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.

New ASA task force on social media

The American Sociological Association has a new task force on social media that will meet during the 2013 ASA meetings in New York City:

According to Tapia, the ASA has “worked hard to keep pace with the changes in social media” by adopting practices such as maintaining a Facebook page and working with Twitter. However, she added, many sociologists lack the experience and knowledge to fully utilize social media. While in graduate school, sociology students are required to read an extensive amount of literature that goes back hundreds of years but do not receive comparable training in using online tools.

“The purpose of the task force is to think more broadly about ways in which we can help to shine a bright light on sociology,” she said. “For example, many members are eager to promote their books. But some members don’t quite know how to go about it.”…

The Task Force on Social Media will hold its first face-to-face meeting at the ASA Annual Meeting in New York City on Aug. 10. The bulk of the task force work will be done by sub-committees operating electronically and by conference calls over the next 18 months. There will be a second face-to-face meeting in August 2014 at the ASA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

As a discipline, sociology could use more positive exposure through social media. According to a posting earlier this year, the full name of the group is the Task Force on Using Social Media to Increase the Visibility of Sociological Research. At the same time, Twitter and Facebook and other places don’t always lend themselves to nuanced scientific explanation of the social world…

Christmas shopping for sociology majors and for those want to sociologically disrupt some Christmas rituals

Connecting sociology and Christmas gifts is not an easy task. But here are two web pages that aim to do just that: selecting a gift for a sociology major and selecting gifts that help disrupt typical Christmas rituals in the United States.

1. A “college student gift guide” suggests sociology majors should be given a white sweatshirt with the message “I heart Sociology.” I don’t understand this gift as the suggestions for the other majors involve gifts that actually have to do with the major. Why a sweatshirt? But, if you start to think about it, what could you give a sociology major that is uniquely about social structures and society? Perhaps a coupon or cash to go toward extra-special people-watching? (One of my students recently mentioned the rich possibilities of Venice Beach, California.) Perhaps the latest version of their favorite data software like Stata or Atlas.ti so they can feverishly work some analyses over the holiday? Perhaps a box set of their favorite sociological monographs? A copy of The Sims or SimCity to do a little pop culture simulation?

2. The “Sociology of Style’s Holiday Gift Guide” has five Week One suggestions regarding “Gifts that Give Back.” Of the five options, four of them feature the same logic: if you have to consume (is this what the ritual of Christmas has become?), you can do so in more responsible ways that can benefit other people as well. Is Product Red out of style?

I think we are a long way away before Amazon.com has dedicated gift lists for the sociologist in your life. At the same time, the American Sociological Association could get on this and perhaps raise some funds that could lower dues and pay for other expenses…

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?

Sociological involvement in Walmart Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in a large class-action lawsuit against Walmart regarding female employees receiving lower pay. Interestingly, a sociologist is in the middle of the case:

Plaintiffs in the class-action suit, who claim that Wal-Mart owes billions of dollars to as many as 1.5 million women who they say were unfairly treated on pay and promotions, enlisted the support of William T. Bielby, an academic specializing in “social framework analysis.”

A central question in the case is whether he should have been allowed, in preliminary proceedings, to go beyond describing general research about gender stereotypes in the workplace to draw specific conclusions about what he called flaws in Wal-Mart’s personnel policies.

“Bielby made a conclusion that he had no basis to make,” said Laurens Walker, one of two University of Virginia professors who coined the term for the analysis almost 25 years ago. “He hasn’t done the research.”

But a brief supporting the plaintiffs from the American Sociological Association said that Professor Bielby’s work explaining how Wal-Mart’s policies may have led to discrimination “is well within our discipline’s accepted methods.”

Read the full article to find out more about the academic debate over social framework analysis. It sounds like what is it at stake is whether Bielby can make claims about organizational culture and how it might relate to this case without specific data from Walmart.

You can read the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) amicus brief here. It looks like this is the first such brief filed by the ASA since a 2006 case regarding a challenge to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Digging a bit into the ASA amicus brief, the “summary of argument” provides some insights into what “social framework analysis” is:

“Social framework analysis” is not a sociological method, but rather a legal term for some kinds of research. What constitutes high quality “social framework analysis” continues to be vigorously de-bated among scholars. As such, the Court should assess the underlying social science methods, as practiced by social science researchers and vetted in the peer-reviewed journals of those fields, instead of the “social framework analysis” construct when deciding whether social scientific work is valid.

Systematic social science research has shown that corporate culture may affect individual-level decision-making in common ways. Corporate culture is a set of norms and values that convey messages to em-ployees about appropriate behavior. Corporations may actively try to engineer corporate cultures by implementing policies and practices that convey norms and values. Informal cultures also emerge in the workplace when employees interact, and may either reinforce or resist formal culture as well as promote other non-sanctioned norms. The extent to which corporate cultures, both formal and informal, influence individuals’ behavior depends on the strength of the cultures and also on the degree of discretion that company personnel policies give to individual decision-makers…

Namely, corporations have been shown to reduce gender disparities by instituting formal personnel policies, creating accountability processes for managers, and self-monitoring their employment patterns in order to highlight and address disparities. Extensive research in sociology and other social sciences has shown that these practices equalize gender dis-parities in the workplace by placing central checks on individual discretion that leads to biased decision-making, but do not eliminate all discretion from managerial practice. (pages 3-5)

It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court decides, even if they are just ruling on whether the large class-action suit can go forward.

