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“i’m awfully glad i’m a beta”: the educational effects of status groups

Thad Domina, Andrew Penner and Emily Penner have a really interesting new paper out in Sociological Science, AKA the official journal of people on my Twitter feed.

So it turns out that some crazy Californians had the great idea to assign high school students color-coded IDs based on their standardized test results. Everyone got a white, gold, or platinum card based on their level of proficiency on the California state tests. The students had to display their ID card whenever they were on campus, and gold and platinum card holders got certain perks, including discounts on school events, but most visibly an “express” line in the cafeteria. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this raised some eyebrows once word traveled beyond the schools themselves. The article doesn’t name the two schools, so I won’t either, but Google exists, and it sounds pretty clear that creating these visible new categories had real status effects. You can find quotes about how kids in honors classes with platinum cards told other kids in honors classes who only had a gold card that they shouldn’t even be there, and a principal apparently told some girls they should try to find platinum prom dates.

The program was in place for two years, then was shut down after quite a bit of unfavorable press. But not before our intrepid sociologists managed to collect some data.

Domina et al. isn’t really about these kinds of categories at all but this is pretty funny (h/t Gabriel Rossman)

The article looks at two main things: first, did the rewards affect test scores and other academic outcomes, and second, did creating status groups have effects.

The answer is yes on both accounts. Scores went up significantly on both math and English language arts (ELA) exams. As predicted, effects on other indicators of achievement (grades and scores on exit exams, a different test) were less consistently positive. Moreover, the effects were greater for students near the threshold (i.e. if you just barely missed the gold card one year, your scores increased more). Effects were larger for Asian students than white students, and larger for white students than Hispanic students.

So far, this is consistent (well, with the exception of the racial/ethnic variation) with behavior of the “adolescent econometricians” (p. 266, quoting Manski) assumed by the program. But here’s where it gets interesting.

The authors also use the card cutoffs to perform a regression discontinuity analysis. The students just above the gold card threshold basically look like those just below it. But it turns out they do much better. Or more accurately, kids who got the low-status white card do worse – to the tune of 0.35 SDs on the ELA test, and 0.10 SDs on the math test (both significant at p = 0.01 level).

Interestingly, the impact on grades is even greater: receiving a low-status white card reduces math grades an amount equivalent to moving from a C- down to a D, and ELA grades all the way from a C+ to a D. That’s a big drop. Domina, Penner & Penner speculate that this may be because the status categories are particularly salient for teachers, who may then treat or grade low-status students differently.

So as usual, the lesson here is that while yes, people respond to incentives, they do so in social contexts. You can’t just assume incentives are going to have similar effects on all groups of people, or ignore the effects of new status groups that are produced.

Two other thoughts here. The one interpretation I might quibble with is the authors’ attribution of the racial/ethnic differences to stereotype threat. While that’s one possibility, it’s also certainly plausible that the different response reflects cultural difference (e.g. in the importance attached to test results).

The other is about generalizability. Admirably, the authors don’t really try to generalize at all beyond saying that status categories have effects. But I can imagine people looking at an experiment like this and assuming that whatever the results were, they’d hold up across schools.

But status systems vary from place to place, of course. At the small rural high school I went to, wearing around a card advertising your high test scores would have been a fast ticket to social exclusion. Fryer and Torelli’s “Acting White” paper is hotly debated (and I haven’t followed the whole debate), but they argue that there are racial differences in whether academic achievement is associated with higher social status, and that this gap is greater in schools with more interracial contact. Clearly not every school mirrors the relatively wealthy, high-achieving schools that implemented this program, and not every kid associates high academic achievement with high social status.

That’s just a caution against assuming too much uniformity across social settings, though, not a criticism of the actual paper, which is a great use of a natural (?) experiment. And just think, they didn’t have to suffer through multiple R&Rs to publish it.

