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is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

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The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.

 

Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

bookstores aren’t dead yet – an example of the artisinal organization

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bookstore.PNG

A few years ago, people predicted the end of bookstores. Major chains were closing – Borders, Waldenbooks, and many more. Amazon ruled the world. But a funny thing happened. The independent bookstore business refused to die. Recently, it seems to be expanding.

The chart about is taken from a business data website called Statista and it indicates that the independent bookstore is carving out a niche. How can this happen? My guess is that bookstores are now “artisinal organizations” – entities that create value through service, curating products, and providing an “experience.”

This is made possible by the technology of the book itself. A paper book, with pictures and an attractive cover, is still a highly desirable product. At its best, the physical book draws you into its world in a way that different than the computer screen. And there is the social aspect of reading, of hanging out with other book worms.

The physical independent book store – or any other artisinal organization  for that matter – will not bounce back and replace it’s high tech or mass produced counterpart. But in a large economy, it is now possible for subcultures to pop up around niche businesses that provide an “artisinal” version of a product, much as it has happened in food. And that’s a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

open borders – in foreign affairs!!

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Nathan Smith, an economist as Fresno Pacific University, has an article in Foreign Affairs about open borders. It was a pleasure to read. Well written, judicious and provocative. A few choice clips from “A World Without Borders: Richer, Fairer, and More Free“:

These advocates, including the author, call for a regime of nearly complete freedom of migration worldwide, with rare exceptions for preventing terrorism or the spread of contagious disease. Borders would still exist in such a world, but as jurisdictional boundaries rather than as barriers to human movement. Ending migration controls in this way would increase liberty, reduce global poverty, and accelerate economic growth. But more fundamentally, it would challenge the right of governments to regulate migration on the arbitrary grounds of sovereignty.

And:

The open borders position may sound new and radical, but it is simply a call for the return of lost liberties. When the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886, most of the world’s borders could be freely crossed without passports. Passport requirements had sometimes existed before and were still in place in backward tsarist Russia, but the more liberal governments of advanced European nations regulated migration, as modern democracies regulate speech, only rather lightly and in exceptional cases, if at all. Comprehensive restrictions on international movement, which almost everyone today regards as a normal and necessary government function, are really an innovation of the twentieth century, which emerged as liberalism gave way to nationalism and socialism in the wake of World War I.

Read the whole thing!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm

i am a new abolitionist

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A few years ago, Tyler Cowen remarked that open borders activists were too reckless, similar to abolitionists of the past. A fervent passion for migration would trigger backlash. In response, his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, responded by saying that history goes to the passionate. The great changes in history are driven by groups of people who were not interested in marginal change but instead pushed for radical change:

When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire. Whatever one may say about this revolution one can certainly say that it was not brought about by a “synthetic and marginalist” approach. If instead of abolition, Clarkson had settled on the goal of providing for better living conditions for slaves on the voyage from Africa it seems quite possible that slavery would still be with us today.

This leads me to our situation today. We face a modern form of domination, the system of prisons and detention centers. This system is responsible for imprisoning and deporting millions of people. Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, we have to ask whether there is any justice to this system. When I ask myself if there is there any ethical difference between a “patrol” that picks people up based on their race and a border patrol that deports people from the wrong nation, I say no. It is simply a system of violence leveraged against disliked groups. Confronted with this conclusion, I recognize that abolitionism is the answer. It is the only ethical answer.

So that brings me to Tyler’s point. Yes, the advocates of open borders are the new abolitionists but open borders advocates should be proud to belong to a longer tradition of freedom. If that makes people feel uncomfortable, that’s fine with me. I’m on the right side of history.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 13, 2017 at 12:29 am

eleventh house is the only house you need

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Written by fabiorojas

March 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm

brayden king discusses the importance of organizational theory

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In Contemporary Sociology, Brayden King reviews recent works and offers his opinion on the state of organizational sociology. A few choice clips:

There are numerous institutional reasons that organizational sociology has moved toward the periphery of the discipline, including the lack of sociology jobs in the subfield and the fact that many organizational sociologists, this author included, are no longer housed in sociology departments but in business schools. But if we put aside the questions of where and how organizational sociologists are trained and get jobs, at the heart of the problem is whether organizational sociology has anything new to say to sociologists who do not study organizations. If organizational sociologists are becoming irrelevant, it is because we are increasingly disconnected from the conversations most central to sociology as a discipline.

And, after describing recent work on the decline of the “classic” organization:

If public corporations are disappearing for their lack of functionality and because the elites that once steered them are disconnected, then there is clearly an opportunity for organizational innovation. Sociologists, less tied to a strict normative imperative of maximizing wealth than economists are, are well positioned to offer insights about the future of organizing. Doing so would surely make the work of organizational sociologists more relevant to sociology as well, inasmuch as it would reconnect our subfield with sociology’s fundamental concerns about improving communities and societies.

Read the whole thing!!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 10, 2017 at 12:05 am

open borders day 2017

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greenarrowamberborder

It is my pleasure to announce “Open Borders Day 2017.” This year, we’ll have an event in Chicago at Loyola University. It will be a panel discussion with three speakers:

  • Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute will speak on the economics of migration.
  • Alexandra Filandra of the University of Illinois, Chicago will speak on racism and migration.
  • Fabio Rojas of Indiana University will speak about open borders as an issue that liberals and conservatives should agree on.

The event will be 1:30pm, March 16 at Loyola University in Chicago. Room: 4th floor, Information Commons. Please come by!!!

Also: If you are in San Diego, drop by the panel called “Is immigration a basic human right?” where GMU’s Bryan Caplan will argue for open borders against Christopher Witman of St. Louis University.

Let peaceful people move freely!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 9, 2017 at 12:58 am