A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part One

I attended and presented at the Urban History Association biennial meetings this weekend and I made some observations during my foray. Some thoughts:

  1. In the last five years or so, I’ve been to both specialist conferences – usually involving the sociology of religion – and general conferences – the American Sociological Association. They each have their perks. I particularly enjoyed two things about the specialty aspect of the UHA meetings: (1) it was nice to be with a group of scholars who shared a common set of readings and understandings of a particular social phenomena and (2) the smaller size seemed to allow for more conversations during and after sessions. Even though the conference drew attendees largely from R1 schools – and people from liberal arts colleges like myself were in short supply and tended to be from the Chicago area – it felt pretty inviting.
  2. Several quick observations on the discipline of history as I saw it practiced:
    -There was a tension between particular cases – micro history – and broad sweeping generalizations about social patterns. The micro history could be quite minute, perhaps focusing on a particular influential figure (or arguing why that figure should be viewed as influential) or brief time period while other papers and sessions focused on 50+ years or emphasized broader movements like modernism. Individual papers tended toward the micro while panels could think more broadly. I would guess that at least a few of the papers are part of larger works – dissertations, manuscripts – that touch on broader periods or forces.
    -There was an informal dress code for male attendees: dress shirt and jacket. Not everyone followed this but there were more sports coats and blazers than at the typical sociological gathering.
    -Race, class, and gender popped up now and then but this trinity of analysis wasn’t as present as at sociological meetings.
    -There were some interesting instances of trying to connect historical events to current events, particularly in a panel on Silicon Valley. But, often the papers stuck to their particular historical moment.
    -Almost every paper began with a story or anecdote from history. This is more acceptable with qualitative sociological work but rarer in sociology as a whole.
    -Every introduction I saw included a short bio of the scholar’s education and work. Sociologists rarely give this information. Does this suggest that pedigree is more important for the audience or do they benefit from having more information regarding the speaker?
  3. I realize that now eight years into my post-graduate school career, I feel much more comfortable at conferences. I had met only two of the conference attendees prior to the meetings but it was easier to introduce myself to others and participate when I had questions. During graduate school, I remember this being more difficult: who wants to talk to a lowly graduate student? My enjoyment of conferences has gone up as I feel like I have a leg to stand on (I have published works that people can read) and I feel like I can contribute (I’ve wrestled with a number of issues in my own work and in the classroom). These two factors work in another way: even as I do some urban history work, I likely would not have attended this meeting without receiving an invitation from the organizer of a session to submit a paper.

Tomorrow, I’ll present the three most intriguing ideas I heard at the conference from my one day of attending sessions.

Determining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies” for sociology

A new book suggests academic disciplines – like sociology – would benefit from defining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies.” Here are some of the outcomes for sociology:

To come up with learning outcomes in the selected six disciplines, which collectively account for more than 35 percent of undergraduate student majors in the U.S., the Measuring College Learning project began by contacting disciplinary ssociations in each field. Those groups helped select 10 to 15 faculty members to lead the work — a total of 70 professors participated…

In sociology, for example, one of the five essential concepts is the “sociological eye,” which means students “will recognize key theoretical frameworks and assumptions upon which the discipline is founded and differentiated from other social sciences.” That underpinning, the book said, includes founding theoretical traditions (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead), a critique of rationality to explain human behavior and how social forces affect individuals.

Socialization is another essential concept, which is defined as students understanding the relationship between self and society, and how the self is socially constructed and maintained at multiple levels.

On the competency side, the panel said undergraduates in sociology should be able to apply scientific principles to understand the social world, evaluate the quality of social scientific data and use sociological knowledge to inform policy debates and promote understanding, among other essential competencies (there are six total).

I imagine this would generate a lot of discussion among sociologists about the merits of these kinds of outcomes, what is essential to the discipline (particularly at the undergraduate level), and how these might be accurately assessed.

On this general topic, is sociology uniquely positioned because of its emphases and skills (ability to see the big picture, focus on social structures, variety of methods, etc.) to contribute to assessment conversations?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Books that influenced sociologists to pursue sociology

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle discusses some of the books that most influenced her:

BOOKS: Which books had the biggest effect on you?

TURKLE: Jean Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of the World,” Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind.” Getting into those books got me into this notion that we love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love. That became my life’s work.

BOOKS: Any other pivotal book?

TURKLE: I think the most influential book for me was “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman. I read that in high school. I said to myself I want to be the sort of person who could write a book like that. So I decided to study sociology and psychology. In fact, he became my mentor.

Given that Turkle was trained as a sociologist and psychologist (she did both together: “Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.”), these books don’t look so surprising. But, would we have known this when Turkle was in college or younger? Or were these the books that she found at an academic level that then influenced her later research and writing? It would be interesting to see: (1) what books a number of other sociologists would cite as influential and (2) whether these texts line up with the books and articles cited the most in the discipline.

Additionally, The Lonely Crowd has had an outsized effect on studying the American suburbs. I admit that I have not read the whole thing though it sits on the shelf in my office. Its claims about conformity have been widely echoed by critics of the suburbs – while cities are often presented as the bastions of individuality and authenticity – even as the data behind the claims was somewhat thin.

More sociologists and other scholars advocating for marriage?

There isn’t much data here presented to defend a trend but here is a brief look at recent research that highlights the benefits of marriage in the United States:

The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”

The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy…

It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college…

Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.

