Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
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.
[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 email@example.com. Comments on what should be included or excluded or general reading list advice are also welcome below.
— Beth Popp Berman (@epopppp) July 15, 2015
On Twitter, Elizabeth noted that the typical economics assistant professor makes 50% more than the typical sociologist. Rather than twist our hands and foam at the mouth, I’d like to start a more constructive conversation about how sociology might increase its paycheck.
To start, you have to understand how academic salaries are set. It goes like this: every year, your college gets a big chunk of money and part of that chunk goes to faculty salaries. Roughly speaking, the faculty salary chunk has a few major chunks – one for part timers/adjuncts; grad students; professional school faculty; and all other faculty. Within each segment, people get “around” the same amount. I am not saying that older faculty aren’t paid more. Rather, most older faculty make what younger people make plus a third, at most. At some schools, full profs make only a tiny bit more than associates or assistants. What you don’t see is senior faculty making double or triple what entry level professors make. The only exception are faculty of world class reputation (e.g., Nobel prize winners).
So how does one improve the overall economic standing of your academic discipline? How does one not get paid the same salary that the rest of the university is getting paid? One strategy is to move to a professional schools. For example, economists in business schools usually make more than those in arts and sciences. But that begs the question – why do they get paid more? Why aren’t MD’s paid what arts and sciences biologists get paid?
Answer: provide actual value to outsiders. If you can do this, you will increase the value of your discipline in two ways. First, outsiders will compete for professors in your area. Second, outsiders will pay academics and increase their salaries through grants, donations, and sponsored research. They will provide an independent pool of income in addition to what your college gives you and it won’t be taken by competing groups (e.g., the Spanish Department).
I think sociology has a lot to offer – we have invented a fair number of things that the wider world uses like focus groups and network analysis. Also, sociologists were pioneers in survey analysis. But nobody seems to know that. So here are some suggestions:
- Change our public image from “critical” to “we know social behavior.” Note: that doesn’t mean we stop being critical, it’s about packaging.
- Emphasize our advantage: we are the cool jack of all trades social science.
- For the BA degree, create a track for applied (e.g., ethnography at work or big data).
- At the PhD level, celebrate and encourage students who go to the private sector. That ethnographer who is now working in tech? Invite them for a talk!
- At the faculty level, create “pathways” between high level policy and private jobs. For example, in economics, economists who work at the Fed frequently find their ways back to top econ programs.
- Break out of the arts and sciences. The pool of income is highly constrained. ASU, for example, has had some success in being a stand alone social science school of sociology.
I think sociology is great, but it is not wise to take things for granted. We should innovate where we can and try to create a new niche for ourselves.
Let’s start with a thought experiment. Assume we want to sell widgets but we haven’t developed any mechanism for coordinating buyers and sellers. Then, you read a proposal for setting up a widget exchange. It will have the following properties:
- Low information – the buyers and sellers don’t really have a lot of accurate information about widgets. Many customers are first time buyers. Some are minors.
- 1 shot interaction – the buyers and sellers will only interact with each other briefly and many will never see each other again.
- Low visibility – widgets will be bought and sold in secret locations and their will be no record of the transaction.
- Coercion is allowed/No complaints – There will be very little punishment for people who break the terms of widget trading. Many who steal widgets go unpunished. Widget sellers are consistently bigger and stronger than widget buyers.
- Inebriation – Widget exchange frequently occurs when traders are drunk.
What would be your ex ante evaluation of the propsoed widget exchange? You would be justified in saying that the widget exchange would be inefficient. You might also be justified in saying that the widget exchange facilitates criminality. It is hard to find many reasons to support the proposed widget exchange.
Claim: Modern hookup culture is very close in practice to the dysfunctional widget exchange. In private spaces, young and often sexually inexperienced people meet, drink, and engage in short term relationships. If you think the widget exchange proposed above is bad, then it follows that hookup culture is bad as well.
