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revising sociology’s public image

In the grand scheme of things, sociology is not in a bad position. Most colleges have sociology programs and our PhD grads find work. But I do not think that sociology lives up to its potential. We live in an economy where tech giants are building massive social networks, but our undergrad enrollments decline. We live in a world that asks for more rigorous social analysis, but sociology has limited impact in the policy world. My belief is that this is partially due to sociology’s poor public image. Here, I suggest ways to work on our public image.

The basic issue is that our image is driven by undergraduate enrollment processes and lack of interest in presenting ourselves as an easy to understand scientific toolkit for people in policy, business, and the non-profit world. To understand the first issue, ask yourself the following questions – what is the most common encounter that the average college educated person has with the discipline of sociology? Answer: the intro course or the social problems course. What message do they take away? If you read intro textbooks or syllabi (including my own!), the message is a combination of social problems with some theory sprinkled in, or a topic survey.

What you don’t get is a set of widely applicable theoretical tools. This might be taught in the course called “social theory,” but this course is usually taught as a kind of history of social thought. To compound the issue, most programs fill out the list of electives with courses that don’t present core theoretical ideas. This is done for a number of reasons such as retaining students with an interest in criminology, health, or business. The bottom line is that nowhere in the curriculum, as it now stands, do we actually present to the average college student with systematic thinking about social processes. Students, understandably, think that sociology is the study of oppression or marginality. Some of our instructors actively cultivate the view that sociology is museum of oppression. It is not surprising that the average college undergrad walks away from our courses not realizing that are a general social science.

A second issue is how we think of ourselves as professionals. If one asked the typical sociologist if they agree that they are doing some sort of scientific activity, they would likely say yes and they would be justified in saying so. However, that is not what is conveyed to the public. For example, sociologists are often called upon to translate poverty and criminality for the wider reading public. Perhaps the exception is the area of family research, where the media seems genuinely interested in what sociologists have to say as experts on a topic. Another dimension of sociology’s unusual reputation is that we are often associated with theories that were not created by sociologists and have much (if any) sway in sociology. Even other academics lump sociology in with deconstruction and post-modernism.

How do we change this? A few suggestions. First, create a “social analysis” course that acts as a foundation for all other courses and that teachers truly general social concepts. In terms of substance, you would teach traditional topics, like race, but instead relate them to general theoretical ideas (i.e., social construction, biological theories of behavior, rational choice, etc). The way it should work is: theory –> topics not “a bunch of topics.”  In terms of methods, make sure that every one understands core concepts such as variables, social process, identification, qualitative vs. quantitative, basic hypothesis tests, case studies, inference, etc – AND make other courses use these concepts. In other words, don’t let the curriculum be a bunch of electives on neat social science topics. Instead, build it around sequences of courses that first present general ideas and tools and then move into specifics.

Second, to alter our reputation in the intellectual field, I think it would be great to engage in more outreach. I recently gave a presentation on economic sociology, where I boiled down a lot of simple concepts and showed how they related to economics. The response was strong – people had never seen a sociologist speak to them directly and make the ideas clear. This outreach can happen in many ways – co-authoring with people, public speaking, and so forth. On a more ambitious scale, sociologists should set up institutes that facilitate strong interactions with other fields.

To summarize: reformat the curriculum so it builds on core theories on research methods and gets away from the bundle of interesting electives; emphasize the scientific content of our discipline in ways other people can understand; co-author work people outside the discipline in fields with large intellectual or policy relevance.

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

Written by fabiorojas

September 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

asr reviewer guidelines: comparative-historical edition

[The following is an invited guest post by Damon Mayrl, Assistant Professor of Comparative Sociology at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and Nick Wilson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University.]

Last week, the editors of the American Sociological Review invited members of the Comparative-Historical Sociology Section to help develop a new set of review and evaluation guidelines. The ASR editors — including orgtheory’s own Omar Lizardo — hope that developing such guidelines will improve historical sociology’s presence in the journal. We applaud ASR’s efforts on this count, along with their general openness to different evaluative review standards. At the same time, though, we think caution is warranted when considering a single standard of evidence for evaluating historical sociology. Briefly stated, our worry is that a single evidentiary standard might obscure the variety of great work being done in the field, and could end up excluding important theoretical and empirical advances of interest to the wider ASR audience.

