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.

Analyze big data better when computer scientists and social scientists share knowledge

Part of the “big-data struggle” is to have more computer scientists interacting with social scientists:

The emerging problems highlight another challenge: bridging the “Grand Canyon,” as Mr. Lazer calls it, between “social scientists who aren’t computationally talented and computer scientists who aren’t social-scientifically talented.” As universities are set up now, he says, “it would be very weird” for a computer scientist to teach courses to social-science doctoral students, or for a social scientist to teach research methods to information-science students. Both, he says, should be happening.

Both groups could learn quite a bit from each other. Arguably, programming skills would be very useful in a lot of disciplines in a world gaga over technology, apps, and big data. Arguably, more rigorous methodologies to find and interpret patterns are needed across a wide range of disciplines interested in human behavior and social interaction. Somebody has to be doing this already, perhaps even within individuals who have training to both areas. But, joining the two academic bodies together on a more formal and institutionalized basis could take quite a bit of work.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

Sociology departments “holding steady” across American colleges

Inside Higher Ed summarizes a new report from the American Sociological Association on the state of sociology departments across the country. A few highlights:

“We’re doing relatively well,” said Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research and development for the ASA. “We aren’t doing as well as we would like to be, but we’re doing relatively well compared to other disciplines,” such as physics and foreign languages, which have seen widespread closures in recent years…

One noticeable finding is that bigger sociology departments actually have decreased their employment of adjunct faculty, bucking a long-term, national trend toward hiring more adjuncts across disciplines. That probably accounts for the fact that tenure-line faculty workloads at those kinds of institutions have gone up, Spalter-Roth said. She called the latter trend “problematic.”…

There also was a slight “graying” of the faculty, the survey notes, with the most growth in the associate professor ranks. In 2001-2, departments had, on average: three full professors; two associate professors, and two assistant professors. In 2011-12, they had: 3.7 full professors, three associate professors; and 2.6 assistant professors. The study calls the distribution pattern an “inverted triangle,” with more full professors than assistant professors…

Spalter-Roth said the data was mostly for internal use to report on the data-driven profession, but would also be available to individual departments to report back to their institutions. The association usually surveys departments on different matters every five years, she said.

See the full report here.

It is too bad there aren’t similar figures from other disciplines to compare to. Without good comparisons, the ASA can only compare to ten years ago and not assess the relative movements among disciplines. Isn’t that probably what sociologists really want to know?

It is a little amusing that the ASA collects such data and produces a number of reports on things like mismatches between graduate student subject area interests and jobss and the state of jobs in the discipline. Should we expect much different from a data-driven discipline? At the same time, shouldn’t other disciplines collect similar data to better serve their members? I don’t know what kind of personnel or offices are required to pull off such research but I assume there is some added value to collecting it and distributing the results.

Social psychologist on quest to find researchers who falsify data

The latest Atlantic magazine includes a short piece about a social psychologist who is out to catch other researchers who falsify data. Here is part of the story:

Simonsohn initially targeted not flagrant dishonesty, but loose methodology. In a paper called “False-Positive Psychology,” published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science, he and two colleagues—Leif Nelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Wharton’s Joseph Simmons—showed that psychologists could all but guarantee an interesting research finding if they were creative enough with their statistics and procedures.

The three social psychologists set up a test experiment, then played by current academic methodologies and widely permissible statistical rules. By going on what amounted to a fishing expedition (that is, by recording many, many variables but reporting only the results that came out to their liking); by failing to establish in advance the number of human subjects in an experiment; and by analyzing the data as they went, so they could end the experiment when the results suited them, they produced a howler of a result, a truly absurd finding. They then ran a series of computer simulations using other experimental data to show that these methods could increase the odds of a false-positive result—a statistical fluke, basically—to nearly two-thirds.

