Posts Tagged ‘sociology’
“Who did you work with?” It’s a question applicants get all the time on the job market, and for good reason: if you know someone’s dissertation advisor, you probably know a bit more about how that person works, the kinds of questions they study, the sorts of methods and theory they use. Of course, the American job market doesn’t want to hire disciples, so a student can’t be too close to the teacher: there has to be some difference, theoretical or methodological, creative or substantive. Yet there needs to be some commonality too, if nothing more than a commonality of competence. Knowing someone’s mentor has chops is supposed to translate into knowing that person has chops as well. Those of us who have grad students have them because we believe that being a good sociologist can be taught, and that skills—even excellence—can be reproduced. And so status moves forward, down the genealogical line: begat, begat, begat.
There are a lot of problems with this focus on individual-level mentoring, with an advisor’s status functioning as a high-level credential (eg: “Oh X is solid. She worked with Y”). First off, the sociology of it is not at all obvious to me. It’s simply an empirical question how much a mentor matters in the formation of good scholars: we are, after all, a big wide community, and why can’t it take a village to raise a sociologist? That “village” might extend beyond a graduate school to the discipline as a whole: think of a student at a low-prestige grad program whose mentor is not well-known nor super invested in the discipline (or grad students). Yet this grad student reads widely, attends conferences, and networks assertively, finding other people to read her work. She doesn’t have the currency of a high status mentor, but she might well have some good publications. It’s interesting how much the status of the mentor still matters when I think about that student’s chances on the market (and the status of her university).
I’m not saying anything new to say that it’s deeply ironic how a discipline so committed to fighting inequality in the world at large maintains such deep inequalities in its own house. And a focus on mentors as tokens of worth, while important and understandable, can have a significant role in maintaining those inequalities. What if, instead of thinking of ourselves as a guild of masters and apprentices, we thought of ourselves as a community of practitioners, eager to help everyone get better at what they do? I have no idea how that would work out practically, but it’s worth thinking about, and I’ll write more about this. If you have any thoughts, do please let me know in the comments or over e-mail.
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.)