These concerns derive from our ongoing research on the actual practice of historical sociology. This research was motivated by surprise. As graduate students, we thumbed eagerly through the “methodological” literature in historical sociology, only to find — with notable exceptions, of course — that much of this literature consists of debates about the relationship between theory and evidence, or conceptual interventions (for instance, on the importance of temporality in historical research). What was missing, it seemed, were concrete discussions of how to actually gather, evaluate, and deploy primary and secondary evidence over the course of a research project. This lacuna seemed all the more surprising because other methods in sociology — like ethnography or interviewing — had such guides.

With this motivation, we set out to ask just what kinds of evidence the best historical sociology uses, and how the craft is practiced today. So far, we have learned that historical sociology resembles a microcosm of sociology as a whole, characterized by a mosaic of different methods and standards deployed to ask questions of a wide variety of substantive interests and cases.

One source for this view is a working paper in which we examine citation patterns in 32 books and articles that won awards from the ASA Comparative-Historical Sociology section. We find that, even among these award-winning works of historical sociology, at least four distinct models of historical sociology, each engaging data and theory in particular ways, have been recognized by the discipline as outstanding. Importantly, the sources they use and their modes of engaging with existing theory vary dramatically. Some works use existing secondary histories as theoretical building blocks, engaging in an explicit critical dialogue with existing theories; others undertake deep excavations of archival and other primary sources to nail down an empirically rich and theoretically revealing case study; and still others synthesize mostly secondary sources to provide new insights into old theoretical problems. Each of these strategies allows historical sociologists to answer sociologically important questions, but each also implies a different standard of judgment. By extension, ASR’s guidelines will need to be supple enough to capture this variety.

One key aspect of these standards concerns sources, which for historical sociologists can be either primary (produced contemporaneously with the events under study) or secondary (later works of scholarship about the events studied). Although classic works of comparative-historical sociology drew almost exclusively from secondary sources, younger historical sociologists increasingly prize primary sources. In interviews with historical sociologists, we have noted stark divisions and sometimes strongly-held opinions as to whether primary sources are essential for “good” historical sociology. Should ASR take a side in this debate, or remain open to both kinds of research?

Practically speaking, neither primary nor secondary sources are self-evidently “best.” Secondary sources are interpretive digests of primary sources by scholars; accordingly, they contain their own narratives, accounts, and intellectual agendas, which can sometimes strongly shape the very nature of events presented. Since the quality of historical sociologists’ employment of secondary works can be difficult for non-specialists to judge, this has often led to skepticism of secondary sources and a more favorable stance toward primary evidence. But primary sources face their own challenges. Far from being systematic troves of “data” readily capable of being processed by scholars, for instance, archives are often incomplete records of events collected by directly “interested” actors (often states) whose documents themselves remain interpretive slices of history, rather than objective records. Since the use of primary evidence more closely resembles mainstream sociological data collection, we would not be surprised if a single standard for historical sociology explicitly or implicitly favored primary sources while relatively devaluing secondary syntheses. We view this to be a particular danger, considering the important insights that have emerged from secondary syntheses. Instead, we hope that standards of transparency, for both types of sources, will be at the core of the new ASR guidelines.

Another set of concerns relates to the intersection of historical research and the review process itself. For instance, our analysis of award-winners suggests that, despite the overall increased interest in original primary research among section members, primary source usage has actually declined in award-winning articles (as opposed to books) over time, perhaps in response to the format constraints of journal articles. If the new guidelines heavily favor original primary work without providing leeway in format constraints (for instance, through longer word counts), this could be doubly problematic for historical sociological work attempting to appear in the pages of ASR.  Beyond the constraints of word-limits, moreover, as historical sociology has extended its substantive reach through its third-wave “global turn,” the cases historical sociologists use to construct a theoretical dialogue with one another can sometimes rely on radically different and particularly unfamiliar sources. This complicates attempts to judge and review works of historical sociology, since the reviewer may find their knowledge of the case — and especially of relevant archives — strained to its limit.