Just as Simonsohn was thinking about how to follow up on the paper, he came across an article that seemed too good to be true. In it, Lawrence Sanna, a professor who’d recently moved from the University of North Carolina to the University of Michigan, claimed to have found that people with a physically high vantage point—a concert stage instead of an orchestra pit—feel and act more “pro-socially.” (He measured sociability partly by, of all things, someone’s willingness to force fellow research subjects to consume painfully spicy hot sauce.) The size of the effect Sanna reported was “out-of-this-world strong, gravity strong—just super-strong,” Simonsohn told me over Chinese food (heavy on the hot sauce) at a restaurant around the corner from his office. As he read the paper, something else struck him, too: the data didn’t seem to vary as widely as you’d expect real-world results to. Imagine a study that calculated male height: if the average man were 5-foot?10, you wouldn’t expect that in every group of male subjects, the average man would always be precisely 5-foot-10. Yet this was exactly the sort of unlikely pattern Simonsohn detected in Sanna’s data…

Simonsohn stressed that there’s a world of difference between data techniques that generate false positives, and fraud, but he said some academic psychologists have, until recently, been dangerously indifferent to both. Outright fraud is probably rare. Data manipulation is undoubtedly more common—and surely extends to other subjects dependent on statistical study, including biomedicine. Worse, sloppy statistics are “like steroids in baseball”: Throughout the affected fields, researchers who are too intellectually honest to use these tricks will publish less, and may perish. Meanwhile, the less fastidious flourish.

The current research may just provide incentives for researchers to cut corners and end up with false results. Publishing is incredibly important for the career of an academic and there is little systematic oversight of a researcher’s data. I’ve written before about ways that data could be made more open but it would take some work to put these ideas into practice.

What I wouldn’t want to happen is have people read a story like this and conclude that fields like social psychology have nothing to offer because who knows how many of the studies might be flawed. I also wonder about the vigilante edge to this story – it makes a journalistic piece to tell about a social psychologist who is battling his own field but this isn’t how science should work. Simonsohn should be joined by others who should also be concerned by these potential issues. Of course, there may not be many incentives to pursue this work as it might invite criticism from inside and outside the discipline.

Sociologists lost their public voice because of increasingly liberal political views?

Sociologist Stephen P. Turner makes a historical argument about how American sociologists lost their public voice. Here is the abstract:

Sociology once debated ‘the social’ and did so with a public readership. Even as late as the Second World War, sociologists commanded a wide public on questions about the nature of society, altruism and the direction of social evolution. As a result of several waves of professionalization, however, these issues have vanished from academic sociology and from the public writings of sociologists. From the 1960s onwards sociologists instead wrote for the public by supporting social movements. Discussion within sociology became constrained both by ‘professional’ expectations and political taboos. Yet the original motivating concerns of sociology and its public, such as the compatibility of socialism and Darwinism, the nature of society, and the process of social evolution, did not cease to be of public interest. With sociologists showing little interest in satisfying the demand, it was met by non-sociologists, with the result that sociology lost both its intellectual public, as distinct from affinity groups, and its claim on these topics.

And here is another paragraph excerpt with some interpretation as reported on a Smithsonian blog:

Basically, he’s wondering: what happened to sociologists? When did they give up questions of human nature, altruism, society? Well, Turner argues that a big problem is that sociologists started getting political. “It is evident that many of the most enthusiastic adherents of the new model of professionalization in the United States had roots in the left, and not infrequently in the Communist Party itself.” And that political slant limited the types of questions sociologists were allowed to ask. He writes:

“Sociology was once a place where intellectuals found freedom: Giddings, Sorokin, Alfred Schutz and many others who could have pursued careers in their original fields chose sociology because of this freedom. To some extent sociology still welcomes outsiders, though now it is likely to be outsiders with ties to the Women’s Movement. … But in general, the freedom of the past is in the past.”

Turner’s basic point is that sociology is now a joke because every sociologist is a liberal. That’s not untrue: over 85 percent of the members of the American Sociological Association (ASA) vote for either the Democratic or Green parties. One survey found the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the ASA to be 47 to 1. Now, whether or not sociology is joked about because its researchers political leanings is another question. But that’s the argument Turner seems to be making here.

