Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
Sadly, I could not be present at the SSS meetings, so I wrote out my comments about Jerry Jacobs’ wonderful In Defense of Disciplines. Go buy the book!
I want to start by thanking Sarah Winslow and the Southern Sociological Society for organizing this session. Jerry is a leading sociologist of higher education and his work merits sustained attention and critique. It is an honor to be allowed to participate in this event.
In a way, this is an awkward critique to write because I agree with much of what In Defense of Disciplines has to say. For example, on the basic conceptual issue of what counts as a discipline, Jerry’s definition is very close to my own feeling on the subject – disciplines are closed social fields of self-certifying intellectuals who are institutionalized in universities. In my work on the Black Studies movement, I found this approach to be very useful in that it identifies how interdisciplinary fields like Ethnic Studies are different than older fields like history or sociology. They haven’t yet achieved closure and rely on allied disciplines for personnel. I call fields like Black Studies “permanent inter-disciplines” because they can’t quite reach the status of a discipline and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.
This is the last post for now about The Triumphs of Experience. In today’s post, I’d like to focus on one of the book’s major findings: the extreme damage done by alcoholism. In the study, the researchers asked respondents to describe their drinking. Using the DSM criteria and respondents’ answers, people were classified as occasional social drinkers, alcoholics and former alcoholics. Abstainers were very few so they receive no attention in the book. People were classified as alcoholics if they indicated that alcohol drinking interrupted their lives in any significant way.
The big finding is that alcoholism is correlated with nearly every negative outcome in the life course: divorce, early death, bad relationships with people, and so forth. I was so taken aback by the relentless destruction that I named alcoholism the “nuclear bomb” of the life course. It destroys nearly everything and even former alcoholics suffered long term effects. The exception is employment. A colleague noted that drinking is socially ordered to occur at night, so that may be a reason people can be “functioning” alcoholics during the day.
The book also deserves praise for adding more evidence to the longstanding debate over the causes of alcoholism. This is possible because the Grant Study has very rare, and detailed, longitudinal data. They are able to test the hypotheses that development of alcoholism is correlated with addictive personality (“oral” personality in older jargon), depression, and sociopathy. The data does not support these hypotheses.By itself, this is an important contribution.
The two factors that do correlate with alcoholism are having an alcoholic family member and the culture of drinking in the family. The first is probably a marker of a genetic predisposition. The second is about education – people may not understand how to moderate if they come from families that hide alcohol or abuse it. In other words, the family that lets kids have a little alcohol here and there are probably doing them a favor by teaching moderation.
Finally, the book is to be commended for documenting the ubiquity of alcoholism. In their sample, alcoholism occurs in about 25% of the sample of men at age 20. By the mid 40s, alcoholism reaches a peak, with about half of men being classified as alcoholics. After age 50, it then declines – mainly due to death and becoming a “former alcoholic.” If there is any generalizability at all to these findings, it shows that alcoholism has probably been wrecking the lives of millions and millions of people, somewhere between a quarter and half the population. That’s a profound, and shocking, finding.
Today, we’ll continue discussing George Vaillant’s The Triumphs of Experience, the 70 year long life course study. One of the major findings of the study is the importance of early childhood family conditions. The initial phases of the study asked participants to describe their childhood environment. Were their parents open and warm? Cold and removed? Divorced or still married? Also, the Grant study investigators had the opportunity to interview parents and other family members on occasions. Did the interviewer think the mother was involved or removed?
Using these data, the Grant Study investigators coded a number of variables reflecting family environment. The recorded stratification variables (employed v. unemployed, working class v. upper class), structure (divorced v. married) and emotional content (warm parents vs. cold parents). Then, they looked at the associations with a number of key life course variables.Two answers:
- First, having a warm father was associated with almost every positive life course outcome – flourishing in late age, not getting divorced, income. In some cases, the association is striking. In retirement, having a warm parent is associated with tens of thousands of dollars in additional income. That is amazing once you consider that this is an insanely biased sample of male Harvard grads. To push your income even higher in a batch of doctors, executives, and attorneys is stunning.
- Second, stratification variables don’t matter much. In other words, in this sample, having wealthy parents isn’t much of an asset.
- Third, divorce of parents does not seem to matter either once you account for having warm parents and having positive coping strategies.
Bottom line: Social networks seem to be very crucial for the life course. Not for their direct instrumental features (aka social capital), but mainly for allowing people to maintain an emotional composure that allows them to solve problems and thrive.