Social conservatives are often critics of hookup culture because they often pick up on the inefficiencies of that institution. However, they often make a mistake – the rejection of hookup culture does not entail a return to more traditional approaches to the organization of sexuality. We can ask about the institutional design of more traditional sex and apply the same criteria. For example, in a regime of no-premarital sex and unbreakable martial contracts, we would expect suboptimal performance because you have low information customers who commit to a single unbreakable transaction.
One might counter that the a no-premarital sex/no divorce regime might be preferable to hookup culture. If the only option is the hookup scene, then that might be a strong argument. However, there is a lot of unexplored space between hookup culture and more traditional sexual institutions. The hookup scene is only one extreme point on a continuum. It is not hard to imagine other sexual institutions that try to address the problems of hook up culture as I’ve outline them. For example, it might be possible that liberalizing alcohol on campuses might decrease the demand for hookup scenes.
The bottom line in hookup culture is that it is a very bizarre institution with a lot of very bad built-in features. But that doesn’t mean one should revert to an older institution that had its own problems. In an age where people have sex for both procreation and enjoyment, and where birth-control is cheap and common, we should be able to think about the unexplored territory between highly regulated sexual interaction and the false freedom of the hookup scene.
This post is a commentary on the controversy around Saida Grundy’s tweets. Recently, Grundy, posted tweets about the legacy of racism. The gist of Grundy’s tweets was that there is a legacy of racism and privilege that is not addressed in American society. At the AAUP blog, Arianne Shavisi summarizes the tweets well: “Grundy … an incoming sociology faculty member at Boston University, tweeted a set of remarks and rhetorical questions regarding white supremacy, slavery, and misogyny in the US.” The tweets generated controversy because they were written in an informal fashion and were interpreted by some as racist.
I want to focus on a few issues that have so far have not received much attention. Before I do, I want to be explicit about my own views. There is nothing wrong in asking if the majority in this country have enjoyed privilege or if people have truly acknowledged the history of racism in America. It is also not controversial to note that some ethnic groups, such as Whites, may be over represented on some issues. In terms of style, I would have been more careful. Twitter is the type of media where things can easily be taken out of context. What is funny, or witty, in person can go bad online. There is also a bit dispute over the administration’s response. My view is that university administrators should support an environment of academic free speech, but remain agnostic on particular faculty members.
There are two issues that I’d like to address: the history of controversy in African-American Studies and internet shaming. I’ve written previously in the Teachers College Record, and a little in my book, about the pattern of controversy around African-American Studies. This is relevant since Grundy is jointly appointed in African-American Studies and sociology. Since the beginning, the field has been the target of conservative critics who periodically use African-American Studies as an example of all that is wrong on higher education. During the 2012 Naomi Schaefer Riley incident, a journalist plucked titles of incomplete dissertations and made fun of them. One can go through the pages of conservative opinion journals and books to see periodic critiques of African-American Studies from the likes of John Derbyshire and Dinesh D’Souza (see page 238p, note 5 of the book). In an earlier era, scholars like Martin Kilson would go to the mainstream press to air complaints.
What is new is that these critics now have access to the social media output of African-American Studies scholars. An enterprising critic could comb Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to find the most outrageous things. They can quickly go viral and trigger a wave of outrage overnight. Still, one should keep in mind that it still fits an overall pattern of external critics obsessing over African American Studies as a symbol of the liberal rot of academia. The only difference is the speed at which this can happen. Thus, as I noted above, it is wise to exercise prudence in such a hostile environment.
Second, there is an element of Internet shaming happening here. The journalist Ron Jonson has a new book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” that describes how in the modern age people can use comments and social media to instantaneously tarnish a person’s reputation. The normal punishment for an off-color joke or poorly worded remark is a mild reprimand. Now, the very same minor offense can lead to losing one’s job and a potentially irreparable mark on one’s reputation. Jonson also notes that Internet shaming often is highly unequal in that Internet rage is often directed at women. Here, the insult is compounded. Grundy is an early career scholar and this incident has already been a serious burden.
This incident reflects a number of factors coming together. Twitter can translate wit into rancor; social media magnifies mistakes; and there is a ready to go outrage machine just waiting for the jarring statement from an ethnic studies professor. I hope in the future that we can better deal with this phenomena and that this scholar can start a fruitful research career.