In sum, we welcome efforts by ASR to provide review guidelines for historical sociology.  At the same time, we encourage plurality—guidelines, rather than a guideline; standards rather than a standard. After all, we know that standards tend to homogenize and that guidelines can be treated more rigidly than originally intended. In our view, this is a matter of striking an appropriate balance. Pushing too far towards a single standard risks flattening the diversity of inquiry and distorting ongoing attempts among historical sociologists to sort through what the new methodological and substantive diversity of the “third wave” of historical sociology means for the field, while pushing too far towards describing diversity might in turn yield a confusing sense for reviewers that “anything goes.” The nature of that balance, however, remains to be seen.

Written by epopp

September 8, 2015 at 5:51 pm

asr review guidelines

In a totally commendable attempt to broaden the range of methods represented in ASR, the new editorial team is working to develop guidelines for reviewers of papers using ethnographic and interview methods, theory papers, and comparative-historical papers. The idea is that if reviewers, especially those who don’t write such papers themselves, are given a more explicit sense of what a “good” article in one of these areas looks like, they will be less likely to dismiss them on grounds borrowed inappropriately from another type of research.

Jenn Lena posted links on Twitter to guidelines for the first two, and the comparative-historical section is forming a committee to provide input on the last one.

Personally, I think this is a great idea. I don’t know if it will work, and I might have some quibbles around the margins (I think really great work can come from ethnographic sites basically chosen for the sake of convenience, and that systematicity of method in choosing who to talk to isn’t as important as working to check and cross-check emerging findings), but by and large, it’s an admirable effort. I particularly liked the openness to the descriptive contribution of ethnography. Causality is terrific, but not everything has to be causal.

The tough thing, I think, is that we all think of ASR as a certain kind of journal, and review submissions to it accordingly. I know I’ve probably reviewed pieces negatively for ASR that I would really have liked for another journal, just because they didn’t seem like ASR pieces. Moving the needle is hard when even people who should be friendly to a certain type of work see it as just “not fitting.” (Much like other kinds of social processes?) But it’s worth trying, and this seems like a useful step.

Your reactions?

Written by epopp

September 3, 2015 at 8:09 am

replication and the future of sociology

Consider the following:

Sociology, we can do better. Here is what I suggest:

  • Dissertation advisers should insist on some sort of storage of data and code for students. For those working with standard data like GSS or Ad Health, this should be easy. For others, some version of the data should accompany the code. There are ways of anonymizing data, or people can sign non-disclosure forms. Perhaps universities can create digital archives of dissertation data, like they have paper copies of dissertations. Secure servers can hold relevant field notes and interview transcripts.
  • Journals and book publishers should require quant papers to have replication packages. Qualitative paper authors should be willing to provide complete information for archival work & transcription samples for interview based research. The jury is still out on what ethnographers might provide.
  • IRB’s should allow all authors to come up with a version of the data that others might read or consult.
  • Professional awards should only be given to research that can be replicated in some fashion. E.g., as Phil Cohen has argued – no dissertation awards should be given for dissertations that were not deposited in the library.

Let’s try to improve.

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2015 at 12:01 am

grad director report, year 1

It is the month of August, when a sociologist’s thoughts turn to ASA and to the rapidly approaching semester. And in my case, to the (successful?) conclusion of my first year of grad-directoring.

I got great suggestions last summer on the blog, when I asked for advice about what a DGS should do, and useful feedback on reorganizing the proseminar. More recently, Jessica (DGS at Notre Dame) started a discussion at Scatterplot on how to support grad student students on the job market.

