD’s
  • The unexpected literature that sprung up from that article

If you want to discuss other topics, mention them in the comments and we’ll work it in.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

April 17, 2015 at 12:05 am