Written by epopp

May 20, 2016 at 12:10 pm

economics and sociology, part cdlxvii: comments on a blog post by noah smith

A few weeks ago, economics columnist Noah Smith wrote a blog post about how economics should raid sociology. This raises interesting questions about how academic disciplines influence each other. In this case, why has sociology not been a good a receptor for economics?

I start with an observation, which Smith also alludes to: Sociology has already been “raided” by economics with only moderate success. In contrast, economists have done very well raiding another discipline, political science. They have done fairly well in establishing pockets of influence in public policy programs and the law schools. By “success,” I do not mean publishing on sociological topics in economics journals. Rather, “success” means institutional success: economists should be routinely hired sociology programs, economic theory should become a major feature of research in graduate programs, and sociological journals should mimic economics journals. All of these have happened in political science but not sociology.

Here’s my explanation – Sociology does not conform to the stereotype that economists and other outsiders have of the field. According to the stereotype, sociology is a primarily qualitative field that has no sense of how causal inference works. In some accounts, sociologists are a bunch of drooling Foucault worshipers who babble endlessly in post-modern jargon. Therefore, a more mathematical and statistical discipline should easily establish its imprint, much as economics is now strongly imprinted on political science.

The truth is that sociology is a mixed quantitative/qualitative field that prefers verbal theory so that it can easily discuss an absurdly wide range of phenomena. Just open up a few issues of the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology or Social Forces. The modal article is an analysis of some big N data set. You also see historical case studies and ethnographic field work.

It is also a field that has import traditions of causal identification, but does not obsess over them. For example, in my department alone, there are three faculty who do experiments in their research and one who published a paper on propensity scores. Some departments specialize in social psychology which is heavily experimental, like Cornell. There are sociologists who work with data from natural experiments (like Oxford’s Dave Kirk), propensity scores (like IU’s Weihua an), and IV’s (I actually published one a while ago). The difference between economics and sociology is that we don’t reward people for clever identification strategies or dismiss observational data out of hand. If possible, we encourage identification if it makes sense. But if an argument can be made without it, that’s ok too.

So when economists think about sociology as a non-quantitative field, they simply haven’t taken the time to immerse themselves in the field and understand how it’s put together. Thus, a lot of the arguments for “economic imperialism” fall flat. You have regression analysis? So does sociology. You have big N surveys? We run the General Social Survey. You have identification? We’ve been running experiments for decades. One time an economist friend said that sociology does not have journals about statistical methods. And I said, have you heard of Sociological Methodology or Sociological Research and Methods? He’s making claims about a field that could easily be falsified with a brief Google search.

In my view, economics actually has one massive advantage over sociology but they have completely failed to sell it. Economists are very good at translating verbal models into mathematical models which then guide research. The reason they fail to sell it to sociology is for a few reasons.

First, economists seem to believe that the only model worth formalizing is the rational actor model. For better or worse, sociologists don’t like it. Many think “formal models = rational actor model.” They fail to understand that math can be used to formalize and study any model, not just rational choice models.

Second, rather than focus on basic insights derived from simple models, economists fetishize the most sophisticated models.* So economists love to get into some very hard stuff with limited applied value. That turns people off.

Third, a lot of sociologists have math anxiety because they aren’t good at math or had bad teachers. So when economists look down at them and dismiss sociology as whole or qualitative methods in particular, you loose a lot of people. Instead of dismissing people, economists should think more about how field work, interviews, and historical case studies can be integrated with economic methods.

I am a big believer in the idea that we are all searching for the truth. I am also a big believer in the idea that the social sciences should be a conversation not a contest of ego. That means that sociologists should take basic economic insights seriously, but that also means that economists should turn down the rhetoric and be willing to explore other fields with a charitable and open mind.

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

** For example, I was once required to read papers about how to do equilibrium models in infinite dimensional Banach spaces. Cool math? Sure. Connection to reality? Not so sure.

Written by fabiorojas

May 18, 2016 at 12:15 am

what has to be true about humans for sociology to work?

Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.

Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?

 I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over  Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens.  Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).