As the article notes, scholars on different sides of the political spectrum disagree on what policies to enact to promote marriage and have different definitions of what marriage should be. But, could the two sides ever come together to promote a middle policy or in order to broker a compromise? If anything, it might be the pressure within each academic discipline that keeps the sides apart.

Errors committed by surgeons, plagiarism, and disciplinary errors

Megan McArdle highlights the work of a sociologist who studied the categories of errors made by surgeons and then connects those findings to plagiarism in journalism:

For my book on failure, I thought a lot about what constitutes failure. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Charles Bosk, a sociologist who has spent his career studying medical errors. Bosk did his first work with surgical residents, and his book divides the errors into different categories: technical errors (failures of skill or knowledge), judgment errors (failing to make the right decision in a difficult case), and normative errors. The last category includes not being prepared to discuss every facet of your patient’s case, and interestingly, trying to cover up one of the other kinds of error.

Surgeons, he said, view the first two kinds of errors as acceptable, indeed inevitable, during residency. You learn to do surgery by doing surgery, and in the early days, you’re going to make some mistakes. Of course, if you just can’t seem to acquire the manual skills needed to do surgery, then you may have to leave the program for another branch of medicine, but some level of technical and judgment error is expected from everyone. Normative error is different; it immediately raises the suspicion that you shouldn’t be a surgeon…

Plagiarism might actually fall into Bosk’s fourth category of error, the one I find most interesting: quasi-normative error. That’s when a resident does something that might be acceptable under the supervision of a different attending physician, but is forbidden by the attending physician he reports to. In the program he studied, if your attending physician did a procedure one way, that’s the way you had to do it, even if you thought some other surgeon’s way was better.

In other words, quasi-normative error is contextual. So with plagiarism. In college and in journalism, it’s absolutely wrong, because “don’t plagiarize” is — for good reason — in your job description. In most of the rest of corporate America, lifting copy from somewhere else might be illegal if the material is copyrighted, but in many situations, maybe even most situations, no one, including the folks from whom you are lifting the copy, will care. They certainly won’t care if you “self-plagiarize” (as Jonah Lehrer was also accused of doing), and I’m very thankful for that, because I wrote a lot of proposals for my company, and there are only so many original ways to describe a computer network. Yet I’d never copy and paste my own writing for Bloomberg without a link, a block quote and attribution.

All errors are not created equal yet I suspect all professional and academic fields could come up with similar lists. The third and fourth types of errors above seemed to be related to professional boundaries; how exactly are surgeons supposed to act, whether when in surgery or not? The first two are more linked to surgery themselves: could you make the right decision and execute the decision? Somewhat frustratingly, some of the same language might be used across fields yet be defined differently. Plagiarism in journalism will look different than it does it academic settings where the practice McArdle describes of “re-researching” a story and not making any attributions to the original researcher would not be good in a peer-reviewed article.

Cantor’s victorious opponent, an economics professor, to face off against Democrat sociologist professor

The academic disciplines of sociology and economics don’t always get along so it will be interesting to watch an economics and sociology professor square off in Virginia’s 7th district:

In sociology, education is often championed as the best path to a vibrant society—an idea Trammell clearly subscribes to. He is running on a platform of college access, student-loan forgiveness, and special-education reform. In 2012, Trammell published a book, The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. (More recently, he has planned to write a vampire novel.) Trammell’s ancestor, Thomas Trammell, was an indentured servant when he arrived in Fairfax in 1671.

Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1996 after receiving his Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since then, he’s taught classes on micro- and macroeconomics, public finance, and business ethics. And he coauthored a paper titled, “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand”. Back in January, Brat told the National Review that while he doesn’t consider himself a Randian, “he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.”…

The idea of a Republican economics professor facing off against a Democratic sociology professor presents a near-perfect microcosm of American political thought. What matters most in governance—the good of the market or the good of society? Should government serve to keep the free market as uninhibited as possible, or to impose checks on the market to protect citizens? Is education or entrepreneurship a more important path to individual and collective success? These are questions ripe for a Poli-Sci 101 discussion.

Perhaps a bit overstated (the next, and last, paragraph of the story goes on to tell who has the highest score at RateMyProfessor.com) but it sounds like the two have different perspectives on the world.  Given their disciplines, it could be easy to caricature the two sides without seeing what exactly the points of agreement and disagreement are between the two candidates. Is it easy to argue its education versus free markets or would voters generally support both? It is not immediately clear how much voters care much about this academic food fight –  both candidates are PhDs after all.

If you are curious, here are the demographics of Virginia’s 7th House District which skews Republican and more white, educated, and wealthy than American averages.

According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2010 data for the 111th Congress, the total population of the district is 757,917. Median age for the district is 39.2 years. 74.3% of the district is White, 17.1% Black, 3.9% Asian, 0.3% Native American or Alaskan, and 2.1% some other race with 4.9% Hispanic or Latino. Owner-occupied housing is 72.0% and renter-occupied housing is 28.0%. The median value of single-family owner-occupied homes is $188,400. 88.1% of the district population has at least a high school diploma, 36.7% at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. 9.9% of the district are civilian veterans. 12.7% are foreign born and 20.1% speak a language other than English at home. 9.9% are of disability status. 68.2% of the district is in the labor force, which consists of those 16 years and older. Mean travel time to work is 26.2 minutes. Median household income is $64,751. Per capita income is $33,628. 5.3% of the population account for families living below the poverty level, and 7.6% of individuals live below the poverty level.

So perhaps the sociologist, compared to an economist, starts at a disadvantage.