Posts Tagged ‘sociology’
If you don’t get the Sociology of Education newsletter, or even if you do and just don’t read it, you probably didn’t see Rob Warren’s pretty devastating criticism of the submissions he usually got when he was the editor of Sociology of Education. As a junior scholar who has sent out my own share of not-quite-formed papers, his points are well taken, and my hunch (and what I’ve heard from editors) is that these complaints extend to other major journals as well. Read the whole thing at his website, but here’s a sample:
Most of the papers that I read had one or both of two basic problems:
First, a large percentage of papers had fundamental research design flaws. Basic methodological problems—of the sort that ought to earn a graduate student a B- in their first-year research methods course—were fairly common.4 (More surprising to me, by the way, was how frequently reviewers seemed not to notice such problems.) I’m not talking here about trivial errors or minor weaknesses in research designs; no research is perfect. I’m talking about problems that undermined the author’s basic conclusions. Some of these problems were fixable, but many were not.
Second, and more surprising to me: Most papers simply lacked a soul—a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist. The world (including the world of education) faces an extraordinary number of problems, challenges, dilemmas, and even mysteries. Yet most papers failed to make a good case for why they were necessary. Many analyses were not well motivated or informed by existing theory, evidence, or debates. Many authors took for granted that readers would see the importance of their chosen topic, and failed to connect their work to related issues, ideas, or discussions. Over and over again, I kept asking myself (and reviewers also often asked): So what?
Joe Paterno is back in the news. It looks bad.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a math teacher who called some of our homework problems “plug-and-chug”: we knew whatever formula we had to use, and we just plugged in the numbers and chugged it out. I use the term now to describe certain kinds of articles, most of them quantitative, which identify some particular sociological problem, which is usually also a social problem (say, racial disparity in school discipline) and then find either a new data set or a new way to approach an old dataset, plugging in the data and chugging out some relevant findings.
It’s a normal science approach to sociology, and some might scoff at it, but there’s a compelling argument that one of the reasons sociology is less powerful than, say, economics, is precisely because there are too many sociologist chefs trying to paradigm shift the kitchen. And, in those subdisciplines that have a more normal science approach (such as the sociology of education), there is a core problem and various scholars approach it. Some have bigger projects than others, but everyone’s basically putting water in the same bucket.
For what it’s worth, for the sociology of education, I think that bucket is inequality within and because of organized schooling, with that inequality understood to be along lines of SES, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s hard for folks like me, who study schools without really looking at inequality, to fit into the sociology of education, but that might just be the cost of a subdiscipline with an admirably focused commitment to a particular social problem. As such, sociologists of education like me wind up doing work in culture or theory, or somewhere else in sociology’s pretty big tent (For example, I sent a paper to the education section this year, and it was rejected, but then picked up by the culture section.)
Of course, there are lots of articles in the sociology of education that are not plug-and-chug in the way I’ve described, but what I’m arguing here is that a kind of normal science approach makes plug-and-chug articles easier to pass muster: if there’s a set list of problems, then new data on those problems (data that isn’t necessarily acquired in a methodologically or theoretically interesting way) is important in and of itself.
There are other kinds of plug-and-chug sociology of course. There’s a qualitative species, which takes certain ethnographic or interview data and shows how some theorist would interpret it, without really telling us much about the theorist or the empirical site. And there’s plug-and-chug work in all of the many sociological subdisciplines. In fact, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that I think is testable but I don’t really have time: the closer an article is to a question about stratification or some other social problem about which sociologists are deeply concerned, the less it has to provide anything interesting in its methods or theory.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing (I want to fix stratification too!) but it does wind up having an interesting side-effect, which is that those who don’t study stratification or specific social problems more central to the discipline’s identity (prejudice or discrimination for example) have to develop particular theoretical or methodological chops to justify their work, in a way that those who study stratification or these other social problems do not. That winds up furthering the idea that certain subfields are “less theoretical” than others when there seems to me no obvious reason any one subfield should be more or less theoretical than any other.
Thanks to my comparative-historical cabdriver, Barry Eidlin, who I talked to about this, and who confirmed all of my findings in a pithy way that I will use to open my monograph. (Actually, he showed me how his own very interesting work might well disprove the perhaps facile categorization I described above, which is sort of always the way, I think. But that’s okay. That just means he’ll be the cabdriver anecdote in the conclusion.)
As we approach the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, some interesting analysis (and defenses) from around the web:
From the Economist (they have a larger section but you have to be a subscriber):
A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.
From The New Yorker:
For a century, the bitter reaction to the Sykes-Picot process has been reflected in the most politically powerful ideologies to emerge—Nasserism, in Egypt, and Baathism, in Iraq and Syria—based on a single nationalism covering the entire Arab world. For three years, Egypt and Syria, despite being on different continents, actually tried it, by merging into the United Arab Republic; the experiment disintegrated after a 1961 coup in Damascus.
Even the Islamic State seeks to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”
From The New York Times:
That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?
The borders that exist today — the ones the Islamic State claims to be erasing — actually emerged in 1920 and were modified over the following decades. They reflect not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East. For whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.
From Foreign Policy:
The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said— that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.
Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.
There’s a lot more. This is an important anniversary.
The Foreign Policy article above is, at least for me, the more interesting one, especially as it ties into important sociological conversations about the invention of tradition and imagined communities.
For what it’s worth, it’s of course true that Sykes-Picot can sometimes get too much blame (or at least be given too much causal power) for the entirety of the problems in the Arab world (and the broader Middle East). For that matter, I’m quite sure there are many other borders that would have been just as bad. Yet it’s sometimes easy to forget that even more than the lines themselves, it was the imperialist capacity to render those lines that has caused so much anger. Someone like Fanon (and postcolonial theory more broadly) helps show there’s something important about the power dynamics in which you are named and recognized, and sometimes discussions of Sykes-Picot (and, for that matter, talk of the United States drawing up the map again) utterly ignore this distinction, framing a problem of recognition as simply a problem of categorization. Also for what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about how Edward Said helps us think about this stuff here.
But I’m not just contesting the Sykes-Picot narrative. I’m contesting all the narratives that say Iraq’s borders were “drawn” by Europeans in the years around World War I, whether they locate that moment in Sykes Picot, or the Paris Peace Conference, or San Remo, or the Cairo Conference. These last three tend to be more popular with scholars and Iraq experts, who often know that Sykes-Picot doesn’t really work. But actually none of them work. The supposed map the Europeans drew of the Middle East—it doesn’t exist. Iraq’s borders were created like most nation-state borders have been created, through a drawn-out of process of resolving competing claims to territory through war, diplomacy, and other uses of power. It took many years and involved many actors. To begin with, a border requires mutual recognition of the authorities on both sides—that’s what a border is. You can’t just create one by yourself.
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.
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!)