To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.

Written by jeffguhin

May 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

what makes the wire (or any other work of art) sociological?

What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?

The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.

Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.

So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).

I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.

So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.

(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)

Written by jeffguhin

May 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm

a theory of race and racism – more comments on an article by tanya golash-boza

Last week, we discussed an article by Tanya Golash-Boza that discusses the state of race theory. Her points are simple -despite claims to the contrary, sociology has developed a theory of race. Today, we’ll discuss the theory of race as Tanya sees it. You can read the article here.

Her argument is that modern theories of race focus on two mutually constituting processes: “racist structures” and “racist ideologies.” Behavioral patterns and individual actions lead to racist structures. Simultaneously, there are belief systems that are expressed in attitudes and prejudices. These two social processes affect each other:

Racist ideologies lead to controlling images, discourses of hegemonic whiteness, and racialized identities, which in turn lead to racist practices on the micro and macro level, which themselves reinforce racial identities and discourses. These structures and ideologies thus reproduce one another in a dialectical manner. One clear empirical example of the articulation between ideology and structure comes from the work of Wendy Leo Moore (2008: 27) who argues that ideologies of white supremacy and a history of racial oppression work together to produce “white institutional spaces” in elite white schools. For Moore (2008), law schools are white institutional spaces both because of the fact that the upper administration is (and has always been) primarily white and because of how discourses about whiteness and the law are disseminated within the law school.

This strikes me as a Giddens style structuration argument. It is important to understand that ideas and structures affect each other and neither comes first, just as individual agency and social structure depend on each other.

Another big part of Tanya’s article is the explicit integration of intersectionality theory, which is another big them in modern analyses of race:

At a certain level of abstraction, we can talk about racist ideologies and structures without mentioning class or gender. As Barbara Risman (2004: 444) argues, “Each structure of inequality exists on its own yet coexists with every other structure of inequality.” In this sense, we can think of Figure 1, which laid out the theoretical framework for this essay, as one pillar of oppression, with similar pillars of gender and class oppression having their own frameworks yet working in conjunction with structures and ideologies of racial oppression. This is similar to arguments made by Omi and Winant (2015: 106) that “race is a master category” and that race, class, and gender oppression are produced in tandem. Nevertheless, once we move beyond abstractions and begin to think about lived experiences, an intersectional framework becomes necessary. The racist discourses that circulate about black men and black women are distinct, and therefore lead to distinct acts of individual and institutional racism. For example, the discourse of black men as dangerous leads to white women crossing the street when they see a black man approaching and also leads to police officers shooting black boys like Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun. The typical white reaction to black women is not marked by the same kind or level of fear. Similarly, the barriers that black women and black men face in employment are not the same and an examination of these barriers requires an intersectional framework (Wingfield 2012).

In my view, the synthesis offered in this articles captures a lot of the key concepts in modern race theory – race is a social construction; it is institutionalized; it informs attitudes; people, policies, and organizations become racialized; race is enacted in popular medial; the ideological and structural features of race are integrated; and race is a social process that depends on other classifications of people such as gender and class.

On Friday, we’ll review the theory in Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order to identify commonalities and differences.

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

Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

emirbayer and desmond book forum 2: they could have been nicer

This is part 2 of our book forum on Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order. Here, I’ll discuss the first 80 pages of the book, which starts with an amazingly ill advised sentence: “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.” This is a really bad starting point because even a non-specialist such as myself can easily come up with three (!) major systematic and comprehensive theories of race:

  • Race is a socially constructed group division based on ancestry and physical appearance: This theory was articulated in classical theory, such as Weber’s discussion of caste and DuBois’ work on American race relations. It has many, many proponents.
  • Race is a biological variation in human beings: The modern version of this theory comes from studies of genetic variation. In sociology, the journal Sociological Theory (ahem) had a massive symposium on genomic theories of race, which we discussed here.
  • Race is a social category meant to signal a group’s place in the means of production or political system: This theory is less discussed in sociology, but is a popular theory in anthropology. For example, John Comaroff is a well known anthropologist who explores this argument as do many others.

