Two years ago, President Obama announced a plan to create government ratings for colleges—in his words, “on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
The Department of Education was charged with developing such ratings, but they were quickly mired in controversy. What outcomes should be measured? Initial reports suggested that completion rates and graduates’ earnings would be key. But critics pointed to a variety of problems—ranging from the different missions of different types of colleges, to the difficulties of measuring incomes along a variety of career paths (how do you count the person pursuing a PhD five years after graduation?), to the reductionism of valuing college only by graduates’ incomes.
Well, as of yesterday, it looks like the ratings plan is being dropped. Or rather, it’s become a “college-rating system minus the ratings”, as the Chronicle put it. The new plan is to produce a “consumer-facing tool” where students can compare colleges on a variety of criteria, which will likely include data on net price, completion rates, earning outcomes, and percent Pell Grant recipients, among other metrics. In other words, it will look more like U-Multirank, a big European initiative that was similarly a response to the political difficulty of producing a single official ranking of universities.
A lot of political forces aligned to kill this plan, including Republicans (on grounds of federal mission creep), the for-profit college lobby, and most colleges and universities, which don’t want to see more centralized control.
But I’d like to point to another difficulty it struggled with—one that has been around for a really long time, and that shows up in a lot of different contexts: the criterion problem.
Michael O’Hare of UC Berkeley talks about policy reform in art museums in this Econtalk podcast. He made two points that I like a lot:
- Art museums hold tons of materials that are never shown, looked at, or studied. Why not sell the bottom 1 or 2% of holdings to make attendance free?
- Museum ticket prices should be zero. Why? Marginal cost is equal to zero. In most museums, the galleries are empty most of the time and most studies show that raising prices decreases attendance. In most cases, viewing art does not exclude others.
When I was finishing grad school, I thought we were done with institutionalism. At that time, folks were publishing study after study of diffusion within organizational communities. Didn’t seem like there was much more to say. Then, there was an explosion of interest in contentious politics and organizational fields. Brayden is part of that cohort, as was Huggie Rao, Lis Clemens, Marc Schneiberg, Sarah Soule, Michael Lounsboury, and myself. Later, people like Tom Lawrence and Roy Suddaby articulated the idea that effort needed to be expended to create or attack institutions, which is now the foundation of the “institutional work” branch of institutional theory. The idea was simple. Institutions not only regulate behavior, but they can become the target of politics.
Then, again, I thought we were done with institutionalism. What else could be said? Well, I realize that I was very, very wrong. The next stage of the theory is linking the main ideas of institutionalism to other more established areas of sociology. For example, I was reading Melissa Wooten’s book, In the Face of Inequality, which looks at race and institutions through the example of HBCs. My suspicion is that institutionalism 3.0 (or 4.0 if you consider the Selznick/Merton/Parsons generation) will be about theoretical and empirical integration with core sociology like stratification, small group processes, and a re-engagement with the “Measuring Culture” generation of scholars. Overall, this makes me happy. Early on, I thought that institutional theory was too inward looking and only cited external authors in a ritualistic fashion. With this new effort, I hope that institutionalism will be more strongly enmeshed in wider sociological discussions.
In North Carolina, this is called the “Vaisey Cart.“
I’ve recently begun to work with a crew of computer scientists at Indiana when I was recruited to help with a social media project. It’s been a highly informative experience that has reinforced my belief that sociologists and computer scientists should team up. Some observations:
- CS and sociology are complimentary. We care about theory. They care about tools and application. Natural fit.
- In contrast, sociology and other social sciences are competing over the same theory space.
- CS people have a deep bucket of tools for solving all kinds of problems that commonly occur in cultural sociology, network analysis, and simulation studies.
- CS people believe in the timely solution of problems and workflow. Rather than write over a period of years, they believe in “yes, we can do this next week.”
- Since their discipline runs on conferences, the work is fast and it is expected that it will be done soon.
- Another benefit of the peer reviewed conference system is that work is published “for real” quickly and there is much less emphasis on a few elite publication outlets. Little “development.” Either it works or it doesn’t.
- Quantitative sociologists are really good at applied stats and can help most CS teams articulate data analysis plans and execute them, assuming that the sociologist knows R.
- Perhaps most importantly, CS researchers may be confident in their abilities, but less likely to think that they know it all and have no need for help from others. CS is simply too messy a field, which is similar to sociology.
- Finally: cash. Unlike the arts and sciences, there is no sense that we are broke. While you still have to work extra hard to get money, it isn’t a lost cause like sociology is where the NSF hands out a handful of grants. There is money out there for entrepreneurial scholars.
Of course, there are downsides. CS people think you are crazy for working on a 60 page article that takes 5 years to get published. Also, some folks in data science and CS are more concerned about tools and nice visuals at the expense of theory and understanding. As a corollary, it is often the case that some CS folks may not appreciate sampling, bias, non-response, and other issues that normally inform sociological research design. But still, my experience has been excellent, the results exciting, and I think more sociologists should turn to computer science as an interdisciplinary research partner.
Students, and early career faculty, often ask about whether they should “go big” or fill up the cv with “smaller” publications. Here is my view: start by asking about the type of program you want to be in and your career stage. Then, apply the following rules:
- High status programs prefer “big hits.” In some programs, AJS/ASR is a prerequisite for promotion and is the most common cv item for ABDs who get assistant prof jobs. If you are at such a program, or aiming for one, this is your first strategy.
- Most other programs will be happy with a healthy number of publications in more modest journals. In fact, one can have an outstanding career in mid or low ranked MA/PhD programs with lots of “small” hits and they will almost certainly help with tenure at teaching intensive institutions.
- If you want to move up (though not laterally), a big hit is often required. Otherwise, people will think you are only capable of small hits.
- The tenure worthy package at most decent PhD programs is one or two “big” ones and other non-embarrassing publications. For other places, about 4-5 “small ones” will often suffice if well written.
- Time: If you don’t have big hits, and tenure/job market is coming up, sometimes filling it up with small hits might work.
- People in unorthodox fields can sometimes get away with specialty hits in “cool journals.” Thus, if you are in one of these fields, you might want to move along the quantity/quality curve.
- Book writers: If your field is mainly books (historical or ethnography), you can get away with a book that counts as multiple big hits. Articles, if well written, may not need to be in top journals.
Bottom line: Big hits will always help. But unless you are at an elite program, there are many plan B’s that work well.
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.