A sociology PhD student is studying changing women’s clothing sizes while also not looking in the mirror before her wedding

This story has now been going around for a few days: a bride-to-be decided 6 months before her wedding to not look at herself in the mirror for the next year, blog about the experience, and draw attention to how women think about beauty and their bodies. What perhaps has gotten lost in this story is that this is being undertaken by a sociology PhD student who is writing a dissertation about women’s clothing sizes:

When Kjerstin Gruys got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the former fashion merchandiser turned sociologist feared she would relapse into an eating disorder as she hunted for the perfect wedding dress. She was fiercely committed to researching her sociology Ph.D. on beauty and inequality, but was overwhelmed by the pressure of having a picturesque wedding. Her values and behavior were at odds, and she knew had to do something — and quick.

Instead of becoming engulfed in a vanity obsession, she committed to a year without mirrors — and launched the blog Mirror Mirror…OFF The Wall six months before her wedding date…

For her Ph.D. research, Gruys has moved on from body image and started examining vanity size — when clothing that was once, say, a size 8, becomes a size 6 so that women feel better about themselves, she said. By analyzing Sears catalogs from the past 100 years, Gruys said she’s seen drastic changes in clothing size over time. “I think the most interesting thing I’ve found so far is simply that clothing sizes have changed so dramatically, especially for women, and in the direction of getting away from having the clothing size and clothing measurements having any relationship to each other.”

“When we think of standards we think of things that make our lives more standard and more efficient,” she said. But clothing size standards are different across every fashion firm and even across brands within a firm. “We attach so much emotion to body size, women especially and companies want us to feel good when we are trying on their clothes.”

Both projects sound interesting and studying women’s clothing sizes from a sociology of culture perspective is something I wrote about recently.

It is also intriguing to think how this PhD candidate is mixing more traditional forms of research with blogging. This particular mirrors project is not simply being undertaken by someone like AJ Jacobs, a writer who has tackled some odd activities and then written about them (my favorite: The Year of Living Biblically). Rather, this is an academic who has a background in fashion who is also researching topics in the same subfield. The blog could function as more of a personal outlet but I assume it would be informed by sociological insights. I suspect we will see more of this in the future as academics would benefit quite a bit from blog side projects that draw attention to noteworthy issues as well as highlight their research.

A final thought: what would be an equivalent project that a man could undertake?

Avoiding “vulgar sociologism” when responding to events like the London riots

Responding to commentary from social scientists about the recent riots in London, an Australian sociologist warns against “vulgar sociologism”:

ARGUABLY the greatest poet of the 20th century, Wynstan Hugh Auden, is reported to have quipped that, the goal of anyone seriously interested in human affairs, should be to “never commit a social science”. As I am an academic sociologist, one could be forgiven for thinking, I might take offence at such a blanket dismissal of my stock-in-trade.

However, I think WH was right on the money. And, the media and academic commentary on the riots in London days has only added to my conviction that ‘vulgar sociologism’ – as the Peruvian sociologist Cesar Graña termed it – is much worse than no sociology at all. If only social scientists knew how to keep their ‘traps’ shut, from time to time…

As a result of such shortcomings, what often passes for social science or social commentary, especially in the public domain, is no more than cliché, thinly veiled moralism or prophecy based on hindsight. Like the Old Testament prophets, who emerged from the desert to proclaim that unless the people repented, more God-willed disasters awaited, these social scientists and social commentators seem to relish holding society responsible for humanity’s ills…

If the recent outburst of public sociological commentary is anything to go by, we can see why Auden counselled against ‘committing’ the sin of social science. Bad social science reduces complex problems to simplistic formulas. It only fills our newspapers, radio and television airwaves, with irrelevant commentary…

The truth of the matter is, that unlike medical research and the fight against diseases, social science is acting in bad faith if it promotes the view that it can seriously enhance a society’s capacity to avoid or solve social problems. There is no social science equivalent to prevention or cure; and even diagnosis is a sketchy practice.

A sociologist is really arguing that sociologist can’t help society deal with social problems? Isn’t this what motivates many to become sociologists and what use is research if it doesn’t apply to society? If sociology can’t diagnose, let alone prevent or cure, what is left? What exactly does this sociologist lecture on in class?

At the same time, I can see some merit in another idea in this piece: it is difficult to quickly describe and/or understand what happened in London. While I don’t know many sociologists looking for “simplistic formulas,” this is a reminder that social behaviors and actions are often the product of complex circumstances. Quick, accurate, and helpful pronouncements about complex situations on television are hard to come by, whether the field is sociology, politics, economics, or something else. As this sociologist notes, there is quite a temptation to respond quickly: academics may want to be in the public eye and can be rewarded for it. In a world of sound bites and Tweets, is it any surprise that academics may want to take part and claim some space for themselves?

In the end, I’m somewhat bamboozled by this essay. Cautions about rushing to judgment are helpful but the broader statements about the capabilities of sociology and social science are unique.

British sociologist wins case against reviewer

Reviews are a key part of the academic world as researchers, journalists, and others assess and judge the work of others. Within this world, a British court recently sided with a sociologist who had sued a reviewer:

A High Court judged ruled that Lynn Barber’s 2008 review of Seven Days in the Art World by Dr Sarah Thornton, a noted sociologist, was “spiteful” and contained serious factual errors. The Telegraph Group, owner of The Daily Telegraph, which published the article, has been ordered to pay Dr Thornton £65,000 in damages.