American Sociological Association committee on doctoral program rankings

While the ranking of undergraduate programs is contentious (read about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest thoughts on the subject here), the rankings of doctoral programs can also draw attention. In February, a five-person American Sociological Association (ASA) committee released a report about the 2010 National Research Council (NRC) rankings of doctoral sociological programs (see a summary here).

The ASA committee summarized their concerns about the NRC rankings:

Based on our work, we recommend that the ASA Council issue a resolution criticizing the 2010 NRC rankings for containing both
operationalization and implementation problems; discouraging faculty, students, and university administrators from using the core 2010 NRC rankings to evaluate sociology programs;
encouraging them to be suspicious of the raw data accompanying the 2010 NRC report; and indicating that alternative rankings, such as those based on surveys of departments’ reputations, have their own sets of biases.

The explanation of these issues is an interesting methodological analysis. Indeed, this document suggests a lot of these rankings have had issues, starting with the 1987 US News & World Report rankings which were primarily based on reputational rankings.

So what did the committee conclude should be done? Here are their final thoughts:

At this time, the committee believes that ASA should encourage prospective students, faculty, university administrators or others evaluating a given program to avoid blind reliance on
rankings that claim explicitly or implicitly to list departments from best to worst. The heterogeneity of the discipline suggests that evaluators should first determine what characteristics they value in a program and then employ available sources of information to assess the program’s performance. In addition, the ASA should help facilitate, within available means, the dissemination of such information.

So the final recommendation is to be skeptical about these rankings. This seems to be a fairly common approach for those who find issues with rankings of schools or programs.

How might we get past this kind of conclusion? If the ranking process were done by just sociologists, could we decide on even a fuzzy rank order of graduate programs that most could agree upon?

American Sociological Association explains new dues structure

The American Sociological Association (ASA) has developed a new dues structure that will be voted on during the ASA’s May 2011 elections. In addition to adding more income brackets (increasing from 7 to 10), the organization is increasing dues since the dues have only been inflation-adjusted since 1997. Here is how the ASA explains how they adjusted the dues:

For many years, ASA members have voted for a progressive, income-based dues structure for regular members while subsidizing the dues of students and emeritus members. It is, of course, as difficult to agree on how to define “fairness” in a membership organization’s dues structure as it is to agree on the more familiar problem of fairness in public taxation.

One broadly accepted principle of fairness in taxation, however, is that everyone should experience the same burden of paying for the state because most taxes are used to pay for public goods which broadly benefit everyone in the society. Because a given amount of money is more valuable to people with lower incomes, the equal burden principle underwrites the idea that the percentage of their income people pay in taxes should increase with income – that is, those with more income should pay more taxes than those with less. To be fully progressive, of course, the taxes people pay should also be a progressively higher proportion of their income as their income rises. While this second aspect of a progressive structure may not be achievable in a membership association that has a narrower range of member income than the overall population, the ASA membership has long endorsed the principle of higher dues for higher income members.

As a scholarly membership association, ASA Council and EOB see much of what dues (and other revenue sources) pay for as a general good of having a professional association that supports the profession of sociology as a whole as well as providing specific services to individual members. In a wide variety of ways, ASA provides professional public goods: It organizes key journals in the discipline; gathers and disseminates data on sociologists and academic departments; provides timely information on the job market for sociologists and brings potential employers and employees together; promotes public dissemination of sociological research through the media; facilitates the building of strong networks among sociologists in the different settings in which sociologists work; organizes the annual national meeting of the profession at which new scholarship is shared; represents the discipline of sociology in the activities of many inter-disciplinary scientific and professional organizations; advocates along with those organizations for increased federal funding for social scientific research and graduate training; and has an experienced staff that responds quickly to public issues affecting the discipline, sociology departments, and individual sociologists.

These are real public goods for the community of sociologists, and thus the equal burden principle has been relevant to the ASA for decades. This is why the membership has voted in the past for a progressive dues structure in which higher-income members pay more in dues than lower-income members, albeit not necessarily a great deal more.

I have a few questions about this:

1. So this is not a “fully” progressive system, rather a somewhat progressive system. Why not be “fully” progressive based on income?

2. Where is the extra dues money going? Is the ASA providing more “public goods” or improved “public goods” or has the quality of these “public goods” suffered since dues have only been adjusted for inflation since 1997?

3. How did the organization’s value commitments as sociologists interact with their commitments to being a professional organization which, like all professional organizations, has certain tasks and duties?