Now that I’m an old hand, I know which requirements you can get an exception for and which ones you can’t; the difference between the five kinds of independent studies and how many of each you can do; and how to get around the New York State ban on buying food for grad students. (Unfortunately, it involves my wallet.) I still can’t figure out how grad student folders are filed, though. Anyway, it seems like a good time to reflect on what went well, what didn’t (at least the bloggable parts), and what I’d like to accomplish in the year ahead.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

August 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

Posted in academia, sociology

the parsons taboo

As readers already know, I am hard at work on a book that reviews contemporary sociology. In writing the book, I ran into two taboos: rational choice and Parsons (ironic, since Parsons was opposed to utilitarianism). The reviewers were very touchy about these two topics. The first makes sense. Sociology has always been allergic to anything “econ-y” or “math-y” from the beginning. I do understand why people might want to expunge a book of rational choice. I still don’t think it’s wise since the profession still has people working in related areas like Granovetter style embeddness research, social capital, Harrison White micro-network hybrid work, and applied game theory. Also, the rational choice tradition (including social capital) is the major link between sociology and the poli sci/economics axis.

The Parsons taboo really surprised me since (a) the book only had a total of about five paragraphs about Parsons, (b) I am definitely not a functionalist and I present it as background for more modern stuff like cultural sociology and institutionalism, and (c) Parsons’ descendants still have big followings, like Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann. Also, another weird thing is that the reviewers asked me to incorporate Swidler’s recent work (Talk of Love), a discussion of Poggi’s theory of power and Vaisey’s work, which all explicitly speak of Parsons.

So what is up with this weird allergy to even *mentioning* Parsons? In 2015, are people still fighting the battles of 1975? Here’s my theory. Parsons’ did two things, one bad and one good. The bad thing is that he created a highly visible and rigid orthodoxy, complete with “religious” texts (i.e., his books). That is what the sociologists of the 1970s revolted against and that is what made Parsons the devil in our profession. And I can’t blame people. Reading classic structural functionalist texts is really taxing and frequently unhelpful.

The good thing is that he created, by accident, the kernel of a lot of modern sociology. Inside those big, nasty books, there were a lot of important insights that are now standard. For example, his 1959 ASQ article on organizations made the crucial distinction between the technical and “institutional” components of organizations, a core idea in modern organizational research. The functionalist approach to schools is still a standard reading. The distinction between achieved and ascribed status is “strat 101.” Even his much maligned theory of norm driven action lives on, even if we admit that norms are constructed situationally rather than ex ante.

The “good” and “bad” Parsons explains my situation. You don’t have to be a functionalist to appreciate some of his good ideas, nor do you need to be a hard core follower to understand the historical importance of Parsons. For example, you simply can’t understand why Swidler’s (1983) toolkit argument was such a big deal unless you understand how Parsons’ theory of norms and his interpretation of the Protestant Ethic was dominant at the time. The Swidler critique set the agenda for cultural sociology for decades.  So you need to address Parsons and point out the contribution. If you do that, however, people get angry because they remember (or their advisers told them) about the bad Parsons.

This also helps explain when and where you can get away with it. If the whole text is about critiquing work like Parsons and developing alternatives (e.g., Swidler or Vaisey), you can do it. If you are very senior scholar who is writing “big think” work (e.g. Gianfranco Poggi), you can do it. But not a synthetic and pedagogical overview – people will think that even including him (or the rational choicers) is a horrendous rear-guard action that puts discredited work back into the canon.

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

org bleg: looking for comp exam reading lists in organizations

[Edited to add: Since posting this, lists of various sorts have come in from Indiana, Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford, UIC, and Chicago…thanks to all who have sent them, and more are welcome!]

I need to update the core reading list for our comprehensive exam in organizations. In my department, the nature of these lists vary from field to field. Some subfields provide a well-defined reading list, some are pretty student-driven, and some (including orgs) have a core list which students supplement with additional readings in their areas of interest.

Only a few sociology departments (Arizona, Maryland, Toronto) post standard lists for qualifying exam areas. A few more post past exam questions (Wisconsin), sometimes with a few reading lists (Texas). And not all these places offer organizations comps, of course. I am not finding any equivalent lists from business schools. Organizations syllabi are, of course, easier to find, but aren’t quite the same.

If you’ve given or taken a comprehensive exam in organizations in the last five years (or a closely related area, like “work and organizations”), I’d love to see a copy of the reading list to help update ours. I will keep these private, but if I receive several, can post some summary information here on what sorts of material people are including. You can email me at epberman@albany.edu. Comments on what should be included or excluded or general reading list advice are also welcome below.

Written by epopp

July 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Posted in academia, bleg, sociology

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