While the country’s critics regard such factual errors as justifiably punishable, the case still raises questions for scribes who have grown accustomed to saying what they like about whomever they please…

There is a long history of critical clashes. The most high profile are necessarily those that end up in court. In 1998 the journalist and TV presenter Matthew Wright “reviewed” the play The Dead Monkey starring David Soul, calling it “without doubt the worst West End show”. The chink in his armour was that he’d never actually seen it, and Soul won £30,000 in a libel case.

Sometimes, the clashes are less clear cut. One anonymous arts critic told The Independent about three legal threats that had recently landed across his desk, none of which ended up in court, incidents he described as “shots across the bows”. To avoid such clashes, critics may find it necessary to limit how often they tackle certain subjects. “My view is that a critic has to be honest and say what he or she likes,” said Brian Sewell, art critic at the London Evening Standard.

The story suggests there two components to the lawsuit: “spiteful” comments and factual inaccuracies. I imagine the case was decided in the sociologist’s favor mainly due to the factual errors in the review (which didn’t have to do with the book but about what the reviewer said about an interview with the author) rather than the critical comments which are common in reviews.

The case reminds of how I heard one academic describe reviews: they are opportunities to knock down other researchers and if you are gracious or perhaps even neutral in a review, it can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Reading some reviewers (academic or journalistic), it is sometimes hard to imagine they would be happy with anything.

A possible French “brain drain” due to French academics moving to US

A new report suggests that the French economy will suffer due to the larger number of French academics who are choosing to relocate in the United States:

The report, by the Institut Montaigne, a leading independent research group in Paris, found that academics constitute a much larger percentage of French émigrés to the United States today than 30 years ago. According to the report, between 1971 and 1980, academics represented just 8 percent of the departing population; between 1996 and 2006, they represented 27 percent of the departing population…

Of the 2,745 French citizens who obtained a doctorate in the United States from 1985 to 2008, 70 percent settled there, the study found…

Today, many French academics working in the United States say their choice to leave their country was largely motivated by an American system “where universities are larger, richer and more flexible than in France,” said Dr. Philippon, the professor at New York University…

The French lifestyle, which puts a higher value on quality of living and less emphasis on competition and getting ahead, is no longer sufficient to keep talented researchers in France, many scientists said. In a country where science is often viewed as cut off from society, French universities do little to glorify their researchers, they said, and offer working conditions that are often mediocre.

It appears that the American educational system is quite attractive because of its opportunities, monetary and otherwise.

On the whole, this seems like a cultural issue: what should universities be like? Is the American model something that others in the world aspire to or are there other successful ways to construct universities and encourage scholarship? It would be interesting to hear from the other side, French academics who chose to stay in France (particularly when they could have gone elsewhere) or French professors in fields not mentioned in this article that are viewed more positively within the French academy.

h/t Instapundit

Several academics question intellectual property and originality

Several professors have recently published books questioning accepted ideas about intellectual property. One professor illustrated his approach in a recent “reading” of his new book in front of a bookstore audience:

But they didn’t hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan’s memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store’s shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? “I didn’t see a need to,” says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That’s because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that’s the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: “I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.”

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren’t protected by copyright law (unless they contain a “substantial literary expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan’s liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn’t it?

While these are just a few academics with books on the subject, it does seem to tap into a growing movement (perhaps led by younger generations?) where originality is redefined as putting existing together in new ways, more of a mash-up than original idea. Whether this will catch on with a larger audience or pass legal muster remains to be seen.

But it does raise an interesting question: how many of our thoughts and ideas are original?

An academic conference to study elites

“Elites” have been in the news lately and recently, Columbia University hosted a conference about elites. This is not as normal as one might think:

In the academic world, this was remarkable. As several of the scholars acknowledged, there has traditionally been some unease in talking about the elite, let alone researching them.

“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”

But Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

This is an interesting topic: so why don’t academics study elites more? A few reasons (from what I know about sociology):

1. As noted above, elites can be hard to access.

2. Sociologists have often focused on deviants and the poor are often considered more outside society’s norms.

3. Could it be that many sociologists, with higher levels of education and decent incomes, might themselves be part of or are closer to the elite? If so, then there might be less interest in studying themselves or drawing attention to the class they participate in.

Schools don’t just teach academic skills; they also teach social and emotional skills

The Chicago Tribune reports on widespread programs in schools to teach social and emotional skills to students. The state of Illinois is leading the way:

In 2004, Illinois became the first state in the nation to require all school districts to teach social and emotional skills as part of their curriculum and daily school life. That means students are expected to meet certain benchmarks, such as recognizing and managing feelings, building empathy and making responsible decisions.

The touchy-feely stuff doesn’t have to come at the expense of intellect. New evidence shows a strong link between interpersonal skills and academics, said Roger Weissberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has studied social and emotional learning for more than 25 years.

Weissberg and his colleagues recently completed an analysis of 300 scientific studies and reached two important conclusions: Students enrolled in such programs scored at least 10 percentage points higher on achievement tests than peers who weren’t. At the same time, discipline problems were cut in half.

The article also suggests teaching social and emotional skills is tied to seeing students more as whole persons. This is all part of the broad program of socialization in schools. While academic skills are an important emphasis, so are emotional/social skills as well as other topics such as learning how to be a good citizen or acquiring skills needed for jobs.