This week, I will spend quite a bit of time discussing a book called The Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant. I’ve written briefly about the book before, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the book until I assigned it for a class. Roughly speaking, the book follows a cohort of college men from the 1940s to the mid 2000s. Thus, the book tracks people from young adulthood to old age. It’s a powerful book in that it uses enormously rich data to analyze the life course and identify factors that contribute to our well being. You won’t find many other books that have such deep data to address one of life’s most important questions – What makes us happy? What is the good life?
In this first post, I want to briefly summarize the book and then note a few drawbacks. Later this week, I want to delve into two topics in more detail: alcoholism and parental bonds. To start: the Grant Study of Human development randomly selected a few hundred male Harvard undergrads for a long term study on health and the life course. It’s a biased sample, but it’s well suited for studying long life and work (remember, many women became home makers in that era) while controlling for educational attainment. The strength of this book is an ability to mine rich qualitative data on the life course and then mapping the associations over decades. The data is rich enough that the authors can actually consider alternative hypotheses and build multi-cause explanations.
A few drawbacks: Rhetorically, I thought the book was a bit wordier and longer than it needed to be. Also, I wish that the book had a glossary or appendix where one can look up definitions. More importantly, this book will note be convincing to folks who are obsessed with identification. It is very “1960s” in that they collect a lot of data and then channel their energies into looking at cross-group differences. But still, considering that doing RCT with your family is not possible and the importance of the data, I’m willing to forgive. Wednesday: The importance of your family.
For me, one of the most insightful writings of DuBois comes from his history of the Reconstruction. In that work, he introduces the idea of the “racial wage”: low income Whites are placated with their domination over Blacks. In other words, poor southern Whites post-Reconstruction received psychological benefits from harassing and intimidating Blacks, which distracted them from their own poverty.
I’d like to make a connection to modern America. Usually, when we think of protests such as those in Baltimore and Ferguson, we think of police departments that are out of control, which is clearly true. We also tend to think of racism. Laws are passed that will have, intentionally or unintentionally, disproportionate effects on Blacks. What is missing, I think, from this conversation is a discussion of a possible racial wage in law enforcement.
When there are charges of police brutality and police shootings, we also see some reporting about the racial attitudes of police officers. For example, the press has reported that police in Ferguson wrote racist emails. See this Huffington Post article for details. The press also reports on police message boards that sometimes fill with racist comments (see this business insider article). Describing these behaviors as racist underplays the issue. Yes, some police do have racist attitudes. Might it be the case that police are extracting a racial wage from their work? Police work, even in the best of times, can be very difficult. Is it possible that part of the compensation comes from incarcerating people from other ethnic groups? More broadly, does seeing minorities jailed and deported provide a modern racial wage?
If it’s true, then it suggests that reform is much harder than we might suspect. If part of the culture of policing, and mass incarceration in general, is enjoying the punishment of minorities, then you have to do more than simply point out the injustice of police brutality and mass incarceration. Nor will it end as a result of the courts or legislatures who are often dependent on public opinion. Instead, there has to be a mass cultural movement where by a large portion of the population must assert that it is immoral to enjoy the suffering of others and insist that our police and penal system reflect those values.
Yesterday, I described a paper written by Kirby Schroeder and my self on infection networks. Yesterday’s post addresses the professional lessons I learned. Today, I want to talk about the impact of the paper on current work. For a long time, the paper, literally, got zero citations in peer reviewed journals. Then, the citations increased around 2010, with people in economics, health, and biology discussing the paper.
Economics: The main commentary among economists is that this is a model of interaction, which can then be used to assess the impact of policy. For example, a paper in the American Law and Economics Review notes that the paper models risky behavior but does not model the law. Other economists are attracted to our prediction about infection knowledge and epidemic plateaus (once the disease becomes common knowledge, people shift behavior and transmission stalls).
Health: The Archives of Sexual Behavior has an article that discusses our article in the context of trying to expand models of disease transmission. For example, we critique the health belief model for ignoring interaction. We criticize sexual scripting theory for ignoring risk and strategic action.
Biology: Perhaps the most interesting impact of the paper is the impact on mathematical biology. In The Journal of Theoretical Biology, a team of mathematicians use the model to address group formation. In a model derived from our Risky Sex Game model, they show that the population, under certain conditions, will separate into specific groups based on HIV status.
Bottom line: People sure hated the paper when I wrote it, but its children are a joy to behold.