I wonder if social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would agree with this assessment in light of his look at the political leanings of the field of social psychology.

If sociology gave up this freedom, what other fields filled in academic vacuum? If I had to guess, economics generally provided some room for conservatives. Does this mean that some bright academic stars that once might have gone to sociology have instead pursued other fields?

Faculty advice column: for the “average student,” sociology might not be most practical way to get a job

Choosing a college major is definitely a charged subject today, particularly when discussing potential earnings. Here is some interesting advice given by a faculty member to an undergraduate interested in sociology:

Anonymous asks, “I’m an undecided freshman. My parents want me to choose a ‘practical major’ like engineering, but I think I would be more passionate about a sociology major. Should I study what my parents want me to study, or should I do what I want?”

Hmmm. You should choose sociology! Or any CHASS major! (Just kidding, sort of, I need to make up for last time.) Honestly, in this current job and economic climate I think it would be foolish to not at least strongly consider the employment prospects of one’s chosen major. That said, employment means doing something at least 40 hours/week for many, many years. The last thing you want to do is choose an area which will be drudgery instead of fulfillment. While engineering is particularly practical for the current job market, that does not mean sociology (or any other major) is impractical. As I mentioned in an earlier column, social sciences are great for developing critical thinking skills and good writing skills. These are most definitely highly-valued skills by many employers.

That said, if you choose a more passion-based major, you really need to invest your passion in it because it probably will not be as easy to find a job as if you had a mechanical engineering degree. Don’t take classes because you were told they were easy. Take them because they have a great professor who will challenge you to think and learn in new ways. Don’t shy away from the classes with 20 page papers — take them and hone your writing skills. Be proactive in working with faculty, researching with faculty, and in building relationships. Work with a local non-profit or government agency that fills your passion and build your job-market skills.

For the average student, sociology may not be as practical as a degree with a more obvious and direct pipeline to employment, but if you put your heart into it, develop your skills, abilities and maturity, you will come out just as employable — if not more so — than if you chose a practical major to which you found you could not truly dedicate yourself.

These are common ideas: certain majors lead more easily to jobs while sociology and other social science majors don’t lead as easily to jobs but students majoring in them can gain valuable skills that employers want.

However, the last paragraph is key here: the suggestion is that sociology students should be more dedicated to their major/field because they will have to overcome the difference in practicality compared to other majors. This is interesting because sociology is often considered an easier major. But, this professor suggests sociology majors should be even more interested and devoted to the major to be able to compete on the job market. Does this mean sociology majors should be higher caliber students?

Question at the beginning of urban planning: “beautiful people or beautiful cities”?

Here is part of an overview of the “birth of urban planning” and how the field began with a “focus on place at the expense of people”:

Before then, there were three types of people thinking about how a city should look and function — architects, public health officials, and social workers. Each group approached the question of city building very differently.

The architects were focused on the city as a built environment, implementing ideas like L’Enfant’s grand vision for Washington, D.C., and the New York City grid (set out by the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811). The public health professionals, on the other hand, were consumed with infrastructure. They knew there was a connection between certain diseases and social conditions, even if they didn’t know precisely what it was. Planning how a water system would work, or where waste should go, or how to get garbage out of a city, was the most effective way to stop diseases from spreading (see, for example, John Snow, who figured out in the 1850s that a single water pump on Broad Street in London had infected hundreds of people with cholera). And lastly the social workers wanted to use the city to improve the lives of the people living there. They wanted cleaner tenements, spaces for immigrant children to play, and more light and fresh air for residents.

These thinkers were brought together by the pressure cooker that was the Industrial Revolution. “At that moment, we began to look for technological ways to expand the city,” says Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “All of a sudden here’s a pressure to comprehensively plan. You can’t just put a privy wherever you want.”…

At that conference, and in the years that followed, any one of these early urban planning strains could have taken over as the intellectual giant in the field. Though the social workers and the public health officials continued to play a role, urban planning’s intellectual history ended up grounded in architecture.