So, from my view, the problem isn’t that we lack a theory of race. Rather, we have *tons* of theories of race and *tons* of empirical evidence.The problem is sorting it all out.

Adding to this issue is the avoidance of work that would seem to help bolster various parts of the book. For example, one crucial element of Emirbayer and Desmond’s theory is work on race that its insistence on an unconscious and interactional dimension of race, as would be suggested by Bourdieusian theory. The modern “racism without racists” school actively draws on Bourdieusian sociology very clearly, as does the work on race, cultural capital and status attainment. Yet, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva or Prudence Carter are barely mentioned in text. Another example: In the recent Theory of Fields (2012), Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam actually have an entire chapter applying field theory to civil rights mobilization. These are not obscure points. This is a major issue: why does a supposedly systematic treatment of race avoid the many major scholars whose work defines race scholarship in modern sociology? I am puzzled.

Before I wrap up, a stylistic point and a nit picky point. Stylistic: I think one drawback of the book is that it employs a classical “theory bloat” style of writing. For example, it doesn’t actually tell you it’s theory of race for 80 pages!! It also takes detours into reflexivity theory and a bunch of other issues. I really suggest that readers skip directly to Part II for the good stuff. This reminds me of the time I read Jeffrey Alexander’s Neofunctionalism and After – which doesn’t tell you what neofunctionalism is until page 110!

Nit picky: the book occasionally has some points of intellectual laziness. For example, at one point, there is a detour about the evils of regression analysis. Bizarre. Given that sociology is moving into a comfortable mixed method approach to data, we don’t need grad school seminar cheap shots. Regression analysis is fine and it’s perfectly good for studying trends in data, assuming you’ve put in the effort to collect high quality data. That sort of cheap shot is below these authors.

Next week: We’ll discuss Part II of The Racial Order. Spoiler: I like it!

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

race – sociology’s groundhog day: comment on an article by tanya golash-boza

Tanya Golash-Boza has a new article called “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism,” in The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. In it, she makes two arguments. First, sociologists say over and over and over that there is no theory of race. Then, she outlines the theory of race as it actually exists in the literature. I’ll get to this next week, but for now, let’s start with the groundhog day approach to the sociology of race.

Tanya starts off with the groundhog day issue – people keep insisting there is no theory of race and they say it endlessly. I quote here from Tanya’s article

  • Bonilla-Silva (1997): “the area of race and ethnic studies lacks a sound theoretical apparatus.”
  • Winant (200): “The inadequacy of the range of theoretical approaches to race available in sociology at the turn of the twenty-first century is striking.”
  • Faegin (2001): “in the case of racist oppression, … we do not as yet have as strongly agreed-upon concepts and well-developed theoretical traditions as we have for class and gender oppression.”
  • Emirbayer and Desmond (2015): “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.”
  • Omi and Winant (2015): “Despite the enormous legacy and volume of racial theory, the concept of race remains poorly understood and inadequately explained.”

So why do people keep saying this? Why does each generation claim that there is no theory, then offer a theory that the next generation refuses to recognize?

Two hypotheses. First, there may be a systematic undervaluing race research by minority scholars. In The Scholar Denied, Morris makes this claim about DuBois. Second, perhaps the sociology of race, more than other areas, attracts scholars with want to rush into an area and not engage with it.

This sentiment is puzzling given that it is surprisingly easy to find theoretical treatments of race. The search term”sociology theories of race” yields in the top 10 results the following texts: Race Relations in Sociological Theory by John Rex, Sociological Theory and Race Relations by E. Franklin Frazier, and Theories of Race and Racism edited by Back and Solomos. Those who teach or specialize in the sociology of race could easily produce a list of texts that survey theories of race or offer their own.

Next week, we’ll dive into this issue, and others, as we review Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 22, 2016 at 12:09 am

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