That outcome is thanks in a large part to the creation of the country’s first urban planning school, at Harvard. The University founded a school of landscape architecture in 1898. It was, effectively, a vanity project, slavishly devoted to Frederick Law Olmstead (in fact, it was started by Olmstead’s son). At the same time, It was a place to start. Soon after, they began offering classes in city planning, a first for higher education in America.

This could be an intriguing intellectual “what if”: what if urban planning had initially followed a public health or social work path? How might our cities be different and how would that have changed our culture?

This reminds me of the roots of sociology. Like urban planning, sociology became a more formal academic discipline around the turn of the 20th century. While some people had been practicing sociology and urban planning, it took time for this to become institutionalized and formalized. Similarly, American sociology had its roots in a few influential departments, particularly Chicago, which shaped the early years of the field. Indeed, I suspect a number of the social sciences were formalized in this period as the cultural turn toward science and rationality combined with expanding college campuses.

Uptick in sociology job market?

Inside Higher Ed summarizes a ASA report that suggests the number of open jobs in 2011 were near 2008 levels:

In 2011, the number of faculty jobs posted either for assistant professors or positions for which any faculty rank is possible was just 4 percent below the level in 2008, the year in which the economic downturn hit in the fall. And so many of the openings announced in 2008 were canceled that it is possible there were more actual openings in 2011. There are among the results in a new job market report issued by the American Sociological Association.

The number of faculty jobs in 2009 fell 35 percent, and the 2010 total was 14 percent below the 2008 level, so the new figures represent a significant rebound in job openings.

The data are based on openings listed with the ASA. Not all departments list positions there, so the totals don’t reflect every opening, but sociologists say that the ASA reports accurately reflect trends in the discipline, even considering positions listed elsewhere.

The top 5 specialties in demand: social control/law/crime deviance, open, race and ethnicity, medicine and health, and work/economy/organizations. The bottom 5 (last being the lowest): comparative and historical approaches, sociology of culture, education, qualitative approaches, and application and practice.

Overall, this would seem like good information though it will likely take some time to sort through the backlog of candidates who couldn’t find jobs in recent years.

Just a thought: I wonder what exactly the job figures from year to year tell us. Overall, is there a better way to get at whether the discipline is expanding or is doing well? Is it better for big departments to get bigger? For new schools to add sociology undergraduate and graduate programs? For the beginning of new graduate programs? For existing faculty to get more recognition or better salaries? To compare the growth in sociology to other disciplines?

Robert Shiller suggests economists should be more connected to sociology, other disciplines

Economist Robert Shiller suggests the field of economics should be more connected to other social sciences like sociology:

Unlike many economists who seem unaware that their discipline has lost much of its credibility in recent years, Shiller is appropriately distraught at the seeming disconnect between economics and real-world social concerns.

“My own university, Yale, used to have a department of sociology, economics, and Government,” Shiller told me. “And in 1927 they split them into three departments. I think that was a momentous institutional change — it allowed economics to be cut off from other disciplines. Now they’re in separate buildings. You have to walk some distance. It’s utterly amazing to me how rarely economists quote the greats in psychology or sociology. Maybe they’re read them, but they’re not in their active mind.”

Shiller makes a powerful case that, while recent scandals make it easy to forget, financial innovation has done a lot of social good. As as an example he cites the creation of insurance. Because of it, almost everyone — not just the rich — can bounce back after an accident, fire, theft, or other calamity. In the past, such hardships could financially ruin a family forever.

Some interesting history here. Compared to the natural sciences, the social sciences have a relatively short history. It was only in the early 1900s that disciplines like sociology began to emerge in their own right.

From a sociologist’s point of view, it seems incomplete to only examine financial principles and transactions without the broader understanding of social motivations, interactions, and life. I wonder if sociologists wouldn’t argue that sociology encompasses more of the other social sciences than economics or psychology do, harkening back to Comte’s idea of sociology as the “queen of the sciences.”